Gareth Hinds is well-known for his graphic novel adaptations of classic literature, including Beowulf, The Odyssey, and four Shakespeare plays. His newest undertaking is the Homer epic The Iliad, with its expansive battles and impressive cast of characters, which Hinds reimagines with skillful detail. Hinds spoke with PW about his choice to adapt classic literature, the process of abridging and translating a well-known text into a graphic format, and the importance of understanding your audience and market.
What draws you to interpret the classics in a graphic format? Is there a shared characteristic that has inspired the texts you’ve chosen to adapt?
I was initially drawn to the classics because I had a background in illustration and wanted to tell these visual stories, but I felt like my writing was a weakness. I figured I would try the classics because they were tried and true and time-tested: the greatest stories of all time. I found that it was really rewarding to work with this old material. I like the content of these stories; they’re mythological and larger than life. I also discovered there is an educational market [for these retellings] and that they would be a valuable tool for educators, which gave me a reason to want to continue interpreting classics specifically. It’s also given me a chance to share my love of the classics with a younger generation.
When adapting a work like The Iliad into a graphic novel format, how did you decide which events and scenes from the original text were necessary to include?
That’s the tricky part, but it’s fairly intuitive. I read through and make notes about what things I think are really critical, what’s longer than it needs to be, and what doesn’t need to be there at all. I’m always looking for places that I can find a shortcut from point A to point B, places where readers will fill in the rest in their heads.
In some books this process is easier. Beowulf has a lot of narration and repetition, which I was able to cut out and replace with visual narration. The Iliad is really the opposite extreme. It’s the most challenging book I’ve done in terms of scope and density of information. I tried not to cut any important scenes, but I did make them shorter. Readers won’t necessarily get all of the fighting on a given day or all of the deaths (with names and lineages).
Does the medium you’re adapting affect these decisions?
Yes, it definitely does. Most of my adaptations are poetry in one form or another. Shakespeare is actually the hardest because it’s all dialogue; it’s much harder to compress. With Homer, I nod to the poetry by keeping the language rhythmic, but I’m able to rewrite it in a way that compresses the long flowery language with shorter versions of the same information.
Where does your creative process begin? Where do you start when beginning an adaptation like The Iliad? Did you consider adapting The Iliad while working on The Odyssey?
I thought I’d do The Iliad someday if The Odyssey did well. I chose to do The Odyssey first because it was my favorite of the two and it wasn’t quite as challenging, but I didn’t do a lot of thinking about whether my choices with The Odyssey would work if I went on to adapt The Iliad. I wasn’t planning ahead, so when I went to do The Iliad, I first went back to look at what directly relates from The Odyssey. Odysseus has to look the same. Agamemnon has to look the same. There were a few threads that I had to pick up, but then there were a lot more characters to design and the structure of the story is a lot different. I had to work on smaller chunks of The Iliad because there’s so much information there.
Do you start with the writing and then move on to designing the characters?
I usually do those two steps simultaneously. I work on the script and the character design at the same time, going back and forth.
Once I have a first draft of the script and I have most of the character designs fairly firm, I do rough sketches of the entire book. The text changes as I illustrate it because I realize I don’t need some text where I’ll be showing or I need to bring more in other places. Then I get feedback from my editor, make changes, and draw the final art.
What type of research was conducted to bring The Iliad to life and ensure that the time period was accurately depicted?
Through the character design and script writing process I do a lot of research. With The Iliad I didn’t have to do as much because I’d already adapted The Odyssey. I did, however, have to figure out shield designs and different armors, which is a much bigger undertaking with The Iliad. But the research never really stops; it crops up throughout the process.
For this book, I had access to the Center for Hellenic Studies, which has a great library specifically about ancient Greece. I also went onto some reenactor forums to ask questions, like about handling a shield and a spear from someone who had actually used them, not just an academic.
What was the most difficult part of adapting two such famous works?
