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Murder in the First (Person)

An Interview with Greg Rucka

-by Andrew Goletz and Erich Schoeneweiss


Greg Rucka is leaning back in his chair smiling as Erich and I are laughing hysterically at one of his stories from the recent San Diego Comic Con (unfortunately the stories were off the record, so youíll have to get me or Erich really drunk to get them out of us).  He takes a sip of his Coke.  Itís early on a Sunday afternoon in New York City.  Greg, Erich, and I are the only ones sitting in the Stoned Crow, a pub in the West Village.  We chat for a while about different creators, trade stories weíve heard about this person or that person, and talk about bar video games (the old Cyber Ball robot/football game in particular).

We met Greg earlier in the day at mystery bookstore in Greenwich Village called Partners in Crime. Itís the kind of bookstore that you would think a crime fiction writer visiting New York would go to. After exchanging pleasantries, we made the brief trek to Pub while my wife Lisa (and photographer for the interview) went for a stroll around town.

During our walk, Greg spoke briefly about the inspiration that one can take from a city like New York. ĎThere is just so much going on here,í Greg commented. The last time I was here this guy was standing on one foot, balancing himself in the middle of the street divide while standing on a 20 dollar bill. He wasnít moving. He wasnít saying anything, just standing. I watched this for 20 minutes before I walked away. Fascinating. The man from Oregon spoke of details only a born and raised New Yorker would know of and made it sound like he was the only one who knew about this secret world in the city. Thatís how good Greg Rucka is. His eye for detail and his curiosity about people and how they behaveÖitís as if nothing escapes him.

Greg is a very open, easy-going man.  He seems to honestly enjoy sitting and talking with us.  Surprising maybe, considering Greg Rucka is the author of the four Atticus Kodiak novels (Keeper, Finder, Smoker, and Shooting at Midnight Ė if you can, read them in that order), chronicling the adventures of a personal security expert.  The novels, while exciting and at times funny, can be dark and disturbing as they explore assassinations, drug addiction, conspiracy, and loss.  A fifth novel, Critical Space, is due next year.  Rucka has also made a name for himself in the comic book medium with his gritty style.  The two WhiteOut miniseries for Oni feature US Marshall Carrie Stetko her search for personal redemption on Antarctica.  He took DC by storm with his brilliant work on Batman through much of No Manís Land and that continues now in Detective Comics. It seems every time you pick up an industry news magazine Gregís name is mentioned somewhere.

SoÖ Greg has kept Erich and I entertained for several minutes now and we turn the tape recorder on and dive into the interview Ö

Gray Haven: So, based on the stories youíve been telling it seems youíve established good relationships with some other creators?

Greg Rucka: I love Garth Ennis. You read his stuff and you really expect him to be like ĎI will kill youí but he is sooo nice. I had a chance to meet the other Ďcrime writers at a convention this past summer. Wizard even did a story on us: the Murder. Inc thing. With the exception of Bendis, who was making a funny face, we all looked the part you know?

GH: Erich and I were discussing this earlier. You guys all look the same.

Rucka: Well we were telling Brubaker, Ďyou need to shave your head, maní. Garth writes the nastiest stuff of any of us and he looks like a great big farm boy. Heís fair-haired and always smiling, and heís like the friendliest guy in the world. It just doesnít fit.

GH: You can save Brian Bendisí ass if you come up with a reasonable excuse why he wasnít wearing his wedding ring in the Wizard shoot.

Rucka: He wasnít?

GH: No. A bunch of people on his website pointed it out. I donít think his wife was pleased (laughter).

Rucka: I canít help him. I have no idea. Sorry, Brian.

GH: You had a pretty funny story about that Wizard shoot.

Rucka: We had this big argument during the Wizard thing. They wanted us to wear these colored t-shirts and Azzarello was like Ďfuck thatí. Brubakerís article was such bullshit, talking about selling drugs.  Sure you were Ed. Azzarello looks like he will hurt you. Heís a nice guy, but he has that look like ĎIíve seen a man die in his own vomití.  So anyway, they have all these different colored shirts and Brian and I pick them out and it turns out we both are wearing black, and then these other two are like, Ďnooo, weíre not gonna do ití.

