Interview: Jim Butcher: Harry Dresden's New (Illustrated) Adventures
by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner
Date: 28 October 2008 /
Jim Butcher, bestselling author of The Dresden Files, now brings the only wizard in the Chicago Yellow Pages to the world of comics with Welcome to the Jungle. This volume collects the four issue miniseries written by Butcher and illustrated by Ardian Syaf, telling a tale of Harry Dresden prior to his first novel-length adventure, Storm Front.
SFRevu would like to thank Jim Butcher, bestselling author of The Dresden Files and Codex Alera novels for taking a moment with us. Some of his most recent work is not in novel form, however--WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is a four-issue miniseries published by Dabel Bros./Del Rey, and it's a prequel to STORM FRONT, the first Harry Dresden novel.
So without further ado...
Jim: Harry is the only professional wizard working in Chicago. Essentially he's a private eye who's hired out by the Special Investigations division of the Chicago PD. They're in charge of all the weird things that happen that people sort of know about but nobody ever admits are real. Whenever there's anything supernatural going down, it's SI that has to handle it. When they get in trouble... they call Harry Dresden.
SFRevu: The collected miniseries has a wealth of notes and special covers in the back, with lots of cool info. For one thing, you note that Harry is really very tall... you say he's 6'9"—that's taller than I thought!
Jim: He's taller than everybody. His height is based on a friend of mine from college who really is 6'9"-- he's very good to walk next to in dark alleys.
SFRevu: Where did Harry come from? What sorts of pieces came together to make a magical private detective?
Jim: Well, I knew I'd be working with a private eye, so I went out and tried to identify common points between wizards— you know, milestone wizards of the genre like Gandalf, Merlin, David Eddings' Belgarath and even some newer characters. What did they have in common?
Then I did the same thing with long-running serial private eyes. I knew I wanted to do a series, so I thought I'd look at guys who had actually done series to see what I could learn from them.
What I found was that hardboiled private eyes in mystery stories and wizards in fantasy stories serve some of the same purposes. The wizard might have some magic and the private eye might have a gun, but that isn't what makes them dangerous to the bad guys. They both have a knack for walking into these gray, dark areas-- whether they are metaphorically dark like a criminal underworld or literally like Moria in Lord of the Rings; they are people who go looking for answers, for information. That's what makes them a threat. What made Gandalf a threat to Sauron wasn't that he could send a bright light from his stick, it's that he figured out where the One Ring was and what it was—-his snooping made the entire story possible.
So Harry was modeled after Gandalf and Sherlock Holmes, who are both tall and spare characters and both much into grumpiness. That's what you find in PIs and wizards, too, they're almost always grumpy.
And all of the long-running private eyes are lippy. So I'll have this irascible, independent person who'll mouth off to everybody no matter how bad an idea it is. He'll get into all these dark situations because somebody needs to. Once I had all those traits listed, I pulled them together over the course of a couple evenings and then we got Dresden.
SFRevu: Another thing about wizards and private eyes-- they don't deal well with authority figures.
Jim: They really don't.
SFRevu: Although Harry gets along well with Karrin Murphy of the SI...
Jim: Their relationship didn't start off where it's ended up. In the first couple of novels, particularly, Murphy was written as an antagonist character not as an ally of Harry's.
SFRevu: Harry's evolved since the early days, but his evolution isn't about raw firepower, is it?
Jim: As he gets older and more experienced, he's become more sly, less likely to kick down the door. Before, kicking down the door was his Plan A—-if anything goes wrong, we'll worry when the building's on fire.
But he's served as a soldier in a supernatural war and seen bad things happen to people, so he likes to play it cagey and smart. He's certainly not into a fair fight.
When I was building him, I saw him as being like a Great Dane puppy; he's powerful but control and subtlety eluded him. There are far more skilled wizards out there who would mop the floor with him, not because he's couldn't out 'benchpress' them with magic but because they're so much better at it than he is. He's a heavyweight. If anyone wants to trade punches, he'll win a slugfest. As he's grown, he's become a more well-rounded person and his subtlety has grown as well.
SFRevu: Harry's a very noir character early on-- like most noir PIs, he has no money, no social life, nothing really except for the work.
Jim: Yeah, very much. He's become more cynical and distrustful, not necessarily in a bad way—-he was like that before, somewhat—-but now he has some good reasons for it. He likes to stick up for the little guy which lots of people don't, and he's continued to take on more responsibilities. He's got an apprentice and he's responsible for training her, and he went and got a dog.
He's seen a lot of bad things happen. It can be hard to open up when it's come back to bite you before. He's struggling to do that, to come to grips with who and what he is and what he ought to be doing in the world.
In the novels, he's getting to be more of a participant in the supernatural community. It's about taking responsibility for being part of what that community is doing.
In my head, Harry is the sheriff of Chicago. You want to mess around in Chicago you have to deal with the sheriff. He's more protective of the city. He'll go do things elsewhere, but what he's concerned about is his home and doing what he can to help the people in his city.
SFRevu: In WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, your end-papers note that you had Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) in mind. Is this partly about finding one's place in the world?
