Trained in animation, Dutch cartoonist Aimée de Jongh has made a number of short films and just completed “Behind the Telescopes,” which is a collaboration with the musician Lavinia Meijer. She’s drawn children’s books, has a daily comic strip “Snippers,” and has created a number of short comics. Now, her first graphic novel -- “The Return of the Honey Buzzard” -- has just been translated into English.
The book, available now from SelfMadeHero, is de Jongh’s first graphic novel, but it shows she's already developed a mastery of the form. Earlier this year, her second graphic novel was published in Holland, and a feature film was made based on “The Return of the Honey Buzzard.” And while the book establishes de Jongh as one of the great young cartoonists in the world, she took time out of her busy schedule to talk with CBR about her graphic novel debut.
Where did the idea for “The Return of the Honey Buzzard” originate?
Aimée de Jongh: The original idea was to make a graphic novel based on the incredible book "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding. I love the dramatic events and themes in the story. The book was never adapted to comic, only to film, and I thought that it would be a great project to start with. My publisher The Busy Bee, which is one of the largest publishers in The Netherlands, soon contacted Golding's publisher to talk it through. We got pretty close, but in the end, we didn't get the rights–So we had to start all over again.
Then, my editor proposed to make an original story, based on the same themes and elements that intrigued me. That's how we started. It was almost like a giant puzzle of things that we liked, of which I picked certain things that were interesting enough for a final draft. Based on those, I started writing the new story, and a couple months later the sketched pages were finished.
What is it about “Lord of the Flies” that continues to resonate with you? And what aspect of the book did you feel you needed to have in “The Return of the Honey Buzzard?”
“Lord of the Flies” is one of my favorite books, because of it's unusual setting and the growth of the characters. What I loved most is that the children in the book seem like innocent and curious creatures at first, but by the end of the book, they've turned into mean and angry adults. And this change happened because they needed to survive. In “The Return of the Honey Buzzard,” there's something similar, in the way that Simon needs to go through many changes in order to get his life back together. Changing personalities, surviving, these are all themes in the book. But also selfishness: It's interesting how kids can appear selfish to us, adults, but when it comes to life and death, we all will think of ourselves first before turning to other people. That's what the bullies (and eventually Ralf too) are doing in my book as well. They are choosing what works best for them, without considering the consequences it will have on other people.
What was the process of writing the book like?
I wouldn't say that I wrote the book, in the conventional way. I usually work with thumbnails of each page, which I sketch very rapidly. Almost as if I see the film of the book and I'm translating it into a storyboard. It's not working quite as well for me when I write or type a full scenario. Expressing movement and pictures into words feels so limited. It kills the dynamics and emotion that I have in mind quite easily. So dialogue and text are really the last phase for me. When the flow on every page works, that's when I'll fill in the dialogue. The flow is everything to me - and that's what makes the book read like a film sometimes. It's also why I don't use text in every panel or even on every page. Sometimes the pictures say it all already.
You’d been making comics for many years, but what was the experience like working on a graphic novel like this?
It was a great adventure. Normally, I work for the Dutch newspaper “Metro,” where I publish my daily gag comic series “Snippers.” It's a typical four-panel humouristic comic, and I've been writing and drawing it for five years now. It's nice to do, but I could never draw very detailed backgrounds for example, because that's just not the place for that. Storywise I felt the same: I could never go very deep, while I was actually very interested in storytelling and human behaviour. The graphic novel finally gave me the freedom to draw and write the book I wanted to make. It's been incredibly hard sometimes, but it was so much fun to do. I realized this genre is more for me. It fits my personality better, I guess.
Are you interested in birds? Where did that aspect of the book come from?
Not particularly. The idea of the honey buzzard came from a Dutch TV documentary about wildlife in our country. The honey buzzard is called a “wespendief” here, which translates to “wasp thief.” I found that a very poetic name, and I instantly wrote it down. I learned more about the bird on TV and internet, and found out that it had fascinating habits, that would work well as a metaphor. That's how it all started. Still I'm not much of a bird expert, and I don't think I'll ever be.
How did you decide on the way the book looks. Why did you draw the book in pen and ink and not use color?
I'm a big fan of black and white comics, whether it's the cityscapes of Will Eisner or the post-apocalyptic grounds of Katsuhiro Otomo. I think it's incredible what you can do with just two colors. Depth, movement, shade, light. I wanted to make a black and white book from the start and my publisher believed in it as well. I'm glad we kept it that way - I love how the lines are sketchy but never chaotic. It would've been a shame if all those lines would've been filled with colours and gradients.
You mentioned a few different cartoonists, but as you were starting to think about the book that would become “The Return of the Honey Buzzard,” were there comics you were looking at or thinking about? Not necessarily models, but a starting point for the book, similar to how “Lord of the Flies” was in a narrative sense?
I didn't use any books in particular to draw “The Return of the Honey Buzzard.” It's more subtle than that. In a way, I used all the graphic novels I ever read, because they're somehow still with me when I draw. I've read Craig Thompson's “Blankets” a million times, so I'm sure that his style is influencing me on a subconscious level. But it's not like I've really looked at books for reference during the process. I also didn't read too many comics in that period, because I didn't want to get too influenced by what others did.
