Neil Gaiman’s YA fantasy The Graveyard Book (Reviews, May 16; pub month, July) tells the story of a young child who is adopted by the spirits that occupy a nearby graveyard, following the grisly murder of his parents. Gaiman and longtime collaborator comics artist P. Craig Russell have adapted the book into a graphic novel.
You’ve worked with Gaiman a number of times over the years. How did you first come to collaborate?
It’s been about 22 years now since Neil first approached me to do the artwork for the “Ramadan” issue of the Sandman comic book series. He would sometimes write scripts with a particular artist in mind, knowing what his or her strengths were, and he had seen a book of mine the year before called The Thief of Baghdad, so he explained what the story was and said, “I’d like to do it like that, only more so.” It was simply the best original script I’d ever been given, and I’ve been doing this for 42 years. He’s written two original scripts for me, and all the other [collaborative] works have been adapting his prose works, like Coraline and some of his short stories. I take each piece and write up a graphic script.
You’re doing a fair amount of writing yourself when you’re adapting a project?
Yes. When I have an original script, I’m not changing a word of it. That’s sacrilege. The more creative part is deciding how many panels in a page. With a novel, you’re taking huge chunks of copy out, partly because the prose writer uses a lot of exposition to describe what a scene or a room looks like. That can all be dropped because you’re drawing that picture. The more challenging part is when you only have a certain number of pages to deal with and the novel is so big that you have to take long dialogue scenes and shorten them. It’s fun, but it’s sort of scary too, because the author is still living, and you can just imagine him looking over your shoulder.
How hands-on is Gaiman when you’re adapting one of his books? Does he look at the work before it goes to print?
Not always. After Sandman, he trusts me with it. He’ll make a couple of notes in the beginning, and then he’s always available during the course of it. When I was doing The Graveyard Book, I had half a dozen questions. He gives me his opinion and that’s pretty much it.
Why employ multiple artists for the different chapters?
The size of the book. [The publisher] wanted it fairly soon. It was a popular book, and they wanted to strike while the iron was hot. If I did it entirely on my own, as I had done with Coraline, it would have taken me four or five years. Then it was the concern of HarperCollins that the artists not be too different. We had to work in a certain school of illustration. A counter-example would be Endless Night, the Sandman graphic novel that Neil wrote. Each of the [Sandman] siblings has a different story and there’s a different artist. He deliberately chose artists who were radically different from one another, because the siblings were different. In this case, we wanted to find artists who had the same illustrative background, the same influences. And, for the most part, I think we got that. And I did the layout, giving it a consistent design across the book.
So you really scripted out all the panels for the different artists?
Right. When I script and do layouts, I do them simultaneously. One advantage of being an artist and a writer is both things are going on at the same time. A scripter who doesn’t draw has a lot more work to do, I think, because they have to make all of their ideas clear, but they’re not actually laying out the design of the page, nine times out of 10. When I do it, there is no typewritten script. It’s all lettered by hand on the page as I’m doing it. That’s confounded a few editors over the years. They’ll ask where the script is, but there is no script. I do enough of a basic drawing that shows facial expressions, figure work, staging. It’s sort of like a storyboard for a film, only more elaborate. All of the acting and the pacing is done in the layout. You have to have an artist that can take a lot and create the full-fledged artwork from it.
I imagine that different artists need different levels of handholding when it comes to layout?
There have always been artists who simply want to draw and have no problem having those storytelling decisions made for them. That’s my favorite part of the process, so, ironically, I wouldn’t want to be given this project. That to me is the fun part, so I’m the right guy to lay out 352 pages for other people.