In Conversation with Julian Peters

It’s not everyday that you come across someone who illustrates poetry. I think I must have found Julian on one of my obsessive fb rounds- I am trying to get out of the habit. But luck was shining on me and my scrolling up and down led me to illustrations of T.S.Eliot’s Prufrock poem.

I was floored.

It is a glorious poem to read but it never struck me that one would even attempt to draw it.

Julian Peters is a comic book artist and illustrator living in Montreal. His comic book adaptations of poems by François Villon and Arthur Rimbaud were included in The Graphic Canon (Seven Stories Press, 2012) and his ongoing adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was recently profiled in Slate magazine. Julian is also currently in the process of completing a master’s degree in Art History, with a thesis focusing on two early graphic novels: Dino Buzzati’s Poema a fumetti (“Poem Strip”) and The Projector by Martin Vaughn-James.

NV: How do you decide which poem works? What kind of poems/poets “deserve” to be illustrated?

JP: Generally speaking, I’d say the poems that work best as comics are the ones that are both narrative (in the sense that they at least hint at a plot sequence of some kind) and also descriptive, but at the same time, not too narrative, and still somewhat abstract. If a poem is too narrative and/or too plainly descriptive, the accompanying drawings are likely to seem a bit redundant.

On the other hand, if the writing is too abstract and, especially, non-imagistic, then any comic derived from it would necessarily bear only a tenuous relationship to the original poem, and probably distract from it.

How do you decide the length of the comic strip and which parts of the poem you must leave out? Do you always stick to the author’s lines or the sequencing of the original poem?

I never omit or alter any of the original words or tamper with the word order. It seems to me that would be a betrayal of the poem. Of course, partly with that consideration in mind, I have always chosen to adapt rather short works.

NV: Describe a day of illustrating poetry.

JP: It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to work on my comics, so now a day of illustrating really sounds like heaven! And it is in many ways, but like all things it starts to lose its charm when you do it for too many hours or days in a row. I like to listen to music or The Young Turks online news channel while I’m drawing, and I take an unnecessary amount of coffee and bathroom breaks to procrastinate somewhat. The creative process also involves taking a lot of reference photos of myself in various poses, often wearing makeshift costumes and holding various cardboard props.

NV: W. B. Yeats and Manga. In your blog you say: The style is a tribute to the beautiful Shojo manga (girls’ comics) created by the “Clamp” collective in the early 90s. Tell us about that.

JP: About a decade ago I came across a few volumes of the wonderful Tokyo Babylon series and I fell completely under its spell. Such elegance in the line drawings, and such emotional intensity, especially in the eyes!

As for Yeats’s “When You Are Old,” it has long been one of my favourite poems. I especially like the last line, “And hid his face amid a crowd of stars” (although I’m not sure I fully understand it). I began to realize at some point that the imagery that most readily came into my head while reading that line was of the kind found in Japanese Shojo manga.

Maybe because of the way the impossibly-romantic male love interests in these girls’ comics are so often depicted striking a weightless pose against a star-filled sky, or perching leisurely upon a star or a moon.  I am thinking for example of the character of Tuxedo Mask in the Sailor Moon comics.

Yeats was a hopelessly romantic figure if there ever was one, seeing as he spent almost his entire adult life pining away for a woman who did not return his affections, the beautiful Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne. And as a young man he kind of had the face, the costume and especially the hair of a male lead in a shojo manga.

So the combination, however improbable, seemed like a perfect fit to me.

NV: Why don’t you use colour in your comics?

JP: Hand-drawn black-and-white imagery bares an affinity to calligraphy, and so lends itself more readily, I think, to the seamless blending of drawing and text in the mind of the reader. The drawings should seem almost like a flowering into visual form of the written text that accompanies it, and the use of colour would run counter to this effect. Unless the text itself were to be rendered in colour, I suppose. So many possibilities yet to explore!

NV: How has learning art history changed your view of illustration in general?

JP: I had the immense good fortune of spending a part of my childhood in Italy, where one is hemmed in on all sides by centuries-worth of beautiful art. Perhaps as a consequence of this, I have long tended to be most attracted to works of art that show an awareness of what came before, even as they take these influences from the past in new directions.

It’s as T. S. Eliot said about poetry in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the most individual parts of a work may be those in which the poets of the past “assert their immortality most vigorously.”  This is just as true for comics artists and illustrators as for any other artists: They should at least have a good knowledge of the history of their medium, and ideally of the history of the visual arts in general. Art without historical awareness tends to look rather shallow, I think, at least to those who do possess some of that awareness.

– by Neelima Vinod
Neelima writes fiction and poetry. Her debut e-novella ‘Unsettled’ has been published by Indireads. She is a die-hard fan of all things poetry and illustration. Connect with her on her Facebook page or tweet to her @neelthemuse. You can read the interview with Julian Peters in its entirety on her blog!