In November of last year, we had the privilege of welcoming bestselling author Amity Shlaes for a visit here at the Acton Building while she was in Grand Rapids to speak about Calvin Coolidge at Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. Aside from being a fine author of some very thought provoking books on history and economics, she’s a delightful lady, and it was a pleasure to have an opportunity to make her acquaintance personally. At the time, she was very excited about a project that she had been working on which was soon to be released to the public – a graphic novel adaptation of her best-selling book, The Forgotten Man. Her enthusiasm for the project was infectious, and I’ve been looking forward to its release ever since. (You can pre-order a copy of the book, which is set to be released on May 27.)
But how does one take a nearly 500 page hardcover book that revisits the economic history of the Great Depression and translate it into a visual presentation on the printed page? It wasn’t a simple process. Paul Rivoche is the artist who worked with Shlaes on the project; in this interview at Graphic Novel Reporter, he describes how the original book was reworked in order to create a compelling visual story:
The original book was nonfiction and of course not at all structured to be a graphic novel. It’s an economic history of the New Deal/Great Depression era, described from an alternative viewpoint. It has a huge cast of characters — all real people — and discusses many abstract ideas. To make it work as a graphic novel, we had to find a new structure for the same material; we couldn’t follow the exact arrangement in the print book. For example, there are many jumps in location in the real-life story we tell, and all these characters coming and going. In prose, it worked because you imagine it in your head, stitching it together, following the steady guidance of the author’s voice. In comics form, the same thing was disorienting. We learned that if the visuals change too fast, without enough explanation, the reader easily becomes confused when dealing with such complex events, all these different scenes and faces. To solve this, we decided to introduce a “framing story” using a narrator, Wendell Willkie. In telling the story, he guides us — at times directly, and in other scenes we hear his voiceover narration in captions. Also, we had to make the story as visual as possible, not all “talking heads,” which make for dull comics. Instead, we highlighted interesting locales: the Hoover Dam, the great flood of 1927, Willkie’s famous debate, and many others. In every scene we aimed to introduce as much movement, action, and characterization as possible.
The full interview has more detail on the project; After the jump, you can listen to an August 2012 Radio Free Acton interview with Amity Shlaes on her then-forthcoming biography on Calvin Coolidge.