Featuring Niko Henrichon’s first major comic book work since he collaborated with Brian K. Vaughan on the award-winning “Pride of Baghdad,” the Canadian artist has delivered another world-building opus in “Noah,” an original graphic novel on sale March 19 from Image Comics.
While Aronofsky, who directed, produced and wrote “Noah,” and Handel, who co-wrote and executive produced the Russell Crowe-starring film, were pitching the script to studios, Henrichon started work on the 256-page graphic novel.
Not an adaptation, Henrichon and Handel told CBR News that “Noah” is its own story, grounded in both the Bible and the movie script, providing an all-together different artistic experience and interpretation of the Genesis flood narrative.
Originally recounted in the Book of Genesis, chapters 6-9, the story of Noah’s ark is one of the Bible’s most famous retellings and the creative team shared that elements of the story are so textually fantastic that developing a graphic novel and movie about a man, a boat and two of every animal being saved from God’s wrath was literally right there in the good book to be explored. And that includes the giant, six-armed fallen angels walking the Earth prior to the flood.
In an exclusive interview, Henrichon and Handel also discussed how Noah should not be confused with Santa Claus, the other-worldly feel of the antediluvian animals and why the iconic ark didn’t need a keel.
CBR News: No doubt easier to answer than which came first, the chicken or the egg, which came first — the movie or the graphic novel?
Ari Handel: Darren [Aronofsky] and I had written a full script and we were in the process of trying to get it made into a film. It had some traction and then it lost some traction for various reasons but our passion for the project remained. At that point, we decided to make it into a graphic novel.
We found Niko, who was recommended very highly by Brian [K. Vaughan], and basically gave him the script and we worked collaboratively with him from there. While Niko was working, we kept working on the script. Eventually, the movie was set up at Paramount and that’s how the film was made.
In some ways, it’s almost coincidental that they happen to be released at almost the same time.
And while there are obvious links between the two projects, this is not the comic book adaptation of the film, correct?
Handel: That’s right. The comic is based on a script that was written years prior to when we started shooting the film. There is the same underlying story and the same characters but like anything that you work on creatively, there were a lot of refinements. In many ways, they are similar but in many key ways, they are very different. The heart of the story is the same.
Niko Henrichon: And I haven’t seen the movie yet [Laughs] so Ari knows more about the differences.
Handel: We gave Niko a lot of our early reference art that we had been thinking about a long time ago and occasionally, we gave him something that came from the design of the film that we thought might be interesting like the design of the ark itself but most of the designs featured in the comic were developed in isolation from the film.
I didn’t know the story of Noah as well as my Catholic-raised wife. I re-read the Genesis flood narrative (Chapters 6-9) and I have to say, the source material makes for pretty fantastic storytelling on its own.
Handel: One of the things definitely featured in the comic is that Genesis, that early part of the Bible, which takes place pre-flood, is very magical. Not only the Noah story, you have Creation, Adam and Eve, the expulsion from the garden, Cain and Abel — there is a lot of things happening there that feel like they couldn’t quite happen in our world. People are living 600, 800, 900 years; there are giant fallen angels walking around; at times you have God walking through the grounds; Enoch is taken up and walks with God; there are sea monsters; there are lots of tantalizing moments that do feel like another world. We wanted to create a new feeling for people that sometimes have the pop culture version of Noah in their head. It’s the old man with the beard and the house boat and two of every animal and he’s sitting in the Judean hills or some other historical place where the Moses story might be set or the Jesus story.
But it’s the antediluvian world and we wanted it to feel like a special world that had existed and is gone. The rainbow at the end of Noah story is described as the first rainbow. Even the laws of the atmosphere were different.
Henrichon: That’s what we discussed early on while working on the first pages of the project. As I understood it, we were almost aiming for something close to science fiction, both post-apocalyptic and pre-apocalyptic science fiction. That’s why we see all of these metal structures from previous generations, something that may have been there for thousands of years. We wanted to put these things around the story, not specifically explaining why they are there but just to give the atmosphere of a world that has seen many, many generations of civilizations but is crumbling apart when the flood came.