You also make a daily comic, “Snippers,” as you mentioned. For people who haven’t read it, what is the strip like?
The comic is about me and my fictional roommate Stef. We really just go about our business like everyone else, but funnier. It's about everyday life, or maybe more about the struggle of living. The jokes can be very humouristic, but sometimes it's also more philosophical and subtle. I like to make readers think about how the ordinary things in life can be ironic, or funny - even if they are maybe a bit painful too. I love making fun of my own faults and mistakes, and luckily, I'm not alone. I hear that many people recognize themselves when reading the comic.
Do you in fact have a roommate who is being fictionalized? Or did you just invent a character named Stef for the comic strip “you” to interact with?
I invented Stef to have someone to talk to in the comic. But I did not use an existing friend or relative - that would be too difficult. I make up everything of the conversation in the comic, and I could really imagine that person not liking or connecting with the things I would make him say. It's easier to just use a fictional character, so you never have to discuss that. As for me, that's easier. If I don't want my own character to say something, I'll just let her say something else. But I can't decide that for other people.
Were daily comics a big influence for you as a kid and when you were starting out as an artist?
Not necessarily. I did read many Belgian comics like “Spirou,” “Tintin” and “Lucky Luke.” Those were the biggest influence on me when I was younger. When other kids wanted to be a dancer or a soccer player, I wanted to become a comic author. That never really changed.
You also had a new book “Reborn” which came out in the Netherlands earlier this year, which is a very different book. Did you intentionally want your next book to have a different look and approach?
“Reborn” was in fact a commissioned comic book, a 44-page one shot, about a girl who finds out that she's the first human clone. It's about finding your identity and dealing with where you came from. The comic was published in a bi-weekly magazine that focusses mainly on traditional Belgian and Dutch comics. That's why I decided to change the style of drawing, and make it a bit more “classic” in a way. I wouldn't say that I prefer drawing that way. It was purely a choice to make it fit in the magazine it was published in.
Besides your comics work, you studied animation in school and have made many animated projects over the years. What for you is the relationship like between comics and animation? Do you think of them as similar art forms or are they very different for you?
They are very similar in the concept phase, when I'm working out the characters, flow and story. But when it comes to the work itself, it's very different. Animation isn't really something you do alone, it's teamwork. Another important difference is the amount of work. It takes up to 25 drawings to animate 1 second, and I usually animate 1 to 3 seconds on a day. That could be the movement of a person lifting his hand a few inches, for example. But on the same day I could draw two comic pages, in which a character can travel, fight, talk, meet people, where it can kill or die. That's why drawing a comic gives you the idea that you're progressing more quickly. That's nice. As a job, I think I prefer making comics. Still, animation has music, sounds, and it's magical in a way. In my free time, I love looking at both media just as much, that's for sure.
Could you talk a little about “Behind the Telescopes,” which just premiered?
“Behind the Telescopes” is a fully animated film that I just finished last month. The project is quite unique, because it combines live music with an exclusive animated film, that is only played together with the music. The music is played by harpist Lavinia Meijer, who is no doubt the best harpist that we have in Holland, and has worked with Philip Glass and many other composers. She wanted to tell the story about young astronaut Lyra. Lyra decides to start a colony on another planet, because Earth is in danger, with of all the refugees and the environment issues. Still, in a way, she becomes a refugee herself. Her journey is illustrated in the live music, as well as the live sound effects and the animation. There's pieces from Philip Glass, James Horner, Nils Frahm and even John Mayer. The complete show is 70 minutes long and took exactly a year to make. It's a stunning experience to see, because the music and images are perfectly balanced. I hope we manage to travel abroad with the show soon. For anyone who's interested, there's a trailer on my webpage (www.aimeedejongh.com).
Have you started thinking about your next book? One that unlike “Reborn” is more in “your” style and playing with the space to experiment with storytelling?
I'm working on a new graphic novel, together with the acclaimed Belgian comic writer Zidrou. He is one of the best and very well-known in Europe. It's a great honor to work with him, and the book will be something special too. It's about two older people who fall in love, while struggling with showing and loving their older self. The book will have it's release at Dargaud first, hopefully somewhere next year. It will be more in my realistic style of drawing, for sure.
"The Return of the Honey Buzzard" has also been made into a movie. What was the experience of that like?
First off: I still can't believe that there's a film based on my book. It all happened so quickly. And it's very weird, to be honest. I saw how the crew went looking for locations that looked like the fictional ones I came up with for the book. Or how they searched for actors that looked like the characters I designed from scratch. It's even more fascinating to visit the set - it's really like walking in your own book. But I'm also very proud and I realize that it doesn't happen very often with graphic novels like this one. It's such a subtle and psychological story, and they did a great job! I loved the end result. During the making of the film, I wasn't really involved, and I'm glad. They were professionals doing what they do best. I did my part by making the book, and I let them do the rest. I did get to play a little part, a cameo, as a visitor in the bookstore. I'm buying my own book–really corny, I know! But you won't really notice unless you know the book's cover. The film will be released in Spring 2017 and will be broadcasted on Dutch TV. Hopefully it will go to some international film festivals too. I'm a bit nervous though, to hear what the audience loved more–the book or the film.