When my novel Lizard World was about to be published, my publisher (Joe Taylor at Livingston Press) asked me to start thinking about a cover. Luckily, I already knew an extraordinary artist whose work was a perfect complement to mine. For Louis Netter and I had previously worked together – on a mordantly illustrated little satire entitled A User’s Guide to People. So I asked Lou if he would design a cover for my novel, and he said yes.
Not long after that, my novel Lizard World (with Lou’s superb cover art swarming with alligators and spotlighting my depraved 17-century English Lord) finally found its way into the world. A few months after its publication, Lou asked me if I would like to work with him on transforming my story into a graphic novel. That seemed to me like a fun idea — and that is how what Lou called our “most hideously wonderful partnership” began.
My side of things started with some simple (if bizarre) arithmetic. A graphic novel was to consist of approximately 108 pages, with an average of — Lou said — 6 frames on each page. Lizard World (the entirely verbal novel) is 263 pages long. So a story that I had told in 263 pages now had to be told in approximately 648 frames, each of which would combine a snippet of my text with one of Lou’s illustrations. Dividing 648 by 263, I arrived at the number 2.46 – which is to say that the dramatic action conveyed by each page of my novel had to be translated into an average of 2.46 frames. Practically speaking, that meant that sometimes the action of a novelistic page was translated into 2 frames – and sometimes into 3.
Armed with these rudimentary calculations, I now began the work of writing what Lou and I came to call “the script.” This long file would eventually consist of my very tentative captions and verbal descriptions of approximately 648 frames that might possibly comprise the completed graphic novel. The idea was to come up with a very rough blueprint: my ideas for illustrations were to be little more than loose suggestions that Lou was either to accept, transform or discard as he saw fit. For the captions I would either take or modify my own language from the novel – and sometimes write entirely new dialogue. It was, in some respects, reminiscent of translating from one language into another: the matter was the same, but the medium was different. It was also an act of deconstruction – breaking down the plot of the novel into what Stanislavski called “beats,” the smallest units of dramatic action. Once I had done this, zeroed in on one small piece of the action, I re-entered the fictional world and tried to see what picture might evoke this moment best.
Our first objective (in order to interest an agent or an editor in the project) was to create a marketing sample that would consist of the opening two chapters of the graphic novel. So, once I had completed my “script” of the first two chapters, I uploaded my file and sent it hurtling through cyberspace – all the way to Lou in Merry Old England.
Now, on our different sides of the Atlantic, Lou and I got to work on our different tasks: Lou started making the pictures for the opening section of the graphic novel while I continued writing my script. In the months that followed, Lou and I would correspond and I would hear about his progress – that he was getting ideas for pictures by haunting graveyards in the Cotswolds, that he was studying Hogarth and van Dyck.
As the work proceeded, Lou wrote to me about how he was “trying to figure out how to condense consecutive actions so they unfold like a movie.” In a movie this is done by means of a number of consecutive frames. But how, in a graphic novel, could this be done without taking up “too much space”? How could this “be done in a single picture?” One solution that emerged was to make a single screen work like a split screen on TV – that way a succession of events could be compressed into a composite image.
Again and again the translation of the verbal novel into a graphic novel came down to finding techniques that would achieve compression. “I think,” Lou said, “there needs to be some prioritizing of the action.” One way of doing this was for me to write captions that would first summarize less important events and then introduce essential episodes of the plot. For his part, Lou achieved compression by creating what he called “summative visuals.”
Another crucial question was how to achieve the right balance of language and visual art. In an ordinary comic book – Batman or Spiderman, for example – this isn’t much of a problem, since the captions are unsophisticated language that only serve to move the plot along or to give the characters very simple dialogue. But in literary fiction – like my novel Lizard World, for example – language choices create the fictional universe, particularly by making the voices of the characters distinctive and memorable. In order to create my villain, a 17th-century English lord, I had to make him speak and think in authentic 17th-century English. And in order to create my 21st-century redneck creep Lemuel Lee Frobey, I had to make him speak and think like a cunning, 21st-century moron. The words used to create the voices and thoughts of these characters are not incidental but fundamental.
So a graphic novel adaptation of my novel had to retain (at least as much as possible) the power of language to build a world. And yet an extraordinary artist like Lou Netter creates a fictional world in a very different way – by means of the magic of illustration. So, frame by frame, we had to make choices – modulating the interplay between words and images, fine-tuning how the twin arts could work together on the page.
This was especially difficult in the 17th-century parts of the story, where I had to keep my carefully crafted archaic language from intruding upon Lou’s splendidly depraved drawings.
The postman, from time to time, would deliver a packet of Lou’s pictures – or I would download them when they came to me by email. When I looked at them, it was always with a delighted mixture of recognition and surprise.
The recognition was because the pictures were, after all, renderings of my own characters and story – and the surprise was because they were also now startlingly different. There was my unfortunate dentist Smedlow, my 21st-century rednecks Lemuel Lee and Aunt Ligeia, my 17th-century scoundrel Potter: but Lou had created them anew. “Did good work today,” he once wrote to me. “New character designs to emphasize the fun and sleaze. Smedlow and Ligeia similar but Lem is more sinister, more Poe-like and more Potter-like.”
It seems fitting that a story that is so much about transformation, about the surgical splicing together of different body parts, should itself transform into a spliced composite of words and images. Although the graphic novel is a descendant of the modern comic book, it is also a descendant of much earlier combinations of pictorial art and the written word. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries William Blake created an astonishing body of work comprised of a dynamic interplay between text and image. Blake, in his turn, drew his inspiration from the far earlier tradition of medieval illuminated manuscripts – that combined books of the Bible or prayers with magnificent illustrations.
So composite artworks like Blake’s Jerusalem and like the 7th-century Book of Kells are a good deal older and more sophisticated than the exploits of Batman and Robin. Why, then, should Batman and Robin or Spider-Man be the gold standard by which all interactions of text and image in the graphic novel should be judged? Shouldn’t the real question, instead, be whether or not any particular illuminated manuscript – any graphic novel – succeeds on its own terms?