I'm learning more about graphic novels lately. As such, I was excited when this one came onto my radar, TYRANNOSAURUS RALPH, written by my friend Nate Evans and illustrated by his half-brother Vince Evans. They both stopped by to talk about their creation!
e: What got you into doing a graphic novel?
This book began when an editor challenged me to write the most exciting action/adventure story I was capable of. My starting point for the concept was my favorite subject: dinosaurs (the main characters in my last two picture books have been dinosaurs).
I got serious about writing this new dinosaur adventure story when my wife was diagnosed with cancer. I quit illustration and started writing full-time so that I could be with her during all aspects of her treatment. Writing was something I could do anywhere, a doctor’s waiting area, a hospital room, etc., requiring nothing but a laptop. No paints and brushes necessary. As I wrote, I channeled much of my ongoing fear and anxiety into my main character. He has to fight in an alien arena to protect Earth. His precious world was at stake and I felt that mine was as well. We were both asking the same questions: Why is this happening? What do I do now? How can I (we) win this fight?
      My wife died from her cancer in 2011. After that, I poured much of my grief into my manuscript, striving to find some kind of hope in the main character’s struggle. Writing this book became an escape from the bleak depression that gripped me.
      The main female character in this book is strong and courageous, facing the challenges thrown at her with indomitable spirit and determination. My wife, too, was strong and courageous as she fought her cancer. She was my hero and my inspiration.
      Ultimately, I write funny action-adventure stories for kids. I didn’t know how to write an insightful memoir that somehow did justice to my wife’s brave battle with a horrific disease. I could only write a story about a boy fighting in an intergalactic arena to save his planet and everyone he loves. During the gladiator combat, his alien opponent divides in two, becoming an even more menacing threat. This was my literal-minded way of portraying my wife’s cancer – a savage monster that replicated itself.

e: I'm so sorry for your loss, Nate.
How different was creating Tyrannosaurus Ralph from creating a ‘regular’ book? What was your path to publication?
Tyrannosaurus Ralph originally began as a first chapter book for young readers. My brother, Vince, and I were wrapping up another first chapter book at the time, and it seemed natural to just continue with this format for this new dinosaur concept. As the story progressed, Vince and I tossing ideas back and forth, the story got more interesting and complex. I decided that it was time to attempt to write a middle-grade novel. Up until now, my career had consisted of nothing but picture books and first chapter books for young readers. Over the next several years, I tried again and again to craft a story that had grown to a sprawling 30,000 - 40,000 words. My patient agent, Caryn Wiseman, kept reading different versions of the manuscript, and, while she was always very enthusiastic about the concept, she had doubts about the execution. My writing just wasn’t right yet and we both knew it. Finally, I decided to strip down the manuscript to just what excited and inspired me -- that was the action, the dialogue, and the goofball humor. At the time, I was listening to lots of podcasts about the craft of writing. My favorite is The Writers Panel hosted by Ben Blacker, which deals with writing for movies, and TV specifically. I became fascinated with the screenplay format and realized that writing a graphic novel was essentially like writing a screenplay. I proposed this new direction to Caryn and she gave me an enthusiastic thumb’s up. Now I had a format that seemed perfectly matched to the concept, and I found that many of my writing problems began to fall away naturally. And, because Vince used to work at Marvel Comics, he was the perfect artist for the project. He’d done various samples for the book’s earlier incarnations. For the graphic novel, Vince redesigned the main characters, and then drew a couple of sample pages to accompany the script. Now we had something worth looking at!

Caryn began to pitch the project to various publishers...
      One of the happiest days of my life as a kid’s book creator was when an enthusiastic editor at Andrews McMeel Publishing wrote to say she wanted our book!

