Matt Phelan was already a noted illustrator and picture book artist when he wrote and painted his first graphic novel. A masterful fable about a young boy growing up during the Dust Bowl, Phelan’s “The Storm in the Barn” was awarded multiple prizes including the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. His next graphic novel “Around the World” looked at three late-19th Century efforts to circumnavigate the globe and was nominated for two Eisner Awards.
When you read one of Phelan’s comics, it’s easy to see why he’s received such acclaim. He has a masterful sense of pacing, using the artwork to tell the story and great skill at conveying emotion. His new book, published by Candlewick Press, is “Bluffton,” a story which opens in 1908 and tells the story of Henry Harrison, a young boy growing up in Michigan who befriends another boy his age. Harry’s friend turns out to be a gifted vaudevillian named Buster Keaton, who would go on to be one of the great actors and directors in the history of film.
The book is funny, thoughtful and presents a mythic, classic version of summertime. CBR spoke with Phelan about the impetus behind creating “Bluffton,” the level of research he put into his depiction of the world of vaudeville and why he continues to write period piece comics.
CBR News: I suppose to start, we should explain to the people who don’t know, just who Buster Keaton was and how you learned about him.
Matt Phelan: The quick answer is that Buster Keaton was a silent film comedian and a contemporary of Charlie Chaplin. The more complete answer is that he was a genius and one the greatest filmmakers of any era. Not only did his movies feature amazing stuntwork, he had an innate sense of editing (at a time when editing film was just being invented) that makes his movies truly ahead of their time. Keaton’s movies are surreal (before surrealism) and visually poetic.Â Also, they’re hilarious.Â Orson Welles said that he had the most beautiful face in the movies. I could go on.
When I was around five or six I saw my first two Keaton movies (“Cops” and “The General”) which my dad had on Super 8. We also watched Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy, who I also loved, but Buster was special. My fascination grew steadily over the years into a kind of obsession by the time I was in college.
Where did the idea for “Bluffton” come from?Â
Buster’s autobiography has a long segment about his summers in Bluffton, and when I read it, I thought it would make a great story. That was about twenty years ago. For a long time, I was stuck trying to tell the story from Buster’s point of view. A few years ago, I realized that it should be from the point of view of a “normal” kid from Muskegon, who sees these extraordinary vaudevillians every summer. A simple change, but it made the whole story click.
How much research was involved in finding out about Bluffton and Keaton and vaudeville?
I read a lot about vaudeville. I wanted to know about the acts but also how it all worked:Â the circuits, the hierarchy of acts on the bill, that sort of thing. I knew it wouldn’t all go into the book, but I felt that it was important that I understood it. Of course, I had to watch all of Buster’s movies again (for the millionth time) which was the easiest chore in the world. I also took a trip to Bluffton to wander the neighborhood and get a feel for the place. It really hasn’t changed all that much.
There are a lot of great scenes in the book — the Awakener, different gags and things like the elephant carrying off a drunk Joe Keaton. How much was from Keaton’s autobiography and how much was you inventing crazy scenes?
All of the pranks are directly from Keaton’s autobiography. The trick was to figure out an approximation of how he did it since the descriptions are vague. He used elaborate pulley systems in some his early shorts so I guessed that might have factored into the Awakener. There’s an anecdote about someone getting drunk at Pascoe’s and being taken home via elephant. It wasn’t Joe but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that it was him on some occasion.
It’s also just a great portrait of summer in this mythic sense that the season has when you’re a kid. How much of that idea was central for you when you were starting to think about the book?
That idea was very important to me. After working out Buster and Henry’s story, I knew that I had to try to get to what you rightly call the mythic sense of summer. Particularly, the summers and the kind of friendships boys have when they’re 12 or so. That’s also very unique. In many ways, the friendships you have at that age and the experience of long summers without responsibilities is never replicated again.
Part of how you accomplished this is with your watercolors.
I’ve been using watercolor as my primary medium for about nine years, and I think I’m just starting to maybe slightly understand it. It’s a difficult medium, but a lot of the difficulty is in just letting go. When you use it freely, you can get the best results. It’s also a perfect medium for conveying sunlight and “summerness.” I looked at the work of Winslow Homer and Carl Larsson (an early 20th Century Swedish artist) for inspiration.
All three of your graphic novels have been period pieces. Why do you think that is?
I am fascinated by history, particularly history that isn’t well known. When I wrote “Around the World,” part of the impetus was the fact that I had never heard of Thomas Stevens who was the first person to ride a bicycle around the world. Why wouldn’t that be taught in school?Â
I guess if I thought of a contemporary story, I’d write it. But I hate the idea of trying to incorporate cellphones and computers into the plot. In many ways, going to the past is much like a fantasy world to readers today. It’s so completely foreign to modern times.Â
“The Storm in the Barn” has seen big success since it came out, winning a lot of awards. Last year, it was turned into a play with music by Black Prairie. Did you get to see it and what did you think of the idea of turning it into a play?
I did see the play, and it was the most surreal and wonderful experience of my career. Aside from giving the okay, I had nothing to do with it, which was exciting. The Oregon Children’s Theatre developed it in a really stylized, theatrical way, with minimal sets, a Greek Chorus of townspeople and a Storm King created with masks and stilts. It was very faithful to the book yet it’s own thing, completely. I loved it. The music by Black Prairie is just gorgeous. Chris Funk would email me demos of the songs as they were working, and I ran out of ways to compliment them. I wish I had had their soundtrack when I was working on the book!
There’s also a new picture book you drew, “Xander’s Panda Party.” I know that you make a graphic novel every couple years, drawing picture books more frequently. What do you enjoy about picture books and what do you look for in one?
I love picture books. I am in awe of them. Nothing is more difficult than the perfection that can be achieved in those 32 pages. A great picture book is a combination of the words and the pictures in harmony, a rhythm to the page turning and an ability to communicate a great deal with very little. It also needs to work for both a child and an adult. Stylistically, they can be anything. Any medium can work. There is a ton of freedom and yet very real constraints. When they really work, a child will remember that book for the rest of their lives.
I love graphic novels, and the longer stories I’ve wanted to tell fit that medium. But I’ve tried both, and writing a picture book is harder.
What is the biggest difference between the graphic novels and picture books? Is it the length?
I don’t think there is much of a difference. I approach each in basically the same way: Economy, precision, communicating the most out of an image — all of these things are present in both.
Length is definitely a component, as well as the stamina you need to see a graphic novel to the end. The big difference is in the panels and how you can size them to affect your pacing. You can argue that picture books can be seen as sequential storytelling (and many of them have used panels for decades) but the number of panels per page and what you can achieve with them is key to the power of a graphic novel.Â
Phelan is currently on a book tour promoting “Bluffton” and “Xander’s Panda Party” including a group art show at the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania, the annual Buster Keaton Convention in Mukegon, Michigan, and the New York Comic Con. More details are available on his website at planetham.blogspot.com.