Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Here's a reply to T Campbell's excellent essay on mystery comics.

OK, I think I know why this jumped out at me: "It's interesting that you wrote mostly about cozies and not other kinds of mysteries"

I understand why you turned quickly to television - your premise regarding challenging legions of fans who are able to communicate and compare notes is stronger if you consider it in terms of a TV show such as "Lost."

Personally, I don't buy into the notion of equating a webcartoon reading experience with that of a TV show. For one, the TV show is actively promoting the interactivity of the internet as part of the entire experience. Witness the impending release of a book that's actually a fictional work of fiction.

Then, there's the nature of that particular TV show: Its purpose is not to bring you to a definite ending, it's to have an ongoing series of red herrings and twist and turns. All that contributes to the overall interactivity of the thing. And if interactivity is your goal, then the challenge isn't to create a great mystery story to challenge those legions, it's to come up with a continual series of plot points designed to induce conversation.

And to do that then the larger the cast, the better. Within each person's story you can hide clues and weave false trails. You can build the conspiracy. You can generate more heat, and therefore more interest, more conversation.

I think that's different from mysteries. And generally, I don't think TV is a good example of mystery writing.


As you point out, it's easy for an ongoing series to become formulaic. Lately, I've been watching "Numb3rs" on CBS. I love the premise: an amateur detective with a special skill (in this case math) who is able to plug into a police procedural (in this case through his FBI brother).

Again, good premise but they're having a problem pulling it off. There's not enough time in a single episode to give due to both the cozy elements of the amateur detective and the hardboiled elements of the police procedural. There's no one point of view. Sometimes you're following one brother, sometimes the other. Like "Lost," they're relying on a number of characters to give them material to fill up the series.

In the end, each gets short shrift. Nuances of relationships are developed with all the subtlety of a jack-booted thug.

And character is where television mysteries struggle the most. You mention a few successes: Colombo, Murder She Wrote's Fletcher, CSI's Grissom - another to add would be Monk. Those characters are actually actors who've brought a unique voice to the person they're playing.

In an ensemble cast like Lost or Numb3rs, it's hard for individual voices to adequately develop. It seems to me, it's more like throwing spaghetti on the wall: Get a large, diverse number of voices on the screen so you don't have to worry so much about one character connecting with a large number of people - you have a number of characters so you give viewers a choice of who they'll identify with.

And that's fine, but what's lost is the challenge of creating a memorable character, someone like a Poirot or Marple to bring clarity to a confusing web of lies and false trails. Someone you look forward to listening to, a character you desire to follow - maybe even imagine to be Watson to the Holmes.

Certainly the detective is the advocate of reason, but it's the strength of the character who makes you want to stick around to the end.


And that leads me to where I disagree with one more thing: The notion that "The true hero of a detective story is not the detective, but detection itself. For all the quirks of a Holmes or a Grissom, ultimately he is just a means to an end."

I've argued elsewhere that to write a good mystery you need a solid premise, a plausible "vehicle" for your character to become involved in mysteries. The most obvious and easiest vehicle is for your character to be a policeman. For amateur detectives, that vehicle is far more difficult to construct - but it can be constructed.

However, you could have the best vehicle in the world but if your character is boring and predictable, then there's no reason to take that vehicle for a ride.

Holmes and Grissom are not interchangeable but they are both essential to drawing in the reader. Holmes is passionate: he thrills in the hunt and is driven to despair and depression - sometimes relieved by drugs - when he has no quarry to chase. Holmes would delight in the crime labs of CSI, but eventually he'd be driven from the lab into the streets.

Grissom is the cool voice of reason, an attractive scientist who seeks to confirm theories with facts. He follows a trail whereas Holmes seeks to match wits. Both characters have appeal, but in different ways.

The vehicle for the character helps define that character - but in the end is not necessarily the defining element of that character (Look at Tony Hillerman's books starring the Navajo detectives Leaphorn and Chee). Sometimes it's the other way around - the character PROVIDES the vehicle (witness the antiques rogue Lovejoy).

What's special about Grissom is how the actor has defined and differentiated the character from those around him. He shines in an otherwise homologous cast. Some of that has to be due to the writing: listen to all the characters' voices, their delivery - it has to be very challenging to come up with distinct characters who have so many demands placed upon them (they need to explain forensics procedures, move the plot along, and each of them has to be capable of delivering a "zinger" statement to make you want to come back after the commercial break).

The only other character to truly stand out is the young lab assistant who is being groomed as a field agent. Why? Because the writers found another vehicle, another voice in his character - that of the absolute beginner. It's a great foil to Grissom's voice of experience.

And homologous is how I'd describe most of the characters on TV. To a certain extent, that's a problem of the performance medium. You need to have characters acceptable and understandable to a wide variety of viewers.

But to do that, you lose the opportunity of have an Aurelio Zen, a Travis McGee or Peter Diamond, Nero Wolf and Archie Goodwin. There has never been an actor large enough (in life or girth) to adequately portray Wolf. And Goodwin was modeled after Humphrey Bogart - that's not a wish to be fulfilled anytime soon.

