A Novel Approach to Comic Books

Tokyo-based Australian creator Andrez Bergen has two literary books out this year, on top of a continuing stream of comic titles that he both scripts and often illustrates.

What makes the back-to-back novels – Bullet Gal, to be published in November, and Black Sails, Disco Inferno, which came out in June – unique and appropriate for recognition here at Sequart is the fact that they’re based on previous, critically-successful comic book series, ones where Bergen wrote and did the art: Bullet Gal (2014-15) and Trista & Holt (2015-16).

With these facts in mind, we turned the desklamp upon our man. Who cares that the 30-Watt bulb might be too dull for interrogations?

NOTE: Bergen has a tendency to go in for long-winded titles, particularly with novels, so for brevity’s sake let’s cut them down early.

His first novel, later adapted into a comic book, is Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat (2011). Henceforth, think of this as ‘TSMG’. 2013’s Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? more easily reads as ‘Heropa’. We’ll employ ‘Planet Goth’ for Depth Charging Ice Planet Goth (2014), and this year’s Black Sails, Disco Inferno shall be abridged to ‘Black Sails’.

PHILLIPS: Tell us about your upcoming novel Bullet Gal. I understand it relates to your previous work, in particular the novel Heropa, and you wrote and illustrated a twelve-issue Bullet Gal comic book series through Australia’s IF? Commix in 2014-15. That resurfaced in North America via trade collections through Under Belly Comics and Project-Nerd Publishing.

Is the novel a direct literary translation of the Bullet Gal series?

BERGEN: Yep, pretty much the novel takes that dozen issues of Bullet Gal and expands it outward. Bullet Gal is a prequel to my novel Heropa. It’s set about four years before (Heropa-time), but all of this takes place in a near-future, last-city-on-the-planet Melbourne, which was more clearly defined in my first novel TSMG. Bullet Gal is also the direct sequel to Planet Goth. However, you don’t need to read Heropa, Planet Goth or TSMG to fall into the action – Bullet Gal is a standalone piece. It’s set in Heropa, a city hunkered down in the 1940s, and where superpowered types, or ‘Capes’, grab all available newspaper headlines – knocking out bona fide (Joe Average) heroes. There’s also mystery and violence here as Mitzi (last name unknown, origins unclear) sets out to right wrongs, gets herself recruited, loses allies, and then is targeted for assassination.

PHILLIPS: It’s clear in your work that you carry a torch for noir. What is it about things hardboiled, skirting around pulp – with an edge of detective mystery – that appeals to you?

BERGEN: ‘Appeals’ doesn’t come across strong enough; I’d go more with ‘dear’. Noir in all its forms is something like its own chest of ducats, mixed together to create a treasure. I’m a huge fan of film noir, TV, comics, photography and literature. Far too often I pop between Ed Brubaker scripting Criminal and Humphrey Bogart playing Sam Spade, with my head otherwise stuck between the covers of a Lew Archer novel – while idolizing the lens-work of David Lynch. Stop me.

PHILLIPS: In Bullet Gal, Mitzi comes across feisty, tough, sardonic, and somewhat sad. Reading her brings back memories of mid twentieth century P.I.s like Archer, Spade and Philip Marlowe, yet she’s completely different again… A blend that is very twenty-first century in its pop culture sensibilities buried beneath the pathos and wit. What is it about the character that most appeals to you, and how did she come about?

BERGEN: God, when did she not exist? I guess Mitzi’s only been around now for three years, though it feels much longer, and likely because elemental fractions of her pay homage to earlier female characters I dug like Buffy Summers, Tank Girl, Ripley from Alien, comic book character Miss Fury, Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon – heck, even Sophie Fevvers in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus.

To be honest, Mitzi started her own life as a throwaway character in the prologue to Heropa. Somewhere along the line while writing that book, the kid slipped back in and resurrected herself. Then she demanded a prequel/offbeat origin story (Planet Goth) and comic book series (Bullet Gal). I actually thought we’d parted ways after releasing the trade paperback collection of those twelve issues, but… nah. Mitzi had another novel in her yet, and plays a pivotal role in a new comic I’m working on called Crash Soirée, with artist Graeme Jackson.

So, getting back to what it is that makes Mitzi attractive? I love her strength, her vitality, and I think most of all I cherish her humanity – which is ironic, given the particular circumstances.

PHILLIPS: There’s a mini-chapter within the framework of the Bullet Gal novel that didn’t exist in its sequential counterpart – a poke at the concept of the ‘Mary Sue’ in fiction, and better still fandom’s skewed reaction to same.

