The Will Sweeney 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 Will Sweeney – the illustrator of Le Morte D’Arthur – was conducted by Terry Hands, Director of Clwyd Theatre Company. Tomorrow we’ll have an interview with the series’ author, John Matthews. Enjoy…

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

WILL:  I grew up in Massachusetts in the U.S.  My  favorite artists included the guys who drew for Marvel comics, the Illustrators  of book covers and imaginative realistic painters (John Buscema, NC Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Frank Frazetta). They were the artists who made my imagination come to life.

I’ve been an artist for animation since 1995.  Mainly, I’ve drawn storyboards for a variety of animated television shows, mostly action adventure stuff. I’ve worked on shows like Spawn, Jackie Chan Adventures, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, most recently The Secret Saturdays and Scooby Doo.  I’ve worked for studios like Warner Bros., Cartoon Network, Sony and more.

After 15 years, I wanted to shake things up a bit and  create the finished art as opposed to the rough drawings and tell a longer more complex story.  On the side, I did some comics pages for an author who had written story that took place in Rome, 9A.D.  He was keen on the historical accuracy of the soldier’s gear.  Emma Hayley from SelfMadeHero saw some of that art and showed John Matthews. John and Emma really liked my style and so Emma approached me about illustrating John’s adaptation of Le Morte D’Arthur. My first thought was, hell yeah. I googled them both.  I found out SelfMadeHero had adapted one of my favorite books, The Master and the Margarita, as a graphic novel. I decided that only a company that loves the art form as much as I do would do that.  When I found out more about John, that he wrote Arthur of Albion and a plethora of other Arthur related books, my second thought was ‘holy !@#$ this is gonna be great!’

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?

WILL:  I took John’s translation of the original Malory book out of the local library and wondered the same thing.  The book is three inches thick! So many characters. So many little stories. And after speaking to John and understanding his desire to be faithful to Malory’s intent I had difficulty seeing the forest for the trees.  Then I got it,  the unique aspect of the book is that it‘s an adaptation striving to be faithful to the work of the original author. It’s not a story that is paying homage to one piece or an aspect of it. Then John’s pages started to arrive in these vinettes with a common thread. I noticed every five pages or so an iconic moment in the Arthur myth would occur.  Uther’s son, Arthur, is born and pulls the sword from the stone by page 18. It took Disney an hour and a half to do that. Then I understood how John was going to pull the translation off in a pleasing and new way – one of my rules in comics is to have something change in the plot every five pages.  As the artist, I looked at it from the perspective of  someone who was directing a giant war movie with a huge all star cast.  One, because there are many battles and two, because there a lots of distinct characters that change circumstances throughout the story, each with his own important story.  My challenge is to keep it simple – focus on the story and keep each character as a unique individual.

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 needed to adhere to these visual stereotypes?

WILL:   I selfishly ignore, even shun, classic stereotypes and cartoon conventions.  As long as the designs suit Malory’s description of the character I feel free to get away with my personal take on them.  There’s a big cast in this book.  I like fresh characters and designs that are a bit understated unless it serves the story.

For example, Arthur is a handsome warrior king. As a character designer, I avoid classic goodlooking hero schtick – it feels phoned-in –  and play up his common man qualities. The same goes for Merlin, I’ve designed him as a virile man in his late 30s.  I hope my female characters are attractive but aren’t classic beauties either.

John is very specific about the time period of the props, backgrounds and costumes, 1400-1500.  We agreed that the movie, ‘Excalibur’ was a good launching point for design reference.  I added the movies ‘The Messenger’ and ‘Beckett’  to that list and  scoured the internet and the library for the rest of the reference.  I use armour and weapon designs from all over Europe.

John’s had me change drawings for more accuracy  i.e. removing carpets from floors and replacing them with  straw and removing big windows and peaked roofs from castle exteriors.  For magical creatures the gloves are off though and I strive to present them in an orignal unique way.  I show the questing beast swimming under water because its never been done before.

How does the relationship between the adaptor and illustrator work?

The best collaborators let me know why they chose to work with me, stay confident with the choice they made and allow me to tell their story.  John does that.  I appreciate it. We also have an editor that keeps us honest. I try to approach each story as if it was the first script I ever read. I’m an actor/director wannabee, I try to sell the writers idea, acting out each bit in a fresh way that appeals to my taste and sticks to the required number of pages.  I like this kind of story to be told in a gritty scary weird way.  It’s a lot of work that happens fast

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

The plan is to create the story in four volumes of 140 pages each. I hope to see it bound in one book that’s as fat as the original un-illustrated version I took out of the library last December.

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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