Thursday, September 18, 2008

An interview with Eric Shanower

Eric Shanower and I met through a mutual friend, when we both attended his experimental film festival, MIX--not a very Ozzy event, but we started to talk about Oz, and it led to my writing a short story for Oz-story 3. Fortunately David Maxine, the editor, liked it, Eric illustrated it, and our collaboration had begun. At the publishing party for the release of Oz Story 3 David and I started talking about a new Oz novel for the 100th anniversary, and soon after (OK, years later) my first published novel Paradox in Oz came out, with Eric's illustrations. It received some nice reviews and some nice reactions, but perhaps more importantly, Eric, David and I were all proud of it. Soon after that (OK, many years after) the sequel, The Living House of Oz came out. It received less press--just bad timing perhaps, because the same review journals who had like Paradox ignored The Living House. I'm still ridiculously proud of it.

Anyway, both books would feel completely different if it weren't for Eric's illustrations, which in some irrational way I always feel like I can take some slight credit for. Of course, Eric's other accomplishments, including his multiple Eisner Awards for his current comic series Age of Bronze, argue that perhaps Eric is a marvelous artist, whether or not he's illustrating my work.

Here are some questions I asked him:

1. You have done a lot of art relating to Oz, much of it before we began collaborating. Yet to my (perhaps prejudiced) eye, it always seems that there is a slightly different feeling to the work we do together than to your other Oz work, which I also love. Do you think the writing style of the author whose work you are illustrating affects your depictions of Oz?

That’s an interesting observation. No, I don’t think the style of the author usually affects my depictions of Oz. When I illustrate your stories, I certainly try to illustrate appropriately for the text, but I don’t change my thinking about Oz. I think it’s more my relationship to the story and characters that informs how I draw, rather than an author’s style. I don’t think that’s the same thing, although maybe it is.

2. You have knack for capturing the essence of the original books while injecting a real sense of yourself in your Oz work as well. How influential is John R. Neill to your style of illustration? Do you ever look back to Denslow, when working on Oz? Does Neill (or do other Oz influences) affect your style when, for example, working on Age of Bronze?

The first “real” Oz book I read was The Road to Oz. John R. Neill’s illustrations in that book are a high point in his career. They made quite an impression on me. Neill’s work is one of the things I love about Oz. Certainly Neill’s Oz illustrations have influenced my vision of Oz immensely. It’s obvious that his depictions of the characters are the starting points for my depictions of them.

Neill continues to be one of my favorite illustrators. It’s hard for me to determine how influential his work has been on my style, but I’m sure it’s there near the foundation. I remember when I was in about fourth grade going through a period of trying to draw eyes like John R. Neill. Even now, usually in quick sketches, I sometimes find myself mentally referencing Neill’s approach to drawing people smiling. But for the most part if there are influences from Neill in my style or approach to drawing, they’re so buried in my subconscious that I’m not aware of them. I’ll leave it to my critics and biographers to ferret out any stylistic comparisons.

In Age of Bronze I’m not consciously affected by Neill or any other Oz illustrator. Generally when I draw I try to eschew all outside influence in favor of putting my own vision on paper.

I do look at Denslow’s illustrations for The Wizard of Oz when I’m required to draw a character that he drew and Neill didn’t, like the Wicked Witch of the West, the Good Witch of the North, or the Winged Monkeys. Also there are times I’ve drawn flashbacks to events from The Wizard of Oz, so I’ve looked at Denslow’s work as a starting point.

In the endpaper illustration for the hardcover edition of Adventures in Oz several characters appear who were originally designed by Denslow. I drew them based on Denslow’s character design. In a review of the book, the reviewer credits them to Denslow. I thought that was funny.

3. How have your views of the original Oz books developed over the years? Is there one thing that you appreciate more now that you have done so much Oz work yourself?

