Matt Phelan Captures A "Storm in the Barn"

In just a few short years, Matt Phelan has built up a significant career as an illustrator with a long list of children's books, including "Always," written by Ann Stott, and the Newberry Award winning "The Higher Power of Lucky," written by Susan Patron. This past September saw the release of Phelan's first graphic novel through Candlewick Press, "The Storm in the Barn," which he wrote and illustrated.

Telling the story of a young boy named Jack growing up in 1937 in the midst of the Kansas Dust Bowl, Phelan illustrated and painted the book in watercolors to give a unique, dusty look to the story of a family caught up in the midst of one of the United States' great disasters. Despite the numerous historical details, "The Storm in the Barn" is a tall tale set in that mythic America populated by Ichabod Crane, Dorothy Gale, Paul Bunyan and many others. Phelan took the time to talk with CBR News about his recently released book and the medium he's fallen in love with.

CBR News: Matt, you've described "The Storm in the Barn" as a fable - why do you find that particular word appropriate for your book?

MATT PHELAN: I just checked with Merriam-Webster online and saw that their definition includes the phrase "a legendary story of supernatural happenings," which works well for my purposes. In my mind, a fable also denotes a smaller, quieter tale than a Myth or Legend. I was hoping "The Storm in the Barn" would have that sort of feel to it.

There's a quotation from Sir Napier Shaw that you use to open the book which really sets the tone for what you're trying to do, and I just wanted to reprint it here for people to get a sense of it. "Every theory of the course of events in nature is necessarily based on some process of simplification of the phenomena and is to some extent therefore a fairy tale." Where did you come across this?

I was in a used bookstore and saw a book called "Storm" by George Stewart ,and since that was also the working title of my book at the time, I picked it up. It's a novel from 1941 that follows a storm as it starts in the ocean and wreaks havoc in its path. It's a potboiler, but a neat idea. Anyway, the Shaw quote was used in that book and, like you said, it seemed a perfect note to start my story with, so I used it, too. I doubt Sir Napier Shaw ever expected the Manual of Meteorology would be referenced in two novels.

Is it a coincidence that the story begins with a family leaving town and heading West, which is of course how "The Grapes of Wrath" and so many stories that we're familiar with about the Dust Bowl tend to begin, in that they follow the people who left, not those who stayed.

I wanted to show that the Dust Bowl was already very much in progress, that this wasn't a story about the coming of the dust. For the Talbot family, the beginning of this book is the end of their particular story. I needed to show that things were already bad enough that people were getting out.

You wrote in the author's note that the story began with the image of a "tall, dark, sinister figure with a face like a thunderstorm." Without spoiling things for readers, could you take us from how that single image became an entire graphic novel?

I had wanted to write a story set in the Dust Bowl for many years but I never could find the right angle. When I made that doodle, it led me to ask some questions. What story would have a man made of rain? What world would that be in contrast with? When I connected the Storm man with the Dust Bowl, the pieces started to fall into place.

What made you decide to tell this story as a graphic novel?

It started as a prose novel with illustrations, but I quickly realized that a handful of drawings could convey the same information that was taking me pages to get down. Being an illustrator first and foremost, I think mostly in images so it felt right to tell the story that way. Plus, by doing it as a graphic novel, I could use silence, which is something I find very powerful.

Are you a comics fan? Was there anything that really inspired you or showed you what was possible doing a story in a graphic novel format?

When I was growing up in the seventies, there were a lot of reprints of classic comics coming out (much like today actually). So I read Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, Tarzan, and the silver age Marvel collections like "Son of Origins of Marvel Comics." I was a Spider-Man fan, but it was Ditko's Spidey, not the one on the newstands at the time. I didn't really go back to comics until "Bone" started coming out in the mid-90s. I read the first black and white "Bone" trade and was hooked.

In addition to Jeff Smith, I'd say Mike Mignola was a big inspiration, not with his drawing style, but with the way he paces his books and creates atmosphere. I love "The Amazing Screw-On Head." As far as showing me what is possible in a graphic novel format, I was really struck by the emotional punch of Raymond Briggs' "Ethel & Ernest."

There are many long, silent stretches in "The Storm in the Barn." How important was it for you to include these moments, and how did you balance those with the fairly dialogue-heavy sections?

Being able to use silence was one of the main reasons that I wanted to do this book as a graphic novel. You can tell a lot with a look, gesture or posture, and the image of the dust covering the ruined fields communicates desolation without needing a caption or some character commenting on the situation. I didn't want it to be completely silent, because I wanted to bring in the idea of the different stories (Jack Tales, Oz, his mother's memories). I did try to strike a balance (while favoring the silent sections).

Coming from a background in illustration and picture books, what are the skills that really helped you in crafting this book and did you come across any challenges that you hadn't anticipated?

I think book illustration develops your ability to express a moment clearly in a single image. In a picture book for instance, which is 32 pages long, every image counts. At the same time, you are constantly aware of the rhythm of the book and the importance of the page turn. Fortunately, I didn't really run into any unexpected challenges. The biggest challenge was something that I anticipated all along: the discipline needed to draw all of the panels in a fairly long book and not get burned out before the deadline.

Did you find yourself approaching your art and storytelling differently than when you illustrate a picture book?

