October 2012

Martyn Pedler


An Interview with Hope Larson

One of the bizarre creatures of Madeleine L'Engleís sci-fi novel A Wrinkle In Time says: ďIt must be a very limiting thing, this seeing.Ē But translating the prose into new visuals is exactly what Hope Larson has done in her loving new graphic novel of the childrenís classic. In the book, Meg -- accompanied by her schoolmate Charles and genius five-year-old brother Calvin -- goes on a quest to find her mysteriously missing father. It begins with intimate family interactions and ends with the impossible: tesseracts, immortals, Black Things, and so much more.

Larson has already received an Ignatz Award and an Eisner Award for her original comics like Salamander Dream, Grey Horses, Chiggers, and Mercury. A Wrinkle In Time is her first adapted work. We talked about fidelity, family, morality, and why sheís banished her drafting desk to the garage.

Whatís the main difference between telling your own stories and telling someone elseís?

Honestly? They donít feel terribly different in comics. With a comic of my own, something Iíve written, I do a full script. And then when I sit down and draw the thing, Iím letting another part of my brain -- the drawing part -- take over. It becomes more intuitive and more mechanical. I wrote a script for A Wrinkle In Time, too, based on the novel. So when I was actually drawing it, it didnít feel any different.

So youíre always adapting someone elseís work? Artist Hope is drawing Writer Hopeís story?

Yeah, thatís right. Thatís exactly what it feels like.

Youíve got a beloved novel in front of you and you need to turn it into a graphic novel. Where do you start?

I was very concerned about staying true to the original, being as faithful as possible, and not letting down the bookís millions of fans. I didnít actually get to talk to my editor for quite a while after I started working on it because the contract was getting sorted out. I needed to get to work so I could hit my deadline, so I wrote a script that contained the entire novel. All the dialogue, all the scenes. I basically just left everything in and thought: ďIf they want me to cut something, it can be their decision.Ē I passed the buck. Thatís how we ended up with a book thatís almost 400 pages long -- because itís all there.

This might be a kind of heresy, but Iíve never read the original. I was going to before I read your version, but then I thought Iíd keep myself as a kind of test subject. I wasnít waiting to see how a particular character was drawn or if all my favorite scenes were present. I had to read it as its own story, and I thought it read incredibly well.

Thatís great to hear, because this was a big book for me, growing up. A big influence on me. Itís hard to step back and see it with fresh eyes.

What were some other stories, by other authors, that spoke to you at that same age?

Dianne Wynn-Jones was a big one. C.S. Lewis. Lloyd Alexander. I was big into fantasy-type stuff when I was under ten.

And now you produce your own Young Adult stories. What does that term mean to you? Does it mean something beyond marketing?

Not really for me. It is really a marketing term, and it basically means that itís a story about a teenager. Probably for a teenage audience, but not necessarily, because people of all ages are reading that stuff.

Whatís a term youíd use to describe your own work? What would you stamp on your book covers?

I probably would still use Young Adult, just because people would be more likely to pick it up. But if I could just let it exist on its own, Iíd do that. I hate having to stamp a label on anything. Chiggers, which I wrote, is considered a book for middle schoolers. I wrote that for myself before I was aware of any of those marketing terms. I thought it was a book about kids at summer camp, not really a kidís book. But thatís how the publisher wanted to sell it. Once that happened, I got in the mindset of ďIím ready for a particular audience... so I should probably keep that in mind.Ē

I know cartoonists never miss an opportunity to be self-depreciating... so what couldnít your version of A Wrinkle In Time capture?

IĎve talked a lot about my take on the Dark Thing, and feel like I did the best that I could. The way itís described in the novel is just as this thing that inspires you with unnameable fear. Itís this darkness that comes over you. Itís depression, basically. Itís not really something you can draw. Thereís no way to do that visually in a way that does justice to the words.

I admired how you always spent so much time on faces, even as the visual insanity of the story increased. How do you approach the Ďactingí? Who are some other artists who inspired you as getting great Ďperformancesí out of their characters?

Dan Clowes is always a favorite of mine. Heís pretty amazing. He mostly draws faces, too, and when you see him draw bodies theyíre sort of weird and anemic-looking -- which I mean with the most love in the world! And my husband, Bryan OíMalley, is an amazing cartoonist. He does a lot with these overblown manga-type expressions -- but he also does more subtle pieces of acting as well. The emotions are the most compelling part of drawing for me. Thatís what I spend the most time on. You think like an actor. You go into it and try to play all the parts.

