It took cartoonist Rob Davis two years to adapt Miguel de Cervantes’ seminal masterpiece, fully titled “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha” — though Davis’ take uses the more compact title, “The Complete Don Quixote,” on sale May 8 published by SelfMadeHero. The adaptation manages to capture the wit and whim of the madman’s journeys in the artwork, Davis’ fast, energetic style fits the book — and its message — perfectly.
But that’s not all. Davis has put himself into the book. His journey the last two years while working on the project has been epic in and of itself. And to that end, he found a bit of madness, a bit of love and the commonality of both, pouring into his personal life. Perhaps that’s why — when his art and his life coalesced — he created the piece of work in which he did. Comic Book Resources spoke to Davis about “The Complete Don Quixote” and the journey he undertook as a person and an artist on the way to finishing it.
CBR News: Rob, had you read the novel before you started the tremendous task of adaptingÂ “Don Quixote?”
Rob Davis: I read it a while back. Like many people I viewed it as daunting and inspiring in equal measure. By the time I’d finished the adaptation I realized why it is considered one of the greatest books ever written. It’s the greatest, stupidest,Â maddest, funniest book ever.
How were you approached to do the book?
I was interested in working with SelfMadeHero, I liked the smell of their books and I saw an opportunity to work on a long form [project] as writer and artist. To have that kind of control over the vision of a project is something I’d always wanted. I said I’d like to do an adaptation and suggested doing “Don Quixote.” I made it clear to [SMH publisher] Emma Hayley that they would get a unique interpretation of the book, not some lazy chopping up of text into caption boxes with illustrations stitched onto it. I drew up one of the scenes from the book to give SelfMadeHero a flavor, it was the scene where Don Quixote’s study gets stolen and his eyes run away. Once I got underway I was pretty much left to my own devices. For a publisher to have that kind of faith in you is all you can ask for.
The volume is gargantuan, coming in at close to 300 pages, and clearly something to be seriously be proud of. And you don’t skimp on the panels either — each page is meticulously laid out to help drive the story forward. How long did you actually work on this volume?
From start to finish it took two years, although I was doing other work during that period to help pay the bills. I draw fairly quickly but I wanted this book to actually look like I drew it quickly. I wanted a look that felt loose and improvised, but underpinned by some design. This is how Cervantes world appears to me, also there’s that sort of rustic feel about rough pencil marks that captures La Manchan peasants. I hope!
I did the book in two separate volumes. The original is two separate books written ten years apart, and later bound together. The relationship between the two books is important — in the second volume Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet a number of characters who have read “Don Quixote” Volume One.Â Cervantes’ intervening life also becomes part of the book and I guess to some extent my own life is part of the story too.
“Don Quixote” is a canonical piece of art form Spain’s Golden Age. It alsoÂ regularly appears high on lists of greatest works. What was key for you to captureÂ from the original source?
The key in adapting the book was to forget about its canonical status and look for what gave it that status in the first place.
The original is full of invention. In fact it’s about invention — you are looking at the invention of the modern novel as we recognize it today. Don Quixote the character and theÂ “Don Quixote”Â novel deconstruct themselves and reinventÂ themselves before your eyes. Some parlor trick. And all of this was handed to a Spanish readership 400 years ago!
To do justice to something like that meant I had to be inventive and original in my adaptation. I had to stay faithful to the spirit of the book, to theÂ characters and the events, but my book had to engage contemporary readers with the same sense of wonder as the original must have had to those readers 400 years ago. Well, that was the plan.
I like Sancho Panza. I like his wit, his approach and, hey, “panza” means belly, which is super cool. I think they have a statue of him in Madrid, actually. What do you think the story would’ve been like had he been the main character, and Quixote his squire?
Ha! That would be an odd book! The truth is Sancho would never have gone on adventures were it not for Quixote. We’d probably have had a book about a little fat peasant getting nagged by his wife, which sounds like a number of ’70s sitcoms, actually.
When we talk about the Quixotic spirit, that desire to chase your dreams or defend your ideals however ridiculous it makes you seem, we can find the first person to be infected with that spirit in Sancho. He is stupid and selfish, but he also has the innocence of a child and a devotion to another human being that is the match of any in the history of literature. Everyone loves Sancho, and he would probably love you back.
Since adapting Cervantes’ work, has there been a main message you’ve taken away fromÂ “Don Quixote?”Â Is there a central message to the text?
The main message is probably about that Quixotic Spirit that I just mentioned. Some cheeky wag once described Quixote as the unofficial religion of Spain. What a wonderful thing to believe in.
I’m sure I learned lessons from the book and some of my blood and tears are probably on the page. During the making of the book itÂ occurred to meÂ that love is a form of madness just as madness becomes a form of love for Quixote. Between beginning and ending “Quixote” my marriage broke down, I became separated from my children, I moved from one place to another and found myself at the bottom of more than one whisky bottle. “Quixote” was my constant companion throughout and that close relationship between the profound and the ridiculous, the tragic and the split-your-sides funny, in the pages of the book was reflected all around me.
With that off your plate, what’s next in line?
I’m doing another book with SelfMadeHero. This one is an original story. I’m just finishing the script now and will start on the artwork next month. It feels like this is where I’ve always wanted to be and this is what I need to be doing. It will be published in 2014.
What’s your work process like, Rob? And what does your workspace look like?
My workspace is chaos and the process is a vague attempt at order. After years of chopping and changing my process to suit any job at hand, jumping between licensed comic characters, children’s books, advertising and newspaper stuff, I’m happy to let the needs of the project dictate my approach rather than come at everything with a one-style-fits-all approach.
Where previously I may have worked in ink or digital line, “Quixote” is drawn in an HB pencil (well, several actually!). I use a sharp pencil for most of the line work and my blunt pencil stubs to add shadow or weight.
I’d lay out the panels, lettering and roughs in Photoshop, print that out and then try draw as fluidly as possible over the top on my lightbox. I wanted the drawings to have that thumbnail energy knowing that use of flat digital color would mean the pages retained the clarity. I scan the line work and push the levels together in Photoshop to give the line more black.
The color was like a project within a project, just as my drawing walks a line between cartoon and naturalistic concerns, so my color tightrope walks between abstract and naturalistic. I used color for atmosphere and for thematic placement to show the interaction between the main story and the story within the story. And also to make it look pretty, of course.