The illustrations for Gris Grimly’s Frankenstein by Mary Shelley took so long to do and were so tantalizing a prospect for his fans that Grimly blogged the whole project, faithfully posting new artwork every week and confessing to frustration when the going got rough. It was an open-hearted gesture for an artist whose mysterious pen name and edgy horror-punk projects have in the past kept admirers at a distance. PW interviewed Grimly by phone at his Los Angeles studio about the team behind his new project, the perils of tackling the Frankenstein story after so many others have had a go at it, and effective methods for hiding comic books from one’s parents.
You’ve been working on Frankenstein pretty much continuously for four years. How does it feel to be finished?
I feel invigorated! There’s a lot of excitement. Frankenstein is a story that’s been very close to my heart. I’ve always gravitated toward it. To finally get to work on it and to spend four years of my life on it – it’s the biggest job I’ve ever taken on. It’s been life-changing.
The story has been told so many different ways already. One of my favorite illustrated versions is Bernie Wrightson’s. He chose to illustrate it as a gothic novel, so I couldn’t do it that way. If I had, it would have been the second-best gothic novel version, or the third-best. I had to do it my own way, in a fantastic world that wasn’t time-specific, that took place in a universe that exists in my head.
Some literary people may be turned off by the fact that it’s not depicted historically. There’s nothing in my version that wasn’t heavily thought out. But I wonder if it’s for everybody. People love Frankenstein. They have expectations. A lot of people are turned off by doing interpretations of classics. It’s like making a remix of a Hitchcock film. Or The Big Lebowski. You know – it’s the Coen brothers’ version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, but if you go in expecting The Big Sleep, a Humphrey Bogart-type film, you’ll be disappointed.
Did your feelings about the story change as you worked on it?
When I was growing up, I always felt a kinship with the monster. He was trying to find a place to belong, and no one accepted him for who he was striving to be. Now I find myself relating more to Victor Frankenstein. A work like this becomes an obsession. It’s led me to looking at my artwork as an obsession, in the way that it leads you, at times, to neglect your responsibilities to your family and friends and relationships because you’re so consumed with a project. I’m definitely a different person today than I was before.
Were there particular readers you were thinking about?
I think it’s difficult for a kid to pick up a novel like Frankenstein and be able to get through it. That’s one of the reasons that I created this book – to introduce young readers to a classic that they might not have been able to finish without this bombardment of illustrations. It’s what I did with Edgar Allan Poe and Sleepy Hollow [Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Madness; The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, 2007; and Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Death and Dementia, 2009, all Atheneum]. I think that a young adult would be moved emotionally, and they’d be encouraged to finish it. Just recently I had someone come up to me at Comic-Con. She was probably 18 or 20, and she said that my Edgar Allan Poe book used to give her nightmares when she was a kid. It had such an impact on her that 10 years later, she decided to wait in line so she could tell me that.
What was it like to work on Frankenstein with your editor, Jordan Brown?
I have a great relationship with Jordan. He has a deep understanding for what I do, the world I live in, and the audience that I create artwork for. He’s able to tell me to change something and I have enough respect for him that I’m not offended by it. And if I decide that I prefer not to change it, he has enough respect for me that he’s not offended. I think artists sometimes feel oppressed when they work with editors. Sometimes the directions you get don’t coincide with your vision. That doesn’t happen with Jordan.
Did you also work closely with the designer, Dana Fritts?
I didn’t have any interaction with her personally, but I felt as if she was working right alongside me. A couple pages in, there’s this page which is [supposed to be] a yellowish old page, and on it is an extremely subtle water stain that you may not see when you flip past it. There is so much brilliance there! Most designers would either throw down a water stain that people can see, or else leave the page blank. I feel like the entire book is filled with those gems.
Even the blacks – there’s no solid black in the book. She and I were trying to come up with something special. I told her I wanted it to be kind of like black steel. We just kept going back and forth, sending jpgs and swatches of textured blacks. I think we finally came down to one black that was the black that’s the color of old frying pans. The typography, the little frames that she put into it… Everything is so astounding. I couldn’t have asked for a better designer on the project.
You’ve done a lot of children’s books, but you’re part of the world of comics, too.
I’ve always wanted to be a comic book illustrator. I don’t remember how young I was when I started reading comics. I wasn’t allowed to read them, but I would buy comics after school and stick them in my book bag between the pages of my math book. I had a drawer that I kept all my comics in with papers on top of them. I really loved The New Mutants, and the artwork by Bill Sienkiewicz. It was his artwork that really drew me. And Sam Kieth – he’s another big influence. I learned a lot by looking at his work and trying to mimic it.
You probably started drawing when you were very young.
Yeah, I did. Most parents save their kids’ artwork. My mother framed mine. I remember drawing a lot of animals – beavers, and raccoons, and bears, and rabbits. I grew up in Nebraska, on a farm, so I was exposed to a lot of wildlife.
At some point before I turned five I was seriously burned in a butchering accident. I was in the hospital for about a month. In the past 10 years I’ve started to think about that more, to analyze it and question it. I think that was when I started to draw monsters and skulls and skeletons – when I started to be drawn to darker imagery. I’m definitely not constrained by what people expect. I’m drawing from a feeling as opposed to knowledge. If I’m feeling a leg should be longer than the other leg and skinnier, that’s how I’m going to draw it.
What’s on the horizon for you now? You’re already at work on another book with Jordan Brown, right?
Yeah, it’s Sherlock Holmes. I’m just at the thinking stage, though, so there’s not too much to say about it yet. It’s Frankenstein I’m most excited about right now.
Gris Grimly’s Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, illus. by Gris Grimly. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $24.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-06-186297-7