Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Macmillan, will publish a full-color graphic novel adaptation of Israeli director Ari Folman’s much acclaimed animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir, in February. Waltz with Bashir seems to pick up a new award with every passing week. The film was named Best Movie at the Israeli Academy Awards; Best Picture by the National Society of Film Critics; and, over the weekend, was awarded a Golden Globe as the Best Foreign Language Film of the year. Metropolitan Books plans a 17,000-copy first printing for Waltz with Bashir:A Lebanon War Story.
The graphic work was created by the art director of Waltz with Bashir, David Polonsky, an award-winning children’s book illustrator in Israel, in collaboration with Folman and a team of Israeli comics artists. Polonsky will make appearances in the U.S. to promote the book. Like the film, the book is the story of Folman, an army veteran of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, who had forgotten—or suppressed—memories of serving in Lebanon. He embarks on an eccentric quest to find and interview members of his former army unit in an effort to recover his own memories of the war.
Riva Hocherman, senior editor at Metropolitan Books, the editor responsible for signing the graphic novels on Metropolitan’s list, said the book is one of three graphic novels that will be released by the imprint this year. In April MB will release Britten and Brulightly, a quirky and much-praised period-piece murder mystery by Hannah Berry that was originally published in Britain. And in fall 2009, the imprint will publish the much-anticipated Footnotes in Gaza by comics journalist Joe Sacco, author of Palestine.
In Footnotes in Gaza, a sequel of sorts to Palestine, Sacco returns to Gaza and makes a little-known and violent incident in a refugee camp in 1956 the basis for a 400-page history of Gaza that takes the reader from 1956 to the present. In a phone interview from his home in Tel Aviv, PWCW talked with Polonsky about the production of the Waltz with Bashir graphic novel, the comics he reads and likes, and his next project with Ari Folman.
PW Comics Week: Is Folman interested in comics? Did he really want to create a graphic novel?
David Polonsky: Ari had graphic novels on his mind when he started thinking about making the film. I come from a background in children’s books and editorial illustration and I hadn’t really thought about a book. It was almost good luck that our work on the film turned out to be so graphic novel-like.
PWCW: When did he decide that there would be a graphic novel adaptation?
DP: [Metropolitan Books senior editor] Riva Hocherman approached us a year before the film was done. I think she saw something on the internet about Ari making the film. Ari was thinking about comics all the time and images from the film were ready for us to use when we decided to do a book. We began to work intensively on the book after the film was done. We used the original character designs from the film; the same pre-animation designs that were used for the book. They had more details and clarity than the animation. They weren’t meant to be used as comics and they weren’t meant to convey movement, so it was a challenge to create a narrative flow out of these building block drawings. It was a completely new way to create a graphic novel.
PWCW: Do you think the book can stand on its own?
DP: I didn’t want the book to look like a spin-off. Gradually it took on its own life. Now that I’ve seen it my mind is at peace. Does the book work on its own? It’s hard to be objective after working on it for so long but when I saw the book the first time I realized that it delivered a different experience to the reader. What is lacking in emotion in the book is made up for by what you can expose in each panel to the reader. The book is less emotional than the film but I believe the book also gives the reader a much better grasp of the story.
PWCW: Did you create the drawings for the book?
DP: I did most of the work on the book but I also had help from a team that included the Israeli cartoonists, the Hanuka brothers, Asaf and Tomer. Asaf did most of the backgrounds; Tomer created the scenes of the huge woman [a dream sequence in the film] and another Israeli cartoonist, Michael Faust, contributed the backgrounds used in the scenes from the refugee camps.
PWCW: Have you done comics in the past?
DP: I had done some collaborations with [the Israeli comics collective] Actus in the past. I was invited to write a story but found it difficult. I was born in the U.S.S.R. and the comics there were not that developed. I moved to Israel which also does not have a big comics scene. The Hanuka brothers are the exception, they grew up in Israel reading American comics. Actus is a group of illustrators who got together and started making comics; looking for a new way to express themselves. They started a little revolution in the Israeli comics scene. I was very happy to be invited to work with the group and tried to explore the medium. My commitment to linear narrative really grew and developed while was working on the film.
PWCW: While the book follows the film’s narrative flow very precisely, there are small differences in pacing and in the translation of dialogue. How do you account for the differences between the film and the book?
DP: There were small changes in dialogue from the film to the book, mostly because of the translators. There were many textual changes from the book because the dialogue had to be more concise. In most cases the changes were for the best. In the Hebrew, the dialog can be hard to translate in subtitles. A lot of the humor is in the speaker’s intonation and that gets lost in translation. For the book we worked with Riva and cut and slashed the dialogue. Other things were changed because there was no soundtrack.
The soundtrack is important to the home-leave scene [young Folman returns home on leave to find an Israeli home front out of touch with the carnage of the war]. The music sets up contrasts between the post-punk tune playing, the war and the holiday atmosphere back home. You can’t really do that in a book. But we could use the cultural atmosphere of 1982 that were in the details in the original drawings for the characters.
In the film, we made a decision in the home-leave scene to blur the characters whizzing by young Folman as he walked down the street when he returned home. The decision to blur the characters in the film was really a solution to a problem. We had drawn a lot of people that would be on the street but it became too much work and expense to animate all of them. So we blurred them so we didn’t have to animate them. But for the book we were able to use those drawings to give the feeling of disorientation, which is as true as the other depiction used in the film. The book grew out of the limitations we had as animators and we used those limitations to our advantage. You don’t get the motion, but you get the feelings.
PWCW: Color in the film is very rich and affecting and color seems to be used in much the same way in the book.
DP: In print the color was actually easier to control. In places, I’m much happier with the color in the book. There’s less compromise. Making the film we used a lot of software like AfterEffects—the color in the firefight, for instance, in the grove is much brighter in the film. For the book I removed a lot of these layers to get a deeper and more mysterious color.
PWCW: Do you read comics yourself? What do you like?
DP: Yes, some of the comics I admire: Notes for a War Story by Gipi, a great piece of art; I like the French guy, [Joann] Sfar; and I’m into Chris Ware and Dan Clowes—all those guys.
PWCW: The film has received so many awards and there’s a chance you may even get an Oscar nomination. You might even win.
DP: Don’t say it. Back when we started we thought that if we could get nominated it would be a huge success. The way the film has been accepted, it’s all so much more than we expected.
PWCW: Are you working on a new project with Folman and are there plans for more comics?
DP: I’m talking now with Ari about a new feature film; a science fiction work by Stanislaw Lem called Futuristic Convention. It’s all very preliminary; we’re just trying out concept art. But another graphic novel? Maybe. Who knows?