GH: Do you get tired of these interviews?

Rucka: Devin Grayson has gone so far as to create a template document that will have all the answers to these questions that everyone always asks. I mean, you know that there are going to be certain set questions that youíll always be asked and you accept that fact, which is why I prefer to do interviews in person.

GH: (crossing off half the questions on our list) So you can just walk away?

Rucka: (laughing) No.  When youíre on the phone and want to think about an answer you just get an awkward silence. Here, thereís still silence, but at least weíre looking at each other, you know? The interviewer is like, ĎHeís really quiet, but he must be thinking, or I hope heís thinking.

GH: Or you can take a drag from your cigarette.

Rucka: Itís all a matter of perspective.  Thereís a great bit in an old Doonesberry where one of the people is interviewing another and the interviewer is like Ďwhatís wrong, youíre just sitting thereí and the guy getting interviewed replies, ĎIím tired, weíve been at this for 14 hrsí and the interview goes Ďwell, what are you thinkingí and the guy says ĎI was thinking Iím going to probably get another cup of coffeeí and the thought bubble under the interviewer was Ďhe drinks coffee the way other people drink Evianí.

GH: You write comics and novels. Is there a different thought process that goes into the way you take on each?

Rucka: Yes. One of the reasons that I like comics is that comics are a logic problem. You know the old saying, Ďthere are only a limited number of games of chess that can be played?í There are only a finite number of moves you can do, but there are so many that IBM needs to create this supercomputer to do it.

Comics are like that. Theyíre a finite form. In a monthly book like Detective, you have 22 pages. Whether itís a two part or a one part or whatever, there are certain things you need to do within those 22 pages. You need to move the story from one point to another. If youíre doing it well, it has to be done in a way thatís engaging to a reader and forces them to turn the page. I want every issue to have an emotional truth. There has to be a moment where a reader connects with something thatís going on in the story. Some writers are better at this than others.

Chuck Dixon is a master at getting you to turn the page. You can blow through a Chuck Dixon book because every page propels you to the next.

There are other writers that will pull you in on an emotional level. Thatís a finite problem. Paradoxically, I find that more liberating. With a novel, thereís an issue of structure. I usually have to write a pretty detailed outline before I start or I get lost. My second novel, I did not outline completely. Finder is the only novel I had to rewrite from top to bottom three times and people are always surprised when I say that. If you read Finder, the SAS werenít in it until the final draft, and you know theyíre pretty essential to the story.  With Critical Space, which will be out Fall 2001, I outlined the first half of the book. I got to the end of the outline and wrote the next section and all the alarms went off and these little voices that I never listened to for the first 5 or 6 yrs that I was writingÖwell I listened to em: ĎThis isnít going to end the way I want it toí. One of the reasons Critical Space is so late is because I had to do a major rethink on it. I took about a month to just sit back and think what to do. I was able to change around more successfully because the outline was there. Bantam is fairly forgiving. If they say you need to give us a 90,000 word novel and I turn in 120,000, theyíre not going to automatically make me cut 30 thousand words out of it. Thatís a huge difference. Thereís a character difference. You can spend more times on things.

Thereís a certain difficulty in writing something like Batman. For example, Iíd love to write more about the cops, but the book is Batman: Detective Comics and Batman has to be pretty prominent. There are issues where Iíd love it if you never even saw him. Detective 747 is a good example. Itís about Montoya, but itís a Batman story and was important to pull him in. I donít think Batman even speaks in that issue. Bruce does, but Batman doesnít.

If Iím writing a Kodiak novel I can do whatever I want. I donít have to worry about Time Warner coming down on me saying Ďthe hell you willí. My editorís great. Either that, or I havenít come up with anything so ghastly that sheís had to come back and tell me to tone it down.

