If you haven’t read the Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London novels, you should really get on it. They’re fantastic. Part Dresden Files, part police procedural, part lore and mythology, and something wholly original, each novel is wrapped in hilarity and told from the point of view of erstwhile police constable Peter Grant who really just wants to make it through the day without being slimed, eaten, or run over by a demonically possessed car. Maybe spend a bit of down time with his girlfriend, the powerful river goddess, Beverly Brook. Eat something which isn’t offal based.
You know how it is for magic-wielding police constables.
You don’t? Right. Well, read the books then!
There are six novels, and 2 published/1 forthcoming novellas in the Rivers of London series to date (you can find the reading order here). On June 7th, Titan Comics will release the first issue of the Rivers of London comic’s fourth arc (I know, I know), entitled Detective Stories. Each issue of the four-part arc is a self-contained tale of magical, and criminal mayhem, making it a great place to dip one’s toe into the universe and get a feel for what it’s all about.
In honor of the release, authors Ben Aaronovitch and Andrew Cartmel, along with artist Lee Sullivan, were kind enough to answer some questions from this Rivers of London fangirl.
GeekMom: Tell us about adapting a novel series to a comic. What’s the basic process? What’s the first step? The most important one? Was there a particular character who acted as the pivot point? Is it easier or more difficult to write original stories in an already-established universe as opposed to a straight adaptation of existing material? Were there any special challenges in adapting Rivers of London?
Ben Aaronovitch: Well, I think the first thing to say is that this is not an adaptation of the novel series to comics. These are actually comics written to complement the novel series, within the canon of the series, and to do things that you can’t do in a novel. Or at least you can’t do in a first-person vernacular novel. Comics are very good at some things, very bad at others, and the same is true of novels. So, therefore, we thought it would be an exciting thing to have comics that did the things that comics do well, action, other people’s points of view, instant flashbacks, things like that, things that are very visual. It’s a very interesting visual medium, with a lot of versatility. You can do a lot of interesting things, subtle, quite subtle, things with it that you can’t do in a novel, because in a novel, you’re restricted to the spoken word.
The first step was to come up with a good story. We had to have a story, we had to have a style, so the first step was to come up with a story, and then a style.
Peter is always the pivot point. I have a sign over my desk which says, “Remember, Peter is the protagonist.” It’s not really for me, it’s for all the minor characters that keep trying to fight for the top spot.
It’s not going to happen, Peter is the main character, you guys are just going to have to live with that, sorry. Not you, I’m not talking to you guys, I’m talking to the characters.
It’s, well, it depends. I, personally, find it easier to write original stories in an already established universe, because that’s how I started, I was a scriptwriter. Then, I wrote tie-ins to Doctor Who and various other things, so, therefore, that’s just easy. I love doing it. In some ways the restrictions of using an established universe are invigorating, because the constrain you. It’s like writing a sonnet, the actual restrictions of the form are one of the things that push you to creativity. The advantage being, of course, because it’s my own universe, I own it and I get to do with (it) what I want, ha, ha, mwah-ha-ha-ha, you see, I can cheat, so if I want to change the universe to suit the comic, I get to do that.
Well, the challenge for Rivers of London is because a lot of it consists of people sitting around in interview rooms being interviewed, because of the nature of police work. It’s a lot of people looking at clues, it’s a lot of people doing paperwork, and the actual action sequences, the Fast and the Furious things, these are relatively few and far between. We didn’t want to amp up the action too much, although the comics are noticeably more action-oriented than the books, we didn’t want to overdo it, although I feel that we give a bit of leeway to the comics, the comics are a little bit more four-color, a little bit more two-fisted than the books are. I think that’s just inevitable because it’s fun.
You can do comics where it’s people sitting around in their bedroom taking, people have done it, and very gripping comics at that. But to be honest, if I could think of a story that would be gripping with two people sitting around in a bedroom, I’d write a stage play. In a comic I want things to explode, and guns, and chases, and stuff.
GM: Is the sharp, digital art style a deliberate choice or is it a matter of it being the style of the moment? I ask because it’s an interesting contrast to a world in which magic tends to play havoc with technology.
BA: Once you get to know (the artists), you start to adapt how you work to suit that style.
Once Lee had come on board, he did some test work and it was clear that we were going for this very realistic, kind of, sharp nature which is good, because that’s what I like in a comic. I don’t really like muddy, expressionistic comics. I’ll read them, but I don’t really like them that much, they don’t really float my boat. It’s that that they’re bad, it’s just a question of personal choice.
