Forever Altering Perceptions of Life – An Interview with Ryan North and Albert Monteys, creators of Slaughterhouse-Five, The Graphic Novel

Forever Altering Perceptions of Life – An Interview with Ryan North and Albert Monteys, creators of Slaughterhouse-Five, The Graphic Novel

From novel to film to audiobook and now graphic novel, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five continues to find ways to reach its audience.  This new adaptation by Ryan North and Albert Monteys reimagines Billy Pilgrim’s journey through the medium of comics, creating a reading experience that is still classic Vonnegut, but also equal parts North and Monteys.  Long-time Vonnegut fans should enjoy the visual representations of familiar characters like Kilgore Trout and Edgar Derby and new readers, especially those who might avoid traditional prose novels, will experience Vonnegut’s vision in a fresh and original way.

North and Monteys shared their thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.

What did you find appealing about adapting Slaughterhouse-Five into a graphic novel?  Were you both familiar with the novel prior to taking on this project?

Ryan North:  Absolutely, it’s one of my favorite books, which meant I was absolutely terrified of messing things up.  But on the other hand, I would never have dared to adapt it if I didn’t already love the book as much as I do, so I suppose those two issues cancelled each other out.  For me the fun was trying to come up with ways to make the text feel at home in this new medium – so that, if you had somehow never heard of Slaughterhouse-Five and read this graphic novel, you’d think “what an amazing graphic novel” and not “weird, that read like a prose novel, I wonder why?”.  For that reason both Albert and I took every chance we could to use the vocabulary of comics while adapting the book – one example early on is when Vonnegut lists everything that Weary is wearing.  In the prose novel that’s a paragraph of items, in the graphic novel it’s a paper doll of Weary with all his items and clothing drawn in a cut-out style.  It ended up being a really fun challenge.

Albert Monteys: Slaughterhouse-Five was not only one of my favorite Vonnegut books it was also one of my favorite novels, period. I was introduced to Vonnegut when a fellow cartoonist gave me Galapagos as a birthday present and during the next year I tracked and read all the Kurt Vonnegut books I was able to find. I was enamored with the prose to a point where I think he’s one of the biggest influences when I write my own stories. The humanity, the sadness, the humor all delivered in such a deceptively simple way, who wouldn’t want to write like that?

When BOOM! Studios approached me about the possibility of being the artist for this adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five my first reaction was “it can’t be done”. The book is so full of suggestion, it’s so evocative, so full of wonderful, weird moments told with the exact words they need… how to do it without betraying all that? Then I read Ryan’s script and he had found the way to do it, so I had to draw it!

Fans of the novel should really enjoy Billy’s Timeline.  How did you develop it?  The novel rarely identifies specific years, but you’ve mapped out Billy’s life from beginning to end.

Ryan North:  That was part of my research at the start: as I was writing the script, I needed to be able to say how old Billy was in every single scene, since he looks different at different stages in his life, and it would’ve been really unfair to just leave that all up to Albert to puzzle out.  And once I’d done a careful reading and gathered all those numbers and events – essentially restoring the story to linear sequence – I realized it’d be a good way to ease the reader into the book.  Vonnegut essentially does the same, telling you about the story and how it ends before you ever get to the story proper, and this was a neat visual way of accomplishing the same thing in a different medium.  It lets you as the reader get your bearings, know what Billy looks like throughout his life and what’s going to happen to him, and then we can really start having fun with the story.

Albert: How did you approach creating the images for the different characters?  Did you feel a need to stay close to Vonnegut’s descriptions?  Did you have a favorite character to draw?

Albert Monteys: Well, finding the right characters is always like casting for a movie, you draw and draw, looking for the right feel which sometimes can rely on very subtle things. I thought it was important to stay close to Vonnegut’s descriptions, but even that leaves you a lot of space to move. Ideally, characters in a comic should tell you important things about them just at first glance; that’s what I strived for. We worked with the Vonnegut family and the editors to get them right.

