Saturday, September 1, 2007

Why I drew them this way

On Thursday I gave a bunch of presentations and a comics workshop for students at Melbourne High School, a state school for boys which selects its students on the basis of academic ability. The workshop in particular was great fun - the students were enthusiastic, engaged and willing to have a go - and they came up with some terrific, original and very accomplished stuff.

A couple of the guys were drawing really impressive architectural backgrounds with wonderful fluency. I find architecture very challenging. It is something that I had never attempted before The Great Gatsby, and therefore something I had to consciously work at learning. When I commented on this, the archi-talented student seemed surprised. He said that backgrounds and buildings came very naturally for him, but that he found facial expressions very hard.

I have always taken for granted the fun and ease of creating lively, emotionally resonant facial expressions and the characters that use them. So I wonder what sort of "learning" is involved if you want to become more fluent in this aspect of creating characters. To a very large extent I think it is intuitive - which is not to say that such intuition can't be developed and improved.

Probably the most important thing, if I try to analyse my own scribbling experience, is learning to fully inhabit your character. By really exploring and getting to know the creature you're drawing, you have a sense of how they move, how their face expresses emotion, how a twist of an eyebrow conveys a particular attitude and so on. And when the pen is in my hand, I find that I also inhabit the character physically: my face will always take on precisely the expression that I'm trying to draw. Lots of other illustrators have told me that they do exactly the same thing.

In The Great Gatsby, I've taken the expression idea one step further, and tried to make each character's entire physical form embody the complex personality bestowed on him or her by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Just before the book came out, my wonderful publisher at Allen & Unwin suggested that it would be a good idea if I also wrote a few lines on each character to explain why I drew them this way. It was an interesting exercise, trying to concisely summarise the long, complicated, delicate and largely intuitive process of interpreting Fitzgerald's written characters in visual form. The one I find most difficult to summarise in words is Daisy. Daisy is my favourite character. She took a lot of thought and preparation and experimentation, but once I got her as I wanted her, I really do believe I got her just right.

It is hard for me to explain in words why Daisy looks as she does, but happily enough there is another picture that can help - and it's at the top of this post. About three years into the project, when I'd already finished a large slab of the book, my mum sent me a newspaper article which included a photograph of Fitzgerald's first love, the gorgeous debutante Ginevra King. It is said that Ginevra appeared in almost all of Fitzgerald's beautiful, unattainable female characters, and particularly in Daisy Buchanan. When I saw the photograph, I was overjoyed. Ginevra King, a woman deep in Fitzgerald's mind and heart, bore an uncanny resemblance to my version of Daisy.

And, for those who are interested, here are the very brief explanations that I wrote for Allen & Unwin.

Daisy Buchanan: Daisy is a complex character: charming, careless, morally compromised - and disappointed. Her feather-light flightiness and air of luxury are conveyed by her white, fluffy round head, while her slender, elegant neck and hands suggest both seductive charm and vulnerability.

Tom Buchanan: Everything about Tom’s personality is overbearing, arrogant and brutal, as embodied in his big, hulking, hyper-masculine body and brutish face. He occupies more space than anyone else, suggesting substantial social and financial power.

Nick Carraway: Our narrator is a gentle, somewhat ambivalent person, so I picture him as a smaller, soft-bodied creature. Nick’s expressive feelers give form to his sensitive ‘moral antennae’ which, although finely tuned, are also susceptible to swaying.

Jordan Baker: Cool, slippery and not to be trusted – Jordan is a slim, haughty squid-like creature, difficult to pin down and emotionally absent.

Myrtle Wilson: Poor Myrtle Wilson is all vulgar, overripe sex and loud, ugly pretension. She is unsophisticated and inelegant, but oozing sensuality: one big eye, an indiscreetly wide mouth, and enormous, multi-teated breasts. A bad end is almost inevitable…

George Wilson: Myrtle’s downtrodden, cuckolded husband is a nervous, sickly-looking, hand-wringing creature. But his tail looks a little like a scorpion’s, foreshadowing the violent consequences when George is pushed to the limit.