Family plays an enormous role in both A Wrinkle In Time and in previous graphic novel, Mercury. Iím pretty suspicious of stories about family, as so often theyíre just excuses to say ďNothingís more important than family!Ē over and over again. But the concept of family in Mercury is quite murky and complicatedÖ

I come from a family that is sort of fragmented -- which sounds like a worse thing than it is. Weíre all reserved, loner-type people. I wouldnít say weíre super-close. I mean, we all love each other, but itís not the kind of family where you call each other every week. Familyís never been a big focus of my life, and Iím fascinated by other peopleís families that are really close. Itís an idea I keep coming back to because Iím trying to figure it out, I think. My family, right now, is really just me and my husband -- but it almost feels like we donít count as a "family."

Itís great that A Wrinkle In Time is about children rescuing their father, but when they do, it doesnít make everything okay. The story just keeps going.

Thatís one of my favorite parts of that book. They find the dad, and it doesnít fix anything. They just have all these additional problems, you know? And Meg is so angry with him. Thatís really interesting to me. It feels really real.

And her angerís an asset. I mean, as far as moral lessons in childrenís books go, Meg being told her flaws are a gift is a pretty good one.

I agree.

Do you try to teach moral lessons in your YA work, or does that thinking risk producing something instantly patronizing?

Having some kind of moral lesson is something I am often asked to think about by my editors and publishers. I donít know. Itís actually been a while since I wrote something for young adults, so I havenít had to think about it. Iíve been writing more stuff for adults thatís dark and violent and can have sex in it if I want and I donít have to worry about whether Iím going to get shut out of the school library. But I always end up with kind of a moral -- because when Iím writing Iím trying to work out what the right way to be is, or some kind of truth of the world. Maybe itís just a lesson for myself, and not for other people.

Youíre just finishing a short film, Bitter Orange. How was the creative shift from Ďyou in a roomí to Ďcollaborating with a whole bunch of peopleí?

I loved it. It was completely different than I thought it would be, and forced me to stretch in ways I was not expecting. It taught me a lot about writing as well. You have to know your characters inside and out, so if one of my actors comes up to me and says ďHas my character ever been in this house before?Ē, I know the answer. They think about all these tiny little details, and if youíre the director, you have to think about that character on the same scale.

Is it the directorís job to convince them youíve already thought about every question they could possibly have?

Unless youíre the kind of director who says: ďI donít know. What do you think?Ē The main thing I realized I have to work is becoming a clearer communicator. If youíre writing a book, you donít necessarily have to explain anything. You write the story, and other people try to figure it out. But if youíre a director... it all comes back to having the answers. People are just asking you questions all day. Thatís basically your job: to answer all of the questions. And if you donít have an idea of where youíre trying to go, itís really easy to get lost.

Was moving from comics to movies a practical decision? Because comics is -- as Alec Baldwin says in Glengarry Glen Ross -- ďa tough racketĒ?

Thatís part of it for sure. Comics is a really tough racket. Iíve been struggling to sell another book for quite a while. The deal for A Wrinkle In Time was made... three years ago or something? And I have another book coming out in the spring, something original I wrote called Who Is AC?. That deal was made around the same time, and I havenít sold anything since. Iíve had stuff circulating, but people have been waiting for these books to come out, to see how they do before they buy anything else from me. On top of that, I decided that I want to move away from drawing. Thatís making it harder for people to want to buy my stuff, because they donít really know what theyíre going to get. So Iíve slowly been making my way into the world of film, and hopefully Iím going to sell a screenplay at some point. It feels very similar to writing for comics. It feels like a comfortable world for me.

Will you miss drawing?

I think itís easier for me to give it up then it is to explain that Iím giving it up. I think Iíll probably go back to it at some point -- but I feel so burnt out on that whole aspect of creating things. I was a kid who was always drawing, I drew all through my teens, and now I just donít have any desire to sit down and draw. I havenít really drawn anything since I finished A Wrinkle In Time. I actually moved my drafting table into the garage. I feel like I need some space.

But youíre happy to point to A Wrinkle In Time as the last illustrating youíll do in the near future?

Yeah. Honestly, I feel pretty good about that. I felt like Iíd hit the end for myself as an artist. Iíd gone as far as I was really prepared to go. I could be out there -- doing figure drawing and working on my perspective and stuff -- but Iím not doing those things. There are so many people that love the drawing part, love putting in those hours, and theyíre still excited about it after years at the drafting table. And thatís not me.

One last question: why do you think we want to see different versions of the same stories?

Thatís a really good question. I mean, this project came to me. I didnít instigate it. I did it, not because it was lucrative or anything, but just because I love the book so much. And Iíd done this prophetic interview the year before with a librarian. When she asked what book I would adapt, I said: ďA Wrinkle In Time, but thatís the only one.Ē I felt like I had to do it! But I donít really know why we keep returning to the same stories. Obviously moneyís part of it, which is gross to say, but itís true.

It canít just be that, right? Sometimes I think that if we love something enough, we want to see it in as many different forms as possible.

I guess itís that we love these stories, and we donít want them to end. And seeing them in new forms means that theyíre not really over.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia, and Bookslutís regular comic book columnist.