Vincent Danks and Roger Gibson are the artist and writer, respectively, of the wonderful British detective series Harker. Jason Sacks recently interviewed Danks and Gibson about their work on the series.
Jason Sacks: Why don’t you start by telling readers a bit about Detective Chief Inspector Harker and Detective Sergeant Critchley.
Roger Gibson: I’d love to! Detective Chief Inspector Harker and his assistant Detective Sergeant Critchley are specialists in the investigation of serial killers. Employed by Scotland Yard, they deal with cases far beyond the boundaries of the Metropolitan Police Service, investigating murders throughout the United Kingdom and beyond.
Detective Chief Inspector Harker is in his late fifties, a copper set in his ways and unaccustomed to the pace and technology of modern policing. He’s archaic, scruffy, weirdly enigmatic, curiously eccentric and easily distracted, amusingly grumpy and socially inept. He’s particularly squeamish, disliking the sight of blood and haunted by the memories of ugly crime scenes he has witnessed. He’s also a chain smoker and spectacularly out of condition, probably smelling mostly of tobacco and kippers. Modern culture is a complete mystery to him, and he finds new technology repulsive, loathing mobile phones. On the flip side, he’s a superb detective who’s accustomed to cutting away the red herrings and getting right to the heart of a case.
Detective Sergeant Critchley is Harker’s faithful partner, a 21st Century copper tooled up with all the latest gizmos. He’s a hit with the birds and very much the yin to Harker’s yang. Everything about Critchley is stylish, cool, up to date and sharp; his head shaven, his beard trimmed perfectly, his black suit pressed and his car growling like an uncaged puma. Intelligent and eager, enthusiastic and impulsive, friendly and outgoing, he’s the polar opposite of Harker. Critchley’s also a comic and fantasy geek, frequently finding connections between his favorite movies and the cases the pair investigate. Desperately wanting to be a TV cop, his head is full of conspiracy notions and wild ideas. While his instincts and enthusiasms sometimes lead him in the wrong direction, he’s still a gifted policeman. He’s charming, good looking, easily approachable, flirtatious and always popular. It’s a shame he’s stuck with that crabby old Harker, really.
JS: It’s obvious from the first three issues that Harker and Critchley are real professionals but they’ve been through some difficult times in their careers. So far we’ve only seen glimpses of their private lives. Who are these men when they’re not working?
RG: Funnily enough, we’re reluctant to feature much of their private lives in the comic. One of my personal bugbears with modern TV detectives is that they fanny around too much with personal problems. Old girlfriends showing up, houses burning down, affairs with other members of their team. I can’t be doing with all of that stuff, I just want to see the plot. Columbo never had personal problems, we only ever saw him working on the case. That’s the way to go, in my opinion. So you will see hints and occasional glimpses of their life away from the job, but it’s going to be very minor, and you’re going to have to piece it together yourself and draw your own conclusions about what makes them tick – which I think is more fun. It’s the job that defines them, anything else is generally a distraction. I’m actually more interested in what the readers piece together about our detectives, and what they imagine about the personal lives of Harker and Critchley. Having said that, there’s a revealing vignette in issue four which should go some way towards understanding the differences between our two detectives, and how they cope with their very different lives, and the way the world treats them, and it’ll become a common theme. We repeat it again in issue eight, but with a hopefully humorous twist.
JS: How do men like these keep their professional distance when investigating such horrific crimes? How do they keep their job from affecting them – or do they?
RG: Harker is definitely deeply affected by the job – it’s something that’s hinted at in earlier issues, and pointed out specifically in issue four. Critchley takes it more in his stride, it’s more of a game to him, an intellectual challenge, but Harker has a great deal of difficulty dealing with death, it’s his least favourite part of the job. Check out any scene where there’s a corpse nearby – Harker will do anything he can to keep away from the body, and especially to avoid looking at it, either by hanging back, or finding something to distract him. He’s not comfortable around death at all. A closer look at the cover to issue five shows it clearly – Harker is looking away from the corpse, he really dislikes seeing them, particularly the really gruesome ones.
JS Harker seems like an odd character since he’s shy and seems to be a pretty closed personality. Has he always been like that, or did a case make him that way?
