Halloween read: P. Craig Russell takes on Gaiman’s ‘Graveyard Book’

Oct. 31, 2014 | 9:00 a.m.
graveyard book graphic novel vol 1 Halloween read: P. Craig Russell takes on Gaimans Graveyard Book

The cover for the first volume of P. Craig Russell's graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book." (HarperCollins)

gybgn vol2 hc c Halloween read: P. Craig Russell takes on Gaimans Graveyard Book

The cover for the second volume of P. Craig Russell's graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book." (HarperCollins)

pages from thegraveyardbook ch 2 p craig russell page 1 Halloween read: P. Craig Russell takes on Gaimans Graveyard Book

A page from the second volume of P. Craig Russell's graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book." (HarperCollins)

gbgn interior 3 copy Halloween read: P. Craig Russell takes on Gaimans Graveyard Book

A page from the second volume of P. Craig Russell's graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book." (HarperCollins)

interior page copy Halloween read: P. Craig Russell takes on Gaimans Graveyard Book

A page from the second volume of P. Craig Russell's graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book." (HarperCollins)

p craig russell photo Halloween read: P. Craig Russell takes on Gaimans Graveyard Book

"The Graveyard Book" graphic novel author and illustrator P. Craig Russell. (HarperCollins)

Neil Gaiman, author of the “The Graveyard Book,” didn’t have to think twice before choosing an artist to adapt the sweet and spooky coming-of-age tale into a graphic novel.

“It wasn’t like I had a shortlist,” Gaiman said. “I went to [P.] Craig Russell and said, ‘Craig, how would you like to do this?’ And he did. … The reason I love working with Craig is Craig knows what he’s doing and is so brilliant.”

"The Graveyard Book" graphic novel author and illustrator P. Craig Russell. (HarperCollins)

“The Graveyard Book” graphic novel author and illustrator P. Craig Russell. (HarperCollins)

Russell, the Ohio-based illustrator and graphic novelist (“The Ring of the Nibelung,” “Night Music,” “Elric”), and bestselling fantasy author Gaiman (“American Gods,” “Stardust”) have collaborated on half a dozen projects, beginning with the 50th issue of Gaiman’s “Sandman” comic (“Ramadan”) more than 20 years ago, and including “Coraline” and several short stories.

“The Graveyard Book: Volume 2,” out this month from HarperCollins in time for Halloween, tells the second half of the story of Nobody “Bod” Owens, an orphaned boy who grows up in a graveyard, raised by ghosts and tutored by a vampire, while the man who killed his family is still on the hunt. The first volume of the comic adaptation was released in July.

The prose novel, published in 2008 after more than 20 years in the making, is Gaiman’s love letter to Rudyard Kipling’s classic “The Jungle Book.”

“It isn’t that ‘The Graveyard Book’ is ‘The Jungle Book’ in a graveyard, but there are homages all the way through, and there are places where I kind of felt like I was playing some kind of peculiar game, like table tennis — ping pong — with Kipling across the ages,” Gaiman said. “Kipling still resonates because he was a remarkable writer, incredibly powerful, and he’s writing something that feels like a story we’ve always known. … He gave us that magical intersection between animal and human and showed us that we can walk from one to the other and come back.”

A shared love of Kipling is partly what made “The Graveyard Book” project an obvious fit for Russell, who inked Marvel’s “Jungle Book” stories penciled by Silver Age comics icon Gil Kane before illustrating several “Jungle Book” stories on his own.

A page from the second volume of P. Craig Russell's graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book." (HarperCollins)

A page from the second volume of P. Craig Russell’s graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book.” (HarperCollins)

“It keeps coming up in my career,” Russell said. “I’d already done like 90 pages of ‘Jungle Book’ stories, and then I’m offered ‘The Graveyard Book,’ which is sort of Neil’s take on ‘The Jungle Book,’ so it’s been with me for a long time.”

For “The Graveyard Book,” HarperCollins wanted the book sooner than Russell could have completed it alone, he said, so he recruited a team of collaborators who shared a common artistic aesthetic and split the work.

“I looked for artists who had a more illustrative and cartoon-ey style,” Russell said. “Our approach to drawing was somewhat similar. Although everyone is unique and you can tell the difference in our styles right away, we’re of a somewhat similar school.”

