Inside the Process of a Graphic Novelist

mattphelanMatt Phelan is a graphic novelist and children’s book illustrator. His picture books include Flora’s Very Windy Day, I’ll Be There, Xander’s Panda Party, and Marilyn’s Monster. His graphic novels are titled Around the World, The Storm in the Barn, and Bluffton. He recently appeared at the Reading Into History family book group at the New-York Historical Society in New York City and held a book conversation about his most recent graphic novel, Bluffton.

Phelan grew up around Philadelphia and still lives near there. He is very interested in history, which is why his graphic novels take place in the past.

He has always liked to draw, he said, and, when he was growing up, his favorite artist was Charles Schulz.

Phelan studied acting in college, but always felt his dream job was to be a children’s book illustrator. “I would say it all the time, and I said I should try to do that.”

Most of Matt Phelan’s graphic novels have a historical background. When he is looking at photos to help him illustrate them, his actor’s sense kicks in. He says, “I call it ‘looking deeply’ at pictures.”

He thinks a lot about each photo. “I’m also asking questions like, ‘ Who are these three kids? Are they friends, are they brothers?” He also says, “ If I put myself into the picture, when I draw some of it comes into the drawing.”

His writing process for graphic novels is different from non-graphic novelists, since he has to draw pictures for each page as well as writing the dialogue, though he always writes the action and dialogue first and then draws the pictures.

When he writes the script, he writes one line for each picture. For the graphic novels, he always paints the images larger than they appear in the book. In The Storm in the Barn, the paintings were 33 percent larger, in Around the World, he worked 50 percent larger, and in Bluffton, the pictures were twice as large as in the book.

Phelan writes the story first for his graphic novels. He writes the dialogue and action out like a screenplay. Each action and sentence has its own panel in the books. First he does little rough sketches that are called thumbnail sketches.

“What I write is the story, but what turns it into a graphic novel and what it makes it visual is in these (sketches).”

After he finishes the sketches, he makes a painting of each thumbnail sketch. A lot of graphic novels are done digitally, but not his. Phelan says the sketches are like rehearsal, and the final painting is like the performance, that everyone sees. The sketches take 5-6 months to do, and the paintings take about a year.

Even though they take so long, he considers the painting the easiest step, because he already knows how the story is going to go.

Matt Phelan has a new graphic novel coming out next year, a Snow White adaptation set in 1933 New York City.