It begins with a sofa.
When Arvind Ethan David was still in school, he and James Goss, adapted Douglas Adams’s novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency for the stage. Douglas attended the last night of the production and was impressed. One of the unique aspects of the production was that David and Gross wedged “a sofa, which forms a significant plot point in the book … into the staircase to theatre so patrons had to climb over it to get to their seats.”
Since then, David has been inviting more and more people to climb over that sofa, metaphorically, of course, and join him in his love and admiration for Adams and his holistic detective. In addition to several stage adaptations taking place, BBC America has picked up Dirk Gently as an eight episode TV series, co-produced by David and his production company, Ideate Media.
David is serious when it comes to Dirk Gently, seriously.
In his comic for IDW publishing, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: A Spoon Too Short, David and cartoonist Ilias Kyriazis send Gently from London to Africa as he attempts to communicate with ‘The Tribe With No Words’ and where, one hopes, he may also track down a more long-handled utensil in some sort of interconnected way.
Keith Silva for Comics Bulletin: Arvind, as a graduate of Oxford University and the London Business School with a burgeoning career in financing and producing award winning films, how did you end up writing a comic?
Arvind Ethan David: I’ve always wanted to write comic books, my earliest memories are of waiting for Dad to come home from work, and, secreted in his lawyer’s leather briefcase, would be comics from the store …
Growing up in Malaysia and England, there wasn’t an obvious route into the comics world, so my creative energy went into theatre and prose and then movies and TV.
But Dirk Gently has been a long passion (my career started with Douglas Adams and my stage adaptation of Dirk Gently) so now, for IDW to give me the chance to return to it is a dream come true.
It is of course daunting to make ones public debut in a new format, particularly with a well loved character, and in a medium as much scrutinized by the web-o-sphere as comics… But I had the comfort of having great editors at IDW (Chris Ryall and Denton Tipton) and I knew whatever I wrote, Ilias would make me look good….
CB: Ilias, you’re the more seasoned comic book veteran of the two of you, how did you get involved in the project and what did you think of David’s script, considering it was coming from a (relative) newbie?
Ilias Kyriazis: It wasn’t Arvind’s relative “inexperience” that characterized the script. It was his great passion for the original material. The way it felt to me was that this was a comic he wanted for a long time to write and when he got the opportunity he gave his all. His love for Dirk Gently meant of course that he was a much more “hands on” collaborator than what I’m used to, but we made it work.
CB: How is the Douglas Adams estate involved in this process (i.e. is there an Adams Bible of Dirk do’s and don’ts, etc.) and what appeals to both of you about adapting this (perhaps in the states) lesser known of Adams’ creations?
IK: Well, I hadn’t read the books and my familiarity with the character was limited to that TV series from a few years back. So I relied on Arvind’s expertise.
AED: For better or worse, I’ve become the person the Adams Estate has entrusted to guide Dirk Gently into new mediums and to new audiences. I take that responsibility pretty seriously, which is, I’m guessing, where Ilias’s comment about me being a “hands-on collaborator” (code for control freak) comment comes from.
At the same time, I think it crucial to recognize that you can’t straightforwardly “adapt” Douglas Adams. Douglas’s genius was uniquely his own. What I’ve tried to do here, and in every other version, is to be true to the character and the Adams’ tone and approach to narrative, his unique brand of word-play and “idea-play” humor.
But the plots, the new characters, new scenarios, these are our own, and they are designed for the comic medium, rather than trying to transliterate a prose idea across.
CB: The opening sequence shows Dirk as a boy and is drawn to look like a comic strip. It turns out this is how Dirk dreams. How did the idea for this sequence develop and why did you decide to give it a ‘golden age’ look?
IK: I had similar, “cartoony” work on my site that Arvind and Denton (Tipton, our editor) liked. But I hadn’t had the opportunity, until now, to do full comic pages in that style and I’m very happy that Dirk Gently gave me a chance to scratch that itch.
AED: There are two things going on here.
First, you will start to see that the Dirk’s Childhood Dreams are a trope of the series. I’ve been intrigued for a long time about the question of how did Dirk become Dirk. How does a human being this strange come to be? Douglas gives some hints in the books, but only a few. So here I’m giving more…
Secondly, I wanted wherever possible to lean into the comic form and do things in the story telling that could only be done in comics and which pay homage to the many strands of comic and visual storytelling tradition: so yes, seeing Ilias’ remarkable “baby” drawings of Marvel and DC superheroes was an inspiration, which then Charlie (Kirchhoff, our colorist) completely took to a new level with his wonderful faded 1920s comic strip coloring.
CB: Sally Mills is one of Gently’s supporting characters who plays a prominent role in the first issue. She shows up wearing as she says “a sexy nurse” costume because 1. It’s Halloween and 2. she is “in fact, a nurse who is a sexy woman.” As a male writer, what responsibilities do you have to your female characters to make sure they’re not being objectified in other words when does playfulness tip over into objectification?
AED: It was a frequent complaint about Douglas’ writing that he only got good at writing women later in his career and only very occasionally wrote about an adult romantic or sexual relationship with any persuasiveness (Fenchurch is the great exception: she has agency and autonomy in spades, and her romance with Arthur Dent is the emotional heart of So Long & Thanks for all the Fish).
