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December 13, 2012

‘Dragon Tattoo’: Denise Mina on Larsson, feminist crime fiction

Posted in: Books,Comics

The cover for the first volume of Vertigo's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestseller "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." The adaptation was written by Scottish crime writer Denise Mina, with art by Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti. (Vertigo / DC Comics)

Page 13 of the first volume of Vertigo's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestseller "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." The adaptation was written by Scottish crime writer Denise Mina, with art by Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti. (Vertigo / DC Comics)

Page 14 of the first volume of Vertigo's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestseller "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." The adaptation was written by Scottish crime writer Denise Mina, with art by Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti. (Vertigo / DC Comics)

Page 15 of the first volume of Vertigo's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestseller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." The adaptation was written by Scottish crime writer Denise Mina, with art by Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti. (Vertigo / DC Comics)

It’s hard to imagine someone better suited to adapt Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” as a graphic novel than Scottish crime author Denise Mina.

After studying law at Glasgow University and researching a doctoral thesis the University of Strathclyde on the ascription of mental illness to female offenders, she taught criminology and criminal law before publishing her first book, “Garnethill,” about a woman who wakes up one day to find the body of her therapist boyfriend in her living room and herself a suspect in the murder. “Garnethill” won the Crime Writers’ Assn. John Creasey Dagger for the best first crime novel and was the start of a trilogy completed by “Exile” and “Resolution.”

Her resume also includes plays and, of course, a stint writing “Hellblazer,” in which she took John Constantine to Scotland.

Her work is populated with flawed, fascinating female characters, which could be one of the many reasons that DC editor Will Dennis, speaking at Vertigo’s WonderCon panel earlier this year, described her as the “perfect person” to adapt Larsson’s work, saying, “I feel she’s very ripe for this. She’s handled things in a very delicate yet visceral way.”

The first book in Larsson’s Millennium series has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide and spawned two feature film adaptations, but Mina said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to tell Larsson’s “brilliant” story in a new, visual way for DC’s edgy imprint Vertigo, working with artists Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti. The planned sextet will consist of two graphic novels for each book in the original trilogy; the first volume was released last month.

READ: Cover | Page 13 | Page 14 | Page 15

Hero Complex recently caught up with Mina to talk about the challenges of bringing Larsson’s saga of computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist to the paneled page.

HC: What most intrigued you about this project?

Crime writer Denise Mina. (Vertigo)

Crime writer Denise Mina. (Vertigo)

DM: The books are fascinating if you’re interested in feminist crime fiction… Something that really didn’t come out in the films was each section starts with a page with statistics about crimes of sexual violence in Sweden. It’s like a full page at the start of every section of the book. So that was really what interested me. And also I was particularly interested in representations of crimes of sexual violence in the book. Obviously I knew we would have to represent [Lisbeth] being attacked and [her state-assigned guardian] being attacked. What I wanted to do was use the social language and conventions of pornography — which is used in a lot of representations of sexual assault on screen and sometimes in comics as well — to objectify the man rather than the woman. Hopefully that’s worked. So you see the close-up of the woman’s face as she’s kind of grimacing, and she could be in agony or she could be in ecstasy, and the full-body shots — all of them have been used on him and not on her. And that was really the reason I stayed keen to do it, because I just thought it would be a really interesting thing to do.

HC: What does the “Dragon Tattoo” graphic novel offer that the book or the film adaptations didn’t?

DM: I think graphic novels are closer to prose than film, which is a really different form. You really couldn’t have any of the fraud story in the film because you can’t really explain fraud in a movie unless you have a notice board. But you can do it in a graphic novel. I know a lot of people who bought the book and didn’t read it, or gave up on it, and I think those people would like the comic.

HC: So much of the story is devoted to the fraud that Blomkvist is investigating, that corruption plotline.

DM. Larsson was a really astute political writer about economic fraud and about economics. I feel he’s making a huge story about corporations being psychopaths. That’s the point he’s trying to make. It doesn’t really come out that way in the book, and it’s impossible to do on film, but that’s what he’s talking about — that these giant corporations have no conscience. They’re always going back to the archives, because these corporations are trying to create a history, but really, it’s a fiction and we have to hold them to account. I don’t think it was an accident that he was writing about fraud, and hopefully that really comes out in the book.

HC: And the graphic novel format makes it easier to point up that thread of the narrative?

DM: It really does, actually, because it’s bigger than a film and because you can have flashbacks without every reviewer talking about the flashbacks. You can kind of talk about what corporations actually do. And because, to be honest with you, people who read comics see themselves as a bit of an elite, and they’re much more thinking. The interviews that I’ve done for this and other comics have been much more challenging than they have been for mainstream literary publishing. People will challenge you. They will say, “I hate that bit,” and that would never happen in a literary interview. I think people generally are becoming much more aware about the way corporations operate and what they are legally, and I think it’s much easier to do in a comic, partly because of the audience and partly because of the format.

HC: How was adapting Larsson’s story different from writing your own?

