When artist Rebecca Guay come up with the idea to tell a fantasy story that explored the mythology of angels, she wasn't sure what writer could work with her on the concept.
What resulted was Guay's lushly illustrated Vertigo book Flight of Angels, which she called an "opera of creative sharing." Although Guay illustrated the entire graphic novel, she collaborated with several writers who each tell different stories about angels — from Holly Black, author of The Spiderwick Chronicles, to Bill Willingham, creator of the ongoing comic Fables.
The graphic novel tells one continuous story, but it's structured in a way that allows each author to explore a different story, while also giving Guay the chance to tailor her artistic style to each story's tone.
In Flight of Angels, faerie creatures find an angel that has fallen from the sky. The angel is on the verge of death, and the mystical creatures decide whether the angel will live or die. As they wrestle with this decision, the onlookers each speak about what the angel's fate should be by telling a story to illustrate the reasoning.
Newsarama talked with Guay about how she came up with this unique look at the mythology of angels and how she chose the different author voices for the project.
Newsarama: Rebecca, this is such a collaborative effort. Was the idea from the start to combine these stories into one book?
Rebecca Guay: Not originally. In its current format, the book is truly an opera of creative sharing. We're all involved in a collaborative effort.
But in the early stage of the process, I was just looking for my next project. I had just finished a children's book, and I had been thinking how much I wanted to see a book built around ideas of angels, and fallen angels, but something with darker, edgier but fully realized characters.
Angels have always, in previous fiction, as of five years ago had felt less evolved. They were a little bit light and airy, and they felt aloof. There was not a lot of grittiness in terms of the stories being told about fallen angels and how they interact with humans. That sort of gritty, wonderful world seemed to be reserved for faerie.
It seemed like someplace I really wanted to explore.
Soon after that, I was at a party with Jane Yolan and her daughter Heidi Stimple, and I had just recently finished a picture book with them. They're wonderful thinkers and have wonderful ideas. And I was bouncing this idea off of them, and I asked them to edit it with me.It was Heidi who asked, "What kind of stories do you want?"
I said I wanted a falling from grace story, a falling in love story, an origin story, an angel of death story -- I had these ideas of the types of stories I wanted. They weren't all new ideas; they're archetyped themes. We revisit them in mythology and folklore.
But she said, why don't you ask people you've liked working with to join you in this? See if they respond to these themes the same way you did.
And that's how the idea turned into this wonderful collaboration between so many wonderful creators in one book.
Nrama: Were they all former collaborators?
Guay: Not all of them. I added people gradually and it just evolved from there.
I started with Holly Black, and she had an immediate idea for an origin story, with a great initial outline, and I started putting pictures with it.
Then Alisa Quitney, who had worked with me on a Sandman story, came to mind, because I'd just read one of the books she was writing outside of comics. And I decided to use it contact her again. And I said, "Let's do something together! I'm illustrating a book with angel stories. Would you like to do an 'angel of death' story?" And she said she'd love to.
Things grew organically from there. More writers came on board, then I put together more art and ended up putting it together as a graphic novel.
Eventually, I started talking to Vertigo, and they loved the idea.
And that's how Bill Willingham got involved. They thought he would do an awesome job with the fifth story. And I said, "Awesome! I would love to work with Bill!" I hadn't had the opportunity before, so I didn't feel like I could contact him prior to that himself. So I was just jumping with joy when Karen [Berger] said he was interested in playing with these characters and giving us the story.
Nrama: Why did you think sequential art would be the right fit for the stories you were getting from these writers?
Guay: I just thought it was the perfect medium. I started reading these stories, and they were just so cinematic and grand and complex. It was just the natural way for the stories to be told.
Nrama: Looking at the artwork, you approached each story differently. Was that always your plan?
Guay: Yes, that was part of the initial plans. It just makes the most sense to fully do honor and celebrate each of these different writers in the different mood that they're creating to feel what emotions and images come to mind when I first read it. And what imagery should go with it, within my wheelhouse of ability to shift stylistically.
Working on these stories, it was like breathing clean, fresh air every time I sat down with one of these stories. I got to walk into a new artistic landscape, and it just felt like it was the most wonderful feeling.
In the beginning, Holly's story is so snowy and cold. And in her description, it wasn't snowing; that was the image that came to mind when these characters came to mind who were discovering the fallen angel. It had to be dark and gray and cold, and it had to foreshadow that this is not a fluffy book. It is not a light story. It may bring you to light places. It may shine some white light in dark corners now and then. But it's not fluffy faerie. It's too be taken seriously, right from the beginning from the frame story, and then kind of bursting forth into colorful worlds as you step into each writer's new take on things.That was a very joyful part of it for me.
Nrama: So was it an immediate emotional response to reading the story that guided your art? Or did some of them take longer to decide on the style you wanted?
Guay: Some came immediately. Like, Bill Willingham's came in, it was so clear that it had to be an edgy urban gothic in the beginning, with that dark line and very current feeling, but with the ability to tweak a bit toward history.
So the look of Bill's came really, directly out of reading it. It had that '50s look. It all filtered up from the depths of the unwritten that was in between the lines of that story from him.
And as I said, Holly's story came really quick. And so did Louise's.
But Todd's story, I sat on for awhile and just let it ruminate for awhile in the back of my mind. It was so sweet. So sweet. It just made me cry every time I read it. I would just tear up. So I thought, I've got to think of a style that lends itself to Todd's story without being the easy, give-me place that a romantic fantasy story might go to. You might initially think big ball gowns and medieval fantasy. Because it wasn't written specific to a time period. But then I was thinking the great era of unrequited love probably would be Jane Austen, although many of hers actually end up getting the guy in the end. But that sort of time period of Jane Austen lent itself very well to the imagery that Todd was writing, and the characters he was writing. So that imagery just seemed to match up in a really unusual way. So that one came a little bit later.
But I'm so glad I waited to illustrate his story, because that surfaced. And it's just right for what he was telling.
Nrama: How would you describe this story by Holly Black that frames the other stories?
Guay: It's the Tribunal of Faerie who holds the court when they find the dying angel. They each tell stories to decide what they're going to do with this angel. And so it weaves in and out of the stories so that it comes back to the frame story. And then the faerie debate each other and argue with each other about the merits of the last made-up story. Of course, it's all within the sort of realm of nonsense faerie-land.
And then the ending, of course, is a surprise.But it's all held together within the framework of real faerie and a real angel in the woods.
Nrama: What does the project represent to you, having come up with the concept and gathering so many people to work with you on it?
Guay: The feeling of completing such a unique project like this, and working with so many fantastic writers, is just crazy and unbelievable joy.
I've been in the industry working as an illustrator for many years. But this book reflects what you always hope you can pull together as a creator. You work with the most inspired people, and work on the best stories, and also have the opportunity to take it in any direction you feel it should go. It's really, in my mind, a dream project.
It was an explosion of creative freedom. And the benefits, I think, are really evident in how the book holds together as one whole reader experience, and one whole artistic experience.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!