The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Doing What He Loves: A Talk with Illustrator Tim Hamilton

Cover Art from RAY BRADBURY’S FAHRENHEIT 451: THE AUTHORIZED ADAPTATION, artwork by Tim Hamilton. Text copyright © 1953, renewed 1981 by Ray Bradbury. Artwork copyright © 2009 by Tim Hamilton. Reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. CAUTION: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

A few years ago, a good friend surprised me at Christmas with a graphic novel version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. As a big "Janeite," friends have given me cookbooks inspired by the food cooked in Austen novels, a Jane Austen action figure, and beautiful editions of Austen's letters and writings, but a graphic novel was definitely the biggest surprise. I was even more impressed to discover this edition was part of a series of graphic novels by Marvel Comics inspired by classic literature.

Marvel isn't the only publisher to re-imagine classic works in graphic novel form. There is now a series of Manga Shakespeare books, a graphic adaptation of Crime and Punishment, and even graphic novels of several Big Read titles, including Fahrenheit 451. I spoke by e-mail with Tim Hamilton, the illustrator behind this adaptation of Ray Bradbury's classic work of dystopian fiction, to learn more about this trend in publishing and his experience participating in Big Read events around the country.

NEA: What inspired you to adapt Fahrenheit 451 into graphic novel form? Did you work together with Ray Bradbury on this project?

TIM HAMILTON: I get this question all the time. The answer is rather dull. I didn’t decide to do it. Mr. Bradbury is a fan of comics and has had many of his other stories adapted into the graphic novel form in the past. Fahrenheit 451 was something he wanted adapted for some time I am told. I had adapted Treasure Island into a graphic novel before 451 and was in the right place at the right time to do this job. The entire story about how I ended up doing it is a boring tale of contracts and the like.

I could have said no, and almost did out of fear of adapting such a famous book! But I was thrilled to do it in the end. And no, I didn’t work with Mr. Bradbury directly. I am on the East Coast and he on the West. I did meet him, and he let me know he loved what I did, but his hearing is not the best and communication is not easy. We worked through my editor and other intermediaries of his.

NEA: What do you have to keep in mind when adapting a novel rather than creating a completely original work?

HAMILTON: Well, in this case, Mr. Bradbury had a few rules. He didn’t want me to alter the story in any way. That is, alter what any of the characters say as sometimes happens when a book is adapted into a movie. Also, he didn’t want the look of the book to be that of a far future the likes of, say, Blade Runner. He wanted it somewhat retro. So basically I had to keep in mind what he wanted on his end. Beyond that, I used the same process as any book or project. I look around at the art world. I look at art history for inspiration. For 451 I looked at Art Deco posters, revolutionary Russian posters and illustrations from the 1950s to create the future retro look. I love art history. I let those particular art styles feed me while designing and illustrating 451.

When doing my own work I’m free to indulge myself, which can be a good or bad thing! When a cartoonist is doing his own work, writing and drawing, the combination of these tools in the hands of a skilled artist can be fantastic. I’ll credit Peanuts as a great example. There is a lot going on in some of those four-panel strips—a lot of hate, self-loathing, and joy, too. But I remember the underlying sadness showing though some of those comics.

Tim Hamilton. Photo by Seth Kushner

NEA: As a child, were you a big reader? Were graphic novels or comic books a way into literature for you?

HAMILTON: When I was very young, around six or eight, I found these Peanuts and Wizard of Id collections sitting around my house. I would read through those and become mesmerized. I loved them. After that I would read the Sunday comics religiously.  In fourth grade I remember we read Charlotte's Web, and I loved that book so much it inspired me to write a story about the adventures of a rat. I wrote about two pages of that “novel” before I got the rat stuck in a refrigerator and couldn’t figure out how to get him out! Then in seventh grade I read Childhood’s End and after that discovered many Bradbury short stories. In my teens I got into the superhero comics that were on the newsstand of my hometown. It was a very small place so I didn’t know about alternative or “underground” comics until later. And even then I had a hard time getting my hands on them. I always loved stories. Period. When they assigned a novel in English class most all the kids groaned, but I secretly gave out a cheer!

NEA: Do you think the practice of adapting classic works of literature into graphic novels will help to create a new generation of readers who would otherwise not be drawn to classic literature?

HAMILTON: You never know what will inspire someone to really get into the joy of reading. As I said above, Peanuts got me into reading initially. I know we read those “See Dick go to school” type books in first grade but I was bored to death with them! Kids aren’t stupid. Whoever wrote, “See Dick do this and that” was bored writing it and I was bored reading it. Again, Charlotte’s Web was written by someone who obviously cared.  So sure, graphic novels can help if it’s a good graphic novel. A prose novel can help if it’s a well-written novel. Some people are watching Game of Thrones on TV and loving it so much they are reading the novels.  If it’s good stuff, people will read it (for the most part).

NEA: You have participated in a number of Big Read programs across the country. What has this experience been like?

HAMILTON: Always different and always a great experience. I love seeing parts of the country I may have not seen before and meeting people who are passionate about books. People are WAY too nice! I’m just used to being my dull self and dealing with life, and then I go to these towns and get taken out to dinner and driven around.  A bit embarrassing! I also learned that talking to teens in their 8 or 9 a.m. classes is very, VERY tough. They’re all still asleep! But found you have to be very honest with your answers with kids. Not that I would lie, but I mean very honest about what it’s like to be an artist as opposed to other lines of work, the pros and cons of it, etc. Kids know when you’re not being sincere.  I’m there to present my work and educate if I can, but I’ve also learned a lot about myself in doing these events.

NEA: Is there anything else you want to add?

HAMILTON: When I met Ray Bradbury, I noticed that he told everyone repeatedly, “Do what you love.” Even if you realize that later in life, I really have to agree with him on that one. It’s not always an easy path to follow but it is a much better path to follow than the path of doing a job ONLY for the money.

What is your favorite graphic novel adaptation of a classic work of literature? Tell us in the comments! And for more on Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, visit the Big Read website.



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