BERGEN: Yeah, I think that was annoying me far more in the middle of writing the book, whereas I hardly batted an eye about it while making the comic almost two years before. I guess I hadn’t truly cottoned on then. The ‘Mary Sue’ tag is used far too readily on platforms like Twitter to tar any fictional (female) characters that might display strength or stamina to affect a sudden denouement. By contrast, you rarely hear much complaining about male equivalents – a Marty Stu, or whatever. I’m thinking it’s past time to introduce a canine version. I’d love to take pokes at Benji, Rin Tin Tin or the Littlest Hobo. Saving the day? Pfft.

PHILLIPS: You do have a tendency to opt for strong female protagonists. I’m thinking of Mitzi in Bullet Gal, Mina in Planet Goth, Trista in Black Sails, and more recently the comic book character Magpie. What is it about this pugnacious, gender-specific archetype that appeals to you?

BERGEN: Blame the strong, resourceful women in my life? I’m not sure the percentage of men I know is equitable in these stakes! But there have been secure, reliable, essentially strong male characters in my stories too – Jack in Heropa especially, but also Jim Falk in the upcoming Crash Soirée. Then again, much as I love Floyd [TSMG] and Issy [Black Sails] they’re basically wet-behind-the-ears alcoholic lushes.

One of the strongest male characters is Lee in Bullet Gal, even if he is distilled eight times over – and some of those concoctions are not particularly nice.

What was the question again…?

PHILLIPS: This is the second comic book title you’ve adapted and turned into a novel, coming so closely after Black Sails emerged from your fifteen-issue noir series Trista & Holt. As you mentioned to us, this is a little unusual – more commonly comics are adapted into movies, or the odd novel converted into a sequential piece. A simple one-word question for you: Why?

BERGEN: I’ve actually wondered that myself, as before this I was trying to adapt my novel Heropa into a comic book series, but the plans kind of fell through.

I suppose I started as a novelist who moved into scripting comics, which is also kind of opposite the traditional route. And much as I love making comics – and doing the art on the side – I think I’m better, or at least more experienced, doing a book with just the words. The comic book series of Bullet Gal and Trista & Holt were ripe for adaptation, and in a way they were the storyboards for these eventual novels.

PHILLIPS: The notion of a comic-book novel does bear with it the baggage of sounding  ridiculous – and some of the ‘supers’ prose pieces out there live up to that expectation. The genuinely good books skirt edges of the medium, like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay or Warren Ellis’s Gun Machine. With Black Sails you could do the same – there were no capes to address – but Bullet Gal, while focusing on the noir aesthetic, is all about super-powered people. How do you undercut the wackiness?

BERGEN: I guess the thing is you don’t. You can’t be overly serious with super-powered individuals, unless you’re setting them up for a fall. That doesn’t mean Bullet Gal is all droll hilarity. There’s a swag of serious elements in there. Using the idea of elitist mojo to define personality types, to show how out-of-touch these super-powered people really are, can be a fine creative tool for exploration of character and quirks. Sometimes the powers don’t even matter. With Lee (Major Patriot) we know he can duplicate himself, but is that all the strength he actually has? And what actually is the Great White Hope’s superpower? That’s not clear here, or in Heropa.

PHILLIPS: You certainly have some offbeat superhero monikers – including Milkcrate Man and the Big Game Hunter.

BERGEN: That was the fun part. I mean, if you rear-vision back to the golden age of comics, there were already a lot of daft aliases. So the tradition was there.

PHILLIPS: And Bullet Gal herself is based around the golden age character Bulletgirl, created in the early 1940s.

BERGEN: Yep, definitely. Commingled with a sprinkling of Tank Girl, Lara Croft, Buffy, and much Miss Fury.

PHILLIPS: What are the differences between scripting and illustrating a comic, and writing a novel?

BERGEN: Too many, possibly, to go into here. A novel needs to go deeper and a tad, well, cerebral. I’m not saying comics are shallow or dumbed-down expressions of the same idea, but as a scribe you have certain liberties to be loose, to stand back and allow the graphics to take precedence.

There’s also atmosphere.

A comic is designed to look at as well as to read, so you’ve got joint stimuli happening. A novel necessarily takes those visuals and needs to translate them into words.

There are some things that just don’t work – like the tag-team duo of ghosts in #10 of Trista & Holt. A lot of people rated that issue as a favourite, but there was no way I could get it up to scratch for Black Sails. However, I could expand, build upon, and insert new characters and scenes that I hadn’t dreamed of when I wrote the comics.

In Bullet Gal, getting the Little Nobody/Ant-Man pastiche to work in literary form was a ball-breaker but I’m glad I stuck with it.

Funnily, Bullet Gal is perhaps closer to the original comic, whereas Black Sails does deviate quite a bit and has an entirely different finale.