GH: Did you have a lot of freedom in the revamp of Batman after No Manís Land?

Rucka: Half-way through No Manís Land, Denny knew they were going to do a revamp and they were going back and forth with ideas for awhile. He said to me,  Ďthis is your book, do what you want within these parametersí. He had asked who I wanted to draw it and Iíll admit, Iím notoriously weak on artists. I know what I like, but I donít know who drew it. They selected Martinbrough on the basis of ĎThe Hillí, and other work he did and he and I met and we were like, Ďthis is great, thisíll workí, but that was pretty much the extent of that control. This year has been pretty much the year after No Manís Land. We were about to get out of the gate and do what we wanted to do. The problem is the books sold pretty well during NML and there was a drop off after. Certain books were left behind and a corporation has a vested interest, so now weíre back to doing certain Ďeventsí.

I hate Ďeventsí because you really canít do anything new. You canít break his back again, you know? So that becomes kind of annoying. The flip side is we have talented people and the stuff we have coming at the end of the year is really good, but it has Ďeventí written on it. Officer Down is an Ďeventí. Itís good. Itís not bullshit, and thatís the thing that mattered most. But itís still an Ďeventí.  We didnít want to do an event just to sell more books; we wanted to write a story where weíre doing something.

Thereís an important action in the story and the overall scheme of that is very important to what weíre doing.

GH: From a creatorís point of view, do you get aggravated with news sites and Previews giving away major plot points of the book or is it just something you accept?

Rucka: They havenít given it all away. None of us on Officer Down wanted to comment on it, really. We were sticking to our guns on this, but Michael Doran of Newsrama kept at it and finally Patty Jeres in marketing sends me an email saying Ďyou have to talk about ití.

I understand why they have to do it because itís marketing. More people will buy the books if they think something major happens, but at the same time you lose an element of the storytelling. It should be surprising.  In the 1st issue of OD, Gordon isnít shot until page 22. I wrote it like that deliberately, so you wouldnít know whatís going on. Youíre reading and enjoying Ďoh whatís going oní,  Ďoh itís his birthdayí, and then itís like Ďoh my god, heís been shot!í  But now people are going to read it and flip through it, waiting for it, get to the end and say Ďoh, page 22, what a rip off!í It changes the nature of how you tell the story and so on.

The second the story broke out, a guy emailed me saying Ďdonít let them kill Gordoní and put up a site with a petition on it and had people fill it out. He didnít tell the people filling it out that it was going directly to me. The day after the story, I received almost 400 emails with these people writing some fairly nasty stuff, that if they knew I was reading this directly they may not have said such things.  I was pretty livid about that. I was like Ďdonít do this to my personal email. Donít barrage my home.í

GH: Yeah, send complaints to DC or whomever, you canít change that crap.

Rucka: The fans believe they should make the ultimate decisions, but theyíre wrong. Theyíre not the writers, theyíre readers, and they need to trust that there are some good writers and they tell good stories and let us do our jobs.

GH: Is it more difficult to write a character like Batman thatís not your own as opposed to say Carrie Stetko in Whiteout?

Rucka: Different responsibilities. Batman is for the most part boring. Heís cooler than Jesus, and you can put him into a situation thatís really cool, but itís hard to be in a position to say Ďweíre going to do something really different with Batmaní because most of it has been done. The last different thing done with Batman was by Frank Miller and now heís undoing it!!!  This is why Iím much more interested in writing about Gordon or Montoya.

GH: Which is why I think people are responding so favorable about Detective Comics. I love the fact that this just isnít about Batman. For the first time in a long time, you get a flavor for the rest of the city and who the cops are, etc.

