Smash Pages Q&A: Tim Foley on adapting Dan Rather’s ‘What Unites Us’ into comics

The accomplished illustrator discusses working on his first graphic novel for First Second’s World Citizen Comics imprint.

Tim Foley has had a long, accomplished career as an illustrator for a wide range of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and in books like the Who Was and What Was book series for Penguin Young Readers. But this year brings his first graphic novel.

For First Second Book’s World Citizen Comics imprint, Foley adapted the book What Unites Us by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner. The book of essays explored what Rather saw as what it means to love this country, the values that shaped it and the role of citizens. Foley is far from a beginning artist, but to make a long-form comic like this is a unique challenge, one that he makes look easy. He was kind enough to take the time to talk about What Unites Us, how he worked and wanting to make more comics.

How did you end up drawing What Unites Us

Around 10 years ago, I did several comics adaptations of a friend’s personal memoirs for their blog. I posted many of these stories as samples on my illustration website. In the summer of 2018, Mark Siegel, the editorial and creative director at First Second, somehow ran across them and thought I would be a good fit for an upcoming project. He sent me a copy of What Unites Us, which I quickly read, then did several sample pages to give a general idea of how I envisioned the graphic interpretation. Several months later, I was offered a contract. A few of the panels from those original samples survived into the finished version. 

So much of your work has been illustration. I’m curious about the challenges of doing a long-form graphic novel like this? 

After accepting the commission, I spent many a sleepless night worried that I had bitten off more than I could chew. This was the biggest project, and the most complex, that I had ever tackled, and I was more than aware of my lack of experience and expertise. I have been an avid comics reader for most of my life, which was a help, but I’m sure I’ve still got a lot to learn about pacing and story construction. 

I remember being very concerned early on, with fitting the material neatly into the proposed page count. I started off with rough thumbnails of the entire book, assigning blocks of text and scenes to each page, then full size rough sketches of each page followed. A lot of the basic structural problems were worked out in this phase of the project. 

Another concern was how I was going to be able to keep a consistent look throughout a 250+ page book. I’ve had a hard enough time settling on a consistent illustration style through my thirty-year career. I decided early on that I would allow myself a little leeway in the style just to be true to myself. Certain scenes needed a bit more seriousness and gravitas, but I could loosen up from time to time with a little bit of humor to keep things fresh and entertaining. 

What did you get from Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner? Did you get a full script or were you simply adapting the text of the book? 

I was first given a copy of the original book. This is what I based my original sample pages on. I did very little editing on these preliminary tests. The text was nearly verbatim out of the book. 

When I moved on to the sketch and thumbnail phase of the project, I was forwarded a PDF of the book, with suggestions, highlighting text that probably needs to be included, and hints at what may be merely shown visually. 

From there, most of the adaptation took place in the rough sketch phase, and I worked through problems as I came to them. I was fully expecting to go through several sketch versions before going to the final, but surprisingly, the first draft was approved and I moved right into the finishes. 

The book What Unites Us was a series of essays, which carries over into the graphic novel, but it presents a number of artistic challenges. For example, when did you decide to draw Rather as narrator and have him appear on the page? 

On my first reading of the book, I was struck by the feeling that Mr. Rather was having a conversation with me, the reader, and it was hard to imagine any of the scenes without that calm, fatherly presence hanging around and guiding me through the story. I was influenced by Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and how his comics avatar guides us through that book. And the beauty of comics is that the “comics” version of Dan Rather has no problem morphing from a simple iconic representation, to a more detailed closeup, to standing on an oversized flag or globe or periodic table of elements, as needs be. At the same time, the subject matter is quite serious, and Mr. Rather is a television news icon. I always wanted to treat him with deserved respect. 

How did you decide how to portray Rather? 

The author photo on the back cover of the hardcover version of What Unites Us was the first inspiration. I loved the trench coat, which conveyed to me the prototypical “investigative reporter,” and was suitably dramatic when needed (almost like a superhero’s cape). He is portrayed at various ages throughout the book in the flashbacks, so I tried to find as much reference as I could from each decade of his career, but “narrator Dan” stayed in character throughout. The reference for Dan as a child was a single photograph I was able to find, so he tends to be a little more simplified and idealized in the childhood scenes. 

