P. Craig Russell is no stranger to interpreting the work of writer Neil Gaiman. In addition to having worked with Gaiman directly, Russell has also adapted multiple prose works by the writer into comics. He wrote and illustrated adaptations of Coraline, Sandman: The Dream Hunters, and Murder Mysteries, and more recently he wrote and artist Scott Hampton illustrated Dark Horse‘s three-volume adaptation of American Gods.
For Dark Horse’s latest Gaiman adaptation, Norse Mythology, the multiple Eisner-winning Russell is back at the helm, and teamed with a murderer’s row of artistic talent. The first two issues alone of the 18-issue series features work by Russell, Mike Mignola, and Jerry Ordway. It’s an ambitious project, and The Beat was happy to have the opportunity to chat with Russell about how he came on to the project (they didn’t have to twist his arm), how he approaches translating prose for comics, and what he thinks makes Neil Gaiman’s work so adaptable.
Joe Grunenwald: How did you come to be involved with Norse Mythology?
P. Craig Russell: Very simply put, I was asked. I didn’t need to read the book to say yes but I did, if only to be prudent.
Grunenwald: What’s your approach to adapting a prose story? How free do you feel to take liberties or omit things from the original text?
Russell: I first tear all the pages out of the book, totally destroy it. Then I go to Kinkos, lay facing pages on the copier and print them out on 11×17’ paper. That gives me giant margins to make notes and draw tiny ‘thumbnail’ drawings as I work out the script. I underline most of the dialogue and make my first pass at fitting a chunk of prose into a page of art. After decades of doing this one gets a rough sense of what will work.
With Norse Mythology we have roughly one page of prose to two pages of art, a comfortable range. Also, on this book we are contractually bound by the publisher of the novel to use only a certain percentage of Neil’s original text. I’m taking this as a challenge to write as lean a script as possible, relying heavily on visual storytelling, of letting the pictures tell the story.
Grunenwald: Which of Gaiman’s stories in Norse Mythology is your personal favorite, and what about that story makes it so for you?
Russell: It’s hard to say at this point as I’m right in the middle of the script/layout phase. The one I’m working on at the time is my favorite.
Grunenwald: Obviously prose and comics are very different mediums with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Did any of the stories in Norse Mythology prove particularly difficult, if not outright impossible, to adapt as a comic?
Russell: “The Mead of Poets” was a particular challenge. The easiest thing in an adaptation is setting dialogue or action. It’s when an author is speaking abstractly about ideas or posing rhetorical questions of a moral or aesthetic bent that the artist/writer has to bring something to the page that is not in the original text. In other words, when there are no pictures in the prose.
With “Mead of Poets” Neil opens with a long paragraph on the nature of poetry and why it is that some people can write in ways that touch us profoundly and others can’t. The story that follows explains how that is and he returns to the question at the end. I had to find a visual narrative, a kind of story layered on top of the prose that brought it to life on the page, a new story within the story, one that doesn’t change the author’s intent but reveals it in a visual way. We’ll leave it to the reader to say if it works.
Grunenwald: You’re working with a stellar lineup of artists for this series. How were they selected for this project, and how closely are you collaborating with them on each story?
Russell: A lot of phone calls, private messages, and exchanging of artist’s website portfolios between editor Daniel Chabon and myself happened before we had all the players assigned their stories. That process played out over several months. Once I finish the script/layout/lettering design and letterer Galen Showman letters it all in on the page, it’s sent off to the finishing artist. I might then send jpeg notes on certain pages of the layouts to the artist to clarify the storytelling and also send some reference material but at that point it’s in the artist’s hands and we can only sit back in happy anticipation of the results.
Grunenwald: You’ve adapted Neil Gaiman’s prose work multiple times before. What is it about his work that you think lends itself to the translation from prose to comics?
Russell: I’ve worked with the original texts of quite a few authors, both living and dead. It helps if there’s a good story with a clear narrative line running through it. But what makes it interesting are all the various diversions, taking the scenic route as it were, along the way. I always try to include some of that for narrative spice. Neil’s stories have that in abundance and even with all the narrative paring down I need to do I always make sure some of that remains.
Published by Dark Horse Comics, Norse Mythology #1 is currently scheduled to go on sale on Wednesday, May 27th. The final day to preorder the debut issue of the series is currently Monday, May 4th.