Sunday, July 17, 2011

FYC Replay: The Magic Flute by P. Craig Russell

Adding to my collection of columns from the Pulse spotlighting small press comics - this one was a particular thrill, as I got the opportunity to interview P. Craig Russell, one of the best artists to ever work in comics. I always felt humbled when a creator of his stature was gracious enough to answer my questions. And, as a bonus, when the column originally went live in early 2008, Russell emailed to tell me how pleased he was with the choice of art I included with it. Anyway. I hope you enjoy.


For Your Consideration: The Magic Flute

By Chris Beckett

FRONT PAGE: Operas and comics seem to be situated at either end of the creative spectrum, but when you boil it down, it’s all about creating an engaging tale. P. Craig Russell’s adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is a lesson in how well these two mediums can overlap. Click on in and see how a master storyteller brings the epic fantasy of Mozart to the printed page.

The 411:

The Magic Flute

Composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Adapted by P. Craig Russell

144 pp. full color

$17.95 tpb

NBM Publishing

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

The Queen of the Night is pining away for her daughter Pamina, who is being held against her will by a despotic king, and will do anything to be reunited with her. She enlists the aid of a young prince, Tamino, offering her daughter as wife and lover to the young man if he will only bring Pamina back. Immediately falling for the girl’s beauty, Tamino agrees to help the queen, his bravado befitting his youth.

But the fiend holding the Queen’s daughter – Sarastro – is formidable and Tamino will not be able to do it alone. The Queen offers him a magical flute that can charm away fear and danger, allowing safe passage through the trials set before him. She also enlists the aid of Papageno, a feathered bird catcher whom the prince encountered as the story opened. Supplying Papageno – a cowardly and disloyal servant of the queen – with bells charmed in much the same way as the flute, she sends the bird catcher with Tamino in the hopes he might learn something of character and honor. And so, these two adventurers – one more eager than the other – set off into the forest.

With a verdant expanse before them, Tamino and Papageno choose to go separate ways in the hope of finding Pamina more quickly. As Papageno stumbles upon the princess, and finds himself surrounded by scores of soldiers as well, Tamino discovers an ancient temple which has the runic words for reason, wisdom, and nature inscribed upon its surface. Entering, he encounters an aged wizard. Tamino makes inquiry of the old man but finds the caretaker less than helpful. However, the prince is able to coerce a single response from the old man and is heartened to know that Pamina is indeed still alive.

Exiting the temple, the chime of Papageno’s bells is carried to the prince’s ear. Making for the sound, when Tamino finally comes upon Pamina and Papageno, he hides himself among the thick brush to better decide his next plan of action. From his vantage point, Tamino sees that the two fugitives are surrounded not only by Sarastro’s minions but also his fierce pride of lions. Papageno is working to talk his way out of this predicament while Pamina confronts Sarastro with the truth, and then Tamino is discovered.

Brought before Sarastro, the king orders the two rescuers blindfolded and taken inside where they will be interned while the council decides their fate. But Tamino demands to know why the queen’s daughter is being held against her will and discovers all is not as it seems. Pamina admits that her captor has done nothing to harm her in all her time with Sarastro. Rebuking the young prince’s accusation, Sarastro states that it is he, the prince, who needs to prove himself, to which Tamino boasts that he will accept any test given him. With that, he and Papageno are taken away as Sarastro wonders to himself, “Is it he? Is it he?”

Upon first thought, the mediums of opera and comics couldn’t seem to be farther from one another on the entertainment spectrum. One is perceived as entertainment for the elite, while the other, during the vast majority of its existence, has been demeaned as nothing more than a pre-adolescent power fantasy. However, when one peels away the layers surrounding each artform, one sees that the aim of both mediums is to tell an engaging tale. One utilizes music while the other opts for pen and ink drawings, but the bottom line is to grab the audience and move them. And for anyone who has not had the pleasure of reading P. Craig Russell’s adaptation of Mozart’s famous opera, The Magic Flute, this is an exciting and dynamic story that would appeal to any fan of political intrigue or high fantasy. Russell allows the story to breathe while ably moving the narrative along. Taking it out of the confines of the stage, Russell is able to open up the scenes and give form to the genius of Mozart.

There are few artists whose each new work is an event. P. Craig Russell would fall into that very exclusive group. His delicate lines and romantic sensibilities come through in each panel, and his stylized art adds to the magical feel of this tale in particular. His images feel more like classical illustrations and his storytelling ability is second to none. Russell understands well the unique manner in which words and pictures can be combined to tell a story, and he uses this understanding to create true works of art that anyone can appreciate. P. Craig Russell’s The Magic Flute is a masterful adaptation of one of the seminal creative works in human history, and once one starts reading, it will be difficult to put the book down before the final drop of the curtain.

