Monday, September 15, 2008

Nathan Hale on Rapunzel's Revenge

Having just heard from Rapunzel's Revenge authors Shannon and Dean Hale, let's now turn our attention to Rapunzel's Revenge artist, Nathan Hale.

(Above: The first sketch Nathan Hale did of Rapunzel, after discussing the project with Shannon and Dean Hale. Copyright Nathan Hale, of course; appropriated from here).

Nathan Hale is an artist and illustrator who has two children’s books that he’s both written and illustrated under his belt, The Devil You Know and Yellowbelly and Plum Go to School.

While his resume is full of illustration work and children’s books, this Hale also has an interest in comics, and some experience with creating sequential art. I was really interested in talking to him because, as long-time readers are no doubt aware, I spend a lot of time wondering about the space between children’s books and comics, and what gets defined as what. Hale’s now worked on both, as well as on a children’s book that’s something in between.

While a lot of his discussion of transferring from one medium to the other, and the process of creating the art didn’t fit in the final interview that ran at Newsarama last week, I wanted to share it here. So here’s the transcript of that…

Caleb: I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your relationship with comics in general. Did you grow up reading them, or
did you get turned on to them more recently? How avid a reader are you?

Nathan Hale: You're going to laugh at this, but the first comic I ever purchased was ACME Novelty Library #1 by Chris Ware. That was the issue with the little potato man (wait, no, that's #3, #1 is the first Jimmy Corrigan.) That was in '95, when Chris Ware was just rolling out his first Fantagraphics issues.

I didn't grow up reading comics. I hit prime comic book reading age in 1985, the same year the original Nintendo Entertainment System came out. I took the game route instead of the comics route. As a kid, I never drew superheroes, instead I drew Mega Man, Samus from Metroid, Simon Belmont from Castlevania, all the 8-bit era video game characters. I totally missed the boat on comics.

My girlfriend in high school loved Tank Girl. So I read and reread the paperback collections. A kid I knew had a Batman paperback called Arkham Asylum that had phenomenal painted artwork. I remember a panel where Batman plunges a shard of glass through his hand—totally blew my mind. I wanted to borrow the book, but he wouldn't let me. He brought it to our shared Biology class every day, so I'd just look at it over and over in class, I didn't read it, just stared at the pictures.

In high school I moved away from drawing game characters and moved onto my own drawing style, kind of a blend of Michael Whelan, the book cover illustrator, Storm Thorgerson, the Hipgnosis album cover photographer (the guy who did all the Pink Floyd photo covers, the man on fire on Wish You Were Here et cetera) and maybe a dash of Edward Gorey. But still no comics.

I went to school at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. The first week there, I went to the Bumbershoot Festival by myself. There was a big basement area set up with kiosks for local publishers, and Fantagraphics had a table. The ACMEs caught my eye right away. I bought four, the first four in the series. That night, I was so blown away, I went back and bought multiple copies (to mail home to my girlfriend) and a bunch of other comics. Eightball (this was in the early Ghost World issues) Land of Nod, and the first two (and only) issues of Al Columbia's Biologic Show. I was hooked.

A few blocks from the school was a comix store called Fallout. I went in there two or three times a week. Got into Jason Lutes, Peter Kuper, Charles Burnes (Blackhole #1 came out that year,) Adriane Tomine's Optic Nerve issues for D & Q started in '95, I went crazy for those. I also found out about Little Nemo in Slumberland. I ended up spending all of my income on comics (I was an art student, so it wasn't much.) I started doing short panel comics for the school paper, and paneling my illustrations for assignments. Did a bunch of Chris Ware rip-offs, before Chris Ware rip-offs became a cottage industry.

I moved to Montreal after a few years in Seattle and discovered French comics. Wow. I got really into the Dargaud and Casterman lines; Enki Bilal, Moebius, Sergio Garcia, Francois Bouc, Luc and Francois Schuiten. The drawing was sooo good. So much better than anything I'd seen before. The drawing was gorgeous! And the coloring was gorgeous! But they were way, way too expensive to collect, each hardcover issue running well over $20. I bought used a lot, and I still pick up French hardcovers when I can. I've since read back into Tintin and Asterix, if I had to say what I patterned Rapunzel after, it would beTintin. No whacked out panel bursts. Just clean, simple, story-based layouts.

Amazon keeps me in comics now. I don't have to plan my vacations around hitting underground comix stores anymore. I still collect Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes and the D&Q/Fantagraphics crowd, I'm collecting the Krazy Kat reprints and still tracking down Little Nemo hardcovers, as well as any french imports that look good. I'm also slowly getting into mainstream american comics. Hellboy and Walking Dead—Shannon and Dean got me into Invincible which has a great, super dramatic, but simple line style I really enjoy.
The only manga I've read are Akira and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind which are both so unbelievably amazing that I don't want to read any other manga for fear of being let down.

And that's my complete history with comics.

Caleb: Part of the reason I ask is that Rapunzel's Revenge doesn't at all
read like the work of people new to comics; you've never done any kind of comics work before this, have you?