RG: I think it’s clear from the very first issue that Harker is broken in some way, that he’s not quite right, that there’s something there which needs fixing that he’s ignoring. He’s painfully shy, and only engages in conversation when he has to, or when the case demands it. He can play the hard nosed copper, but when he can get away with it he’ll happily let Critchley deal with people. Without Critchley he’d be pretty much lost I think, though he’d never acknowledge that. As to how he got that way, again for the moment you can draw your own conclusions. There’ll be hints, but I want you to discover him slowly.
JS: What is the agency that these two men work for? Are they part of a larger group that investigates seemingly mystic crimes? If so, will we see more of their fellow agents?
RG: They’re policemen – part of some branch of the Police that we’ve made up, who send detectives from place to place solving murders, an obscure branch of Scotland Yard. It’s unlikely you’ll ever see their superiors, my preference is just for them to arrive, though there is a phone conversation with their Superintendent in Book Two, so he does exist. But yes, they’re just coppers, and they investigate any serial killings, not just bizarre satanic ones (as we’ll see in Book Two). I’m not planning on bringing in any of their colleagues, though Jenny Griffin returns in Book Two and will remain a regular part of the team, because I’ve become quite partial to her.
JS: You mention in your blog that these characters are sort of odd stepchildren of TV detectives. Can you tell ComicsBulletin readers about that?
RG: It’s difficult to talk about this without sounding pretentious, but the idea behind the series is to take a post-modernist view of all tv detectives, and to make Harker and Critchley a composite of all of our favourite tv cops. So Harker owns a classic car like Morse, he dresses shabbily like Columbo, morgue scenes are in the dark as in Waking the Dead, he has the mood swings of Sherlock Holmes, the attitude of Gene Hunt from Ashes to Ashes, and so it goes on. The Satanists in Book One are straight out of Dennis Wheatley and Hammer movies, we have references to From Hell – it’s very deliberately all over the place. Book Two brings in major references to Agatha Christie, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Bram Stoker, the abominably bad Murder She Wrote… we reference these things very deliberately, and always try to be honest in the strip by having the
se influences brought out into the open, which is why Critchley mentions From Hell in issue one. We want the reader to spot the references and enjoy spotting them, we’re absolutely not hiding it, if anything we’re revelling in it.
JS: I’m struck by how these seem sort of like TV detectives, but they live squarely on the comics page. Do you have ambitions for these characters to appear in other media?
RG: Absolutely we do, yes. Right from the beginning, it’s been our ambition to get Harker and Critchley their own TV series or movies, and we’re definitely working towards that. I’m planning to write at least two novels a year as well, with illustrations by Vince – the first (The Murder Club) is already finished, and we’ll be releasing it in November. Neither of these (the books or a TV series) would replace the comic, though. Ideally, so long as we continue to find readers, we’d like the strip to run and run.
RG: He reads everything he can get his hands on, and watches whatever science fiction and horror movies he can get hold of too. He’s probably a little less discerning than me, I’d say, and definitely a complete geek. Probably a huge George Romero fan.
JS: Vince, can you tell us about your earlier series, Sapphire?
Vince Danks: That was started way back in 1997 – I was a big fan of the X-Files and also the work of Brian Clemens (Avengers, The Professionals) and when I decided to do a self published comic those were my influences. Consequently it was, as one reviewer put it, a cross between the X-Files and Mission Impossible. The original 6 issue run has been collected into a trade paperback and there’s a 2 part story also available as trade paperbacks.
JS: Why did you take ten years or so off from creating comics?
RG: We’ve dabbled on and off for the last fifteen years or so, so it doesn’t really feel as though we’ve had any time off, but then time rushes by so quickly once you become old and senile. About five years ago we experimented with an anthology title called Raven, which featured Vince’s Sapphire, along with my Bishop and Mad Girl strips, and an early version of Harker called Griffin. So we’ve been around, we just needed the right characters to find us.
JS: Vince, can you explain how you create the art in this comic? It all looks very photo-referenced; how much is drawn from photos?
VD: After Rog has broken down the issue into roughly what he wants on each page I then story board the issue by breaking it down further into the individual panels. The story boards are then used as reference to take photographs of the backgrounds and also to pose various people, notably Rog and me, which are then used as reference to do all the pencil drawings. The pencils are drawn pretty tightly so I can then scan the art into Adobe Photoshop, clean it up a bit, add the spot blacks and generally fanny around with it until I’m happy – it’s then taken into Adobe Illustrator for some more tweaking and some texture adding (more for fun than anything else, I like playing around in Illustrator) and it’s then put back into Photoshop to have all the greyscale tones added (plus some more fannying around).
