Creating A Historical Graphic Novel
When the mighty Endurance becomes trapped in the Weddell Sea, Ernest Shackleton’s dream to cross the Antarctic becomes a fight to save the twenty-seven souls that set sail with him. With five others, he takes to the sea in the lifeboat, James Caird, and sets a course for South Georgia, 800 miles away across treacherous waters. This graphic depiction brings to life the ceaseless struggle against the harshest environment on Earth, and culminates in the most dramatic real-life open-boat journey in the history of mankind. It is the first illustrated retelling of the greatest feat of leadership and survival ever recorded.
The story of how our book began in D.I.C.E.
David and Gavin first met at D.I.C.E. in 2013. David was speaking to Tommie Kelly and was asking about how to get into comics and how to break the ice. Tommie told me to try find someone who was at a similar wavelength and into similar ideas. Simple but effect advice. There was no point in linking up with a Horror writer if you hate the Horror genre. I had become aware of Gavin’s Green Monkey comics and his innocent Tales work from Facebook and was interested to find out more as he lives about a half hour away from me. We passed contact details and followed it up with a few emails and discussions of various ideas for short story comics. We shortly set to work on Ghostcar an 8 page story for Green Monkey Comics Innocent Tales #3
How the book came about
David was launching a children’s book “Do Fish wear Pyjamas?” by author Mario Corrigan in Kildare town a few years back. The book was part of a book festival “One book one town” The idea was all the children from the different schools in the town would read one book. That particular year the children were reading a book on Tom Crean from Polar author Michael Smith. As I listened to Michael speak I was shocked to find out how I had not have learned about Tom Crean or Ernest Shackleton. I was even more shocked to find out that Ernest Shackleton was born in Ireland in Co. Kildare just a few minutes away from my home place, and I had not heard of him. I was then invited to have lunch with Michael and I was a bit embarrassed as I had not read any of his books. I promised to read his books just in case we ever met again.
A short time later I was invited to produce a comic with Children’s from Scoil Diarmada in Castledermot in Kildare. Just beside the birthplace of Ernest Shackleton. In speaking with the children’s teacher and trying to narrow down Michaels Smith book to something small so the children could manage it. Their teacher Eoin Kirk remarked on one of the most dramatic elements of the story. The amazing boat rescue is largely overlooked in the books about the bigger story. I began reading further and looking at a few documentaries. I became hooked on this incredible story. I made a number of quick sketches to help break down the story for the children. That process had ingrained itself into my memory and strangely had become a blueprint for this book.
A short time later I met up with Gavin, I had just read Rory McConville and Paddy Lynch book on Big Jim Larkin. I had seen how historical characters and events could be depicted in a graphic novel. It was a real eye-opener for me. I had never thought of using a graphic novel comic book to tell a historical true event. As with all great ideas and battle plan, the idea of producing a comic on Ernest Shackleton was conceived in a pub over a few pints of our chosen poison.
What was next
The idea was kicked about and we tried to find out about getting a publisher and how to submit a graphic novel pitch.David put a few drawings together on it and attended a children’s book Ireland event with illustrator-author Alan Nolan. Alan was hugely helpful in telling us what to put together and who to send it to.
I attended a further training session part of Animation Skillnet series of events. That event I attended was hosted by Stephen Mooney and Nick Roche. I learned so much that day and decided to put together a graphic novel pitch. We had the idea. We had the pitch. We knew who to send it too. Now all we needed was to get our foot in the door.
Foot in the door
We send off our pitch to a publisher. We seemed to tick all the boxes for publication. We were Irish interest and had the potential to sell to a wider international audience. We waited and waited. Then we waited some more. the clock was ticking to get the book out for the 1916 centenary year. Eventually after a number of months. I posted an image in an Ernest Shackleton Facebook group. It was spotted by someone in the Kildare County Council. That person was familiar with my work with Mario Corrigan.
Kildare County Council had a number of schemes and initiatives to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of 1916. As the lifeboat of the Shackleton Endurance Expedition took place Easter Monday 1916 and the strong connection of Ernest Shackleton to Kildare. The Kildare County Council library and arts service approached us about sponsoring and helping to remove some of the publishers risk with the project. We decided to approach The Collins Press. the publisher in Cork had become the home of polar exploration books. The publisher Con Collins had visited Antarctica himself on a number of occasions and they had published all of Michael Smiths books. The guy who had inspired my interest in Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean in the first place. it felt like we brought the story home to where it should have been in the first place. Our Shackleton graphic novel is The Collins Press first graphic novel.