PHILLIPS: While Black Sails (and its predecessor Trista & Holt) dumped a medieval romance in the backyard of a 1970s criminal underworld, as you mentioned Bullet Gal toys with the notions and conceits of superherodom – and treats them as run-of-the-mill, everyday occurrences that people barely bat an eyelid over. What is your own back-story comics-wise?

BERGEN: I grew up with them. When I was in primary [elementary] school my dad subscribed me to British comics like Cor!!, Action and 2000 A.D.

I was an equal sucker for reprints of 1960s Marvel stuff, especially that by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby like Fantastic Four and Captain America.

The artists I cherished also included Jim Steranko, Steve Ditko, and Barry (Windsor) Smith. Later I discovered older gems such as Will Eisner’s The Spirit and Tarpé Mills’ Miss Fury, and relatively recent material by Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Jeph Loeb and those kinds of people. So I have a soft spot for the lot, whether golden age, silver, bronze, whatever. DC-wise I’m more into Batman than Superman, and give me the blue-eyed Thing, Captain America or Hawkeye over Spider-Man – though I’ve always had a soft spot for Spidey too.

PHILLIPS: Classic comic book runs?

BERGEN: God, this question always licks me, since there’re too many to reel off and I don’t want to bore people senseless. Off the top of my head, Will Eisner’s original The Spirit, and the first one hunded odd issues of Fantastic Four by Lee and Kirby as I mentioned – particularly when Joe Sinnott did the inking.

More recently Matt Fraction with David Aja on Hawkeye, Ed Brubaker doing Captain America and Velvet with with Steve Epting, and Brubaker allied with Sean Phillips to do Criminal.

Frank Miller’s run with Klaus Janson on Daredevil was an absolute doozie, especially up to and including #181 in ‘82. Round the same timeframe, a little earlier, I loved John Byrne’s take on the X-Men, and still think he was the best artist to work with Chris Claremont there.

As a teenager I also veered into the manga of creators like Masamune Shirow, Katsuhiro Otomo and Kazuo Umezu. Yeah, I tend to be all over the place when it comes to allegiances and inspirations.

Of course, I’d have to include Alan Moore’s work in the 1980s and ‘90s – for my taste V for Vendetta, Miracleman and Watchmen – plus Frank Miller’s initial Batman run with The Dark Knight Returns. On a Batman kick, I love Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Dark Victory – which for me slightly pips The Long Halloween, though they’re great companion runs.

A side-helping? Darwyn Cooke’s brilliant channelling of the Parker novels by Richard Stark, Fraction’s work with Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon on Casanova, or Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Ríos. I always dip back into Jack Kirby’s solo ‘70s run of 2001, as well as Roy Thomas and Barry Smith’s ideal of Conan the Barbarian earlier that same decade.

See? I could go on and on. I’ll cut back instead.

So – these days? I’m a huge Image Comics fan, as well as following a bunch of indie zines.

The creator-controlled idea very much appeals to me, and I believe that’s the best artistic (and audience-oriented) direction to pursue.

PHILLIPS: How about the future of your own comic books, now you seem to be full-time as a novelist?

BERGEN: Nah, I’ll never give them up, so long as I have inspiring people to work with. At the moment we’re creating a new comic call Magpie, a vehicle specially designed for the character Frantz Kantor and I created for Oi Oi Oi! in Australia. That’s also set in the city of Heropa, same as Bullet Gal, but is more taking-the-piss. The Magpie ‘zine is going to be a continuing anthology of sorts, around 44 pages: our girl clocking in at around 18 pages, plus extra stories with artists Jackson (Crash), Gareth Colliton (Onna Bugeisha) and Dan Watts (The Fenders), pins-ups, initial artwork, silly ads, and a serialized version of the novel Heropa. I’m right into developing the concepts of that at the moment.

PHILLIPS: As a final note – does a writer need to know comics in order to make a comic book oriented novel?

BERGEN: For real? I think it seriously, seriously helps. If I wrote noir without having first experienced Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Westlake, and Macdonald – let alone viewing the cinema and comic books based around those authors and their influence – it might be a variation on the theme… but the spirit would be missing.

Andrez Bergen’s Black Sails, Disco Inferno is out now via Open Books.


His novelization of Bullet Gal will be published through Roundfire Books in November.


Tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


Mike produces books and documentaries about comics. He's now trying to write his own comics. He tells everyone else at Sequart what to do. Do they listen? Eh.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Mike Phillips:


executive producer


executive producer

a short documentary on Chris Claremont's historic run and its influence

executive producer

a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

executive producer

a documentary on the life and work of celebrated comics writer Grant Morrison

executive producer

Leave a Reply