23 May 2012

A Deeper Look into the J.R.R. Tolkien Biographical Comic Book

Photo: tflaw.com
Last week, the J.R.R. Tolkien biographical comic, J.R.R. Tolkien: the True Lord of the Rings, became available on e-book via Amazon.com – and though this was my first time using a Kindle (I’ll keep reading physical books until the day I die), it was well worth the purchase.

But if you’re like me and still hoping for a physical copy, you’ll have to wait until the May 30th release. Fortunately, that’s only a week away; but if you haven’t purchased the e-book version, or if you’ve already read it and want to know more about the making of the book, look no further. I had the pleasure of interviewing its authors, Brian McCarthy and Michael Lent.   

Tell me a little about yourselves.

BRIAN: Michael and I are both writers living in LA. We grew up in radically different places, New Hampshire then Massachusetts for Michael and Alaska for me.

Michael: In Mass. we thought we knew about cold until I talked things over with Brian. 5 below is child’s play when you’ve seen minus-60. 

BRIAN: Yeah, 5 below is called “springtime” where I’m from.

MICHAEL: I curse Brian’s trump card on that subject.

BRIAN: Yes, it has served me well. But we did share a passion for reading that later became a talent for writing. I think that both of us were pretty geeked out on Tolkien as kids -- as many preteen and teen boys are. I don't know how old I was when I saw the Hobbit, but I definitely saw the film before I read the book. The images of Smaug and John Houston's voice are tattooed on my brain. I started reading Lord of the Rings when I was about twelve or so and was entranced with the depth of detail.

What sparked your interest in reading – and eventually writing – graphic novels?

BRIAN: Growing up, the X-Men and Wolverine were the most popular titles around. I collected comic books and graphic novels for a time but then let them go. It wasn't until I became a full-time writer that I rediscovered the medium. As a screenwriter, you know that writing a film is only the beginning of a very long road that may never see fruition. Graphic novels give us a more direct line to the audience and a product that we can truly call our own.

MICHAEL: Oh, I came to reading in the usual way. When I was eight, I asked for drums for Christmas and instead, was given an acoustic guitar and six months of group lessons that I hated probably because it’s hard to rock out on Old MacDonald and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Every day from 5 to 6 pm was mandatory practice time in an empty room my house. I used to smuggle into my pants first The Hobbit, and then the Trilogy. Unfortunately, The Silmarillion was a bridge too far. That hard cover destroyed the waist band on my Underoos. I’d lay the odious guitar down on the floor and absently strum “frets” while disappearing into Middle Earth. At the end of six months I still couldn’t play a barnyard ditty and probably drove my music teacher to drink, but I knew every page of the Tolkien books backwards and forwards. “But he practices every day!” my parents lamented. To this day, I think there’s a court order still in effect in the state of New Hampshire forbidding me from being within 100 yards of any string instrument. If they had just given me a snare drum and high hat, none of this would have happened. 

BRIAN: This story explains a lot.

MICHAEL: Sadly, yes. As a kid, I knew I might be destined to be a writer when an upper grader gave me a broom stick wedgie and I came up with the perfect retort six years after the event took place. In between, I think I told myself I was “doing research.” Actually, I was one of those kids who gave a different answer every time an adult asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, although, oddly enough, none of those answers ever involved being chained to a desk with a laptop, pot of coffee and bag of Skittles, which is essentially the life I lead now. In college, I was on track to go to law school but that age old question of career continued to put me in existential crisis. Technically, I still haven’t grown up (ask my wife) so I think writing fits the bill in that it allows me to slip into the shoes of many other professions at least for a while.

Do you have any formal training [in writing]?

BRIAN: As far as writing goes, I started writing early (but not well) in junior high. Later on I got involved in drama and eventually earned two degrees in theater. Spending hundreds and hundreds of hours studying, analyzing and crafting plays whetted my appetite for writing again. I didn't want to be just an interpreter of someone else's work, I wanted to create my own. I don't think there is better training as a writer than studying and analyzing the works of the dramatic masters. Even if the plays are two hundred years old, the mechanics of storytelling are still the same. 

MICHAEL: Much to the astonishment of colleagues and editors, yes, I do have formal training as a writer. I have an MFA in screenwriting from the University of Miami and majored in English and History at Hamilton College. After migrating to Los Angeles, I got into transmedia which is just a fancy way of saying that I work on everything from movies to games to books to comics.

What made you decide to write about Tolkien, and why in the form of a graphic novel?

BRIAN: Academia runs in my family. My father was head of Alaskan libraries and worked for the University of Alaska in Fairbanks for 40 years. So Tolkien’s life as a scholar and fiction writer resonated with me.

MICHAEL: It seemed to us that although The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are ubiquitous in pop culture that younger readers might not know much about the man who created them. We wanted Tolkien to come alive.

