Exclusive Interview: Charles Santino – writer/producer of ANTHEM the Graphic Novel

Exclusive MindPosts.com interview with Charles Santino, the writer/producer of ANTHEM – The Graphic Novel

Charles Santino and Joe Staton collaborating in studio on ANTHEM graphic novel. Photo by Michael Weisbrot.

When I heard the announcement of the graphic novelization of Ayn Rand’s ANTHEM, I was intrigued and excited.  The original novella is a very approachable story for intermediate readers, and rich enough in theme for older readers.  I liked the idea of expanding the reach via a new format.

Given the sanctity with which many regard Ayn Rand, I can imagine that most writers and artists would run from such a project.  Not Charles Santino.  He conceived of the project, contacted ARI and their publisher, put the team together, and has created a terrific new work.  He has been faithful to the source material, whilst opening up Rand’s fiction to a wider audience.

Rick Marazzani of MindPosts.com got some time from Charles Santino, and asked him about the creation of ANTHEM – The Graphic Novel.  The book fits in with MindPosts’ mission as a site for objective parents raising rational children.  Order it now for yourself and/or your kids from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or from your favorite bookseller.

What was the inception of Anthem – The Graphic Novel?
A few years ago I was in a mall bookstore with $8.00 left on a gift card and ten minutes before I had to leave. I found myself in front of Ayn Rand’s fiction, which was right at eye level.  I was aware of her longer novels but hadn’t read them. Anthem was new to me. The back cover copy was intriguing and so were the first few sentences.

You have been a pro in the comics business for years.  Can you tell us about your background and the previous books you have worked on?
I collaborated with Michael McDowell on the Dell/Abyss psychological horror novel, Toplin; after that a seven-issue run scripting Conan the Barbarian for Marvel, and then adapting, scripting, and packaging  Aesop’s Fables for Fantagraphics.

So, Charles, you are more than a writer.  A “packager” in the comics biz is like a producer in movies. What is your process for bringing a book to life?
In packaging Anthem, I either took on, or hired out, every role in producing a final digital file ready for the printer.  Anything that is left to chance has a chance of going wrong, right down to paper stock. I thought that the glossy, bright white paper stock used for many comic books and graphic novels would be a mistake for Anthem, so I tracked down the manufacturer of the flat, off-white stock used for The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb and we matched that as closely as possible.  Even when I just write a script and I’m not packaging the project, the final product should reflect my vision as much as possible.

When I write a comic book or graphic novel, to make sure that the script is going to work visually, I lay out and “draw” a complete story in crude thumbnail sketches, working from my plot. My final script is based on this preliminary sketchbook. Because I don’t want an artist to be locked into the exact set-ups that I’ve sketched out, the artist will never see the sketchbook, just the script that was developed from the sketchbook. On a more practical level, these drawings are so crude and minimal that an artist probably couldn’t make any sense of them anyway, so getting the artist involved at that stage would be pointless. I know that some artists who are also writers will sketch out stories early in the process, but I’ve never heard of a writer who is not also an artist doing this. I’m sure they will come out of the woodwork after this interview is published.

This project seems like a labor of love for you.  How did the Anthem graphic novel come together?
The process is always the same: find a property (or create one), work up a treatment, pitch it, and then execute it.

When adapting an existing work, it’s difficult to find something that has the necessary elements. Very few books are well-suited to the graphic novel format. They are often too long, but more often they simply don’t offer enough visual interest and visual variety along with a good story.  Anthem does.  It has a number of compelling but simple locations.  The story never lingers in one spot for too long. I knew that the neo-Medieval setting would make the design work relatively easy for any experienced artist.

In 2008 I contacted The Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and showed them my treatment for Anthem. They referred me to New American Library (NAL), a division of Penguin Books.  I signed a contract to package the book through my production studio, Marshall Holt Entertainment.

I contacted Joe Staton [ed. Joe is a Bronze Age of comics veteran who has drawn for Charlton and DC, and now the Dick Tracy strip for Tribune] and asked if he was available and interested in penciling the story.  I hired Joe with the understanding that I needed complete pencils that would not need to be inked. Scanning is now advanced enough to reproduce pencil art quite beautifully. There’s an innocence and charm to Joe’s art that’s much more apparent in his un-inked pencils and they worked well in depicting a story that is largely about forbidden love and two young lovers pitted against society. Joe agreed that Anthem was essentially a teen romance, despite all the other science fiction and philosophical trappings.  About a third of the pages deal directly with the relationship between Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000.

What were the challenges of bringing the book to graphic novel form?
Even a novella as short and adaptable as Anthem—it’s about 20,000 words—needed to be dealt with graphically, as opposed to just illustrating the text. I dropped the literary device of Equality 7-2521 telling the story through his journal because I wasn’t interested in showing him writing in the journal and carrying it around. That device also forces the story into a flashback framework which I didn’t care for. The graphic novel tells the story as an internal monologue presented in captions and in dialogue with the other characters. I boiled down the “information dump” backstory presented in the first 16 pages of the novella to a single page in the graphic novel.

The hero, Equality 7-2521 plays a bit of Prometheus, bringing light to his dystopian dark age.  How did you illuminate that part of the story?
With much difficulty.  In the novella, there’s virtually no description of the “light box”—the makeshift battery and light bulb device that Equality 7-2521 cobbles together from parts he scavenges in his secret tunnel. I did some research on the actual historical experiments that lead from the discovery of electricity to the invention of the light bulb and designed a detailed light box which I drew for Joe in such a way that would allow him to depict it at any angle. It occurred to me that a more ambitious reader, possibly a student, might try to replicate the light box, so I wanted to make sure it was plausible. Theoretically, is should be possible with the right materials to build a working version of the light box, although it might require some welding. Anthem [the novella] is taught extensively in high schools and junior high schools across the country, so it’s reasonable to expect that the graphic novel is going to find its way into many classrooms where someone might get the idea to build a light box.

