I had the great pleasure of illustrating a comic book style version of Beowulf for Heinemann Publishing, and was honored to have it included in the Society of Illustrators West, 52. I thought it would be informative to go over some of the process of making this story come to life - because it was a HUGE challenge! (Nothing like starting a comic book to bring you to your knees and humbly learn to walk all over again.) I have to give great credit to art directors Dianne Cassidy and Kathy Reynolds for giving me so much freedom on this amazing project.
I'll use the spread below to show how things evolved from initial brainstorms to finish. Here we find Beowulf diving into the lake that is the entrance to Grendel's lair, battling terrible monsters in his path. Watch out, Beowulf! Mother's behind you!
It all starts with the manuscript which needs to be broken down into panels on a page. I was given a completed manuscript and, in this particular case, was given freedom to develop the layout of the panels myself. I'd scribble and sketch right into the manuscript any characters and layout ideas that popped up. Here are a few examples from some different pages.
As you can see, these are SUPER rough, really sketchy thumbnails. At this point I'm brainstorming. I don't know what the characters look like yet, but I'm jotting down story ideas. If flow and layout seem to work on a small scale they should be able to translate to a larger size.
Character designs did need approval eventually so the main characters were all developed roughly around this time. Here are the main crew: Beowulf, King Hrothgar and his Queen, Grendel, and my favorite, Grendel's mom. Quick note here that after approving the designs the publishers requested Grendel and his Mother be clothed in some way since this was a book for the educational market.
Because the story takes place in ancient "Viking" times, this project took an enormous amount of research to get the correct feel for characters, time, and place. This includes clothes, armor, architecture and all cultural elements. I actually really LOVE the process of researching and gathering reference for these stories since it ends up being truly educational for me.
The crazy scribbly thing below is a thumbnail spread that has been enlarged and copy placed into it. Enlarging a thumbnail is a surefire way for you to start weeping in your hands. Believe it or not, these thumbs do have enough information for me to proceed to the next step. There's still a lot of tweaking involved at this stage. The layout on the right still felt confusing so it got developed some more before it got to the final stage.
After receiving some feedback and any other changes to layout/copy, it's on to final drawings. Somehow I have to translate all the scribbly gobbledy-gook of my thumbs into drawings that make sense. The thumbnail above got turned into the drawing below. I received another round of feedback on these final drawings to make some more adjustments here and there before moving on to final painting.
This is a good time to mention reference photos! I needed to take lots of reference shots in order to accurately draw forms. I can guarantee that any illustrator you know has more than a few embarrassing reference photos like these lying around.
While I awaited approval on final sketches I decided to solve color problems. It's much easier and faster to do this on a small scale so I used my early sketchy thumbnails for this process. All spreads were laid out and I keyed out the color scheme of the story from start to end. Similar to color scripting a film or animation, I wanted to use color to emphasize certain moods, major changes in story arcs, or place settings. It was at this point I discovered that having the page be a black background instead of white would enhance the dark mood of the story. I made this suggestion to the art directors and happily they went with it.
After some more back and forth with the art directors to fine-tune drawings with the layout and placement of text, it's off to final art! I figured out my color problems already so I used the color script I made as my guide. In this case, the art directors requested that each panel be painted as a separate image, not all together on one page, so they could make additional changes easily if needed. Here we have final art, painted digitally, pieced together into their final positions and awaiting copy.
And below are the printed pages. You'll see there was a small change made to one of the panels to help clarify for the young reader what is happening. There's always a bit of push and pull with these complex projects and small tweaks and changes can come through to the very end.
And that was my process for completing Beowulf from manuscript to the finished page. I hope this is helpful for some people to see. Illustrating a comic book is a very involved process with tons of work, but oh so rewarding!
If you'd like to see the full set of illustrations for Beowulf minus the copy, please click here. Thanks for reading!