Smash Pages Q&A: Andrea Offermann on ‘Yvain: The Knight of the Lion’

The artist discusses the artistic choices she made for the book, the ways that she was allowed to play with the script and help shape the story, and the comics scene in Germany right now

Andrea Offerman has drawn picture books and illustrated novels including The Midnight Zoo, The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, and The Thickety. Her art has been exhibited in Germany, the United States and elsewhere. Comics fans might known here best as one of the members of the Flight collective, contributing stories to two volumes of the anthology series.

I spoke with her in 2007 about the short comic she made for Flight Volume 4, her first published comic, and we spoke again recently about the graphic novel Yvain–The Knight of the Lion, written by M.T. Anderson, which is out now from Candlewick Press. The book is her first graphic novel and it is an artistic tour de force for many reasons, and we spoke about the artistic choices she made, the ways that she was allowed to play with the script and help shape the story, and the comics scene in Germany right now.

How did you get involved with this book?

I had worked on a few projects for Candlewick, namely Sonya Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo and The Children of the King, both middle grade fiction with a historical background. In between I had been talking to Anne Moore from the Candlewick art department about possibilities for other projects and the question came up whether I did any sequential art. This was back in 2011 and I sent the two short stories I did for the Flight anthologies to Anne. Then, in 2012 art director Chris Paul, who I had been working with on The Midnight Zoo, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in illustrating the story of Yvain, adapted by the fantastic M.T. Anderson. Yes, I certainly was! But my schedule didn’t allow for me to start on the graphic novel until 2013. Luckily, both the publisher and the author were fine with waiting until my schedule was clear.

Did you know the story of Yvain?

I had read quite a few stories centering around the legend of Arthur and the knights of the round table, but I did not know this story. It was fascinating to dive into the tale and the world it was created in, finding out more about the original author Chretien de Troyes and the circumstances in which he wrote the story (M.T. Anderson shares some of that in his author’s note and his video). It gave me a whole new appreciation for the influence that this and the other stories Chretien wrote have had on culture and language over the centuries.

This is your first graphic novel after making short comics and illustrations and picture books and what was the experience like? Was it just a question of being longer or did you find a very different project?

Working on this book was a whole new experience for me. It was very different from the short comics I had made, because there I had visualized my own story idea, and I had approached those stories similarly to how I approach my fine art, with a concept or an emotion in mind that I wanted to get across. Then I let the art lead me along the story. This approach would not work for Yvain where I had a script to follow and a set number of pages.

With a picture book or a middle grade book I always have the story that is being read, and I search for the images to compliment the story and, if possible, carry it further. But in a graphic novel it’s not about finding that one image that will complete the narrative, but about building the narrative through the images. This was a whole different challenge.

All these experiences helped me with figuring out a way to work on Yvain, though. I wanted to keep the free approach I had developed when working on my short stories as much as possible, to give the characters and the action as much space as possible when I felt it was necessary. Of course I had to stick to the script and the page count. The discipline I had learned from books, where I could only pick the one image to show the expression or atmosphere I wanted, helped me to find a balance.

What did M.T. Anderson give you to work with? Did he give you a detailed script?

The script I got from M.T. Anderson reminded me of a script for a movie or a play. It contained the dialogue and descriptions of the locations and the action, but it was not a panel by panel script. He made suggestions as to how he would imagine certain scenes or very open sequences like the beginning and end, or the scene where Laudine struggles with her decision to marry Yvain. But he gave me lots of space to develop my own ideas and was ok with me going in a different direction if I wanted to.

Could you talk a little about laying out and designing scenes like the fight scenes, when the wind picks up, the jousting, fighting the dragon. You really play with the page design. Did you have that kind of freedom throughout to figure out the design on your own?

Yes I had complete freedom to figure out the layout and design of the page, and a huge thank you to Sherry Fatla, the designer who worked with me on the book, for putting so much trust in me! It was important to me to set the tone and atmosphere of the scene right away with the page design. So for example, many scenes in Laudine’s castle are very strict panel by panel pages, where you can almost feel a certain monotone beat if you look at the page. I wanted to underline the restrictions and the serious responsibilities resting on Laudine, especially after her husband dies, with this page design.

In the pages where the wind picks up, I wanted to emphasize the destructive and disorienting chaos these storms create. I felt that for this I needed to completely break the panel by panel design and let the storm blow through the entire spread, allowing for glimpses of the action in between the gusts of wind, almost as if the reader himself was in a storm and could only make out bits and pieces of his surroundings.

When Yvain fights the dragon he is still in his madness. I wanted the page design to reflect the state of his mind. So when he first goes mad, the page shatters, almost like a mirror or a window shattering into many fragments (pages 48/49). This fragmented page design stays throughout the fight with the dragon until the moment Yvain halts in his blood frenzy, the butchered remains of the dragon lying around him (pages 56/57). I wanted that moment to be a full stop after the dramatic and fast-paced action of the fight, so I decided to have that image spread out to the right over the entire bottom half of the spread. This was risky because the story continues on the top of page 57, and there was the chance that there might be confusion about the order of the panels. But I think it’s worth the risk and gives that moment the emphasis it needs. Then, over the next two pages, as Yvain regains his complete consciousness, the panel design slowly returns to straight shapes.