JS: I’m struck by the realism of your characters’ faces. Was one of the goals of your art on this comic to draw real-looking characters?
VD: Definitely — the comic is more influenced by TV than other comics so it made sense to try and have the characters looking like real people. There are even some actors that pop up as a visual tribute to our sources.
JS: Obviously you take great care with the settings of the story, and the art reminds me a bit of Eddie Campbell’s intensely detailed work on From Hell. To what extent is the setting essential to the story?
RG: Curiously, Vince has had very little exposure to Eddie Campbell (he’s read a little of From Hell, though I believe that’s pretty much all he’s seen), whereas I’ve been a huge fan for years, going all the way back to the Alec books. So any resemblance is likely to be coincidental, though obviously I’m thrilled with the way Vince’s art has developed, and I’ve mentioned to him the Eddie Campbell connection myself. I’d say the setting is very important – Vince keeps the locations very authentic, and Whitby is practically a character itself in Book Two. Setting is everything, especially when you’re working with an artist with Vince’s talent, who rises to every challenge I give him. The overhead shot of the British Museum in issue two, for instance, completely blew me away.
JS: How closely do you feel Campbell’s influence on how you’re illustrating this story?
RG: I’m sure Vince would tell you himself that he’s not especially steeped in knowledge of comic artists, and his storytelling skills are very much instinctive, learned through years of trial and error on previous comic projects – I’m a million times more geeky than Vince is, to be honest. Although I do agree about the Eddie Campbell similarities, I also see a lot of Alex Raymond and Dave Sim / Gerhard in there, not to mention a real Warren Magazines feel to his toning. Ironically most of these references will be lost on Vince, who just draws the way he draws, and I think that’s what’s so refreshing about his artwork – he’s not trying to imitate anyone else, he’s simply being himself.
RG: Book Two features the death of a famous female mystery novelist in unusual circumstances, and is set during one of Whitby’s regular goth weekends. Expect fog rolling in, misty moors, craggy cliffs, moonlit fishing villages, black dogs, bumper cars and spooky butlers. Oh, and Harker on his holidays. We’re already halfway through Book Two as I write, and Books Three through Five are also pretty much nailed down too. Book Three (issues 13-18), set in Portmeirion (famous as The Village in Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner), takes our detectives into the world of spy fiction, investigating a brutal murder amongst secret underground bases and super spies, with sly nods towards James Bond, The Man From UNCLE, Matt Helm, the (TV) Avengers and The Prisoner. Book Four (issues 19-24), set in Blackpool, plunges our detectives into the world of Victorian séances, ghosts, ghouls, Fortean phenomena and things that go bump in the dark. We’ll also be using the giant fairground, with wry references to the Scooby Doo cartoons. Book Five (issues 25-30), set in New York, changes the tone again, bringing in influences from Starsky & Hutch, McCloud, Kojak, Hill Street Blues and Bullitt, culminating in a two issue (thirty page) car chase as long and gratuitous as the chase scenes in The French Connection, but much funnier. And we’re not planning to stop there!
JS: Have you read Paul Grist
‘s wonderful crime comic Kane? Was it an influence at all on Harker? Being as both are British comics about crime and cops it seems like an obvious question to ask.
RG: I love everything Paul Grist does, and I do indeed love Kane. I couldn’t say that he’s influenced Harker at all (Harker‘s influences are almost exclusively derived from the telly) but certainly both Vince and I feel there’s been a gap in the British comic market since Paul stopped doing Kane. We were recently touted in a review as heir apparents to Kane, which to me was a huge compliment. One day, everyone will read Paul’s comics, and realize what they’ve been missing all this time. Everyone should read Jack Staff.
JS: These are obviously tough times to launch a self-published comic, what with the recession and Diamond’s minimum order thresholds, to name two reasons. Why launch a book like Harker at this time?
RG: Ha! Well when we first came up with the idea in Bristol just over a year ago, there was no recession, and no-one had ever heard of the credit crunch. It was bad timing for us, but once we’d started we couldn’t stop and I’m impatient by nature. The minimum order thing with Diamond hit us badly — we were one of the first casualties of that strange new world, but we’re still getting into comic shops across the UK, still getting out to our readers every month, it just means we’re having to be a little more patient. We’re certainly selling enough to keep going, so you’re going to keep getting your monthly fix – we’re enjoying it too much to stop now! If all goes to plan we’ll find ourselves a mainstream publisher soon who can get us into the US market, but for now we’re very happy to keep self publishing as long as we have to.
