Comic Creator Interview: David Hine on adapting “The Man Who Laughs”

David HineDavid Hine has had an illustrious career in comics, both as artist and writer, working on a diverse range of comics since his debut in the 1980s on titles such as Crisis. He’s currently finishing the first arc of Storm Dogs, from Image, co-created with artist Doug Braithwaite and writing Cowboys and Insects for his old buddy Shaky Kane, for digital anthology Aces Weekly. Work-for-hire projects include The Darkness for Top Cow and an arc of Crossed for Avatar.downthetubes caught up with David on the release of the stunning graphic novel adaption of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughed, drawn by Mark Stafford and published by SelfMadeHero…

downthethetubes: You’ve worked in comics since the 1980s, firstly for Crisis but also Marvel UK, more recently for Marvel and DC Comics, as well as worked on a number of “indie” projects like Strange Embrace and The Bulletproof Coffin. Do you miss the days of British publishers originating more comics?

David Hine: There certainly were a lot more opportunities for freelancers back in the eighties and there was never any shortage of work, though I rarely felt that I was really creating the comics I wanted to do. What we didn’t have much of back then was the opportunity to create full-length graphic novels and in that respect things are healthier now.

The Man Who Laughs Cover

downthetubes: One of your latest projects is The Man Who Laughs, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel for Eisner Award-nominated publisher SelfMadeHero. How did that project come about?

David: I had written a story for the DC comic Batman and Robin, set in Paris and featuring a French version of the Joker. I knew the story about the creation of the Joker being inspired by a movie poster of the 1929 film of The Man Who Laughs starring Conrad Veidt, and in my story a mad artist disfigures his own child as an homage to Victor Hugo. It occurred to me that I knew very little about the original novel, so I tracked down the English version on the Project Gutenberg site and read it at the gym on my Kindle.

Gywnplaine hears the screams of the drowning Comprachios. From The Man Who Laughed by Mark Stafford

Gywnplaine hears the screams of the drowning Comprachios.
From The Man Who Laughs by Mark Stafford

I don’t know if it was the rush of blood to the head, but I found myself inspired by the story. There were so many scenes that I knew would make fantastic sequences in a comic book. I found myself visualizing pages in my head – the scene where the Comprachicos sink beneath the waves while praying for their souls, Gwynplaine struggling barefoot through the snow, the descent into the depths of Southwark Jail, the confrontation with the massed ranks of the aristocracy in the House of Lords.

I’ve never felt compelled to adapt an existing work before, but this story seemed to be crying out to be made into a comic.

Southwark Jail, as visualized for The Man Who Laughed by Mark Stafford

Southwark Jail, as visualized for The Man Who Laughs by Mark Stafford

downthetubes: How do you approach adapting a novel like this? The structure of the original is very different to yours and Mark’s adaptation…

David: There were a number of problems with the original novel. It isn’t one of Victor Hugo’s most popular and that’s because it is bogged down in an obsessive catalogue of the titles and possessions of the most powerful aristocratic families and the workings of English law. Hugo clearly had done a lot of research and he was determined to cram it all in there. The narrative structure is also non-linear in a way that actually works against the dramatic effect. I know that’s a bit presumptuous of me, but I couldn’t help feeling he could have done with a good editor.

Gwynplaine and company arrive in London. Art from The Man Who Laughs by Mark Stafford

Gwynplaine and company arrive in London.
Art from The Man Who Laughs by Mark Stafford

The great thing about adapting a book to another medium, especially when the author is long dead and there are no copyright issues, is that you really can cut and rearrange as much as you want. It’s a massive tome, over 200,000 words, so clearly a lot of material had to be cut to reduce it to a manageable 160 pages of comics.

Art from The Man Who Laughs by Mark Stafford

Art from The Man Who Laughs by Mark Stafford

I read the book cover to cover three times. The first time was a straight reading. The second time, I had a hard copy of the book and went through marking the passages that had to be there, and eliminating the parts that were clearly extraneous to the story. There were a couple of nice scenes that could have stayed in, but in the end they reduced the impact of other scenes or upset the pacing of the story. Gwynplaine’s half brother, the illegitimate Lord David Dirry-Moir has an ambiguous role at the end, which is fascinating, but to include it would have ruined the pace of the final scenes, so I was a bit ruthless with him, I’m afraid.

