At the Drawing Board with the Creators of 13 Legends

Juli C. Lasselle

SB: It seems there has to be a balance between the characterizations and the action that drives the story forward. Especially in this form… it reads very much like a screenplay. It’s dialogue driven, isn’t it?

Jon:
The script or the final product of the book?

SB:
Both.

Stuart:
Both are incredibly less dialogue driven.

Jon:
I’ve read plenty of graphic novels that are equally dialogue heavy. but from my experience, it works when it’s more visual, more like a storyboard. Not exactly accurate. People who know graphic novels will take you to task if you say it’s exactly like a storyboard because it’s obviously not. It’s the finished document meant to be enjoyed as opposed to a technical item that helps someone visualize what they’re about to do on a set, to film. So the requirements are totally different. But, in the script, I’d say it’s more pedestrian. It’s written more simply and clearly as instructions for a penciler to carry out.

SB:
Talk to me a little bit about this process. What are the stages you go through from concept to the final book?

Stuart:
We split it up into pages first. Pages and panels.

Jon:
Outline to pages. We know a certain chunk of story should take up this many pages and panels.

Stuart:
Then with the panels there are also some things that come up that we were quite interested in exploring. The way you lay out the panels really affects the dynamic of the story in a very very concrete way. It says something rhythmically. You’re thinking in sequences. You’re actually thinking what is this going to look like when people open the page and they’re looking at this chunk of story.

SB:
You’re talking about using the visuals of the panel layout as a way of controlling the pacing.

Stuart:
Totally. Absolutely.

Jon:
Yep.

Stuart:
And that’s fun.

SB:
In filmmaking you could compare that to editing. What would you compare it to in literature?

Jon:
The length of sentences. How dense the text is. How richly things are described. If you have a bunch of tiny little panels next to each other that implies lots of quick motion. A sweeping one-page picture is the establishing shot. Like in film.

Stuart:
It’s establishing setting.

SB:
Whose POV is the story told in and does that affect the way in which it’s laid out?

Jon:
For 13 Legends, it’s a fly on the wall the whole time. We stay away from any voiceover. There’s no narration except in the very beginning in the prologue. It’s a limited narrator. We don’t get inside the character’s heads.

Stuart:
We’re the most literary at that particular part of the book. It’s the most self-conscious literary approach to graphic novels because you’re using captions. Then we get into the story.

Jon:
All dialogue, all pictures. No narration. you can do anything you can imagine in a graphic novel, just like in literature. There’s no limit.

SB:
After you decide on the pages and the panel layout, what’s next?

Jon:
Once you start communicating with the artist, you have to rethink it a little bit. We don’t fix the panels [when writing the script] but we are trying to approximate it. That’s what allows us to understand the pacing. Once we’ve done that it’s very similar to a screenplay. Then we hired an artist.

Stuart:
Then we hired a colorist.

SB:
Explain to me what the artist does. And the colorist.

Jon:
There’s the penciler. They literally draw with pencil the pages, the panels, everything in them. Everything but the lettering. And the speech bubbles. Then sometimes—we didn’t do this—you also hire an inker who goes over that person’s lines with ink. Then you hire a colorist who uses Photoshop to color the artwork. No one does that by hand anymore—it’s too expensive. Then a letterer will put the letters on top of it. In between all of that, there are tons of other steps. I’m oversimplifying it. You talk about changes that you want in each stage, back and forth, with the artists.

SB:
How do you think graphic novels and literature have informed each other? Or have they?

Jon:
Neither of us are experts in this but they absolutely have.

Stuart:
But I wonder to what degree?

Jon:
There are different kinds of graphic novels. There’s Batman and Superman… all that stuff… no, I don’t think as much. Other things… like Maus… are seminal works…

Stuart:
…that stand alone as works of art. They are that and there’s no pretension or desire to be anything else. I don’t know if graphic novels have informed literature. I’m thinking about some more avant-garde writers who have a very physical sense of a page. Someone like Janice Galloway. She’s a Scottish writer. She wrote a book called Trick is to Keep Breathing. It was big. And she has a really physical approach to what the page looks like. I wonder if there’s any kind of overlap there?

Jon:
There’s illustrated children’s books too that maybe crosses between the two. Everything influences everything to some degree

Stuart:
Always.

Jon:
I’ve read some graphic novels that are very different from what some people would think comics are supposed to be: the impact they’re supposed to have on you on a philosophical level, or the breadth of knowledge of the author.

Stuart: I agree.

Jon:
I bet if you looked into the bibliography of some of those authors you’d see that they’d written books as well.

Stuart:
Totally. Then you get someone like that Iranian woman (Marjane Satrapi) who wrote Persepolis. Where you get something that is as involving as any literary memoir of that particular period and that particular person’s experiences could be. It has the same power. It achieves its ends by different means but it’s every bit as potent and it’s every bit as insightful and honest as any autobiographical work of literature could be.

SB:
Why would you choose this form rather than a novelistic form? What does this form add that a novel doesn’t have?

Stuart:
I think it adds immediacy.

Jon:
I rediscovered comics. I didn’t know how intense and well-written and deep they could be.

