You’ve seen many versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but you’ve never seen one like Marley’s Ghost.
What makes this comic book adaptation unique? Well, it’s based on an unfinished graphic novel pitch by Harvey Kurtzman, renowned as one of the most influential creators in comics. As a writer, artist and editor, Kurtzman’s works included countless groundbreaking stories for EC Comics, founding a little magazine called MAD, and creating some of the first book-length graphic novels - and that’s not even getting into his work as an editor, his decades of cartoons for Playboy, or co-writing the cult-classic film Mad Monster Party.
Now, Kurtzman’s Christmas Carol has been completed based off his original drawings and notes, and is available on comiXology as Marley’s Ghost. Newsarama talked with Josh O’Neill (Once Upon a Time Machine), who co-wrote the adaptation, about the history of this project – and the unique challenges of bringing a Ghost of Comics Past back to life.
Newsarama: Josh, tell us about Marley’s Ghost – the project and the history behind it.
Josh O’Neill: In the early fifties, comics legend and creator of MAD Magazine Harvey Kurtzman had plans to adapt Charles Dickens’s classic story A Christmas Carol into a graphic novel. He created a batch of fully-drawn pages and thumbed out a large portion of the book as a pitch for publishers. The project never came to be, largely because the graphic novel did not really exist as a format, and few publishers were as forward-looking as Harvey was.
Gideon Kendall, Shannon Wheeler, and myself teamed up at the behest of Kitchen Sink Books, comiXology and the Kurtzman estate to bring Harvey's dream to fruition and make Marley's Ghost a reality.
Nrama: How did you come on board?
O’Neill: The concept was hatched by Denis Kitchen and John Lind at Kitchen Sink Books. Denis was a close friend and creative associate of Harvey's, and of the Kurtzman estate. The concept of this tantalizingly unfinished project was exciting to Denis.
The finished work by Kurtzman and Jack Davis was so extraordinary. I've worked with Denis a lot, and he knows I'm a big Kurtzman fan, and - as an editor of books about Winsor McCay, Herbert Crowley and Will Eisner - a guy with a particular interest in comics history and how it's relevant to the present. He invited me and Shannon to be involved as editors/scriptwriters, and we brought Gideon on, who really made the thing come to life.
Nrama: What were some of the biggest challenges in adapting the manuscript?
O’Neill: Finding the right balance of Dickens' text with a visual storytelling style. Dickens voice is so wonderfully verbose and musical and compelling, it's easy to get addicted to his language, his crazy extended metaphors and run-on sentences and witty character descriptions.
The toughest trick, in my mind, was how to infuse that amazing voice into the book while keeping the story lean and visual, not choked by excessive text.
Nrama: How familiar were you with Harvey Kurtzman's work? What particular qualities do you associate with his writing and artistic style, and what did you want to be careful to preserve in adapting his manuscript?
O’Neill: I'm a huge Kurtzman fan. I really think that Kurtzman and Dickens are two of the greatest storytellers in the English language. But they're so very different from each other. Where Dickens is wordy and jolly and over-generous, Kurtzman is sharp and nimble and minimal.
They have a lot in common, though - they're both hilariously funny, economical in characterization, they both lose the music and rhythm of their chosen medium, and more than anything, they're deeply humane storytellers who love characters and their readers. Keeping the witty, sharp, choreographic music of Kurtzman's storytelling was deeply important to us.
Nrama: Tell us a bit about your collaborative process - co-writing, working with Gideon, with the editors, etc.
O’Neill: Gideon and I are both on the East Coast, with Shannon on the West, so it was easier for us to get together in person. But the entire process was very collaborative. There was a lot of sending scripts, roughs and artwork back and forth, refining over draft after draft. I think the book came out far better as this hybridized collaboration than it could have without this team in place. Denis and John were very involved editorially, guiding us along the way. It was kind of an all-hands-on-deck situation.
But ultimately, we all trusted Gideon to bring this thing to life in the way only he could, and a way that Harvey would have been proud of.
Nrama: There are obviously many versions of A Christmas Carol – seriously, Evan Rachel Wood's dad, Ira David Wood III, puts on an elaborate musical with localized jokes every year in my area; I'm partial to Richard Williams and Chuck Jones' short, while my family prefers the Muppets. What do you think makes this particular interpretation unique?
O’Neill: There are so many versions. It may be the most-told story in the English language, outside of the Bible. But I think Kurtzman was going for something different. As indicated by his change of the title to Marley's Ghost, he was going for something a little spookier and more haunted than the traditional versions.
This is a ghost story with a powerful moral message, and so many versions just drown all of that in sentimentality. So, we tried to restore some of the creepy ghostly magic that's in Dickens' original. The tone and atmosphere are different from any Christmas Carol adaptation I've seen before.
I would very much like to see Evan Rachel Wood's dad's musical.
Nrama: Get down to North Carolina one year! For that matter, do you have a favorite interpretation of Dickens' classic?
O’Neill: I don't know if it's my favorite, but I really loved the dark comedy take of Bill Murray's Scrooged. Some elements of it remind of me what Kurtzman seemed to be going for. Funnier, creepier, less lecture-y.
Nrama: Why do you feel people should check this out?
O’Neill: Many reasons, but most of all to see the astonishing work Gideon Kendall did drawing it. I really believe Gideon is a spiritual heir of the MAD bullpen guys like Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, etc. He didn't try to draw this book like Kurtzman, but he let the brilliant music of Kurtzman's style and rough designs inform his own completely inspired take on this material. It's a masterful cartoonist telling an undeniable classic story in a new style.
I think anybody who opens the book and reads a couple of pages will be hooked on the voices of Dickens, Kurtzman, and Gideon Kendall very quickly.
Nrama: We always like to ask what other books creators enjoy, but here's an additional turn of the screw: What are some of your favorite holiday-themed comicbooks, or at least the ones you associate with the holidays the most, even if the theme isn't Xmas and such?
O’Neill: I really loved Grant Morrison's book Happy!, about a drug-addicted hitman and his little cartoon horse imaginary friend. It's a Christmas comic the same way Die Hard is a Christmas movie, which is to say it's a holiday classic which should be enjoyed every year with your loved ones.
I also loved some of the dumb Marvel Christmas-themed books that would come out every year when I was a kid, and they'd show Ben Grimm going back to Yancy Street to give gifts to the street youths there or whatever (Newsarama note: Obviously Hannukah gifts, as Ben Grimm is Jewish, let us not forget). I liked that for one issue out of the year, superhero comics would get incredibly sentimental and drippy.
Nrama: What's next for you?
O’Neill: Gideon and I are partnering on another project! We're working on an all-ages fantasy graphic novel called The Underdream, which we'll be serializing some of in IDW's upcoming Full Bleed magazine.
I also recently launched a new small press called Beehive Books, and we have a slew of new projects coming out over the next year or two, including books by Paul Pope, Yuko Shimizu, Ronald Wimberly, Bill Sienkiewicz, Herbert Crowley, and Denis Kitchen.
Really gorgeously produced book-art editions of great graphic and visual narratives.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
O’Neill: Listen, do you have any extra tickets to Evan Rachel Wood's dad's musical?