I then re-arranged the order of events. Hugo skipped back and forth in time in ways that sometimes worked against the plot development. Too many spoilers in the early chapters!Finally, once I knew the scenes that were going to go in there, I re-read those scenes up to a half-dozen times to absorb their atmosphere. After I’d completed an outline of the graphic novel, I re-read the book again from cover-to-cover to make sure I hadn’t missed anything vital.

downthetubes: What’s the most difficult aspect of such adaptations? Do you think that it’s easier for you to script such work, given your skill as an artist as well as a writer?

David: The most difficult decision was the language. The book was published in 1869 and set in the early 18th Century. Victor Hugo’s language was that of the 19th Century, so it was already a modernization and there was a temptation to update it further. In the end I chose to keep Hugo’s voice and that’s where all the re-reading came in useful. I often used Hugo’s actual words when appropriate but I felt confident enough that even where I was inventing scenes or dialogue, I had absorbed enough of the feel of his writing to keep it consistent and hopefully it reads seamlessly.

Art from The Man Who Laughs by Mark Stafford

Art from The Man Who Laughs by Mark Stafford

downthetubes: There are some superb and startling images in The Man Who Laughs that condense almost entire chapters in the original – Gwynplaine’s horrifying encounter with the hanged man, for example is told in just two panels. Do you decide that kind of thing as a writer or was it a matter of joint discussion?

David: The form of the novel is perfect for getting into the heads of the characters and that internal voice is where there is often a problem with adaptation. In Hugo’s case, he was a very visual writer. Discussing scenes with Mark, we soon realised we were both imagining things in a similar way. The internalised emotions are a little more difficult but when you’re working with Mark the problems are solved very easily.

Some of the most powerful scenes are wordless. I have experience as an artist so I always break down a script into thumbnails, roughing out the pages and panels to make sure they are working. I didn’t give Mark those thumbnails because that would be imposing too much of my vision, but I knew that structurally it would all work. Then I gave Mark as much information as I could on what was going through the characters’ heads and when appropriate, cutting and pasting some of the key passages from Hugo as well. The script ran to over 45,000 words in the end, so there was a lot for Mark to wade through.

That scene with the hanged man, for instance, included the original description giving every detail of the canvas the corpse was wrapped in, the snails that had trailed across it, much of which we decided to leave out. We probably talked more about that full-page spread than most other pages. It’s a powerful image that mirror’s Gwynplaine’s own suffering. In the end that single image sums up several hundred words of script.

Mark has a genius for depicting very complex and often conflicting emotional information with his drawing and I don’t think there are many artists who could match what he has done with this book. I gave him the near-impossible task of drawing a character with a face that is fixed in a permanent horrifying rictus, and then asking him to convey every emotional nuance imaginable.

At the start I think Mark was reluctant to draw the facial disfigurement as extreme as I wanted. There’s a recent French film that draws back from showing the sheer horror of that physical abuse and it undermines the whole story. Hugo leaves no doubt how awful the mutilation was. Gwynplaine had to be utterly repulsive in order to make the nobility of the character shine so clearly. That was a hell of a challenge for Mark, and he rose to it with his usual aplomb. By forcing the reader to look at the horror of his face, you find that after a while you are seeing past it. The acting is all in the body language and the upper face, particularly the eyes. You see through the fright mask to the sympathetic character that lies beneath.

The cover of The Darkness #112 by Stjepan Sejic

The cover of The Darkness #112
by Stjepan Sejic

downthetubes: You’ve worked for both small and large comic publishers on both commercial and, I assume, more personal projects. Does your work on series like X-Men, for example, afford you the opportunity to work on (perhaps) smaller stories like The Darkness?

David: When I began writing for a living in 2004 I was exceptionally lucky to start with X-Men and other well-know characters. I’ve written Daredevil, Spider-Man, the Inhumans, Batman, Green Lantern, all kinds of iconic characters. I even had a run on Will Eisner’s The Spirit for DC, which was actually the most gratifying work-for-hire I had done. I could imagine writing Batman, but I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be allowed to write my all-time favourite character.

Now I have made it clear that I no longer want to work on the bigger corporate characters of Marvel and DC. There are too many issues. However, working on those books has made it a lot easier to find publishers for my more personal work and even on work-for-hire I’m given a lot of free rein by the guys at Top Cow and Avatar.

I guess I’ve gone about this ass backwards. Most people seem to do the smaller books with the aim of reaching the heady heights of working for the Big Two and that turned out to be the reverse of my career path. It’s still tough to make a living from the creator-owned work, but it’s so much more creatively satisfying. What the DC and Marvel work did was to get my name out there a bit and also helped me to develop my craft.

