Just published is the graphic novel of David Gemmell's groundbreaking fantasy Legend. David J Howe spoke to the perpetrators.
The task of turning David Gemmell's classic book into a graphic novel was the job of the original author along with the combined talents of Stan Nicholls, who provided the words, and Chris Baker - otherwise known as Fangorn - who provided the pictures.
Stan Nicholls is perhaps better known as a journalist, interviewer and reviewer. His book review column can be found in The Dark Side magazine, and recent projects include the novelisation of the Tom and Jerry film, and the autobiography of William Roache who plays Ken Barlow in Coronation Street.
'My involvement with Legend: A Graphic Novel came about because David Gemmell had singlehandedly revitalised my interest in fantasy fiction,' explains Stan. 'I had gone completely off it because I thought it was a very moribund genre. The opportunity to interview Dave came up and I thought I'd better read his books. I was enormously impressed with Legend for its pace, its vitality and particularly for its characterization as good characterization is very rare in fantasy. Dave's books are full of human stuff, stuff you can relate to, almost domestic detail mixed in with all the battle and epic goings on. I then sat down to do an hour-long interview and were still there five hours later. I subsequently read the rest of his books and found them all to be immensely enjoyable.
'Then about two, maybe three years ago, we were talking about graphic novels. In fact we were talking about films. I'd always maintained that Legend, given a huge budget, would make a great movie and that kind of mutated into talking about how we could visualize it, and we decided to do a graphic novel. That's how it began. I wasn't given the job because I was Dave's mate, I had to audition like anybody else and he was good enough to trust me with it. Legend was Dave's first book, it was written under very peculiar, very dramatic circumstances - he thought he was dying of cancer at the time - and then he had a lot of trouble getting it published. Despite this it remains Dave's best selling book, and of course the one for which he feels the most affection. So to hand it to me and say do what you want with it was an act of great faith.
'At no point has Dave ever said "I don't like what you're doing." He's made suggestions but he's never made demands. I've found him very good to work with and very trusting. I think his attitude is, if you own a dog you don't bark yourself.'
Along with the artist, Chris Baker, David Gemmell and Stan Nicholls have formed a company called Waylander Enterprises in order to package more of Gemmell's books as Graphic Novels.
'One of Dave's books is called Waylander,' explains Stan, 'and what we are doing is creating the books to then be sold on to publishers. Legend is Waylander Enterprises' first title, Wolf in Shadow is the second and all being well we want to do not only more of Dave's books but also books by other people: fantasy, science fiction, and perhaps some horror.
'We want to do quality graphic novels. That's what we're hoping for and that's why Legend took a long time to develop. The intention to produce something of quality grew out of the realisation of what an adaptation is. It isn't taking the book, nailing it to a piece of wood and passing it to the artist to paint. What I realised very quickly were, first of all, the nearest medium you can compare a graphic novel to is movies. The script is very similar, the way you look at it is very visual, you use some of the same terminology: jump-cut, fade-to-black and so on. The other slightly deeper realization is that you don't just take a book and turn it into a comic. It's essentially a process of deconstruction and reconstruction, in other words, you have to absorb yourself in the original and read it many, many times, then you attempt to capture the essence and then you retell the story. I think that's how you have to adapt.
'What I produce first of all is a script, just the words, but it's structured like film shooting script. It might say: "Page One, Panel One. Three men ride into a town with guns blazing, people running out of the way..." Sometimes this can be a very long and detailed description, just for the first panel.
'I can't draw a straight line, but I made myself up a dummy book corresponding to the finished product and in that dummy I worked out the flow and where the spreads were. It's very important to remember that you don't look at single pages in isolation, you look at two-page spreads, left and right, so every page of the script will have a reminder of this for the artist at the top. You also try to end a right hand page with a revelation, a close-up, something to get people to turn over and keep reading.
'We gained confidence with the format as we went through. If you look at Legend: A Graphic Novel closely, you'll see that the experimentation with the panel sizes and shapes becomes more radical as the book progresses. We also put a lot of thought into what happens to the colouring as the story unfolds. You'll find that it is more vivid towards the end than at the beginning and that in scenes of despair the colour hues are, as it were, despairing. The book is a synthesis of Chris's vision and my vision and ultimately Dave's vision, because he was the ultimate referee.
'I hope it works. It took us eighteen months to do the actual work, probably two years from the point of conception, but I hope it has all been worth it.'
'I was raised on Marvel and DC Comics and I've always wanted to see a graphic novel of Legend done well. I didn't have the time to break the script down which is where Stan came in. He's a tremendous professional, you can always rely on Stan to do what he says he'll do and he's not a prima donna. You need people you can rely on to give the thing some heart. So having decided on Stan to do the breakdowns, we then had to find a really good artist. Initially, we were looking at some of the biggest guys in the field but they are mostly booked up years ahead, men like John Bolton and Simon Bisley. We then decided to find a new talent and we saw quite a few artists' work until we were introduced to Chris Baker. He came down to see us and produced some pages of art which just knocked us out so we signed Chris there and then.