Nathan: I've done panel-based projects here and there. I worked for a natural history display company in Missouri for several years doing murals and scientific illustration. And while I was there I ended up doing a lot of science comics. "Carbon 14 Dating! How Does It Work?" That kind of thing. My first picture book, The Devil You Know, is actually laid out in panels. But Rapunzel is my first straight-up comic.

Caleb: How did you become involved with the project? Did Shannon and Dean
come to you, or did the publisher pair you guys together?

Nathan: I had just moved to Utah and joined the same online writers group as Shannon. I had one picture book out, and another on the way. Shannon was asking for donations for a Christmas book give away, so I sent her a copy of my book, The Devil You Know. She saw the panel layouts and asked if I had any interest in graphic novels. We got to talking and found out that we shared a publisher (Walker and Bloomsbury were under the same roof.) When she mentioned her Western-themed Rapunzel, I begged her to let me submit sample art to be considered along side the manuscript and they took them both.

Caleb: Was the fact that they were also named "Hale" factor in at all?

Nathan: Nope. Well, maybe the publisher thought it was cute and kept us together.

Caleb: Can you tell us a little bit about moving from children's books to a graphic novel? Children's picture books seem to fall somewhere between prose and comics, in terms of a picture-to-word ratio. Was it a big adjustment to drawing every single action instead of a picture per page or so?

Nathan: I loved having so many pages to deal with in Rapunzel. I've never done a picture book over 32 pages. Storytelling real estate gets really tight in a picture book. You do get a bigger area to work on, and you can focus more on the illustrations in a picture book—really work them over. But I don't mind switching back and forth between picture books and comics. When you get tired of one, the other is a lot of fun.

Caleb: I've only read one of your previous works (Yellowbelly and Plum Go To
), and that was fully painted, and done in a rather photo-realistic style (well, the children; the monsters still looked like monsters). Can you tell us a bit about the process for creating the art for Rapunzel's Revenge? Did you use pencil and ink? How did you arrive at the more stripped down style?

Nathan: I hope one day I'll get to do a painted graphic novel. But right now, and for Rapunzel, time was a major factor. It's a little funny, when we signed up for Rapunzel, Shannon and Dean had never written a graphic novel, I'd never illustrated a graphic novel, and Bloomsbury had never published a graphic novel. We were babes in the woods. I honestly thought I could bang out the whole book in four months. I really did. It ended up taking closer to sixteen months and absolutely destroyed my ongoing freelance work schedule. Yellowbelly was actually done during Rapunzel. It was a wild time.

Aside from time, again it was the Tintin approach. I knew we were doing something that would be read primarily by first time comic readers. I wanted it to be very clear. Didn't want any illustration showboating or paneling tricks popping the reader out of the story. I've talked to librarians and women in their seventies who say it's the first time they've ever read a comic book—"And it was so easy!" they say. Gateway drug. Creating a gateway drug.

I used pencil and ink—colored it in Photoshop. The stripped down style wasn't too hard to do. I have a lot of styles I use in my portfolio—in fact every project I do tends to have a different style than the last. Drives art directors nuts.

Caleb: How closely did Shannon and Dean work with you on character design? Were they very involved with the details of each character's look, or did you have pretty free reign in terms of what they looked like?

Nathan: When we were putting together the submission packet I did tons of character studies and location sketches. Brute came from a sketch I did for the Sheriff character. We did a lot of work on the main characters. I did several Jacks. He started as a curly haired blonde guy. A lot of the minor characters I just made up as I went.

Caleb: Do you have any characters that you particularly enjoyed drawing, or were there any that were a particular challenge?

Nathan: Brute was probably my favorite outside of Rapunzel herself. Mother Gothel I kind of wish I could go back and redraw. She's a little too obviously evil. When Rapunzel finds out her step-mom is evil it's, er, not really a surprise.

Caleb: I understand you're already working on the sequel. What can you tell us about it at this point?

Nathan: Okay, here's the main thing about the sequel. I drew Rapunzel at 100% finished size. Those panels are 1/1. I didn't know that most comics were drawn at a much larger size than the final print. With Calamity Jack I'm working at 200% which is making an enormous difference in drawing quality. So Jack’s going to look way better than Rapunzel—I'm kicking myself for drawing Rapunzel at such a tiny, hand-cramping size.

The sequel takes place in the city, and I'm having a lot of fun doing all of the cityscape/industrial scenery. It'll have a very different look from Rapunzel's sandstone world.

Caleb: In the future, do you foresee splitting your time between picture books and graphic novels?

Nathan: Yes. The picture book market has been in a huge slump for the last decade, really dragging along. Graphic novels, on the other hand are totally swallowing kid lit whole right now. That said, I've always loved picture books, I'm contracted to do two when Jack's finished (hopefully in December.) And I'm going to watch those two books closely—if they don't do well, I'm going to give picture books a little break. And focus entirely on graphic novels. I've got four graphic novel manuscripts in various stages of completion, ready to launch at publishers as soon as Jack is finished (Again, hopefully in December. Tick tick tick...)

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