On Harker: The Book of Solomon, with an Interview with Writer Roger Gibson

The most radical propositions don’t always arrive with their trousers around their ankles, flashing their behind to the bourgeoisie while thrilling culture’s gatekeepers with headline-generating, career-making manifestos. Roger Gibson and Vince Danks’ playful police thriller Harker may not seem to be a particularly radical comicbook at first, but that’s exactly what it is. In an industry which all too often seems to have accepted a division between fantastical fiction for the blokeish and artistic introspection for the cognoscenti, Harker occupies the all-too-often ignored middleground between niche-fulfilling super-folks and Sunday supplement art statements. In that, Harker’s a comic that’s unashamedly populist and yet wilfully idiosyncratic, crystal clear and entertaining while still being smart and purposefully innovative. Gibson and Danks clearly have no time at all for the assumption that comics are doomed to exist as peripheral products for either the terminally geekish or the point-scoring, chin-stroking cultural elite. Harker: The Book of Solomon is a bright, reader-welcoming comic book that your grandmother could read and enjoy every bit as much as you can, and I can’t think of any higher praise than that. In a time in which comics really do often seem determined to pretend that there’s no such thing as a mainstream audience for its products, Harker’s one of just a tiny number of comics striding into what’s sadly become a lonely, agoraphobic marketplace for mass market books. Drawing off the long tradition of predominantly British TV cop shows, The Book of Solomon features the double-act of DCI Harker and DS Critchley as they hunt down serial killers and satanic covens in a tale which scrupulously avoids slipping into either urban fantasy or soulless homaging.

In short, it’s that rarest of things, a genuinely entertaining read that requires neither fannish expertise or High Culture to enjoy. It’s smart, but it isn’t interested in showing off. It’s ingenious, but the innovation feeds into making the narrative as transparent and inclusive as possible. It’s full of references to everything from Arthur Conan Doyle to Denis Wheatley, The Sweeney to Inspector Morse, and yet it doesn’t matter a whit if the inter-textuality of it all remains turning over in the sub-text. It even manages, in Vince Danks’ artwork, to present pages which are obviously photo-referenced and yet genuinely warm and involving. In so many ways, Harker seems to stand as a quiet and yet forceful rebuke to a whole series of preconceptions about all that the modern-era comic can and can’t be.

In fact — and even if we have to whisper it, let’s make it plain — it’s sharp and fun.

With Titan having collected the first six issues of the comic into the handsomely hardbacked Harker: The Book of Solomon, Harker’s writer Roger Gibson has kindly agreed to be interviewed. It’s a process that I was somewhat nervous about, in that I’d read as many previous q-and-a’s with Mr Gibson as I could and sadly found that most of what I’d intended to be my own questions had already been asked, and often more than once. What follows features my attempt to produce queries which reflect my own curiosity while avoiding some of the topics which I’d seen raised before. I can’t thank Mr Gibson enough for approaching the process with such generosity, and what follows is, I hope you’ll agree, a fascinating insight into how he and Vince Danks have gone about the writing of Harker;

COLIN SMITH: I’m genuinely interested – as I should be in a detective tale! – by the relationship between Harker and Critchley. I assume that the process of carving out a partnership between a Holmes & a Watson, a Regan and Carter, is a challenging one, in that the job is to respect the tradition while establishing a new take on it. As such, how did you go about making sure in script and art that the reader felt both comfortable with and intrigued by your leads?

ROGER GIBSON: It’s challenging but fun – Harker very deliberately celebrates and is a loving homage to all those great TV detective partnerships that we’ve all enjoyed over the years, so for me the starting point was deciding which pieces of those archetypal TV detectives that I wanted to use, and which I felt could be left behind. So you’ll spot some Morse influences in the general look and feel of the strip, there’s some Columbo in his dress sense and his fussiness, there’s some Holmes & Watson in the relationship between Harker and Critchley, and there’s definitely a dash of Gene Hunt in his attitude. But inevitably, once you start writing these things, other stuff will bleed through. A good fifty per cent of Harker’s personality is actually me – it’s a very autobiographical book, in that he shares a similar background with me, he generally likes the same things that I do, he shares my own cynicism and he even looks like a slightly older version of me. So to a large extent he’s a TV detective version of me, if somewhat grumpier than I am and seen through a foggy fictional mirror.

As for making sure that the readers want to spend time with him, I think you just have to go with your gut on these things. Harker isn’t a likeable bloke, but then neither are Sherlock Holmes or Morse or Gene Hunt. And yet we Brits love our monsters, they inhabit all the best sitcoms and turn them into something wonderful. For examples, you can just cherrypick the finest British sitcoms: Dad’s Army, Steptoe & Son, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, The Thick of It – all of these have a monster at the heart of the show, and yet we can’t help but love those monsters despite their foibles. So Harker brings in that side of things too, giving you a monster but hopefully making you want more of him.

I’ve also been careful to include lots of banter between Harker and Critchley – it defines both of them, it’s obviously a very real friendship, and you’re never in any doubt that, just like Holmes and Watson, neither of our two leads would ever hesitate in taking a bullet for each other. They have their own little in-jokes, they bicker like a married couple, they know each other’s bad sides. So there’s an intimacy to their relationship that you only get with best mates, and which again has its roots in comedy, in such partnerships as Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise or Reeves and Mortimer. You’re never in any doubt that these people are best friends and you want to hang out with them. Much of that is reflected in the relationship between Harker and Critchley.

There’s also elements of the real friendship between myself and Vince in there – as an example, the story that Harker tells about being kept awake by an owl is true. It was actually Vince who was kept awake by an owl night after night, complaining about it to me in much the same manner as Harker does to Critchley, almost word for word. I’d say that the series is as much about the relationship between the two leads as it is about the murders they investigate. There’s a fascination in watching friendships like that, and you want to see how they’ll work out and develop, and you always enjoy watching them bicker.