The challenge with every adaptation is to try to maintain the spirit of the original while translating it to a different medium and abridging it. The scope and length of these two works, particularly the massive number of characters in The Iliad, makes adapting them difficult. I also had to decide how much of the battles to represent. When people read The Iliad they often get the impression that it’s just this endless fighting, killing, and dying. On the one hand, I want to spare the reader some of that, but, at the same time, I want to embrace that impression because it is valid. Homer is making a case for how simultaneously glorious and tragic war is. I want to preserve that, but hitting the right balance is a challenge.
Generally, how long do graphic adaptation projects like The Odyssey and The Iliad take from start to finish? What comprises the largest bulk of time?
The Iliad took a little over two and a half years, while The Odyssey took just under two years. The majority of the time is doing the finished artwork. The script usually goes pretty fast and then the remaining time is divided between rough sketches, finished drawings, and coloring. I could have someone else color the books, but I enjoy the control it gives me over the feel of the final project. The way it’s colored is critical to that overall feel. The coloring also allows time for me to creatively recharge because it’s a more intuitive and less intellectual process.
Do you work simultaneously on multiple projects or focus on one?
Usually just one. I’ll do a little bit of writing or I’ll start to think about a new book while coloring. The process of starting a new project is all-consuming and, while I’m finishing the coloring for a project, I’m usually in a rush to hit my deadline. So, I can’t do much with the next book until I finish the last.
You considered engineering, but then decided to attend art school. What made you decide to pursue art?
I really enjoyed art and math and science. I thought that if I did art for a living, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much, so maybe I should do math and science for a living and just do art for fun. When I started to actually look seriously at colleges, I realized that I wouldn’t get into a top tier school for engineering. If I chose that path, I’d end up in B-level engineering college, but, if I chose art, I could probably get into a good art school. So that felt like a clue about where my strengths actually lay. I gave myself an out though: I did my first two years at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which has a very strong art program but is an engineering school, so I could switch majors if I wanted to.
And did you dabble in engineering while you were there?
I thought that I might, but turns out the first year of college is so demanding that you’re not going to take an extra math elective. Plus, taking a math class in college is not like taking a math class in high school. Everything you did in a year of pre-calculus is like the first week of college calculus. I pretty quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen.
How did you break into the world of publishing?
I started out in self-publishing. My first book was Bearskin, which was a Brothers Grimm fairy tale I adapted that started as a college project. I sent it to a couple of publishers and didn’t get any interest. I thought self-publishing would be a useful way to learn about the traditional publishing process, which indeed it was. That book did okay, but then I took what I learned from Bearskin and did Beowulf, which was also initially self-published. Beowulf took off with the education market, which is when Candlewick Press discovered me and offered to republish Beowulf.
Why are you drawn to creating graphic novels for young adult readers?
Because I had the self-publishing experience, I had gone to a lot of different kinds of shows to sell my work. At most shows, I was sitting at my table twiddling my thumbs, but the first time I went to an English teachers’ conference, I couldn’t handle books, sales, and signatures fast enough to meet demand. It was the first time I realized what a real marketing hook is and what it’s like when someone actually needs what you’re selling.
I think a lot of authors will tell you that whether their book is published for adults or kids is not actually something they choose; their publisher decides who the market is.
What do you know now, that you wish you knew when you were just entering the industry?
The biggest thing is that I thought, after Beowulf, I’d do Shakespeare because he’s considered the greatest writer in the English language and, if there’s a market for anything, there’s a market for Shakespeare. But it turns out that my Shakespeare books haven’t sold quite as well. There could be a lot of reasons for this, but I think, in part, it’s because there are a lot of Shakespeare plays. Not everyone assigns the same play and there are a lot of resources available. That market turned out to be a lot softer than I thought. It’s not that I wouldn’t have done Shakespeare, but I might not have done four. So identifying where the market is really is important.
There are also times where I had gaps between books that I feel could have been avoided if I had planned better. Not that I’ve really learned that lesson—I still have that problem right now.
The perfect segue! What can you share about your next project?
I’m adapting a contemporary novel! It’s a bit of a different project for me. I’ll be announcing the title very soon.
The Iliad by Gareth Hinds. Candlewick, $27.99 Mar. 12 ISBN 978-0-7636-8113-5