My view of Oz definitely has become more specific as the number of Oz projects I’ve written or illustrated or both has grown. I don’t re-read the Oz books now in the way that I read them as a child. Then I lost myself in the world Baum created. Now I have a much more analytical eye. But now I read everything with an analytical eye—perhaps that’s just a function of growing up and expanding my intelligence. Or perhaps it’s just a result of being a writer—I look at all other writing with that analytical eye.

I can’t read the Oz books very objectively now. There’s so much baggage in the storeroom of my head that I can’t set aside. I don’t have the Oz books memorized word for word, but I know the stories and a lot of the niggling details, helped by years of preparing to take quizzes at Oz conventions. I find, though, that at this point I don’t know the niggling details as well as I used to. I guess that’s a good thing—I have other things in my life to pay attention to. Still, I did take the Oz quiz at the Winkie Convention this past summer—after years of not taking a quiz at an Oz convention—and I was surprised at how many answers I could dredge up.

When I was little I believed that Oz was real until the day I asked my dad and he told me it wasn’t. I was disappointed, but I knew he was right. I guess if one has to ask, one already knows the answer. But that was a long time ago. I can’t really think of a particular way my view of the Oz books has developed. They’ve been part of my life for so long, always there in the background, easily springing into the foreground when summoned.

My view of the Judy Garland motion picture adaptation of The Wizard of Oz certainly has gone through developments. I loved it as a child and watched it every year when it was on television. It was my favorite movie for a long time and my view of Oz included both the images from the books and from the movie. When I began to write and draw Oz comics professionally, however, I stopped watching the movie and tried to put it out of my head completely. To some extent I succeeded quite well. There’s a scene in The Ice King of Oz where the Cowardly Lion is having his hair done. When I wrote and drew that scene I never thought of the similar scene in the Judy Garland movie. People pointed out the similarity to me after the book was published and they won’t believe me when I say that the movie scene never crossed my mind. But it’s true—that scene in Ice King was based on Leo the Lion who’s always getting his hair done in the Freddy the Pig books by Walter R. Brooks. Anyone who knows those books will know exactly what I mean. I did finally watch the entire Judy Garland movie again in 2005 at the premiere screening of the then-latest dvd release. I have to say it was a good experience watching it in a crowded theater where everyone was having a ball. I’d turned my back on that movie for many years, but I’m glad to say I really do enjoy it. Still, it’s not my version of the “real” Oz—just one more of the myriad adaptations—but I just want to scream when someone starts talking about the “ruby red slippers.” I wish they’d get it right or shut up.

I recently wrote the script for a comics adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. It was fascinating to pick over the entire book, going through it scene by scene, line by line. I did find some things in it that hadn’t stood out for me before. And I had to consider the possible backgrounds of the characters—the Wizard, for example—in more detail than I ever had, so that was interesting. The old-fashioned-ness of the writing—old-fashioned even for 1900, in a way—stood out starkly, too, because I had to figure out how to deal with it in a version for an audience of today.

What I really appreciate now in others’ depictions of Oz, whether written or drawn—or on television or on stage or whatever—is when there’s a sense of fidelity to the essence of the Oz L. Frank Baum created. I can spot pretty quickly whether someone’s attempt at Oz is plastic and dead or whether it’s captured at least a bit of the Baum life. Unfortunately most of what I’m exposed to doesn’t get it. Every once in a while there’s a gem, and that’s a cause for great rejoicing.

When I stopped doing the Oz graphic novels in 1991, I thought that I would be leaving Oz behind. And for a little while, I really tried. But I kept being offered attractive Oz projects and I kept climbing on board the Oz train yet again. Finally I stopped trying run away and gave in. I think that I’ll be involved in an Oz project one way or another for the rest of my life. At one point I thought I had nothing new left to say about Oz, but interesting new Oz projects proved that untrue. My vision of Oz can always be refined. Yes, I can probably draw Ozma in my sleep, but, for instance, illustrating Paradox in Oz gave Ozma new dimension for me. Still, sometimes my resistance goes up strongly. Every time I think, okay, that’s it, that’ll be my last Oz project, I just can’t take it any more, another one comes along that sparks my enthusiasm and I’m off again. I’ve reached the point, I think, where I’m fine with that. It gives me a chance to visit my old Oz friends again, and I only take the projects that interest me.

