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31 Days of Authors: A Conversation with Gareth Hinds

Teen Read Week is officially October 16th through 22nd, but here at The Hub, we’re celebrating all month long with 31 Days of Authors. On each day in October, we’ll bring you author interviews and profiles and reflections on what YALSA-recognized books have meant to us.

Cover to Gareth Hinds' The Odyssey
Cover to Gareth Hinds' The Odyssey

Comics artist Gareth Hinds is a creator looking both forward and back. His four highly-regarded graphic novels to date have all won acclaim for their beautiful art and innovative storytelling techniques—but these fresh and original books are all adaptations of much older works, including Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s King Lear. His adaptation of Beowulf was on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels list for 2008, and his Odyssey made it on this year’s list. He also created the art for this year’s Teen Read Week (which began yesterday!), “Picture It @ Your Library.” His personal website can be found here. In this article, we ask him about his influences, his process, his future plans, and his work in video games. Check it out after the break!

Ted Anderson: For starters, what got you interested in comics in the first place? Were you always interested in the form, or did it come out of some other interest or work?

Gareth Hinds: Check out this video. As you can see from that, I always liked to draw and tell stories with pictures. As I got older and started to consume comics and movies (both cinematic forms of visual storytelling) more than children’s picture books, I began to experiment with the comics form and the language of sequential pictures. I might have gone into film, but I prefer the immediacy and creative control offered by comics. I also draw picture books sometimes, like my forthcoming book with Lise Lunge Larsen, Gifts from the Gods: Ancient Words & Wisdom from Greek & Roman Mythology.

What were some of your favorite books, comic and otherwise, as a child?

For comics, Tintin was my #1 favorite as a kid, followed by Asterix. Later I got into Tarzan, Iron Fist, Batman, Sub-Mariner, Iron Man. In the 80’s it was stuff by Moebius and Frank Miller, as well as indy stuff like Cerebus, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, some of the early manga imports like Lone Wolf and Cub, Mai the Psychic Girl, Akira, and Appleseed.

Before any of that, there were picture books like Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, and of course the works of Dr. Seuss. My Dad read me The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at an extremely young age, which probably sealed my fate as a fantasy enthusiast. I think I was playing Dungeons and Dragons in 2nd grade.

What or who are some of your major influences? Stylistically, your work runs quite the gamut: I see some inkwork that reminds me of Bill Sienkiewicz in some of your works, but also some careful linework that looks like Eric Shanower or even Milo Manara. Is there any one teacher, book, style, or movement that really had an impact on you as an artist?

A sample page from Bill Sienkiewicz's Moby Dick
A sample page from Bill Sienkiewicz's Moby Dick

Sienckiewicz for sure. He was extremely inspirational to me, both in terms of the way he worked with different materials, and because he did the first *good* comic adaptation of a literary classic, Moby Dick. I admire Eric Shanower’s work, but discovered him much later. Manara is just one of many European artists I loved, Moebius and Herge first among them. Also Matotti, Bilal, Bisley, Schuiten, etc. I love that the Europeans approach comics as a serious art. The stories are sometimes underdeveloped but the artwork is often mind-bogglingly rich and beautiful, especially compared to typical American comics (of the 20th century). Then there are the Japanese. Masamune Shirow was another strong influence on me, and although I don’t draw characters with big eyes, there is a hint of Manga shorthand in the way I draw expressions, and I lean heavily on manga storytelling techniques, especially for action scenes.

A sample sequence from Herge's "The Black Island", in the Tintin series
A sample sequence from Herge's "The Black Island", in the Tintin series

I find it really interesting that you’re such a fan of European artists, because while your style certainly shows some European influences, your storytelling isn’t what I would think of as European at all! Your page layouts are often so wild and unconventional, totally unlike Herge’s diagram-like pages. For example, I love the pages in King Lear where you show the flow of a conversation through dashed lines, with no panel borders. How much of that is experimenting to see what works, how much of it is trying to have the layouts reflect the characters’ mental states and situations, and how much of it is just you having fun? Have you ever had to tone down your layouts to make sure the reader can understand them?

Yes, my storytelling has much more of a manga influence. The European influence is more in the way I draw and use traditional media.

A sample page from Hinds' King Lear
A sample page from Hinds' King Lear

I’m always experimenting with the layouts, but King Lear was my most experimental book by far, and some of the things I did in that book I’m very proud of, while other things didn’t quite work. There were a number of pages near the beginning that I had to re-draw because they were too confusing.

Virtually all of your longer works to date have been adaptations of other stories. I know this is kind of an impossible question to answer, but why are you drawn to adapting as opposed to making original work? Connected to that, why have you chosen the works you have to adapt? What drew you to them, and what about them made you think they would work well as comics?

Comics is a storytelling medium, and you have to have a good story to tell, or there’s no point spending all the time to draw it. I felt that my writing was the weakest link in my comics, and I had such high standards that I didn’t want to work with any of the writers I knew. I decided instead to work with the very best stories in history, as judged both by my own taste and the accepted wisdom of thousands of years. As it happens, many of those are also very dramatic, action-packed stories that translate very well visually.

