Monday, 17 October 2011

P. CRAIG RUSSELL interview

Interview conducted by smoky man, on the occasion of the publication - by NPE - of the Italian edition of Coraline’s adaptation.
Answers received in October 2011. Posted here with the artist's permission.
Many thanks to Mr. Russell for his kindness and support.
P. Craig Russell official site:

In your long career you have successfully adapted into comics form several works originally from different sources. What about your approach to the original material? Do you generally make a lot of researches and studies before actually start? 
P. Craig Russell: I actually don't do a tremendous amount of studies and research before I start a project. Certainly if the setting is something like, for instance, feudal Japan or 19th century Holland, I have to assemble costume and architectural reference ahead of time and if I'm going for a more realistic approach I pose models and photograph them for reference. The only time I do a great amount of sketchbook work before beginning to draw a story is when the visual 'tone' of the piece is more cartoony. For my adaptation of Oscar Wilde's fairy tale The Devoted Friend I filled 50 pages in my sketchbook.
Page from Coraline
What about your method in adapting into comics form? Do you follow a "standard" process? I suppose that maybe each piece needed its own "tone" depending on the author and specific work, I guess.. but maybe there are common threads or techniques/storytelling devices that you can identify...
PCR: When beginning an adaptation I first photocopy each two page spread of the book onto 11x17 paper. This leaves a huge margin in which I can thumbnail sketch however many versions of a page design I need before solving the problem. I also use these large pages to do a very rough 'blocking' of text to comic page. In other words, based on simple experience, I 'guesstimate' how many paragraphs can make the transition from prose to page. Sometimes it's not even whole paragraphs but only a few sentences that are given an entire page to themselves. I'm also looking for a good 'break' point for each page, almost like the stanza of a poem. You don't want a page break in the middle of a sentence. Also, it's easier to spread out these sheets on the table than to be constantly leafing back and forth through the book as I lay it out.
Page from A Voyage to the Moon
How much did your "method" change with the passing of years? If it did...
For me 'method' is an evolution, just as one's handwriting or drawing style subtly evolves over the years. Having said that, there have been some seismic shifts such as going from the illustrative realism of The Gift of the Magi (Opus 31) to the straight out cartooning of A Voyage to the Moon (Opus 32). But those changes in drawing style were dictated by the subject matter of the story. Layout style has been more constant in its evolution although the year in which I did nothing but lay out over 600 pages (1996?) I quickly evolved a page design approach in which I was acutely aware of the aligning and confluence of the 'gutters' between panels. There was another shift several years later when I was designing Coraline and started running gutters across double page spreads. It's not entirely consistent throughout the book but usually is. With Coraline I also started playing with the interplay on each, or most, pages between very large and very small panels. I enjoyed the challenge of making the pages visually interesting as a series of rectangles while not losing sight of the importance of storytelling, of why those rectangles were on the page in the first place. In other words it failed if it was merely one or the other.
An other page from Coraline
Talking specifically about Coraline, how did the project originate? Which were the difficulties - if there were any - that you faced along the process?
PCR: The first part of your question is easy to answer. For me the project originated when Neil Gaiman called me and asked if I'd be interested in adapting Coraline. I said yes. That was easy. There were no major difficulties except one. It was Neil's description of the 'other father' when he has been relegated to the basement and is reverting to some otherworldly form. Basically he's a slug with little stick arms. The story calls for him to chase Coraline around the basement. This works in prose but I found it very difficult to animate. My version, while decaying, is much more human like, just so I could get him to move. On seeing the finished work Neil wistfully asked what had happened to his 'slug Dad'. I explained. When the animated film came out I excitedly looked forward to how the animators would solve the problem. THEY AVOIDED IT TOO. They put the Dad on a sort of bicycle, chasing her about the garden. I sank down in my seat and said "Oh no, poor Neil. Sorry".

I really appreciated your decision to approach the subject with a "light tone". I really like the way you drew Coraline. I like to think it's a sort of "realistic" cartooning... what about your decision in term of visual storytelling? What about the "design" of each characters? I suppose you were familiar with the illustrations that Dave McKean did for the original novel... they were more darker in style than your approach…
PCR: Dave's beautiful illustrations certainly were darker and edgier than mine. When Neil was discussing the project with me I could sense he was being very careful as to why I was being asked. I understood. I said "you want a more 'user friendly' artist to appeal to the kids". I could hear the smile of relief in his voice as he said "Yes".
A gorgeous page from Ramadan
Doing a step back... as a comics reader I always remain amazed by your Sandman's Ramadan issue, which, in my humble opinion, is one of the peak of the medium, a real masterpiece. So, what about your collaboration with Neil Gaiman? In your previous works together and especially in the case of Coraline...
PCR: The reason I do so many adaptations of classic literature is that, like so many filmmakers who look to the novel or the play for source material, I'm simply looking for a good story to tell. You're halfway there when you have that to start with. It's the same in collaborating with Neil. To me working with Neil is no different than working with Oscar Wilde or Rudyard Kipling. Except they're dead and he's very much alive. And it's very exciting working with a living writer whose life's work is a work in progress and not yet a set of collected works. Also, he's very sweetly encouraging and that makes me want to try even harder on the next project.

What are you working on at the moment? Any "mainstream" involvement, e.g. superhero stuff? I recently saw your b&w Spirit short story and it was a very funny reading and a little example of "intelligent entertainment”....
PCR: Earlier this year I finished work on The Happy Prince, the fifth volume in my ongoing adaptation of the complete fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. Now I'm starting work on the sixth album and the last of those nine tales, The Fisherman and his Soul. There's an album of Neil Gaiman short stories I should be farther along. We're also discussing a several hundred page adaptation of his The Graveyard Book which would involve a number of artists working over my layouts. No super-hero work at the present, the Spirit story was about as close to that as I've gotten in a while. What a delightful script Will Pfeiffer gave me. So between Gaiman and Wilde I have the next couple of years planned out. Which reminds me of an old joke. Q: How do you make God laugh? A: Tell him your plans.
Page from The Spirit N.17

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