It’s been a long road to publication for Janet Lee’s “The Wonderland Alphabet.” The artist has been working on her “Alice in Wonderland”-themed children’s book since before Lee’s graphic novel debut in hers and writer Jim McCann’s “The Return of the Dapper Men.” After “Dapper Men” hit, Lee won an Eisner Award and began adapting classic Jane Austen stories “Emma” and “Northanger Abbey” for Marvel Comics. Now, nearly three years since Lee began illustrating it, “The Wonderland Alphabet” is set to debut this April from Archaia.
“The Wonderland Alphabet” is a children’s book based on Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” and “Adventures in Wonderland” with all 26 letters of the alphabet represented by a different illustration in Lee’s signature style. Whether it’s as simple as “A is for Alice” or complicated as “U is for Unbirthday,” Lee and writer Alethea Kontis have designed a picture book meant to help children learn their letters that’s also entertaining for adults.
Lee spoke with CBR News about the long development road of “The Wonderland Alphabet,” the origins of the book, its design and her future projects including her contribution to “Womanthology” and “Time of the Dapper Men.”
CBR News: “The Wonderland Alphabet” was being shopped to publishers when we first spoke to you in 2009 for “The Return of the Dapper Men.” Now, you have an Eisner and several books under your belt — how does it feel to have this book finally see print?
Janet Lee: It’s amazing. I had to tell Archaia when they first took it that, honestly, it predates the “Dapper Men” stuff. This was all for a show that I naively at the time thought I could show Dapper pages for when Dapper hadn’t come out yet. It almost predates all the Dapper stuff and I had to tell them the trim sizes were wacky, I didn’t understand anything about gutters when I put it together and they were so amazing and patient. They came up with solutions for my craziness and weirdness. [Laughs] I couldn’t be happier they’re the ones that we ended up going through. They always have such a creative way of looking at things. I’m thrilled that it finally has a home.
What’s the basic structure of the book like? Will readers have to be familiar with the source material to really enjoy it?
It’s based directly on both of the “Wonderland” books and components from them. I don’t think you need to know anything specifically about [them]. Obviously, everybody has a general idea of “Alice in Wonderland” and the story, but I think each one of the verses stands alone. A really good friend of mine who I used to work with — and now she’s a novelist, she’s got a new YA book coming out — Alethea Kontis wrote all of the verses for me. It’s all based directly on characters and situations within either “Through the Looking Glass” or “Adventures in Wonderland.”
So, this is based on the original work by Lewis Carroll, then, and not the Disney version.
No, no. Of course, because it’s off of Carroll, some of the stuff can get a little dark; “X is for Axes,” stuff like that. Hopefully, it’s enjoyable for the parents reading it as much as it is for the kids. There’s nothing too disturbing about it. [Laughs]
In terms of placement and formatting, did you design the illustration with the text in mind?
A lot of it, honestly, is a bit of a happy accident. When I was creating the page, being a brand-new illustrator, I thought I had a good idea about where text placement was going to go, and Alethea wrote all the verses so I didn’t know what size they were going to be. When it came time to actually put the text down, one of Archaia’s designers, Oscar Pinto, is amazing. I told him to just go crazy and do what he wanted to do. He ended up with these little rabbit ears for “rabbit” and he just went completely crazy with the way the text and the fonts were used. Just whatever would make it look the best it possibly could. In some cases, he made the pictures look better than they did before, I think. He just did an amazing job.
Looking back to 2009, what was the impetus to create a book like this? It’s not really the normal book you’d see solicited inside comics.
I know! It’s kind of a weird one. Honestly, I did it because I was part of a gallery show called ProtoPulp here in Nashville. The idea behind the show was that artists who wanted to be book illustrators were to put together a book and show the artwork for it. Again, in my naivety, I thought, “Oh, I’m working on ‘Dapper Men.’ I can put those pages up,” not realizing until far too late that there was no way to show pages. It’s just not done, you don’t show pages of the book before the book comes out. In a mad rush there at the end, I was wondering what I could do. I started looking around and realized that there was no “Alice in Wonderland” alphabet book on the market. There were Disney books that had Alice in Wonderland as a character in an alphabet book, but there was nothing that was completely focused on “Alice in Wonderland.” I love “Alice in Wonderland” and I love doing fonts. I’m a strange font geek. So, I pulled together about 22 of the 26 images done in a really short turnaround time for the book show. I got them all scanned in and the book show ended up being this really great success. At that point, we started trying to shop the book around.
Pulling that together so quickly must have been a challenge as your work tends to be the result of a really intricate and involved process.
