Interview: P. Craig Russell
The passage of time sometimes seems like a dream when reflecting back, which is appropriate when you realize that it’s been 20 years since Neil Gaiman, along with a host of brilliant artists, first introduced the world to The Sandman and created a series that is considered required reading by many.
10 years ago, Gaiman released The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, as a prose novella and a standalone story that could be read without prior knowledge of the earlier volumes, with illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano. Final Fantasy fans may be familiar with Amano for his design contributions to the popular videogame series.
This Wednesday, DC is marking the 20th anniversary of Sandman with the first of four issues of the comic adaptation of The Dream Hunters by P. Craig Russell, an artist whose career spans over 30 years across various publishers and genres in the comic industry. The first issue of The Sandman: The Dream Hunters comic adaptation will feature a regular cover by Yuko Shimizu with a variant cover by Russell.
P. Craig Russell is also no stranger to collaboration with Neil Gaiman as a contributor to the original Sandman series. His most recent work was the graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline from Harper Collins, which is also due out as an animated feature in theaters next year.
I recently spoke with Russell about The Dream Hunters, Neil Gaiman’s confessions of originality, and the art of adaptation.
ComicMix: For those who may not have read the original prose story, what is The Dream Hunters about?
P. Craig Russell: It’s an original story told in the style of a Japanese fairy tale. It’s the story of a fox who falls in love with a young monk. She falls in love with him and his soul is stolen by a rich onmyōji, who is sort of like a wizard, and the fox then takes her revenge on the onmyōji.
If you haven’t read it, it’s a beautifully written story and I just found out for the first time in Neil’s notes that he just wrote for the first issue of Dream Hunters that the story he told in his afterword to the original book, was that this was based on an old Japanese fairy tale which, in fact, it wasn’t. He made it up entirely.
So he made up the whole thing, [Dream Hunters] which I think is even more impressive. I’ve been telling people for the past year, my friends when they ask, that I’m working on this Neil Gaiman story that’s an adaptation of an ancient Japanese fairy tale, when in fact, it’s a modern piece.
But just like Sandman #50 in capturing that tone and style of the Arabian Nights, he just has the perfect voice for this fairy tale. And it’s been terrific fun for me in visualizing every scene and designing all the characters, to be able to play with the visuals of Japanese art and the landscapes and the architecture. It’s just been a blast.
CMix: What is Neil Gaiman’s level of involvement in the adaptation process versus working on an original comic book story?
PCR: Well, two of our collaborations have been original scripts, Sandman #50 and the "Death and Venice" story in Endless Nights. I pretty much treat his original comic scripts the same as his prose when I’m adapting it except that with the original scripts, I don’t have to do any editing. Of course, every word he writes goes right onto the page. With an adaptation, you’re editing maybe two thirds of the prose out and so you’re really having to fashion a script, which I don’t have to do with his original scripts; he’s done that, all I have to do is tell the story visually.
For adaptations, I’m pretty much left to my own devices. When I finish the layouts and the script, I’ll usually send them myself to Neil and I’m trying to think; I don’t think he’s ever asked me to redo anything. I think about the only change he made was when he saw my Dream Hunters logo which was on the Previews catalog and on my website, and thought it looked too much like a Chinese restaurant menu. [chuckles] So, they changed it so when you see it, it’ll be different from what I did. That’s about the only visual change that I can think of.
CMix: And speaking of visuals, the preview artwork for The Dream Hunters evokes a very peaceful, tranquil feeling that I found quite refreshing. Is that something that you were striving for?
PCR: I think it comes just from the subject matter and the color palette. I’ve been working with Lovern Kindzierski for 17 years now and we always talk about the coloring and we both agreed that we wanted to see the look of the Japanese woodblock prints of the 17th to 19th century that are very colorful but are muted at the same time; they’re not highly saturated colors. I sent him a couple of prints that I liked, that had color schemes that we were talking about and he picked up on that. I think what he’s doing is absolutely lovely and they’re really happy at DC with Lovern’s coloring on this. So it fits the subject matter and I’ve always been influenced by animation and that style of drawing, of Disney animation, and I think that sort of fits into the story too.
CMix: How does the story that you’re adapting affect your creative decisions such as layouts and other elements in the adaptation process?
PCR: It’s funny you mention that because on this one, and it’s hard to describe verbally, but there’s a certain grid that I’m using that to me feels Japanese in that you have long, narrow horizontals and long, narrow verticals played against very large panels that has the feel or the layout of a traditional Japanese house.
I think it’s elegant and as far as you can get from a typical six panel page. I’m very carefully placing the pages, so that layout on one page relates to layout on the other. So I’m designing two pages at a time so that they work and have a flow between them.
CMix: One of your fansites described you as one of the most idiosyncratic artists working in comics. Do you think that’s an accurate label?
PCR: I’m not sure. I suppose so. I think I’m the only one that’s adapted the plays of Maurice Maeterlinck into comics [laughs]. I’ve been very lucky in finding publishers to do some pretty esoteric work.
CMix: People often talk about the challenges of adapting comics into other mediums such as films or television. What are some challenges in adapting other works from other mediums into the comic medium?
PCR: The biggest challenge, of course, is to make the story work visually. I’ve always said that no matter how faithful you are in adapting a piece and staying faithful to the original source, once you turn one form into the other, it has to work under the guidelines and aesthetics of that form. It has to work as a graphic novel, as a visual piece. The highest compliment I could get, and actually this happened; someone read Coraline and thought Neil [Gaiman] had written it as a graphic novel. If they get that feeling that it was written for this form then I’ve done my job.