Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Gareth Hinds at Hooray for Books: "It’s got to be clear and it’s got to be dramatic"

by Mike Rhode
Gareth Hinds recently answered my usual interview questions, but a few days later I was lucky enough to attend his 'chalk talk' at Hooray for Books in Old Town Alexandria. With 45 minutes of speaking and drawing, he covered much more ground than the basic interview questions, so I transcribed highlights of the talk, and illustrated it with photographs. (More can be found here).

Hinds’ first graphic novel was a thesis project at Parsons School of Design. It was about a man who made a deal with the devil and wore a bearskin. The story is one of the more obscure Brothers Grimm fairy tales. “I took this fairy tale which is only two pages long in its original form, and did most of the storytelling visually, with very few words in it, and so it ended up being an 80-page graphic novel. I didn't finish it until after I was out of school.” The Xeric Foundation gave him a grant to self-publish Bearskin which came out in 1998. “That was my opportunity to learn how publishing worked, and all the different parts of putting a book out – how to get it ready for press, how to write press releases, how to get distribution and get it in stores…” Hinds then worked in the video game industry for a decade, doing all types of art including character design and 3-D modeling.

His next book was “closer to the mainstream of comics, which is to say the superhero genre, and is about a warrior who has the strength of thirty men and goes around fighting monsters.” That was Beowulf. “When I’m drawing a graphic novel, the first thing I do is sketch it out very rough. I now do these rough drawings digitally, and then I would do a finished drawing with traditional materials. I would transfer my digital drawing onto a piece of watercolor, or other heavy paper and do a finished drawing on top of it.” “I chose to draw Grendel as metallic, because in the story it says he’s immune to weapons, and that’s the reason Beowulf had to wrestle with him and not fight him with a sword. In the battle scene in my book, I have him wearing hand wraps, almost like he’s a boxer getting into the ring.”

Candlewick Press contacted Gareth and expressed interested in reissuing Beowulf and doing his next book. “I had started both King Lear and The Merchant of Venice. Together we decided that I would finish Merchant first for Candlewick; I would self-publish Lear, and they would reissue it later. It was a weird transition, going from self-publishing to having a publisher.” The characters in Merchant "are all based on real people. This book has more of a modern look to it. I decided to set this in modern-day Venice for a couple of reasons. One was so I could draw all the characters and the locations from life. The other reason is because of the anti-Semitism in the play which is a big deal. The bad guy of the story is a Jewish moneylender. I didn't want to gloss over it, and by setting the story in the modern day, it actually throws it into starker relief and makes the readers ask themselves if this is something we’re still dealing with. The particular form of anti-Semitism seen in this play we don’t have quite as much of, but we definitely have high levels of religious intolerance that are still causing problems."

“My King Lear is another visual experiment where I played around with breaking the action out of the panels and letting the characters walk around on the page as if it were a stage. The characters leave little trails and there’s also little trails connecting the balloons so you know what order to read them in. And then those little trails become the wind that becomes the storm.”

“I wanted my Lear to be really, really old. It’s always a question about how old these characters are in these stories. Shakespeare often doesn’t tell you exactly. I decided to make him quite old, but also still very hale. He clearly was a very strong fighter when he was young, and he still thinks of himself that way. He goes around blustering, and occasionally punching people. His costume is almost like a sheet. One of the things I liked was the idea that maybe he is really mad, and all of the action is occurring in his own mind, and maybe he’s an escaped mental patient and this is his hospital gown. I had this idea when I was walking into the subway station and I saw this guy who looked like King Lear, and thought it would be cool if Lear was a homeless guy who was having hallucinations.”

“My Lear is still muscular, but he’s gotten thin and old. I enjoy drawing muscular old men. The younger and prettier a character is, the more difficulty I have drawing. After King Lear, he adapted the Odyssey.The Odyssey was my favorite classic when I read it in school. As soon as I was done with Beowulf, I planned to do the Odyssey, but it was a major undertaking so I had to wait until the right time. Odysseus is a fascinating character; he’s an awesome hero. He’s strong and smart, and usually wise, but he has some flaws. He’s also an unreliable narrator. He’s telling you the story and you know that he lies. You see him lie all the time. So how much of his story is really true?”

“Most of what armor and clothing survives is from later periods of Greek history, but there’s a lot of vase and pottery paintings and often the paintings are subjects from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.” While discussing his decision to make Odysseus an ambidextrous archer, Hinds digressed to note, “Right now, I’m working on some illustrations for a non-fiction book about the famous samurai Yoshitsune Minamoto, and in that period samurai primarily fought with bows. I thought there’s an interesting parallel. Minamoto is actually a lot like Odysseus. He’s a warrior who uses his wits just as much as he uses his physical prowess. They’re both master archers. It would be fun to see them both in battle leading armies.”

“My Odysseus is a little older than most people picture him. While I am adapting a text, I spend a lot of time doodling. I’m visually brainstorming. I might draw 20 or 30 different versions of a character, before I decide which one I want. Sometimes I have a definite idea in my head for the main character. I didn’t draw a million versions of Odysseus; I pretty much knew what he looked like. Other times, like Lady Macbeth, I drew lots and lots of versions.”

Romeo and Juliet was a challenge to draw, because all the characters were young and attractive. “This is a good example of character design. Not only was I drawing lots of different versions of the characters, but Shakespeare has been reset and restaged in different time periods and cultures, so I had a lot of options. However, I’m also aware that a lot of my market is teachers and students, and they want some understanding of historical context. I decided I was going to keep this in historical Verona, but I was going to make the characters multicultural and a little more modern. Tybalt has tattoos. Everybody’s wearing boots instead of slippers. The women have their dresses cut at the knee instead of the ankle. There’s a lot of liberties that the young characters are taking with their costumes and the social conventions of the time period.”