Sally Mills, who only plays a very small part in The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, is I think a wonderful character who deserves stories of her own. In a few short pages, in that novel, Sally has a chance meeting with Dirk in a café, steals Dirk’s biscuits, resets his nose, gives him a crucial clue and hilariously takes him to task about his dress sense. Then, sadly, she sort of disappears from the novel. I wanted to bring her back.
What was always clear to me from that brief episode, is that Sally fancied the hell out of Dirk and he was too preoccupied and too, well, himself, to notice or know what to do about it. So I wanted to return to that story, the story of their flirtation, here, and that’s mainly what’s informing her outfit and behavior.
Which leads us to the point: I think the only thing that should guide any writer in a decision like this (indeed in any decision) is not gender politics or fear of criticism, but the core creative question: would the character act in this way?
If she would, and it is the character dressing up in the sexy outfit for reasons of her own, rather than because me, male writer, is forcing her too, then we’re golden.
I’m completely comfortable that Sally Mills, a smart, sexy, twenty-something professional with her eye on a man who is too dumb to notice she likes him, [and she] would, on Halloween, put on a sexy outfit, in part to get his attention, in part to make a fun ironic commentary on the chasm of objectification between actually being a sexy woman who is a nurse and being a “sexy-nurse,” and, in part, because she enjoys it.
Whether she’d do it at her workplace rather than just at the party is perhaps artistic license…
You’ll see in #2 that she’s back in normal scrubs (cause it isn’t Halloween anymore) — but she’s every bit as smart and sexy as she is in #1.
There is more sexy-stuff a coming in this book, though…. This ain’t your grandmother’s Dirk Gently.
CB: There’s a page of Sally resetting Dirk’s nose after Mrs. Kingdom-Brown busts it by head-butting him. It’s an impressive and gorgeous piece of visual storytelling. It also walks the line of exploitation and playfulness. How did this scene develop from the script to the finished page?
IK: We’re getting into Dirk’s mind and while there is a bit of “Ooh! Breasts!” there’s even more of “could you please back off a bit?!” With Sally, given that she was to walk around half naked (even more so initially) I tried to draw her as realistically as I could (within the parameters of my art style). Young and beautiful yes, but her breasts were actually affected by gravity, her super tight costume did squeeze the fat of her body, her features were fine but not “perfect” etc… All that so she’d come across not as a pin-up but as a person dressed as a pin-up. Now if I succeeded on not … it’s up to the readers.
AED: That’s exactly the intention, and I think you achieved it precisely, Ilias.
CB: As impressive as that page is, Ilias, you’ve got a double page spread that is so full of detail, detail, detail when Dirk is talking with Assistant Professor Travers in his office. As the cartoonist, what do you want readers to take away from these pages visually and how does it work in concert with the story and the dialogue?
IK: At that point I felt the comic could use a double splash page like the ones I used to do in my previous comic, Secret Identities, and I kind of miss drawing. Something more visually impressive than two pages of talking heads. So I did something I rarely do and went full Brian Michael Bendis with the layout: a single image and a huge chain of bubbles. It was a simple scene, two people talking in a room, so I went as big as I could hoping to get a “wow, that’s a cool spread!” reaction from the readers. My favorite bit though is the small, reaction, insert panels interwoven with the lettering, I’m definitely trying this approach again.
AED: it’s so interesting to hear you say that, because my inspiration when I wrote those pages was definitely Bendis and Oeming’s work in POWERS. I just checked the script, and my stage direction for this spread just read:
“ Two pages of hard-boiled dialogue. Paneling at artist’s discretion except where specified.” – Well, Ilias’ discretion nailed it.
CB: This is slated to be a five issue series, so what’s next for Dirk as he heads off to Africa and will Sally be leaving the Halloween party soon enough to join him?
IK: Elephants, rhinos, muscles, puzzles and secret origins.
AED: In my head, the 5 issues of A Spoon Too Short comprise one novel: a 100 page graphic novel sequel to Douglas’ two Dirk books, taking some of the ideas he was working on before he died, and a whole bunch of new stuff from me and a little from Max Landis (who is the Executive Producer on the book as well as writing the forthcoming TV series).
It’s doing two things simultaneously: the story of a new case for sure, but also expanding and deepening the mythology of the Gently-verse. Watch out for more childhood dreams …
CB: What projects have each of you got on the boil post-Gently?
IK: Well, I have a couple short stories for various publishers lined up to keep me busy, but I’m weighting my options as to what to do next. I kind of feel the urge to write again… it’s been a few years since Elysium Online, my last graphic novel and I have these ideas I want to explore … Or more Dirk, maybe?
AED: In the comic world, I’ve just started work on an original book, co-created with the wonderful and absurdly talented Mike Carey (Lucifer, Unwritten, Girl With All The Gifts) that will be coming out from IDW later this year.
I’d love for Ilias to keep doing Dirk, cause I think he’s nailed him and the work just keeps getting better and better — I’m staying with Dirk too, of course, but my focus will be shifting mediums a little bit over the next twelve months as my stage adaptation is being published by Samuel French and has a bunch of productions on the books and the TV show for BBC America which I’m Executive Producing starts to shoot in a few months as well.