JS: How has the reaction to the comic been so far, at Bristol and the other conventions you’ve attended?
RG: We’ve been genuinely bowled over by the reaction, to be honest. We sold more copies in one day at the Bristol Expo last month than we ever have across entire weekends before, they were just flying off the table, and at the recent convention in Birmingham we sold huge amounts of the trade paperback collection of issues 1-6, the best sales weekend we’ve ever had. We’re picking up reviews all over the place, and they’ve all been overwhelmingly positive. It’s a wonderful thing for us, after years of bashing away at comics that struggled and were largely unnoticed. I think more than anything it shows that there really is a taste for mainstream British comics, for good old meaty mysteries. We’re in Leeds at Thought Bubble in November, and hoping for another good day, so wish us luck!
JS: Issue 7 brought us a different side of Harker, in which his personality really comes to the fore more. To what extent do you see this as a character-driven rather than an event-driven series?
RG: Oh, Harker is definitely character-driven, which I think is where it possibly differs from other crime comics. The plots are always important, of course, as they move forward the storylines, but more than anything else our readers seem to be enjoying the interplay between (especially) Harker and Critchley, and the way in which they engage with other people around them. This is probably a result of my own reaction to TV detective drama. I mean, I’d happily watch an hour and a half of Columbo wandering around asking people questions and irritating them, and not really care about the resolution of the plot itself. It’s the interplay between Columbo and his prey which is what interests me. Monk, as another example, is interesting himself, and it’s as much fun watching him dealing with his fellow police and the world around him as it is watching him brilliantly solving a case. I want Harker and Critchley to fall into this same mold, and I want you to be having fun whenever they’re on stage. Of course, I want you to be intrigued with the case and need to find out who the killer is, but it has to be fun too. So personally I see the character interaction to be probably the focus of the series, with the plot hopefully fascinating but secondary, just as it is in Columbo, or Monk, or even the Sherlock Holmes books. Interestingly, this is where Vince and I differ, as he does like his plots and doesn’t have as much patience with character stuff, so it’s useful to have him there to make sure I don’t, as it were, lose the plot!
RG: Well, I think that’s always going to be down to individual preferences. I’ve talked about how Harker is very much a composite of our favourite detectives, and we’re going to be continuing with this as we move along. More than anything else, Harker is very much a love letter to fictional detectives, and it’s lots of fun using all that fictional history as a playground. If I’m doing my job correctly, you should always be able to enjoy Harker as a good, standard detective story, with mystery, intrigue and lots of good jokes. For those who want a little more for their money, we’re also throwing in references to other detective fiction all over the place, but we’re trying to be honest about it and make it fun, whilst also parodying those series at the same time. There’s a certain irony that the reviewer you’re talking about disliked the Murder She Wrote riff we did in issue 7, without realising that I actually loathe Murder She Wrote with every fibre of my being, and pretty much killed the lead character of the series in issue 7 just to get my revenge for all the time I’ve wasted watching the damn thing. It’s been a long standing hatred, and it’s taken me fifteen years to get it off my chest! We’re about to leap heavily into Sherlock Holmes territory for the remainder of the current storyline after a couple of Agatha Christie issues, but we’re constantly on the move. Hopefully if nothing else, Harker should never be boring.
JS: Do you enjoy filling a unique niche with this comic? There aren’t exactly a lot of quirky police procedurals out there these days.
RG: We think we’re the only one, which we’ve always found unusual given that the television schedules are filled with the things, and I’d like to think that the growing popularity of Harker will help to change all that. I like a superhero comic as much as anyone, but variety is a good thing. We’re doing our best to make Harker really easy to enjoy, in the hope that it’ll be embraced by people who normally wouldn’t even consider buying a black and white independent comic. I think it’s a shame that the crime comics that are out there are all so unrelentingly grim and gritty and dark, it’s sort of taking all the fun out of it. There’s a place for dark nastiness even in Harker, but humour is important too – I’d like to see more humour and a lighter tone in crime comics, just as there is on television. Harker is, ideally, the black and white comic for people who never buy black and white comics, and the crime series for people who never buy crime series – we’re about as mainstream as you can get, really. Your mum would enjoy this comic, but would she enjoy the latest Superman Vs Darkseid extravaganza? Maybe that should be our new selling point: Harker – the comic even your mum would enjoy!