This past summer artist Kevin Madison undertook live blog illustrating the first two books of Chadwick Ginther's Thunder Road Trilogy. Here's our interview with him about this amazing project.
An Interview with Kevin Madison
How long have you been illustrating?
I have been drawing comics and comic strips for about as long as I can remember. My parents introduced me to comic books at an early age and I used to look forward to reading the coloured Sunday comics from the Winnipeg Free Press on my way to church with my Mom (my father still saves the Sunday funnies for me to read when I visit).
When my parents noticed that I was copying the drawings I saw in those comics, they started getting me books on drawing comics and the history of comics as birthday and Christmas presents, along with the materials that pros used to create comics (I was the only kid I knew who had a T-square at age 12).
I continued to enjoy drawing throughout my post-secondary studies and had a number of comic strips in various student papers, but it remained an idle hobby until late 2012, when I made the decision to move in a more professional direction.
Do you have a preferred medium?
For years I worked with the traditional materials used by comic artists (pencils, pens, and bristol board) to draw my comics. Once I gained access to a scanner and Photoshop, I began scanning the inked pages into Photoshop for colouring and lettering.
However, in January, 2013, when I started my first Year of Drawing project (whereby I draw for a minimum of one hour a day and share the results of my daily efforts in my Tumblr blog), I switched to an all-digital workflow, using a Samsung Note 10.1 tablet and a Photoshop-compatible third party program called LayerPaint that functions as a kind of “stripped-down” Photoshop.
From day one of working in a digital environment, I immediately fell in love, and, earlier this year, I upgraded to a Wacom Cintiq Companion (Windows model), which allows me to do all my drawing in full Photoshop, and I continue to use an all-digital workflow for my illustration.
More than anything, I love the degree of fine control offered by the digital environment. I can zoom in or out on my work area to do detailed work. I can cut, copy, and paste parts of a drawing to preserve consistency, all with surgical precision. I can use digital versions of traditional tools like pencils, pens, brushes, or charcoal, and manipulate them through the use of layers, opacity levels, and other digital tricks, to achieve some results that I would be unable to replicate using traditional materials.
I also love the ease with which I can add or remove elements to my work. This allows me to go from a concept sketch to a finished piece all on the same “page” by simply hiding what I no longer need. This allows me to take bigger risks with my art without worrying about ruining the overall piece (“I wonder how this might look with blue shading? Oh…it looks terrible, so let’s hit Ctrl ‘Z’ and we will pretend like that never happened”).
An added joy of working in an all-digital environment is that, so long as I have my Companion or Tablet with me, I have access to my full studio. I bring my Companion with me almost everywhere I go, so all I really need is a chair and some free time to continue working on a piece. This makes it a lot easier to steal the time I need to get my hour of drawing done on my busier days.
Finally, for the kind of illustration I do, I feel like I can get a more complete and professional finish to my work in the digital environment than I could if I was working with traditional materials. In particular, I find it is much easier to do lettering in strips using a computer than if I was to do it by hand (I have terrible, terrible handwriting).
Why did you undertake your live blogging project of the Thunder Road Trilogy?
I have been friends with Chad for years and, after Thunder Road was first published, I drew him a little single-panel gag strip as a congratulations.
When Chad started attending comic conventions to promote the Thunder Road Trilogy, he asked if he could print copies of that strip to give away as promotional material. Those were, apparently, quite popular, and Chad asked if I would be interested in doing more Thunder Road-related pieces for him to use at future events.
Since I don’t view myself as a commercial artist (I am a lawyer by day and a cartoonist by night) and because I had been responding to Chad’s work strictly for my own enjoyment and satisfaction, I was hesitant to agree to commissioned work. However, after thinking it over, I proposed to do a kind of “live blogging” of his books as part of my ongoing Year of Drawing exercise.
I suggested that I would read some of Thunder Road or Tombstone Blues each day and then base my hour of drawing on what I had read. I figured that, this way, I would find the time I needed to read the books and then produce drawings that he could later use for further promotion of the Thunder Road Trilogy.
What did you hope to gain artistically from it?
To be honest, since I had not done a live blogging before, I did not give any thought as to what I might get out of the experience; I just figured that this would be a way to find the time I needed to do these pieces for Chad. I have never worked with anyone else on my comic-related work, I enjoy writing comics as much as I enjoy drawing them, and, with the limited time I have to work on drawing, I normally prefer to work on my own creations.
To my delight, I have since discovered that there is a particular joy to be found in bringing someone else’s words to life in the comic format.
When I originally dreamed up this project, I had planned to do a series of “in the wings” comic strips, done in the style of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where the action takes place between the lines, as it were, of Thunder Road and Tombstone Blues.
However, once I started reading the books, I found so much material that I wanted to draw, both in terms of characters and scenes, that those initial plans got shelved (although I have a gag strip featuring the dvergar that I may still do…).
In terms of selecting the characters, I wanted to try and do, at the least, a sketch of each of the supernatural characters that had speaking roles in the book (so, Ted, Tilda, the dvergar, the Norns, Surtur, Jorry, the giants, Jack Flash, and, most importantly, Loki).
As for scenes, I tried to find scenes that were particularly evocative of the Norse-influence, wainscot fantasy setting, but did not contain plot-related spoilers (though I kind of broke that rule with my piece featuring the Einherjar).
Please tell us about the process once you’ve selected a scene or character you’d like to interpret and, for scenes that you have translated, can you tell us how that works?
In Thunder Road and Tombstone Blues, Chad writes in a particularly evocative style, which gives the reader plenty of cues as to how the characters and settings should look. Those rich character descriptions have provided an interesting challenge for me.
