Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series of novels, telling the story of a young boy who becomes a super-spy, are massively popular, and have sold over 12 million copies to date. Following on from the success of the novels, Antony Johnston has been adapting the books into a series of similarly-acclaimed graphic novels for Walker Books, working with artists Kanako Damerum and Yuzuru Takasaki to bring four of the books to life so far. Antony has long been a mainstay of the British comics community, with his other recent works including The Coldest City and Wasteland, his long running Oni Press series set in a future desert dystopia.
Antony is still working on Wasteland, with the next issue – issue #44 – scheduled to be released this week. He’s also been working in a variety of other mediums, including video games such as ZombieU. He’s been in charge of adapting the Alex Rider spy series for comics for the best part of a decade now, with the next book, Scorpia, due next year – drawn by Emma Vieceli! That name rings a bell. I spoke to Antony about what exactly adaptation is, and the difficulties and joys of taking a book and turning it into comics. And after reading this interview, I really recommend you have a look at this piece Antony wrote about his writing process – it’s fascinating!
Steve: You’ve been adapting the Alex Rider books into graphic novels since, I think, 2005? How did you first come to be involved with the series?
Antony: The first book was actually published in 2006, but it was 2005 when Emil Fortune, then an editor at Walker Books, approached me. Emil was pushing for them to get involved in graphic novels, and he knew I’d done some Alan Moore adaptations for Avatar, so had experience of the process.
I have a rule that I only adapt works I like, so I asked Emil to send me a couple of the novels to read. I then proceeded to burn through the first book in half a day, I enjoyed it so much!
Steve: Not only a writer for comics and graphic novels, you’ve also written novels, video games, and handled several adaptations of Alan Moore’s books. Do you think working on such a wide range of different writing has helped when adapting work between different mediums?
Antony: Maybe? I hadn’t considered that before. It’s probably more about knowing the strengths and unique advantages of each different medium, and you can get that just from reading a lot, watching a lot, playing a lot… I honestly don’t know, and it’s impossible for me to do it all over without that experience to say for sure.
Steve: Have you found that over time, you’ve been able to add more of your own elements to the books, to shore up the narrative? To what extent do you feel you can combine the original books with your own sensibilities as a writer?
Antony: Yes, but I’ve been doing that from the start. You have to, it’s part of writing an adaptation. There will always be things you need to explain, or have to convey to the reader, that simply aren’t in the original. Or there’ll be times where you have to move an emotion, or a piece of exposition, from one scene to another, and that necessitates changing elements of the scene.
I’ve been really lucky with the Alex Rider books, because Anthony Horowitz has done plenty of adaptation work himself. Some of his earliest work on TV was writing episodes of POIROT, for example. So he understand the process, and the decisions you have to make, in order to make an adaptation work in the new medium.
Alex is probably a little darker in the graphic novels, a little more of a tragic figure than in the books, and I guess that’s down to my natural sensibilities. But it’s never gratuitous, I always try to stay true to the spirit of the originals.
Steve: Comics have narrative captions, but they can never have the same level of character introspection as a novel, simply because a novel has so much more space to expand and explore first-person thought. How do you approach characterisation for the cast?
Antony: That’s where the visuals come in, and why it’s so important to have an artist who can make the characters “act”. No, you can’t get as deeply inside a person’s head, but on the other hand you can express an emotion with a single image, not a word needed. That’s a big part of it.
Aside from that, you just try to boil down the essentials, what’s at the heart of the character, and trust that your audience is smart enough to know there’s more bubbling under the surface — that there’s a subtext in the images which the words will never explicate.
Steve: You have a benefit of hindsight, in that there had been several Alex Rider novels already released by the time you started adapting. Does that change the way you approach writing the characters on a story by story basis?
Antony: A little, yeah, and maybe that’s why my Alex is a bit more tragic — because I know what’s coming to him in the future, and the trials he’ll have to face. I also try to ensure we lay foundations for future stories in certain places, little bits of foreshadowing here and there.
Steve: Does knowing ahead also allow you to more carefully structure each story as a piece in an overall storyline, rather than as an individual body of work?
