Comics’ Most Wanted | CSI: Dying in the Gutters

"I'm specifically writing it to not focus on those things. The first job of any CSI story is to be a CSI story, and they have specific rhythms and requirements."

In the insular world of professional comics, Rich Johnston has made his share of enemies. For the past 12 years, Johnston has dug up dirt on his fellow creators in "Lying In the Gutters," his witty, weekly online news, rumor, and gossip column at ComicBookResources.com, much to the delight of his readers and the chagrin of those who end up on the wrong side of Johnston’s poison keyboard. Sounds like the kind of person who just might end up dead.

{mosimage}That’s exactly the fate that awaits Johnston on the printed pages of CSI: Dying In the Gutters, a five-part mini-series launching this August from IDW Publishing. Writer and fellow CBR columnist Steven Grant and artist Stephen Mooney will guide the cast of the hit CBS procedural crime drama as they investigate Johnston’s untimely fictional death. Grant was a natural choice, not only for his association with Johnston, but also his previous experience with the property on the series CSI: Secret Identity.

{mosimage}Grant gives the following sneak peek at the crime scene: "A San Diego-style comics convention takes place in Las Vegas. Various CSI team members go for various reasons – Catherine takes her daughter to watch anime and buy manga, for instance, and Grissom views it as an anthropological outing. Internal comics industry problems boil over at the convention, though, ending in the apparently accidental death of my fellow CBR columnist, gossip monger Rich Johnston, which is greeted with applause in many circles, until it turns out he has actually been murdered, in full view of a number of people, apparently by Joe Quesada [Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief]. Even then many still applaud, it's just that then they're applauding Joe. Meanwhile, other members of the team investigate the apparent suicide of a graphic designer for video games. There are a lot of comics industry faces in the series, some very surprising."

{mosimage}Was it hard to convince real-life people to become on-page murder suspects? "There were a few who didn't want to be in it," Grant admits, "especially those with a real life grudge against Rich, who has had a wonderful sense of humor about the whole thing and was eager to become the murder victim. I haven't told him who his killer is or why, though. Even the artist doesn't know that yet. I don't think anyone does but me, Chris [Ryall, IDW editor-in-chief] and the killer."

The book may be packed with the names and faces of actual comics personalities, but Grant is quick to assuage any fears from fans of the show who worry they might not be in on the joke. "I'm specifically writing it to not focus on those things," he counters. "The first job of any CSI story is to be a CSI story, and they have specific rhythms and requirements. The first thing I told Chris when he asked me to do this series was that we had to make it accessible to everyone. There are plenty of in-jokes but anyone who doesn't get the jokes get story or character information instead."

{mosimage}Though Grant has been a comics writer for decades, most famously for his run on Punisher in the mid-80s, many readers know him best from his own CBR column, "Permanent Damage." Unlike his earlier column "Master of the Obvious," "Permanent Damage" is far more than just a comics column. Grant packs his column with no-nonsense reviews and industry discussion, but he’s just as likely to tackle the current American political landscape or the state of network television as he is the world of comics. "When I switched to ‘Permanent Damage,’" he explains, "I told Jonah [Weiland, owner of CBR] that what I wanted to do was more of a compressed magazine where I could talk about anything I wanted. He doesn't care as long as I get hits, and I got lots of hits. The political commentary is far more popular than the comics commentary at this point."

As both a creator and a reviewer, what is it that Grant looks for in a good comic? "Storytelling, proportion and dynamics, in both script and art," he states. "Entertainment value. A distinctive, {mosimage}original viewpoint. Good characterization. Mainly, a really good comic will just suck you in so that you're not looking for flaws. It creates its own believability, regardless of subject matter or setting. The usual term is ‘suspension of disbelief,’ but I think it's more appropriate to say that a good comic will not remind us of our own credulity. More often, though, comics (and TV shows and movies and books, etc.) instead plead with us to ignore our awareness of our own credulity pretty please with sugar on it pleeeeeeeeeeeeze.

"That's actually a pretty good rule of thumb for creators," Grant concludes, "if your material depends on the kindness of strangers, it's probably not as good as it ought to be."

Continue on for our full interview with Steven Grant, and click on the thumbnails to read a 4-page preview of the first issue of CSI: Dying in the Gutters!

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How did you get involved with doing CSI comics with IDW?

A couple years ago at San Diego, I ran into Ted Adams, IDW's owner, and he said, "Steve, why aren't you writing anything for us?" I said, "Yeah, why is that?" A couple months later they called to ask if I'd write a CSI mini-series. That's pretty much it.

Can you give us an overview of the plot of CSI: Dying in the Gutters?

{mosimage}Sure. A San Diego-style comics convention takes place in Las Vegas. Various CSI team members go for various reasons – Catherine takes her daughter to watch anime and buy manga, for instance, and Grissom views it as an anthropological outing. Internal comics industry problems boil over at the convention, though, ending in the apparently accidental death of my fellow CBR columnist, gossip monger Rich Johnston, which is greeted with applause in many circles, until it turns out he has actually been murdered, in full view of a number of people, apparently by Joe Quesada. Even then many still applaud, it's just that then they're applauding Joe. Meanwhile, other members of the team investigate the apparent suicide of a graphic designer for video games. There are a lot of comics industry faces in the series, some very surprising.

