Chewie Chan – On Graphic Novels

August, 2010

W. Chew “Chewie” Chan is an experienced storyboard and comic book artist who has worked on a number of projects: from comic books (Iron Man, Buckaroo Banzai and Cthulhu Tales) to major movie productions (Superman Returns and Happy Feet). An avid proponent of the comics medium, he is the Comics Consultant for the Kinokuniya Bookstores of Australia and was Graphic Novels Supervisor for Kennedy Miller Mitchell, where he also worked extensively on Warner Bros’ Justice League Mortal.

What is a graphic novel and why write one?

A Graphic Novel tells a story in pictorial form – in a narrative series of images and words. Stories come as varied as there are ways to tell them. And, very simply, the best stories are the ones that are told best. And sometimes, that best way is a graphic novel.

Because of its scarcity at the moment (relative to the sheer amount of books being published in any given year), the Graphic Novel has the benefit of being fresh to the market – simply because of what it is. Putting a story out there in graphic novel form may save an author from having to fight a lot of noise when it comes time to tell people about their story.

What opportunities exist for writers in the graphic novels industry?

It is pretty much the same as in the prose industry. A writer doesn’t need the ability to draw to write a graphic novel. But, like all craft, the best writers are simply the ones who are aware of the medium’s best qualities as well as its shortcomings.

A writer who draws obviously has the purest vision and the best chance of materializing that idea into book form in the least adulterated way. On the other hand, a writer who works with an artist will enjoy the synergies that only collaboration can bring about.

What’s the journey of a graphic novel from original text to bookshop shelf?

Like all good books, it starts with the idea, which gets turned into a script. From there, the script is broken down and planned out visually but with no extraneous detail. This is often called the thumbnails stage, as traditionally these “layout” pages are very tiny, no more than a few inches. Once the story is appropriately paced, the real art gets drawn (usually at 150% of the final printed size), followed by the lettering – where all the word balloons and captions get put in. Then the pages are coloured. At each stage, the whole process would be overseen by the editor, an invisible but integral part of the team. After that, it’ll take the same arduous sojourn to the shelf as any book in the book industry!

How does the relationship between writer and artist work when producing a graphic novel?

They work best when they let each shine at the appropriate moments. A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. Great prose, on the other hand, can transcend words to stir the imagination! As long as they describe each idea the best way, whether it’s a vista captured which just the correct amount of gloomy sunlight or the right optimistic turn of phrase, the reader will be absorbing the story in the best way possible. It’s about being efficient, but also being the most resonant.

Technically speaking, there are many ways to work collaboratively. The writer may write a full script for the artist to visualise. Alternatively, the project may start with a plot from the writer but be broken down and paced by the artist. At the end of the day, communication is the key in deciding which element should be drawn and which should be spelled out – and that is what makes a successful graphic novel.

What was your experience of working on Happy Feet?

Doing the storyboards for Happy Feet was an amazing experience. I got to meet, work with and, ultimately, learn from, some of the best visual storytellers in Australia. George Miller, the film’s director, changed the way I thought about camera motivation. In doing that, he showed me the power of what was shown in an image and, just as importantly, the power of what was left out! I got to work closely with Mark Sexton, the Production Designer and lead Storyboard Artist (and, very simply, an astonishing artist), which was an amazing learning curve on so many things. Ultimately, he taught me to be a better artist by being better prepared and by having a better decision-making process – all in all, by being better disciplined.

What five graphic novels would you be stranded with on a desert island?

Maus (Art Spiegelman),
(Naoki Urasawa),
Blankets (Craig Thompson),
Blacksad (Juan Diaz Canales & Juanjo Guarnido)
Bone (Jeff Smith)

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