4. Was the process of working on Paradox in Oz different for you than working on The Living House of Oz? I know I felt I had given you far more new characters to design for the Living House than for Paradox--do you prefer having more original characters more or do you prefer working on variations on the classic characters?

I liked Paradox in manuscript form early on. It took me a long while to warm up to Living House, and even while working on Living House, I kept thinking back fondly to Paradox and wishing Living House was more like that. Not that I wanted the Living House story or characters to be more like Paradox, but I wanted my attitude toward illustrating Living House to be more like my attitude toward illustrating Paradox.

I think part of the difference was that Paradox took a lot of the characters and situations in the Oz books and played with them in clever ways. That was really fun to illustrate, fun to figure out how I was going to try to match your cleverness. Living House didn’t have a lot of that—it wasn’t “clever” in the same way. It’s a much more character driven story, so I had to warm up to the new characters.

Now I really like Living House and am proud of a lot of my illustration work in it. I never thought I’d like Living House as much as I liked Paradox, but since Living House was published, I’d be hard pressed to say which book I think is better. Well, maybe Paradox would still win.

(EE reponse: in some ways, I prefer The Living House to
Paradox now -- perhaps because I've had to read both of them aloud from time to time, and I find myself wincing, just a little, at a turn of phrase or two in Paradox. But more importantly, The Living House feels like an evolution -- maybe because I had more of my own characters and the plot is actually very political, in some ways, so it was fun for me to play with those levels of discourse. But then again it was fun for me to play with all the logical conundrums in Paradox. So I waver...)

5. To me, seeing my book fully illustrated and in print feels something like seeing my play fully produced and onstage--an illustrated book, like a script, seems unfinished with just the text. The look and feeling of the book plays a part in that too, of course-- the layout, the endpapers, the cover, etc. Working with you and David (the editor and publisher) seems truly collaborative from start to finish. Yet most publishers don't work the way Hungry Tiger does. Most publishers (usually larger operations, of course) separate the illustrator and writer, and divorce both from the process of the actual production of the book. Do you think the collaborative process makes a difference? Have you worked in situations which were less collaborative, and how do you think it changes the work (if it does)?

Yes, I’ve worked less collaboratively. But it only made sense to me to work collaboratively with you on those books (and, I guess, to some extent on the short stories of yours I’ve illustrated). You are easy to work with, too, since you were neither too guarded or too dictatorial. I think we respect each other’s creativity enough to listen to each other for the benefit of the project as a whole. I think our respective backgrounds probably help. Your background, theater, is a collaborative process, and my background, comics, is very often a collaborative process.

To my knowledge, most publishers of illustrated books don’t want the writer giving the illustrator any advice, but a comics script usually has all sorts of directions for the artist. I’ve even worked from comics scripts that have been sketched out by the writer. Comics artists usually don’t have to stick to the writer’s stage directions if they have a better way to present something—that’s their job after all—but tons of input from the writer is perfectly usual in comics.

Of course I’ve illustrated books where I had zero contact with the author because the author was dead. No input beyond the text available, period. Does it change my work? Possibly. I don’t know. Each project is unique, so there are so many different variables it’s probably impossible to say. But I do know that I won’t be able to ask a dead author to clarify some obscure thing in the text. As you know, when I’ve illustrated your work we talk a good deal and I welcome your input, but I don’t depend on you for answers. When I have questions, it’s because I want to discuss something I’ve already considered, not because I’m too lazy to think about possibilities on my own. I approach other work the same way. It’s just that if the author is dead or otherwise inaccessible, I have to make my decisions without benefit of discussion.

