Known for publishing a distinguished list of serious nonfiction, Hill & Wang publisher Thomas LeBien founded the Novel Graphics line of nonfiction comics at the FSG imprint in 2006. The first book to be released, The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón, an immediate hit in both the trade and educational markets, was followed by a string of nonfiction comics work published by a house that would have once been considered an unlikely source for comics of any kind. Since then LeBien, a historian himself, has overseen the production of new comics works on the war on terror (After 9/11, also by Colon and Jacobson), the American government (The U.S. Constitution by Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell), genetics (The Stuff of Life by Mark Schultz, Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon) and more--all the while adding to his own understanding of the medium and working to create comics that meet the same standards he brings to the prose works he publishes. LeBien has now turned his attention to the world of fictional adaptation, working with the legendary author Ray Bradbury to create a “graphic translation” of Fahrenheit 451, one the classics of 20th century literature. PWCW talked with LeBien about working with Bradbury and the artist Tim Hamilton and transforming a classic prose work into the comics medium.
PW Comics Week: How did the project to to create a graphic adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 get started?
Thomas LeBien: I heard from [former Byron Priess editor] Howard Zimmerman that the graphic adaptation rights to Fahrenheit 451 were out there and that a certain amount of work on the adaptation had already been done. Ray Bradbury is a huge comics fan and he has a huge collection of comics. In the 1990s Ray had been working with the late Byron Priess to create graphic adaptations of his short stories and planned to have a Ray Bradbury comics series. Ray has been interested in comics for a long time. Byron had been putting together the work on Fahrenheit 451 when he died and that kind of left the contracts up in the air.
PWCW: You’ve had success with your Novel Graphics line at H&W, a line of serious nonfiction comics works. What do you hope to bring to the adaptation of fiction?
TL: Rather than think in terms of an adaptation, I began thinking in terms of “graphic translations.” There is a long history of doing adaptations of prose works into comics, some are good some not so. What I wanted to know was what could we do to bring a new level of graphic nuance to the interpretation of prose books. I got excited and thought that Fahreheit 451 would be a blockbuster project.
PWCW: When was the artist,Tim Hamilton, brought into the project?
TL: Tim Hamilton began working on the book with Byron Priess in the 1990s. I came in and brought a new level of enthusiasm. We decided to add details to the project and more pages--we added 2 signatures, 32 pages--rather than reduce and redact Ray’s prose. The challenge for me was how do you keep the essential story as well as the subtle overtones that run through a book? Especially for an author like Ray.
Tim responded well to having more length to work with. Everyone is familiar with the basic story of Fahrenheit 451, of course, but what’s sometimes forgotten about the story is the looming fear of nuclear war and the constant sound of bombers over head or the suicidal teenagers in the book. This is the stuff that provides the texture to the novel. The protagonist, the fireman Guy Montag, is he an enforcer or a rebel? I wanted Tim to be able to bring all that out rather than cut and clip it into a smaller format. That made everyone excited.
PWCW: How involved has Mr. Bradbury been in the production of the book?
TL: Ray has been involved every step of the way. The script, the design, the pencils; Ray’s been looking over our shoulders all the way. Remember, Fahrenheit 451 is a book from the 1950s looking at what a future America might be like. We had to decide, do you make the technology, say, contemporary technology or recreate the future world, the dystopic future--with the wall-size TV screens and the earplug phone Montaq uses--that Ray imagined back in the 1950s. We decided to recreate that world and we needed Ray to be able to do that. Ray looked over it all and gave his stamp of approval.
PWCW: Did he always want his books turned into comics?
TL: We sent a video crew to Ray’s home to record him talking about the book. He told us that every book he wrote, he also saw it as both a film and as a comic. He said that when he was writing a book, he would lay on the bed and look up at the ceiling and visualize the book playing out on the ceiling as a kind of film and then after a while he’d get up and write it down. He’s such an avid collector of comics and very early on adapted his work into comics so there’s always been a very fluid relationship between his books and films and comics.
PWCW: Can you talk about working with Tim Hamilton the artist charged with “translating” this classic work into a visual story?
TL: If you’re putting out a full color book that’s growing and getting longer, you had better make sure who you’re making it for. You really make sure that the artist has heard the author’s directive correctly. Tim Hamilton has been working on this project for a long time and knows this novel as well as anyone outside of Bradbury himself. He got the story down and he got the characters, then we wanted to make sure that he also got the subtle notes and overtones of the book. We wanted it to breathe the adjectives and verbs--the atmospherics of the book--so the reader will feel them on every page. That’s where Tim’s sense of the book steps in. This is what translators do and that’s their skill--knowing their own medium and having a profound understanding of the author they are translating. Tim had both and in the end you can’t quite put your finder on where Ray Bradbury’s vision ends and where Tim Hamilton’s begins.
PWCW: Are there parts of the book that really show off Hamilton’s skill at transforming Bradbury’s prose into visual equivalents?
TL: There’s a monolog by Guy Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty, about why the government started burning books that goes on for several pages. It’s a long commentary about the importance of philosophy and learning. How do you represent that in comics and how do you integrate that with the action, the fire trucks rushing down the street to burn books? How do you capture this. There are moments where Tim made great use of the additional space we gave him in the book.
PWCW: Although this is your first effort translating prose fiction into comics, you’ve been producing a line of nonfiction comics called Novel Graphics at Hill & Wang since 2006. While history is your specialty you had no previous experience producing comics. What’s the process of becoming a comics editor and publisher been like?
TL: Novel Graphics started as an approach by a book guy to making comics. Someone not from the conventional comics world and not from the comics fan world. It was an attempt to see what a book guy could do in comics that might be different and that would be exciting for me. We’ve produced 11 books so far and there’s been some steep learning curves. You reach a plateau and then you realize there’s another steep curve coming. I want to take the lessons I’ve learned in producing those 11 nonfiction books and see what we can do in other areas. If there’s a novel that looks interesting, let’s do it; if there’s an original comics work--although there’s nothing like that just yet--then let’s do that.
We have already started work translating two more classic works of fiction by Ray. Artist Ron Wemberly is working on Something Wicked This Way Comes and artist Dennis Calero is working on adapting The Martian Chronicles. Ray is working closely with the artists on both books. 11 books is a modest number. There will never be a torrent of new graphic books coming out from us but I do want to widen what we do as long as we can do it well. I’m struck by the possibilities of what we can do with graphic translations.