Lee Sullivan: My style has always tended toward clean linework except when I’ve spilled ink over a page! But Rivers is drawn digitally, so that’s no longer an issue. I was originally thinking that textured pencil work might work for Rivers, but in the end, I decided that the amount of architecture and cars and perspective our I’d have to do on the series made digital more viable, particularly for the schedules. It means drawing with a stylus on a large glass screen instead of paper, but all the techniques are the same as are my eyes. I think the clean look is most suitable anyway, as it firmly establishes that this is a nuts & bolts world; for example, if the cars are crisp and well-defined, it’s more impressive when they go chasing after people. One of the interesting things about this series is that every now and then, Ben and Andrew require pages which are in the style of something quite different, so I’ve done pastiches of Robert Crumb, Russian propaganda posters, illuminated manuscripts, and currently Goya sketches. It keeps me on my toes, or more often, knees.
GM: Has the magical system evolved at all with the translation to comics? If so, how? If not, what have been the most important elements to convey? To express artistically? What are everyone’s favorite magical bits and details?
BA: No, the magic system hasn’t really evolved with translation to the comics, however, we have gone through a number of iterations trying to portray it well. It’s not an easy thing to portray, because we’re not going for the, kind of, Doctor Strange spinning discs of doom things, shooting out of people’s hands, because it’s not that kind of magic system, and so therefore, it’s actually quite difficult to work out how to portray it sometimes. So, you know, I think we’re feeling our way, I don’t think we’ve quite got it right yet, but, you know. I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know what my favorite magical bits are, or the magic. I don’t really have a favorite magical bit. I’m just so relieved when the panels work. I like the subtle stuff. I like the subtle stuff that you’re not really sure, like when Peter opens the lock in Body Work and stuff like that, the stuff that’s quite subtle and not, kind of, massively overdone, but that’s just always my preference.
Andrew Cartemel: Personally, I’m more engaged with the more mundane—which is to say, human—drama than the mechanics of the magical side of things. Having said that, I’ve always lover supernatural tales. Richard Matheson and Fritz Lieber are two of my favorite writers. And I was a big admirer of Alan Moore’s run on the Swamp Thing comics. With regards to the latter, now we come to my personal favorite magical bit in the Rivers of London comics. It is in Black Mould when we do a three-page sequence with three different characters reacting to the mould, which brings out their deepest fears. I’m particularly proud of that—because it is subtle, psychological horror, rooted in the character, and I think it came off very well. And it is very much in the spirit of Moore’s Swamp Thing stories. It also exhibits what Harvey Kurtzman—another comic book genius—called a “ballad form.” Which means that each one-page sequence ends on the same, or a similar, image in the same way that a song ballad returns to a particular refrain.
LS: Although at first I assumed we’d be doing the Doctor Strange magical discs, etc., I’m pleased we didn’t, as Ben says, it’s more subtle than that and I think more effective for a real-world environment like Rivers. My own magic moments: when Nightingale (ed. note: Peter’s mentor, instructor, and boss) lifts the car from the pond in Body Work. He just has his arms raised; similarly where we see his escape in Night Witch, small gestures with big results. I love the old British movie Night of the Demon (US title: Curse of the Demon), where a magician invokes a small hurricane just by touching the bridge of his nose and few phrases. Less is more.
GM: The ladies, Sahra Guleed and Beverly Brook specifically, seem to get more face time in the comic than in the novels. Was that part of the purpose of the comics—to give the amazing supporting cast an opportunity to shine? How did you decide which characters would receive the attention? Any chance of solo books for them (comics or novels) in the future?
BA: The thing about the novels is that they’re written in the first person vernacular, which means that Peter’s point of view predominates. So, everything you see is essentially either directly from his point of view, or through reported speech to him.
In the comics, you can shift viewpoint very rapidly compared to a novel. In prose, even if you’re writing third person, if you get too choppy, the viewpoint starts to break up and people get confused, but with a comic, like in film, you can go, chop, chop, chop, chop, one person, to the next person, to the next person, so you can see—you can literally do, over the shoulder. So, you can see it from one person’s point of view, and then, in the next frame, you can see it from another person’s point of view, so because of that, it would be stupid not to see it from other peoples’ points of view. Now, we get to see a lot of Sahra Guleed and Beverly Brook because, of all the minor characters, these are the two that shout the loudest in the green room. No, I’m only exaggerating. They just—I write the stories, and the character that, kind of, fit stories will emerge. So, when it’s a detective story, like one of the modern detective stories, it’s Guleed and Peter, then they’re doing that whole partnership thing. If Peter is, say, our of London, or the case doesn’t come through him, through the same channel, then you’re going to have, like in Night Witch, then you’re not going to have Guleed there.
