Comic Insights Part 1: Creating a Graphic Novel

When I decided to create an anthology of fairy tale-inspired comics for my honors capstone project, I underestimated the amount of work it would take to pull it off. This was because I often adapted fairy tales to new stories as a hobby. However, when the intent of the project is to publish an anthology that brings light to modern social issues through well-known tales, the stories have to be much more thoroughly considered.

At the start, I wanted to have ten stories, as ten was a nice base number for a collection that would allow me to explore many different themes and styles. Each story was going to be 5-16 pages long. My plan was to illustrate each story in an art style that fit its subject matter. For example, I wanted to draw in a psychedelic style inspired by Peter Max’s posters or Joann Sfar’s graphic novel adaptation of The Little Prince for the story “The Daisy,” a tragic tale about talking flowers and birds.

Initial concept art for “The Daisy.”

But while some stories like “The Daisy” always had a clear style in mind, others I experimented with several styles, such as my horror story “Juniper’s Tree.” For this story, I considered everything from old Disney cartoons to modern Cartoon Network styles to German Expressionistic woodblock prints. I even carved my own woodblock print to better understand how the medium worked, even though my plan was to replicate the style digitally for the comic itself. Eventually, I settled on a dark indie comic-type of look after reading Daniel Clowe’s “Ghost World.” That way, I could retain the dark mood and harsh contrast of a woodblock print while achieving more delicate details when needed.

Two styles considered for “Juniper’s Tree.”

But choosing styles wasn’t the only problem. I also was not sure which ten stories I wanted to adapt. Some I knew I wanted to write were “The Pied Piper” and “Little Fay,” which featured regular characters of mine and I assumed would translate easily to comics. For others like “Juniper’s Tree” and “The Snowgirl,” I had good concepts I wanted to explore, but I had no idea how to end my versions of them. Then there were the ideas that I tossed around but could not decide on such as “Little Ida’s Flowers” (too boring), “Rumpelstiltskin” (too long in my retelling), or “The Selkie” (better suited to a medium other than comics).

In the end, after discovering a comic book my grandparents gifted me when I was two years old, I decided on the Philippine legend Ibong Adarna, or “The Adarna Bird.” As this version was already a comic, I new that the story worked well in that format. The story was also about a male protagonist, which would balance out my mostly female-lead stories. Finally, this was the only non-Western fairy tale of the collection, and I wanted to have that range.

Cover and sample page from the “Ibong Adarna” comic book by M. Franco and Dionisio J. Roque.

There was only one problem: the comic book, and all non-summary versions of Ibong Adarna I could find online, were entirely in Tagalog. So, using a combination of Google Translate, a Tagalog/English dictionary, English summaries found online, and my mom’s basic Tagalog knowledge, I translated the comic book into English. The comic book version, of course, was its own adaptation of a much longer epic, so my knowledge of the original legend mostly came from a detailed summary slideshow I found online. I decided to base my version on the shortened form used by the comic but make it a children’s story, the way Disney bases their fairy tale movies off sanitized and simplified versions of tales.

In the end, I narrowed down my plan from ten comics to seven. This was mostly due to time constraints, but also because I felt three of my decided stories weren’t as strong as the others. “The Pied Piper,” which I had been initially set on drawing, would have been too complicated for a 20 page comic, and tread lightly on problematic issues I did not feel I could currently address. “Fitcher’s Bird,” another story I thought for sure I would draw, was similar to “Juniper’s Tree” and “Little Fay” in terms of violence and implied danger of sexual assault, but it addressed these issues comedically, which I thought would undermine the more serious stories. And finally, “The Handless Maiden” was another quasi-comic story about sexual violence against women, and I just didn’t want that topic to dominate my anthology.

In the end, I kept my seven strongest ideas and developed them into a collection of comics with a wide range in style, tone, genre, and social issues. I believe this was the best course of action for this book, and I learned so much about fairy tales that I had known for years and also those that I had just discovered.

2 thoughts on “Comic Insights Part 1: Creating a Graphic Novel

    • Eventually, I will probably draw “Fitcher’s Bird” in the silly style I do for online comics on social media, which was its initial plan before this project. I think it would work better as a lighthearted satire on dark subject matter, the way a lot of my comics are. (You know, people getting chopped up and put back together and the like. The heroine saves the day by impersonating big bird while the wizard’s house burns down.) The Pied Piper-inspired story is part of my personal fantasy series, so I’ll keep on editing it as needed and may draw it up at some point. I didn’t like the drafting I had for “The Handless Maiden” even though I liked the original tale, so I’ll probably just keep that story on hold until I come up with a better adaptation for it. (It has a really interesting history of censorship the same way “The Juniper Tree” does.)

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