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Interview: Paul Rivoche

Paul Rivoche is a freelance illustrator, animation designer and professional comic book artist/writer working out of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His career traces back to the early 1980s, when he worked on Mister X, published by independent Canadian publisher Vortex Comics. Since then he has produced art for Marvel (including covers for five issues of Iron Man, most recently) and DC Comics as well as DC/Vertigo and ABC/Wildstorm, and has worked extensively as a background designer and storyboard artist for Warner Brothers Animation (Batman, Batman Beyond, Zeta, Justice League, Superman and the direct-to-DVD adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s Justice League: The New Frontier). ---Interview by Jeffery Klaehn


You recently completed work on a 294-page graphic novel entitled The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition, which is based upon Amity Shlaes’ bestseller The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. And this is coming out in May from HarperCollins. What was involved in translating the novel into sequential art?

The original book was nonfiction and of course not at all structured to be a graphic novel. It’s an economic history of the New Deal/Great Depression era, described from an alternative viewpoint. It has a huge cast of characters --- all real people --- and discusses many abstract ideas. To make it work as a graphic novel, we had to find a new structure for the same material; we couldn’t follow the exact arrangement in the print book. For example, there are many jumps in location in the real-life story we tell, and all these characters coming and going. In prose, it worked because you imagine it in your head, stitching it together, following the steady guidance of the author’s voice. In comics form, the same thing was disorienting. We learned that if the visuals change too fast, without enough explanation, the reader easily becomes confused when dealing with such complex events, all these different scenes and faces. To solve this, we decided to introduce a “framing story” using a narrator, Wendell Willkie. In telling the story, he guides us --- at times directly, and in other scenes we hear his voiceover narration in captions. Also, we had to make the story as visual as possible, not all “talking heads,” which make for dull comics. Instead, we highlighted interesting locales: the Hoover Dam, the great flood of 1927, Willkie’s famous debate, and many others. In every scene we aimed to introduce as much movement, action, and characterization as possible.


How do the image/text relationships work within the graphic novel and what aesthetic principles inform the work?

We had to find the correct image/text ratio. I knew going in that this book would, of necessity, be far “wordier” than many of the current predominantly visual graphic novels. It requires a committed reader because there is text to read! However, I was careful to give it breathing room where possible. Stories need some silent moments. Aesthetically, it’s classic, straightforward comics storytelling, not a superhero comic in Marvel Comics style, hence no tilted camera angles and extreme poses. It called for naturalism and only mild cartooning. I struck a balance somewhere between a “cartoony style,” which would have been too goofy for the serious subject matter, and “photorealism comics,” which would have been too stiff, dull, lacking in entertainment and expression. I decided to use a limited amount of sound effects, to keep it alive.


What was involved in terms of your artistic process on the project?


There was an intense collaborative process with author Amity Shlaes over the course of several years, as the project lengthened and evolved. Starting from a first script draft by Chuck Dixon, we brainstormed scenes on each page to make them visually compelling, yet still historically accurate. I did a huge amount of visual research to ensure accuracy in drawing the period, the 1930s and 1940s. The art was executed all digitally, in Photoshop with layered files. I even set the type and created all the word balloons myself. It was great that modern digital tools allowed me complete control over the final page’s appearance.


What issues are explored within the graphic novel that resonated most strongly with you personally?

As symbolized by the title, the book investigates differing ideas of “fairness” --- and this is something that has always concerned me. Among many things, it examines ideas of government redistributionism --- i.e., programs that started in the New Deal that take from some citizens and give to others, which of course have continued to this day. It’s now commonly seen as “fair” or “justice” to take by governmental edict, i.e., force, from those who have earned it and give to those who haven’t. But the book asks the question, who is the REAL forgotten man in this process? Is it the one always spoken of --- the highly visible, poor homeless person upon whom a government bestows charity, or is the person, usually middle class and also “forgotten,” from whom the necessary wealth is forcibly and increasingly extracted? Along the way, the book also shows how these “big government” programs rarely worked in the fashion intended --- the wealth rarely trickled down to the actual homeless person, and certainly did not change their collective destinies in the long run, and often killed the goose laying the eggs, as the saying goes.


Any closing thoughts?

The book is meant to entertain and inform, but also serve as a gateway to history, to whet the appetite of those interested in learning more about the rich detail of this period of American history, a time of great change that is still intensely relevant to today’s events and ideas.