How to Adapt Don Quixote into a Graphic Novel in Seven Easy Steps by Rob Davis

Forbidden Planet International have kindly let us crosspost this superb piece by Rob Davis on the process of adapting Don Quixote into graphic novel form. Enjoy!

Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”

The above quote comes from one of the true immortals of world literature, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; Spanish soldier, a galley slave, a poet and writer. A writer whose work has crossed over four centuries and numerous languages, a tale of madness and wonder and inspiration and despair, wrapped in sublime language and a character’s name which has passed into common parlance, used even by those who have never read the book. There have been many great books, but only a fraction of the literature ever published remains fresh and vibrant across the centuries, still read, still discovered by new readers, still admired, still loved; only a chosen few of the books ever written achieve this form of literary immortality – Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Dickens, and of course, Miguel de Cervantes are among that elect group that will probably be read for as long as people read tales.

Only a wonderfully dreaming madman like Quixote himself would set himself the task of bringing the work of such an author to new readers in a different medium. The brilliant Rob Davis is the errant knight who galloped forth to tilt at those literary windmills, in the finest and most splendid Quixotic fashion; perhaps that quote above is pertinent to Rob too, as only the finest sort of reader would dream of taking on this work and would most surely go at least a little mad in the process. But Quixote teaches us that a little of the right sort of madness is not always a bad thing.  As someone who has loved Don Quixote for most of my reading life I’ve been hugely impressed with how Rob has crafted his approach to Cervantes’ masterpiece, and I am utterly delighted that Rob agreed to be our latest Commentary guest, to take us through some of his approach to adapting Quixote. Over to Rob:

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What follows is my attempt at a simple process post. I’ll try not to get sidetracked. This is how to adapt a 1,000 page, 400-year-old Spanish classic into a comic in seven easy steps.

Step 1. The idea. Just because it’s an adaptation doesn’t mean you don’t need to bring something unique to the work. The first time I put pen on paper in relation to Don Quixote was when I graffitied on the title page of my old Wordsworth copy of the book with this doodle of the book with speech bubble.

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It was like a mental note of something I wanted to capture – the voice of the book! There are three main characters in Don Quixote: the Don himself, Sancho Panza and Cervantes. Getting Cervantes to live in the pages of my book, the way he does in the original, was the first challenge. I needed something more than just caption boxes for this. Eventually I settled on putting a cell window in the book and having Cervantes’ voice always calling out to us from inside.

The next idea was not so much unique as authentic; I decided to mimic the original publication of Don Quixote as two separate Volumes. The passage of time between the two volumes is an essential part of the story given that the heroes meet people who have read the first volume in the second.

The other two ideas I brought to the adaptation were about the dialogue and the drawing style. For the dialogue I wanted only Quixote himself to retain the oldy-worldy speech that trips up too many modern readers, everyone else’s dialogue got updated and sort of colloquialised. I hoped this would create the kind of relief effect between the batty knight and his contemporaries that would have been an obvious aspect of the book to 17th century readers.

Art wise I wanted to remove any polish from my work, I wanted it to feel as scrappy and unhinged Quixote’s rusty armour. I also wanted that kind of magic immediacy that you get in thumbnails.

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A suitably scrappy and unhinged drawing of some galloping horses

Step 2. Convince the publisher. To do this I drew up a few pages as a pitch (the above image is one of the additional sample drawings I did). I didn’t feel I’d quite pinned down the look of Quixote but would work on it as I went along. I never did pin him down, he’s still evolving. Maybe that’s because my comics gene comes more from Mick McMahon’s Judge Dredd which never stays the same and yet is always the definitive version. There are no definitive proportions to Quixote, but there are a number of signifiers which make him instantly recognisable throughout. This approach worked for me as comics reader and would have to work for me as a comic artist, I wasn’t about to start doing model sheets for consistency. I don’t think that would work for me.

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One of the earliest drawing of Quixote. I think I was more interested in the colour of the night than Quixote’s costume or features here

Anyway SelfMadeHero (my perfectly named publisher) said yes and I started work proper in May 2010.

Step 3. The schedule. Because I worked off the advance as a monthly wage I needed a very tight schedule. For both volumes I had a calendar with page numbers written on each day. Volume One took eight months to write and draw. Allowing for my other regular illustration jobs it worked out at roughly a page a day. That’s roughs, pencils, inks (in pencil), digital colour and lettering on each page before i went to bed every day. Volume Two got delayed through situations beyond my comprehension (though it wasn’t delayed as long as Cervantes’ second volume) and when I finally got to drawing it the schedule demanded closer to ten pages a week. This level of work engendered a state of madness through lack of sleep which occasionally reached a state of ‘burning the midnight oil’ euphoria.