Stuart:
It’s really easy to forget how comics and graphic novel storytelling is part of what we grew up with. When I was a kid there were two iconic comic strips called oo wullie and The Broons. They’re huge. They’re massive but they really say something about the times in which they were conceived. They’re all about working class Scottish people.

Jon:
There’s a lot of cringe worthy things out there as well, that were of their time… how social norms were depicted.

Stuart:
The thing I find very attractive about graphic novels is that immediacy. They can be really visceral.

Jon:
I think so too.

SB:
For a prose writer who may be interested in moving in this direction, would you say they would have to be very visual as well as oriented towards exterior action rather than interiority?

Jon:
It wouldn’t hurt for them to choose visual material to work with. Slow interior monologue-ing dies a slow death in a graphic novel just like it does on screen. That said, if someone was a literary writer and wanted to write their first graphic novel, they might want to partner with an artist and give them some room to adapt rather than dictating what exactly they want. It might have a more interesting outcome if it were a more literary property.

SB:
Can any story be adapted into the graphic novel form? What type of stories adapt better?

Stuart:
I just finished reading Crime & Punishment in graphic novel form and it was pretty good. Crime & Punishment is a pretty event packed book anyway.

Jon:
Are we talking about being commercially successful or…

Stuart:
Or artistically successful?

SB:
Artistically.

Stuart:
It all depends on the talent.

Jon:
It’s all in the execution.

SB:
Assuming the people who are creating it are enormously talented.

Jon:
I think visual is better. Less talking. That said, I read a 20-page comic yesterday that was two monsters sitting on a park bench talking philosophically about the worth of questions versus the worth of answers. Nothing else happened. And it was very good.

SB:
Waiting for Godot.

Jon:
Pretty much. Anything could be [adapted] but, if you talk to some students, you’ll find that many think that anything is possible with their ideas. Not everybody is the right person to execute on everything. You have to be truthful with yourself. It isn’t like writing a story that’s ten pages long and then rewriting it. A week has gone by and you’ve done it. With a graphic novel, you’re going to be in that trench for a long time.

Stuart:
The other thing that has been a very interesting side effect of this is that everyone thinks they can write graphic novels. It’s remarkable. They really do

SB:
Everyone thinks they can write a book.

Jon:
Or a screenplay.

Stuart:
There seems to be a sort of casual acceptance that everyone can write a comic book. Because there’s still that snobbery. So it’s like: “yeah, of course I can do that.”

Jon:
You mean from professional writers?

Stuart:
Yeah.

Jon:
I don’t agree. I don’t really feel that. But I do feel that film people all think they can do it.

Stuart:
They all do because they think it’s a bastardized art form.

Jon:
Yeah. Well, we shouldn’t say all.

Stuart:
No, not all. But a chunk of them.

Jon:
We’ve run into it a number of times and I have noticed, meeting people in the comic book world, that there are film people jumping in thinking they can just do it because it’s so similar.

Jon:
Can I augment my advice from before? I’d say, read a lot of them. Anyone who’s a competent or more writer of literary fiction, I’m sure has the writing capabilities. No question. But the form is vastly different. I’d say a screenwriter has a better chance of hitting the ground running than a literary writer. They should read a ton of different kinds of graphic novels. The amount I learned from getting back into them was more than anything else.

Stuart:
Well, you approach them in a different way, don’t you?

Jon:
You just see what’s possible.

Jon and Stuart are currently writing the second book in the series while completing the artwork on the first book and entertaining publishing possibilities.

For more information:

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Jon received his B.A. in History from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he also got his first taste for film, choosing to minor in the subject. In 2006, he packed up his wife and cats, and moved to San Francisco to attend an MFA film program at the Academy of Art University. There he met a future collaborator – one Stuart Thomas – and learned that, to understand screenplays, you need to read and write a lot of them… and also that $100,000 worth of debt does not a screenwriter make. His upcoming graphic novel series, 13 Legends, also co-written by Stuart, is among the many projects he’s currently developing, writing, or wishing would sell.

Stuart Thomas was educated at Glasgow University and The Academy of Art University (San Francisco). Stuart began writing for theatre on graduating from the former and co-founding Take Two Productions with Alyson Orr. For the company, he wrote several successful plays including Salon Janette, A Is For Abba, and others that toured nationally to great critical and public acclaim. Also in the UK, he’s worked for Borderline, Scottish Opera, Scottish Youth Theatre, Colchester Mercury Theatre, The Bolton Octagon, and others. Stuart was playwright-in-residence at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow from 2002-2004. It was there that he wrote the Pearsons New Writers Award winning Damn’d Jacobite Bitches. He’s the writer of many children’s plays including pantomimes for Watford Palace, Salisbury Playhouse, Dunfermline Carnegie Hall, and the Brunton Theater. His international stage works include projects with American Conservatory Theater and 826 Valencia (both San Francisco), National Theater of Portugal/ Escola Teatro de Estoril, Scottish Opera in Bermuda, and Scottish Youth Theatre Productions. For the BBC, he wrote The Stair and The Big Time (pilots). Various film projects of Stuart’s are in development for companies in the US, England, and India. A short film he wrote, Raymond, screening at Festivals at present.
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