Page 13 of Vertigo's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestseller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." The adaptation was written by Scottish crime writer Denise Mina, with art by Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti. (Vertigo / DC Comics)

A page from the first volume of Vertigo’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestseller “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” (Vertigo / DC Comics)

DM: Academically it was a really interesting challenge because you have to kind of go through the book and work out what’s relevant and what isn’t, and especially in this format, because the first book is two graphic novels, so you have to work out what you can possibly end on in an ongoing narrative. Just technically, it was very, very interesting. I write a book about once a year or every year and a half, and those are my own novels. Just sitting down and taking someone else’s book apart was really instructive, looking at what he had done and what you can do with it and what wasn’t necessary. Also, comics are so different than narrative prose; you can’t have an internal monologue where someone goes off and realizes something. I mean, it’s impossible to realize something without a voice-over in a comic book, so everything has to be on show.

HC: There’s very little dialogue in this adaptation.

DM: I really wanted to make it quite silent because they’re both quite solitary characters. So you describe where the panels are on this page, like this is a small panel, this is closer in within this panel, this is a big panel, this is a round panel. And then you describe what’s in each panel. So you have to see the page of the comic, and then you describe the lighting, who’s in it, what they’re doing, where they’ve moved to. Because nobody can move in a comic. No one can move across a room or run at somebody. They’re either on top of them punching their face in or looking threateningly from the other side of the room. It’s really fascinating because it’s such a still form. And then you have to have a teaser at the end of the facing page, which is the right-hand page before you turn the page over, to make people want to read onto the next left page. The last thing is the dialogue, and the dialogue has to play with the pictures. So you can have a picture of someone sitting looking really happy and then the dialogue saying, “This is the unhappiest year of my life” as a contrast. But you don’t really want people to only read the dialogue and then look at the pictures as an illustration. You really want 70% of the stories to be told in the pictures. So they’re huge, hugely important. Have you ever read a comic and you find your eyes not straying to the picture very much? You feel a bit cheated.

HC: So this project and your other comics work challenges you to become primarily a visual storyteller?

DM: Because I write prose, when I sat down to write a comic, it feels like my brain’s working differently. It actually feels like different bits of my head are springing into action. Because I write a book a year, I always want to do one other project every year that’s stimulating in a different way. It means you can be working but not using up your prose juice, you know? And comics are great for that. They’re really stimulating, and it really feels like a very different physical thing you’re doing, imagining the page, and imagining the reader and how they’re going to interact and how their eye’s going to move over the page. I studied art history at university … so I’m always really aware of where their eye is going to hit the page and how it’s going to move through that image, and how it’s going to come to the dialogue. I hate it when I’m reading a comic, and the dialogue looks like stickers stuck on top to explain what’s going on. For me the best is when your eye goes in a certain point and moves through the composition and then springs out on the dialogue, or gets confused in the image and then goes to the dialogue for an explanation.

HC: Did you enjoy working with artists Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti?

DM: I’ve actually worked with Manco before. And Andrea Mutti’s done a fantastic job. But I’ve worked with Manco on 13 episodes of “Hellblazer,” and I think we really kind of understand each other. I stuck really closely to the text, and he stuck really closely to the script. There was very little to sort of go over. If you’re working with artists and you trust them and you leave them to do their job, then they really appreciate it. That tone really brings out the best in people, I think.

HC: Why has Larsson’s trilogy, in all its permutations, resonated so strongly with audiences?

Page 14 of Vertigo's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestseller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." The adaptation was written by Scottish crime writer Denise Mina, with art by Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti. (Vertigo / DC Comics)

A page from the first volume of Vertigo’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestseller “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” (Vertigo / DC Comics)

DM: I think the characters are great, and I think it’s set in Sweden so it’s quite unfamiliar. And Salander is just a brilliant character, and she’s somebody that we haven’t really seen before. That book has real depth that it’s often not given credit for. Personally I think they missed a trick in the film, both the films, because she’s like the way she is not because she’s anorexic or super clever or autistic; she’s like that because her mother was battered and brain-damaged from being beaten. That’s her sort of inception story is that she watched her mom being beaten as a little girl. When you talk to people who haven’t read the book, they don’t really know that, because in the book, she keeps going to visit her mom. If you talk to people who have read the book, they’re really aware of that, that that was her origin story, that she was a wee girl who watched her mom getting beaten all the time. It’s an amazing story. Larsson was really into politics, and it was a big tradition in Sweden of writing political narratives within detective fiction because it’s so accessible, and it’s a big movement in feminist crime fiction — like in the story, [Blomkvist is] naked and tied up and about to be raped, and [Lisbeth] breaks in and saves him.

HC: Were there elements of Larsson’s voice that were especially difficult to capture?

DM: It’s very difficult because it’s translated, so it’s already through one filter. You don’t really know what the resonance is — particularly of his dialogue — in Swedish…. If you spend any time in Sweden you can kind of get the tone, but hopefully it’s not too Swedish chef, you know? I was really sort of trying to keep myself out of it. Every so often I think of a line, and I think, “Oh God, that’s so Scottish.” Or, “That’s wrong for Sweden.” Like someone says that one of the old women was the Nancy Spungen of Hedeby Island, and I just realized afterward, I’ve got that so wrong. Nobody in the countryside in Sweden is going to be talking about Nancy Spungen. Different things like that. But you do your best, don’t you?

– Noelene Clark

Twitter.com/@NoeleneClark

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