An interview with Gareth Hinds
Gareth Hinds has made a name for himself in the crowded field of comic books with his intriguing adaptations of classic works of literature.
So far he’s tackled “Beowulf” and Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and “The Merchant of Venice.” He’s working on a version of “The Odyssey” that should be in stores in 2010.
Hinds, 37, was in my neck of the woods last week to host some local writing workshops, sponsored by the Capital Area Writing Project. As a Fourth of July gift to you, dear reader, I thought I'd post the full transcript of the interview I did with Hinds for a story previewing the talk. Enjoy.
Q: Where am I talking to you from?
A: I’m in my office which is in the suburbs of Boston, in Watertown.
Q: Are you from the Boston area originally?
A: Originally I’m from Vermont, but I’ve lived in Boston for about 12 years.
Q: What sort of things will you be discussing in the workshop?
A: It’s going to be an interesting workshop because I’m going all the way from grade 4 through 12 in the morning and then adults in the afternoon. So there may be a range of things that I cover and certainly a range of ways that I present it.
Overall, I’ll be talking about my work and career, how I got to be doing what I’m doing, and also the nitty-gritty of how I do a graphic novel — what the process is and how I approach it.
We’ll also be doing some workshop exercises that are designed to encourage creativity and give the audience a sense of what the possibilities are in adapting something into a graphic novel. Or just what the process is to flesh out a story, both verbally and visually.
Q: Even if you’re not interested in making comics, what could you learn from the workshop about how to be a better writer?
A: For kids, a lot of it is the kind of stuff they’re already learning in their writing classes, but it shows them how it’s applied in the real world and is maybe more interesting to them. They may be more engaged by doing it in the comics form than say, writing a paper. So it’s actually the same principles of writing that their teachers have already been talking about: outlining and brainstorming and that kind of stuff. But we bring in the visual and talk about planning out the moments you show in a comic and how you choose those and can make the composition a little more dramatic or clear. That sort of thing.
For adults, they’re more familiar with the writing principles, so I’ll be focusing more on those things that are specific to comics, the issues of choosing camera angles and moments in time and how the image relates to text. It speaks to any sort of cinematic storytelling, which could be movies or theater or just prose. You want to be able to choose the pacing and the way to create drama.
Q: When I talked to the Capital Area Writing Project people, they were very big on integrating comics and graphic novels into the classroom. Can you talk about the educational potential that graphic novels serve?
A: The main thing that educators now are starting to realize and get in step with is that the fact that it’s so engaging to teen-agers. It’s sometimes hard to get them to read anything, so it’s just a better way to deliver content for their interests. The nice thing is in the last 10 years or so we’ve started to see a greater diversity in subject matter, so there is more, whatever you’re teaching, there are comic books that can be used to shed light on it. In my case, classic literature. But there are nonfiction, historical comics, comics that talk about science and social issues. There’s a lot of really good material and tackling it through that medium is more accessible and engaging to that audience.
Q: Why is it more accessible and engaging? Is it because it’s a visual medium?
A: I think kids these days tend to be more visual and multimedia oriented. They’re constantly bombarded by imagery. In a certain sense they have a high level of sophistication for that. Conversely, they have less attention span because they’re being constantly bombarded by things and may not want to sit down and read something that’s difficult or dense. Much of the information in comics is coded visually so you don’t have to read as much as prose. That’s a big piece of it. There’s also a literal engagement that happens with comics in that the reader is expected to fill in what’s happening in-between panels. Prose requires also a kind of engagement to imagine happening what’s being described, so it’s not that it’s better in that way but it does have a particular way that engages kids. It’s more active maybe.
Q: How did you get interested in making comics?
A: I’ve been drawing stories for a long time, ever since I was a toddler. There was always a narrative to my drawing, there was always a story behind it. At a pretty young age, in middle school, I started drawing comics. I was pursing a lot of other types of art work and illustration throughout school, I went to art school for illustration. What I was finding was I was better at storytelling and it held my attention longer than other forms of illustration. I didn’t have quite as much a talent for summing up a book in one cover illustration as I did for taking an idea and exploring it in a narrative medium.