Do you have your next adaptation project picked out? Is there a list of classics you’d like to adapt into comics? On a different note, would you be interested in adapting a more recent work (maybe a YA “classic”, like The Hunger Games or something similar) if given the opportunity, or would it be too nerve-wracking to have to submit to the demands of an author who’s still alive?

I’m working on a multi-racial Romeo & Juliet right now. After that I don’t know. I always have a fairly long list of books I’m thinking about adapting, but I never really make the final decision until the last minute.

As for working with contemporary books, I tend to feel that part of my job is connecting readers with difficult texts, so adapting something as accessible and already-popular as The Hunger Games would feel kind of pointless to me. The publisher would have to pay me enough to overcome that. ;-) What I think would be more interesting is to collaborate on some kind of spin-off or companion piece. As for working with a living author, I think that would be fine—or at least I’d know pretty quickly whether it was going to work or not. Most of them understand that when you translate from one medium to another you have to change a few things in order to preserve the overall effect of the original, and the liberties I would take with their story would be NOTHING compared to what Hollywood does.

Do you have a standard process for your work? How much do you look at other adaptations of a work before beginning your own? How much research do you do into a period, location, historical depictions, etc., before doing your work?

I start simply by re-reading the work a few times and making some notes. I don’t seek out other adaptations, though often I’m familiar with some of the existing ones beforehand. If anything, I look to make sure I’m doing something different. I do pretty extensive research to make sure I’m grounded in reality, and then I draw a ton of design sketches, which range from historically accurate to completely fantastical. Then I pick what works best. I’m looking for a balance where the world is very believable, but still has imaginative and unexpected elements.

A page from Hinds' King Lear (click for larger)
A page from Hinds' King Lear (click for larger)

I’m curious about the works you’ve done that are adaptations of stage plays. It seems like plays would be a natural fit for adapting into comics, as scripts already have suggestions on how to block out scenes, how to position characters and so forth. Is this the case? Do you find it easier to adapt plays than prose stories?

I can’t make a general statement about plays, because I’ve only done Shakespeare; but Shakespeare’s plays are actually much harder to adapt than anything else I’ve tried. This is mainly because the dialog is so long, dense, and exquisitely structured, that it requires very deft handling to shorten it down to the right length for a graphic novel, and cut it into small enough chunks for speech balloons. However, I really like the result because it is like a play in that you get to see the action play out visually, but you also get to read the words, pore over them, appreciate them, and they aren’t as colored by a particular actor’s interpretation.

I think one of the most valuable elements of a comic adaptation of a difficult work is in providing “extra” information about the story that may not be easily understood just from the text. For example, even if a reader doesn’t understand every word in a Shakespearean dialogue, they can still understand the basic relationship between two characters from their body language, expressions, gestures, and so forth. Have you had any acting training or experience yourself?

I was a shy kid who didn’t want to be on stage, so I usually did sets, lights, that sort of thing. I also don’t have a good voice for acting, but luckily that doesn’t matter for the kind of visual acting that’s required in comics. I can draw on my martial arts experience for a lot of the action stuff, and I make faces a lot in the mirror to try and nail down certain emotions. I guess the point is I can do physical acting, and maybe in another life I could be a performance-capture artist like Andy Serkis. Little-known trivia: I was actually the silhouette of Garrett in the intro cut-scene for Thief 3.

Obviously, with all the awards you’ve won from YALSA and other organizations, your works are particularly well-regarded by teen librarians. Do you think that comics provide an easier introduction to these stories, some of which require considerable translation or annotation to make sense to modern readers? In your mind, are you creating for teen readers, or just any reader who has trouble with the language in, say, Shakespeare?

I’m definitely creating for any reader who would appreciate the story more in this “easier” form, supported by images and broken into smaller bits. It happens that most of those readers are younger, and as they often *have to* read these works in school, it is particularly useful for them. But I hope anyone of any age will pick up my book and see (or be reminded) just how great these classic stories are—and hopefully they will also feel that I have done justice to the original, because what I want to come through is my love for these classics.

I know your art is being used for Teen Read Week 2011—how did that come about? What exactly have you produced for YALSA?

YALSA was aware of my books, and they contacted me because the theme for Teen Read Week this year is “Picture It”, so they thought something graphic novel related would be a good fit. I did a large multi-layered painting of kids in a library imagining different futures for themselves, and they used that for their poster, bookmarks, and various other projects librarians can purchase to celebrate TRW—and hopefully get kids excited about reading and using the library.

Hinds' art for Teen Read Week 2011
Hinds' art for Teen Read Week 2011

Make sure to look for Gareth’s work in your local library, and if they don’t have it, pester them until they do!

—Ted Anderson, still working through Gareth Hinds’ The Odyssey (it’s a long one!)

2 Comments

  1. […] Wow, I’ve been so busy, I think I forget to advertise that I was the featured artist for YALSA’s Teen Read Week materials this year. I did a painting for them which is on the official Teen Read Week poster (pictured), bookmarks, and other swag (available in their store). They also interviewed me here. […]

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