Gareth Hinds has made a career of adapting great works of literature into comics. From The Odyssey to MacBeth, Beowulf to King Lear.
His new book Poe adapts a number of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems into comics form and is out now from Candlewick Press. Adapting the work of Poe has a number of technical challenges and Hinds found some inventive and striking ways to think through them. From the way he adapts the poems into comics to the complicated ways he draws and colors The Pit and the Pendulum, Hinds finds visual inventive ways to make these familiar stories new.
I was trained as an illustrator and I was aware that when I was doing original work both that it was a lot of work to write original stories and I didn’t feel like my writing was as strong as I wanted it to be. It was a way to work with really good stories that already existed and were proven to have stood the test of time. Then I could focus on the illustration aspect of it. Over time it’s gained added dimensions. One of which is that I discovered there was an educational market and an educational need for these books. Teachers get really excited about the way that they make these stories accessible to kids who might not be able to handle them in the original form, and even if they can handle them might not enjoy them. To present it in this form has become my way of sharing my love for these stories with those readers.
You tend to adapt work that has very complex prose. What appeals to you about that kind of work?
There’s something about these really old stories and the richness of the language that appeals to me. In the literature canon, the stuff that I enjoyed the most tended to be the oldest stuff – Beowulf and Gilgamesh and Gawain and the Green Knight, Homer. Poe is the most modern of the classics I’ve taken on. That grew out of not only my love for Poe but the fact that I had done really really dark creepy stuff in MacBeth. My publisher was very pleased with that and was saying, we think it would be awesome if you did something that maybe went even further in this direction. I said, in that case we should do Poe.
So you decided to adapt Edgar Allan Poe, how do you decide what work of his to adapt?
I mostly wanted to do the stuff that is taught the most. The educational market is my core demographic. A lot of those were pretty obvious choices. I put some stuff in there that isn’t taught quite as much like The Bells and The Masque of the Red Death, but those are still well known. I think the only big one I left out is The Fall of the House of Usher. Basically I had to choose between that and The Masque of the Red Death and I thought The Masque of the Red Death was a lot more interesting visually.
The Pit and the Pendulum is one of the more challenging stories in the book because the beginning of it takes place in complete darkness. There’s just an obvious challenge there of how to illustrate it and so I was very I was looking for ways to simulate this sensory deprivation, but not just have a bunch of black panels. I came up with this idea of the inverted drawings where most of the detail is right around the character because he can only perceive what is right around him. There was a great graphic novel about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan a couple years that used a similar technique. I decided, okay, if I am going to show that the narrator can’t actually see anything but we’re seeing something, I’ll remove the other senses so there are some sound effects but drop out all of the narration. There’s this verbal silence and when the lights come back on, the narration comes back in. All the stuff that happens from that point is very visual.
And then as the story goes on you have this muted tone and then as the story escalates, color starts to come in.
Basically I wanted to keep it as dark as I could because he describes the light as very dim and he can just make out his surroundings. We actually did test proofs of a lot of pages. I wanted it to be light enough that you could tell what was going on, but I wanted the art to be as dark as it could be and still be readable. Then when the walls start to heat up and glow red hot obviously it because much more intense with intense color. And then the deus ex machina at the end of the story, it almost looks like a different world when he steps outside.
You didn’t just adapt stories, you adapted some poems, as well.
I decided to not do those in comics format. I played around with some solutions that were in panels, but I felt like that broke up the rhythm of those poems. The panels have their own rhythm and when you break up the lines and put them in panels that can interfere.
The big challenge here is that Poe tended to write first person stories which were often not set in a specific time or place.
I talk about this in the author notes. That is one of the things that had to change when it moved to a visual medium. I had to set it in at least a relatively particular setting and I also needed to give those anonymous first person narrators an appearance. Which in a way is a loss because that first person narration when you don’t know who’s telling it to you allows your imagination a lot of room to play. At the same time I had to do it and it was an opportunity to put my own spin on it.
That poem feels like he is talking about himself. Certainly some of the imagery echoes things in his own life. At the end when he talks about living in the shadow of the raven, that that reflects the fact that for the rest of his life he was living in the shadow of his wife’s death and also in the shadow of his own work. The Raven was this runaway success, not that it benefited him very much. I wanted to allude to that by having the narrator look very much like Poe. Although I do a few things to undercut that. At the end he’s clearly older than Poe ever got to be, so I’m making it a little bit more nebulous than just saying, this is the man himself.
Annabel Lee and The Bells are very colorful and do give a contrast to the short stories which are very dark.
The stories all featured extreme darkness and so I did want to pick those opportunities to brighten the palate and have something that had more motion and maybe were a little more expressionistic or visually inventive. Whereas in those stories, I really just want to put you there in that really scary situation.
The Bells starts out as this lovely bucolic scene and then becomes this fiery hellscape. It’s the inverse of what the bells meant to John Donne. Which I guess could describe a lot of Poe’s work.
Exactly. Poe’s sensibility is, could this mean something rally bad? Yes, it definitely could. [laughs]
What did you think of Poe and his work before you started on this? Has it changed as you’ve gotten to know Poe’s work well?
Like most people my first contact with Poe was in school and then I sought out more of his stories, but I still haven’t read his entire body of work. I had read a little bit about him but there’s not actually that much known about the important stuff. Doing this book I dug more into his work, reading it more closely, and looking more into the details of his life. The image that we all have in our head of Poe is this alcoholic, drug-using, out of control guy. There’s not much to back that up. He certainly was destitute for much of his life, or near-destitute, but the idea that he was an alcoholic or a drug user may or may not have been true, but was probably promulgated by the people who didn’t like him. We have a few examples of people who did that. Learning more about that and how difficult it must have been for him to see his work succeed, but he wasn’t making any money from it. At the same time he was pushing through and making a go of it in a way that very few other writers were even trying to do. He’s a great underdog. He’s a heroic and tragic figure at the same time. Also the fact that he tried to do things that were more socially acceptable and completely failed and then he did his work.
Do you have a favorite Poe story?
My favorite of the stories when I read it in school is The Cask of Amontillado. I still think that’s the most chilling situational horror. The Tell-Tale Heart has really grown on me, though. That was one where I had to be careful to not let the illustrations get too graphic because if you say that somebody gets dismembered that’s horrifying but if you show it, that’s a whole other dimension of horror that wasn’t in the original story. I didn’t want that to get too out of control. So I don’t know, one of those two.
So what’s next for you? Something lighter?
[laughs] A lighter palate. I am in the final stages of working on The Iliad and it has been a monster project. It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done, by far. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever done and the most complex thing I’ve ever done. I’m very happy with how it’s coming out and I am looking forward to being done with that. [laughs]
POE: A GRAPHIC COLLECTION. Copyright © 2017 Gareth Hinds. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.