Jay Gatsby: Gatsby is a self-made enigma, a mystery deepened by its contradictions. He is simultaneously heartbreakingly sincere and utterly fake, noble and corrupt, glamorous and gauche. His form is inspired by the seahorse – a gorgeous, impossible-looking animal that seems to have been put together from bits of other creatures.


Bulfinch's Aglaia said...

The similarity in the eyes is almost . . . uncanny. Amazing! (and being in the states, I still haven't figured out how to get this beautiful book, but I'll keep working on it. I want to give a bunch out as Christmas gifts!)


scootergrrl said...

Hi Grace,

You could try contacting Booktopia to check if they will deliver to the U.S.

Good luck!


Greg G said...

Hi Grace

I went to see if there were any on Ebay Australia - there weren't, but look (Nicki, I'm gonna try to get these - beware!!!)

Nicki Greenberg said...

Sadly the book is not allowed to be sold into the US at this stage, Grace... But it will be out in Canada in April next year.



scootergrrl said...

Bad Disney *smack*... and *smack* again for good measure.

More info: google -
mickey mouse copyright wikipedia

Larve that scene in the Simpsons movie with Bart and the black bra on his head mimicking Mickey Mouse, "I'm the mascot of an evil corporation" *heh heh*

scootergrrl said...

excerpt from the Wikipedia page on the Mickey Mouse Protection Act a.k.a Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act:

"Another argument against the Bono Act is an "offshore production" argument: that, for example, derivative works could be created outside the United States in areas where copyright would have expired, such works advancing science or the useful arts, and that US law would prohibit these works to US residents. A movie of Mickey Mouse playing with a computer (à la Sorcerer's Apprentice) could be legally created in Russia and children worldwide could possibly benefit from watching it, but the movie would be refused admission for importation by US Customs because of copyright, resulting in a deprivation to American children."


Bulfinch's Aglaia said...


grace (but I'm still going to keep my ears perked and try to find a way to nefariously import a couple, after legally paying for them, of course...)

Anonymous said...

Hi there
Try READINGS in australia and see if they will mail it to you.


LFW said...

Dear miz Greenburg,

I found your blog through a series of links, I've only heard about this book adaptation now and again, and after reading this blog post, I find it all just a little dissapointing.

You state "I have always taken for granted the fun and ease of creating lively, emotionally resonant facial expressions and the characters that use them. So I wonder what sort of "learning" is involved if you want to become more fluent in this aspect of creating characters. To a very large extent I think it is intuitive - which is not to say that such intuition can't be developed and improved."

"taken for granted the fun and ease of creating lively, emotionally resonant facial expressions and the characters that use them" is probably the biggest disagreement I have. From the very few drawings I've seen of yours, these characters that you draw are neither fun, nor lively, and I find their facial expressions somewhat flat, dull and boring.

I apologise if this posted comment seems vindictive and mean, it's just that I've been to University to learn to draw and tell good original stories and have been doing so for a number of years only to be turned away by local publishers because "i'm not good enough" yet here you are with a somewhat average adaptation of someone else's story of characters that don't even look remotely like humans being published by Allen and Unwin.

I agree that, yes, creating character's and a story is intuitive, but as a suggestion from one artist to another that you learn to draw properly before you undertake another one of these projects.

yours sincerely


Nicki Greenberg said...

Yes, LFW, it does sound rather vindictive and mean - and very bitter. I don't mind if you don't like my work. But I must say, your lack of generosity of spirit and your eagerness to vent venom on another scribbler is quite breathtaking!

Best of luck with your work,


Eddie Campbell said...

he didn't even spell your name right. Tell him to go get a vowel.

Zoe said...

Wow LMF,
What a spiteful message! I just wrote a response but it didn't post, so appologies if this comes through twice.

I designed the cover for this book and I have to admit that at first, I was apprehensive. Gatsby is one of my favourite books and I already love the film adaptation - what could a graphic novel bring that is new? However, when I curled up with the manuscript I fell in love with it. It's a fabulous creature and now has trophy position on my shelf, I show it to everyone who comes into my work space.

