How I Worked on Hamlet

Nicki Greenberg talks about her graphic novel adaptation of Hamlet.

Author & illustrator Nicki Greenberg

Author & illustrator Nicki Greenberg

Unlike most stage productions, this book was a one-person affair. I felt like I’d taken on the task of directing the play - and not just any play, but the most performed, written-about, analysed and revered play in history! - while also having to act all the parts, do the set design, costumes, lighting, sound (yes, in a book)… and of course the catering! I did a fair bit of reading beforehand, as I wanted to get a sense of how others had treated and interpreted Hamlet, and that was very helpful as a way of challenging and helping shape my own ideas about it. Those ideas remained quite fluid as I travelled deeper and deeper into the interpretation. Hamlet, both the play and the character, defy definitive answers. I hope that my interpretation inspires readers to get their hands dirty wrestling with their own Hamlet questions and that they enjoy my own exploration of it in graphic form.

Interpreting the play was the most intense and challenging aspect, but the practical work of designing the book and the characters, planning and then drawing 427 pages in full colour was pretty demanding. It took me three years from first preliminary notes to final artwork, with the final 200 pages completed in just eight months on a truly eye-bleeding schedule. Half-way into the final artwork I discovered that I was pregnant with our darling daughter Poppy, and I needed to finish the book before she arrived.

Before beginning the final artwork, I did a detailed rough draft which was pencilled and then inked with a brush-pen (a refillable brush designed for Chinese calligraphy). Part of the reason for spending the extra time inking the roughs was to gain practice with the brush-pen, which was a new tool for me. I had previously worked almost exclusively with a steel nib, and badly needed the practice!

Next I painted the eight background “sets” which are used throughout the book. This was quite a painstaking task as the sets are highly detailed. I wanted the sets to be quite surreal rather than resembling realistic halls, rooms etc. The challenge here was to construct them in such a way that perspective, while not strictly correct, would appear natural when small sections of the set appeared in individual frames on the stage. Because the stage is always seen from the point of view of a person sitting in the audience, I had to give the impression of the action taking place against a fixed, unmoving backdrop, while still keeping plenty of interest and variety by allowing the characters to move about and use the space very extensively. This was quite tricky because, for example, how do you use the upper part of the set when the characters are walking around on the floor? Fortunately I was not really bound by the laws of physics! The characters’ own malleability (they are like animated ink blots who leap, fly, expand etc) and the flexible perspective of the sets means that they can use them with greater scope than real actors on a stage. However I had to be careful not to do anything that would be jarring or confusing to the reader’s eye and so break the illusion.

Once the sets were done, I began the work of painting the action - the black inked characters and their words. I painted each page as a piece, with the characters in their correct positions. Each page was then scanned, and I assembled them as double-page spreads in Photoshop. The assembly involved placing the correct sections of background behind the characters in each frame, colouring the images in the black background outside the frames and colouring the faces of the characters in the frames. I also used a few “special effects” such as the glow on the ghost and the distortion of backgrounds in Ophelia’s mad scene.

In addition to the black ink work, there are also numerous coloured “props” - mostly larger-than-life plants and flowers - which are used throughout the book. These are all hand-painted with acrylic ink and then scanned and positioned using Photoshop.

One of the most playful and enjoyable aspects of doing this book was the collage. I have always loved traditional cut-and-paste collage, but with my scanner I was able to incorporate all kinds of 2- and 3-dimensional objects, mostly in the backstage realm: rolls of sequins, an old powder compact, the binding of old books, silk scarves and of course the theatre curtain. This is constructed from a Thai silk skirt belonging to my Nana!

Portrait of Nicki Greenberg

Nicki Greenberg is a writer and illustrator based in Melbourne, Australia. Her first books, The Digits series, were published when she was fifteen years old. They sold more than 380,000 copies in Australia and New Zealand.

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