P. Craig Russell on Sandman: Dream Hunters

P. Craig Russell is one of the most acclaimed and admired artists working in the comics industry today. He is a creator who has trod his own path, spending much of his artistic career working on passionate projects, adapting to the medium things like operas -- most notably Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" -- and the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. Russell is clearly less interested in superheroes and standard comic book tropes than in fantasy, a genre whose breadth can be seen reflected in the scope of his work. Beyond Wagner and Oscar Wilde, Russell has adapted "Elric: Stormbringer" by Michael Moorcock and "Conan: The Jewels of Gwalhur" by Robert E. Howard, and has worked with some of comics' finest writers including Don McGregor, Roy Thomas, Bill Willingham, Mike Carey, and Mike Mignola.

Russell is probably best known for his many collaborations with writer Neil Gaiman, for whom he illustrated "Ramadan" in issue #50 of Vertigo's "The Sandman," reprinted in "Absolute Sandman" Volume 3. Russell's also illustrated a short story in "The Sandman: Endless Nights," and adapted and illustrated the Gaimain short story "Murder Mysteries" for Dark Horse.

Earlier this year saw the release of Russell's adaptation of Gaimain's children's book "Coraline," and available in stores now is his adaptation of "The Sandman: The Dream Hunters," originally a novella with illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano. When CBR reviewed the first issue of Russell's version, Greg McElhatton called the book "one of the most beautiful comics you'll see all year."

CBR News caught up with P. Craig Russell to learn more about his adaptation of "The Dream Hunters."

CBR: How did end up working on "The Sandman: The Dream Hunters?"

P. Craig Russel: I read Neil's first rough draft some ten years ago and knew immediately I wanted to adapt it. DC offered it to me around that time or shortly thereafter but I was in the middle of a five-year-long project (the 400 hundred-page "The Ring of the Nibelung") and couldn't commit until it was complete. When I was available there were several other Gaiman projects plus others like the Oscar Wilde books to finish so it wasn't until last summer that I called DC once again and it finally was the right time to address "The Dream Hunters."

Many "Dream Hunters" readers remember the Amano illustrations in the novella, but the two of you don't have a lot in common stylistically. How did you avoid comparisons and similarities?

You're right about our styles being so different. Nevertheless, I didn't want to be influenced in any way by another artist's ideas, at least not on the same project. What I did to avoid a motif he might have used was to not look at his beautiful drawings a single time after one brief glance ten years ago. That way, if there were any similarities they would be arrived at naturally as a response to the same inspirational source.

At what point in the process was the decision made to release your adaptation as a miniseries, and that did affect any aspect of your work?

The decision to release it as a miniseries came about a week after I finished my 120-page script and layout adaptation (ARRRRGH!!) I had to go back in, find the breaking points, add title pages to issues #2-4 that could be later dropped for the compilation without interrupting the flow of the story. It took all of 45 minutes as luckily there were natural breaks every 30-31 pages. As a result, the new title page and page two will remain in the collected series. The new page two with the Japanese poem excerpt only came about as a result of the changes, so in retrospect I'm glad it worked out as it did.

You mentioned that you read "The Dream Hunters" years ago when it was still a draft. Were there any significant changes between that and the final version, and was there anything you wanted to keep that Gaiman changed?

There was a scene in which the young monk is having a dream. He sees his grandfather and it is mentioned in the script that his grandfather had died by choking on a peach. Lovern [Kindzierski], who was coloring the book and was following the published book for coloring notes, called to ask why I had drawn a peach instead of a rice cake. I insisted that, no, it was a peach. Then we realized Neil had changed the peach into a rice cake in his final draft. At this point I was barreling through towards the end and as it wasn't any sort of significant plot point said it's a peach, now.

Later, the tiny carved figure of a dragon that changed from ivory to jade caused editorial confusion and a number of revisions before it was realized we were working with two versions.

Obviously you have a long-standing relationship with Neil Gaiman, but with a project like "The Dream Hunters" or "Coraline," does he read your script and sign off on it, or do you have free rein - at least as much as your editor will give you?

All of the above. I've been given pretty much of a free rein since our first collaboration with "The Sandman" #50 when I asked Neil for a panelless script. Just the words, no visual direction. He cautiously complied and once he saw his words were in safe hands he's trusted me with his stories. Of course Neil sees my adaptation either from my layouts (I script and layout simultaneously) and we usually talk beforehand. For "Murder Mysteries," he said simply to remember that the story takes place at Christmas and to keep that in mind, even though the story's framework is set in a sweltering Los Angeles. He did write a panel-by-panel script for "Death and Venice" and sometimes I followed it but when some caption seemed particularly rich I felt free to expand it into several panels. One 4-panel page ended up with 14, I think.

One thing that jumped out to many was the credit "Graphicplay and art by P. Craig Russell." Why that term, "graphicplay" and not "adaptation?"

