September 24, 2011 is the 75th birthday of entertainment legend Jim Henson.
Celebrating the milestone date of the Muppet creator’s birth, this fall Archaia will release “A Tale of Sand,” a graphic novel adaptation of one of Henson’s un-filmed screenplays from the 1970s. Co-written by Henson’s frequent writing partner Jerry Juhl, “A Tale of Sand” follows the tale of Mac, a young man who finds himself adrift in the desert with only a rucksack full of assorted objects. While not much is known about the plot beyond those minute details, Henson fans are already getting excited at the chance to finally see some form of this un-produced work.
Bringing life to Henson’s words and adapting them for the printed page is artist RamÃ³n Perez, who recalled for CBR News his excitement about the project when he was first approached by Archaia. “Basically, [Archaia editor] Chris Robinson was the one who contacted me and sent me over the first ten or fifteen pages of the script to peruse,” Perez said. “He mentioned the project and wondered if I’d be interested. I said, ‘Okay, this is pretty cool, what is this?’ And he said, ‘A script by Jim Henson.’ He filled me in on the backstory and I was like, ‘Holy shit! You have to give me the whole script so I can read it over!
“Basically, he gave me the whole script, I read it over a few days,” continued Perez. “It’s the original screenplay from ’74, I think. There were a few different artists that got approached and then I guess they turned over the samples to the Henson Company and they narrowed it down to myself. After that it was just getting on board and adapting once contracts and stuff were banged out. I sat down for about a month with the script and adapted it into sequential format. We did some editing on it just for length, because it [had to be] 120 pages. It was a little serendipitous, it actually felt quite natural. It was cool.”
Describing his creative process, Perez told CBR, “After reading the script a couple of times, I sat down with my sketchbook and basically started sketching and adapting and the film just started unraveling in my head. The script itself is very light on dialogue; it’s all about visual story. It could almost be a silent film with a principle soundtrack. If you cut all the dialogue, it would still work. It was very detailed, and I had to adapt the pacing to a graphic novel where you have page turns. You want to keep exciting moments as much as possible as the reader is flipping through.”
The artist also mentioned that it was initially difficult to cut content from Henson’s screenplay. “The page count was an issue. On my first pass, the graphic novel came in at 160 pages. Archaia originally wanted it to be 120, so we actually had to make some compromises,” he said. “We went back to my adaptation and actually cut some parts out. At first, I felt kind of bad about that, but I remembered on my first pass of adapting the script, I was going through and saying, ‘This section here is kind of redundant.’ I feel like maybe, and this is me guessing here, that it was stuff that Jim might have cut had he actually filmed it. He might have gone back during the editing process and thought that it might be a little long here, this needs to be a little shortened there. Especially after I talked with Lisa Henson, his daughter, where she said, ‘Yeah, cut some stuff because my dad always edited right until the very end — it was very much an organic process.’ I took those words in stride and realized, we’re using this as a launching point. So there are some changes to the script — we haven’t added to it, but we did take away from some of the sequences we thought were a little repetitive or redundant.”
“Overall, it was a very smooth process,” he continued. “My editors, Stephen Christy and Chris Robinson, were very open and gave me a lot of free rein. They came in with their notes here and there, where they thought it needed to be shortened or tweaked or adjusted. Lisa Henson as well came in at a few moments, because everything was run by the Henson Company.”
Perez’s excitement in adapting “A Tale of Sand” is understandable, considering that he’s a lifelong fan of Henson’s work. “I grew up with Jim’s stuff, obviously, like most of people of my generation, if not younger or older, I was glued to the TV when ‘The Muppet Show’ was on, ‘Labyrinth’ — all that stuff,” the artist told CBR News. “I was kind of fascinated because this side of his work I had never really experienced or realized before. I had never heard of it. I just knew Jim from pop culture side of his work, and then there’s this whole other art house side that I was really unfamiliar with. It was a real joy to enrich myself in this other side of him that I wasn’t aware of, and experience his short films, his time piece. The Jim Henson Company was great, they sent over a bunch of DVDs burned with a lot of his short films from the ’60s and ’70s. Some were experimental, some were more commercial, but they were all different from what we knew of him as a creative force from my youth anyway. It was really cool to learn about and enrich myself in this other aspect of Jim.”
Familiarizing himself with Henson’s work from that era was a key piece of the artist’s adaptation process as he turned the script into a piece of sequential artwork. “It’s me trying to figure out how Jim might have tried to adapt it through his own techniques,” said Perez. “Using color and sound and pacing and visual chaos that he had in these other shorts, I’ve had to figure out how to translate that into the graphic novel 2D medium. It’s an adventure, in that way, but it’s all quite natural. I hope I’m doing it justice!”