'The process of producing a graphic novel is very involved. Somebody once said the Devil was the first lawyer and if that's true, it was a publisher who hired him. But when you look at what Random House have put into this project, knowing nothing about graphic novels, I've only got the highest praise for them. Random agreed that it should be printed on the finest quality paper, at one of the best places in Europe and that it would be stitched, not glued. I'm fed up with buying graphic novels that I read twice and a page falls out. The care that the publishers took is evidenced by the fact that they flew Chris out to Milan where it was printed to judge the colour balance.
'Legend is a nice, tight story centering around a fortress under siege and a small group of heroes. There is a lot about valour, bravery, courage and nobility that made it ideal for graphic novel. It also has a central hero, an old man called Druss. Druss the Axeman is absolutely made to be painted. Chris Baker put his heart into this, it's his first graphic novel and the reaction to it has been fabulous.
'My actual involvement was as an arbiter. Chris is a great artist and he's very intense about his work. Stan knew what he felt the script should say and how the story should flow in visual terms. I basically resolved any disputes between them. The biggest problem facing Stan was the size of the novel. There's something like ninety characters in Legend, and Stan decided that we just couldn't have all the sub plots. In that respect, Chris and Stan were both against me because I'd suggest including aspects that had been dropped and they would both say "No".
'As to the future, when we were halfway through this project, Random commissioned a second graphic novel from the three of us. Chris and Stan are currently working on Wolf in Shadow which is another book of mine. Chris has produced about twenty two pages so far and his work is just getting better and better.
'Chris is an astounding artist. We sent the artwork for Legend round to John Bolton and asked him for an honest opinion. "Chris is a real find, a real talent, hang on to him," he told me. "He's done some spectacular work here; I can see some of his influences but the most important thing is that what's coming through is pure Baker, he's got his own individual voice." Coming from John Bolton, that is a great compliment.'
FANGORN - CHRIS BAKER
'I got involved through a friend. Dave and Stan were looking for an artist and a friend just mentioned my name to Dave. I had a chat with Dave, sent a couple of samples of artwork - I didn't have any comic work - and it went on from there.
'The funny thing is, I've only ever had two pages of comic work published before, and that was in the second issue of <I>Starburst<D>. After Dave asked me to produce something from Legend to show the publishers, I took a scene from the book and painted some pages, they liked them and I got the job.
'I've been painting professionally since I was at school I suppose, because I was selling stuff even then. I did a little freelancing at college, then I worked for an advertising agency for twelve years doing illustration, design and layout. In the meantime I was still freelancing. I've done a lot of games work for German companies and stuff for Waddingtons, as well as some book jackets.
'The easiest way for me to think of Legend was in terms of a film and to try and tell the story in relatively simple terms. Because Legend is rooted in a kind of reality, you can't be overly fancy with your page layouts. First and foremost you're telling a story about people and the layout and design must reflect that. I would like to be given the opportunity to come up with an original story to tell in comic terms but with Legend you are restricted in how you design a page by the story.
'I did read Dave's book, but Stan's script was the basis for the Graphic Novel. It was a watered down version of the book unfortunately, because there are a lot of scenes that I wished I could have painted. When working on something like this you quickly realise how short 96 pages is and we had problems trying to tell the story visually within that. Traditional comics are sequential art, and with Legend we had to lose some of that aspect. The action runs across the page from the first panel to the last panel and it couldn't be overly sequential because you would be trying to fit too much information into a single panel. I think that was about the only real problem I had with it: cramming the story into 96 pages.
'It must have taken me about nine months to complete the paintings. Some of them just flowed off my pen: things like people sitting at a table - they're always much easier to paint than action scenes. Because with action you really have to start thinking about the figures and the movement.
'Anything really physical I pose for myself, I tend to either use a mirror - I've got one in front of my drawing board - or photographs. There's nothing taken direct from these sources however, things just don't work out that way, I don't look anything like those people! My wife posed for a couple of things, but she doesn't look anything like the finished pictures. Part of the problem I had with Legend was that I didn't originally want to portray it that realistically. I wanted to go for a much more "from the hip" look, where you just drew from the heart but the story didn't come across that way, it wasn't abstract in any way whatsoever.
'One of my heroes is an artist called Alex Nino, and he was very much more expressionistic. You don't really hear a lot about him these days but he was very popular in the early eighties. He was a real master of comic art, of laying out pages, coming up with incredible page designs and this kind of thing, pulling the medium to its limits. That's the way I would really like to do comics.
'Currently I'm working on Wolf in Shadow which is quite different. Instead of swords and axes there's guns and rifles. There's no dramatic swinging of weapons above the head; you find yourself asking how many ways are there of showing someone being shot without getting boring? Or how many ways can you show someone actually shooting a gun? Thankfully it hasn't been a problem.