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This is me hard at work on Quixote

Step 4. The script. Before I could start drawing it I needed to do adapt 500 pages of text into roughly 140 pages of comic script for each Volume. I spent a lot of time reading different versions of Quixote and making annotations all over the pages until I had a list of all the key incidents in the book in order and gave each scene a number of pages that I thought would suit it. I probably started with twice the number of pages I intended for each volume, so had to start compressing scenes and losing any incidents that I felt we could do without in a comic adaptation.

If you look at the plan sheets for Volume one you can see me giving over a large number of pages to the captive’s tale in the inn near the end of the book. That large section doesn’t appear at all in the final book for a couple of reasons. The pacing of my book was different and the constant pattern of characters telling a story and then ‘lo and behold’ they appear at the inn felt like a blockage in the flow of the narrative. It stretched credulity as well. However my main reason for wanting to include the captive’s tale was because it was Cervantes’ semi-autobiographical piece. It dawned on me after losing that section that I had made that aspect of Cervantes’ tale part of the very structure of my version by having him captive throughout in his cell. A happy accident.

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Defaced books, hopefully not destroying the original text

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Step 5. Roughs/thumbnails. (Above is a spread from my sketchbook and the final page from the book for comparison.) This part of the process changed a few times over the two volumes, however I settled on getting an A4 sketch book, printing out the whole script for the book and then pasting one page of the script into each spread of the sketch book. It created a boundary around the amount of space I had to resolve things and gave me a clear overview of what I was doing in the book even when I was focused on the minutiae of a Quixote’s eyebrow.

I’d scan these thumbnails from the sketchbook and drop them into a Quixote page template I have in Photoshop. I lettered the pages and fiddled with the compositions and drawing then printed out the results for inking.

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You can see how the sketchbook spread gives me room to get it wrong but forces me to get it right before I run out of space

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Step 6. Inks. Well, I say inks, I actually ink with a pencil. I work on a lightbox and try to draw at a pace in the search for some kind of unselfconscious fluid line. I used a sharpened pencil for most of it and my blunt pencil stubs for the blacks. The pencils are scanned and the levels are pushed together in photoshop and then turned into bitmap so they’re pure black and work as inks.

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The idea is for the pencils underneath to be no more than information and the line work on top to end up looking off the cuff. That’s the idea…

Step 7. Colour. I have an odd way of colouring. In photoshop I duplicate the black line then flatten that onto a coloured ground. The ground colour is what I imagine will be the darkest flat colour on the page, this is a temperature colour that will bleed through in places.

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Here’s a page where there’s a scene change so there are two different ground colours

I think this idea of colouring comes from my background in oil painting where you work from dark to light, the opposite of watercolour where you work from light to dark. In fact, I didn’t realise until recently how many artists use a fixed palette rather like a set of felt pens in Photoshop, I’ve always used the CMYK mixer for each colour. A good way to learn about colour in oils is to try to mix every colour you want from just red, blue and yellow with white to lighten, I guess I took the same approach to Photoshop.

A lot of my outside scenes are really silhouettes with that dark ground colour and others close to it filling the characters and landscape. This allows me to add the sky as a hot colour rather than a brightness colour and choose a complimentary colour for contrast. You’ll often see hot greens, yellows, oranges and pinks for the sky in Quixote. Because it’s supposed be Spain I think it looks real. Equally there are brown nights and purple nights as well as more traditional blue nights. To my eye this creates a greater sense of place and of light than a more literal ‘sky is blue’ approach.

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Muddy purple page, drop in loud yellow and the contrast is a powerful as black on white. Also you can see in panel 2 how the additional colours introduced to the foreground retain the silhouette by being more closely alined with that muddy purple

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Unusual mint green sky as the hot exterior creates silhouette of the hot interior

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An evening scene at the top of the page, for night times outside I used tonal contrast rather than hue contrast as there’s less light. You can see the ground colour here is Quixote’s blood and chocolate colour tunic, it runs through the veins to help us get the connection and contrast of the morning after the night before

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This is a scene where morning slowly dawns so there isn’t that contrast just a slow shift. Looking at this page again I think it might have some relation to the comic page which originally inspired my idea of what can be done with simple flat colours in comics. There’s a scene in the Tintin book The Black Island (page 41) where he walks down into the village as the day ends. It made me feel like I’d been there, or been somewhere that felt like that. I love that comic books can create their own places that you feel you’ve been to. Maybe that’s what motivates me… I’ll have to give that some more thought, I promised not to get too sidetracked

With the colour done all that was left to do was flatten the art and send off to SelfMadeHero. Book finished. Simple really.

FPI and SelfMadeHero would like to thank Rob for taking the time to share some insights into how he approached this monumental task; you can keep up with the latest from Rob on his blog and his Twitter. Don Quixote Volume I and Volume II are out now, published by SelfMadeHero and much recommended for your reading pleasure – they are also a splendid way to introduce new readers to Cervantes’ classic work.

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