Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the lack of graphic literature for adults. I don’t mean graphic novels, because as lovely as they are, they’re far more image heavy and rather light on the text. I want to see something that combines everything I like about full length novels with imaginative illustration. I think it sprung from my pre- Season 7 Game of Thrones obsession. GoT, of course, is massively popular, so there are illustrated editions for it. We also finally are getting illustrated editions of the Harry Potter series which I am absolutely stoked for because Jim Kay’s rendition of Rowling’s world and characters is breath-taking, and almost as good as reading the series again for the first time as a kid.
The only example of a not-massively-popular fiction book for adults/ young adults that I know of to have illustrations is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, done by Portia Rosenberg, whose lively sketchy, pencil illustrations are truly inspiring. Of all the illustrators who are ‘out there’, her work perhaps reassures me the most in some strange way, because it makes me relieved to think that people who ‘just draw’ are still valid. Of course, I’m still pushing myself trying to learn how to paint, though it’s frustrating at times. There’s so much to learn- colour theory, for one thing. But all the same it’s reassuring to know that there is still value attached to the humble pencil. It’s my favourite instrument. Wooden pencils more than anything, but clutch pencils too. It’s hard to explain, but when I’m drawing with one I feel like I’m at home with them somehow, and with the feeling of them.
Anyway, I’ve decided to commit to a sort of project (beyond university, which is ending in two months!) that will force me to spend a few hours drawing everyday and really get me thinking about character, setting, mood, story, etc. I’m hoping it will eliminate the ‘what to draw today?’ dilemma. I played with the idea of starting my own web based graphic fiction, and I’d still really like to do it someday- but I just don’t have a story right now. So right now is going to be all about focusing on illustration and experimentation without worrying about what teachers or clients might think of it.
Stuff I want to explore:
- Something with either a historical or a fantasy context, or both: one of the best things about illustration is getting to ideate and conceptualize visuals that don’t yet exist, and are only potentially coded in text. I’ve started listening to Chris Oatley’s podcasts lately, and on one episode someone (can’t remember who) talks about learning and growth happening as a result of being forced to solve problems. Plus, the modern world is boring. The reason most people love fantasy and historical stories is they like something a bit different; ‘escapism’ is a dramatic accusation but at the very least, we like to see our realities reimagined and presented to us in different forms. I can’t tell you how utterly boring I find modern cars. But if I were to invent a fantasy eighteenth century carriage that can also transform into a boat? That’s a problem I’d have to solve, and it’s that sort of challenge that I’m looking for.
- Something with heart. It’s inevitable that over the course of my lifetime, if I freelance or get a job with a studio or something, I’m going to have to spend some time doing things that have no heart. So for a personal project, something that will hopefully help build a strong portfolio, I want the subject matter to really resonate with me. Good characters are difficult characters. Good characters are difficult to paint in one stroke, difficult to ‘caricature’ with the usual staid comic expressions, and good atmosphere evokes complex imagery. All that makes for an exciting illustration challenge.
- Something that’s just the right length. If I actually go for something as long as GoT or Harry Potter, there’s a good chance I’ll never get around to doing it. It needs to be either a slim novel or a short story, or possibly a selection of short stories. With every illustration I make, I need to feel the satisfaction of having made progress.
- Something that’s not too popular or popularly visualized already. That’s the other thing with stories like Harry Potter. I’ve grown up with those visuals in mind. But I’m not too firm on this last point.
So with that in mind, I’m going to go through a quick review of stories that could work:
- Lud- in- the- Mist, Hope Mirrlees.
- Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, J.K Rowling. This one has a film adaptation AND an illustrated edition coming out, but nevertheless the wealth of imaginative creatures in their provides a potential too great to ignore.
- Fullmetal Alchemist, Hiromu Arakawa. OK so this one is really long, and originally a graphic novel and then an anime. But I love the story so much, and it’s fantasy and history and so much heart.
- The Hobbit, J.R.R Tolkien. Why not? LOTR might be a bit too lengthy, but The Hobbit is perfect length. It has dwarves, hobbits, elves, humans, a bear- man, and a dragon. What’s more, the films, unlike the LOTR films, were rather forgettable and so wouldn’t influence me nearly as much.
- The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern. This is a lovely book. It was a delicious read, not feverish like most suspense novels and yet far from dull or boring. The visuals in it are quite stunning, and it uses a lot of black and white motifs to boot. The love story in it is not my cup of tea at all but I think I could overlook that.
- Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. It’ll be scary, but possibly fun, too, to reimagine this three hundred year old classic. Only I’m not looking forward to combing through 18th century prose to get the details.
- Black Beauty, Anna Sewell. I absolutely adore this book. I’ve cried every single time I’ve read it, and I genuinely think it should be compulsory reading for all kids alongside things like Frederick Douglas’s memoirs to bring home the reality of human cruelty. We’re so desensitized to it. It probably would really help with my horse anatomy too!