6. What is the most difficult thing you've had to illustrate in one of my books? In any book?

Probably the most difficult thing I had to illustrate for your books was the dust jacket illustration for The Living House of Oz. I did two paintings. The first ended up as the endpapers because neither David, the editor, nor I thought it turned out to be strong enough for a cover. So I drew a duct jacket featuring the exterior of the Living House prominently. Designing the outside of the Living House was tricky because it needed to be balanced among several factors: the traditional Neill Oz house design, the needs of the story, and my own sense of a pleasing design. I’m satisfied with my final house design, but David still doesn’t like it. It’s the major focus of the final dust jacket, and I waver between thinking the final illustration is really strong and really weak. Part of it is having a character that looks so little like a human as the main image on the cover of the book. Was that a good idea and did it work? I still don’t know for sure. David thinks it’s a weak cover. But then the major art book seller, Bud Plant, notes in their catalog description how attractive the cover is. Aesthetically I’m happy with the cover and I think it looks “real Ozzy.” But I don’t know if it sells the book like the Paradox in Oz cover does.

(EE - I like the design of the house, and the Living House cover--but I also agree that the Paradox cover really sells the book in way that's hard to match. I absolutely love that cover, it just works in an indefinable way. )

It’s hard to think what the most difficult thing is that I’ve had to illustrate in any book. I recall one thing about illustrating a book of Bram Stoker short stories called Dracula’s Guest. I had to draw a picture of the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg for the story “The Squaw.” This was before I was on the internet. I looked hard for a reference picture of that Iron Maiden, but no luck. I couldn’t find anything, but deadlines are deadlines. So finally I designed the illustrations so that I wouldn’t have to draw the entire object, and I just faked it. I’m rather ashamed of the result. Of course, AFTER the book was published I went to a torture exhibit at a local museum and, what do you know, they had the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg on display! Fortunately I had my sketchbook and drew the thing from life. If those illustrations ever get reprinted, I’m redoing a few.

7. How have has look of the your Oz illustrations evolved over the years? Last year, a collection of your Oz graphic novels entitled Adventures in Oz was released. If you were to draw that comic today, would it look different?

Since I started drawing Oz illustrations when I was six years old, the evolution has been large. Basically it’s matched the evolution of my drawing ability. One conscious progression I’ve made is in the clothing Dorothy wears. This is on display front and center in Adventures in Oz. Over the forty years John R. Neill illustrated Oz books, he always dressed Dorothy in clothing of the time, so I believe it’s part of her character to dress that way. In my earliest professional Oz illustration, I didn’t want to make a radical break with the last of Neill’s Oz books in the 1940s, so I put Dorothy in dresses that could have been from the 1940s or from the 1980s. But as soon as I could, I found excuses to put her into pants. In Ice King she wears a parka and snow pants for most of the book. And in Forgotten Forest she’s in pajamas. I reverted to a skirt in Blue Witch, just because I still didn’t think anyone was ready for Dorothy in blue jeans, but since then I’ve illustrated entire books with Dorothy in shorts. I think shorts are visually close enough to skirts that it’s not jarring. But people still complain. I don’t know why they do. Dorothy always wears what girls in the Great Outside World wear. Not that girls don’t wear skirts and dresses today, but they don’t wear them to go off on adventures full of strenuous walking and climbing.

If I were to draw Adventures in Oz today, I don’t think it would look much different. The drawing would be a bit better, I think. I wouldn’t make Dorothy as skinny as I made her in Secret Island. And I’d design the architecture with a little more skill. But my concepts of the Land of Oz and the characters haven’t really changed since I wrote and drew those comics.

8. You have been working, as a writer, on a comic adaptation of the Wizard of Oz. Can you reveal anything more about it? How does the process of being purely the writer (and working with an illustrator) compare with the process of being the illustrator alone?