As an illustrator, I'm also surprised you'd made a judgment based on a couple of pics on a blog. I suggest you get to a bookshop and spend some time with this. The expressions are subtle and rich and extremely engaging.

I hire illustrators and teach Visual Communications at university. I would suggest to you, as I suggest to my students, that inspiration and technique are only one aspect of being a good designer/illustrator. People skills count for a lot. Someone may be a brilliant illustrator but if they are unable to work in a team, and producing a book is always a team effort, involving compromise and working with marketing, editorial and sales departments, then they are not worth hiring.

Blogs are arenas for criticism, yes, but there is a difference between being critical and having a jealous lash-out. Perhaps you should be asking Nicki how she went about getting published - how she communicated with the publisher etc to get to this stage.

LFW said...

Hey Zoe, miss greenberg, LMF is a hilarious name.

Thanks for your reply.

Yes, in retrospect, I can understand that what I had just written sounded very very bitter, spiteful, and venomous after re-reading over it again, I totally apologise I thought I had kept it pretty civilized but I guess I screwed up, I'm a lot better at this face to face, but I guess now you probably wouldn't want to have anything to do with me.

In my defense, as an illustrator and an artist, from the drawings that I've seen just on this front page alone and the knowledge I have of construction, composition etc I AM able to make the call that I did about the lack of expression I found in Nicki's work, granted, it probably could have been a lot more constructive than just "it's flat and boring, get better."

Subtly is great, I'm all for it. for me though, dashes of subtly go great with dashes of much more fuller expressions here and there to break things up, I personally just find something that is subtle all the time a tad boring.

And I agree zoe, people skills are so important, but are next to worthless if you're trying to create a half decent image, are you teaching people proficiency in the drawn medium? or are you teaching them to be politicians? It's an unfortunate trade-off though, get along well with peeps but only ever hope to be a mediocre artist, or be a complete social recluse and create brilliant work, such is the great curse. Having said that there are always exceptions but they are few and far between.

But hey, you're probably right, maybe I am just writing it off with the same first time apprehension that you felt, I will definitely take a closer look at this book and then maybe make a much more informed decision.

I'm sorry that I didn't say this earlier nicki, yes, your work isn't the best, but keep at it and draw everything you see, take up life-drawing (gym for artist drawing muscles) and you will totally get there. Feel free to take a look at some of my stuff and totally rip it apart, but only if you want to.

good luck with it

cheers to you


Jason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason said...

Anyone that knows me knows that I don't give praise easily, and I'm far more likely to knock something that I am to sing of its wonders...

I've gone on record elsewhere, so I might as well do so here as well.

Nicki Greenberg's Great Gatsby was a book that I was excited about, and looking forward to for sometime before its eventually release about a week ago. Even with these high expectations, it exceeded each and every one of them. Proving to be one of my favourite comic adaptations, and hell, one of my favourite comics, in quite some time.

The subtle use of expression in the characters, the wonderful use of sepia tones and a mastery of just keeping you enthralled visually, and keeping you turning pages to the very end, are but a part of what makes this book work.
First and foremost, this is a book of heart, of F Scott Fitzgeralds original story, and of Nicki Greenberg and all the work she has obviously put into this labour of love.

Certainly we are all entitled to our own opinions LFW, and I would never try and say otherwise. What I dont get, is why someone who obviously has some talent and some experience in up&down, sometimes unkind, labour of love that is the world of comics, would use an opportunity to attack rather than admire what Ms Greenberg has been able to accomplish.
Childrens book sales in the realm of 500,000, numerous comic strips in the mini comic world, and now, a "graphic novel" that that is both in content and presentation the equal of anything produced anywhere else in the world.

I for one thank her for getting such a book published here in Australia, and perhaps making book publishers look at comics as a viable financial option in publishing once again. That can only be a plus to us all.

mister J

Ian T. said...

Absolutely amazing! The feel and resonance of this book is wonderful, but what surprised me most was how well it evoked the era. You really do these strange, nuanced characters full justice and the narrative flows perfectly in this form - a joy to read! I have a lot of thoughts, but will save the rest of them for a formal review (probably in the next issue of Inkspot.