When I am working on my own material, the only person I need to satisfy with my character designs is myself. However, in the case of the Thunder Road Trilogy, it is clear from Chad’s detailed and moody descriptions of his characters that he has a vision of them fixed in his mind. It is a deeply satisfying challenge to try and capture that vision in a comic format (a challenge I have not always lived up to, mind you … my first Thor piece has the wrong hair colour).
I will leave it to Chad to decide whether I have succeeded in capturing the likenesses of the characters I have drawn so far, but, speaking only for myself, it is proving to be great fun to work from someone else’s plans.
As for the scenes, I have had a blast trying to adapt scenes from the novels into the comic format, particularly the dialogue-heavy and action-heavy scenes.
The placement of word balloons and captions in the comic format is how a cartoonist controls the delivery of the “lines” for his characters. This affords the artist some degree of pacing as to how those lines are delivered, and it is achieved by breaking that dialogue up into different text balloons that direct the flow of the eye across the page and, therefore, the reader, through the story.
Similarly, a comic artist controls the pacing of a scene in his or her work by separating the action into different panels and pages, which, likewise, affects the flow of the story.
Since there are no panel breakdowns or other descriptions in novels to suggest how a comic panel should be framed, how a particular sequence should be broken down across pages, or how dialogue should be split between text balloons, it gives a cartoonist translating that material an enormous amount of creative input when he or she translates that into sequential art (a highfalutin word for comics).
As such, when I am translating a scene from Thunder Road or Tombstone Blues into the comic format, it gives me an opportunity to flex my cartooning muscles and to add my own flourish to how that scene reads (and what artist does not enjoy adding a personal element to their work, even when it is based on someone else’s?).
For instance, for the strip I did of Ted, set shortly after he receives his “gifts” from the dvergar, I wanted to capture the feeling of bewildered frustration and isolation that he was feeling after his initial brush with the Nine Worlds, but also convey Ted’s stubborn, blue-collar resilience.
I decided that the way to translate that scene (where he first begins to speak to Huginn and Muninn) was to contrast the otherworldly questions of the ravens with a lonely three-quarters shot of Ted’s back set against a storm-filled sky, for the first panel, and a tight shot of his profile, where he is futilely trying to light a cigarette in the face of the wind and rain, for the second.
What is your favourite illustration you’ve done from the Thunder Road Trilogy so far and why?
My favourite illustration is usually the one I am working on at present and I am currently working on a piece inspired by Tombstone Blues that features Thor alongside a horde of the risen dead, so it is a hard act to top in my mind (though that’ll likely change once I start working on the next piece).
However, of the pieces I have completed to date, I think my favourite is the Einherjar piece I mentioned earlier. I will try to refrain from spoilers here, but the scene from Thunder Road where the Honoured Dead appear is one of the most inspired scenes of the book. I love the concept of the mythological Einherjar, and Chad’s choice of using WWI veterans as the Honoured Dead summoned by Ted is a genius bit of subversive dichotomy.
In myth, the Einherjar were dead warriors who were celebrated by their ancestors as brave men who died in glorious battle. In Thunder Road, they are the doomed souls of young men who died in a brutal and inglorious war; a war synonymous with disillusionment that spawned a whole Lost Generation; a war whose veterans are all dead and whose details have largely been forgotten or overshadowed by subsequent wars.
Setting aside that stark contrast between the myth and the “reality,” I found the image of a quintet of undead WWI soldiers, with their goofy dishpan helmets, antiquated uniforms, and skeletal visages, to be a striking visual that I knew I had to draw.
In the course of drawing this piece, I was fortunate to have the assistance of a fellow Calgary artist who had extensive knowledge of military uniforms, which enabled me to get the uniforms and rifles in the drawing as accurate as I wanted them to be (I made some changes to the designs for stylistic reasons).
Overall, I like this piece best because it was a ton of fun to draw and I feel that it is a pretty accurate adaptation of the scene from the novel (though, again, I will leave it to Chad to decide whether I have succeeded or not).
Right now books one and two of the Thunder Road Trilogy are out. The third book, Too Far Gone, is due out in 2015. Will you do a live blog read for the third book in the trilogy as well?
I have actually discussed this with Chad recently, and I will be doing a follow-up live blogging when the third book of the Thunder Road Trilogy comes out.
In addition, I will be doing the same for two short stories set in theThunder Road world that Chad has published (the first is “New Year’s Eve,” which appeared in January 2014 on Ravenstone’s Raven’s Roost, and the other, “Runt of the Litter” is from the Spring 2014 issue of On Spec).
Will you be making any of the images from this project available for fans to purchase?
Absolutely! Once my live blogging of Thunder Road is completed, Chad and I will be posting information about this on our respective blogs (http://chadwickginther.com/ and http://kevinbmadison.tumblr.com/)
Do you think you will undertake other live blog reads of other books in the future?
That depends on whether I can convince Chad to write a follow-up to the Thunder Road Trilogy. Ba dum bum.
But seriously, I am actually having a lot of fun with this process. I feel like I am engaging the material I am reading differently than I normally would, by paying closer attention to the visuals. I also enjoy the challenge of being forced to draw things that I would not think to draw myself, like the aforementioned undead WWI veterans.
As for doing other live bloggings, I have had a friend suggest I try working my way through the works of H.G. Well next. I am not sure that I want to draw that many tripods and submarines, but I imagine I will find something else to try next, because this has been too fun of a run to not do it again.
Kevin B. Madison is an artist from the windswept plains of Winnipeg, Manitoba, who lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, where he engages in questionable activities like cartooning, camping, and the practice of law. His cartoons and comics have been seen in several university newspapers and legal industry trade publications, and he maintains a blog to chronicle his Year of Drawing exercise at http://kevinbmadison.tumblr.com/. He loves the mountains, dogs, and any opportunity to talk about the film, Tremors.