Mouse Guard creator David Petersen has said that Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows helped define his style, and now he's putting that to work adapting the classic story.
Petersen's The Wind in the Willows is scheduled to be released October 26 as part of IDW's growing line of adaptations of classic stories. The cartoonist put his own Mouse Guard series on hold for three years to illustrate the 60+ images for this upcoming IDW edition, including doing signature plates for the book's first printing.
Newsarama spoke to Petersen from his Michigan home about this project, discussing the relationships between Toad, Rat, Mole, and Badger, how re-readings of Grahame's work gave him new insight into Wind in the Willows and his plans for Mouse Guard.
Newsarama: David, what are you working on today?
David Petersen: I'm writing outlines for my next Mouse Guard, The Weasel War. It is the main thing I'm working on, but I also have one Wind in the Willows loose end that I need to finish today: some work for the cover embossment.
Nrama: I’m talking to you today about the upcoming The Wind in the Willows adaptation. Where did you first learn about this book? You've mentioned Kenneth Grahame's name numerous times over the years as a big influence.
Petersen: I had been aware of the book and most of the story before ever actually reading it, but it wasn't until college that I got a copy and sat and read it over a Christmas break. I instantly fell in love with it as a narrative. It has a duality to the storytelling techniques, a contemplative emotional and spiritual tale of Rat and Mole woven together with an action adventure of Toad and his escapades.
When my wife Julia and I were just dating, she would house-sit for a family member who had an enormous fireplace, and we'd sit in front of a nice winter fire there and I'd read Wind in the Willows aloud to her trying my best to do satisfying character voices for the main cast.
It certainly is a part of my life, and was another positive talking animal influence that led me to pursue actually making that first issue of Mouse Guard.
Nrama: So how did you and IDW come together to do this project?
Petersen: I'd done a run of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles covers for IDW, but also for their books division, I contributed some original art pieces for a Locke & Key special edition box.
Jerry Bennington, the editor on that Locke & Key project, contacted me about their idea to pursue publishing classic texts in the public domain but having them illustrated by some of the talent pool IDW has worked with. He offered me Wind in the Willows and it felt like the perfect for both of us.
Nrama: Did you have any reservations about doing this, especially as it meant taking time off from Mouse Guard?
Petersen: Some. If I'd known how long it really was going to take me, I'd have had more reservations. But it just felt like a must-do project, a bucket-list illustration accomplishment. But I was in a place where I needed to take some time from Mouse Guard. I wasn't ready to tackle the next big story there and needed those ideas to germinate in my mind while I did some other things, so the timing was right.
Nrama: So once you committed to Wind in the Willows, how did you first go about breaking down the project to work on it?
Petersen: The first step was re-reading it while making lists and taking notes. As I read, I wrote down everything in that chapter that would make a good illustration. Once I'd done that for every chapter, I had to whittle down the lists. IDW and I had a set number of illustrations for the book, so I came up with the average I'd need per chapter, and selected the essential pieces, with the most important moments being given full page color illustrations. Then I only had to illustrate all 70 pieces.
Oh, now that I think about it, I may have tackled the cover before all of this. And for that I just picked a moment in the story that would have all four of the main characters, since I see Wind in the Willows a truly an ensemble piece.
Nrama: You've done smaller work with others and for other people's stories, but this is a large-scale adaptation of someone else's work - who in this case is deceased and therefore unable to communicate with. What was that like?
Petersen: It was hard. The scale of the book and everything I wanted to illustrate wouldn't fit in my 70 illustrations for a start, but trying to adapt the book's scale was the biggest challenge. And I don't mean that in the epic-ness of the tale or the beloved history weighing heavy on the project, but rather the size of characters, locations, and objects in the book.
Sometimes the characters do things than make you believe they are the scale of real animals and that their homes aren't 'homes' so much as well-furnished tunnels and holes... but then in other places in the text their locations have specifics that make them more human-like, and they later interact with humans and human objects that would mean the characters must be larger than their real-life counterparts.
There is a vagueness in the text that I think is intentional... even if Grahame were alive to chat with, I don't know that I'd get a straight answer from him about it.
And the book has been adapted by so many people in many ways... not just illustrations, but animations and for the stage, so there's a legacy to try an incorporate the best of, to split the differences of and draw from the common visual language fans of the text come to expect.
Nrama: Did the previous illustration work by E.H. Shepard, Arthur Rackham, Inga Moore, and Rober Ingpen influence you at all in your illustrations here?
Petersen: Oh yes, how could they not!? Shepard's illustrations are the ones I'm the most familiar with and are the go-to for my visual idea of the story... but obviously the other incarnations and illustrators have added to my mental image of the tale.
The biggest problem was living up to those kind of names, and trying not just to repeat their work in my style. But that was nearly impossible.
I'd work on the best framing and layout for how and where to place the characters, how they interact with the scene, when in the text is the freeze-frame moment, or what other moments to I mash into one single illustration... I'd find that it was the same (or similar enough) to Shephard's piece from that scene... so then I'd purposely try to alter it, come at the characters from a different angle, re-arrange them, crop in closer, do the moment after, etc...and I'd find that the illustration would've suffered for it, that Shephard (of course) knew what he was doing and nailed the perfect composition.
And when I'd find that I had an 'original' take for an illustration right away, it would be the same story all over again but from another one of that fantastic pedigree list of illustrators.
So there are some unapologetic illustrations of me just trying to add what I could with my linework and texture to essentially another illustrator's layout. I'd also cherry-pick what I liked about each of the versions of the same scene and try to incorporate those parts into mine: Badger's kitchen: the warmth of Hauge's, the architecture scale of Ingpen's, the acting and floor of Moore's…
Nrama: I imagine for adapting this you had to re-read Grahame's original book numerous times. What nuances did you pick up from the story as an adapter that you didn't glean when you were 'just' a reader?
Petersen: Other than just getting more immersed in it, the only thing that comes to mind that I hadn't noticed, was that in the third chapter: The Wild Wood, when Rat has found Mole hiding in a tree hollow and they stay there for part of the night until the moon is out to see by, Rat doesn't sleep. Mole does, and for some reason I had an image in my head of them nuzzled together a bit for warmth as they both caught some much needed sleep. But it's only Mole who sleeps and Rat plays his protector standing watch over their hidey-hole.
It changed the way I illustrated it when I noticed my mental error, not just from the standpoint of drawing one character with their eyes open instead of shut, but thematically with rest for the weary and protection from the brave.
Nrama: In a rather unique promotion, you will be hand-signing each copy of IDW's first printing. Whose idea was that, and do you have an estimate of how many copies that will be (roughly) yet? And how will that work, when the time comes?
Petersen: I'll be signing signature plates that will be added into the books that were signed through the direct market. Those should be arriving for me to sign next week, and according to IDW, I'll be signing 2,500! I've signed a lot of things, and a lot of things at once, but I've never signed 2,500 of something like this.
Nrama: I assume since the publication date is less than two months away you've finished on the adaptation except the aforementioned bookplates and embossment. What have you learned from doing this that you think you'll apply to Mouse Guard?
Petersen: Working on this project changed the way I illustrate. I think I learned things about line and texture and using line for shading that I hadn't employed in Mouse Guard, but now I can't stop doing it... so those visual details in the inking will certainly carry back over into Mouse Guard.