Handel: It had to feel like a complete and prior world that was coming to an end. We also wanted to be true to the text in the Bible by breaking people’s expectations of what they think the story is as they look at it again because those elements that are in the Bible, that are more mythical somehow, didn’t make into the cultural consciousness of what we think that world was when we imagine it. We wanted to shake that up so there is science fiction and fantasy elements in the world that Niko designed but they’re not there randomly. They are there in some way to elucidate the feeling that we were feeling from the text.
Niko, when presented with this script were you surprised by this interpretation of Noah’s story? Or were you rubbing your hands together eager to get going?
Henrichon: When I first received the script, I didn’t know what it was about because it was all very confidential. But when I first started reading it, I realized it was something from the Bible. And my first reaction was a little deception because it wasn’t a priority for me to tackle parts of the Old Testament. Or at least it was not my first choice. But when I read it and I really started to get into the alternative stuff, I really liked it. It was a good story. The last part of the story is what really sold the project for me. When I closed the script, I was blown away and really wanted to do it. Everything in the story leads to that final climax.
Handel: There are also things in it that are completely true to the Bible but that people still don’t expect like Noah getting drunk. Not everyone knows that happens in the Bible. And he does have a falling out with his son. When people think about Noah, they don’t think about those things that often. They think about this good man that saved the animals. It’s all very sweet and Santa Claus-y. They don’t think about that other side. Some of the different or alternative things that Niko hinted at, and that give us an edge, are actually there. As you said, the Noah story is only four chapters long so there are a lot of different things we had to add to dramatize it but even that stuff is pulled thematically from the Bible. We looked at the themes of the story and what we thought those were about and were asking us to grapple and then we did things that didn’t contradict anything in the Bible.
Henrichon: That’s the great thing about this project for me. It filled all the blank holes that you get. You don’t know why Noah gets drunk and naked and everything in the Bible. This new version explains it and show what leads to that.
While this is a comic book, Noah isn’t a superhero. And even as a hero, he struggles.
Henrichon: He’s a tortured hero. He has a traumatic challenge to face with very difficult options.
Handel: In the Bible, we often see characters that are put under strain by what they are called to do. And they have to struggle. That’s the case for Jonah and Abraham and Noah too. These are difficult situations for humans. One of the things that we wanted to do when we were writing the script and working on the comic was show that even though this is very strange world in a different time, we wanted to make sure we were thinking of Noah as a human being who would be actually witnessing these things.
Not to forget that while there is this positive, very happy story about two of every animal getting saved and a family that gets saved, at the same time, there is another story happening, and if you go back and read Genesis and the Noah story, it’s the bigger story, which is the story of all of the other animals that didn’t make it. And all of the other people that didn’t make it — men, women, children, some of them, surely babies, didn’t make it. Any human being put in the position to witness that is going to be put under strain.
And to Niko’s point, it’s why Noah was getting drunk.
Handel: [Laughs] Yes, but again it’s all there in the Bible. If you read some of the paragraphs that describe the deaths of all the people not on the ark, it’s very evocative and sad and very dark. And again, as the story is represented by children’s books and kids’ toys, it’s very happy. By going closer to the text, you can surprise people with the darker side of the story that was there are along.
The text also features the Nephilim, or as you call them, the fallen angels. Again, I don’t remember the Nephilim from Sunday school.
Handel: In the Bible, there is one verse and it is right there at the beginning that says: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days…” And that’s a line that a lot of people over the millennia have thought about because many versions and translations use the word giants instead of Nephilim. In the Dead Sea Scrolls and some other texts from various times you see that different people had different theories about what the Nephilim were.
