Monday, May 19, 2014

Collaborations


I'm just on the point (fingers crossed/wood knocked upon) of having a client sign off on a project that has been a lot of fun, a 14-chapter children's historical fiction serial about a young fellow going off from Lachine, Quebec, into the high country as a voyageur in 1800.

Collaborating artist for the project has been Dylan Meconis, whom, had I not, a few years ago, signed her to a project about six weeks before she graduated from college, I wouldn't have had the brass to approach at this stage of her career.

As I was sorting through the endgame portion of the project, it occurred to me that most of the artists I've worked with have been cartoonists and that, in any case, you, Gentle Reader, might find some reflections on artist/writer collaboration of interest.

And let's start with the cartoonist part: I like working with web cartoonists because I can check up on them before the conversation even starts.

For all the (valid, IMHO) warnings about putting too many selfies of you with a Solo cup on Facebook, there is a distinct benefit of having a potential client/collaborator/partner Google you and find a cartoon that is of consistent quality and is updated regularly.

It's not that I'm insensitive to health issues, missing cats and family reunions, but I'm very sensitive to deadlines and pleasing the client. Never mind a resume: What you post is your resume, and the reward is being picked up by someone who believes in hiring the right person and then getting out of the way.

Which is today's topic.

Dylan, as said, was not even a starving artist yet when we did our first project, but rather a recommendation from my most frequent partner, Christopher Baldwin.

I had an artist drop out of a project late enough that I didn't have time to fiddle around finding a replacement. Chris was too busy, but gave me a couple of leads, high among which was a talented woman who already knew the subject area of mythology.

I don't know what Dylan's final grades were, considering that she squeezed this work in around finals, but she got high honors from me, because I didn't have to explain each story in the series. She already knew them well enough to add nuances that I wouldn't have requested.

I really only had to let her know, for instance, at what points I was breaking the story of Proserpina into separate parts and she would come up with one illustration showing the young girl being lured off into the hands of Pluto, and then another of her grieving mother, Ceres, wandering the world in the guise of an old woman and so forth.
It's not that I don't provide input or feedback. For the current project, Dylan sent me a preliminary sketch of our young man, but the client and I felt he looked too old for the role.

Back he came, younger but still well-muscled as required (voyageurs regularly hauled 90-pound packs on portage, two at a time), but softer, and now carrying the paddle of a milieux rather than a gouvernail

But I'm hesitant to interfere with more global choices and, unless asked, my practice is to send the chapter and let the artist decide what the illustration should be.

In this illustration, the brigade of voyageurs has, though incompetent leadership of a new boss, smashed one of their three canoes, lost two men and seriously injured a third.

As they sit on shore waiting for their boss to decide how to unravel the mess, a hunting part of Beaver comes upon them. This is my favorite illustration in the story, perhaps because, when she submitted the sketches, Dylan warned me not to try to get more of the damaged canoe or unhappy voyageurs into the foreground, and she was, of course, absolutely right.

There was, in the text, a suggestion of puzzled bemusement, but the variation of appearance, pose and reaction among these four hunters is exactly and precisely why the writer needs to shut up, back off and let the artist do what she was brought in to do.

Similarly, when I worked with Marina "Rinacat" Tay on "Ariadne and the Magic Thread," she pulled from the chapter this moment, when the imprisoned Theseus begins to con Ariadne into betraying her country in order to aid his quest.

I generally send reference pictures to the artists, and had mentioned to Rina that, while Minoan women went topless under their vests, that wouldn't fly in American classrooms, so she added the blouse.

The reason I gave Rina that additional guidance is that she's from Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, and while she's pretty well immersed in western pop culture, there were a few gaps from time to time.

Most notably, I kind of assumed everyone was familiar with Greek ships, but she wasn't, and needed reference pics for those.


But the funny part came when Ariadne, marooned on the Greek island of Naxos by the heartless manipulator, Theseus, finds herself alone except for the gifts a friend leaves her of a jug of drinking water, a jar of ointment and a loaf of bread.

Apparently, islands in the Indian Ocean have a lot more beach grass than the ones in the Mediterranean, but that wasn't what cracked me up in the preliminary sketch she sent me: It was what looked like an unsliced loaf of Wonder bread.

Of course! Why would she not think that's what a loaf of bread is supposed to look like to an American audience? As you see, the grass was mowed and the bread made more authentic and life went on, even for a stranded princess.

However, when we did "Fables and Folk Tales," Rina's expertise in manga/anime came to the fore, because the stories featured animals and fairyfolk, right in her roundhouse, and this illustration for the Japanese story of the Sparrow and the Woodpecker could not be finer.

The other artists benefit, I think, from my initial work with Chris, which began over a dozen years ago with this re-telling of the Legend of Perseus.

Again, the fact that he'd updated Bruno so consistently and faithfully for so many years led me to approach him for the venture, and he's never missed a deadline.

He also brings a perfectionism to the work that I appreciate. He immediately decided to consult Grecian urns for a line and style, as seen in this first chapter illustration, as the imprisoned Danae attempts to hide the child, Perseus, from her cruel father.

While I love the line itself, and the shadow of the keys as well as the flicker of the oil lamp, what particularly pleased me was his decision to make Danae look, well ... Greek. I think he's the first artist to draw this Greek woman as a Greek since, I dunno, maybe the fall of Troy.

I really learned to trust the artist, to back off and, if an illo didn't come out as I had expected, to go back to the text and see if the discrepancy was there. I've been known to change text rather than ask for a change in a picture.

However, we did go back and forth in a legendary exchange over this one, in which Perseus descends into the Garden of the Hesperides, over the technical question of how a man being held aloft by the magic sandals of Hermes would hold his legs upon descent.

I don't recall every detail of the exchange, but it involved a bit of stubborness on both sides until I think the fact began to emerge that a man being held aloft by wings on his heels would have enough problems remaining upright that his attitude upon landing was ... up to the artist.

Which is how it should be. And, from time to time, through our exchanges ever since, the issue of Perseus's legs has been brought forward as a reminder to shut up and let the artist do what you brought the artist in to do.

Final case in point: When Nellie Bly made her famous dash around the world, she stopped in France to visit Jules Verne, whose best selling novel of some 20 years earlier had sparked the challenge.

In the course of their dinner and conversation, he showed her the map on his wall that had been his reference for the voyage of Phileas Fogg, and, with a pencil, traced upon it her own itinerary as a comparison.

That's the map. Christopher found it and reproduced it. I kid you not.

He did need to whiten Verne's hair, since the picture he'd found was from an earlier time, but mox nix in the grand scheme of things.

Writers, write. Let the artist be the artist. Your work will be better and you'll both live longer.