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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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 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 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.”
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.”