Matt Phelan came to graphic novels through picture books. He’s written and drawn three previous books–The Storm in the Barn, Around the World, and Bluffton–and this month his fourth book, Snow White, comes out from Candlewick Press. This retelling of the classic fairy tale is set during the Great Depression, with Snow the daughter of the “King of Wall Street” who managed to survive the 1929 crash with his fortune intact, her stepmother a former Ziegfeld showgirl and “Queen of the Follies,” and the seven dwarves a group of street urchins who have banded together for their own safety.
Phelan painted the book in watercolors and draws on both period sources but also German expressionism, which was a popular film style form the period, to tell the story, which is told largely in silent panels. Phelan spoke about being influenced by silent films like M and Sunrise, and in those later silent films a new storytelling vocabulary had been established, and Phelan has drawn on that in a lot of his books, but especially this one, which uses as few words as possible, using the art to convey as much as possible. The result is a story that while very familiar manages to be both strange and haunting. It’s one of those rare stories that transforms New York City into something new and magical.
Phelan recently sat down with The Beat to speak about the book and his work.
Alex Dueben: Matt, most comics fan know you for work like Bluffton, Storm in the Barn, Around the World, and so retelling the story of Snow White sounds like a departure for you. Where did the book start?
Matt Phelan: Years ago I connected the apple peddlers of the Great Depression with the story of Snow White. I drew a picture of a busy New York street with one young woman stopped in her tracks in front of an old hag holding out an apple. From there I brainstormed other ways to bring the tale into that time and place. It started almost like a game or exercise, but I soon became intrigued with how that setting could change the story and give me the opportunity to maybe add something new.
Dueben: When retelling a fairy tale like this, what is the biggest challenge for you because everyone knows the story?
Phelan: Exactly. I think if you are going to add another version of a story that’s been told so many times (and well) over the years, you need to find something new. The real challenge was to not just make changes for the sake of changes, but to have those changes bring out aspects of the story in new ways. Making the seven dwarves into seven street boys is a good example. The contrast of their backgrounds and their relationship with Snow was the driving force of the book for me.
Dueben: You use color in the book very deliberately and you draw most of the book in very muted tones. Red is the only color that jumps out from the white and gray and brown. It’s beautiful but I couldn’t help but think at one point that you were trying to use watercolors in the exact opposite way you used them in your last book Bluffton where it was about summer and bright color.
Phelan: It was the complete opposite. Bluffton needed to look and feel like a sunny summer day. For Snow White it was all darkness and shadows. I was trying to replicate the soft murkiness of black and white films of the late twenties and early thirties. They’re not as crisp as the film noir of the forties. There’s a great visual atmosphere to movies like Fritz Lang’s M or Murnau’s Sunrise.
Dueben: I was reminded of how you used color in Storm in the Barn where the book is brown and muted but the mother’s memories of life before the dust bowl were rich with color.
Phelan: Storm had the same approach: limit the color and then when you do use it, the color has more weight and power. It’s using color as a tool, rather than just thinking “I wonder what color to make this character’s shirt”.
Dueben: I have to ask, what is the trick to using watercolors in muted tones like this without ever making them look muddy?
Phelan: It all comes down to thinking about the values of darkness and light, where to put them and how to modulate them. It’s really the key to all drawing and painting.
Dueben: You mentioned Sunrise and M, and clearly you were thinking about expressionism. Were there other sources you were looking at in terms of thinking about how to depict the city and the period?
Phelan: I looked more at the Ashcan School artists like John Sloan and even Hopper. I also poured over the amazing skyscraper drawings of Hugh Ferris in his book The Metropolis of Tomorrow. Walker Evans’ subway photos were an inspiration, as well as those films of the early 1930s. The first ten minutes of the original King Kong have a great atmosphere to them, all the New York Depression scenes with Fay Wray stealing the apple (apples again).
Dueben: You’ve made a number of graphic novels and picture books and I’m curious what needs explaining and what doesn’t when you’re making a period piece aimed at kids. For example when you or I see a period film and a character coughs blood into a handkerchief, we know that means they have consumption and are most likely going to die soon. How do younger readers read cues like that? How much do you find needs to be explained or doesn’t?
Phelan: This is a great question and it made me try to think back to when I first “learned” that coughing blood into a handkerchief meant consumption/imminent death. I have no idea when I learned that. It’s definitely storytelling shorthand. Maybe my book will be the first time some kids encounter it. But I’m sure when they see the coughing, the blood on the hanky, the little girl looking at the blood drops on the snow then saying “Mama?”, they’ll get it.
I’ve always had immense faith in the intelligence of young readers and especially in their ability to read and understand visual cues. I rarely explain things outright in my books, actually. I’d rather have something in the story make sense on its own, then hopefully inspire the reader to explore further. I’m always happy to learn that my books led someone to find out more about Nellie Bly, Buster Keaton, or the Dust Bowl.
Dueben: Just to talk about some of the choices you made, you made the evil stepmother a Ziegfeld showgirl, which is a fabulous period detail.
Phelan: I thought immediately of making the stepmother the Queen of Broadway, and in particular the Queen of the Follies, which were so extraordinarily over-the-top in design and execution. Crazy, wonderful spectacles of grandeur. The father then became the King of Wall Street who manages to survive the crash (it’s hinted that the Queen had something to do with that). The seven dwarves became seven orphan boys who live in the shadows and the alleys, keeping to themselves and trusting no one. The Disney version famously gave them all names. In my version, their names are their most guarded secret. Anonymity is protection.
Dueben: How did you come up with the magic mirror being a ticker tape machine? Which is one of my favorite touches of the book, by the way. Though I’m sure some kids–and plenty of adults–will see it and go, what is that?
Phelan: The ticker tape machine in Snow White is a good example of not explaining something. I didn’t think any kid would know what that is (as well as some adults) but I think it’s established enough first as a machine that provides stock market reports then things get a little strange. I can’t imagine stopping the action for some character to talk about what a ticker tape machine is.
Replacing the magic mirror with the ticker tape is probably the biggest departure from Grimm. It really came out of thinking about and questioning the queen’s motivation. As an aging star, I figured that in her whole career she would have been surrounded by fresh young starlets. That isn’t a threat, it’s the natural order of show business. And since I didn’t want Snow to be some sort of upcoming star, the whole Fairest in the Land angle started to lose power. The Queen married Snow’s father for his wealth and position. She needed that security. Finding out that Snow’s father has secretly changed the will and left everything to Snow is the real threat. The ticker tape machine became the perfect vehicle. It delivers coded information that is essential to the keeping of wealth. It tells your fortune in more ways than one.
Dueben: I do want to cite the one thing that always jumps out at me in your books and that’s how key silence is to what you do. You have dialogue but it really feels secondary for you in terms of telling the story and conveying character.
Phelan: I love letting the drawings tell the story, expressing the character’s feelings through gesture and posture rather than words. For me, silent sequences can create a rhythm and mood for the reader that feels almost dream-like. Too much dialogue can throw that off. I think I’ve pushed this farther in Snow White than my other books. It really is the result of both my love of old movies (silent and sound) and my work in picture books for very young readers, where the illustrations create the “world” of the book.
Dueben: Are you doing any events coming up?
Phelan: I’m doing a few book festivals this fall like the Warwick Children’s Book Festival, Rochester Book Festival, and the Miami International Book Fair in November. I’m hoping to get back to San Diego next summer, too.