For the jousting as well I wanted the page design to reflect the atmosphere. Unlike the fight with the dragon, the jousting was again extremely regulated by rules, so I used a straight panel design that would still allow me to show rhythm and drama. For example on page 95 I stacked the panels on top of each other, getting smaller and tighter as the reader approaches the bottom right corner of the page, to emphasize the pressure that mounts as Yvain is slowly overwhelmed by his opponents. In the fight scene between Yvain and Gawain (pages 102-109) I wanted to show that the two are evenly balanced, so I made sure to keep going back and forth between the two, mirroring each attack of the one with an equally spaced out attack of the other. It was very important to me here to create a beat, almost like a choreographed dance, or drums. Yvain and Gawain are supposedly strangers and opponents here, but the way they fight shows that they know each other.

Was the idea always that the book would be set in the 12th century?

Yes. But I did waver for a moment. M.T. Anderson’s language is modernized, so when I first read the script I was wondering if it might be appropriate to set the story in another time. For example, the timeless quality of the words might have allowed for the story to be set in a more recent time. Or, since some believe that the Arthurian legends have originated somewhere in the year 400 where the Romans were still very dominant in Britain, this might have been an interesting and very authentic setting.

But, as I did my research and found out more about the author and his life, I decided that it would fit best to set the story in the time that he experienced. Chretien was under the patronage of a very powerful woman, Marie de Champagne, at the time that he wrote the story, and Yvain more than any of his other works reflects that in the very strong female perspective he gives voice to in the story. I also felt that Chretien wrote a very critical commentary of life at his time, so it made sense to me to set the story then and try to showcase the circumstances he comments on.

How much research did that require?

Starting out I did a lot of research on the Arthurian legend and its origins, on Chretien and his life. Then, when I had decided to set the story in the time it was written, I did more research on the 12th century, the male and female role then and courtly behavior. I wanted to have as complete an idea as I could get of what was known of life at the time, to be able to understand and depict how characters would react and why.

When I went into more detail, laying out the story and sketching the pages, I researched clothes and weaponry, castles, building material, jousting, the kinds of swords knights would fight with and how they would hold them, and of course lions and their movements and how they would fight and attack. Some information was hard to find, the 12th century is quite some time ago, and many things like clothes or buildings simply don’t exist anymore. I had to rely heavily on sculptures and art in tapestries and illuminations to figure out what people and places might have looked like. I also looked at a lot of art of the time to get inspiration for the style of the tapestries in the graphic novel. Through that research I also realized that there was a lot of symbolism in the imagery. A certain item would mean something and be directly understood by the viewer. I thought that was fascinating and decided to use the falcon as symbolic imagery in the graphic novel.

I let all of that research inspire the world I created but still took a lot of freedom in designing the clothes and the places. I wanted the design to serve the story I wanted to tell, not the other way around. You might say that in that case I might not have needed to do so much research, but it was important to me to have as much knowledge as possible to work with and help the world in the book take shape. So while it’s not an accurate historical depiction, I would like to think that it gives an idea of what M.T. Anderson and Chretien de Troyes wanted to get across.

Lastly, I also did a lot of research on graphic novels, reading all kinds of different genres to study how different artists would approach story arc and page design, solve problems, build drama etc. That’s not research you say? Well, I’ll admit that I read tons of graphic novels anyway, but I did take a close look at art and page design while enjoying the books.

Could you talk a little about tapestries? Because you really seemed to use them as a reference and a guide, in a sense, for the book.

A few years ago I talked to a friend who is a historian. She was doing a thesis on medieval tapestries and told me so many interesting facts from her research. She said that knights and noble men would travel with their tapestries and set them up wherever they went. For example, a noble man would have a traveling court, he would set the tapestries up wherever the court day happened to illustrate the importance of the court and the punishments that would be carried out. I was surprised that there was so much value and importance tied to these tapestries. In a way, they would make any room, a barn, a cave, a tent, the court that the people had to answer to, and they would accept it. The images would at the same time help the people understand what was happening, and tell them the story of the procedures.

When I got the script for Yvain, and found the scenes in which a character tells a story within the story, I remembered what my friend had told me. I immediately got the idea of using tapestries for these scenes. After all, this was exactly what they were used for at the time, the story was shown in the tapestry in images, and a narrator would put words to it. It was simply perfect, and a beautiful way to honor the origins of the graphic novel itself.

Also, more directly connected to the way I wanted to tell the story, it allowed me to keep an element of surprise for the reader. For example, at the beginning of the book Sir Calogrenant tells the story of his misadventure at the magic fountain. Afterwards, Yvain retraces Calogrenant’s steps to find that same fountain and fight the same knight. I did not want to repeat myself but make the reader curious. I also wanted him to discover the real place together with the main character. So at first the reader only sees an abstracted version of the characters and places in the art on the tapestries. Then, when Yvain goes out to find the fountain, the reader sees the actual places and characters.