Over the course of three months, Russell wrote the script, designed each of the 352 pages, added rough lettering and storyboard sketches and provided background material — designs and model sheets for each character that appeared multiple times throughout the book. Then, he coordinated with eight other artists.

“It was sort of like juggling 13 plates,” Russell said. “It got a little confusing at times.”

For several recurring characters, including Scarlett and the man Jack, Russell employed friends and acquaintances as models, photographing them and sending copies to the artists.

A page from the second volume of P. Craig Russell's graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book." (HarperCollins)

A page from the second volume of P. Craig Russell’s graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book.” (HarperCollins)

For Nobody Owens, who, like “The Jungle Book’s” Mowgli, ages about two years for every story, Russell found a 16-year-old model (the nephew of the now-grown model Russell used for Mowgli in his previous “Jungle Book” stories)  and then borrowed family album photos of the boy at younger ages.

“[Bod] goes from being a toddler to being about 16, and we needed that consistent look,” Russell said. “I gave [the photos] to all the artists and said, ‘This is what your character looks like at this age.’ So we got a bit of consistency there.”

For the more abstract characters, Russell had to interpret Gaiman’s words. Take, for example, the Sleer — a strange, unnatural creature that speaks with a neck-hair-prickling, twining voice “like the scraping of a dead twig against the window of the chapel,” Gaiman writes, describing the being in both singular and plural terms.

“That’s one of those cases where a writer can do something that makes an image in the reader’s mind, and it can be something completely illogical,” Russell said. “The Sleer were described as sort of a snaky, slithery sound and rustling leaves. Well, how do you draw that?”

Add to the challenge that the scene occurs in a pitch black tomb, and Russell had his work cut out for him.

“You have to take the artistic license to draw the characters and then work with the colorist to come up with a palette that suggests darkness,” he said.

The cover for the second volume of P. Craig Russell's graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book." (HarperCollins)

The cover for the second volume of P. Craig Russell’s graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book.” (HarperCollins)

Russell’s solution is a creature of smoke that curls and spikes, and its slanted, handwritten speech flows through its body instead of in typical word bubbles.

“They’re sort of a calligraphic thing in which the writing, the words, become part of the pictures,” he said.

Russell is also quick to credit his collaborators, including Scott Hampton (“Silverheels,” “Simon Dark”), who contributed more than 100 pages to the story and served as colorist for a chunk of the novel; Galen Showman (“Renfield,” “JLA: Age of Wonder”), who provided additional help with continuity; and David Lafuente (“Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man”), who took on the chapter in which Bod attends school in the world of the living.

“It’s the story I’d least like to draw,” Russell said. “It’s all this interior high school architecture, and 13-year-old kids and their fashions and their clothing and costuming and crowd scenes, and [Lafuente] just nailed it. … He was the exact right artist for that story.”

Next on Russell’s plate is a comic adaptation of Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” which he scripted and laid out before taking on “The Graveyard Book,” followed by a volume of three Gaiman short stories and then the final Oscar Wilde fairy tale adaptation, “The Fisherman and His Soul,” capping a 25-year project.

Neil Gaiman. (Philippe Matas / Harper Collins / Associated Press)

Neil Gaiman. (Philippe Matas / Harper Collins / Associated Press)

“Sometimes with these projects, you plan them out, but then something comes along that if you’re going to do it, you have to do it now, and so some of the things get bumped back,” Russell said. “I’ve had things in the drawer for 10 years or 12, but this one is the longest that’s every been waiting to go.”

Meanwhile, Gaiman’s “Graveyard Book” seems destined for another adaptation, this time for the big screen. He said he enjoys seeing his characters and stories reimagined by other artists in different media.

“Part of the joy of writing prose is that everybody imagines their own Bod, imagines their own graveyard, imagines their own world,” Gaiman said. “Every time that any creation is going to be interpreted, whether it’s going to be put on the screen, whether it’s going to be put on a stage, if somebody’s going to draw it, whatever, they’re going to see things their way. They’re going to imagine it their way. I always see that as a feature rather than a bug.

“I have to say the Bod that Craig and his collaborators draw is very, very similar to the one in my head.”

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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