My favorite character to do was Kilgore Trout. I knew the character was very loosely based on science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (the word play is obvious and they were good friends) so I decided to base his looks on Sturgeon’s. Finally it ended up being a mixture of Sturgeon and Philip K. Dick and I liked him instantly!

Were you ever tempted to change or add anything to the story?

Ryan North: There are a few minor things we’ve changed: the biggest one was turning Trout from a failed novelist to a failed novelist who is now a failed cartoonist.  I liked how that made him seem to fall even further, and was a fun self-deprecating joke about our medium, but also let us then visualize all the amazing stories Trout wrote in Slaughterhouse-Five as these vintage comics, straight out of the golden age.  But there was never any thought of doing anything major to the story – it doesn’t need it.  And just like in the original novel, Vonnegut himself is still a character in the story (and Albert and I are not).

Albert Monteys: I think it wouldn’t be a very interesting book if we hadn’t left our fingerprints on it. I don’t see our book as “Illustrated Vonnegut” but as our take on Slaughterhouse-Five. So I don’t think we strived to keep the integrity of the book, but to keep the integrity of the meaning. We used different tools, and I love how the book starts telling you that this is not Slaughterhouse-Five, but the comic adaptation that Ryan and Albert did. I think that’s very much in the narrative spirit of Vonnegut. 

Slaughterhouse-Five is an enormously popular novel that is still in print and still sells thousands of copies each year.  What do you think a graphic novel can provide to readers that the original novel can’t?

Ryan North:  I think any adaptation gives the original a new life: a new way to see it, to hold it up in a different light and appreciate it all over again.  When I turned Shakespeare’s plays into choose-your-own-path books in To Be or Not To Be and Romeo and/or Juliet, I was worried that Shakespeare scholars would tear me apart for daring to desecrate the bard, but they were actually some of the most supportive people about the book!  They knew it wasn’t destroying the original text but rather bringing new attention to it, and I hope that’s the same here.

The great thing about graphic novels is how accessible and fun they are: a page of prose can sometimes feel like work to a reluctant reader, but comics are intrinsically fun – they feel like you’re getting away with something.  So I think that, combined with the new perspective the graphic novel offers, both makes it stand alone if it’s your first-time reading Vonnegut, but also pairs well with the original novel.  The kindest review we’ve gotten so far said that the graphic novel deserved a place beside the prose novel on your bookshelf, and I almost cried – that was what we were shooting for all along.

Albert Monteys: If you’ve already read the novel, the graphic novel can make you view in a different way. I know it happened to me, reading Ryan’s script, I was constantly discovering new connections and layers, because that’s how he felt about the book. Even if a reader disagrees with any of our decisions and takes on the material it’s still a great way to think and talk about a book that has a lot to offer.

Also, and I didn’t think about this until I started to do layouts on the book, Vonnegut’s take on time in this book, which is such a central theme and has so much meaning, works wonderfully well in comic format because comics are literally an unstuck in time medium, all frozen moments that you can walk through and recompose into a narrative.

What was the biggest challenge in adapting the novel into the graphic novel format?

Ryan North:  Comics is a more spare medium, and you can fit a lot more information into a page of text than you can in a page of comics. In some ways it’s almost like poetry, the way you have to distill conversations down to their purest, most condensed elements.  But that was helped a lot by Vonnegut himself: his prose is so direct, so sincere that it slips past your defenses and goes right into you, that when it came time to adapt it most of the work of condensing it down was already done.

But it was still a challenge to get everything to fit into this new form, knowing that as you adapt it, you’re creating something new, but adjacent, to what was there before.  The hardest part is, as always, making sure it’s good. 

Albert Monteys: I was very focused on trying to show graphically what I think is one of Vonnegut’s best features: telling a lot with few, simple words. So I tried to make the art readable, simple and human. Of course, the other challenge was that the book was impossible to adapt but luckily Ryan took most of that load.