Beginning December 2008 Marvel Comics will be publishing an eight-issue comics adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Skottie Young is the artist. His work on this project is really beautiful, although it’s nothing like my Oz comics or illustration.

I was glad that Marvel contracted me to write the series but not draw it. I would have had to turn it down if they’d asked me to draw it, since I don’t have time in my schedule. I did have to consciously make myself realize that the artwork would not be my vision of Oz, might look quite different than what I hoped or expected, that I might even intensely dislike it. Of course, I hoped I would like the art at least a little, but I was able to put up the firewall in my brain so that I could write the script and not be too concerned about what the artist did with it.

Fortunately, Skottie’s art is gorgeous and lively. The character design is certainly not what I’d have done. Skottie’s Oz isn’t based on any Oz anyone’s seen before. He started from scratch, basically. But it’s an authentic vision of Oz, true to the source material. I was happy to see the result. As of this writing, only the first two issues are drawn, so he’s got a way to go and many characters yet to depict. Skottie’s enthusiasm for the material is such that we’ll be going beyond the first Oz book with this series. I haven’t signed a contract yet beyond The Wizard of Oz, so I don’t want to be specific. But more Shanower/Young Oz comics are planned from Marvel.

Writing the scripts for Wizard was really enjoyable. I’ve read The Wizard of Oz many, many times, but I’d never been over it so closely or thoroughly before. One quirky detail that stands out to me from writing this adaptation—something I’d never paid attention to before—was that the Soldier with the Green Whiskers has Dorothy and her friends wipe their feet before they enter the Wizard’s palace. It’s so minor, but so characteristic of Baum’s writing. So of course it’s in my script. I was also writing the script with my knowledge of all the later Oz books, something that was impossible for Baum. That knowledge informed my script. I found myself having to suggest that Skottie not draw certain things or to draw things in a certain way so that our adaptation would be true to Baum’s Wizard text, but leave room for things from later Oz books. Consistency didn’t seem to concern Baum much from book to book. But I tried to pay attention so that nothing will jar readers who know the Oz books.

Another thing I did was to consult the several times Baum rewrote portions of Wizard or retold portions. Sometimes Baum was cleverer or clearer in the rewrite and I used that version in the script. He wrote another origin of the Scarecrow which differs radically in the details from the one in The Wizard of Oz. The second one is not better than the one in Wizard and I found that I couldn’t use any of it.

9. It's been a while since we worked on the last book, and though I have been (slowly) working on a book of short stories, I get distracted by projects that are more likely to be read by a wider market. The experience with The Living House was a little discouraging, because though I remain very proud of our work in it, it didn't get picked up by the major review journals and thus has had a much harder time selling than Paradox. Yet part of me misses working on Oz, and I would love to find time to finish the book. Are there any Oz stories that you are still itching to tell? Now that much of your time is taken with Age of Bronze, how do you feel about illustrating future Oz projects?

Well, as I said, after I finished the Oz graphic novel series I wanted to leave Oz behind, but I’ve become used to the idea that I never will. It’ll always be at least a dull roar in the background of my professional life, occasionally increasing to a trumpet blast. Age of Bronze has first place for my attention now and will for some time to come. The thought of taking on a book-length Oz manuscript to illustrate seems exhausting, frankly, and not something I’m at all anxious to do, especially if there isn’t much money attached. But if the manuscript arouses my enthusiasm, then it’s a different story. But there’s got to be some fresh angle, some challenge that I haven’t encountered before, something to hold my interest. Life’s boring if I’m just drawing the same Dorothy face over and over and over. And I don’t see any reason I should suffer boredom when I can choose something interesting. There are so many interesting things in life. And life’s too short to experience them all, so I can’t waste my time redoing what I’ve already done if it’s not going to somehow be new. (However, I do enjoy drawing the Scarecrow over and over.)

(EE - well, if I ever do finish the book, it will be a lot more than Oz hopefully something new, too.)

Visit the website of Eric's award-winning graphic novel series Age of Bronze:

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