“I decide Romeo would be this young, attractive guy who has little dreadlocks. Mercutio has big crazy dreadlocks. Everybody’s got poofy shirts. They’ve got big poofy tops on their pants. Juliet also wears boots which is definitely not something you would have historically seen. She’s got a Renaissance-style sleeve. She’s Indian, he’s African. They’re about the same height.”

When starting a book, “I will start laying out pages. Often the very first spread is a big title page. For Macbeth, I knew right away I wanted to show an island with a castle and water. Next, I started drawing the page where the witches are talking. I might not have finalized the designs and won’t draw any details on the characters. When I used to do this on paper, I drew word balloons with an approximate amount of text. Now digitally, I can see exactly how much room the text takes up which is very important for the dialogue-heavy pages where characters are talking back and forth and I have to make sure the page fits together. I play around with different compositions at this stage. I will draw three or four versions of a page; I might even draw ten versions if I’m having trouble with it. I’ll draw the whole book out in that form and show it to people including my editor. I’ll read it myself over and over, looking for places where I can make it more dramatic or clear. Those are the two main things: it’s got to be clear and it’s got to be dramatic. Those are the things I’m looking for in my rough layouts. Then I draw the finished line art for the whole book. No color, but all the detail. Typically I’ll get another round of feedback before I get color, but sometimes the color helps people see what’s going and identify issues.”

“When the final art is done, it’s scanned and dropped back into the digital page layout program I used for the rough sketches, and then all the panel borders and speech balloons are added digitally on top of the artwork so that everything is nice and clean. More importantly if anything has to change – if a balloon has to be made bigger or smaller because the text changes – that can be done very easily without touching the artwork.”

“I draw a lot out of my head, but sometimes if a pose is tricky, or the drawing isn’t coming together, I will get a reference. Often what that means is that I’ll pose myself, in a mirror or using my webcam. Sometimes if it’s a female character, I might ask my wife to pose, or look for a photo on the web, or get friends to pose as they did for all of Merchant. I don’t go shot for shot with photographs the way Alison Bechdel does; I would say I probably need reference for every third or fourth panel.” Hinds’ wife noted at this point that she came home one day and found him wearing a toga-like dress and posing, but he won’t let her show the photograph.

When it comes to deciding what book to work on, Hinds says, “It’s mostly me. I typically go to the publisher with a couple of options, and they’ll either pick one or ask which one I really want to do. They’ve been pretty good about it, but we’re both concerned about the market. They’ll ask if a book is being taught much. I picked King Lear because it was one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s, but it’s my least successful books, I think because nobody teaches or reads it in high school. Conversely, The Odyssey is my most successful, so we’re always looking for the next success. Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth are arguably the books I should have started with because those are taught all the time. The publisher doesn’t come to me, but I do get a lot of requests from teachers. Generally the publisher has been happy to do the next thing that I want to do. The next project, after the samurai book, is Edgar Allen Poe’s Stories and Poems.

When asked about all the pre-existing graphic adaptations of Poe, Hinds noted, “I worry about competition if I feel that somebody has done it well for the educational market. I don’t feel that anyone has done Poe well for that market. There’s some pretty good stuff, but it’s mostly black and white, and there’s some silly spins, which is entertaining but is not what teachers are looking for.”

“People often ask me if I’m going to do any original work. Between projects, I take a couple of weeks to a couple of months to write because I like to write and I have ideas for stories. I’m pretty critical of my writing, and like most writers I find that process can be hard and take a while, so I usually decide I need to be drawing. Eventually one of those projects will probably take off.”

When asked if he would illustrate a book written by someone else, he noted that the upcoming samurai book fits that, as an earlier children’s book, Gift from the Gods, done in the style of The Odyssey. “I’m always happy to do more of that in picture books. I don’t know if I would illustrate somebody else’s graphic novel because it so much work that I don’t know if I want to invest that kind of energy. In my ideal world, I would do a picture book in between every graphic novel. That would be a nice break. A graphic novel takes me about a year. The Odyssey is twice as long and took about 20 months.”

Regarding translations, the most recent are copyrighted, so how does he pick which one to use? “For The Odyssey, I was trying to decide which one to use, but I realized I was putting the cart before the horse. I need to start trying to write the script, and as soon as I did that, I realized I would have to completely rewrite it for brevity. I didn’t have to worry about it too much as long as I wasn’t using direct quotes from the translation. For Beowulf, both the translations I used are out of copyright. The first one I chose for my self-published version is by Francis Gummere is very very archaic and I really like it. My publisher Candlewick thought that one was a little hard, and asked if I could find another one. If I had been working on that book after Seamus Heaney’s translation came out, I probably would have tried to get it.”

When asked about writing for the educational market, Hinds said, “It’s kind of just where I landed, but the thing that feels really good is when I hear my book helped somebody get through a work they wouldn’t have otherwise read, and helped them enjoy it. That’s the big thing to me. I enjoyed them when I read them, but I know a lot of people don’t. I want to share the experience of finding the stories to be cool. In a perfect world, I would also would also sell really well in a comics store, which is the world that I came from. But it’s completely different distribution, and aesthetic. Comics purists don’t like typeset books – when I go to comics conventions, I’m this weird animal that’s neither fish nor fowl. I seem to fit more naturally into that young adult and school library marketplace, but that’s not necessarily something I picked.”

The samurai book will be out in February 2016, the Poe book at the end of 2016, and he announced, “I am under contract to do The Illiad after Poe. I’m going to try to keep it to 200 pages but it will be tough. It’ll be tough in any number of ways. I do enjoy drawing battle scenes, but it will be complicated.”

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