Jim: It has more to do with how they see themselves and why they throw themselves into these situations. Plus I wanted to set up Dresden as a character who, like Peter, cannot get a break.
SFRevu: This story includes a flashback to Harry's training days with Justin DuMorne and we see Harry had an abusive upbringing. Do you plan to introduce more bits like this, to show how Harry's past shaped who he is now?
Jim: It's possible but I try to do those things lightly.
SFRevu: There is an awful lot going on in Harry's world...
Jim: Oh yeah. But I'd rather give readers a sense that, in the book, you're not seeing every event in the supernatural world, just the worst weekend of Harry's year. Other things are going on and there's a larger world in place.
SFRevu: Speaking of things going on, STORM FRONT is being adapted now. How was it, adapting your own work from novel to comic book plot and script? What was the most fun part of the work?
Jim: The most fun part is seeing the art when it's done, 'cause Ardian Syaf is very talented. He's just done a fantastic job.
The hardest part was writing comic, 'cause... I don't know if you know this, but it's lots different. Writing a comic is hard. On a novel it's just me, but in a comic, we're working together and I have to balance out my stuff with what the artist is doing. I'd get notes saying "Jim, you can't have Harry say three paragraphs of dialogue in this panel" and I'll go Oh, guess not, gotta cut it down to seven or eight words.
It's a lot more work than I thought it'd be! It's only 130 pages, right? That's not much, I can do that, but you have to put a lot of thought into what goes on those 130 pages.
SFRevu: How did you settle on Chicago as your setting?
Jim: I wanted a good grade. The first book was a class project in Kansas City, where I grew up. My writing teacher looked at the first couple chapters and said "This is something I think you can sell but you can't set it in Kansas City. You're writing something close enough to Laurell K. Hamilton's books that you don't need to set it in Missouri too. Pick someplace."
There was a globe on her desk with four American cities marked on it. I didn't want to do New York because Spider-Man and Batman have that all sewn up. I didn't want to do DC because I'd have to write politics, and I didn't want to do LA because I'd have to learn more about LA. Chicago was the one that was left, so Chicago it was. One of those serendipitous things, because it's a great location and I've loved learning more about the city.
SFRevu: It's a place with so much history--gangsters, sports, politics, newspapers and now Barack Obama. You capture it really well, so how many field trips do you make?
Jim: Um, I saw Tyrannosaurus Sue in the aquarium once, that and passing through the airports. That's really about it. I've done signings in the area but generally the way I get Chicago is I have a whole book shelf in my book room that is nothing but Chicago information. And I'm in contact with a number of people online and if I need to know something, I can send out an email saying "hey I need to know what the east wall of Graceland Cemetery looks like, does anybody know?" And somebody'll write "Yeah I drive by it on the way to work…"
I love the internet, it's awesome.
SFRevu: So what's coming up next?
Jim: The next book is called Turn Coat. It starts with Harry finding the Warden Morgan battered, bruised and bloody on his doorstep. He says "The Wardens are after me… hide me!"
Turns out Morgan's been framed. It's pretty clear there's a traitor in the White Council who's been sabotaging things during the war with the vampires, and now Harry's going to have to find the guy in 48 hours or Morgan will get his head lopped off… and Harry will get HIS head lopped off for helping him.
SFRevu: What do you read for entertainment?
Jim: There are several authors I read and new authors I'll pick up. Their editors will call and see if I want to read their work and give a quote, too, so I get to read a lot of 'em.
For myself, I like to read mystery novels. I like to read Robert Parker's novels. Military scifi is kind of my guilty pleasure—-I read a lot of David Weber, Lois Bujold...anything she does on her worst day is better than me on my best day. I want to have her professional skills.
There's a few guys—-I hate 'em—-if they're really really good, I hate 'em. John Scalzi impresses me with his writing, Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind-- I hate Pat, his style switches from this beautiful lyrical poetic storytelling into this hard, gritty pulp stuff without breaking stride. I sent him an email, "I hate you!" and he wrote back "I hate you too!" (laughs)
Fantasy, epic fantasy is my first love and that was a definite inspiration for Codex Alera. I wanted to do fantasies—-I wrote Dresden as a class project because my teacher said it would be good for me, and I'd learn a lot, and I wanted to prove how wrong she was. So I chose well. She got the dedication in the first book.
In another 10-15 years, I'll be ready to write my own stab at epic epic fantasy--epic, I'm saying-- and did I tell you it'll be EPIC? But I don't feel I have the tools to do it yet. In time, though.
SFRevu: One last question: did anything unexpected come out of the miniseries that's contributed to the novels?
Jim: Not out of the miniseries, but I got the miniseries idea from the (Dresden Files) TV show. It was a line from the unaired pilot, where Murphy says "...you helped with that mess at the zoo…" and I thought 'ooh! The mess at the zoo! I can do something with that!'
SFRevu: And with that, we wrap this interview. Thanks to Jim Butcher for taking time to chat. The WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE collected edition is on sale now; STORM FRONT #1 is in stores November 12!
For more information on Jim's projects and bibliography, check out his official site.