You discussed in your column, "Permanent Damage," that the basic concept of the series was from IDW's Chris Ryall. How much of the finished product is Ryall's and how much is your own take on it?

It turns out I misspoke and the idea generated from Ted Adams. Chris tells me he was more of a conduit, with embellishment. But the final story is completely mine, except that Chris keeps giving me names of pros who want to be in it, so I have to fit them in. But that's really all the input, past the initial idea, that anyone from IDW has had. I guess after my first CSI arc they more or less trust me to get it right.

All the suspects in the book are real comic book pros. Was there any difficulty in getting people to agree to appear in the book?

{mosimage}There were a few who didn't want to be in it, especially those with a real life grudge against Rich, who has had a wonderful sense of humor about the whole thing and was eager to become the murder victim. I haven't told him who his killer is or why, though. Even the artist doesn't know that yet. I don't think anyone does but me, Chris and the killer.

What would you say to CSI fans who might be worried that they'll be overwhelmed by comics industry in-jokes?

I'm specifically writing it to not focus on those things. The first job of any CSI story is to be a CSI story, and they have specific rhythms and requirements. The first thing I told Chris when he asked me to do this series was that we had to make it accessible to everyone. There are plenty of in-jokes but anyone who doesn't get the jokes get story or character information instead. It doesn't take that much work to ensure these things.

Any plans to work more on CSI stories in the future?

We haven't specifically discussed any, but no door is closed. I like CSI and IDW just fine. It's up to them, though.

You hinted in a recent column of some news regarding your long-delayed project Whisper. Anything you'd care to share?

{mosimage}It hasn't really been "long-delayed." I haven't wanted to do it, really. It's not like I haven't been asked many times over the last decade or so, but I have specific ideas about what I want to do, and it isn't a book just like I was doing in 1988. I managed to scare off most publishers who came sniffing around, but then Ross Richie, who I knew from Malibu, hit me up about it. I told him what I wanted to do, his eyes widened, but instead of running he said, "That's really cool! Let's do it!" My reaction was sort of, "Huh. Okay." We actually had that conversation a couple years ago, but we were waiting until he managed to get Boom! Studios off the ground. I was a bit surprised that he went for it, since it's a bit off the wall for the current market. It isn't a revival, per se, but a completely new Whisper: new character, new continuity. I like to call it the Earth-1 version, but someone called it the Ultimate Whisper, which is roughly the same idea, except, unlike Ultimate Spider-Man, I don't even pay lip service to the original series. What I do is reprocess the elements of the original series into the current zeitgeist. Once I got past the initial shock of getting it off the ground, it's been pretty exciting.

There are a lot of readers out there who read your column every week but don't follow you as a comics writer. Does being known to some as a columnist first and a comics writer second bother you?

I guess it does now. I never thought about it before. Thanks loads.

No, it doesn't bother me.

You've dedicated several columns in recent months to discussions on the publishing and business sides of comics. Have you ever considered working as an editor or publisher?

Oh, sure. I wouldn't mind being an editor for a couple of years, but I don't think I could be an editor who's micromanaged from above and that's the usual style in comics these days. Make me an editor with some autonomy and I could be very happy. To be a publisher, though, you need money, and if I had money I have plenty of other things to spend it on besides publishing comics.

{mosimage}While ostensibly a column about comics, "Permanent Damage" constantly features discussions on television, politics, and other non-comics related topics. Has there ever been any push from CBR to stay on-topic?

No, none at all, but it never was a "comics column." That was my previous column, "Master Of The Obvious." When I switched to "Permanent Damage," I told Jonah [Weiland, owner of CBR] that what I wanted to do was more of a compressed magazine where I could talk about anything I wanted. He doesn't care as long as I get hits, and I got lots of hits. The political commentary is far more popular than the comics commentary at this point.

Given your rather outspoken political opinions, just curious: where do you see the country headed by the end of this election year?

Bars, probably, same as any other convention year.

Barring some sort of critical event like another major terrorist attack, I expect to see a small correction in the fall elections, it's far from certain but not unlikely that the Democrats will retake one or both houses of Congress, but I don't see any major policy shifts. Though impeachment proceedings against both Bush and Cheney are possible even if the Republicans keep hold. There's a lot of unrest out there now.

As a reader and an opinionated reviewer, what do you look for in a good comic?

Storytelling, proportion and dynamics, in both script and art. Entertainment value. A distinctive, original viewpoint. Good characterization. I look for a lot of things, but I don't have a checklist or point system or anything like that. Mainly, a really good comic will just suck you in so that you're not looking for flaws. It creates its own believability, regardless of subject matter or setting. The usual term is "suspension of disbelief," but I think it's more appropriate to say that a good comic will not remind us of our own credulity. More often, though, comics (and TV shows and movies and books, etc.) instead plead with us to ignore our awareness of our own credulity pretty please with sugar on it pleeeeeeeeeeeeze. That's actually a pretty good rule of thumb for creators: if your material depends on the kindness of strangers, it's probably not as good as it ought to be.

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