So it’s all of that stuff, whirling around in my head and hopefully coming out as either funny or poignant, that’s there to draw the readers in and to make them want to know more. And it draws me in too – I like spending time with them, and I figure that if I enjoy their company then others will too. It helps enormously that Vince is a master of body language and in drawing expressive, animated faces and figures. It’s that performance from our leads, their visual appeal and the reality which Vince gives to their personalities, that brings the script alive and hopefully helps to draw the reader in.

SMITH: You seem to be having a great deal of fun playing with the traditions of the TV cop show. Yet Harker clearly works on the page as a comic. Are there things which you can achieve in the comic-book which the telly might struggle to equal?

GIBSON: We’re not really approaching it from that angle, to be honest. I mean, comics typically have thought balloons and captions, but we specifically don’t use either of those, as I think they’re either cheats or just lazy storytelling. I tend to describe Harker as a comic that thinks it’s a TV detective series, so we’re very happy to play with the conventions of that television form and see what we can do with them. So if there’s an establishing shot, there’ll be a street sign or a shop sign telling you where we are, or it’ll come across in the dialogue just as it would in a TV show.

We can certainly occasionally do things that would seem unusual in a TV show, such as the shot of the Book of Solomon behind Harker and Critchley in the British Museum scene, or the six page static pub sequence at the centre of the book, but we keep those experiments to a minimum, mostly relying on standard TV storytelling to move the story along.

If anything, what we’re actually trying to do is to make the comic as simple as possible to understand to readers unfamiliar with the comic format, using very formal panel layouts, typical TV panning shots and keeping the camera moving – so we’re more interested in keeping the comic technique to a minimum and letting the story carry the reader along.

SMITH: By the same token, are there aspects of the TV cop tradition that were a particular challenge to put to good use? Have you found yourself pushing some conventions to one side because they just don’t work well on the page, or stretching how you’ve previously created comics in order to accommodate a particular trope?

GIBSON: There are so many different TV cop show conventions, so many different approaches to format and genre, so for me the fun is taking them all by turn and seeing what we can do with them. Stylistically, Harker: The Book of Solomon is mostly intended to have the look and feel of Morse and Waking the Dead, but future books change that and dip into other TV areas, extending the scope of the comic. So, for Book Two, we do our best to evoke Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and the dreadful Murder, She Wrote, whereas Book Three looks more like Bullitt, The French Connection, and The Rockford Files. Each of these present their own challenges, but it’s fun to keep stretching the limits, to let the strip grow and establish its own identity.

SMITH: You’ve said Harker is “fundamentally a mainstream telly detective show done as a comic.” How challenging was it to present a world that’s convincing on the page while still carrying some of the implausible aspects of the mass-market TV cop show? (Obviously the police would be unlikely to drive through the front of the British Museum, for example, or wander into a murder scene while it’s being forensically examined, and yet Harker keeps charming the reader while those things happen.)

GIBSON: Vince originally protested that entire final scene, for precisely that reason. Anyone who’s ever been to the British Museum will know that it’s almost certainly impossible to drive up those steps in front of the Museum, let alone to smash through those incredibly thick and very slim doors. When I told him that all he needed to do was to imagine that John Woo had directed that closing sequence, it all slotted into place for him – action movies and thrillers don’t care about reality in situations like that, it’s all about giving the viewer the biggest thrill they can get with a lovely big budget, and to make it seem real and plausible even whilst being ridiculously unlikely. James Bond movies have been doing that for years, and I have no problem with it – I like the stories in Harker to always have big, thrilling conclusions, so I tend to assume that the readers get that and will be willing to suspend their disbelief for the sake of a cracking good adventure.

I mean, Harker is riddled with unlikely occurrences – the whole chase sequence through the labyrinths under the Museum is big and daft and largely implausible, and I specifically told Vince to wreck as much of the Museum as he wanted to during the final sequence, just to make it that much bigger. I think you can only get away with those kind of things if you take care to establish the reality of the situation before you throw in something too stupid – and then hopefully by that stage you’ll carry the reader along with you and make it seem real to them. So it’s all about the world building. Vince again is a master at getting the locations and the look of the strip as real as possible, so that we can then stretch the limits as the strip progresses. It keeps it fun and unpredictable, which is obviously what we’re after.

SMITH: What parts of the book do you find most satisfying and/or noteworthy as you look back through it, and if I might ask, why? (If I were to pick two moments from the book as a new-to-Harker reader, I’d opt for Critchley quietly and compassionately expressing his desire to protect his boss from gruesome sights and the sequence of lively, closely-observed splash pages describing the pair’s conversation in a pub.)

GIBSON: I’m probably still too close to it to answer that objectively, but I’m really pleased with the relationship between our two coppers, which still feels like a very real friendship to me, and I’m constantly delighted with Vince’s artistic skill and the ease with which he handles some of the scenes. And I still like the Batman joke. Oh, and the coffee joke too, where the police all bring in their Starbucks drinks when investigating Randolph’s house. Vince used it as the cover for the original issue #4 of the monthly comic, with all the drinks in a row in their hands, and it still makes me laugh.

But I guess I’m still proud of that pub scene too – Vince originally protested loudly when I told him what I wanted, certain that six near-identical full pages wouldn’t work, but I convinced him that for me this was the heart of the story – the sequence falls bang in the middle of the book and sums up the relationship between Harker and Critchley, which I feel is the core of this first adventure. Vince delivered that extraordinary sequence in response to the challenge, including little back stories for all the other people in the pub, really bringing it alive, and so many people have pointed it out as their favourite scene in the book, so I guess that’s still a high point for me.

Thank you, Roger.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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