Matt Phelan on The Storm in the Barn

Matt Phelan on The Storm in the Barn

It’s 1937 in Kansas, the heart of the Dust Bowl. Crops are gone, clouds of dust whirl through the area, and a whole generation of young children have no idea what rain even looks like. But 11-year-old Jack Clark knows where the rain’s gone. He’s seen it, in an abandoned barn, a shadowy figure with a face like a thunderstorm. And as times grow even more desperate and people begin to succumb to “dust dementia,” the brave boy will undertake a dangerous quest to save his family and his town.

That’s the story of The Storm in the Barn, a new all-ages full-color graphic novel premiering from Candlewick Press this summer. It’s the first graphic novel from Matt Phelan, an acclaimed children’s book illustrator whose pictures have graced such books as the 2007 Newberry Medal winner The Higher Power of Lucky. Phelan was gracious enough to talk with us about his first journey into the world of comics, and share some watercolor pages from the book. Read on to find out more about this mysterious storm…

Newsarama: Matt what was your basic inspiration for The Storm in the Barn?

Matt Phelan: Growing up, I used to look through these big books of WPA photographs that my dad owned. The stark power of those portraits always fascinated me. Years later, I bought a book on the Dust Bowl on a whim and started to learn more about the era.

A few years went by, and then I saw an American Experience documentary called “Surviving the Dust Bowl” that featured interviews with people who had lived through that time. I started to think about what it must have been like for them to experience the Dust Bowl as kids, and the story started forming in my head.

Then one day, during a meeting at my job, I doodled a man with a face that looked like a thunderstorm, and all the pieces fell into place. So, figuring out the story happened over the course of maybe five years, but the seeds of the idea go way back to my childhood.

NRAMA: What made you want to tell the story in a graphic novel format?

MP: Initially, I thought it would be an illustrated novel. I began writing the opening scene and, several pages into it, I realized that I could convey the same information with a handful of drawings. Not only could I tell the story with more precision, I could use silence in the pictures. From that point on, I knew it had to be a graphic novel.

NRAMA: What was the biggest challenge of doing a graphic novel?

MP: I think (it was) keeping the pacing right and finding the most economical way to tell the story. I wanted it to run uninterrupted, without chapter breaks, so I had to make sure the acts of the story flowed well. Also, coming from picture books, I was particularly aware of the importance of the page turn and making sure you hit the point of the scene at the right moment.

To make sure it all worked, I wrote a full script first, then did a series of thumbnail drawings, so I knew what went on each page. I allowed myself room to improvise as I drew, but this way I knew I had to get back on track before the big reveal on page X.

NRAMA: Did you ever visit the Kansas area where the story takes place?

MP: No, I did photo research with my books and online (especially the Library of Congress website). The town of Liberal, Kansas was fairly well documented during the Dust Bowl so my town may be loosely based on that.

NRAMA: How do you feel the world of the Dust Bowl relates to modern-day society?

MP: I suppose that when an industry picks up and vanishes from your town leaving you with no work or prospects, you may feel the same sense of powerlessness as these farmers did.

NRAMA: What appeals to you about illustrating rural stories like this and Lucky?

MP: I think a rural setting can get rid of a lot of clutter, even in a modern story. I don’t have much interest in drawing a character Tweet.

NRAMA: What's interesting about the supernatural element in the story is that you create this personification of the situation people faced at that time. It reminded me of Neil Gaiman's American Gods in that respect.

Do you feel we're now at a point where the history of the United States has sort of given rise to its own unique series of myths and legends? That is, that events such as the Dust Bowl can now be viewed in this almost mythological context, similar to how the histories of many older countries have their own gods and monsters? This seems like something you’re touching upon through the references to the Oz books and the traditional "Jack" tales.

MP: The idea of an American mythology was definitely something I wanted to explore. The Jack Tales were a very popular oral tradition that directly mirrored the fairy tales of Europe.

By the time this story takes place (1937) the Oz books had been captivating readers for more than thirty years, and I bet they had an even stronger resonance with kids in the Kansas of the Dust Bowl. The idea of a tornado taking you to another world doesn’t seem so farfetched when a one-hundred-foot wall of black dust could suddenly make your town vanish in minutes.

To kids in the Dust Bowl, who knew fairy tales and the Oz stories but maybe not the science of erosion, what would their world look like? If there was such a thing as a cursed land, then surely this was it.

I wanted to use the Dust Bowl as the setting for a fairy tale instead of taking it and writing a straight-up historical novel. That seemed like fair game at this point in our history.

NRAMA: Tying the Oz books into the Kansas situation makes sense, but I'd like to know more about how they influenced you as a writer.

MP: Well, I didn’t actually read the first Oz book until I took a college class on children’s literature. I was surprised about how truly weird it is (not that the movie version hadn’t always creeped me out).

I thought it would be good to have Jack’s sister Dorothy read one of the Oz books, so I checked the synopses for the books and discovered that Ozma of Oz had references to the Deadly Desert of Oz and featured a Gnome King which tied in nicely. So I read it, and really enjoyed it. Ozma has some of Baum’s more disturbing creations like the Wheelers (the great movie Return to Oz used a lot of material from this book).

NRAMA: With Jack and his father, you also touch on some deep themes about what it meant to be a man in those times, and living up to a sense of expectation when you have no idea what it is you're supposed to do. How did you develop those characters and themes?

MP: The father is a good man who is slowly giving up and losing his identity. He has trouble seeing past that, and seeing that Jack is not just another now useless part of his wasteland of a farm. Jack is desperate not only to be seen as having value, but for his pa to simply notice his existence.

NRAMA: Do you see yourself doing more graphic novels in the future?

MP: Absolutely. Even though the words “labor intensive” do not even begin to describe the process, I fell in love with what you can do with this unique medium. I’m anxious to experiment more.

I’d like to do some more short stories. I contributed a short comic to an upcoming anthology called Sideshow which I’m really excited about because it’s the first time an anthology in this series included comics. Danica Novgorodoff and Shawn Cheng also contributed stories.

NRAMA: What else are you working on?

MP: I’m writing another graphic novel for Candlewick Press that’s based on three true solo journeys around the world that took place at the end of the nineteenth century. I’ll begin drawing it early next year, with the aim of it being published in 2011.

For more of Phelan’s work, check out his website at www.mattphelan.com or his blog at http://planetham.blogspot.com/. The Storm in the Barn blows into stores this August.

THE STORM IN THE BARN. Copyright © 2009 by Matt Phelan. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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