BRIAN: I felt that Tolkien’s life was just as interesting as his body of work and that knowing about him would deepen the reader’s appreciation of what he created. Graphic bios are such an interesting medium. They’re finding their way into library collections, home school curriculum and with military people in the armed services stationed around the world. These books even end up in the hands of people who maybe aren’t naturally readers but who are drawn in by the art.

MICHAEL: I had written a graphic novel for Marvel called Prey and Brian and I had worked on a supernatural western series for Zenescope called Brimstone so we were already comfortable with the medium. I had written On Thin Ice for Hyperion which came out in 2010. That book chronicles the life of Hugh “The Polar Bear” Roland, one of the legendary Arctic ice road drivers made famous on the History Channel. I went to the North Pole for a month to research that project and literally froze my pens off. When the publisher at Bluewater asked us to pitch some potential biographies, we made a list of dream subjects.

BRIAN: We had been contracted to write four graphic biographies so we sat down and started brainstorming who we could write about. Tolkien was at the top of the list. As a writer, my favorite part of the process is creating the world and the intricate back stories. Tolkien was a master at that -- just look at The Simarillion -- so I really gravitated toward him.

How did you go about researching his life?

MICHAEL: Brian and I already knew a lot about the subject and came from a place of reverence so we didn’t have to start from zero. Fans of Middle Earth are a vibrant, knowledgeable community. It was important to us that we would be thorough. Last thing we wanted was to be at Comic-Con and have guys dressed as orcs giving us the stink eye.

BRIAN: I hate to say it, but first stop was Wikipedia. Not because the article is gold-standard but because it's so well sourced. It gave us a great jumping off point to do more research, far more research than we could possibly include in this volume.

What was the writing process like? How does it compare to some of the other projects you’ve worked on?

BRIAN: Remarkably quick, actually.

MICHAEL: But intense. Coming from a new media background, we’ve learned how to work intensely and quickly. With the Stephen King book we got to submit questions for Mr. King. I wish we had that opportunity for Tolkien.

BRIAN: Right. Graphic novel writing needs to be pretty lean so you have to decide early what the five to seven seminal points are in someone's life and construct a branching narrative from them. Some subjects, like Keith Richards, have done so many things that it's hard to pick and choose, but Tolkien's life was easier to dissect. You can see how deeply his writing was affected by being orphaned, being ostracized for his faith and World War I so it came together very quickly.

MICHAEL: The actual process was: first we researched the subject during a “reading period,” then sat down and discussed the most important aspects of Tolkien’s life to cover and how the pages and art might flow from there. Once we were satisfied with the direction of things, Brian took the lead on writing the book while I supported his efforts though he was off and running immediately.

BRIAN: This is a system that has served us well on other books where we research the subject together and “break” the story, then choose a lead and supporting writer.  When the draft is done, we sit down and edit here, expand there. It was three drafts before we turned in the book to the publisher who had very little in the way of comments because everything was there.

MICHAEL: The art was crucial, too, and getting the right artist isn’t a given. Sometimes we know who the artist will be going in and sometimes we don’t, but we always talk directly to him or her through the script. At the very least the publisher will see that a certain sensibility and skill set are in order.

BRIAN: Luis Chichon was the artist in this case. He did the penciling, coloring and lettering that gave the book a certain weight and pace in keeping with the subject. I think he was spot on.

MICHAEL:  The look of the book is very cohesive because Luis did everything. That’s not usually the case.

BRIAN: We’ve been very fortunate with our artists. Hyunsang Michael Cho drew and painted the cover. We worked with him on Brimstone so that was very comfortable, too.

Prior to this book, the two of you collaborated on the biographies of Stephen King and Keith Richards.

BRIAN: More legends who we admired and wanted to show the roots of their processes.  We also wrote the 7 book supernatural western series together  Brimstone that I just mentioned.

Right. Any future biographies coming up?

BRIAN: Just one more right now, the life and wisdom of Stephen Hawking. Michael took the lead on that book and did a truly remarkable job encapsulating some arcane and complicated concepts. If you ever wanted to know something about quantum mechanics, black holes or string theory but were too afraid to ask, buy the Hawking biography.

MICHAEL: That was a tough one but we’re pretty happy with the result.

BRIAN: It was very interesting to set sail with Stephen King, crash on the rocks of Keith Richards, find safe harbor with Tolkien and then blast off with Hawking. All of them started with dreams, persevered through adversity, managing to build epic lives and works.

Is there anything else either of you would like to add?

MICHAEL: I will always be grateful to Mr. JRR Tolkien for saving me from a life of playing Old MacDonald in coffee houses.

BRIAN: Amen to that. This subject meant a lot to us so we hope you enjoy the book!

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