Posts tagged scholastic

The Art of Hybrid Novels, Part Two

In part one I talked about the things I love in comics and graphic novels, but also some of their failings. So now I’ve set myself up for great expectations with my hybrid illustrated novel “Monkey Boy” – which I would describe as “Blackadder” meets “Hornblower” with pictures.

Like any book, “Monkey Boy” came together from a whole bunch of influences and ideas, but largely a lot of my books are formed by the desire to draw pictures of a certain subject. In the case of “Monkey Boy” this is was my desire to illustrate something from the era of the Napoleonic Wars. I’m really attracted to the late 18th and early 19th century because it was a time of huge social change in the Western World and formed a lot of the basis of modern society – but I also love the style and fashions. Like my work on “Faithfully Mozart”, this would include wonderful clothes and ornate architecture, but unlike Mozart, “Monkey Boy” would also include lots of blood and guts and gore and veins in yer teeth. I wanted to wow young readers with the amazing and thrilling world of 19thC naval warfare that I love so much. Apart from fun for me – the comic sections were also intended to make the book less daunting for young boys (especially the reluctant readers), who might discover a lifetime of enjoyment in reading and history if it were presented in a more exciting style.

From the start “Monkey Boy” was intended as a hybrid illustrated novel – but, as mentioned in part one, I didn’t even know such a genre existed. Most junior fiction or teen novels, (if they have illustrations at all) have roughly 10-15 images. I had imagined that “Monkey Boy” would have a HUGE 40 pages of illustrations! (That’s me being sarcastic, as the project has blossomed since then …). But as an illustrator and author – I had very specific requirements for my pics in this book. They were not to be evenly spread throughout the book, one per chapter. Instead they would appear only when and where they were needed and would do things that pictures did better than words. Let me explain …

You see, as  kid I loved “The Lord of the Rings”. I had it read to me when I was 7 and I read it 3 more times before I was 18 (and a few times since). But what I could never understand where Tolkien’s descriptions … a wall such-and-such long by so-and-so high, with flying buttresses and crenelations and god knows what else … As an boy (and even as an ex-boy) I cannot picture all that stuff without getting out a book of building terms to find out what all these things mean. From an entertainment point of view I personally find detailed environment descriptions hard to follow (it depends if the writer can clearly explain it). For me they stop the flow of the story and I just turn off as soon as I start reading super detailed descriptions (especially of architecture). What I prefer is the evocative hazy impression given by writers such as Katherine Kerr (I love her descriptions in the “Devery” series). What I prefer even more is pictures, like John Howe’s brilliant visions of Middle Earth.

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ENVIRONMENTS IN “MONKEY BOY” DO AWAY WITH LENGTHY DESCRIPTIONS

 

So, with my 10 year old self in mind, I wanted to “Monkey Boy” to do away with descriptions. There’s a lot of technical stuff on a Napoleonic warship that no one is going to understand on first reading – so away with them all! I would do it all in pictures. In “Monkey Boy” the words deal with emotions, character development, dialogue and plot. Meanwhile I let the pictures handle all the descriptions, the environment, the action scenes and the gory dead (oh, did I forget to mention “Monkey Boy” is populated with revolting ghosts lurking about – another thing I really wanted to draw – ha ha). The use of comic sections is also great for those ‘then suddenly…’ moments. The book also features maps and technical diagrams, but, as mentioned above, they only appear in the story when you need to know them – not something that you discover in the appendices and say “ohhh I wish I’d known this diagram was here when I was reading that chapter about masts and sails”.

