Smash Pages Q&A: Ben Nadler

The creator of ‘Sonder’ and ‘Heretics!’ discusses his newest project, ‘The White Snake’ from Toon Books.

Ben Nadler‘s first book was a collaboration with his father, the noted philosopher Steven Nadler. In addition to Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy, Nadler also makes the comic series Sonder, both of which are very different from his new book.

The White Snake, just out from Toon Books, is an adaptation of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, and it’s not just Nadler’s first book for children, but also his first adaptation. We spoke recently about the book, how he works and underplaying the violence in the original story.

How did you first come to comics?

I grew up on newspaper comics but I was never a collector or anything. I was always into drawing and I went to art school to maybe be a children’s book illustrator. I saw my friends making comics and found it through my peers in Providence and the more I found people making comics, it just opened up in front of me. By the end of college it was all that I wanted to do. I left college kind of obsessed with a newfound passion for graphic novels.

How do you describe The White Snake?

I’ve been calling it a children’s graphic novel adapted from a fairy tale. I went into it thinking of it as a children’s book and it was Françoise [Mouly]’s idea to do it in a comic format. I think she maybe thought that would be a strength of mine to adapt it that way.

How did the book happen?

I went to an Ivan Brunetti lecture in Chicago where he was talking about his life and work. That’s how I heard about Toon Books. I had all of these children’s book pitches that I’d been making since I graduated college, and I sent Françoise all the pitches I had, which was three books and a ton of illustrations. The first thing she got from me was years of work, which maybe was impressive? It was her idea to adapt something. I sent her all these original stories and she said, “I like your work, but I think you would do well to adapt an older story.” So the next pitch that I sent her was for The White Snake and she liked it.

How did you end up picking The White Snake to adapt?

I was reading all the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and it just had the rhythm of a children’s book. It had a story where things happen and then they come back later. It felt like the narrative was already there and it was lesser known, which was appealing. I was playing around with doing Rumplestiltskin, but it was appealing to do a new thing. And it’s so fun to draw cute animals talking so there were a lot of great imagery. All the elements seemed to be already there for a kids book. It seemed very natural.

You mentioned that you like drawing cute animals. Is there a lot in the book that you just enjoy drawing?

Animals are always fun. The medieval theme opens it up for weird creatures and castles and the clothing. I’ll hide goblins or giants in the background. I love fantasy. I’m a fanboy of the genre anyway so I thought I should seize the opportunity.

You also have a lot of strange creatures and other fun details in the backgrounds throughout the book.

If it was all up to me it would have been all goblins all the time, but you’ve go to keep the focus on the protagonist. [laughs] Françoise was really encouraging about focusing on the details. The longer a kid can spend looking over one page, the more engaging the book can be so she was very encouraging for me to run with that kind of approach.

Is there a scene or a page that stands out for you in your mind?

On one panel on page 32, he’s trudging home in the rain and I had these little snails. In the panel above him there’s a troll on the right and a fox tail on the left. It’s all world building, but I think it also draws the reader in when they’re rewarded for sticking to an illustration as opposed to breezing by it.

Talk a little about how you decided to depict the scene where the three characters take a bite of the golden apple.

It was Paul Karasik’s idea when we were drafting the story to show how the king could come to an understanding after eating the apple. We can see this vision of the whole story present itself in front of him. I thought that was such a good idea because it helped with the story, but it was also an opportunity to make a big crazy splash page summing up everything that’s happened in a sillier and trippier way. Same with when they bite into the apple a few pages later and this big two page spread is all crazy wiggly lines and they’re experiencing the ecstasy of the apple. The more fun I have drawing it, the more fun someone is going to have reading it.

How did you find adapting a story after previously making all original work?

It was hard. It was a lot of drafts. I felt like I was becoming a better writer just working with Paul and Françoise and working off their edits. I had never adapted anything before and there’s a lot of changes from the original. You have to think about how it’s going to work in modern day. How it’s going to work in the comics format. Every Grimm’s Fairy Tale has very dark elements that you have to tone down a little bit – especially visually – if you’re going to give it to kids.

Like how the duck swallows the ring and then the duck is cooked and on the table and then in the next panel they have the ring.

You can connect the dots. I read it to a group of comics people a few weeks ago and everyone groaned at that moment. It definitely comes across that that poor duck got it.

What were the big changes you made to the fairy tale that stand out?

It’s been a while since I read the original, but there’s a lot of changes. There’s definitely a feminist aspect to the book that isn’t in the fairy tale. We made the princess more of a protagonist. At one point we were having trouble breaking down this section and Françoise said, how long has it been since you actually read the fairy tale? So we went back and that made it so much easier.

One change is the painting that the king is obsessed with.

We introduce the king as someone who is not up to the task of ruling anymore. He’s absent minded, focusing on the wrong thing, but still very intense and controlling. It was a good way to showcase that side of his personality. His daughter is trying to do some actual politics. It was Paul’s idea for the painting at the end to be The Peaceable Kingdom to keep it on theme. It was definitely a good landing point to illustrate how the king can redeem his character at the end because he’s so crazy throughout the story.

For people who don’t know, what is The Peaceable Kingdom?

You can see The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks in that last panel. It’s a beautiful painting. You have these animals living peacefully in the foreground while these talks are happening in the background between the settlers and the Native Americans. It’s a very intense dichotomy happening. Without overthinking it, I think it’s a really good representation of what we want the kids to come away with at the end of the book. which is to be a little more aware of nature and not forget what we are as humans and not get too into the details.

You’re living in Chicago. Do you think living there has influenced your work?

Chicago is amazing. I moved to Seattle after college for a few years and that was great, but it was more difficult. I was trying to look for my community. As soon as we moved to Chicago, it was so easy. It was such an accessible community of creators and writers who get together for readings and gallery shows almost every weekend. Something about Chicago is very connected and welcoming. I definitely think I’m productive here in a way that I couldn’t have been in Seattle, for whatever reason.

Have you started thinking about the next thing?

I’m always thinking about the next thing. I have tons of projects I’ve started and have sent around. I have a science fiction graphic novel I’m about a 100 pages in that I’m working on. I still have all these children’s book pitches. So I don’t know. But in the meantime every year I put out a comics anthology of work I’ve done throughout the year so there’s always something to work on. Especially now that festival season is happening.

After this experience of working with Françoise and Paul, has it changed how you think about work or how you how you want to approach things going forward?

I’m so lucky to work with them. They definitely made me a better writer, and a more thoughtful storyteller. As opposed to treating the storytelling as something to breeze through to get to the drawing, because that takes so much time. Françoise won’t stop working something until it’s right. They taught me to be a little more diligent and a little more perfectionist. It’s so hard in the moment, but it definitely pays off. Paul was one of my comics professors at RISD so he was a big reason why I got into comics and so it was really cool to work with him. I would love to work with them again at some point.

Are you doing a lot of shows this year?

I took last year off so this year I’m doing TCAF, CAKE in Chicago in June. Hopefully Short Run in Seattle and the American Library Association. I’ll be all over the place.

You mentioned that you make a comics anthology.

Every year I make a 24-page book of short comics that I self-publish. It’s an exercise in doing whatever I want. I like Eightball and Optic Nerve, and I like the idea of putting something out regularly and maybe collecting it later. You get to see yourself grow as an artist. If I have a crazy idea or stupid idea, I can put it down and get it out of my brain and put it down on paper. It doesn’t keep me up at night. I always try to make sure that it doesn’t feel like a chore. It’s supposed to reboot my brain a little bit and remind me to have lots of fun doing it. So those stories get real weird but I’m not really thinking about a reader when I make those.

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