I thought it was time we tackled some of the issues surrounding the river goddesses, and exactly where their worshippers come from, so I though that would be a fun thing, and I’d always wanted to do that scene, I thought of that scene years ago, and I’ve always wanted to do that scene with Beverly Brook and the gangsters, but it’s a scene you can’t do in the book. It’s just not funny in the book, but it’s really funny—I mean, it would work in a film, and it would work in a comic, but it wouldn’t work in a book, and that’s the nub. You do what works in the medium that you’re working in, that’s why it’s more fun to do—not to do an adaptation of the book where you’re trying to square the circle sometimes, but to do a—my brain’s gone completely—yes, it’s more fun to do a little side story.
I would like to do solo books or comics, but that actually depends on how well the comics sell, because Titan have to make the calculation. Comics are expensive to produce, Lee alone consumes the GDP of a small country, just for the art. He’s terribly expensive and he’s such a diva, that he’s—I’m lying, he’s not, really. So it’s an expensive investment, what with the printing, and the distribution, and everything. So, I would like to do solo comics, but we really would want to know that people were going to buy them. There’s no point in doing a solo comic if no one buys them, especially if you remember these are tied to the canon, because then you have a solo project, and it has some kind of impact on their life. If you are writing in detail about someone, you’re going to learn something significant about them, probably. Then that’s going to feed back into the books. I’ve either got to repeat the information in the books in a, kind of, dry way, or I’m going to have to assume people have read the comics, which you can’t always assume. So, you know, it has its own problems, but I would definitely like to do it. I would like to do, you know, young Nightingale, I’d love to do young Nightingale, I would like to see some of the—I’d like to do a Varvara story, there’s all sort of stories I would like to do. I’d like to—the adventures of Seawoll, you know, Toby adventures (ed note: Toby is the dog). I have no idea, the possibilities are so endless, it’s slightly boggling.
AC: Ben has always written strong female characters. Sahra—who is a delight to write—has come to prominence because of where the comics fall in the Rivers continuity (ed note: which again, you can find here). We needed someone to take the baton from Leslie, so to speak, and it was serendipitous that Sahra turned up in Ben’s books at just the right moment.
GM: Will we ever get Molly’s origin story? Can we see the evolution of her inventive cooking? Can we have a Molly cookbook?
BA: I honestly don’t know, she keeps surprising me, so no, I have no idea.
AC: A Molly cookbook is a great idea. I’m so glad I thought of it. It will probably involve a lot of offal though…
GM: The cast of Rivers of London is a diverse bunch (a recent hot topic as I’m sure you’re aware). Talk about about how you decided on the groups make-up. It seems very natural here and I haven’t heard the same sort of debate surrounding these books as have plagued the Marvel books (for instance); any thoughts on why that might be? Any tips for writers who want to weigh in through their own work?
BA: The diversity question. I don’t really. know how to address this. I didn’t decide on the group’s make-up in the sense that I didn’t think to myself, “No, I need a mixtures, this guy, a black guy, and a white woman.” No, Peter Grant was always mixed-race. Mama Thames was always black, and Nightingale was always white, and then it, sort of, evolved from there. Sahra Guleed started as a two-line humorous description. She then wouldn’t leave.
Lots of characters have become more prominent than I expected. I don’t worry about diversity to be honest. I’ve always just written the world around me that I see, and at various stages, various institutions, the BBC, etc., have tried to stop me from doing that, and that’s fine, well, it’s not fine, it’s really f*^$#%$ irritating, but I just don’t think of it. Diversity is not something I feel I need to worry about except in the sense that I’d like people to stop trying to whitefy my characters. I don’t worry about putting them in, I worry about other people trying to take them out, which is the way round it’s always been in my career.
For other writers, I’m not entirely sure. You write the characters you want to write and it is entirely your own choice whether those characters are diverse or not. If you’re writing anywhere, there’s going to be a lot of diversity in American, or Britain, and if you were to write black character in Medieval France, that’s entirely feasible. You don’t even have to come up with some b*%%$#@! explanation about how they came from, you know, like the Middle East or the Maghreb, they can just be there because we know, from the records, that there were black people in Medieval France. The world has always been much more interconnected, it’s just that some people have been airbrushed out of the history, it’s just that simple. So, my advice is, write the characters you want to write, and kick in the teeth in of anyone who tries to stop you.
