All this week at Robot 6 we’re interviewing some of the many contributors to First Second’s new anthology, Nursery Rhyme Comics. Today, Michael May talks to cartoonist Aaron Renier.
Aaron Renier first came to comics fans' attention with his childlike, but suspenseful Spiral-Bound, a Top Shelf graphic novel that earned him the Eisner for Talent Deserving Wider Recognition in 2006. Last year, he gained some of that recognition with his adventurous and spooky The Unsinkable Walker Bean from First Second. This year finds him still with First Second illustrating one of the more obscure (to me, anyway; Lewis Carroll fans will undoubtedly recognize it) nursery rhymes in their collection.
Michael May: For those who aren’t familiar with “The Lion and Unicorn,” can you explain the history behind it?
Aaron Renier: Sure. The history behind it is that in the early 17th Century, England and Scotland became unified and they needed a new coat of arms. So they took one of the two lions from the English coat of arms and one of the two unicorns from the Scottish coat of arms. One lion and one unicorn to symbolize the unity for the new British coat of arms. But when I read the poem I saw it as something much stranger, and colorful. So I tried to ignore that knowledge.
May: Did you get to pick the poem or was it assigned?
Renier: I picked it. I did because I had no interest in merely illustrating a nursery rhyme I was already familiar with. Almost all of the fun of being an illustrator is being able to add your own two cents. If I had done something I grew up with I'd have felt pretty bad derailing the meaning and visuals too much. It was something new to me and that left me able to imagine it as something fresh. If you read the poem literally, it's immediately strange. Why give [the animals] bread? Why give them cake? It has a happy bit of nonsense I loved. It was also a very nice challenge to make a poem most people would be unfamiliar with into something relevant and new and special.
May: What hook did you find that made it fun to adapt?
Renier: The hook for me was that I was allowed to make the lion and the unicorn the steed of two evil men. It was impossible for me to villainize two animals. I love animals, and animals are animals. Imagine villainizing a unicorn or a lion. It's impossible. Such fantastic creatures. It's men who would care to battle over something as silly as a crown.
May: Do the riders represent anyone in particular?
Renier: The riders represent the hearts of people that would fight for the power of a crown. They are greed and corruption! Careless, cold-hearted hunger for the crown! It's really a pity they have such beautiful beasts of burden. I feel bad for the lion and the unicorn.
May: Did you have to do any research for the story?
Renier: I did one image search online for the poem and discovered an alarming amount of images with the two animals "putting up their dukes" and often with boxing gloves on. I remember closing that search window thinking how boring that interpretation was. I never read the poem and saw them standing in the middle of town punching each other, and I realized then that I needed to quickly sketch it out as I saw it. So that's how it came to be. As I said, I looked up the poems origin, but the poem's background didn't seem important to me. I didn't want to turn a wonderful bit of nonsense into a history lesson. The poem needed to take new form, and become relevant to me.
May: Though the poem has the animals being “drummed out of town,” you depict them as being led out; almost tricked. Is that an intentional bit of subversion on your part?
Renier: I hope it comes across that way. Yes, I think the world is run by people who want power for the sake of being powerful, not caring if they ruin a few fruit markets along the way. The good thing is they get drummed out of town (animals love cake and bread!) and the crown can be used for something useful. The children at the end can use that piece of metal for make believe and a good ol' game of "kick the crown" if they want. The future of that town is with the children. I pictured the men eventually sitting on a distant hill in some long forgotten valley, hungry and trying to get the baked goods away from the animals. Ha!
Thanks so much to Aaron for answering my questions.
TOMORROW: Brigid Alverson talks to anthology editor Chris Duffy.