Perez’s experience working with comics, books, posters, sequential art and children’s illustration has helped him in crafting a compelling adaptation of Henson’s work. “Everything I’ve done up to this point has been creating knowledge base for storytelling,” he said. “I think being a good artist is one thing. but being a good storyteller is another. There are people who are good at one or the other, but there are guys that excel at both. I’ve been lucky; working with great writers and working on my own stuff on an independent basis helped me kind of create a nice strong storytelling affect to my work. My variety of work as a whole helped me come into this with an open mind, thinking, this is my project, but it’s also Jim’s project. How do I come in and make him as visually apparent, being that he’s not with us anymore, and adapt my style that way?
“The way I tackled the panel layouts to storytelling to character design, even the art direction and coloring all reflect a bit of my immersion in Jim’s independent work at that time.”
While “A Tale of Sand” is unique due to its unreleased and unseen nature, this is not the first time one of Jim Henson’s creations has been adapted for comics. “The Muppet Show,” “The Dark Crystal” and “Fraggle Rock” have all appeared in comics at one point or another, but Perez mentions that “A Tale of Sand’s” individuality shines through in other ways. “I think all of those properties are that one side [of Jim Henson] that everyone is familiar with. A lot of these things are characters and creations where people know their story and they’re going to get to learn more, now, with a prequel or sequel or side tale or whatever it is. I think ‘A Tale of Sand’ is going to be very surprising for a lot of people because it’s very different from his other stuff. Though he’s pulled bits and pieces of it, because it was an un-filmed screenplay, you could tell there were pieces that he liked and used in some of his other films. There are pieces from ‘The Muppet Movie’ that were pulled directly from ‘A Tale of Sand.’ Short, maybe five-minute sequences that show up in ‘The Muppet Movie.’
“I think with ‘A Tale of Sand,’ it’s much more art house, it’s much more pop culture, it’s much more experimental,” Perez continued. “It’s more of a comment, also, on society of that era, but I think it’s also a personal note to Jim’s own life and struggling art at the time. There are so many ideas about this side of being that plays up a lot in ‘Tale of Sand’ as well. It’s very much about a man who is racing against time. He doesn’t know when the clock stops, he doesn’t know where the destination is, but he’s riding to get there, and a lot of things are going to play into that, into the story as well. I think it’s going to be a more intellectual, more experimental side of Jim that readers are going to experience through ‘A Tale of Sand.'”
According to Perez, while the structure and pacing of the script may be somewhat anachronistic, the message it conveys remains relevant. “I think the script in itself is very timeless in the sense of the subject matter it covers,” he said. “The actual script itself, the delivery, it’s very much a film of the ’70s. The pacing, the visuals, it reminded me of a couple other films of that era, just stylistically. If you were actually making a film today, I would probably say you had to change it up a lot, but the messages it conveys and the layers — on the first pass of reading, you get what kind of story it is. Amongst other readings, you get layers peeled back and you discover a little bit more of the story. I think it’s those things that people discover that are pretty much timeless. The first time I was reading the screenplay, I related much of it to my own life. Learning a bit about Jim from Karen Falk, the Henson archivist, I began to learn a bit about Jim’s life during that time, and I compared it to my own as a struggling artist and creative individual. I could see those notes of his own life in the script. I think what it talks about, the mental levels if you will, of the story are definitely timeless.”
While Perez could not speak to a specific moment of the story that struck a chord with him personally and creatively without revealing the plot, he was happy to share a bit about the main character of the book and his motivations throughout. “I don’t want to reveal too much about it because it’s so peculiar. I remember on my first pass at reading it, I turned the pages on the script and I thought, ‘What the fuck is going on here? This is bizarre.’ Then you get to the end and realize it brings a whole new level to things. Then, you read it again and you see a few other things in the story and you begin to see the characters not as literal, but as vessels for the reader.
“The lead character, Mac, is so simple. I think he has five lines of dialogue,” continued Perez. “You know nothing about this character. He has this quest — he doesn’t know why he’s on it — and a couple simple things throughout the story are his tale. He wants to go light his cigarette, and it’s a big satisfaction when he finally gets to that moment. I think that’s one of the big driving forces of this character, which is sort of simple. You look at it on your first read and you’re like, ‘What? Bizzare.’ But as you read it again, you realize that Mac’s not really Mac, he’s actually Jim or he’s you. Once you place yourself in the story and then you go through the story, it makes a bit more sense, especially when you get to the ending where a lot more is revealed. There’s a lot more here that ties in to life, work, family — just things that Jim might have been concerned with at the time. His career was taking off, his movies were in more of a commercial realm with the Muppets and ‘The Dark Crystal,’ ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Sesame Street.’
“The overall script and story really touched a few bolts in my life,” Perez said. “Once readers get to that point in the story, it’s going to take it to the next level with them.”