The John Matthews interview

At the Kaleidoscopic Adaptations Festival in Wrexham last November, the creators of our forthcoming Le Morte D’Arthur graphic novel series were interviewed about the project. The following interview with John Matthews – the writer of Le Morte D’Arthur – was conducted by Terry Hands, Director of Clwyd Theatre Company. You can read an interview with the book’s artist here. Enjoy…

Can you tell us a little about yourselves and how you came to be working together on this adaptation?

JOHN: I’ve been a professional writer for the last 40 years and considered a world expert on everything Arthurian. I edited an edition of Le Morte D’Arthur in 2000 with illustrations by the fabulous artist Anna-Marie Ferguson (the first woman to illustrate Malory). In 2004 I was historical advisor to the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster ‘King Arthur’, from which I learned a lot about the visual side of things. Soon after I wrote my own graphic novel, based on the older Welsh stories of Arthur included in ‘The Mabinogion’. It was called ‘The Chronicles of Arthur’ and was illustrated by Mike Collins. It was done for a US publisher and aimed at kids between 9 and 12.  As I wrote I began to think – wouldn’t it be great to do a grown up version, based on my personal  favorite King Arthur book Le Mort D’Arthur. I approached SelfMadeHero with the idea and they went for it.  It was they who matched me up with Will Sweeney, whose work I already admired and its been a great time working with him, even though we have so far only met once in New York.

Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur clocks in at a whopping 600 pages. How did you go about cutting down the original source material, and have you deviated from in it in anyway to create your own take on the Arthurian legend?

JOHN: It wasn’t easy! The first thing I did was drop most of the Book of Tristan, which winds on for a lot of pages and isn’t the best bit of the book. Then I started looking at the shape of the text. Malory was a master of prose and narrative – though he occasionally got lost and brought characters back in after her had killed them off!  – but once you start looking at the main part of the book you can quickly see which side stories can be omitted or simply referred to in passing. Of course, we’ve only just got to the end of the first volume. There are four planed in all, and I’m  about to start on part 2. After that, we’ll see… But I was determined from the start to be as faithful as I could to the original. Of course I couldn’t use the original language – 15th century English is great but needs a lot of space and interpretation and still won’t get too many fans from 21st century readers! So I really have changed very little, and we also decided to go for a 15th century look (when the book was written) to armour and costumes.

There have been numerous interpretations (film: ‘Excalibur’, TV: ‘Merlin’, Theatre: ‘Spamalot’ and the RSC’s recent ‘Morte d’Arthur’) of the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which have created a kind of visual template of what the characters look like. How much did you feel the need to adhere to these visual stereotypes?

JOHN: I wanted to be as faithful to Malory as possible, so we went for a 14th/15th century, high medieval, look. But I was clear with Will from the start that if he had a vision of his own he should be free to include it – so the end result is imaginative. People who love ‘Excalibur’ in particular will recognize the world in which they are. I personally get annoyed when film makers especially mix everything up – Dark Age with Medieval, history with fantasy – but when you leave it out and try to be accurate as we did with ‘King Arthur’ people complain that there wasn’t enough Morgan le Fay or wizardly magic! At least the Mort has all of that!

How does the relationship between the adaptor and illustrator work?

JOHN: Well, I write the script and send it in batches of about 25 pages to Will. He draws roughs and sends them to me. I jump up and down with delight, send him a few thoughts (rarely, as he has an uncanny ability to read my mind). Then I get on with the next batch while he draws… We established a rhythm early and its worked pretty well so far. The most important thing – and real luck on my part – is that Will and I hit it off right from the start. We give each other plenty of room to breath and have really enjoyed working together.

If the graphic novel is a success are there any plans for a spin off series (e.g. King Arthur in Space?)

JOHN: As I said there will, hopefully, be 4 vols to complete the series. If they go well I hope to tackle the Tristan story – though that will need more work,  and possibly some of the many great tales of Arthur not included in Le Mort D’Arthur. As for King Arthur in Space – didn’t Disney do that already? There will be more, if my editor lets me….

Le Morte D’Arthur: The Coming of the King will be in shops from 14th March 2011. All our books are available from good independent comic and bookshops nationwide and if it isn’t stocked in your local stop, ask for it by name or it is available for pre-order from our online store here.

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