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Prose and Pictures

Not everyone was schooled on comic books. But I was. I had a roomful: Superman, Batman, The Green Hornet, Spiderman; Archie, Betty and Veronica, Riverdale High, Little Archie. I had Classic Comics too: The Three Musketeers, The Last of the Mohicans, Robinson Crusoe (all of which I considered books until I finally read a real one).

But my favorites were horror comics: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Chamber of Chills, Terror Tales. I had them all. Stacks of them. It was difficult to get in and out of my bedroom. My mother complained it was impossible to clean. I didn’t see her point. Friends would come over and we’d lock ourselves in and read all day. I’d read and reread my favorites, stories that became etched in my preadolescent brain.

There was one called “The Couple,” or maybe “The Strange Couple,” where the writer (yes, these guys were writers) used the clever device of telling the story from the reader’s point of view — in other words, putting you in the driver’s seat, literally in a car on a dark and deserted country road. The car breaks down (of course), and when you seek help, you end up at the home of a ghoul and a vampire…and you can imagine the rest.

In another, a surgeon loses his hand in a car accident, goes a little nuts, murders a drifter, removes the guy’s hand, and sews it onto his own wrist with disastrous results.

These stories haunted me — overtaken by ghouls, losing a limb — but like an addict I craved more: more blood, more horror. The illustrations were always gruesome and sometimes sexy — until some crackpot wrote a book about how these comics were corrupting young minds and creating juvenile delinquents. That’s when the Comics Code was created, and I turned to writers like Poe and Woolrich, Chandler and Hammett. It was about the same time I gave up William Castle’s cheesy horror flicks (The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler) for the more sophisticated ones of Hitchcock (Pyscho, Vertigo) and, ultimately, the urban thrillers of Sidney Lumet (Prince of the City) and Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, The Departed) , men who made movies the way I wanted to write books — big, dark, and real.

Some people argue in favor of silent films. “Who needs sound?” they say. But frankly, I like it when there are two things going on.

Hitchcock believed you should be able to follow his films even if you don’t speak the language, but I can’t imagine a Vertigo where Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak never speak. To me, there’s no conflict — I know where to look and when to listen.

I spent the first half of my adult life as a painter, a fine artist — accent on fine. I never would have dreamed of using horror or pulp in my art. My mistake. It would have made me a star. But in those days art was pure and formal, and I wasn’t ready to break the rules. Eventually I eased up and changed, and I owe that, in part, to the novels I wrote, gritty crime fiction, and the fact that in a few I added illustrations.

Oh, I can just hear the purists who want their prose unadulterated, and hey, sometimes I do too. But how about an illustration in between chapters? Would that kill you? It was good enough for Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, and I don’t think anyone complained about it back then. In fact, I think they would have felt cheated without it.

And when everyone is reading on their iPads and Kindles (I haven’t yet, but I’m sure I will), it just makes sense to have a little fun with pictures and prose. We are, after all, talking about a screen, a little TV set, a miniature movie theater right there in your hot little hand. So why not have a visual interlude in the middle of Melville? If you ask me, Moby Dick is just screaming for pictures, which is why the movie is so good.

I’m not saying every book needs them, but a picture can be a little gift, a reward for time spent reading. And more than that — it can illuminate a point and wake up the other part of the reader’s brain. When I add one I often have to take out a few sentences, sometimes a paragraph, because I’ve already said it with the illustration. Whoever said one picture is worth a thousand words was onto something.

Right now I’m working on a book that’s hard and tough, the prose lean and mean, and for a long time I didn’t think I’d include any imagery. And then, just the other day, I imagined putting the gun I had been describing in words right on the page, and I thought, Why not?


JONATHAN SANTLOFER is the author of 5 novels, THE DEATH ARTIST, COLOR BLIND, THE KILLING ART, ANATOMY OF FEAR, and THE MURDER NOTEBOOK. He is the recipient of a Nero Wolfe Award for best crime fiction novel of 2008, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and has been a Visiting Artist at the American Academy In Rome, the Vermont Studio Center and serves on the board of Yaddo, the oldest arts community in the U.S. He is co-editor, contributor and illustrator of the anthology, THE DARK END OF THE STREET, and his short stories appear in such collections as The Best of the Mystery Writers of America, and the 2010 International Crime Writers Anthology, among others. Also a well known artist, his work is in such collections as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and Tokyo’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Learn more at www.jonathansantlofer.com.