The setting of the modern-primitive city could almost be from a Conan comic.
It’s about the same level of technology. The characters wear loose, comfortable robes, skirts, and tunics that could be tailored in a low-tech world.  The buildings are simple stone and wood affairs, no more than a few stories high, which we see in exterior and interior shots. But it doesn’t look like anything from real history, or the imagined pre-history of Robert E. Howard’s various worlds. I wanted it to look as distinctive as possible while keeping within the limits of pre-industrial technology.

The final section of the book breaks through from pre-industrial to high-tech, at least by 1938 standards, when the novella was published. Would you consider this section to be your “set piece”?
The house that Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000 find in the mountains after they leave the city is the most elaborate set in the story. I told Joe that I wanted a satisfying tour of the house, and that’s what we get. Joe looked at a lot of Bauhaus -influenced designs for reference, and eventually settled on a Phillip Johnson house built in 1955 as the primary inspiration. I asked Joe to set the house back into a cliff side where it might stay more preserved over the unspecified period of time since the fall of civilization.

What narrative enhancements did the graphic novel medium provide?
There are visual tricks that you can do in a graphic novel that you can’t do with prose. The most subtle change that I made to the novella that could be considered an enhancement is the gradual change in the landscape throughout the course of the story. The story begins in the city from which Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000 eventually flee and they travel through woods and mountains before finding the house. The novella makes it clear that they aren’t going to be followed but I wanted to put plenty of distance between them and the city. I asked Joe to throw some sub-tropical foliage in the city settings, like palms, so that after they travel through the woods and end up in a mountainous, alpine setting, the mind’s eye will know they’ve gone some distance, possibly 500 miles. We don’t draw any attention to this, but it’s there if you go back and look for it.

How difficult was it to edit the novella text into a graphic novel format?
Figuring out what narration to cut and what to keep was tough, but there’s only so much room on the page. I took the original text and highlighted what I thought was necessary to retain, knowing precisely how many words I could put on the page before things would start to look crowded.  This required considering the somewhat small trim size of the book, 6 inches by 9 inches, and the style and size of the font I chose for the lettering. I used a strict formula and tried not to stray from it.

When you’re not depicting action or dialogue with two or more characters talking, deciding what to show graphically can be tricky. Certain pages in the final section of the story were just philosophical thoughts. There were no guideposts telling me what had to be depicted. Some of the panels that I wrote for this section were little physical bits of business that had movement and helped the narration. Other pages required what could be considered pure illustration, in the sense of a magazine illustration, where an abstract, written idea suggests a certain visual concept.

The easiest part of adapting the story was capturing the human dynamics of the novella. Equality 7-2521’s journey is emotional and intellectual as well as physical. We follow him step by step through this. Anyone can relate to being in love. The lovers’ courtship is very unusual because of the society they live in, but it is a courtship nonetheless and it has all the basic elements of any budding relationship. I also think that most people can relate to having a great idea crushed by a figure of authority. Everyone can relate to being lost, emotionally, even if just for a short time. When Equality 7-2521 bolts into the Uncharted Forest, he is literally lost, but he is also lost emotionally and intellectually.

For the parents and teachers out there, what age is best for this book?
There’s no best age, but it’s assigned to students as early as the eighth grade.  Knowing that the book might be read by students as young as thirteen, I was careful about we showed and what we didn’t. In a prose novel, you can suggest. In a graphic novel, you have to show something. Shot word-for-word as a movie, the novella’s text would certainly be rated no more than ‘PG-13’ by today’s standards, but we knocked it down a little from there, down to what would be ‘PG’ in a movie, without losing any of the meaning or emotional impact.  In a movie, the scene where Equality 7-2521 is whipped would almost have to be more brutal than the way we depict it, but we don’t shy away from it because it needs to be shown.  The first night that Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000 spend together is completely left up to the imagination, even to the point that I changed the word “ecstasy” to “joy,” “joy” being a word that Equality 7-2521 uses a number of times earlier, frequently in reference to his relationship with Liberty 5-3000.

Is it a good primer for heavier Romantic and philosophic literature?

I wouldn’t say the story is a warm-up for heavier romantic and philosophic literature, but I would say it is a solid example of romantic and philosophic literature.

Steve Ditko is a legend in the comic book business and famous for his objectivist views.  He even created Randian type heroes for comics.  How influential was he on you and Joe?

Steve’s craftsmanship impressed me when I started reading comics in the mid-sixties. After that, I was glad to see the market loosen up enough so that Steve could publish comics that expressed his personal philosophical views.  Although Joe’s style is very different from Steve’s, I know that Joe has paid close attention to Steve’s work through the years. During Joe’s Charlton Comics period, when both Joe and Steve worked for that publisher during the 1970s, I understand that Ditko was the same very private person that he’d always been.

So Charles, what’s up next for you?  An Atlas Shrugged graphic novel?  An illustrated version of The Virtue of Selfishness?

I can’t say that those books would or would not be adaptable; I’ve read neither. But stranger things have happened; I understand they are making a movie of Blink, the non-fiction book about perception, by Malcolm Gladwell. After I delivered Anthem, I began a script under contract to a book publisher to adapt an adventure story by a fairly well-known writer, but I don’t know when the details on that graphic novel will be announced.

There will also be a serialized web-comic coming out, which is a detective story set on another planet. It’s also too early to announce any details on that project.

Thanks so much for your time, Charles. Any last words?

I hope that MindPosts’ readers and their families enjoy Anthem. I was happy to give you this interview, Rick.

Click here to order your copy of Ayn Rand’s ANTHEM – The Graphic Novel from Amazon.

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