Thanks for noticing. I don't know if it will catch on but I thought, why not? The word screenplay was coined to differentiate a "play' written for the screen instead of the stage. Teleplay was used to differentiate TV from film. We speak of graphic stories so why not a graphicplay?

On a side note, I think Hollywood has it right in recognizing the difference between original screenplays, that is, screenplays written for the screen and screenplays that are adapted from another source. They are two different disciplines. And anyhow, how do you compare an adaptation of Shakespeare (with all that beautiful language) with say, "Chinatown?" The comics world hasn't gotten this, yet. I think people think that all an adapting writer does is to cut out blocks of writing and paste them down with a picture. There's more to it than that and I thought "graphicplay" might give an idea of that.

Adaptations make up the majority of your work. What's the appeal of adapting an existing work?

I love the feel of bringing visual shape to a story, making the blueprint, as it were. That holds true whether it's an adaptation of a classic work or even, in a sense, of an original script written for comics. It's all adaptation. But as for the classics, the simple answer is that I'm simply looking to start with something of proven literary worth. If I was handed an original script every day as fine as "The Sandman" #50 I'd never do another dead writer story again.

Let's talk about your working relationship with Lovern Kindzierski, who's been coloring your art for a while now.

Lovern is a godsend that just keeps getting better. I could spend this whole interview talking about our working relationship of the past 17 years. He plays well with others, to start. In the beginning we discuss the overall emotional feel for the story and then its particular scenes. Time of day, weather, etc. Things that might not be apparent on the black and white pages but that were in my mind while drawing. Sometimes I have specific coloring ideas. Sometimes I'm at a loss. When I am he's always in there with any number of possibilities to get us started. Over the years we've developed a repertoire of solutions for types of scenes ("use the blue nighttime palette here...problem solved") that make the work go easier and sometimes a completely new palette is used, sometimes for just a short scene. If it's successful we file it away for use in the future. The was a gray/green palette for one scene in "Lucifer" #50 that as soon as I saw it said we'll be using that again. Bravo.

What was it about "Coraline" that appealed to you as a reader and that appealed to you as an artist?

It was beautifully written and had the added challenge of being set in the real world. For all its fantasy, it had modern people and computers and automobiles. I don't spend mush time in this visually territory and it's good to test your muscles from time to time.

"Coraline" already came with Dave McKean illustrations. As with Yamano, you're obviously very different, stylistically. Did this affect how you approached illustrating "Coraline?"

Dave's illustrations are both beautiful and powerful and graphically sophisticated in a way far beyond what I do. I think that's what played a part in my being offered the project. I was talking to Neil about doing it and he was trying to delicately explain why I was being offered the book instead of Dave who has also done a great deal of comics work. I could tell he was trying to explain this without insulting me so I let him off the hook by saying "you mean they want (I was thinking of the 8-12 year old audience) a more user-friendly artist?" I though I could hear a sigh of relief from Neil when he agreed.

Did you end up working on "Coraline" and 'Dream Hunters" back-to-back?

Yes, with a 19-page Hellboy story Mike Mignola wrote for me in between. A breather of a few weeks between yearlong projects.

You've released two big retrospectives of your work. There was "The Art of P. Craig Russell" book from Desperado and more recently the documentary "Sound Into Image." What made you say yes to both projects when they were proposed and what did you want to make sure each included that you felt was important?

The film, I had little input on other than the fact I was talking pretty much nonstop. The structure of the piece was entirely Wayne Harold's. He'd been working on it for about ten years but he kept scrapping the material because he kept getting better cameras. So he'd start all over. He has enough for a 25-hour epic.

"The Art of PCR" was a book that was very much a hands-on project for me. I loved designing with pictures I didn't have to create anew. The problem with such a festival of **me** is that at first you want to include everything and by the end you can hardly stand to look at your own work any longer. But I had great fun working with [editor] Joe Pruett.

"Age of Desire," the Clive Barker story you adapted and created layouts for Tim Bradstreet to draw from is coming out from Desperado next year, after almost twenty years in limbo. Do you even remember much about the project after all this time?

I remember all sorts of things about the project and have written about the whole long, sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant experience, in an afterword to the book.

Do you enjoy that, adapting but not drawing?

I like working with other artists, laying-out and designing pages for their finishes, especially when they are as good as Timothy Bradstreet. As "Age of Desire" was taken out of my hands and led to severing my relationship with Eclipse Comics, I can't say I enjoyed that aspect of the experience. Tim had no idea of that back-story when he signed on to the project and it is only because he did such a beautiful job that I've worked to get it published, once we restored as far as possible my original structure.

Now that you've finished two fairly large projects this year, the question we're all wondering is, what are you working on next?

I really want to get to the last two of my Oscar Wilde fairy tales. I've completed seven of Wilde's nine stories in four volumes for NBM Publishing. I'd love to get the final two volumes finished in this coming year. It's been 17 years since I began. It's time to be done.

"The Sandman: The Dream Hunters" #1 is on sale now from Vertigo.

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