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AN EARLY VERSION OF ONE OF THE GHOSTS – ADMIRAL MELMOTH FURY

I had originally envisioned “Monkey Boy” to be like Brain Selzneck’s “Hugo Cabret” with big sections of individual page illustrations that you had to ‘read’ to follow the story. However I soon realized that “Hugo” was a fairly high-brow format for my type of audience and unfortunately deadlines and production budgets wouldn’t cover a 700 page book. I still wanted to retain the wordless images so that you didn’t rush through the comic pages, but again I have discovered that for the age and audience of a junior fiction book I really needed sections of text in my comics to have a nice flow joining novel to comic sections. I have still tried to keep my pictures as free of text as possible – and most importantly that each artform compliments the other. When our half-sized hero first comes aboard his new home (a great warship) the scene is told in 7 pages of comic as we descend into the darkness of the lower gun decks.

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WHERE POSSIBLE COMIC SECTIONS APPEAR WITHOUT WORDS

I’ve learnt a huge amount as an illustrator and writer as the project has developed over the last 5 years and the final version will be 288 pages with over 160 pages of illustrations – a bit of a development from the original 40. I’ve particularly enjoyed showing action and battle scenes in comic form – there’s a lot you can say in pictures that you’d never be allowed to say in words. Of course I’ve enjoyed writing a junior fiction novel and all the fun of plot, pace and character and emotion – writing the type of junior fiction that I would want to read – but that’s another story…

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THINGS THAT CAN’T BE SAID IN POLITE SOCIETY

Scholastic have been brilliant in accommodating my original vision and have allowed me to run with it. Hopefully you’ll all like “Monkey Boy” too. With commercial success I’d love to complete a second hybrid novel to go with it. “Monkey Boy” is out July 2014.

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The Art of Hybrid Novels, Part One

I am currently immersed in the last few months of work completeing a hybrid illustrated novel. “Monkey Boy” (Scholastic 2014) is not a graphic novel or comic, but a hybrid of traditional novel and comic sections. As an author and illustrator it was a natural format for me to be drawn to as there are things that each art form does better than the other. But there are also things about each art form that really bug me. However, when I started working on this hybrid idea five years ago, I didn’t know that any such thing existed. In those five years (it’s taken me so long because I have too many other books to do) the art form has come a long way. In part one I’ll talk about some comic/novel background and in part two I’ll give you an exclusive glimpse into the world of my junior fiction hybrid novel “Monkey Boy”.

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I first encountered comics in the form of my dad’s Eagle annuals from the 1950s. These were a great source of entertainment when we visited my grandparents orchard in Twyford, Hawkes Bay. The artworks were (and still are) stylistic and sophisticated – especially the fantastic “Dan Dare”. And being post WW2, it was full of guns and violence with nary a hint of PCness. Eagle annuals were also my first exposure to the amazing Ronald Searle. The inside covers sometimes had one of his crazy scenes and, although I have never studied Searle specifically, those images must have had a subconscious influence on my work, especially the busy and crazy pages of my “Looky Book”.

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ABOVE: my “Looky Book” and Searle’s “Fall of St Trinian’s”

When I was about eight I discovered Footrot Flats, the wordless comics of Mordillo and the wonderful world of Asterix. The last has gone on to have a huge affect on my work. Not in style, but in the energy and action, the atmosphere and environment of Albert Uderzo’s art. One of the biggest influences have been the references in Asterix. The series pays homage to everything from popular TV shows, to Shakespeare and latin quotes, to famous events in history and great artworks. For me, this is something very important that keeps a book alive. As you get older you keep going back and discovering new meaning and appreciation of these books. It also helps keep parents enthused when reading over and over and over again – or just passing on their love of books to their children. This is something that I try to do in my work too.

I had a brief interest in 2000AD, but it was at the Auckland University of Technology that I was exposed to the serious world of comics, however, not through the arts faculty, who considered comics and film making to be nothing worthy of a degree in Graphic Design. Maybe that was why I ended up doing both comic and film studies! (contrary little tyke!). It was here I discovered an unknown young comic writer called Neil Gaiman (who has since gone on to become my favourite author), who along with Dave Mckean (the Picasso of comics) practically invented the genre of graphic novels. Gaiman and Mckean didn’t produce cliched superhero stories – but novels, told in comic format. “Mr Punch”, “Violent Cases” and “Signal to Noise” are among the finest examples. Mckean, along with other artists like Kent Williams and Bill Scienkiewicz made comic panels that looked like works of high art and whilst incorporating film editing ideas into their storytelling. Below is a panel from Gaiman & Mckean’s “Signal to Noise” about a film maker trying to make his last great film before cancer takes him (If you can’t read it – the guy in the first panel asks ‘how long have you got to live?’)

