Yet adapting all that perfect prose to a few hundred illustrated pages wasn’t unlike the art of carving a pumpkin: The aim is to illuminate the work even as you put your own face on it — an order that requires a surgeon’s precision in knowing what must be cut.
“It’s like working with a surgical knife,” Russell tells Comic Riffs. “The challenge is to take it apart — literally sentence by sentence — and to cut half or more of it out.”
Did we mention that “Graveyard” — the full YA prose work — is beloved as is, and remains the only book to win both the Newbery and Carnegie medals? In trimming Gaiman’s deliciously meaty passages, you’re not exactly working with chopped liver, let alone sliced pumpkin.
“You don’t want the reader to have a sense of missing anything,” says Russell, who has teamed with Gaiman before to great effect over two decades, on such graphic works as the sublime “Coraline” and “Sandman: The Dream Hunters.”
“You can’t put in blocks of pure prose, [but] you can cut out places where it’s a description,” Russell (“Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde”) tells Comic Riffs of his process. “I tell the artists: ‘Read the story and get to those parts.” The mission is: Show what you can instead, through the power of the picture.
“You can even have things going on in this picture that aren’t in the story already,” Russell says by phone from his home state of Ohio. “When I did murder mysteries, it was almost like a silent movie. You can have a little girl on a swing, back-shadowing what happens, and that’s not really in the text.
“You get so familiar with that text, going over and over it, that you put your own sensibility and interpretation on it, without subverting the original text,” continues Russell, who notes that he and Gaiman have collaborated so often, Neil soon leaves him to his own devices. “You try to bring something to the visualization of it.”
The prose “Graveyard Book” opens with a grisly murder mystery of its own, as a boy’s parents are slain in their home — but the very young boy toddles off to a graveyard, where he is adopted by its dwellers of the afterlife (who name him Bod, as in “nobody”). In Russell’s adaptation, the mood is set immediately by the darkly noir, black-blue setting, and the point of a blade shocks with red menace — an artistic touch wielded with its own surgical precision.
The graphic goal, Russell says, is “to sharpen these scenes.”
“The most fun part of the whole thing,” Russell adds with emphasis, “is to come up with the visual structure.”
Another stunning Gaiman work is his new “reimagining” of the Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel & Gretel” (TOON Books), with the Eisner-winning Lorenzo Mattotti (“Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”) providing the haunting illustrations.
Part of what makes this spin on the classic of attempted gingerbread-spun homicide so engaging is Gaiman’s signature crisp description, as the physical becomes strikingly tangible, right down to the rusty bars of a cage. And here, the “old woman” can’t help but remind of “Coraline,” with the dark side of a maternal baker turned lethal — the homespun spun into the darkest of homes.
Also, wisely, the authors let their work live on separate pages. The reader can concentrate of Gaiman’s prose, then turn the page and be overwhelmed by the pitch-black brushstrokes of Mattotti’s chilling silhouettes.
Of course, all of Halloween weekend is primed for reading tales of horror and mystery. Here are Eight More Dark and Spooky Picks (of recent vintage) from Comic Riffs:
1. “Desmond Puckett and the Mountain Full of Monsters” (Andrews McMeel): If that boy of silent horrors, the title character in the syndicated strip “Lio,” were in sixth grade and could talk, he might well be another Mark Tatulli creation: Desmond Puckett, who returns here for more (junior-)high jinks during a class trip. This hybrid YA “graphic prose novel” should engage readers who like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” or “Big Nate” books.
2. “The Man Who Laughs” (Abrams): Who’s creepier than Batman’s the Joker? Perhaps the tragic character who inspired the Joker. Writer David Hine and artist Mark Stafford adapt Victor Hugo’s 1869 work “The Man Who Laughs,” a satire of the early 18th-century British judicial system. It’ll make you smile, but darkly.
3. “Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire” (DC/Vertigo): Scottish crime author Denise Mina (“Hellblazer”) is a masterful fit to adapt Salander’s world.
4. “Black Hand Comics” (Image): From gravediggers who deal in the undead to a propulsive tale of a man fleeing a cult, Wes Craig’s collected graphic stories are like a circus ride of jangled nerves and shadowy fears.
5. “Afterlife With Archie” (Archie Comics): There’s a reason why the undead Archie has been such a hit; the dark pathos is expertly ratcheted up. I particularly relished Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s “Escape From Riverdale: Exodus (Chapter 5),” with glorious, Halloween-tinted art by Francesco Francavilla.
6. “Chew (The Omnivore Edition, Vol. 4),” (Image): “Cibopathic”! “Cibovoyant”! And cannibalism! The meaty fun gets delicious twists in the “Bad Apples” and “Family Recipes” stories about agent Tony Chu — as writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory keep up their Eisner-winning quality.
7. “Frankenweenie” (Disney): Tim Burton’s charming film of a boy and his dead (reanimated) dog is made highly accessible to young readers in this 2014 graphic novel adaptation, while retaining its ghoulish mood.
8. “The Walking Dead: All Out War (Artist Proof Edition),” (Image): What’s more raw than zombie-gnawed flesh? Perhaps the beautiful pencils of Charlie Adlard, who lets you soak up his seductive crosshatching and crunchy anatomy as he brings Robert Kirkman’s walking dead to graphite-gray life.