Smash Pages Q&A: Ryan North and Albert Monteys

North and Monteys discuss how they approached adapting Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ into a graphic novel.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is one of the seminal novels of postwar America. Part science fiction tale, part story of World War II and the firebombing of Dresden from the point of view of American POWs, the story of Billy Pilgrim was an immensely important novel and for many their introduction to the late, great novelist Kurt Vonnegut. It is also not an easy book to adapt and defies adaptation in a number of ways, which makes the success of the new graphic novel all the more impressive.

Ryan North is the person behind the weekly Dinosaur Comics, the writer of Marvel’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and the writer of How To Invent Everything. This isn’t his first time tackling literary legends after writing Romeo and/or Juliet and To Be Or Not To Be (both with the help of William Shakespeare). Albert Monteys is an artist and illustrator know for his work on the weekly magazine El Jueves, the series Carlitos Fax and the monthly publication Orgullo y Satisfacción, which he co-founded. His comic Universe! was published online by Panel Syndicate and nominated for an Eisner in 2017. 

As someone who has read almost everything Vonnegut ever wrote and has always held the book in great regard, the graphic novel manages to capture and reinvent the spirit and the substance of the book in ways that are shocking, making the story a new experience, even though I knew the text so well. I had to ask the duo a few questions about how they worked and their own relationship to the material.

To start, how did you come to comics?

Albert Monteys: I think I decided I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was seven years old; I just never changed my mind as people do! I’ve been doing comics for 20 years in Spain but the first half of my career was devoted to making political and social satire in a weekly magazine called El Jueves, which I even got to direct for awhile. That was my first gig, and it lasted awhile.

Ryan North: I had a sort of abstract interest in the medium for years, which finally paid off when I graduated high school and got a job and a car and stuck my head in a comic shop and started buying books basically at random, fully 100% judging them by their covers. It worked out super well, and four years later I started my own webcomic, Dinosaur Comics, which I still run today. It’s always the same pictures with different words – it’s better than it sounds, I promise – and in a weird way may have been good practice for telling a story about a man unstuck in time.

What’s your relationship with Vonnegut and the novel Slaughterhouse-Five?

Albert Monteys: I discovered Vonnegut in the mid-90s when a friend gave me a copy of Galapagos as a birthday present. It was a total shock of recognition; I loved his voice. A year later I had read almost all Vonnegut, among them Slaughterhouse-Five. It became a personal favorite and it has been a big influence when I write my own stuff. Vonnegut is probably my most beloved writer and this mix of humanity, humor and sadness has always been devastating to me, in the best possible way.

Ryan North: The book was given to me by my friend Priya and was my introduction to his work. Vonnegut quickly became one of my favorite writers, and I devoured everything else of his I could find. So it was a book that I already deeply loved and had the utmost respect for. The love made me want to adapt the book, and the respect made me terrified of doing a bad job. So with the two combined it was a very meaningful and also scary project, and that was a great combination.

Did you pay attention to or consider some of the other adaptations of the book –the film, the radio play, there have been some theatrical adaptations – or did you put them all out of mind?

Albert Monteys: I had been wanting to watch the movie for awhile. I was curious because I had always thought it was a very difficult novel to adapt… but when I started to work on the book, I made a point to not watch it until the graphic novel was finished. I didn’t want to be too influenced by another artist’s aesthetics. I’ll watch it any day now; hope it’s good. I wasn’t aware of any other adaptations. 

Ryan North: I didn’t! I’d seen the movie years ago but didn’t remember much beyond the fact that it didn’t include the “so it goes” repetition that’s there in the book, and which I knew I wanted to have in the comic. I didn’t even look at other comic adaptions from prose – I bought some, and I’m looking forward to reading them now – but for me the idea I had of what the book could be in comics form was pretty clear from the beginning, and I wanted to chase that vision rather than second-guess it.

Ryan, how do you typically write? By which I mean, have you ever just written out in prose the plot or structure of a story and then turn it into a comics script?

Ryan North:Normally I write an outline in prose, but it’s very rough: if it’s for a Squirrel Girl story, say, which were usually four issues long, the outline would have anywhere from a paragraph to a page for each issue. And then for each issue I’d start with that outline as a map, but I’d also feel completely free to throw things away or move things around – or even abandon them, if I discovered they weren’t working. Early on I discovered that writing outlines was easy if I didn’t think about them too much, but then I’d end up cursing my past self when it came time to actually write the story, because I’d have this sloppy outline. So now I try to put in the work at the start as much as I can.

With this book, I treated Vonnegut’s novel as the outline – just an incredibly detailed one – and used it as the foundation for the graphic novel.  

I keep coming back to the faces, which are so expressive and carry so much of the emotion of the story. Albert, I wonder if you could talk a little about trying to figure out what Billy Pilgrim and some of the other characters had to look like.

Albert Monteys: Creating the characters is a lot tougher when you’re working on a well-beloved story. The readers have already done the casting while they were reading the book, and your version is very likely to not going to fit their imagination. There’s only one way to do it, anyway, and that’s start doodling until you find something that fits the image you had in mind and that somehow portrays the identity of the character. Billy had to be designed seven or eight times, one for every stage of his life, but he came to me pretty easily. I had thought about the book so much, I guess.

My favorite character in the book is Kilgore Trout, and I had read somewhere one of the inspirations for the character was science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who was friends with Kurt Vonnegut, so I based his looks loosely on Sturgeon’s.

I wonder if you could talk a little about the color palette, which was so striking. From the grays of Dresden after the bombing, to the sublet evocation of postwar America that never looked especially retro.

Albert Monteys: Color is such a powerful tool when you tell a story, because it helps you to codify everything, to tell the basics to the reader at first glimpse. 

