Graphic novel retells old story

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More than 30 students from professor Christian Hill’s sequential art class put together and retold a classic story, the Twelve Labors of Herakles, adapting it into a 100-page comic book, becoming the first graphic novel made at Cal State Fullerton.

Like many versions, the story starts with Herakles’ birth and youth; however, meaningful details and twists were planted in the early chapters to give this burdened hero more depth and to shape a more connected plot that pays off over the length of the story. This version is about one key conflict: a bitterly hurt wife, Hera, who takes out her anger on her naive yet dutiful son, Herakles, according to the sequential art class’ blog.

“Everyone in class first studied public domain versions of the Twelve Labors. Our brainstorming, group discussions and lectures on story design yielded a new and unique plot for Herakles’ journey,” said Christian Hill, the only professor and the organizer of this graphic novel.

In order to help inspire his students, Hill took the class on a field trip to the Getty Villa in Malibu, where a large collection of Greek and Roman artwork is on display.

“It was interesting collaborating as a class to condense the multiple versions of the Twelve Labors of Herakles from both the Roman and Greek legends into one single story. We used this information when designing the many characters, creatures and settings that appeared in the graphic novel,” said Rachael Farwell, one of the graphic novel’s artists.

In the process of making this novel, Hill acted as editor and art director.

“With the generous input of students, we fine-tuned the story, but then I was the only one following the progress of every team,” Hill said. “It required keeping an eye on story continuity and visual consistency for the characters and backgrounds, even if each team had its own artistic style.”

Among these 30 artists, graduate students were assigned to work alone on their own episodes, while undergrads worked in teams of two, with a “penciler” and an “inker.”

“To have a whole class working on a graphic novel that will be published and that people can actually buy is something very fascinating,” said Eloisa Lopez, an animation major, who now works at Nickelodeon. “However, working in a group, always has its up and downs, since sometimes you just can’t get into an agreement that you like. The major obstacle for this project was to decide what Herakles was going to look like. Some people wanted Herakles to look cartoonier while some pictured him with a beard and finally he came out as a handsome guy.”

Lopez was not the only one who thought the biggest challenge was to settle down on character designs that the entire class could agree with.

“We started with one person per design, and slowly eliminated and revised them,” said Zelda C. Wang. “I remember we spent most of the time with character designs and since we need to rely on classmates to finish the project as a whole, people were having trouble finishing their projects toward the end of the semester because they ran out of time.”

As one of the two published artists in Hill’s class, Wang was awarded as the Best in Mystery and People’s Choice in the Tokyopop Rising Star of Manga volume 8 contest.

Wang grew up in Taiwan, but she said her childhood was heavily influenced by anime, manga and music from Japan.

“I feel fortunate that I am familiar with Asian cultures,” Wang said. “It gives me lots of inspiration and adds to my creativity and imagination when it comes to story making.”

Different cultural backgrounds as well as specific personal interests might separate the teamwork on some level, but a lot of students still view this unique experience as a great learning opportunity.

“It was so exciting that my partner and I had the task of illustrating the first episode,” said Andrea Ruygt, a senior illustration major. “We decided to not beat around the bush, and put in the sex scene so it was clear what happened. At first we went a little too far, and the professor had to make sure we kept it tasteful – we were having fun with it and working with grad students was great too.”

Lopez said it is crucial for one to learn how to adapt and work with others, especially in the comic industry where so many projects are done with the collaboration of different people.

Besides experienced artists like Hans Tseng and Zelda Wang, the team has a lot of new faces.

“The passion apparent in the quality of the final art is amazing,” Hill said. “Especially since so many students had never drawn comics before.”

Lopez was one of them; she said even though she had her share of graphic novels, she has always been the reader, not the artist. Ruygt’s said her personal goal with this novel was to gain experience because she had never done comics before.

“I learned what it’s like to produce a comic in the real way, like they do in the industry – which means deadlines and working with other artists and art directors,” Ruygt said. “This is definitely one of my favorite projects of my college career.”

Another thing made these artists so excited about the graphic novel was that they may be able to see their own work through the iPhone.

Before taking Hill’s class, Farwell attended the San Diego Comic Convention and one exhibitor was displaying how Japanese cell phones allowed manga fans to read some manga titles on their phones, one panel at a time. After getting back from the convention, Farwell told Hill that comics on mobile devices would be the next step in comic publishing if the idea ever got big enough.

“The iPhone and similar phones to it have a growing and evolving apps base that surely would allow for comics viewing,” Farwell said. “To plan for that, professor Hill had all of us design our panels with six square panels per page–so it would be easier to crop each panel individually for viewing on an iPhone.”?

Hill said that many students and professors from other departments also contributed to the graphic novel.

“One English major, Melinda Kirk, looked over my shoulder as we revised the final dialogues together,” Hill said. Additionally, they asked for help from professors in the Computer Science Department to help them adapt the graphic novel to mobile devices.

This novel is now printed with and will have an ISBN in 2011 so that people can start buying it on Amazon next year along with the second graphic novel of Aesop’s fables retold and adapted to the colorful world of the American Far West.

“We sensed a lot of excitement in this journey,” Hill said. “This challenge called for a big time commitment and long-term team spirit and it was totally worth it!”

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