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Turning Classics into Graphic Novels, with Gareth Hinds

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Gareth Hinds is an English Teacher’s superhero. He takes the most challenging works of classic literature for our students, spends years studying them deeply, and creates graphic adaptations students get excited about reading.

I mean, come on! How great is that? With highly regarded adaptations of The Odyssey, The Iliad, Poe’s stories, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, Beowulf, and more, Gareth Hinds is quickly moving through the canon to create colorful, accessible, dare-I-say FUN versions of classics students often struggle with.

Today on the podcast, we’re talking about the visual language of graphic adaptation, how Gareth researches and creates his works, and his top tips for classroom teachers using his adaptations. Honestly, I wish every school in America had copies of his works, and I’m so thrilled he could take the time to talk to us. This is a great episode, and I’m so glad you’re here for it! Let’s dive in.

You can listen in to episode 169 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

Meet Gareth Hinds

Gareth Hinds began by studying illustration at art school and adapting fairy tales. He loved the drawing, but didn’t really want to write his own stories.

Since he loved the old tales of English literature, he got the idea of connecting ancient literature and the modern superhero mythology by creating a graphic novel version of Beowulf. When he realized how helpful this new tool was for teachers, it motivated him to continue adapting classics. He’s now adapted The Odyssey, The Iliad, and many Shakespeare plays among other works.

You can find his graphic novels at Powell’s bookstore online, Amazon, or Bookshop.org. Plus, check out his wonderful free online teaching guides for The Odyssey, Beowulf, King Lear, and graphic adapations in general.

The Visual Language of Graphic Novels

Like many other experts in the field, Gareth recommends Scott McCloud’s graphic novel about graphic novels, Understanding Comics, as the best book to help you understand how the medium of graphic novels works.

Now let’s talk a little terminology.

Comics are created in a series of pictures in panels, with gutters (white spaces) in between to allow the audience to make transitions between moments (emotional and/or physical transitions).

Splashes allow a single image to take over a page.

A bleed lets the art escape the edges of the page.

Speech balloons and thought balloons make it easy to integrate text into the illustrations.

All of these elements allow the artist to represent the whole story in marks on the page, including both writing and drawing to make up the graphic language.

Sometimes the writing and drawing are highly integrated, sometimes not. Gareth prefers to create art that feels realistic enough that the reader feels transported, which means there’s a feeling of separation between the words and the visuals.

Researching the Setting for a Graphic Novel

Ideally, Gareth goes to the location where his work is set to explore. He visited Venice and Verona to research the setting of Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice.

For The Odyssey, nothing from that era really survives, and many of the places in the story are potentially made up (unreliable narrator!). So he could look at photos and videos of the landscape, archeological reconstructions of ancient Greek buildings, and ancient Greek pottery pieces with paintings on them with characters from Homer. All of this together formed the base of his inspiration.

But once he had learned all he could, then he used artistic license to be true to the text. After all, Homer and Shakespeare weren’t focused on being “historically accurate.” They’re bards trying to tell a good story, and Gareth tries to take his cue from them rather than overlay some kind of “perfect” accuracy that doesn’t really exist.

Spotlight: Color Choices

Color is often an accessible inroad to understanding visual choices for students. Many graphic novels make use of significant color choices.

For Gareth’s artistic process, he begins with black and white sketching, then works in watercolor. When he gets to the color step, he starts with what the scene would look like but then also immediately asks himself what would the emotion of the scene be and how can he bring that emotion onto the page through his visual choices.

Let’s look at two moments in The Odyssey with significant color choices.

In both the graphics below, the scene is lit by firelight. However, the scene in Polyphemus’s cave is violent and intense. Gareth played the bright orange of the firelight way up to a level of bright intensity to match the emotion of the scene. In the second scene, a quiet conversation between caring people is also lit by firelight, but the color is subdued to a gentle glow.

Here, compare the colors Gareth shows for the bright Mediterranean life versus the land of the dead, where all color has drained out. There’s no mistaking the difference in the feel of the setting.