I meant to outbid Greg G on those Digits books too - drat! :)

Nicki Greenberg said...

Thanks very much, Zoe, Ian, Mister J and Eddie. I appreciate your lovely and generous comments!

xx N

Greg G said...

Mr Weber,

What you wrote didn't "sound" bitter, spiteful and venomous - it was in fact all three of those things and you continue in that fashion.

You specifically stated you had not read the book, implied that a cartoonist who hadn't studied "at university" was not as good as one that had, and pretty much admitted that you motivated by jealousy that your own work had not been published in a similar fashion.

Your reply is a petty attempt at redrawing the boundaries that you set yourself. Read the book before you comment again.

Good luck with your smoking monkey book.


scootergrrl said...


You are entitled to an opinion, but geez boy, learn some manners *smack*

You apologised, otherwise that would have been a *thump*

LFW said...

cheerz scooter girl,

I am glad I got a smack and not a thump, though I guess a thump would be appropriate also.


Anonymous said...

What a pompus and bitter person you are LFW.
I guess university can't teach one everything - some things just come naturally - in your case venom, envy and spite. Pity about that.
- theatreboy

spacedlaw said...

I wished I had not read all those comments...

Thanks for posting your interpretation on these characters, Nicky.
I am yet to see it all of course, but the few glimpse of the characters I could have seem to fit perfectly the profiling you did for them.

Nicki Greenberg said...

Thanks very much, Nathalie. It is not the sort of online exchange I would have expected to happen either. I've never heard/seen anything like it!

But I am very grateful for all the warm and supportive comments, like yours.



spacedlaw said...

And I am happy to report that, since I don't live in the UK but in Italy, I was able to order your book.
Really looking forward to it.

Ian T. said...

Oboy, I only just read all the above posts.

Personally, I've never had a drawing lesson in my life, though I have studied both art and literature.

Don't judge LFW too hard - he really is a fantastic comics artist - however, I wildy disagree with him here!

I think LFW's making the mistake of judging apples as oranges. I don't think an overstated, state-of-the-(current)-art, anatomically lifelike, overtly acted out drama could be nearly as successful as Nicki's inspired interpretation of this classic.

Nicki's Gatsby is so poignant, wistful and lasting in impression because it is a heartfelt work of art. That's as present in the style as in the choice of material. One immediate comparison that sprang to mind for me was May Gibbs, and in terms of sympathies of style and time period, this feel couldn't be more appropriate.

Yes, some people might find this look, and the character designs, distancing - to them I recommend the original novel. However, to judge a work of art on a preconceived notion of style, rather than reading it for what it is, can't possibly lead to an understanding of the work.

That's not to say, that illustrations can't be bad - I've seen a lot of that in (particularly) children's books, both fiction and non-fiction. But that's plain bad illustration, failing at what it set out to achieve. And there's no justice - being the best illustrator on earth won't necessarily guarantee you work.

I think Nicki's Gatsby is a total success at what it sets out to achieve. At a technical level, I'm amazed at her ability to reconcile quirky character design with architectural settings, and even to lend this world a sense of coherence. The book is totally consistent and captivating, across every single page, in both style and mood.

To me, that's damn fine graphic storytelling and most definitely literature.

Ian T.

"You see, a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore I'm mad."
(The Cheshire Cat - Alice in Wonderland).

Eddie Campbell said...

"but keep at it and draw everything you see, take up life-drawing (gym for artist drawing muscles) and you will totally get there. Feel free to take a look at some of my stuff "

Weber: are you for real? I looked at your stuff. Pull your head in.

Bulfinch's Aglaia said...

Oh jeeze for insanity! I'm gone for one day and what the hell happened??!!

Ms. Nicki, please don't quit drawing. Some of us non-artists, from the states no less so shouldn't I get to say something about one of *our* iconic books? snark snark, love your creatures.

Nicki Greenberg said...

High excitement - the launch is on tonight! Will post tomorrow - hopefully with photos! Thanks for the support, lovelies.

xx N