After I had written the script for "Storm," but before I had started drawing it, I wrote and drew two short comics for a couple of anthologies. The first was a 4-pager about Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression for "Our White House," which was a lesson in economy. For the anthology "Sideshow," which came out earlier this year, I contributed a 14-page story (Jargo!) about a freak that freaks out the other freaks. I finished that right before starting to draw "Storm," so it was a great warm-up. The process to making a picture book is similar, but the real difference comes in how you manipulate panel size to suggest pacing. I think you just have to get in there and start doing it in order to learn how it works.

The lead character is a boy named Jack - was this a deliberate name choice, intended to be a call out to various other "Jacks" from classic fables?

He was called Jack specifically so I could bring in the Jack Tales. The Jack Tales are stories that were being told in Southern Appalachia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Richard Chase collected the oral stories and set them down in a book in 1943. They all feature a boy named Jack who outsmarts various troublemakers. There are some stories that mirror European folk tales (Jack and the Beanstalk becomes Jack and the Bean Tree, for instance). There's one story called Jack and the North West Wind so I knew there was a precedent for weather-based tales.

In my mind, Ernie (who tells the Jack Tales to the boy Jack) was raised in Appalachia or had an Appalachian relative who told him the stories. To emphasize the oral nature, Ernie has a difficult time recalling some of the details. That doesn't stop him from telling the stories, though. I think he began telling Jack the stories because of his name, and also because he sensed that Jack needed a little boost to his confidence. Ernie's memory of the oral tales is not the greatest, so I think he has kind of made up some of his own Jack Tales along the way. The story he does tell Jack has elements from a real Jack Tale, but it's kind of jumbled.

It's an interesting point that Jack's sister, Dorothy, makes about how the dust destroyed Jack's chance to grow up. For those who stayed, the passage of childhood to adulthood was through work, and without crops, that didn't happen. At what point in writing and developing the story did this come to you as the center of the book and why is Dorothy the one to explain it to Jack?

Early in the story's development, I realized that the relationship between Jack and his father would be emotionally crucial. Jack's standing with his father is not his fault - he was born too late to help before the draught, and now he is aging at a time when there is no work on the farm to be done. He has no chance to prove himself. His father doesn't hate him or resent him, he just doesn't see a useful place for him.

Dorothy, Jack's older sister, is in many ways the closest person to Jack in the family. She sympathizes with Jack and understands the spot he's in. The other reason I wanted Dorothy to be the one to point this out to Jack, is that she could just as well be talking about herself. The rain going away has led to her illness and threatens to take away her chance to grow up, too. She doesn't realize that at the moment, but I think Jack does.

I assume that Jack's sister's name, Dorothy, homages "The Wizard of Oz," but I was curious as to whether the film, which is based in a similar era and surroundings, influenced the use of color in the book?

I always loved how that movie used the black and white for Kansas and then full technicolor for Oz. In this book, I was trying to use color (or lack of color) in a dramatic way as opposed to a realistic way. So, for the mother's memories of the past, I brought in greens and blue skies to accentuate how much they've lost. As the story progresses, I tried to drain even more color from the dust, making it colder and more grey by the time we get to the rabbit drive, which is the low point for these people.

I kept thinking of that Willa Cather line, "Between the earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be." Jack refuses to accept things as they are.

That's a wonderful Willa Cather quote.  I do believe Jack's heroism is based in his refusal to let things die. Despite the odds, despite his fear, he stands up and tries to save his family.

How did you come across the concept of the rabbit drive, and what was the challenge in terms of conveying the horror of it without resorting to cheap tricks?

I first read about the rabbit drives in Donald Worster's book "Dust Bowl," which was a primary source of information for me. A few years later, I caught the American Experience documentary, "Surviving the Dust Bowl," which included film footage of a particularly large and notorious rabbit drive. It was clear that the event scarred a lot of the participants and witnesses, some of whom were children at the time. I knew a rabbit drive would be strong enough push Jack into action, but I was concerned about it being too brutal. My editor at Candlewick was solidly in favor of including the scene. As far as depicting the violence, it's always scarier to me to imply what's going on and let the reader fill in the blanks. For some reason, showing a man raising a club in the air is more powerful than showing the actual blow.

Your book's color scheme is simple, but very effective, utilizing watercolors, earth tones and the use of blue and red to depict an era that we largely think about in black and white due to the historical documentation from that period. Did that affect how you used color, or did you approach it in the same way you would tell a contemporary story?

I wanted to use color very specifically, contrasting the dusty browns with the blues that are used for the barn and the Storm King, and then bringing in the red for a very intentional shock. Also, all of the people in the story are rendered in black and white as a nod to the photographs of the era, which is how I think of these people, too.

Did you know from the start that the book would be done in watercolor?

No. In my pitch to publishers, I had included a 4-page "trailer" for the book which was computer-colored pencil sketches. It looked OK, and my publisher assumed that's how the book would be. But once I started, I realized that I wanted to use a traditional medium to really give it a unique look. Also, coming from picture books, I was far more comfortable with traditional versus digital. At first, I experimented with pastels, thinking that would give it an appropriately dusty look, but it turned out that watercolor gave me better results. You can't really control watercolor, which I thought was similar to how the dust of that time was constantly moving around everywhere.

So, having written and illustrated and painted this book, do you see yourself creating another graphic novel?

Absolutely. I fell in love with what you can do with this medium. I've written my second graphic novel and will begin drawing it shortly. It's based on three true stories of people who made solo journeys around the world at the end of the 19th century. It's very different from "The Storm in the Barn," in both tone and structure. I can't wait to dive in. After "Around the World," I have some more ideas for graphic novels, so hopefully I'll have a chance to keep making these books.

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