To us, they were important because they are one of these things that are otherworldly in the story, which proved to be a very useful and interesting thing for our tone. We also saw an opportunity to keep hitting on some of the same themes that we were exploring in the Flood story and the relationship between the Creator and the beings that he’s created and the relationship of how he treats them with judgment and mercy.
Niko, can you talk about the look and feel of the Nephilim and how they work within this world?
Henrichon: It was a while ago since we did the giants. We call them the Watchers in the English version. It was more than three years ago that we created these entities. I remember discussing them with Darren and Ari and they really wanted them to be massive humans almost like Neanderthals — very primitive humans with three sets of arms. They were transformed angels that once flew in the sky with the Creator. Their wings turned into three sets of arms when they came to Earth. This is basically where we started to get away from the traditional imagery. We really wanted to get away from that stuff.
The general shape of these beings came pretty quickly and after that we added some technology. The attentive reader will notice that there is biomechanical stuff on the giants like they can replace their arms with new biomechanical arms and other parts of their body with other biomechanical parts. They also wear some kind of tattoos. They write on themselves to remember their story. It’s almost like a language they’ve written on themselves. And if you look at them closely, you can notice these specific elements that we added.
Handel: But even those fantastical kinds of things, which as Niko said, breaks certain expectations of what an angel looks like, are still grounded in what the Bible says where we could. Some angels, in the Bible, have been described as having six wings so the idea of six limbs has some grounding in the text. In some of commentaries that talk about the Nephilim and what they might have been, they talk about Nephilim bringing technological knowledge to humankind. They brought perfume and astrology and metallurgy and other things. And that’s how the technology got into the comic. None of this stuff comes out of nowhere. We tried to find places to ground it but we also found places where things that are grounded are still upsetting expectations.
You have stated this project is grounded in Biblical text numerous times throughout this interview but I didn’t see Tubal-cain in the Genesis flood narrative. How did you connect him to this story?
Handel: In Genesis, after the Adam and Eve and the Cain and Abel story and before the Noah story, we’re given two genealogies. The first one is the genealogy of Cain, Adam and Eve’s son, who killed his brother Abel. And the second one is the genealogy of their third son, Seth. In the line of Seth (Genesis 5), it lists out the famous “begats” — so and so begats so and so and so and so begats so on so — And that ends with Noah.
But there is a previous genealogy and the begats come out of Cain. And the last man mentioned in that line is Tubal-cain — a direct descendent of Cain. And he is described in some places as a forger of weapons and a metalworker.
In the Noah story, Noah is named and his three sons are named but no one else is named so when we were trying to find some names of the other characters in our script that are being judged for their wickedness, Tubal-cain seemed like a good choice. He’s from the Bible. And he has some depth because he forges weapons and he is a descendant of the murderer Cain.
Niko, we haven’t talked about Noah yet but before we do, can we talk about the look of Tubal-cain because while Noah has some moments of anger in this story, Tubal-cain is a pretty scary dude.
Henrichon: I designed him as a Rasputin-like figure or a madman. But he does show a good side in the story too. I really wanted him to be the classic bad guy. He has a very cruel, badass look. And he must also match the strength of Noah. Both are very strong men and good fighters.
He and his men are all obsessed with eating meat and violence. They are also building this huge tower, which is a reference to Babylon. I am pretty sure it isn’t in the Bible story but we have chose to interpret it that way in this version of the story to fulfill this idea of an embarrassment of riches.
Noah looks a little rough and tumble too and if you showed just a panel of him, he could easily be thought of as book’s antagonist.
Henrichon: He has two sides. He can be very gentle. I won’t say too much because I don’t want to spoil anything but he’s a really two different characters. It makes him a very rich character. There is an evolution of his personality through the book and that’s one of the great parts.
Can you discuss Noah’s ark and the animals aboard it as they are certainly not represented in the story how I envisioned them all of these years and, as discussed, not how they’re most often represented in pop culture?