Q: So how did you find this particular niche of adapting classic works?
A: It really came out of a writing deficiency. I wasn’t happy with my own writing. I wanted to make really good books and if the weak link was my writing I decided to take that out of the picture and use existing texts. The way I ended up with classics — partly it’s because I actually enjoy these works. Not everything that I was forced to read in British Authors I liked, but a lot of it I did. Certainly I liked Beowulf and that was one of my first adaptations. I really enjoyed working with material that’s that old and has a very timeless quality to it. They’ve been a part of the canon for so long.
Once I got into it and started to market these books, I was confirmed even beyond my expectations that it had an educational value and that teachers and libraries were looking for material like that and were excited about it. I’ve stayed with it partly for creative reasons. I still like this better than something that I would write and I still find so much value in the text and things to explore visually. But also from a marketing point of view it’s worked out well. I continue to get feedback. I do King Lear and they’re like Oh, where’s Macbeth?
Q: The history of comic adaptations is kind of spotty, with Classics Illustrated and whatnot. And I go into Barnes and Noble or Borders these days and see tons of Manga Shakespeare adaptations. How do you stand out from the crowd and how do you overcome any misgivings that people might have toward a comic adaptation?
A: I think the strongest initial weapon that I have is just creating a really beautiful book. I think the reason Classics Illustrated didn’t appeal is the first thing you see is the art work, and they always had low production values. They were always using cut-rate illustrations. And even the Manga Shakespeare which — I have some respect for what that series is doing but again, I think they’re using cut-rate illustrators. They’re not using real manga artists, they’re using Americans who are trying to draw in that style.
Initially the first thing I try to do is distinguish myself by making a beautiful book. And also my publisher makes beautiful books. Candlewick is known for beautiful books. They don’t do the cheap paperback version. That’s the first thing. The second thing is how well I’m doing my job as a storyteller and adapter. My adaptations are pretty faithful and that’s partly because I know to a certain extent who my audience is. I’m aware that teachers don’t want a distorted version of the story. But also I just cringe at the notion that seems prevalent in Hollywood that you somehow have to improve these stories. I don’t think you really can improve them. When they go through that filter into a new medium you definitely have to tinker with them a bit. But ultimately this is a story that has remained in the literary canon for thousands of years, it’s not like some scriptwriter’s going to come along and suddenly “Oh brilliant! Why didn’t Shakespeare think of that?”
I definitely have a high degree of respect for the material and I’m just trying to do justice to it. In general I think that comes through and that I’m doing a better job at it than most.
Q: At the same time, there’s the question of "what do you bring to the table?" Why should I read your version of Beowulf when I have the original text right here? There's the idea that there should be some new revelation, which may be an unfair expectation, but how do you deal with that?
A: First of all I’m going to contradict myself a little bit and say there is a little bit of room for improvement in the presentation of these stories sometimes. In the case of Beowulf, for example, it’s an oral tradition and part of the oral tradition is that things get repeated a lot. That was very appropriate when you were just going to have to hear that story once and then try to remember and tell it to somebody else. But when you’re reading it, me, as a product of modern, Western culture, I don’t want to read the story of how Beowulf ripped Grendel’s arm off five times in the course of the book. I’d rather just see it done really well once.
There’s those kind of things that I can streamline parts of the text that are difficult or are boring. I do some of that. In a sense what I’m trying to present is the book the way that I remembered it most fondly in my head. The slightly optimized version of the original. The other pieces are just artistic. I’ve seen Hamlet but I’m still going to go out go out and see another production just to see what someone else did with it. I’m hoping that people are interested in and enjoy artistically what I’m doing with them.
Q: Are there any tricks to making a good adaptation?
A: There definitely are. To me, the part that is the trickiest is that I want to do something that’s a little creative like when you see a Shakespeare play, you don’t want to see the play exactly the way you remember it. You want to have something surprise you pleasantly. Trying to do interesting, clever little things that are still within what’s described in the book and come up with interesting designs for things without pushing it to the point where it doesn’t seem like the original anymore or you’re taking too many liberties. Walking that line is always a little tricky.
