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P. Craig Russell Talks Depicting The Indescribable In “The Graveyard Book”

by  in Comic News Comment
P. Craig Russell Talks Depicting The Indescribable In “The Graveyard Book”

Thanks to his many collaborations with Neil Gaiman on adaptations of “Coraline” and “Murder Mysteries,” as well as the acclaimed fiftieth issue of “Sandman,” P. Craig Russell has become a highly respected name in comics that needs little introduction. In addition to his work with Gaiman, the creator has adapted eleven operas — including Wagner’s “The Ring of the Niebelung” and Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” — and five volumes of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales into comics.

Now, Russell has turned his eye for adaptation to author Neil Gaiman’s bestselling novel “The Graveyard Book,” which received the Newbery Medal and Carnegie Medal — two of the highest awards in children’s literature. Structurally, the book is based on Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” with each chapter depicting the main character Bod as he grows from a baby to an adult. Russell spoke with CBR News about this unique — and ambitious — adaptation, which found the illustrator writing and laying out the entire series before handing individual chapters out to other artists, including Kevin Nowlan, Tony Harris, Jill Thompson, Scott Hampton, Galen Showman and David Lafuente. Lovern Kindzierski and Scott Hampton will color “The Graveyard Book,” and Rick Parker will letter the adaptation.

CBR News: How did you end up adapting “The Graveyard Book?”

P. Craig Russell: I was asked. [Laughs] It was very simple. They called and said, “Would you do ‘The Graveyard Book’?” It was offered to me and I was excited to accept.

This was of course based on your success adapting “Coraline” and your other collaborations with Neil Gaiman.

Neil and I have been working together since 1991 when I did “Sandman” #50. Between that and “Murder Mysteries” and “Coraline” and “Sandman: Endless Nights,” we’ve done about half a dozen projects together, so it seemed pretty natural to me to work on the adaptation of “The Graveyard Book.”

When you were asked, had you read the book? Was it even out by that point?

The novel had been out, but I hadn’t read it yet. I knew the premise of it and knew about it. As soon as they asked, I sat down and read the book — but I knew before I read the book that I was going to do it.

I would imagine that knowing you are going to adapt a novel into a comic book radically changes the reading experience.

Oh yes. When you’re just reading for pleasure, you’re reading for pleasure. When you’re reading knowing that you’re going to be grappling with it, it’s very difficult to just enjoy the book because I’m already asking questions. I’m reading the prose and thinking, “How do you possibly visualize this? How do you deal with that?” You have that awareness that you’re going to be making something out of it.

It’s like H.P. Lovecraft [stories], where people are looking at things that are so evil they lose their minds — and you have to draw what that looks like. As soon as you do, people say, “I’m not losing my mind looking at this.” [Laughs] Sometimes it’s better not to show it at all. In “The Graveyard Book,” there are a number of scenes that take place underground in tunnels and crypts. Bod, who has some of the powers of ghosts, can see in the dark and the girl he’s with can’t. They’re in pitch blackness, so you have to take some kind of artistic license with that. You can’t use the cartoon effect of showing two white eyeballs in a sea of black — as tempting as it might be! It wouldn’t take nearly as long to draw those scenes. You have to show it and then use coloring to suggest a lack of light. There are things a writer can put in that a reader can imagine that once you put it on film or in a drawing, you have to get around somehow and make work. That’s one of the big challenges in many adaptations.

For this adaptation, you scripted and laid out the entire thing and then gave most of the chapters to other artists to draw. Why did you approach the book that way?

Part of that was because it’s such a large book. The visual adaptation turned out to be 352 pages and if I did all the artwork myself, it would have taken me a good four years to do. They wanted the book out sooner than that, so to maintain a visual consistency from one chapter to another, the idea was to have one artist layout the entire book. Even if you’re not drawing the pictures, you’re designing the page so the layout and design of the page remains the same. If you had eight or nine different artists laying out their own stories, you would have a widely varying approaches to layout, so I did the architectural blueprint of the book, you might say. I designed where all the lettering would go and then had it hand lettered by Rick Parker and inked in the panel borders so that consistency is there. Then we picked one colorist to color the entire book, so you would have that consistency. Because of deadlines, Scott Hampton ended up coloring his chapter, but it remained fairly consistent with Lovern’s coloring. The last thing was I made sure we had artists that had some similar approaches to a drawing, a certain illustrative technique. You don’t have one person who’s extremely cartoony and another that’s photorealistic. In those ways you have a consistency to the book.

Can you talk a little about the artists?

