I’m fascinated by the puzzle box quality of crime fiction, the almost mathematical precision of plotting it requires. I wanted to give myself that challenge with my graphic novel Tumult. The crime genre allows a writer to explore extreme situations and abnormal mental states, really laying bare the human condition; we only really learn who we are under duress. I like how broad the genre is in subject and tone. I’m drawn to the more literary end of the spectrum: early Japanese crime fiction like Shiro Humau’s 1930s classic The Devil’s Disciple, Chester Himes’ Harlem cycle, and the work of Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith in particular was a revelation to me. I didn’t want to write a procedural, and she showed me the possibility of writing stories that focused more on the motivation for committing a crime than solving it.
There’s a great tradition of crime comics, from Dick Tracy, created way back in the 1930s by Chester Gould, right through to the contemporary Criminal series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Michael Kennedy, the artist I collaborated with on this project, has really eclectic tastes, and brought a welcome flavour of European comics styles into the mix. As befits a medium that combines pictures and words, inspiration for this graphic novel came as much from the silver screen and photography as from literature. American pulp fiction of the post WW2 years and the Film Noir genre it inspired was a big influence. They have an almost mythic quality. I was attracted to the atmospheric urban settings (the modern version of the fairytale forest), the femme fatale who appeared as the harbinger of danger (the damsel in distress or witch), and the anti-hero (the flawed questing knight).
Filmmaker David Lynch explained the core of his oblique masterpiece INLAND EMPIRE with devastating simplicity: A woman in trouble. I used that as my starting point. It’s such a basic plot device, but like myths, the most basic stories are the most powerful. Artist Cindy Sherman’s series Untitled Film Stills that she shot over the period of 1977 to 1980 was another inspiration. In these black and white self-portraits Sherman poses in various costumes in scenes reminiscent of Film Noir, sketching an elusive narrative just beyond the viewer’s grasp. American pulp fiction and Film Noir often examine the idea of women playing different roles and masking their desires. I liked the idea of using and then subverting this idea: in Tumult we have a central female character with multiple personalities, so that not even she fully comprehends her own actions or motivations. I subverted these stereotypes by making some of her personalities male; one isn’t even human.
For all that, I was determined Tumult deliver as a satisfying read, and in that regard the film Blue Velvet was a benchmark for me. I admire how it updates the Film Noir genre using singular and poetic visual and narrative elements while still delivering a carefully plotted story. I hope I’ve managed that in some small way with Tumult.
Tumult, written by John Harris Dunning and illustrated by Michael Kennedy is published by SelfMadeHero, and available from 2 July. www.selfmadehero.com