RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's new issue day at comic book shops across the country, the weekly ritual attending by fans of super heroes and quirky tales, all eagerly awaiting a new issue of a favorite comic. Increasingly, those new titles are being written by authors from outside the comic book universe. Novelists like Jonathan Lethem, rock musicians Belle and Sebastian, even Hollywood writers like MORNING EDITION's own commentator John Ridley. In addition to his film work, Ridley writes for Wild Storm Comics. He spoke to three other artists about what lured them to the realm of comic books.
JOHN RIDLEY: A pop-culture icon, a best-selling author, and a rap impresario. The differences among these three are not nearly as unusual as what they have in common. They're all comic book writers. Now, you might think that Joss Whedon -our pop-culture icon - novelist Jodi Picoult or rapper Percy Carey would probably have too much on their collective plates to bother with comic books.
But for each of them, writing comics - or graphic novelizations in the more highbrow nomenclature - is not something they take for granted. And for one, writing graphic novels is the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition which had its origins in a 1970s kids show.
Mr. JOSS WHEDON (Creator of TV series, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"): My father was the head writer of "The Electric Company. And they started doing Spidey stories.
RIDLEY: Spidey is Marvel Comics superhero Spiderman, for the uninitiated. And that is Joss Whedon, the creator of, among other things, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
I sat down with Joss at Hi De Ho Comics, the comic book mecca in Santa Monica, California, and Joss reminisced about the day his dad came home with some work research.
Mr. WHEDON: He brought home a ton of Marvel comics and dropped them in my lap. I was like nine, and I'm like, What's all this? What's all this that will now obsess me for the rest of my life? So in a weird way, yeah, "The Electric Company" was my gateway and Spiderman was the guy.
RIDLEY: For Joss, after Buffy the series finished its run on television, graphic novels was a natural extension of the show, but not one he initially considered on his own. But he got a call from the publishing firm Dark Horse Comics and they asked if he would consider a new Buffy comic. He agreed.
Mr. WHEDON: It kind of fell into my lap. And it was fun, because that meant I could throw in everything. Like the show, it started out with this sort of sensationalist idea. The show was, hey, I love these horror movies, let's adapt them to real life. The comic book was I love comic books, this is so much fun to have Buffy as a comic book.
RIDLEY: For Jodi Picoult, it was a story within her novel "The Tenth Circle" which opened the door to comic book writing. Part of that book was written in the form of a graphic novel. The approach caught the eye of editors at DC Comics, who became interested in hiring Jodi to write several issues of the recently relaunched Wonder Woman series. It was an opportunity Picoult nearly passed on.
Ms. JODI PICOULT (Author): So I was up in my office one day, and I got this e-mail from an editor at DC, and I remember looking at it and thinking, That's really nice but I don't have any time. I can't do that, you know. And I went downstairs to have dinner with my family and I was telling my kids that I'd gotten this e-mail and my three kids just looked at me and said Mom, you totally have to write Wonder Woman.
RIDLEY: What Jodi soon found out was that despite having a very successful career as a novelist, writing in the sequential art form of comics required a whole new skill set.
Ms. PICOULT: You've got to really sit down and think hard about what's going on the page and to think very visually, which, you know, I don't usually write illustrated novels. So to be able to map out how I see a particular scene unfolding, I almost had to do it more like I imagine a director would than a novelist. You know, that visualization of how the words were going to play out on the page and where sort of the camera angle would swoop in to the scene. That was really foreign to me.
RIDLEY: The same is true for Percy Carey, who raps under the stage name MF Grimm. Despite his abilities in the studio and on the mic…
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Mr. PERCY CAREY (Rapper): (as MC Grimm) But I shook them off me and remained focused...
RIDLEY: ...learning to write graphic novels was in a sense like going back to school.
Mr. CAREY: I knew in my head the way I wanted things, but the actual language - the difference in the language of being an MC and turning around and writing, you know, turning audio into visual, it was an education.
RIDLEY: There was something else Percy had to learn, and that was the value of the story he was telling. While Joss and Jodi were dealing with the fantastic, Percy's graphic novel, "Sentences," was an autobiography that dealt with drugs, guns and bad choices.
Mr. CAREY: I was shot multiple times, and I was also paralyzed. I'm a paraplegic. I'm in a wheelchair. And you can go through life looking at it like, you know, why me. You know, but like they say, why not me? It was my purpose of still being here, you know, to learn from my wrongs.
RIDLEY: The idea that he could tell his story as a graphic novel came, from all places, Harvey Pekar's oddball "American Splendor," a series of comics based on Pekar's life.
Mr. CAREY: Once I came across "American Splendor," it convinced me that I wanted to take a chance and step in the medium of graphic novels. I just have a lot of respect for the form.
RIDLEY: Jodi, too, had serious respect for the medium, but wanted to make a few post-feminist alterations to Wonder Woman.
Ms. PICOULT: Predominately, comics were a genre for teenage boys, and they want to see women with big boobs spilling out of that bustier and that was how she got invented. You know, I tried very, very hard to cover her up or give her a jacket, but nobody at DC would let me.
RIDLEY: Joss Whedon's got a few ideas on why Wonder Women in a business suit isn't going to work for comic fans.
Mr. WHEDON: They care much more about two-dimensional people than they do about three-dimensional. It is a different kind of fandom. There does get a proprietary, almost autistic, kind of relationship between people and comic books. Not with everybody, obviously, but you can evoke ire that you never dreamed of in TV.
RIDLEY: But don't dismiss graphic novels as fan boy fodder. As an author, Jodi Picoult sees a direct parallel between graphic novels and other forms of literature.
Ms. PICOULT: In all the years that I've been writing, and that's 15 years now, there's only one genre that's really debuted in the New York Times book review, and that's the graphic novels. They review those now. And that tells me that someone's taking them really seriously as a form of literature.
RIDLEY: Probably that's because of the diversity and passion of writers like Jodi Picoult, Percy Carey, and Joss Whedon. It's what elevates comic book writing to storytelling.
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MONTAGNE: Commentator John Ridley's latest graphic novel is "The American Way." You can read excerpts of the latest Buffy comic and of Percy Carey's graphic novel "Sentences" at our Web site or post your comments on John Ridley's "Visible Man" blog at npr.org/visibleman.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.