Working to insane deadlines really is also a great way to focus the mind, and even the frustrating editorial “directing” does push you to find a way to tell a decent story against the odds. I’ll always be grateful to the guys like Joe Quesada and Mike Marts who gave me those openings at Marvel and DC. I know I often slag off the Big Two but I have a lot of respect for many of the individuals who work at both companies. And kudos to the creators like Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Si Spurrier, Frazer Irving, Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and many more, who somehow manage to rise above.

downthetubes: What’s your next project and when does it launch?

David: Storm Dogs is the big one at the moment. The fifth issue has gone to press and the last part of the first arc is being drawn right now by co-creator Doug Braithwaite. This is my first serious attempt at science fiction since my Mambo series for 2000AD back in the 1990’s.

Then there is a second arc of Night Of The Living Dead for Avatar and I’ve just written the first part of my second arc of Crossed for the same publisher.I’m also working up to the death of Jackie Estacado and The Darkness. Talking of iconic characters, I’m getting to kill off this one! It’s a strangely positive project to be working on and I think the mini-series ‘Darkness Falls’ that follows the end of the monthly series could be one of the defining episodes in the history of The Darkness.

Bulletproof Coffin © David Hine & Shaky Kane

Bulletproof Coffin
© David Hine & Shaky Kane

downthtetubes: You’re also working on a number of digital projects and you and Shaky Kane have constructed a very different version of Bulletproof Coffin in its digital form. Are you excited by the opportunities and challenges of this new comic storytelling medium?

David: That’s an interesting development. When we did the cut-up issue of The Bulletproof Coffin it was the realisation of a concept I had running around my head for the best part of 20 years. I had wanted to write a story as a set of cards, with a single image on each card, which would be sold in a pack and would be shuffled and read at random. I’m fascinated by the way we perceive ‘story’, attempting to impose a narrative structure on even the most random of elements. Initially the idea was to present a story in pieces and find the ‘correct’ structure. So that was the theory, but I never got around do doing it.

Issue 4 of The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred was the closest I got. That was a collection of 84 images, some of them related, but mostly created as a stream of consciousness with a deliberately random approach. That culminated with sitting in a pub with print-outs of those 84 images and having everyone round the table re-arrange them at random. The order we ended with was the order in which they were printed.

The next stage would have been to create a digital version, which would create pages in random sequence, but I just assumed that would need some amazingly complex piece of software to achieve, so we never did it. We did encourage people to ‘cut and paste’ their own digital versions of the comic and a number of people posted PDFs of their re-arrangements. Then we heard from this guy called Inigo Saenz who contacted me to ask if he could post his version.

When I saw it I freaked. The pages were genuinely random and you could go on clicking for new pages indefinitely. This really was the Endless Coffin, just as I imagined it. Inigo asked me if I could think of any improvement and I very flippantly suggested weird music and animated psychedelic gifs, which he duly added. It’s quite a trip and you can see it here:

I love the way our readers have become involved in the creative process. In a sense the reader or viewer is always a part of that process. No one ever reads the same book as someone else, or sees the same movie or hears the same music, but with the Coffin, the involvement has become more proactive. I love it and in many ways The Bulletproof Coffin has become the most important piece of work I’ve been involved with. I hope Shaky feels the same.

And by the way, we promise not to sue anyone who recreates that fourth issue of The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred in any way, shape or form. It’s all yours to mess with in any way you want, provided you make the result available for free.

Cowboys and Insects © David Hine & Shaky Kane

Cowboys and Insects © David Hine & Shaky Kane

We are now working on Cowboys and Insects, which is a whole other kind of science-fiction that draws on 1950’s B-movies for inspiration. It will make its appearance in June on David Lloyd’s digital site Aces Weekly. It’s a natural outlet for Shaky’s work. Now you can see his art the way it was meant to be. Shaky tells me he’s been taking the opportunity to turn the brightness on the colour up to eleven.

downthetubes: Above anything else, what one piece of advice would you offer aspiring comic creators?

David: I spend too much time telling people to work on their craft. That is important of course, but there is too much highly crafted, efficiently sterile work out there. Be original. Look at everything, soak up everything, from every medium, every genre, let it percolate in your head and then turn off the personal censor and let it all out.

• Thanks to David for his time. You can keep up to date with latest news on David’s work on his blog and find links to his work in print at or on davidhine.tumblr or @hinedavid (Twitter)

•  Mark Stafford’s Hocus Baloney (blog)

Categories: British Comics - Books, British Comics - Graphic Novels, Comic Creator Interviews, Comic Creator Spotlight, Creating Comics

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