You find these characters in books, in great writing. Certainly TV, film and plays can give you tips and ideas for presenting the story. But it all starts with the writing.

Finally, regarding the forum user who gives away a clue - that's a spoiler! Some like that kind of thing - others do not. That's why it's also very popular to give a spoiler alert.

The beauty of the internet is you can choose your own experience. Obsessively nitpicking over the details is only one variation.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Come out to Forest Park on Sunday and celebrate Centuries & Sleuths 15th anniversary. A number of prominent Chicago-area authors will be there. I'll be there too, likely with my mom (a real mystery fan), signing my Twilight-Tales book.

Augie runs a very author-friendly store and certainly deserves our support. Plus, Madison St. in Forest Park has developed into a terrific place to visit, have lunch, dinner or brunch.

All the details here.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

I can't post at the Creator's Conference (late to the table, alas. Maybe in a few months), but there's a thread over there regarding contracts - specifically new creators giving up a majority percentage of their ownership rights in order to get published. http://www.the-engine.net/forum/messages.php?webtag=ENGINE&msg=426.121

I wanted to support Lea Hernandez in that thread, and I think her opinion is an important one that got may have been lost on some people.

To me, the issue isn't strictly Tokyo Pop. They're a business and they'll do what businesses need to do.

It's the attitude of creators that bothers me the most. As artists, we've all been offered those jobs for "exposure." You know the ones: They want your expertise and skills but in the same breath they say they can't pay a lot of money but it'll be great experience, something for your portfolio and great exposure.

That crap plays off of the natural inclination of artists to doubt themselves and their worth, especially at the beginning of a career.

I can assure you, beginning electricians do not take jobs for the exposure, or for their portfolio. They either can do the job or they can't, and they expect wages commensurate with their experience level.

Creators shouldn't confuse the idea of "paying their dues" with "screwing themselves."

There is a difference between being a publisher and a property owner. Publishers do not suffer if a book becomes successful and it makes a lot of money.

They also do not suffer if they do not own the rights to that property and the creator then sells the movie rights. They didn't come up with the idea, they shouldn't cry about money that they didn't earn.

The argument that they're taking a chance publishing unknowns and should be compensated for it is bull. That's the business. If the people they employ don't make good publishing decisions, they should hire people who can.

To sell ownership rights before you know if a book is going to go on and be successful is insane. Especially a controlling interest. Do you think Ian Fleming did that? J.K. Rowling?

As far as I know, no reputable agent in the mainstream prose industry will let a creator sign onto a deal that gives away those kinds of rights for such a pitiful amount of money.

This is one reason I just roll my eyes at the comics industry in this country. With such poor self-esteem that allows this kind of exploitation, comics as a business is going to remain a third-string, marginalized medium. For ever.

And every creator who agrees to these kind of terms is also screwing over the creators who come after them.

That's one of the reasons I seek non-traditional comics publishing options. Because any publisher that insists on ownership isn't a publisher - they're a collector.

And that means they're not looking out for your best interests.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Midwest Literary Festival a few weeks ago was very nice - downtown Aurora was a pleasant surprise. They're doing a good job of keeping it from being torn down and replaced by modern structures. The result is a good mixture of development from different decades.

I sat in on the graphic novel panel with Stefan Petrucha and Mort Castle. They were very open to having a web cartoonist on the panel. I brought up my pet idea of graphic novels in the bookstore being shelved by genre audience rather than in a graphic novel section. Mort said it didn't make much of a difference, but Stefan pointed out that his Nancy Drew books are shelved by the other Nancy Drew books.

The small audience was divided, but I noted it was the traditional comics fans who were against it - which is what I usually find.

A side note: Mort Castle teaches at Columbia College downtown. I'm continually amazed at how many people I encounter from there.

Other news: I teamed up with my neighbor to put a new roof on my garage and his garage. This enabled me to remember how many muscles I don't use while sitting behind a desk.

Aside from that, I'm working on a synopsis for a short story I'm submitting to an anthology - it will be the only cartoon in the all-prose mystery anthology. It's something I'm very excited about and hope to have more news soon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Centuries & Sleuths
reported to Bookscan that "Something to build upon" was a top seller last month.
Well, he sold all five books at least. I stopped by Sunday - he has five more on

Friday, September 09, 2005

Midwest Literary Fest 

I'll be at the Midwest Literary Festival Saturday, Sept. 10,, where I'll be signing at
the Twilight Tales booth from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, and doing a reading ...
somewhere ... at 1:30 p.m.

But I'm not sure about the Sunday gig. I was invited to sit in on the graphic novel
panel at 3:30 pm Sunday, but I haven't been able to confirm that. I'll try and find
out more on Saturday.

Centuries & Sleuths in Forest Park reports that they sold out of my books, so I'm
dropping more off there on Sunday.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Game on 

More than a year since I posted last. Mainly because my little computer at home
couldn't seem to load up blogspot.com correctly. Luckily, my wife is in love with
iPod technology, so a new computer is in the future!

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