In 1993, “Grendel” and “Mage” creator Matt Wagner was approached with an offer he couldn’t refuse: Help the legendary Harvey Kurtzman adapt a short story by sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury to comics. The result, while something Wagner is proud of, was not the experience he’d envisioned when he accepted the gig.
“In this series of behind-the-scenes articles, I’d like to revisit a piece of my work that, sadly, not many people have ever seen,” Wagner tells CBR. “This short story adaptation was very important to me on both a creative and professional level, and herein we’ll take a look at the entire process of how it came to be.”
“It Burns Me Up” is copyright the Ray Bradbury Estate.
In 1993, I was contacted by an editor at Byron Preiss Publications to see if I was interested in providing “finishes” for an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury short story. The layouts and adaptation to the story were provided by the legendary Harvey Kurtzman, creator of (among others) “MAD Comics” (before it became a magazine) and “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy. Needless to say, I leapt at the chance to collaborate with such a monumental talent in our field. The results were both incredibly fulfilling and regrettably frustrating. I’d like to relate the history of how this piece came together and will provide commentary as we go. Each will segment will also include the following visuals; 1) my finished painted art for the tale 2) Harvey’s original layouts, which I received as Xerox copies and 3)My base pencil art prior to rendering. The lettering for the story was done, at my request, by my longtime pal and artist extraordinaire, Tim Sale.
It was with a great deal of anticipation that I opened the envelope containing layouts from the legendary Harvey Kurtzman…only to be rather disappointed with the results. As is obvious, the layouts were pretty sketchy and rather hard to decifer. Additionally, as will become evident the further into the story we progress, they were also fairly unfinished. When I called the editor who had contacted me about this gig, he admitted that what was required amounted to quite a bit more than just “finishes” over Harvey’s layouts.
Another frustrating factor was the fact that Harvey had basically transcribe nearly every word of the original short story into the captions at the top of the panels, sometimes leaving only a half or even a third of the panel available for art. The editor also admitted that they had been running into this problem fairly often with their various other adaptations for their upcoming series, “Ray Bradbury Comics.” Artists and writers alike found themselves either intimidated or even, one could say, a bit too much in love with the fluid lyricism of Bradbury’s prose; they didn’t want to cut anything. I offered to fully adapt the story and shave back the text-heavy captions since I realized that, in a comic-book adaptation, you only need various hints of Bradbury’s poetry to convey the same flavor. So, we struck a new deal for my greater level of involvement on the project, and I set off to work.
As I mentioned, part of the daunting aspect to this job was the fact that Harvey Kurtzman’s layouts were somewhat hard to follow and, as we will see, inconsistent and incomplete. Additionally, the choice of story seemed to be an odd one. “It Burns Me Up” was one of Bradbury’s lesser known tales and read almost like something of a writing exercise rather than one of the lyrical Sci-Fi master’s more famous and focused efforts. The story is set-up as a parody of a standard murder mystery, all set in one room and featuring a cast of characters that are identified by their roles rather than by names — i.e.; the detective, the coroner, the reporter, etc. The twist on the story comes from the fact that the tale is narrated by the corpse of the murder victim who is lying in the center of the floor with a knife in his chest. A very disgruntled corpse, I might add.
I was familiar enough with Harvey Kurtzman’s work to know that the layouts I’d received were drastically out of character. His breakdowns for other artists, such as his “Annie Fanny” collaborator Will Elder, were famous for their impeccable story-telling and meticulous design-sense. Something was definitely wrong here, and this fact was only compounded by the rumors circulating throughout the industry that Harvey was in very poor health. This was confirmed to me by several colleagues who actually knew Harvey; he’d not only suffered a serious of strokes, he was also fighting a battle with an advanced stage of cancer. These sad facts only strengthened my resolve to make the most of what I’d been given to work with and, hopefully, produce a finished story that would make my legendary collaborator proud.
But I was still stuck with the conundrum of this strange and little-known oddity that Harvey had chosen to adapt. My editor claimed that the publisher had tried to convince Kurtzman to ply his skills on one of Bradbury’s more famous tale. “How about something from ‘The Martian Chronicles?’ Or ‘The Illustrated Man?'” they’d offered. But Harvey was determined and insistent that this was the story he wanted to approach. And then it struck me — as I said, this was a tale narrated by the corpse of a supremely resentful murder victim. Fighting back against his disease via the arena in which he felt most empowered, Harvey had chosen a story about a royally pissed-off dead guy. And suddenly my dedication to this project all but tripled overnight.
Newly inspired even beyond my initial enthusiasm, I was now even more determined to make something special out of this project. Something that would honor Kurtzman’s richly deserved legacy as one of our art form’s most innovative and fundamental talents. Most other artists who had worked with Harvey in this manner simply used the layouts as a narrative guide and then proceeded to redraw the entire story or book as per their own, usually more academically-informed styles. More “realistic,” that is. I wanted to strike a rendering style that would be evocative of the fluid and expressive energy found in Harvey’s own drawing. In fact, several years earlier, I’d drawn two issues of the original color “Grendel” series (#s 18 & 19) that were directly inspired by his work on the 1959 classic “Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book.” But… I didn’t want to just repeat the same approach with this story and so set about developing a look that was bold and cartoony, yet also retained its own unique flavor.
Around this same time, I’d also become enamored with the work of Italian cartoonist/illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti, whose seminal graphic novel “Fires” I’d devoured over and over again. I eventually worked up a style that I thought incorporated the frantic cartoon elements of Harvey’s approach coupled with my more traditional drawing and finished off with a healthy dose of Mattotti’s cubistic sense of color and design.
I had also decided that I was going to fully paint this story rather than render it in a more traditional ink style. And I wanted the approach to be colorful — garishly so. Seeing as how this was a murder mystery setting, the more obvious choice would be to go with somber colors, something that would accentuate a “noir” atmosphere and the deadly gravity of the situation. But this Bradbury story read more like a satirical send-up of such familiar tropes, with all the characters acting in the most vain, self-centered manner, and making a mockery of their seemingly serious roles. So, glaring colors seemed appropriate for such a burlesque narrative.
As I mentioned, the characters themselves are never given names in the story; each is described only by their professional role in this bleak and bumbling farce. As such, I decided to pare them down even further by rendering them all as basically an animated shape. Thus, the detective was a circle, the reporter was a rectangle and the coroner became a triangle. I opted for making the murder victim’s wife, a classic femme fatale, but rendered as all sinuous angles and the color of ice, a living embodiment of the knife sticking our of her husband’s chest. And the murder victim himself? Well, based on my feelings about Kurtzman’s motivations for adapting this tale, I made the victim look more than a wee bit like a caricature of Harvey himself.
So far, so good, right? Check back with CBR later this week for the second part of Matt Wagner’s tale, where things take a turn for the worse before they get better!