The Collaboration between Author and Illustrator | Resistance by Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis

The Whole Megillah speaks with Resistance author Carla Jablonski and illustrator Leland Purvis about their collaboration to produce this Sydney Taylor Honor book for older readers.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Carla, what brought you to write a graphic novel?
Carla Jablonski (CJ): The credit goes to my agent, Bob Mecoy of Creative Book Services. He knew that in addition to writing books for kids and teens, I also write plays, direct, and perform. He thought that combination of skills and experience might make for a good graphic novel scriptwriter. I’m really pleased he pushed me in this direction.

TWM: Were you ever concerned that you would need an illustrator?
CJ: As with any collaboration I wondered if my vision for the project would be understood and then executed the way I saw it. But coming from the theater I’m used to collaborating and really enjoy the give-and-take process. I always go into it with the faith that by working with another artist the final result will be even stronger than what either of us would have created on our own.

TWM: When you wrote Resistance, did you have the illustration in your mind’s eye?
CJ: Actually, when I write ANY book it feels as if I’m transcribing the movie that’s taking place in my mind.  I will literally sit at my keyboard typing with my eyes closed so I can watch it unfold.

I was pretty confident about how much content could appear on a page, but because Resistance was my first foray into this medium I left it to Leland Purvis, the artist (who was more experienced) to work out how the events and dialogue I wrote was broken into panels. However, there were a number of places where I was very specific about what each panel contained. And I knew what I wanted for Paul’s artwork when we show his sketchpad pages.

For my next project, though, I’m working differently. I just finished storyboarding my own pages for that one because I have very strong ideas about how I want them to look.

TWM: What expectations, if any, did you have for the illustration?
CJ: I guess I didn’t really have any specific expectations — Leland knew what sort of story it was going in, and I’d seen his sketches for the proposal, so there weren’t any big surprises.

TWM: At what point did you and Leland come together on Resistance?
CJ: During the proposal stage. After I wrote a treatment for the trilogy, I then wrote a few pages of the script. At that point my agent and I decided on Leland as the artist and Leland was interested so he drew some pages for us to show publishers.

TWM: On your blog tour, you mentioned the scene with the skulls in the underground sewer. Were there other instances where Leland’s ideas took it to the next level?

CJ: That was a location that excited Leland visually, so I made sure to include it — which impacted the plot. That was the only instance where the plot itself was affected by a visual concept. What was most exciting to see was the way he’d use different angles, distances, and points of view that never would have occurred to me. Just one example is on page 46, where Marie and Henri are talking about what it means to be Jewish. The reader looks down into the scene, rather than straight on. I never would have thought of that and I really love it. Those kinds of things occur throughout and they visually add an emotional layer that the script demands – a great meshing of words and pictures.

TWM: Leland, how did Carla’s text help you shape the illustration?
Leland Purvis (LP): It was so open. Obviously the settings and certain things about the characters were defined. But within that I had free rein to conceive of the characters and places the way they came to mind as I read the script. Carla has a wonderful sense for the ways characters interact, so the script evoked impressions of the characters that made it easy to get a feel for a visual for them.

TWM: How do you prepare for illustration? How do you research?

LP: Well in a sense these are separate questions. The first preparation that goes in as far as research is concerned is more reference oriented. Especially with historical fiction, I do a lot of studying what the fashions were of the time, what the architecture looked like, military uniforms, weapons, geography, climate even demographics. Once some of that basic reference research is soaked up, I can start with character design. Only then do I start breaking the text down into imagery.

Essentially it’s my job to tell the story visually, to choose the images and the angles, body language and expressions and the lighting that is going to best get the story across.  So before I do any real drawing at all, I need to do thumbnails of the pages, compose them for best clarity and on how they should read in terms of the impression that we’re trying to get over to the reader.

TWM: Please talk about the collaboration between you and Carla – can you give a specific instance where you thought increased clarity was warranted?
LP: Carla is a phenomenal, award-winning writer. But she’d never written for comics comics before. There are things that work wonderfully as a stage-direction of a play that just don’t translate to comics. One example in the first book was a scene where the characters heard people approaching and Carla’s note was, ‘Footsteps heard off panel.’ Well, on a comics page that can’t work. There is no sound-effect I can put on the page that will let the reader know for certain that it’s a footfall without a visual. So I got in touch with Carla and (always good to have a solution, if you’re going to note a problem) suggested a different way to work it.  Carla was great about suggestions I had like that, which makes sense as the writer isn’t served if the visual storytelling isn’t clear. As a comics artist translating text to imagery, it’s my job to actualize the writer’s intent for the reader’s experience. Sometimes that means discussing a change in details so that the scene will do the job that the writer and story need it to do.

TWM: To wrap up, Leland, what advice do you have for graphic artists interested in novel collaboration?
LP: If they are committed to doing comics, it’s really important to learn how the medium works, the essentials of visual narrative and the mechanics of page-composition. As far as finding a collaborator, having the material be of mutual interest can be crucial.  The artist is likely going to spend a lot more time working on the project, page-work is just so labor intensive. So having a setting and story you find really compelling personally can keep the wind in your sails through what otherwise might be a long slog of months.

If you’ve done a lot of drawing and think you might like to do comics, try translating some favorite short-stories and plays into comics form. Maybe something you read in school. Writers, editors, or agents are only going to be interested in working with you if you can convert text to imagery in an effective way. And we learn by doing.

TWM: And finally, Carla, what advice do you have for writers interested in graphic novels but do not illustrate?
CJ: Really do your homework. Understand what the form is. Not every story is right for a graphic novel, in the same way that not every book should be a movie. And as with any successful collaboration be clear in your vision, but flexible too.

About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
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