e: What is your creative process (and medium), can you walk us through it?
For the comic art, I start with rough thumbnail layouts first, just to determine the number of panels and how they fit together. I rough in the characters and the word balloons to make sure the page reads correctly. This is all very rough scribbles -- I have about a week before these sketches don't make sense to me anymore.
Most of this is drawn on the commuter train. I don’t know if it’s the years of working that way, but I find it a great place to work.
From there, I try to determine the best part of the story on that page (could be a joke or a dramatic moment) and refine the timing or drama. I now redraw these roughs at a larger 5”x6” to 8”x10” size. I try to keep things loose and exaggerated. The drawing will tighten up as I go, so I try to avoid that for as long as possible. These roughs get blown up on a copier to 11”x17.” I use my old, trusty lightbox and trace them very loosely onto Bristol board. Finally, I tighten up the pencils, which can still be loose depending on my comfort with the characters or my deadline concerns, and then I finally move on to inks using black markers. The trickiest part of this project was the interaction between characters of such different heights: How to have the human characters in frame when they are talking to the much taller T-Ralph?
e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” – the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
This is tricky because as much as this question is about art, it's also about the viewer. Things that I liked as a kid, I see now are lacking. They aren't worth a second look beyond nostalgia. But there are things that do stand the test of time. I still draw inspiration from the Tintin books by Hergé for their feeling of adventure and from the Asterix books by René Goscinny, illustrated by Albert Uderzo, because they have good comic poses, especially for walking and fighting. Also, in junior high school, I got my first art book featuring the fantasy paintings of Frank Frazetta. That book was a game changer! Until then I was kid with a vague notion of being an artist, copying Peter Paul Rubens and Jack Kirby. I opened that book on Frazetta and I knew this was what I wanted to be. Something just clicked in my brain that said everything you’ve looked at up to this point should be drawn like this -- animals, trees, people, and the mood.
Ultimately in all art, whether comic or fine art, I think it comes down to atmosphere and emotion. Does the art take you away to another place emotionally and do you feel like you’re seeing it for the first time no matter how many times you view it. I’m not a detail guy – I don’t need to see every coin in a pile of gold – that’s important to some people. I’m more interested in figure drawing and storytelling. Frank Frazetta has remained the artist I go back to the most. His ability to capture a moment of action and to create characters that feel authentic is unsurpassed. So much work in this genre looks like the artist’s neighbor posing in his studio, or a weightlifter at a Renaissance Fair. Frazetta’s work truly springs from the fountainhead of creativity. His series of Conan paintings would be my definition of heart art -- the paintings became greater than the stories they were meant to support.
For Tyrannosaurus Ralph, I also returned to my favorite artists from the early days of Mad Magazine: Jack Davis and Wally Wood. These guys were masters of comedic figure drawing and joke-telling. And Jack Kirby, I can’t leave him out. Another example of dramatic storytelling. They are all artists that imbue their work with energy and life regardless of the scenario, and for me that is the core of Heart Art.
e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story?
Vince and I had been tossing story ideas back and forth throughout the writing of Tyrannosaurus Ralph. When I finally wrote the graphic novel script, it was a mish-mash of several different, earlier versions. I based the length on a movie script, 120 pages, and on a random sampling of other graphic novels I liked. The script that I sent to Vince was approximately 140 pages in length. Vince read through it, and in a classic case of artistic denial, thought that the final book was probably going to be about 80 pages long.
Vince: Artistic denial?! What we had was the classic stereotype of a writer who can’t stop writing. I’d read the story in various versions over a period of years. At some point, rereading a manuscript feels to me like doing the same drawing over and over. I can’t do it. I remember Nate saying he was turning the story into a graphic novel, and in my mind that meant the length of graphic novels I was familiar with from Marvel, probably around 48-64 pages. I skimmed the final manuscript, reading the beginning and ending only. I didn’t know the full page count until I read the publisher's contract.

Nate: When the book was acquired by an editor, what actually happened is that the page count was expanded! The editor wanted the book to be 180 pages!

Vince: I freaked out! Then I freaked out a second time when I learned the book was in color!

e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious? Vince: Faith in yourself will give you the strength to overcome most obstacles and fears. Having a couple of loyal friends doesn't hurt either.

Nate: What he said!

e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
There are a couple of projects Nate and I are working on that we may return too now that Tyrannosaurus Ralph is done -- or maybe a sequel to Ralph? Given my reluctance to reread manuscripts, it’s not surprising that I’m itching to do something different. I may return to oil painting, or a graphic novel for an older audience would be fun. Right now I'm posting to Instagram drawings that I've done in my favorite workspace, the commuter train.

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