Henrichon: We really wanted to have something that is not exactly like the world we know. We can see that these animals are not exactly the real animals that exist today. There are no elephants and giraffes or other animals that we would see in classic depictions of Noah’s ark. We wanted them to look like ancestors of today’s animals or variations or mutations.
Handel: Again, in the kids’ stories, it’s always the giraffes and the elephants and the zebras but that’s just three species. One of the amazing things that Noah did was bring two of every kind of animal, which is many, many, many, many, many, many kinds of animal. Even by today’s measures, there are so many animals that are bizarre and unfamiliar and strange and ultimately that becomes awe-inspiring about the world Noah is trying to save. And the same could be said about our world if we were trying to save it. There is such a great variety of life forms. By Niko making these animals a little bit strange, you give the reader a variation and that sense of wonder returns. Giraffes and elephants and zebras are so familiar, we have lost that wonder.
Henrichon: I remember when we started to do the book that I didn’t know exactly what we were going for. My first pictures were pictures with real animals like giraffes and rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses and they told me, “No. These are not the ones we want. We want something really different — something from out of this world.”
Finally, in the story, there is a great comparison of the ark to a seed, which is a tough outer layer that protects the life growing inside. Can you talk about that comparison and how it played into how you designed the ark because again, it’s not the house boast that I have always envisioned?
Handel: Hope is very central to this story and the Noah story. And so is hopelessness. The Creator isn’t going to wipe out all of these things that he made unless he really felt that they were beyond redemption and yet, he saved this small spark. It is both hope and hopelessness together.
In the same way, the ark becomes this tiny, tiny, tiny little capsule of life in what’s essentially a completely dead world of rain and ocean. It’s the tiniest thing that survives. We wanted the ark to feel like that. Even though it’s massive, we wanted it to feel like a speck in the sea.
If you know what a seed does, you know that it is a plant’s way of continuing life onto the next generation but it does it in a way that it can lie dormant for years and years and years and years — they’ve even been able to germinate seeds from thousands of years ago. It’s life frozen or static for a moment. And the ark goes through that same experience. All the life in the world gets held in this shell and until rains stop and the waters recede, it doesn’t know when it is going to be able to grow again. It very much had that feeling of being the seed of life.
We also went back to the description in the Bible for the ark. A lot of the Noah story is spent telling you the dimensions of the ark and how it’s laid out. Those measurements are very particular but they don’t describe anything like the vision that people have of Noah’s ark, which is this house boat with a curved keel with a little hut on top for people to live in. That’s not what is described at all. And there is a good reason for it, which is that you have a keel so you can steer. It’s a way of cutting through the water in a certain direction. And the ark didn’t need to steer because there was nowhere to go. It wasn’t like Noah was going to steer towards land. There was no land. It really needed to be more of a barge with a roof on it. It just has to float. And wait. And that gives you something about the dramatics of the story and how much they were at the mercy of things.
It also gives you a boat that’s more accurate to the Bible but utterly not what people might be expecting from the preconceptions of what the ark might look like.
Henrichon: Definitely not. It’s not the classic ark. Once again, when I did my first draft on the ark, I did exactly the same things as the animals. I did an ark with planks of wood. I wanted it to be different but it was classic planks of wood and nails. And once again they told me: “That’s not the way we’re seeing it. It’s not planks of wood. It’s pieces of wood — trunks of wood — attached together.”
It’s a very unusual general shape — very geometric. Almost like a coffin. But it’s not a coffin. It’s a seed as we said before. It’s very minimal but I think the design is very intriguing.
Handel: The one other thing that I will say is that the ark, like the story, is based off the first draft so there are places where this book has a lot of similarities to the film and places where it doesn’t so people are going to get two different experiences and two different takes on the story. In part, that’s because of what Niko brought to it, which is unique and amazing. And in part, its how the story evolved as we told it. So please, buy the comic and see the movie. [Laughs]
The “Noah” graphic novel is on sale March 19 from Image Comics.