So I decided on a palette for every time period, but also for a few feelings and emotions. I think color in a comic doesn’t need to be naturalistic but emotional, and that’s what I strived for. Of course, you do most of those things following your gut, so I’m still able to surprise myself sometimes …

When did you decide to make Trout such a failed writer that he’s now scripting comics, because that was a fabulous touch. And how hard was it to make “The Gospel from Outer Space”?

Ryan North: The idea had a couple of things that made me really like it! I liked the meta-joke of comics being seen as this degenerate medium, someplace even a disgraced writer like Trout could fall to. But I also liked how well it worked structurally: we could actually show the work that Trout’s doing in a way that’s native to the medium in this really fun way, which was my whole goal with this project: to make a book that felt at home in comics, that wouldn’t make you say, “Oh hey, wasn’t this a book before?” So those two ideas – formalist and self-deprecating – combined nicely in Trout’s work. 

“The Gospel from Outer Space” is the longest of Trout’s comics that we get to see, and it was a ton of fun. I generally used Vonnegut’s description of Trout’s story for most of the narration, and filled it in with lots of fun vintage dialogue and imagery from early comics history, early EC “science stories” specifically. I wanted it to feel cheesy, fun, maybe a little embarrassing and shameful and even disposable, but above all stuffed with these big ideas, which is how I see Trout’s work. Derby even describes him as such in the book, saying he’s a dreadful writer, but his ideas are so good.

How hard was it to make the Tralfamodorian book?

Albert Monteys: On the graphic side it was a joy to work on. I just closed my eyes and conjured some images as alien as possible but with a hint of things we know: machines, nature and so on. I almost worked from my subconscious, even when coloring it. It wasn’t easy to describe, but I thing I understood pretty fast what Ryan was asking for in his script.

Ryan North: I had the easy job. Vonnegut describes Tralfamadorian writing as these sets of paragraphs, each urgently describing a different scene, which, when taken all together, produce this beautiful image of the world. Change the word “paragraph” to “illustration” there and you’ve got a really servicable definition of comics. So for me it felt pretty obvious that the Tralfamadorians book would be comics too, and my description for that page was pretty short. It was the one sequence where I reneged on my responsibility as writer and basically gave him a blank slate, with just the instruction that the images should feel urgent and strange yet also familiar at the same time. No sweat, right?  And Albert produced this spread that’s so gorgeous and lovely – a dear friend of mine said she never really understood what Vonnegut meant to evoke with the Tralfamadorian book until she read the graphic novel and got to “read” one of their books, just as Billy Pilgrim did.

There are two scenes I wanted to ask about, which I think people will read very differently now than they would have a few years ago. I’m curious about making those pages and what they meant to you. One is Campbell’s rundown of the “true” nature of Americans that’s read by British soldiers in the camp. The other is Edgar Derby’s speech to Campbell in Dresden

Ryan North: Yes, they’re two important scenes.  One of them – Campbell’s rundown of what’s wrong with America – was put in the comic almost verbatim: Kurt had already done all the writing. The other – Derby’s climactic speech – I had to invent, because Kurt tells us in the book what it’s like and what it feels like, but not really much of what the man actually says. So they were two different processes.

Campbell’s speech is about poverty, and the idea of wealth both as virtue, and indicative of virtue, that you can sometimes see in American society. But then on the other hand these words are coming out of the mouth of this turncoat American who actually joined the Nazis, so it’s not like he’s the world’s most credible source. It’s complicated, but I think there’s a lot of truth there, and a signpost to ways we could both do better and be better, which of course always comes down to being kind. God damn it, babies, you’ve got to be kind.

Derby’s speech is about the glory of American ideals, the idea that America will never tolerate fascism because it’s a country filled with glorious people who believe in freedom and would never tolerate a fascist in their midst. It’s a beautiful sentiment, and I hope it’s true. When I started working on the book in late 2017, the speech already felt relevant in a way it hadn’t when I first read the book, which is strange – a book about being unstuck in time feeling itself unstuck.

The book’s big flaw is two part: One is that the death toll and other numbers in the book are inaccurate. Two is that Vonnegut cites David Irving as a source in the book’s text. Obviously you couldn’t put either in the graphic novel. Was there a problem with cutting them or figuring out what to do?

Ryan North: For me both changes were an easy choice: there’s nothing in Kurt’s book, or the actual events of Dresden for that matter, that relies or depends on an inaccurate number of people who died. Replace those deaths with the numbers we now know are accurate, and it’s still a tragedy. Everything in the novel still works. So that’s what I did. And of course, there’s no way for Kurt to have known that David Irving would’ve turned out to be a Holocaust denier. These felt like the sort of updates you’d always when adapting a book: small changes that stop errors or misinformation from propagating.  

Obviously you both loved doing this. Do you have a favorite element or part of the book? Something that for whatever reason was just a joy – even something that other people might not notice?

Albert Monteys: I took a crazy amount of time drawing the Dresden double-page spread, when the American soldiers first see it. I made a point of drawing every individual, not just a mass of heads as is advisable in those cases, to make it clear this city was alive, and allow it to contrast shockingly with the destroyed city that appears later on. I don’t think it even shows on the printed version but I hope the idea will transpire somehow. And yeah, it was a labor of love.

Ryan North: Oh, there’s tons. Getting back Albert’s pages was an endless joy, because he was producing these pages that were way better than I’d ever imagined. He’s truly the star of the book. Seeing his Tralfamadorian book pages was a delight, but for me the best moment was when I first saw his two two-page spreads of Dresden – one before the bombing, one afterwards. These two images are the heart of the book, and he rendered both with such detail, such empathy and love, that I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding in. I knew then that the book would be a success, because Albert had captured its beating heart perfectly, right there on the page, for anyone to see.

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