The first artist is Kevin Nowlan. I knew that I was going to be doing one of the chapters myself. I thought, “I’ll do the first chapter,” but then Kevin Nowlan agreed to work on the book. He’s so good with interiors. Just the way he draws woodwork and doors and appliances is so effective. In that first chapter, a number of the pages take place inside a house — one of the few times there are interiors in the book. So I gave him the first chapter to do and I took the second chapter. Tony Harris has a really bold drawing style, very powerful and sometimes very dark so I thought he would be the perfect artist for the “Hounds of God” chapter.

It’s a little like casting roles for a movie or play. You find the right actor for the right part. Scott Hampton was a godsend because his story was 100 pages long. All the chapters range from 25 pages to 100. He’s really fast and really good, so I was very happy that he could take on this 100 page story. Later in the game when one of the artists was falling behind, Scott stepped in and drew another 27 pages, so he did almost an entire third of the book himself. I picked Jill Thompson for “Danse Macabre” because it has a big dance scene and she has a very happy bouncy style that fit perfectly for this dance number that ends the first book. Galen Showman and I have worked together a number of times over the years. He’s a terrific letterer, but also a fabulous artist. One of his strong points is research, so he’s terrific at finding the material and making it look authentic. He also sketched props that other artists would have to draw.

Part of the problem with consistency in all of this is keeping the characters’ visual designs consistent from one story to the other. Even simple things like one family’s crypt in one story will pop up in another one, so you have to draw the exact same crypt. There was a lot of back and forth with that. Galen helped a lot. David Lafuente I chose because he has a terrific feel for teenagers and fashions and the look of the contemporary world. His chapter was the one where Bod tries to return to civilization too soon and go to school. It’s about a middle school and rivalries and bullying. He’s also very good with architectural work. That left the last chapter. The artist had to drop out at the last minute so we had to step in. Galen Showman and I got together and split up the 22 pages story and pencilled it. Kevin Nowlan agreed to ink those 22 pages. It worked out really well because he starts off the book, so you begin the whole thing with Kevin Nowlan and then his consistent inks over Galen and I — who draw in a similar fashion anyway — gave that last chapter a good look that rhymed with the first chapter of the book.

Was it hard to get characters like Silas or some of the ghosts just right?

I did the conceptual drawing of Silas and model sheets for him and sent them to the artists so everyone knew what he looked like — then everyone brings their own take to it. I certainly didn’t insist it be as consistent as it would be in, say, animated film, where you have a number of artists working on a character and that character has to look the exact same way all the time. There was some leeway for artists to interpret the character. I think Kevin Nowlan had a great look for the character which was somewhat different from mine, which was somewhat different from Galen Showman’s.

When you read the book, Silas is never really identified as a vampire or recovered vampire — whichever he is. Neil leaves it ambiguous. In our visualization he’s more of a standard Dracula-like character. He’s elegant and sinister at the same time. When you visualize something, you concretize it and that ambiguity is lost to a certain point.

Miss Lupescu is another potentially ambiguous character. She’s a werewolf and a scary old woman.

Yes, a very scary older woman — the sort that any ten-year-old boy would just hate. That’s the point of that story. He hates her on sight, but at the end of the story he likes her quite a bit. That was Tony [Harris] at his best. The designs for Miss Lupescu were just out of this world. It was amazing. He just caught that look of the woman.

As far as finding a visual representation, I thought of the sleer. As you said earlier, Bod can see in the dark but Scarlet can’t — so in that scene, the sleer is bright and colorful and Scarlet is seeing only the people in the blackness. It was a really interesting choice.

Neil described the sleer as a sound, just a dry sound, so like a snake slithering through leaves. When I drew the sleer in my chapter, I made the lettering part of the character. It never has its own balloon. It’s part of this purely abstract deign that is part rustling leaves part snake, but never purely realistic. It has to be some sort of graphic approximation of sound. That’s why I worked the lettering into the design of the character. Then I laid it out for Scott and Rick Parker, and then I showed them my chapter. That’s one of those challenges where the writer can do anything he wants but then you have to come up with some visual approximation. That’s the fun part of doing it.

I don’t want to spoil anything — though the novel has been out for years — but the book ends at dawn with Bod leaving the graveyard, and the colors in those last few pages are really striking.

That last page was a very important. I spent a lot of time drawing that page and envisioning the woman on the horses in the clouds. I didn’t send Lovern a color palate. Sometimes I’ll scan a photo or something as a suggestion for color palate to use on a scene. That page is Lovern’s coloring. He pays attention to the drawing. You see I drew the beams of the sun so you know that the clouds have to be somewhat in shadow so that the light breaking through looks like light. But as to the particular colors he chose to use, that was up to Lovern. I was very pleased with that last page.