Rucka: Thatís the thing. The current storyline 751-752 isnít about Batman, itís about Bruce, and it really isnít even about him, itís about Poison Ivy. There are occasional stories that will be about Batman, but others that arenít. 750 wasnít about Bruce, it was about Talia. It wasnít supposed to be about this great big Batman/Raís fight. If I had my way, Iíd have Talia go out, get a tattoo or a nose ring and go wild because youíre 25/26 and youíve been daddyís little girl for so long and your father is The Demonís Head for crying out loud! There are some serious issues there! Iím working on something now which is a four issue prestige thing, tentatively titled Death and the Maiden which will be a very specific story about Bruce and Talia and Raís, and will ideally change things.

GH: And in your Kodiak novels, you have a little more control.

Rucka: Yeah, well. If you like the books, youíll really like 5, Critical Mass. It really changes everything. One thing you can say about me, Iím not afraid to fuck with my characters.

GH: The Kodiak Novels just scream film franchise.

Rucka: We optioned it, but nothing happened. It took 8 months before we heard anything. Itís crazy. I have two agents; a literary agent and one in Hollywood. Hollywood is very excited about Critical Space. You couldnít make a movie out of the first one. You couldnít make a movie out of the second one. You could make one out of the 3rd, but people wouldnít understand the ending. You canít really do the 4th, but the 5th is viable as a film.

People have said itíd be a great television show, but the problem is the desire to see it done well. I get an occasional email asking me Ďwho I see in these partsí and always end up bashing my head against the wall because Iíve never even cast them because theyíre novels. I have no clue. Iíve heard everything from Russell Crow, Brendon Frasier, Noah Wyle. I kind of like Wyle because he can do that physical sort of awkwardness, which is there in Atticus, you know? There was a bit in ER where Wyle maces himself, goes backwards and flips over and I thought, Ďthat was an Atticus momentí. I couldnít cast Natalie to save my life. Iíve never seen Natalie. Natalie is my own problem. Sheís the type of character that appears over and over in my work. Thereís the evil variation, the amoral variation, the good variation. Bridgetís another one. They said Angelina Jolie would be a good one for her. No she wouldnít.

GH: Well you said you based Bridget on a friend.

Rucka: Well thereís that very specific body type, you know? I didnít base it on her per se, but just the image. And people are always like, Ďyou made up that back-storyí and Iím like, Ďno I didnítí. I knew Shooting at Midnight would be told at some point when she appeared in Keeper and actually if you go back and read Finder very carefully, thereís a Ďtellí. Atticus mentions a skin graft, but he doesnít know what it is. He calls it a discoloration, but there it is. Itís there!

And things donít come up again till later. There are things I consider non-issues, and Atticus shares that. Heís not gonna tell you Daleís gay because he feels its irrelevant and it should be irrelevant to you, too.

GH: The Question appeared in the Batman/Huntress mini-series. Anything else going on with the character?

Rucka: I love The Question. I was a huge fan of OíNeilís run.

GH: Rumors of a backup in Detective Comics?

Rucka: I can confirm that. They wanted to do an 8 part backup in Detective, but I want it to be 10-12 parts. Rick Burchett will draw it, and itíll probably be a year before we get to see it because there are 2 other backups to come before it. Helena and Tot will be in it. Richard may not be in it. Charlie is going back to Hub city. The title I was working on is The Question: You Never Asked. At the end of the series he leaves Hub City and in the Quarterly, Jackie dies, which I guess shows you the impact it had on me since I forgot about it when I did issue 3 of the mini and wrote Charlie saying, ĎJackieís with her momí and the implication is what? Myraís dead? I need to figure out a way to deal with that, but I donít think the death held the impact that Denny would have wanted.

GH: Are you going to do a recommended reading list?

Rucka: No. Dennyís list was related to the story he was telling. My story isnít the search for self-enlightenment that his was, and I wonít derive the work in the same way.

GH: What do you think of Joe Quesada and his appointment to EIC?

Rucka: Joe is phenomenal. Heís also an incredible salesman. Iím excited to see the direction the company is heading in.

GH: Any other projects youíre working on?

