A Native Lad — Turning Words Into Pictures: Guest post by Sarah Hurst

From Andromeda: Though I haven’t read as many as I’d like, I count myself a fan of graphic novels — including Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis — about the author’s life in Iran and elsewhere. I’m especially impressed with graphic novels that venture into history and politics, so I was excited to discover that Sarah Hurst is unveiling a graphic novel about Alaska history, a great way to make that subject more accessible both to children (I know my kids will be reading it) and adults. Hurst and artists will be appearing at Bosco’s in Dimond Mall for a release event and signing on Saturday August 14, and the International Gallery of Contemporary Art in downtown Anchorage will feature the graphic novel artwork throughout October. The story of how Hurst came up with this project is nearly as interesting as the book itself. In addition to this project, there is a lot happening on the Alaska comic and graphic novel scene. In preparation for this blogpost, I enjoyed visiting “Ink and Snow,” a site by Fairbanks “serial art” aficionado and cartoonist Jamie Smith. Anchorage cartoonist actively Peter Dunlap-Shohl blogs at Frozen Grin. And there’s a whole lot of wonderful, weird stuff penned by multiple artists at Alaska Robotics, where the focus also encompasses short film. Which just goes to show: when visual art (and film, and humor) are added to the mix, there are many ways to tell a story — and many talented Alaskans crossing some interesting boundaries.
Thanks to Sarah Hurst for this guest post, which originally ran in the library newsletter, Newspoke.

When I asked my husband Jon if he would read the play about Alaska history I’d just finished writing, his reply was: “I’ll read it when it comes out as a comic book.” Instead of snarling at him for being so dismissive, I started thinking about his suggestion. Graphic novels – as the slightly longer and more serious comic books are usually called – are all the rage these days. I immediately stole Jon’s idea and started working on a grant application to turn my play into a graphic novel.

I had become immersed in Alaska history when I was hired in 2007 by Anchorage-based TV producer Larry Goldin to help him work on a two-hour documentary about Alaska statehood. That job involved frequent visits to the Alaska Collection at the Loussac Library and also enabled me to sit in on Larry’s lengthy interviews with Alaska icons like Ted Stevens, Wally Hickel, Mike Stepovich, Vic Fischer, Emil Notti and many others. I then had to spend hours transcribing the interviews from audio files, so I got to hear all their stories twice.

When I heard that the Alaska Humanities Forum was giving out $1 million in grants for creative projects associated with the 50th anniversary of statehood, I decided to apply for one, to write the play, which was mainly intended for schools. I was awarded the grant in 2008. The play is narrated by Benny Benson, who magically meets a modern-day high school student called Abigail and shows her scenes from Alaska history.

I originally intended to call the play “Eight Stars of Gold”, but then I found out that the Alaska Humanities Forum had funded another person to write a play with the same title, so I changed it to “A Native Lad”, taking the title from the first line of the unadopted second verse of the Alaska Flag Song. When I finished the play I made it available free to the public, sending a link to the script and accompanying teachers’ and students’ guide to principals and teachers at nearly every middle school and high school in the state.

The play.

The teachers’ and students’ guide.

A few weeks later, in November 2009, I was amazed to read a letter from Debbe Lancaster, a teacher at the school in the village of Tatitlek, between Valdez and Cordova on Prince William Sound. The village has a population of about 50, with 16 students of all ages at the school. Debbe said that the kids in her class had been reading the play for several weeks and had insisted on performing it, even though each of them would have to play about 10 different characters.

In January I flew to Tatitlek to help with the final preparations for the world premiere of the play. The village is only accessible by air and doesn’t even have its own store. The kids had worked incredibly hard learning their lines and making costumes, including a fat suit (for Constitutional Convention delegate Mildred Hermann) and all kinds of facial hair. A few of the adults who were also playing parts were desperately learning lines, hoping not to let the kids down. The whole village watched the performance, and I shot hours of film footage during my visit, which is being made into a mini-documentary by the Alaska Teen Media Institute.

The Alaska Humanities Forum gave me the grant I’d requested to hire artists to illustrate a graphic novel version of the play. I started by calling Peter Dunlap-Shohl, the former editorial cartoonist for the Anchorage Daily News, and he immediately agreed to participate and recommended some other artists: Lee Post, Duke Russell, Lance Lekander and Dimi Macheras. Dimi is an Alaska Native now living in Seattle, who has already produced graphic novel versions of Alaska Native stories.

I also asked an art professor at UAA if he could suggest anyone, and through him I added the talented students Sean Jones and Gideon Gerlt to the team. I asked Ray Troll if he would like to do a scene: he said he was too busy, but put me in touch with Evon Zerbetz, who lives in Ketchikan and whose style is somewhat similar to Ray’s.

My husband Jon made another important contribution when he was talking to a young woman in a bar about the graphic novel and she told him that she knew an artist who could “do anything”. She wrote his name and number down on a piece of paper and Jon passed it on to me. I was skeptical, but it turned out that the artist, Shanley McCauley, really could do anything, not only illustrating two scenes but also doing a fantastic cover with Benny Benson holding the state flag, standing next to his younger brother, looking at modern-day Anchorage and a group of Native dancers in the sky above him.

Several of the artists submitted their ideas for cover sketches and members of the public chose Shanley’s in a poll. Bosco’s Comics in Anchorage hosted the cover sketches on its website. Bosco’s has been very supportive throughout the process, with owner John Weddleton writing the foreword to the book.

Each artist was paid $500 per scene, with Peter and Dimi doing three scenes, Shanley, Sean and Gideon two, and the others one. The pay rate was really quite minimal, considering the amount of work they all put into it. Some were very experienced in this format and others not at all, and the challenge turned out to be rather daunting. A few other artists who had wanted to participate fell by the wayside. Those who survived truly were the fittest.

I approached various publishers, and found the perfect fit with Greatland Graphics, based in Anchorage. They publish beautifully-illustrated books for young children, including some by Shannon Cartwright, but they hadn’t published a graphic novel for older children and adults before. I think they gradually started to become more enthusiastic about the project as they saw how good the artwork was that was being produced.

The book is due to be published in August, and I hope that it can be read for enjoyment as well as used in the classroom to bring Alaska history to life. I am also looking forward to finally hearing Jon’s opinion on it…

Visit the project’s Facebook page.

2 thoughts on “A Native Lad — Turning Words Into Pictures: Guest post by Sarah Hurst”

  1. This is an amazing story. The path to success, so unconventional, and yet so perfect. I, personally, would not have thought of giving a scene to each artist. I would be afraid that it would not hang together, adequately. Now, I am eager to see the finished product. Thanks for giving a fine example of how to get a project done. You have shown me some rocks I might turn over.

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