Interview: September 13, 2016
SNOW WHITE: A GRAPHIC NOVEL --- written and illustrated by award-winning author Matt Phelan --- is a retelling of the classic fairytale like you've never seen before. Set in New York in the 1930s, Phelan's gorgeous artwork will sweep you away into a familiar story, but with a lot of interesting changes on the characters and story you love. In this interview with Teenreads.com's Dana Cuadrado, Matt Phelan shares his inspiration for his "Snow White" reimagining as well as his artistic process in illustrating the story.
Dana Cuadrado: Fairy tale retellings are hugely popular these days, especially for young adults. What inspired you to take on your own retelling and why did you choose Snow White?
Matt Phelan: The story of “Snow White” has wonderful layers to it. I particularly like that she is not alone. She inspires others and they help her. That aspect always set it apart for me.
There are many, many versions of “Snow White” in the world. Why do another one? For me, the driving force was the idea that --- no matter how dark or oppressive the world is --- there are still good people and furthermore, I believe, more good people than evil. It’s the goodness of Snow and her optimism that conquers the evil. It’s an important thing to remember in today’s world.
DC: Your artistic style and the historical settings were highlights for me when reading your book. What inspired you to set Snow White in the 1930s? How did you do your research on the time period?
MP: One day I made the connection between the apple peddlers of the Great Depression and the evil stepmother in “Snow White”. I made a sketch, just for my own amusement, of a crowded city street and one young woman stopped by a very haggard looking peddler holding up a deep red apple. From that, I started to think of more ways “Snow White” could translate to that period. Who is the Queen? The Queen of the Ziegfeld Follies. Who are the Seven Dwarfs? Seven street kids, like the Dead End Gang of the movies. It was almost a game, but eventually I became fascinated about how that approach could change the story and how I might be able to add something to the tale. The Seven and the fact that they keep their names a secret (a sharp contrast to the Disney version) was really the key.
The 1920s, ‘30s, and even the ‘40s have always fascinated me, due mostly to my lifetime love of movies from that time. (I’m also a huge fan of the music, art, and fashions of that era). As a result, I think I can “put” myself into that time period fairly easily. For the look of this book, I was influenced less by the glossy Art Deco style and more by the darker 1930s films like Fritz Lang’s M, John Ford’s The Informer, and King Kong.
DC: Many of the story choices in SNOW WHITE were really fresh and modern. What specifically did you want to bring to a story that has been retold so many times to revitalize it and make it your own?
MP: I guess the most drastic change I made was getting rid of the “fairest in the land” motivation. Since the Queen is an ex-Broadway star, I felt that she would have always been surrounded by upcoming young ingénues. That’s part of the game. Greed and social position are more powerful motivations for an aging star in the Great Depression. That led to changing the magic mirror to the ticker tape machine (although I do give her a room that is filled with nothing but mirrors). The other thing that bothered me about the fairest in the land angle was that it seems pretty shallow. Does the huntsman spare Snow because she’s pretty? No. There had to be something more to her. Snow is an innately good person in a dark and hopeless world. That is what inspires the huntsman and the Seven to help her.
DC: All of your characters were really well-thought out and developed, but I especially loved the Evil Queen character --- her eyes were incredibly expressive! Which character are you most fond of?
MP: Thank you. I resisted any urge to give the Queen a backstory to make her sympathetic. She is not a good person.
I’ve always had a fondness for the huntsman character. In my version, Mr. Hunt is a goon, a thug who fell in love with the Queen while working backstage at the Follies. I think he’s been doing her dirty work for years, but he draws the line at murdering Snow. He’s the tragic hero of the story. Plus, it’s just fun to draw a mug like that.
DC: Your artwork is beautiful and must be very time consuming; which panel took you the longest to complete? How many drafts does it take from start to finish for a graphic novel?
MP: I always write a manuscript first before drawing anything. SNOW WHITE has been in the back of my mind for maybe ten years, so when I finally sat down to write it (a month or so after finishing the art for BLUFFTON) it came out fairly quickly and intact. The entire book took about three years to create.
Although drawing a graphic novel is incredibly time consuming, I wanted to work quickly on each panel. I wanted a certain energy to the line and the watercolor. I wanted it to be alive. To make the dummy, I sketched the whole thing in very small, loose drawings using black and white pencils on grey paper. The sketches really had life (part of me wanted to just print those). So, in order to give the finals the same energy, I drew each page without using a light-box or a guide sketch except for just looking at those small drawings for inspiration. If I messed up, I redrew it. But working that way --- that uncertainty of pulling it off --- made each panel exciting to draw and paint.
DC: From looking at your past work, it is clear that you have a personality and style that carries throughout all of your work. Can you describe your artistic style and influences?
MP: I’ve always loved sketches and art that has a “just enough” quality to it. E.H. Shepard (the illustrator of WINNIE-THE-POOH and THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS) is a great example. Shepard also managed to convey a tremendous amount of warmth and emotion in his drawings and that emotional connection is also something I aspire too in my work. Recently, I’ve been studying the drawings of China and Japan. It astounds me how simple and perfect those drawings are especially when compared to what was happening in the west in, say, the 12th century. In his STORY OF ART, E.H. Gombrich writes that the Chinese artists were not interested in detail or realism of any kind. They were more interested in “the visual traces of the artist’s enthusiasm”. I love that.
I’m also influenced (in style and storytelling) by the movies of the Golden Age: Orson Welles, Buster Keaton, Billy Wilder, John Ford, and some of Hitchcock (particularly Notorious and Shadow of a Doubt).
DC: Do you come from a naturally artistic and creative family? How did you get your start as a writer/illustrator?
MP: My home was very creative but not in a pushy way. My mom drew and painted for fun. My dad made Super 8 movies in his spare time. My brother is a musician. I drew and had a workshop in the basement where I built puppets and experimented with stop-motion animation and special effects. I was always making something or gathering friends to shoot a short video in the backyard.
In my mid- to late-twenties I realized that my dream job was to be a picture book illustrator. I spent years putting a portfolio together before getting my break at a Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) event. I was 33 at the time and well into a “real” career. I never let go of the idea that I wanted to earn my living doing creative work and that tenacity paid off eventually.
DC: Since you have illustrated other author’s stories as well writing and illustrating your own, which would you say is harder to do? Which do you prefer?
MP: I really do enjoy both since they exercise different muscles. When you illustrate someone else’s story there is a great responsibility to identify the tone and intention of the author. It’s almost like a puzzle. But then you need to bring something to that, to enhance the story. When it’s successful, the picture book really is a collaboration between the writer and the artist. That can be very exciting and satisfying. When it’s also your story, you still need to discover the right tone but you are 100% sure of the intention from the beginning.
DC: What advice would you give for aspiring artists and writers?
MP: Draw and write. Look at books but don’t copy styles or follow trends. Find what you love about this work and focus on that. Be enthusiastic. Make sure you leave visual traces of your enthusiasm.
DC: What are you currently working on? What is your next project?
MP: I’m working on some new stories for older audiences but it’s too soon to talk details. For SNOW WHITE, I brought some techniques from picture books into the graphic novel medium (I don’t really separate the two in my mind aside from the age of the intended audience). I’m interested in experimenting with more hybrid forms of storytelling as well as traditional illustrated chapter books.
This year has been devoted to work on four picture books which is pure bliss. In addition to three wonderful stories written by others, I’m finishing my own picture book which is called PIGNIC. It’s about… well, pigs on a picnic. It’s for very young children which is a wonderful challenge. The theme of the book is that despite setbacks, everything will be okay. That’s not far from the theme of SNOW WHITE, now that I think about it.