An Interview with P. Craig Russell:

Christopher Beckett: Your line work hearkens back to classic illustrators such as Arthur Rackham and Joseph Clement Cole. What kind of instruction did you receive and what advice would you give to aspiring artists, whether they wish to break into comics or not?

P. Craig Russell: Cole I'm not so familiar with but certainly Rackham, Dulac, Harry Clarke and above all, the Danish illustrator Kay Neilson. Neilson's illustrations to East of the Sun and West of the Moon have been a never-ending source of delight and inspiration, particularly in my earliest years drawing comics. Neilson might be better known or at least recognized for his work on Disney's Fantasia in the visual design for the Night on Bald Mountain sequence. Before and during my apprenticeship in comics I was attending the University of Cincinnati studying painting. I received very little training in anything that applied to the drawing style I used in drawing comics. No anatomy. No costume design. That I picked up from pouring over Neilson, Rackham, etc.

I always encourage aspiring artists to study anatomy. You can never have too much training in that. I wish I had had more. Also visual storytelling. Analysing film and storyboarding is good for that. But nothing is better that just sitting down and doing the thing itself.

Beckett: For the most part, the majority of your work for some years now has consisted of adaptations – whether the operas, Oscar Wilde, or Neil Gaiman’s story “Ramadan” for Sandman 50. What is your creative process like for these works, and have you always preferred to work in this manner?

Russell: Strictly speaking Ramadan isn't an adaptation. True, Neil, at my request, didn't write it 'by the panel,' he gave me every word he wanted in it as if writing a play and allowed me to tell his story visually. But I edited out not a single word. With other adaptations where I'm taking one art form and turning it into another, one probably unimagined by it's author, I do a great deal of editing. Hopefully, or ideally, it should read as if nothing is missing. With Oscar Wilde's fairytale The Selfish Giant I left in virtually every word to see if it could be done but I was dealing with a very short story.

To over-simplify my creative process I would say I merely edit out prose or exposition that repeats what the picture is doing. If the prose says 'he picked up the gun' and the picture clearly shows that then the prose is redundant and is dropped. That's the starting point in an adaptation. A step beyond that is to clearly 'stage' the action. Characters, or even objects, entrances and exits must be clear and appropriate. That's when the form is closest to filmmaking or directing. Above all, to avoid the look or feel that I'm merely illustrating the author by taking chunks of writing and adding pictures to them I always try to make the visualization of the graphic story, conveying the essential ideas and situations of the source material to the viewer, without the words, work as a silent movie. If I can do that then I've succeeded.

Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium and has kept you working within this medium over these years?

Russell: Not to sound flip about it but why not comics. Why does any artist choose the form he chooses? Probably because as a child he fell in love with it and then at some point found he had a talent that pointed in the same direction. Or maybe he loves the form because he innately knows, before he knows it, that his talents will lie in that direction. More prosaically since I've chosen, or been fortunate enough to be able to do so, to make a living drawing pictures, I've been kept at it by the simple fact that that's how I pay my bills. When my loving muse lazes out on me, the stern mistress of the marketplace tells me to suck it up and get to the drawing board. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing but I do tell her to stick it from time to time.

Beckett: Creating comics based on operas might appear on the surface to have little crossover appeal, and yet, you have managed to create a healthy body of work in this vein. What is it about the opera that speaks to you as an artist, and to what would you attribute the success of your operatic adaptations?

Russell: If I've managed to create a body of work devoted to opera adaptations it's because I've been willing to work with smaller publishers who don't pay as much as the big companies but are willing, even eager, to work with me and/or publish more esoteric material. What appeals to me are the stories if they're written by an Oscar Wilde or Maurice Maeterlinck. You need that to start with, not all operas...let's just say they have some pretty silly stories. But I like the similarities of problem solving between the two forms. In opera a composer is given a script, or libretto, and has to find music for its words and also use music to express what the words aren't saying. With a graphic story you have the same situation only with the artist having to find the right drawings and provide a visual structure to express or amplify the words and the stories meaning. Most of all, I enjoy the challenge of finding some sort of visual structure or series of pictures for those purely musical moments in the opera when 'nothing' is happening but pure emotion. You can't merely have the characters recite the lines and expect anywhere near the same emotional effect the music is providing. You have to find something, props, weather, anything you can use or focus on, that will somehow illuminate the musical situation. It's not easy finding pictures for Brunhilde's monologue preceding her immolation scene that go beyond her merely standing center stage and singing/speaking. I've done it but it wasn't easy.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Russell: I just finished a 192 page adaptation of Neil Gaiman's children's novel Coraline that will be out in the spring from Harper Collins and I'm preparing a 122 page adaptation of his short story The Dream Hunters for release from DC Comics late next year.

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