It turned out really well and the dark blue of the night sky fades into the purple sky of dawn, which was a beautiful choice.

There are so many ways to do night scenes and it depends on the mood you want. If you want scary, dark night you would use a different palate from what we used. Since the cemetery is more peaceful, it’s a warm night palate that makes you feel like you want to walk right into it. There’s nothing bleak or scary about it. That influences the colors you chose. You mentioned the purple on the last page. That’s the way the impressionists worked. They didn’t use black, they used color for shade, so you work with opposites. The opposite of orange is purple and so the light is yellow-orange, so if you want something in shadow, you would use shades of purple or lavender, which gives it a lovely effect rather than a dark stormy effect. Bod goes out into the world and the lights come on. [Laughs]

When I’m laying things out and drawing it myself, you need to be aware of color, of the palate, the time of day, and playing one scene against another. There’s a scene in Scott Hampton’s chapter where Scarlet is on the phone with the man who turns out to be Jack. It’s a three page telephone conversation — which is a challenge in itself. How do you make two people having a conversation on the phone interesting? I’d rather do that than any action fight scene. Just come up with an interesting way to stage a conversation. All of Scarlet’s panels were very narrow and Jack’s panels tended to be square. She was facing us and he had his back to us. There was all this contrast between panel size, between body language, and especially in the color, so it becomes very clear that you’re going back and forth between these two characters. It just makes it interesting to look at on the page. The play of color and the play of shape gives a dynamism to what would otherwise be a very static scene.

Is there any chapter you really wish you could have drawn?

Well I’m glad I got to work on the last chapter. I wouldn’t have wanted to do chapter five with the teenagers and the school. I’m glad not to have to do that. Other than that, there’s so much fun stuff to draw, I could have done the whole book. I picked what for me was the choice chapter — which is chapter two. I love drawing the natural scenes. It was just terrific fun to do that. I got to do the chapter I wanted to do and the chapters I didn’t want to do I found good artists for.

What’s next for you after “The Graveyard Book”?

I’m working on “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. I did the layouts of “The Giver” and “The Graveyard Book” back to back — for about five months, seven days a week, just doing scripts and layouts. That was over 500 pages in a five month period. After that, Dark Horse has scheduled a 64-page book and I’ll adapt three of Neil’s stories — one of which is “The Problem of Susan,” which I scripted and laid out about four years ago.

I just got an email today that they plan to do a one volume slipcase limited edition of “The Graveyard Book” out sometime next year. I have to do a cover painting for it and there will be extra material. It will be nice to have it all in one book.

How are you finding “The Giver?”

I hadn’t read the book when they approached me about it, and so I read it and immediately wanted to do it. I thought it was a very compelling story. I felt like I got it. It’s quite different from most other projects that I’ve worked on — this futuristic utopia that’s perfectly horrible and yet looks perfectly normal. There’s no fantasy, no graveyards and trees and so much of the fun stuff that I like to draw. It’s very character-driven in boring spaces, and that’s the challenge of trying to make that visually interesting.

My memory of the book — and it’s been many years — but it’s taking place in future with no signs of the future.

That’s one thing that I was very aware of. Whenever anybody tries to draw the future, within twenty years it looks so dated. It looks so very much of your own time. Look at “2001” — that looks so much like the late sixties and their version of the future. What I’ve done is make it look like the 1950’s because they’re all riding bicycles and it’s feature-less. There’s nothing in it that’s going to look futuristic. It looks drab — almost Soviet drab. The fun visual stuff comes when he gets these memories. Everything is gray until color slowly comes in. Visually, it really opens up in the last few chapters.

Are we going to see more opera adaptations in the future?

One of these years. I want to do one more. It was always my intention to do twelve and I’ve done eleven. It would be years in the future because I have the next four or five years lined up with projects to do, but yes, I want to do one more to make it an even dozen. I’m not sure which one that will be. And I have one more Oscar Wilde fairy tale to do. One more opera, one more Oscar Wilde fairy tale, and I’ll have those two cycles complete.

Is there anything else you want to do that you haven’t had the chance to do yet?

I’ve got a bucket list. I’ve been working over the years on these oversize one page adaptations of songs that are like the old “Prince Valiant” pages. Some of those that have been printed in various places. I want to do twenty-four of those. I have nine or ten done. That’s another cycle I want to get done. And some other things I don’t want to say because then for years people are asking, “When are you going to do that?” So, I’d rather it be a surprise. But yes — I have seven or eight things I want to do.

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