For those unfamiliar with the creation of graphic novels, can you tell us about your collaboration?  

Ryan North:  Sure!  The way it worked is that I wrote a comic script, which basically describes what happens on the page in words.  Albert takes that and turns it into what’s called “pencils”, which are a sketched version of the page.  These are usually done quickly, just the barest hints of what’s going to be there, but Albert puts in a ton of detail, which was amazing!  Then we give some feedback (I barely ever had any, he’s that good) and then we go to “inks”, which is the final black-and-white line art, which then gets colored (Ricard Zaplana did an amazing job here), and finally lettered, when the words are added in.

Some writers and artists keep very strict rules between them but we’re a lot more informal, and Albert took my scripts as a starting point, not the final document.  He added in moments of grace that knocked me over, and which weren’t in my script.  The final result is a true collaboration!

Albert Monteys: There is not a single way to do a collaborative graphic novel and every case is different, I guess. I jumped on ship when Ryan’s script was already finished, and the script was so visual and rich I almost felt like cheating, because he was doing part of my job! He even provided me with a ton of reference, which the book is particularly heavy on.

In this case I did complete layouts of all the pages and showed them to Ryan and the editors, who sent them to the Vonnegut family and then sent me back notes and comments, not many I must say. The biggest part of doing a graphic novel is long, solitary work, hoping people will like it, get something from it.

Did George Roy Hill’s 1972 film adaptation have any influence on how you approached the material?  Have either of you seen the film? 

Ryan North:  I watched it at the very start of the project, but I can’t say it had much of an influence, besides underlining that it’s okay for adaptations to be their own thing.  “So it goes” shows up so many times in the prose novel (and in our graphic novel) but it never shows up in the film.  But it still feels like Slaughterhouse-Five, all the same.

Albert Monteys: I was tempted to see it when I started drawing the book, but I didn’t want another creator’s vision contaminating ours so I decided not to watch it until the book was finished. Still on my To Do list, I hope it’ll tell me something new about the book!

Why do you think Slaughterhouse-Five continues to move readers more than fifty years after its original publication? Why does it still matter in 2020? 

Ryan North: If we’d figured out how to all live on this planet without ending up at war with each other, I could see maybe beginning to have an argument that its lost some vitality, but it hasn’t.  When I first reread the book for this project, I saw things in it that I’d missed when I first read it in high school and the many times since then.  Like all great art, it keeps speaking to you – and saying new things – no matter where you are in your life.  It’s a truly beautiful book.

Albert Monteys: I think Slaughterhouse-Five is so much more than an anti-war novel (and we need anti-war novels).  I do believe it’s one of the works of fiction that better explains time, and memories, and loss and even fiction itself. It’s a rare gem that connects in such a powerful way with some readers it alters forever their perception of life. It did happen to me and I’ve been unstuck in time from then on. 

Ryan North is the writer responsible for Dinosaur Comics, the Eisner and Harvey Award-winning Adventure Time comics, the #1 bestselling anthology series Machine of Death and the New York Times bestselling and Eisner-award winning Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series for Marvel. He’s turned Shakespeare into NYT-bestselling choose-your-own-path books, and his book HOW TO INVENT EVERYTHING is nothing less than a complete cheat sheet for civilization. He’s currently working on adapting Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five into a graphic novel. He lives in Toronto, where he once messed up walking his dog so badly it made the news.

Albert Monteys writes and draws comics in Barcelona where he lives with his wife and two kids. He spent the first twenty years of his career working as a satirical cartoonist until he got fed up trying to do good caricatures of politicians. In 2014, he started his digital science-fiction series “UNIVERSE!” that is published at Panel Syndicate, along with many other amazing comics. In 2017, he was the artist for “Solid State” a graphic novel by Matt Fraction that adapted the songs of Jonathan Coulton. His current projects are more issues of “UNIVERSE!” and trying to remember what he did with his free time.

 

 

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