Antony: It probably does, but it’s not something I think about. Anthony writes the novels in such a clean episodic format, so that structure comes through regardless.
Steve: Do you view the Alex Rider books as a single longform work or as a series of shorter stories (which is, well, what they physically are, I suppose!)
Antony: I think they’re both, like any good series of novels. You can read any book, even a later installment, by itself and still get into it. You’ll understand what’s at stake, the necessary background, everything you need to know to enjoy that book.
But if you read them all from the beginning, then of course you get a little more out of it, because you’ve actually experienced all that history and backstory.
Steve: Have there been times where you’ve wanted to use a scene but haven’t had the space or opportunity? Is compressing everything into the page count a particular challenge?
Antony: Oh god yes, that happens all the time. For example, there’s an entire chunk missing from the middle of POINT BLANC, where Alex goes and stays with a family at a country house, which I simply didn’t have the space for. And that’s hardly a unique case.
That’s what I mean about the decisions you have to make; I don’t make such cuts lightly, but when you simply don’t have the room — because a completely faithful version would run to about 1000 pages of comics! — then something has to go.
Cutting, and compressing, *is* the art of adaptation. A full-length novel won’t fit in any other medium, be it comics, film, TV, even radio. So you have to cut, and those decisions are what shape the new work.
Steve: It’s one thing to describe violence, but another to depict it visually. As a spy series, the books have quite a large body count – how do you handle this whilst still offering an all-ages story?
Antony: When I was growing up, there was a British TV series called ROBIN OF SHERWOOD, which practically everyone in my generation thinks of as the definitive Robin Hood series. That had a really high body count, too, but it was weekend prime time family viewing, the same kind of slot DOCTOR WHO is in now. You sometimes wondered how they got away with it.
Years later, they released DVD box sets of RoS, and one of the crew — I think it was a director, although it may have been a stunt co-ordinator — summed up their approach to fight scenes with the simple phrase “Action, not violence.” That really struck with me, and I’ve kept it in mind ever since when writing for younger readers.
Steve: How does the process of adapting a story differ from the process of writing something like Wasteland, your creator-owned Oni Press series? Do you have to have a tighter structure for the Alex Rider books, simply because the ending is already set in place?
Antony: On the one hand, the Alex Rider GNs are much tighter, because of course the story is already written. I don’t have the kind of freedom that I do on a book like WASTELAND, where I can decide to kill off a character, or introduce a new element, and nobody can tell me otherwise.
But on the other hand, not having to worry about the plot is quite liberating, because I can then direct all my attention to the storytelling craft; how I’m going to block a scene, the best visual to show an action, how to get some subtext into a character’s dialogue, and so on.
So the two kinds of book exercise very different parts of my writer’s brain, which is one of the reasons I enjoy doing them. It keeps me sharp.
Steve: The next Alex Rider will be drawn by Emma Vieceli, which is really exciting news. Are you in the process of writing it now?
Antony: SCORPIA, which will be Emma’s first book in the series, is already written — and while I didn’t know at the time Emma would be drawing it, it’s kind of fortuitous, because a good chunk of the book is set in Italy, where Emma’s family is from! So that worked out well. But I’ve already moved on; I’m working on the next book, ARK ANGEL, as we speak.
Steve: What else do you have coming up in 2013? Anything we should be particularly looking out for?
Antony: WASTELAND is still going strong, of course; and Justin Greenwood, who drew the “Under the God” arc last year, will return later in 2013 for the final Newbegin story arc, which is going to be very exciting. I’m about halfway through writing that arc now, and it’s genuinely world-changing for the series.
I’m also developing several new comic series for launch over the next year, including some print comics with Image, and a webcomic. They’re all in progress right now, and I’ll be more specific as we move through the year. I’m hoping to announce some of them at San Diego, but we’ll have to see how that works out.
And I’m working on a few videogames at the moment, all of which I think are due for release this year. Alas, I can’t talk about them even if I wanted to, I’m drowning in NDAs.
All will be revealed on www.antonyjohnston.com — that and my twitter (@antonyjohnston) are always the best way to keep up-to-date with what I’m working on.