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But not all comics are as elegant. Basically I find it’s largely an form where each artform is in competition instead of harmony. Humans are trained to follow the words and they flick over the artworks to get to the next line (unless you have a lovely panel like the one above). Meanwhile, incredible bulging superhero artworks try to outshine everything else on the page. I personally read the two art forms separately. First I read the story and then I go back and look over the pictures – which I find is an unsatisfying combination. I feel bad when I read a comic, as I flick over the pages and worry about the poor artist who spent a week painting one panel which takes me 10 seconds to glance at. There are incredible graphic novels – but like any artform, 90% is fairly average. Then we have a work of real brilliance like Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival”, where the comic format is allowed to unfold, without the need for words. In this book I find myself lingering on the images and it can take 15 minutes just to ‘read’ one page.

So what about novels? I have to laugh when people claim that there is a NEW trend to put illustrations in novels. Pictures in chapter books have been around as long as the printing press. 100 years ago, some of my favourite artists like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Maxfield Parish were doing incredible work on books aimed largely at adults – I have a gorgeous “Romeo and Juliet” illustrated by Rackham a century ago. Today the tradition of novels with chapter illustrations has been largely confined to junior and teen fiction. In the best of children’s books and comics, words and pictures work together to fill in the spaces left by the other artform – but for some reason, as we become more sophisticated and move up to junior fiction and teen novels the relationship between words and pictures gets dumber.

My main problem is that often each artform repeats the other. That may be Ok when reinforcing words with beginner readers, but as a sophisticated art form I find it a bit shallow. In particular, I often find that English and American books have the strong hand of an art director telling the illustrator what to draw (usually something passive and inoffensive to the reader’s imagination). When I have illustrated novels I have pushed hard to inject something new in-between the lines of the text and capture some of the energy and action of the scene.

In the last ten years we’ve had a zeitgeist moment – obviously many artists across the world have come to the same conclusion, myself among them, that putting large illustrated sections into novels is a really cool idea. Hybrid novels are often the work of author illustrators and I’ve been thrilled to discover the variety of forms they can take. There’s Brian Selznick’s “Hugo Cabret” and “Wonderstruck”, where the novel and illustrations are clearly separated, allowing you to really ‘read’ the illustrated panels (as I mentioned with Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival”). What about Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” – I love the simplicity of his line drawings and how he makes great use of the two art forms. Often the pictures tell you another story than how our narrator sees things as in this hilarious page from ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dog Days’.

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Chris Wooding’s “Malice” is a great concept when a group of teens are transported into a comic world, with these sections naturally told in comic form (although I think it is let down a bit by the artwork). My own work on “Dinosaur Rescue” with Kyle Mewburn has been a great experience/experiment. There is often a great merging of storytelling with words and pictures each filling in the other’s gaps. One of my favourites hybrids is by one of my best-loved illustrators – Chris Riddell’s “Ottoline” mixes perfectly a sparseness of words which are completed by his magical illustrations. It is something that I believe can only REALLY be achieved to perfection by a single author/illustrator, and there are many others out there.

I’m thrilled that my “Monkey Boy” is being published by Scholastic as they are the natural home of hybrid novels (including several mentioned above). In part two I’m going to talk about my five years work on “Monkey Boy”, and what form I’ve tried to achieve.

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What’s the fart danger today?

Check out the brand new super-stinky T-Wreck-asaurus trailer for my new series coming out in August.

Kyle Mewburn

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