You are very good at portraiture and capturing people in your illustration work in a way that simplifies them without caricaturing them. When making a 250+ page book, you can’t spend as much time on one figure in one panel as you’re often used to. The pages here look like your work, but you clearly needed to tweak your style a little. I wonder if you could talk about that .

I would say there are three styles working their way through this book. The “historical” scenes, portraits of politicians and judges and important public figures, are more realistic and representational. These tend to be similar to the type of interior illustrations I’ve done for the Who Was series of books for Penguin. Next would be the slightly more stylized characters that I used in most of the “flashback” scenes. I allowed myself a little more looseness to the figures and faces. Then occasionally there would be something of a “concept” that needed to be put across where I went even further into comics iconography (illustrating Dr. King’s speech about “cashing a check for freedom” is a good example). I suppose I was unconsciously trying to make the art style mimic the abstraction of the story and idea being presented. 

What kind of research was involved from your end? 

A lot! Besides the endless photos of Dan Rather that I collected (stills from his filmed interviews were very helpful), I also had to round up all the historical figures, buildings, transportation and landscapes pictured throughout the book. There were times when I had to take an educated guess, and I hope I didn’t stray too far (my apologies to Mrs. Rather in particular). I tried to be as accurate as possible, but when not possible, my mantra was “keep it simple.” 

You didn’t have a lot of experience with comics going in, so I’m curious about how you were thinking about the page layouts and designs, the color palette and how you wanted the book to look? You mentioned Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, but were you looking at the other books in the line or have a model for what you wanted to do? 

I had no idea that the book was part of the World Citizen Comics line until I was well into the project. One of my earliest influences was the pages of Mad magazine from back in the early ’70s when I was growing up. The first thing I was struck by when I saw my first copy of Mad was how it was all black and white and grayscale, when I was used to the garish colors of the Archie and superhero comics. It somehow seemed to my young eyes “more grown up” and “sophisticated,” while it was more than likely a budget savings decision on the part of the publishers. 

My original idea with this book, then, was to do it all in black and white and grey, since many of my recollections of the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War were witnessed via a black-and-white television screen. Maybe also to impart some of that “grown up subject matter” feeling to the reader. 

While working on the sample pages, however, I was struck by how a red, white and blue color palette could serve a purpose of highlighting different concepts, show the red and blue divide of our current political climate, or even separate disparate parts of the story (flashbacks, historical interludes, etc.). This self-imposed restriction actually helped shape a lot of the layouts and design ideas (like the recurring flag motif grew that I employ from time to time throughout the book). 

You probably finished this about a year ago, but what was it like making this book at a time when I’m sure that reading the headlines or hearing the news made you think, “What does unite us?” 

That idea struck me on the very first reading (which would have been the spring of 2018, halfway through the previous administration’s term). The book felt timely then, and only grew in relevance as I worked on this incarnation. I was pleased to see the paperback version of What Unites Us jump into the bestseller list during the weeks surrounding the election, and with the way things are going now, I believe the book will remain required reading for the foreseeable future. 

One of the things I loved about this book was how, even when I was deep into deconstructing the text and working only on a small portion on any particular day, a beautifully worded sentence or phrase would pop out at me and keep me inspired. It’s a finely written book, and I only hope I did it the justice it deserves. 

So the running joke is that after finishing a really long book, cartoonists either think, “I want to do this again!” or “I never want to do this again.” So what do you want to do next? 

Working in comics has long been an ambition of mine, ever since I was a young boy. I hope I get the chance to do something like this again. 

Halfway through working on the finished pages of this book, I took a month-long hiking trip on the John Muir Trail. Since I was deep into the “comics mindset” at the time, I frequently thought while on the trip that it would be interesting to try to write a travelogue in comics form (think Mark Trail meets Bill Bryson). I’ve been working on some rough outlines and sample pages, and I am certain the writing will be another major hurdle. I’ll be 60 next year and, unlike the young folks working in this medium, I have a lot yet to learn but not a lot of time left to learn it in. 

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