Rucka: Iíve talked to Stuart Moore about doing something more with Yelana (Black Widow)

GH: Whatís the fascination with these dark characters?

Rucka: I donít know. You can spin it around and ask why do people like reading about it so much? Steven King talks about needing to exorcise the ghosts. I had a great childhood, itís not like Iím running away from something. After an interview someone asked me what is it about Ďfathers and daughtersí that I keep going back to and family in general?  Maybe itís because I know how lucky Iíve been and I want to do something with it.

There is a fascination too, that a lot of this stuff is true. People always look at me strange when I say professional killers exist, but they have to. Logic dictates they must exist. Do you believe there are people that train their whole lives to kill? No. Back it up. Do you believe the government kills people? Yes. How do they do it? They send people. Just anyone? No, specifically trained people. On the basis of Patriotism? Thatís not going to be enough. You have these trained killers doing government work and then decide, Ďyou know what, I can be making a lot of money if I just detach myself from the political and emotional sideí. I guarantee you there are people that take a lot of money to kill people and we never hear about it because theyíre very good at what they do. They commit assassination in a way that you donít know itís assassination. It was a car crash. He died of AIDS related complications. The heater malfunctioned and it caused a fire. One of the first times I met Garth Ennis (doing his uncanny Ennis impersonation) he told me ĎYou canít believe that people like that exist?í and I told him that I did. So he tells me, ĎIf you wanna kill someone, why not just blow them up?í Because then everyone knows it. He was fascinated by this.

GH: And from a sadistic point, whereís the challenge?

Rucka: Now your getting into issues of character and some of thatís in Critical Space. Why do you do what you do?

GH: Are you hinting that the assassin Drama is coming back?

Rucka: Critical Space is the sequel to Smoke and Drama is back.

GH: Where do you find the time to write all this?


Rucka I donít know

GH: Well how long does it take you to write, a book like Detective?

Rucka: It depends. The Montoya issue for instance, I had planned for a long time and when I sat down to write it, I banged it all out quickly because it was in my head. Others take a week, maybe a week and a half because itís agony. For the most part, I can do a comic script in 2-3 days. If Iím lucky, 1 day. With No Manís Land, the stories were so well plotted that I did it just like that, in a day. An issue like 752, with the resolution to the current story is like when most fans will be like, Ďwhatís this aboutí?. I want more punching! I needed an emotional resonance.

Sometimes it takes longer if you run out of page room and you have to jettison ideas. You also want to be fair to the artist. I donít want to give Shawn pages where there are 12 panels on each page. Heís gonna be like Ďdonít do that again!í I usually give the artist a rough idea of what I want and leave it up to them.
Queen and Country, the new series for Oni (a spin-off of White-Out featuring British agent Lily Sharp) is taking longer to write because of the nature of the book. Theyíre spy stories and not just James Bond spy stories. To write a complex story, you have to know where itís going to end. Iím writing a 3 issue arc and to do it right Iím going to have to know how it ends and I donít know yet and itís driving me crazy. And I am going to draw from real life. I donít know if you saw this on the news but someone fired a rocket propelled Grenade at the MI 6 building in London. Someone walks up and pops the rocket right at the secret service in London. Itíd be the equivalent of someone going to the CIA building and doing the same thing. What the hell is going on there?

GH: One of the things that drives me crazy is when a company announces a creative team and it turns out they only stay for a few issues.

Rucka: I understand that. The lead time in comics is weird. People were talking a year ago about me writing Wonder Woman and my first issue wonít come out until November 2001, if then. Thatís partially the nature of publishing and the nature of comics. Comics are far more fan interactive, with a lot of info coming in and out. Itís marketing, too.

GH: You deal with female characters a lot: Huntress, Carrie, Talia, Montoya, Wonder Woman, Bridget, Natalie. What draws you to them?