AC: Personally, I often find myself delighted when I realize I’m writing a sequence in which the protagonist are all non-white—and so different from the standard profile. And I will look at page after page of Lee and Luis’ wonderful art and see these characters, and I am strongly aware of how refreshingly different this is from the norm. But all credit goes to Ben. I’ve worked with him for 25 years and, as with strong female leads, he (has) always written culturally diverse characters. I remember back on Doctor Who the producer remarking of one of Ben’s stories, “It’s getting like the United Nations around here.” And you could tell that he didn’t think this was a particularly good thing. So it’s always been a fight for Ben to achieve this. We once worked on a hospital soap together—Casualty—and the producer of that wanted to veto Ben’s notion that the hero’s best friend should be black. That’s the sort of thing we were up against in television. Which makes I kind of wonderful for Ben to have the freedom in the novels, and now in the comics, to finally write about the kind of cast of characters who come naturally to him. But it’s been a long battle to get there.
GM: As the series title itself suggests, the Rivers of London stories seem to be very much dependent on the geography in that they could only take place in London. What is it about the city that lends itself to stories like these? Do you view the city solely as a setting or s a character as well? Has working in comics changed your view or enhanced your conception either way? Does it help get the sense of the thing across to the audience to have the additional asset of artwork?
BA: The Rivers of London, the whole London thing, to be honest, I’m a bit knackered, answering this question. I answer this question quite a lot. It’s my city. I think it’s particularly good for these kinds of stories, but even if it wasn’t, I would still set the stories here, because it’s my city and I like writing about it.
Have the comics changed my view? Well, it’s made me, in a way, much more visually aware of the city, because I’ve had to go out and take photographs of it for Lee, so that he can get his locations right. Then, when you make up, which occasionally we do, the odd building or something for the purposes of the plot, it’s much harder because you’ve got to go to Lee, “Well, you see that building on the corner?” “Yes.” “Well, that one doesn’t exist, and you’ve got this building instead,” and Lee goes, “Okay, right, I’m going to go off and draw that.” So that has an effect on it.
AC: I’ve particularly enjoyed taking photos of favorite locations—in Richmond and Wandsworth—and watching Lee and Luis integrate them beautifully into our comics.
LS: I like to think so. I think even if you’re not familiar with the locations, they have to be convincing or else the world is, well, groundless. It’s depicting a real, everyday world with extraordinary occurrences taking place.
GM: We’ve done sentient mold, unicorns, living rivers, and haunted cars. What other fantastic beasts does Mr. Aaronovitch have in store for us?
BA: Well, let’s just that say, in Detective Stories, we have a lot of strange people. I don’t really think of these stories in that way, I don’t think in terms of fantastic beasts. We have some foxes though, there are quite a lot of foxes, it’s very fox-intensive. You can probably tell that because the title of one of the stories is Cry Fox, so there you go.
AC: As Ben mentions, the talking foxes are proving a lot of fun to write.
GM: What else is the crew working on (separately or together)? What’s next for Rivers of London?
BA: Yes, I’m writing more Rivers of London. I don’t have time to do anything else at the moment.
AC: I’ve been writing some Doctor Who comics—I recently did a run of 9-page kids’ comics for Doctor Who Adventures Magazine, and I greatly enjoyed that. And there’s some other possible Who Related comics in the pipeline which I can’t talk about yet. I am also working with the supremely talented American artist, Matthew Dow Smith, on our very own independent comics project. And in the non-comics world, my second Vinyl Detective novel The Run-Out Groove, also published by Titan, hit the bookstores two weeks ago (Warning: May Contain Cats). Plus, I have just finished a stage play which involves a lot of swearing. A lot of swearing.
LS: Rivers takes up almost all of my time. I have done a few covers for Doctor Who, but most recently, I’ve been providing box artworks for a range of Gerry Anderson 1/6th scale puppet-replica/action figures for Big Chief Studios, which punches my retro-future nostalgia buttons.
GM: What colors are everyone’s lightsabers?
BA: “Ancient weapons and hokey religions, no replacement for a good blaster at your side, kid.” That’s my attitude to lightsabers.
AC: Give me a good sword cane over a lightsaber any day (I’m sure Nightingale would agree, but… purple and red, just like my beloved lava lamp).
LS: My phaser is blue.