(PSSST. Speaking of great visual activities to use with your students… do you have my free attendance question prompts yet? These community-builders take attendance from boring to fun in the blink of an eye. You can grab them here if you’re interested! )

Activities to Try with any Graphic Novel

One option with any graphic adaptation is to read it just like any other novel, offering it to make the text more accessible rather than focusing in on the visual aspects of the work. However, if you DO want to explore the features of the genre and their significance, here are some ideas!

Visual symbolism and color are a great starting point. You can send kids on a scavenger hunt for visual symbols or key color choices, then launch writing or discussion based on what they find.

You can also do this for characterization – searching for artistic choices that help bring a character’s traits and evolution to life.

Graphic novels are an ideal time to teach the concept of inference. Gutters can play a key part in this conversation. Ask students, what’s happening in between the panels? How do you know? Which visuals helped you figure that out?

Help students consider the text/image relationship. An artist is always trying to balance these two channels of information. They really shouldn’t be exactly the same, so you can ask students what they’re getting from each channel, or even ask if they are ever potentially in conflict.

Check out Gareth Hinds’ teacher resource page for teacher guides to many of his adaptations. And remember, you can still do any of the same sorts of discussion and writing with a graphic novel that you can do with any text, the visuals simply add the option of additional layers.

Helping Students get started with Graphic Novel Creation

If you’d like to include a visual project in your graphic novel unit, Gareth has some tips for you! In some ways, comics are quite intuitive, so many kids will jump right in. But others may be reluctant.

Gareth suggest you keep it simple – though there are some good tech tools that can help if students REALLY don’t want to draw, it’s probably best to just start with pencil and paper.

Simple upgrades to the stick figure make a big difference. Gareth advises kids, “give your stick figure a costume and some hands and feet and some bendy arms and legs, and suddenly they’re much more of a character and less of a stick figure.”

One key piece of advice is to have students think about the TYPES of panels they want to use. Kids will have a tendency to draw a whole lot of the same kind of panel, like many long shots where you see multiple characters. Encourage students to think about zooming in and zooming out, and what they want to focus on in each moment.

Another helpful tip is to tell your students to write their dialogue and thought sections first, THEN add the speech and thought bubbles around the text. It will save them so much squishing.

Snippets of graphic memoir or graphic adaptation are strong options for beginning student projects. You can also challenge your students to portray a scene they’ve read in a graphic novel in a new way, with their own spin. Or ask them to set a scene from a text in a different time period, or even on a different planet!

Gareth suggests that as students work on their skills, loosely copying some panels or a full page from another artist can be a helpful way to really notice the different types of shots and compositions that can go into a single page. You could even have students annotate right on their sketch to show what type of shot they’re seeing, why they think there is a bleed there, why the composition might be arranged like it is, etc.

Excited? Want to learn even more about all this?

Connect with Gareth Hinds

From Gareth’s Website:

“Gareth Hinds is the creator of critically-acclaimed graphic novels based on literary classics, including Beowulf (which Publisher’s Weekly called a ‘mixed-media gem’), King Lear (which Booklist named one of the top 10 graphic novels for teens), The Merchant of Venice (which Kirkus called ‘the standard that all others will strive to meet’ for Shakespeare adaptation), The Odyssey (which garnered four starred reviews and a spot on ten ‘best of 2010’ lists), Romeo and Juliet (which Kirkus called ‘spellbindin’), and Macbeth (which the New York Times called ‘stellar’ and ‘a remarkably faithful rendering’).

Gareth is a recipient of the Boston Public Library’s ‘Literary Lights for Children’ award. His books can be found in bookstores and English classrooms across the country, and his illustrations have appeared in such diverse venues as the Society of Illustrators, the New York Historical Society, and over a dozen published video games.”

Discover Gareth’s Website.

Explore his Teaching Guides.

Follow Gareth on Instagram.

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  • I love the idea of shown in the Graphic Memoir Museum Exhibition Project. Where can we find those materials?

    • Hi Rachel! I’m so glad you like the idea. I have just today added a graphic novel unit with this project inside to my TPT shop, Spark Creativity.


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