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[GUEST POST] Gregory Wilson on How He Turned His 85,000-Word Novel ICARUS into an 85-Page Graphic Novel

Gregory Wilson is Professor of English at St. John’s University in New York City, where he teaches creative writing and fantasy fiction along with various other courses in literature. His first novel, a work of fantasy entitled The Third Sign, was published in 2009. His second novel, Icarus, is being published as a graphic novel by Silence in the Library Publishing. He has just signed a three book deal with The Ed Greenwood Group, which will be publishing his Gray Assassin Trilogy beginning with his third novel, Grayshade, in 2016. He has short stories out in various anthologies, including Time Traveled Tales, When The Villain Comes Home, and Triumph Over Tragedy. On other related fronts, he did character work and flavor text for the hit fantasy card game Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, and along with fellow speculative fiction author Brad Beaulieu is the co-host of the critically-acclaimed podcast Speculate! The Podcast for Writers, Readers and Fans. Follow Gary on Twitter as @GregoryAWilson

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words. Really.

by Gregory Wilson

I’m a “words” guy. My parents were both teachers and language experts (and my father was the head of a small poetry press), and I grew up in a home of five thousand books…many of which were read to me at one time or another during my childhood. When I started to have creative thoughts of my own, they found their easiest expression through language-short stories, screenplays, scripts, poems, you name it. From an early age I was also interested in music, and to this day I find great joy playing in a progressive rock band. But even there, I’m the lead vocalist and the lyricist…words again, despite some trumpet playing here and there.

Art, on the other hand? Not a pleasant subject. My daughter has probably been able to outdraw me since she was five, and my one go-to drawing endeavor-political cartoons of a self-aware peanut, sort of the Pogo of the legume world-is considerably less effective now than it was when I was in junior high. I admire artistic talent and expression greatly, but like most math, it has an air of mystery I’ve never been able to fully uncover. So if you had asked me four years ago if I would ever write a graphic novel, I probably would have smiled, drawn an insignificant peanut on the back of a napkin and handed it to you before walking away sadly.

It’s a good thing that times, and circumstances, change. For me, they changed when I met Ron Garner from Silence in the Library Publishing, which had already done several anthologies in which I had a story, along with accompanying illustrations from artist Matt Slay. Ron and I got to chatting about the art, and at some point the conversation shifted to my novel Icarus, an intensely visual work I hadn’t yet found a suitable home for. Then the conversation shifted again to telling the story in another medium-say, a graphic novel one, using Matt’s art-and the rest, as they say, is history.

The history wasn’t always an easy one, however. First of all, there was something deeply humbling (or humiliating!) at seeing my eighty-five thousand word work get compressed (Crushed? Smashed? Flattened?) into a story which could fit into eighty to one hundred pages with graphics. Even more important, I didn’t know how to compress it that way. In my experience, pictures are worth a hell of a lot more than a thousand words-probably three thousand, I’d guess, or more. The entire book takes place in the heart of an enormous dormant volcano on another planet within a fantastic setting, and at one point in the tale, the two main characters Icarus and Jellinek-one a young man with white wings and pale skin, suffering from amnesia but wielding enormous power, the other a short, red-skinned flamepetal prospector, a jaded loner who tries to keep his head down and stay out of the way as much as he can-discover the Salamander Kings, enormous lava pool-dwelling creatures with equally large stores of wisdom. The original description of this encounter was close to five thousand words; in the graphic novel, the same section works out to less than eight hundred words. And it really, really works.

Not easy for a “words guy” to accept.

Still, once I could swallow my pride enough to respond in a mature way-which highlighted how awesome the art was, not how sad I was that my beautifully prosaic descriptions had been reduced to a handful of spectacular drawings-I began to realize that less was indeed more, and that the idea that my “word-work” could inspire visual art of this level was pretty awesome…especially if I could create more of that inspiration through the way I converted my work for a visual medium. Much of the credit for this goes to Keith DeCandido, whose script for the graphic novel was (like everything Keith does) efficient, professional, and just plain good. But in the visual outline I provided to the artists, and in the conversations I had both with Matt and the artist who drew the second half of the graphic novel, Mark Dos Santos, I endeavored to concentrate on how to represent the visual field as effectively as possible, to get myself out of the way and let the pictures, supplemented by the dialogue, tell the story.

What I discovered in the process of doing this-of letting go of the words I didn’t need in this medium-was that I wasn’t, as I had feared, letting go of the story. Indeed, I was telling the story the way it needed to be told in this context, drawing on the power of the visual to supplement the words I had so carefully crafted to create a similar imaginative effect. I also learned that my characters weren’t vanishing in the process…that in fact, they were expressing themselves in a different fashion, springing to a new and vibrant life in Matt and Mark’s representations. Not better, but different…inspired by my work, and equally inspiring to me.

In the end, I’ve been both amazed by how beautiful the art for Icarus is, and grateful that I have the opportunity to tell a story I enjoyed writing a great deal again, exploring different contours of the work through a different medium. I don’t expect I’ll be turning in my keyboard for a stylus and drawing tablet any time soon, and I think the political peanut cartoons are probably going to remain in the past where they belong. But I’m okay with that-if it takes me a thousand, or a few thousand, words to inspire the pictures the artists create, it seems like a more than fair trade.

About Icarus

This epic fantasy graphic novel, written by Gregory A. Wilson, with illustrations by Matt Slay and Mark Dos Santos, follows the story of Icarus and Jellinek, an unlikely pair of heroes.

Icarus and Jellinek are, on the surface, about as different as two beings can possibly be.

Icarus is a tall, fair-skinned boy of around 17 who falls to the world of Vol from the sky with no memory of anything but his name. His is a graceful being with wings and incredible powers that he has no memory of how to use.

Jellinek is a four-foot hard-scrabble flamepetal prospector with tough red skin, a gruff disposition and general dislike of everyone around him, and a two-tailed lava-resistant creature called a “solar” as a companion.

On the day that their lives collide, everything about their world changes, and they discover that they have more in common than they can possibly imagine.

Together, Icarus and Jellinek will battle the tyranny of the Magisters, who have enslaved an entire people.

This graphic novel introduces us to the incredibly visual world of Vol, and the stunning array of characters and creatures who call it home. It takes us on an amazing journey in which Icarus and Jellinek fight for their lives and the freedom of a people while trying to unlock the mystery of Icarus’s past. To Jellinek’s surprise, Icarus’s mystery becomes his own, as well.

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