It was. I don’t think I slept for about two weeks at the end, trying to get 22 pieces done in time — I was shooting for 26 and failed. I got through as many as I could. It was kind of a rushed time. Honestly, I got the last four images done at the very end, when the book was sold. Now that I have several books under my belt, I can kind of tell the difference in style, the style has changed between them. I guess people are getting glance at part of “Dapper” before it all came together in “Dapper Men” by and large.
Did your experience with “Dapper Men” cause the book change from its original conception as a result?
Yeah. We had to [change it]. Quite a bit of the changes we had to make — again, this was me having absolutely no understanding at the time when I did this show of how books were constructed — I designed some of the pages originally to be a two-page spread, and my measurements for the pages were off, completely. So, we had to redo those as a single-page image. It turned out brilliantly, but you can’t do page A as a two-page spread, B as a one-page spread and C as a two-page spread. It doesn’t work! Pagination wise, it’s just a bad idea and I had no idea at the time! [Laughs]
In 2009, you were just beginning to work in sequential art for comics. Now that you’ve got that experience, and with “Wonderland Alphabet” being a less-sequential project, was it odd for you to go back to non-sequential work?
I think working in sequence definitely helped out. Really, a single illustration — a splash page — per page is super easy comparatively. I think a 30-page book that’s all single page images sounds like an easy, easy dream compared to sequentials. The formatting necessary for sequentials and the dynamics necessary for sequentials make you a much better children’s book illustrator. I think it helps with the storytelling on every page in a way that would be more difficult if you’re used to doing a single image, I imagine. I’m probably going to get people calling me going, “No, it’s hard to do it that way!” But for me, the narrative style that’s necessary for sequentials was immensely helpful for going back and working on single images. It’s hard, though. It is a sort of different mind set.
What were some of the hardest letters to come up with concepts for?
N was kind of hard. It ended up being “N is for Nile the Little Crocodile.” I don’t remember that character from either of the books, but Alethea fabulously went and found it. X was obviously quite difficult, and Y was fairly difficult. There were also some that were so easy, I was flushed with images and I could’ve done three different ones. D? Duchess. Dodo. There are a ton of ones you could do. J for Jabberwocky. C for Cheshire Cat. There are so many you could throw in there that would be really interesting, but I felt it was important to go with the major ones in those cases.
What was your favorite letter to illustrate?
Ultimately? Hm. It’s a really hard question because I love them. Some of the last ones I did were X and N, and I’m really happy with how those images turned out. I kind of like “U for Unbirthday,” because you end up with all the characters in this giant party. It was kind of fun.
I hope everybody really enjoys “The Wonderland Alphabet.” The idea behind it was that it would be good for kids and adults both. I hope it’s something people find fun to read and for helping little ones learn their letters.
While you’ve definitely made a name for yourself in comics, you’re also a very accomplished illustrator with a myriad of projects on the burner — what’s coming up this year for you?
I am mostly going to focus in here on the first bit and finish up “Time of the Dapper Men,” because it’s coming up soon. The deadline’s coming up sooner than I’d like to think for that and it’s so much fun to have the leisure at this point to dig in on it now that I’ve finished “Northanger.” Also, I get to do a little extra story for “Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard” which I’m incredibly excited about. I had quite a bit of requests for doing some gallery shows, so if I have the time, I’m going to try to do those because that’s something that’s really fallen by the wayside as the book illustration work has picked up. I’m hoping I’ll have a little time to do those this year.
I’m always looking for more fun projects to work on. I think my eyes end up being bigger than my stomach. [Laughs] One of my favorite ones that I finished was the “Womanthology” project. We just had a really nice event for that at Acme Comics in North Carolina. The book is beautiful.
Can you tell us about your “Womanthology” story?
Absolutely. I did a story with two writers, Jenna Busch and Rachel Pandich. The theme of “Womanthology” is “Heroic” and we decided to do a story based on the nursery rhyme “Ladybird, Ladybird.” It goes, “Ladybird, Ladybird fly away home / Your house is on fire, your children alone / all except one, and her name is Ann / and she hid under the baking pan.” We decided to set it in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire at the turn of the century. It’s kind of grim, but we had so much fun doing it. I got to play a lot with the format of the storybook so each page has an arched top and little gargoyles on the side that are reacting to the story inside the borders. Rachel came up with these crazy scripts that were almost like Richard Scary where you’ve got people running up stairs on one side of the page and elevators coming down on the other side of the page and things happening in between — it was like “BusyTown.” Very fun to work on. Grim story, but really moving and it was a really fun project to do.
Janet Lee’s “The Wonderland Alphabet” releases in April through Achaia.