Rucka: I just want to do right by them, you know? A lot of people will say that thereís no difference between men and women and that women are just guys with tits. I hate that. No theyíre not. As a guy, you really donít have to worry about being raped. I mean, it isnít something thatís a major concern of yours. But women have to always be aware of that risk. A woman walking in NYC alone at 1 in the morning has an entirely different perspective than a man will. I think itís wrong not to treat them any differently.

There was a scene in the first draft of the Whiteout screenplay where it describes Carrie as being outside and she feels someone is out there and she runs. Excuse me? Runs? Itís Antarctica. Where is she going to run to? And sheís a federal agent. She isnít going to run, sheís going to go find the person and take them down. I want to treat female characters as real people and not just two dimensional stereotypes.

GH: You did a story in NML where Batman and Gordon have a heart to heart and Bruce is ready to reveal his identity but Gordon stops him. When you write the characters, do you write them with the belief that Gordon knows Bruce Wayne is Batman?

Rucka: I canít answer that. I really canít.

GH: Big fan of crime dramas in other mediums, like television?

Rucka: I loved Homicide. I like Law and Order because they are consistently good. NYPD Blue is like a soap opera now. I canít watch it. There arenít really any good cop shows.

GH: Have you checked out CSI?

Rucka: Yeah, CSI. Very realistic (laughter)

GH: Organic or non-organic web shooters?  

Rucka: (looks at us in disbelief)

GH: There is a debate going on about this.

Rucka: Youíre kidding me?

GH: No. Thereís even a website,

Rucka: I donít really know. I guess if you do organic web shooters, they better not be coming out of his wrists (laughter). I prefer the idea of him having mechanical shooters. Peter is brilliant. I like the idea of him creating these devices.

GH: Youíre a politically vocal person. Whatís your take on the election?

Rucka: For me, this election is about the Supreme Court, and the fact that I have a nine month old son, and the kind of freedoms I want him to have when heís 20. So Iím voting for Gore. I think that Bush will create a court that will undo the last 120 yrs of our freedom including a lot of privacy rights. I really do think that there is a likelihood my son could be denied certain rights or not get certain things in his life because some corporation will look and say Ďhe did this when he was 7, etcí. Iím not even talking about things like abortion or homosexuality, freedom of press. Right now Scalia is talking about what God would want him to do, and thereís no place for that on the court. There are a minimum of two and a maximum of 4 Justices that will need to be replaced. The worst case scenario is that itís a court of 8 conservative judges for the next 20/30 yrs. The best justice is Souter. Heís follows the Constitution. A true conservative will follow the Constitution as he should. And I think everyone should vote. Low turn out means Bush wins.

GH: Whose writing are you a fan of?

Rucka: Iím fortunate in that Iím a fan of the group Iíve been associated with.  I read Bendis, Brubaker. Love what Bendis does. Garth Ennis never lets me down.  I enjoy what Ellis has been doing. Alan Moore scares me. Jeff Johnson. Mystery writers: Dennis Lehane, SJ Rozan.

GH: If you had to spend a time in jail with any criminal, who would it be?

Rucka: (pauses as if stunned by the question a bit, looks at his friend who has just joined us)  Honestly never thought of this one. Sigmund Rosenblum aka Sidney Reilly, Reilly Ace of Spies. They did a series about him on Masterpiece Theater. He got locked up a lot. That would have been pretty cool. And he escaped a lot, too, so it would have been cool to hang out with him cause Iíd be able to get out of jail pretty easily.

GH: Finally, why should someone pick up a novel or comic by Greg Rucka?

Rucka: I guess because youíll be reading a competently told story and youíll be guaranteed to come away feeling something.

We end the interview with my wife, Lisa, returning to take some photos of the group and a long discussion and question and answer session with Greg about parenthood and what to expect our own little bundle of joy arrives next Spring. Over two hours after we first met, we come away knowing more about Greg Rucka the writer, the father and the person. And weíre thankful for the experience.

If you havenít done so already, pick up one of his comics and/or grab one of the novels.  You will not be disappointed.

Copyright©2000 GrayHaven Magazine and contributors