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17), also known as the Endurance Expedition was photographed and documented by a now famous photographer Frank Hurley. His work and dedication to documenting the expedition was key to financing the original expedition. Once the ship the Endurance gets stuck in the ice, and eventually crushed by the moving ice floe. Frank Hurley rescued his negatives from the sinking wreck. The negatives in those days were huge glass plates. A couple hundred of these were produced over the expedition. Shackleton and Frank Hurley eventually agreed to keep 120 of them and smashed the rest of them, to avoid the temptation of returning to them. Frank Hurley did not go on the lifeboat to the rescue. There was a complete gap and missing visual elements to accompany the story. In our book we attempt to pay homage to Frank Hurleys photos (which is unique, artists normally hide their references). We used them as kind of visual reference points scattered throughout the book. We had a great sense of responsibility to try depict some elements as true as possible. While trying to have our own style and visual look for our book. We kind of realised all those book to film translations and how things change in the different mediums.
This became a real issue at the start. There are a number of photos and visual references that was available for the look of the characters. I approached the design and look from my Animation background. I decided on a kind of Saturday morning cartoon look. The characters had a certain clothes elements from the reference photos but I worked up a mind of animation model sheet for them. They have that cartoon tv show of the classic colours and clothes throughout the book. I used the character traits to fix the look rather than physical appearance. I also used the character traits to push a bit more contrast in the character designs. I treated them as if I had actors to play them and took it from there. It has been said back to me that our book has an element of the old Commando and Warlord comics that are still very popular. That wasn’t intentional but we did have that hand drawn rough pencil work was key to telling this story. There are a few differences in Shackleton costume design as he was the pivotal character in the book. I also used that to show a period of time and seasonal / story changes. He changes with the references to the various elements and scenes in the chapters until he enters the lifeboat. From that point onwards, he is in the same clothes and follow the same rules as the other characters.
The strange and unique landscape of Antarctica is another huge element and almost another character in the story, I used certain colour schemes for the various locations which was a huge element of the colouring process. It really helped in that way of pushing the story and given each section or chapter its own unique look. again we were faced with the true elements of the story and the geographical elements and used them in our story. Antarctica is a unique place. It has no rain in it. There is more rain in the Sahara desert. It also houses 75% of the Earth’s fresh water but it is trapped in Ice. It is a continent twice the size of Australia.The South pole is also very unique to the North pole. There are no Polar bears in the South. Also the penguins are only in the south and the different places have different species. one huge element was our Editor Paula Elmore pointed out that i had incorrectly drawn Emperor penguins on Elephant island. Emperor penguins are colony birds in large groups and Elephant island was a little rock off the coast. It has Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins on it. There are elements of ice that allowed to resemble the Moon so had a bit of play and fun with some elements of the background and environment design. I really tried to push an almost cinematic design to it. I almost treated the panels and scenes as cinema or film frames as much as possible.
Telling this story was a huge jump for us both. Our previous comics stories were 8 page long. Suddenly we jumped up to a 96 page book.From Gavin’s point of view he found it particularly hard to work with non-fiction. He did not have the freedom or luxury to change things around. In lots of ways we were restricted and confined to tell aspects of the stories in about 10 page chapters. The story was that huge we struggled to condense the story sometimes into the chapters. David particularly found it hard to simplify and condense a few pages of sequences into a few panels.The story was so huge. It was a number of years condensed into a fe panels.
The Collins Press were a huge help with our book. We were delighted to be given the change to tell the story in a unique way. We were given full creative control on style and content. The editing process was much tougher than we were used to as we normally edit them ourselves. But it was a huge learning curve and an insight into what is needed for a professional production. Our Editor Paula Elmore is the Unsung Hero our Tom Crean on this project. They even allowed us to name our book after the Chapter of Ernest Shackleton’s book South. We were also delighted to include Alice Coleman as a letter on our book. Alice came on board after answering our call for help on the Irish comic Creators Facebook page. She really did come to our aid, and she did a fantastic job on making it more clear and legible and her paper texture caption boxes gave our book that faded worn damaged document look that added the extra flair to it.
BOOK LAUNCH: SHACKLETON – The Voyage of the James Caird a graphic account
7:30 pm Wednesday 18th May 2016 Shackleton Museum, Athy Heritage Centre, Co. Kildare
Special guest: Jonathan Shackleton author and Historian Hosted by: Kildare County Council Library and Arts Service