My historian friend had stressed the great value of the tapestries for telling stories and immediately making a space into something else, a home, a court, the residency of the king. I wanted to use this fact and have the tapestries appear throughout the book in all the rooms and castles Yvain goes to. I felt this was a good indicator that all these very different places belonged in one “world.” This also gave me the opportunity to sneak in bits and pieces of the story in different places, some that had already happened and some that would still happen. With this I wanted to honor an element that is placed in the story itself and that I loved: when Yvain meets the master of the sweat shop castle, his daughter is reading from a book. It’s obvious that she is reading the story of Yvain, and that she is exactly at the point in the story where Yvain himself is in the graphic novel, too. (You can see the page she has open and it’s that same page in the graphic novel). The reader is in a way transported into two places, on the one hand he is reading the book, on the other hand he is the figure in the story reading the book. I loved that this bit played with the powers of imagination and the magic of time and place in storytelling. To add to it, I wanted to pay homage to another old myth that has lasted throughout centuries and inspired and influenced many tales:

In many different mythologies there exist goddesses or fates who weave the destinies of human kind. When Anderson tells of Yvain entering the sweat shop castle and finding the slave maidens working away on “precious cloths”, I slightly changed this image into the slave maidens working on the tapestries we see throughout the book (and incidentally, at that very moment working on a scene depicting Yvain’s upcoming fight with the demon sons). This way there is a suggestion of where the origins of Yvain’s world lie and at the female influence in his story. This also raises the question of who is telling the story, just as it does with the princess of the demon castle reading out of the book of Yvain, or in the beginning when the falcon is let loose.

I loved adding to this concept that M.T. Anderson sets up. After all, the legends around Arthur have spanned over millennia now, inspiring so many tales and influencing culture and conduct. Yet, it’s not completely clear where the origin of the tale lies, and so many authors have written and told the stories of Arthur and his knights that it’s difficult to say who started it all. So I think it’s very fitting that in this version of Yvain it’s not quite clear who is telling the story, plus the reader is caught off-guard by discrepancies in the timeline, that suggest that this story has been told before, or is told in a circle.

The book opens and closes with falcons. Whose idea was that and where did the idea come from?

I came up with that idea when I was researching medieval art. There were many images depicting courtly love – like this one –where a figure would hold a falcon. This made me curious, because the falcon was used for sport and I did not understand why a bird of prey would be included in a picture of a couple in love. Finally I found out that in medieval art the falcon symbolized courtly love and the soul. This made me immediately think about the beautiful words leading into and out of the story of Yvain. I had been trying to find the right images to accompany those words. They had to be abstract in a way but at the same time introduce the reader to the world of Yvain. It made sense to me to create a sort of “prologue” and “epilogue” that leads you into and out of the action of the story. I felt that this bird, especially with the blinding falconry cap at first, would be the perfect depiction of the words about love and hate, and the blindness that can go along with both of those emotions (and that is displayed by at least one character in the story). The movement of the bird into the story, and later out of the story and into the sky – in combination with the fact that falcons in medieval times were highly trained and used for sport – perfectly illustrated the idea of the soul and its’ restrictions in Yvain’s world.

The art director and I discussed this idea of using the falcon at length, because of course there was the worry that it would be confusing that a book about a knight with a lion features a falcon in such a prominent way. I felt it was the right solution though, and am very happy that the art director and the author decided to go with it.

What is the comics scene like in Germany right now? Like a lot of Americans I’ve read people like Reinhold Kleist and Arne Bellstorf, but what are things like right now?

The comic scene in Germany is getting a huge boost right now, I am really excited about it! There are many artists who are creating beautiful graphic novels, the scene has grown a lot over the past few years. Right now, many graphic novels that are published in Germany are (auto)biographical or interpret historical events or classical texts. For example, Barbara Yelin’s Poison tells the story of a murderer in Bremen in the 1830s. Isabel Kreitz’s Die Sache mit Sorge tells the story of Stalin’s spy Richard Sorge at the German embassy in Tokyo in 1941. The artist Flix published beautiful and hilarious modern interpretations of the story of Don Quijote and of Goethe’s Faust. Both the subject matter as well as the art are getting more and more diverse, though. For example, Max Baitinger’s Birgit is simplistic and beautiful in it’s storytelling as well as the graphic art. There are some really good publishers in Germany as well who take great care to publish beautiful books and also to do the foreign books that they translate full justice. The ComicSalon Erlangen that happens biannually has grown each time and is a really exciting comic festival, but other festivals have been created by artists (such as The Millionaires Club in Leipzig) or critics (such as The Graphic Novel Tage in Hamburg) and are getting a lot of attention. So yes, there’s a lot happening right now and it’s exciting to follow and read all the great graphic novels that are being published!

YVAIN. Text copyright © 2017 by M.T. Anderson. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Andrea Offermann Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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