Luke Pearson's Hilda comics series, set in a charming, and surprisingly cozy, Nordic myth–inflected world full of trolls and giants and strange beasts, has been deeply beloved by those in the know for years. But when Silvergate Media and Mercury Filmworks teamed up with Pearson to adapt it into an animated Netflix series of the same name—replete with a Game of Thrones breakout star, Bella Ramsey, voicing the eponymous adventurer, and an earworm of a title theme by Grimes to boot—it catapulted the winning, blue-haired child adventurer into stardom.
It also sold a lot of books for Nobrow Press, Pearson's publisher, which has taken full advantage of Hilda hunger. In addition to the six original graphic novel titles written and illustrated by Pearson, Nobrow's Flying Eye Books imprint has now published six TV tie-in illustrated prose chapter books, three of which were based on plots from the show's first season, which came out in 2018, and three based on plots from the show's second season, which was released last December. In addition, the publisher has released two other tie-ins, Hilda’s Sparrow Scout Badge Guide and Hilda’s Book of Beasts and Spirits, styled, Nobrow Press managing director Sam Arthur said, "to look like Hilda’s own copies of books that you would find in Hilda’s library in Trolberg," with text supplemented by "Hilda’s own notes and doodles."
To get an idea of what Hilda has meant for Hilda, PW spoke with Pearson and Arthur about the creative and business sides of adapting comics to the screen and how it can change a publisher's list. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Publishers Weekly: Can you speak to how the Hilda adaptation came about, and how you were involved in its development and execution? Were you surprised at Netflix's interest?
Luke Pearson: Hilda was being developed at Silvergate before it was taken to broadcasters, and I worked with Kurt Mueller, the executive producer, and company to help shape what it could and should be as a show. Since it was picked up, I've done stuff across the board—reviewing everything as part of the production team but also writing episodes, preliminary design stuff, attending recording sessions, doing art for all the title cards. I also storyboarded the title sequence.
How was the experience of working on Hilda, which you developed from your own comics and executive produced, different from the work you did storyboarding for two seasons of Adventure Time? Did you have control over new storylines, for instance?
LP: It was a different role and process entirely. Even just from the point of view of being a writer for both, on Adventure Time, I was working from a rough story outline and “writing” the episode via drawing the storyboards themselves, because it was a board-driven show. There wasn't a script. Hilda is script-driven, so you're writing an actual screenplay, which is then recorded with the voice actors, and the storyboard artists work from that. And with Hilda, I'm also working on the entire project at the same time, and I'm obviously much more invested in it as a whole.
What are the main differences in the production of comics and of animation, besides the obvious? What are some things you appreciate about each medium that are unique to it?
LP: With comics I appreciate the flexibility and overall control you have of the thing. It's just you and you can muddle through in whatever way you want and the only other person you really need to think about is your publisher. It's obviously a much more singular expression. In animation, at least this type of animation, you're only performing a particular role and you're really just influencing the final thing. I've really enjoyed the reassurance of being part of a bigger team of people who are all great at their specific roles. It's nice to be able to nudge things in a direction you like and then watch other people take it from there.
Has working on the series distracted you from working on the comics? Has it inspired you anew?
LP: I've only managed to draw one comic since production began, so you could say it's distracted me. But I've also had kids since it all started, so it's more a case that there was only realistically time for one or the other. And I wanted to put as much of myself into it as I could as I don't assume I'll get the chance to do this sort of thing again. The good thing about comics is that it will always be there for me. It won't necessarily be profitable, and there won't necessarily be a lot of people who want to read them, but I'll always be able to make a comic if I want to.
The character design in Hilda comics has evolved over the years. Was that due to the show's influence, or something you came to naturally? If the former, how do you feel about those changes?
LP: The design changed well before the show began. There are all kinds of reasons, both intentional and unintentional, for why her design has shifted in various ways, book to book. I actually did a whole talk on this a few years ago, because it's something I feel a bit embarrassed about, looking at the books as a series. But it's also interesting, when considering what the important parts of a character design are. When and if I draw another book, I will definitely be wrestling with the fact that even I think of the TV Hilda as the default Hilda now, but who knows how she'll actually end up looking. In the last book I drew she was a troll for the majority of it, so I'm actually years out of practice of consistently drawing the "real" Hilda.
What do you think it is about Hilda and her world that resonates with readers and with viewers?
LP: I think Hilda is a relatable and aspirational character for kids, or at least she seems to be. And I think it's just a warm and appealing world, and one you'd definitely want to live in. I don't really know though, to be honest, but I'm happy that it does.
Is this the first time Hollywood picked up a Nobrow title? How was the experience?
Sam Arthur: Hilda was our first title for which we sold rights for film/television. We’ve sold rights subsequently, and are currently in discussion over yet more for various other books. At that time, we had had several offers from Hollywood and European producers for Hilda, but we felt the approach from Silvergate was the most sympathetic to the books and also to Luke’s vision. I had an email, and subsequent telephone call, from Kurt Mueller at Silvergate in which he outlined how much he loved the world Luke had created and thought it would be a great animated TV show. We asked them to pitch their vision to us, they supplied an amazing animation test, and we were all blown away by it.
How many copies of each book is in print at this point?
SA: We keep all of the titles in print with frequent reprints as and when they are needed. Regarding editions of the books, it’s a range across the titles. Currently all books are below 10 editions except perhaps Hilda and the Troll, the first ever title in the series, but that is due to there having previously been an edition called Hildafolk.
How much of a measurable impact did each season of the show have on book sales?
SA: The TV show has made a significant impact on sales. It has turned Hilda into a mainstream character, and therefore, we are able to sell our books much more widely than previously.
How are the tie-in novels, and the tie-in guide books, selling in comparison to the graphic novels?
SA: We have just released Hilda’s Book of Beasts, which is a gift book TV tie-in—a compendium of the creatures that appear in the TV show. I’m interested to see how that title does in the trade. So far, it’s doing great. All the titles sell well for us, and the tie-in titles allow us to reach a new audience. Given recent unpredictability in trade sales due to the pandemic, it’s still quite difficult to draw any direct comparisons between the two types of publishing.
Had you ever done tie-ins titles of this sort before? Was it the first time you published middle grade fiction? Tell me about the decisions and the challenges.
SA: It’s the first time we’ve done tie-in publishing, and also the first time for us doing middle grade fiction. We approached it in the same rigorous manner we apply to our other publishing. Most of our staff has worked for other publishers in the past, and so the skill set required was not alien to anyone. Production, in many ways, is easier than our usual full-color publishing. There is a level of anxiety surrounding any new publishing, so our challenge was managing that, and in doing so the whole experience felt very familiar to us.
Has this led to merchandising deals as well?
SA: The trade release of the new merchandising was hampered a little by the pandemic last year. However, there are some amazing products available, including soft toys and plushies from Gund Toys as well as other apparel and collectible merch. We hope to see lots more availability nationwide this year.