23 May The William Penn Files
Our first book, Mann’s Best Friend, was done in a bit of a casual, laissez-faire manner. Sophie wrote the story out very roughly and in stages, fitting it in around work. I would draw artwork up to the point she had written to, and then she would write the next bit. Great as it was, it’s probably not the most efficient way of writing a book – and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is such a huge undertaking, we decided that to do it properly we should begin with a storyboard.
Sophie spent over a year working on the text before I ever put pencil to paper. The original book is so long and wordy that it takes some serious doing to sort the wheat from the chaff, while managing to keep the plot and important aspects as clear and fresh as the original. I just don’t have a four-dimensional brain like Sophie does, and she kept leaving me awed by the way she approached it. At one point, she was working from each end towards the middle!
Eventually, she had a screenplay ready to work from. She had supplied me with a brilliant crib-sheet of descriptive paragraphs covering people and places, taken directly from Tressell’s original text. I couldn’t refer to the original book for every scene; that would have taken ages and tied me up in knots where Sophie had amalgamated or moved scenes for brevity and clarity.
When we came to make our storyboard, we decided it should be as adaptable as possible – we had no idea how many pages it would run to, and no concept of how much we might have to edit out or change in the future. With this in mind, Sophie repurposed a large sturdy lever-arch file with “The William Penn Files” written on the spine (we had no idea the famous Quaker was into admin). We made tabs for each of the 24 chapters, opened a fresh ream of copier paper, and the tome we refer to as William Penn was born…
We worked on the first few chapters together, sitting at Sophie’s kitchen table, scribbling away and laughing at what we were coming up with. Each speech bubble was allocated a code letter, which Sophie added to the script as I drew. After a few days it became obvious that there was no way we were going to manage to finish the whole book in the week we had together, so I carried the heavy lump protectively on the train home to Kent and carried on on my own.
Every few days, I Facetimed Sophie and went through what I’d been drawing with her, as she read the script on her computer. There were a few issues with version control, as I had the annotated version with the code letters, but we managed to be pretty organised about it.
The deadline for getting the book finished meant that I couldn’t spend all my time drawing the storyboard before I started drawing the actual artwork, so I ended up doing it in a few chunks. This meant that for a considerable amount of time, we didn’t know how long the final book would be. SelfMadeHero, quite reasonably, were keen to know how many pages we were looking at, and were concerned about the amount of dialogue on some of the pages.
We had started off by doing what we could to be as close to Tressell’s original dialogue as possible, but it soon became clear that it was going to be far too long and wordy. One of the benefits of a graphic novel adaptation of a book like this one is that it’s more accessible and easier for a modern, young audience to read. With that in mind, we shortened some of the passages and reworded some of them to be less Edwardian and more understandable to modern readers. The process of editing the book had implications on William Penn, as we took whole pages out, amalgamated some together and, in one case, removed a whole chapter. We definitely made the right decision to make it so flexible!
Each page of artwork starts with a photograph of the pencil sketches in William Penn. I lay the pencilled storyboard on a layer and use it as a guide to sketch and then draw the final artwork. When I was working on William Penn, rushing from scene to scene and hastily sketching people’s faces and the situations they found themselves in, I didn’t anticipate how much the final book would rely on it! It’s always important to have a good skeleton to hang the flesh on, and although it was hastily drawn (and done with humour at the time), it helps to provide the framework and mood for each page.