There’s always a phase where I’m trying to come up with the most creative things that I can and really brainstorm the visual possibilities for the story. But when I go back to the text I really have to rein some of that in. “I thought that was a really cool idea but it doesn’t really fit with the text. Maybe I wont’ do that.”
Really what I’m describing here are the challenges, not the ways that I attack them, but the other challenge is to condense the text to an appropriate degree. I don’t want to do a 500 page graphic novel, I want to do something that you can sit down and read and not feel like it was a marathon or “Jeez, I could have read the original in this time.” Figuring out how to really preseve the feeling of the original while condensing it is challenging. My biggest trick for that is just to use my memory. Once I’ve read through the thing several times and I have a pretty good idea approach overall, when I’m actually writing the script I’m readinig a large seciton of the book and I sit down and write what I remember as the important stuff. Anything I forgot wasn’t that important though of course I do go back and check.
Q: Did you read the recent story in the Baltimore Sun about the recent Shakespeare adaptations?
A: I don’t know that I did.
Q: It focused on the Manga Shakespeare stuff, but it had a quote from a theater critic who was very disdainful and said how they were meant to be performed. That got me wondering if there was a comparison between comics and theater.
A: I do think there is. What you don’t get from a comic that you do get from theater is all the stuff the actor can put into their voice and some of the physical things they can do. However, what you do get is the staging and the visual acting out, which I think is a great aid for kids trying to understand what is going on. What you also get that’s nice that you don’t get in the theater is the words sitting there in front of you and you can appreciate them because one of the things about Shakespeare — he’s not just considered the greatest playwright, he’s one of the greatest writers because his words don’t just work on the stage they also work when you read them. You can’t appreciate them when someone’s saying them, you have to read them to fully appreciate the quality of those phrases and rhymes. I really like the comic medium for presenting Shakespeare for those reasons. It’s sort of the best of both worlds in that sense.
Q: What sort of research do you do when you’re working on these books?
A: It depends. Some of them I try to be historically accurate. Beowulf was very historically researched. I would spend a lot of time in the library looking at books on archaeological finds from the Viking period. There are other times when I’m not trying to be historically accurate.
For King Lear I didn’t set out to do something historically accurate at all. I didn’t even set it in a particular time period. Right at the beginning I hit the reader with a couple of anachronisms just so they know that I’m not being true to the chronology. Part of the reason is we don’t have a good idea of when that was. in that case the only research I did was to look at costume books for ideas that would get me excited about the different personalities of the characters.
For the Merchant of Venice I chose to set it in the modern day so there was no costume research, but I had to do a lot of research on Venice because I still wanted it to be there. I actually went there and did background drawings. Most of the background drawings were done on location.
Q: What are some of your influences?
A: The comics that I grew up reading when I was little were Tintin and Asterix. Tintin is still a big influence. I love the cultural richness of those books and the fact that he goes everywhere and you see all these cultures. Just the scope and ambition of it is very appealing to me.
I was also a child of the 80s which was when the graphic novel boom started in this country, so people like Frank Miller were influential to me and also Bill Sienkiewicz who revolutionized things. He was one of the first guys doing fully painted comics that were really experimental in their visual style.
Also I would say definitely manga has been an influence. Not so much on my style of drawing but in my style of storytelling. I use some of the manga conventions, motion devices. I used to study Masamune Shirow quite a bit because I loved his action scenes.
That’s some of the comic stuff. I never was particularly influence by the Marvel superhero books except in a negative way. There was a lot of things I didn’t like about the storytelling style. I never want to do a book that looks like a mainstream superhero book. I’m always trying to bring in some different visual influence from other fields of art or illustration. I’ll see something in a gallery and want to bring that into a comic book. All of my books look different from each other. That’s involuntary in the sense that I get bored working in one style and can’t force myself to do that but also really try to come up with a style that will suit the particular book.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on the Odyssey. That’s going to be a big project. Right now I’m about halfway through the layout stage so it’s probably got about another year to go. That will be out in 2010.