Behind the Scenes: Muppet Robin Hood, Part 1

The process of selecting artists is a little different for me than it is for many editors. Most editors have a full roster of projects in need of artists, so when they find an artist that they like, often they have a project immediately available that they can offer them. But as a freelance editor — which is still a rarity in comics — I’m only working on a handful of projects at any given time. So when I discover a new artist that I like, I save their info, bookmark their website…and I wait. I wait for a project to come my way that would really suit that artist’s style.

Sometimes I may wait to work with a particular artist for years, but when I do finally find a good project for the artist, that’s really just the first step. Since I work primarily on licensed comics these days, I’m not the only person who needs to approve creative teams. The publisher and the licensor both get a say, and the only way they can really judge whether an artist is fit to draw Warcraft, The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock or The Muppets is to see some sample art.

Trust me, if there was a way of getting the guys in charge to sign off on an artist that didn’t require asking for sketches and sometimes full pages on spec, I’d be all in favor of it. But there really isn’t, particularly when it comes to the licensor. They want to know what their characters will look like rendered in the artist’s style.

This audition material is often truly remarkable, and outside of the occasional sketchbook section, it’s usually not seen by readers.

Muppet Robin Hood completed its four-issue run two years ago, and with a new Muppets trailer playing in theaters, it seemed like a good time to revisit it and share some fun behind the scenes stuff. Obviously, the Muppets are still © The Muppets Studio and none of this stuff should be considered official Muppet canon. (Especially since I’m pretty sure that the official Muppet canon is property of Gonzo. At least, you’d think so considering he’s always the one who’s getting fired out of it.) Also, I should probably mention that I wasn’t the editor of Muppet Robin Hood. I was the writer. The editor was Paul Morrissey, but my points about sample art still hold true.

The artist on Muppet Robin Hood was Armand Villavert, Jr., an illustrator that Paul Morrissey and I knew from TOKYOPOP. Armand really wanted the gig. So much so that to get Disney to sign off on him, he didn’t just provide character sketches, he came up with a couple of sequences and wrote a complete script for them. These were never meant to be an actual part of the comic, but they’re as funny as anything I came up with. None of the below was written by me. This is all Armand.

The below two pages were colored by T. J. Geisen. I’m not sure why he wasn’t hired to color the entire comic as I think he did a great job on these samples. Note the extra detail and texture he’s provided, which helps give Armand’s line art a little additional depth. That wasn’t an approach used in the actual comic, but it probably should have been.

If you’ve read Muppet Robin Hood and you’re perceptive when it comes to art styles, you may notice something else about the above pages. They’re drawn in a different style than the one used in the comic. Armand originally drew the Muppets less stylized, opting to try to reproduce the actual look of the puppets a little more faithfully. However, after the success of Roger Langridge’s Muppet Show comic, a decision was made to render the Muppets in a style closer to his.

I understand the reasons, but I’m rather fond of this initial approach and can’t help to wonder how the book would’ve looked if we’d stuck with it. The above pages and the below sketches of Kermit and Sweetums at least give us a hint.

Later this week, we’ll look at how much differently a scene can read when drawn by different artists following the same script, and get a glimpse of what Muppet Robin Hood might have looked like had it been drawn by another popular Muppet artist. Stay tuned!

Forgotten Friday: The Devil’s Backbone

What I recall about The Devil’s Backbone is how much its release surprised me. This curiously overlooked flick was the third film directed by Guillermo del Toro, and after the disappointing performance of his debut English-language film, Mimic, it found the director returning to his native language of Spanish.

However, that’s only part of the story. At the time The Devil’s Backbone was released, it had been announced that Guillermo del Toro was directing the sequel to Blade and was also attempting to bring the popular comic Hellboy to the big screen. In other words, in geek circles, Guillermo del Toro was about as hot as you can get. He had a stellar reputation for horror and science fiction, and was about to apply it to two beloved comic book franchises. So when this deeply personal, subtitled ghost story hit theaters in the midst of all that, it kind of came as a surprise. It was unheralded, and I’m not sure the fanboys knew what to make of it. Why was del Toro filming low budget movies with unknown actors in foreign languages when he had just hit the big leagues?

Certainly, del Toro has his reasons. And we’re all the better for them as The Devil’s Backbone is one of the best films he’s ever directed. Watching it now, it serves as an excellent companion film to the far more popular and critically acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth. Both films are set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and are told from the point of view of a child (a boy in The Devil’s Backbone and a girl in Pan’s Labyrinth—a
compelling difference). Both feature themes of innocence lost to the horror and desperation of war and both build their stories around supernatural elements. Therefore, it’s strange that far more people have seen and enjoyed Pan’s Labyrinth than The Devil’s Backbone. It’s possible that Labyrinth’s highly original fantasy elements just caught the public’s attention in a way that Backbone’s more traditional ghosts could not. Certainly, the film wasn’t marketed anywhere near as well as del Toro’s later one. It’s also possible that filmgoers’ appetites for period ghost stories had been sated by The Others, the ghostly Nicole Kidman blockbuster that came out earlier the same year. (A shame, as it’s nowhere near as original, scary or emotionally moving del Toro’s flick.)

Whatever the reason, Pan’s Labyrinth grossed nearly $40,000,000 in its theatrical run, while The Devil’s Backbone couldn’t even muster up a million.

If you haven’t seen the film and you consider yourself a fan of del Toro’s work, you really owe it to yourself to rent it. Especially if you consider Pan’s Labyrinth one of his best films, because as much as I love the imagination and human terror that movie brought to the screen, I think The Devil’s Backbone works far better as a story. Centered around a young boy who is brought to an orphanage after his father is killed in the war, The Devil’s Backbone is a story about coming of age in an environment that demands it as soon as possible, but offers absolutely no reward for doing so. No hope. No family. No future. All the boys at the orphanage really have is each other, and their friendship helps get them through some extremely trying circumstances, while righting a wrong that has been haunting one of the boys his entire life—and literally haunting the orphanage.

It’s not an easy film to sit through at times. Del Toro doesn’t shy away from revealing the horrors of war and the sort of human monsters it can create (who, like with Pan’s Labyrinth, are far scarier than any of the supernatural horrors shown in the film). However, the most uneasy element is simply the tone and atmosphere of the movie. This is an orphanage that could be utterly destroyed in conflict or by the cruel whim of a fascist general at any moment, and the silent, darkened, dead corridors and corners on display throughout the movie serve as a constant reminder of this. But no visual illustrates it better than the sight of a lone, unexploded bomb that sits half-buried in the middle of the orphanage’s courtyard—a frightening weapon of mass destruction that was defused yet left to rust in the midst of playing children because the war effort couldn’t spare the time or effort it would take to haul it away.

The Devil’s Backbone is full of chilling images like this one, though for my money, none are better than the very final one. I won’t ruin it for you, but I will say it’s nothing horrific or terrifying, and certainly nothing supernatural. It’s an image of youth heading into the unknown… Well, at least, it’s unknown for them. It’s a haunting image rather than a hopeful one because we know all too well what most likely awaits for them at the end of their journey.

It’s a final image that stays with you for weeks after you’ve seen it, much like the film as a whole.

You can check out the trailer for The Devil’s Backbone below: