The Wonderland Alphabet: Interview with Alethea Kontis & Janet K. Lee
Two weeks ago, a gorgeous new book was released from Archaia entitled The Wonderland Alphabet: Alice’s Adventures Through the ABC’s and What She Found There, written by New York Times best-selling author Alethea Kontis (The Dark-Hunter Companion, Enchanted) and illustrated by Eisner Award-winning artist Janet K. Lee (Return of the Dapper Men, Emma). It’s a little different from their typical graphic novels as it is more akin to an illustrated children’s book. Regardless, it is delightful and beautifully illustrated and, as a result, appealing to any fan of comic art and/or Alice in Wonderland. Archaia continuously releases top-of-the-line products (as is evident by their six 2012 Harvey Award nominations), and this book is no exception. Kontis provides fun, whimsical poetry that meshes perfectly with Lee’s signature decoupage art style. Even an adult who already knows his/her alphabet can appreciate and love the energy and quality of art (written & illustrated) exuded by this book.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with Kontis & Lee about their new book. Check out their responses below and when you’re done run out to your local comic book shop and pick it up!
1) First and foremost, congratulations on such a gorgeous book! How did this collaboration come about?
Janet: It all started because of a art show at a local (Nashville) gallery.
I was part of a group of gallery artists who aspired to be book illustrators. Shortly after Jim McCann and I got the green light from Archaia to do Return of the Dapper Men, I agreed to be part of a children’s-illustration-themed gallery show called “Protopulp: Classic Books of the Future”. The idea was that each artist would illustrate a children’s book and show (and sell) it’s pages at the gallery. Naively, I thought I could just show pages from Return, since that was the book I was working on. But of course, no. That can not happen before a book is published. So I was left to come up with a new book idea– and quickly!
During a long drive back from DragonCon in Atlanta, I suddenly thought: I don’t think anyone has ever done an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed alphabet book. (My incessant love affair with Lewis Carroll was at a fever pitch that year.) When I got home, I did some quick research, and sure enough, I was right! Then I did a Very Smart Thing: I asked my friend Alethea Kontis to help me. Alethea was already a published author of two alphabet books, AlphaOops and AlphaOops: Halloween as well and the New-York-Times-bestselling Dark Hunter Companion. Happily, she said yes!
2) Why Alice in Wonderland in particular?
Alethea: Alice is one of the very best fairy tales. It’s absurdism without incoherence. All my first favorite authors–Grimm, Andersen, Burgess, Nash, Shakespeare, Seuss–were dark, smart, and had a playful sense of whimsy–just like me. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were a natural progression in my literary development. Alice was also a little girl who had magical adventures all in her own head, so these books ere very personal. And Lewis Carroll had snuck puzzles into the book, as if somewhere inside every chapter was a secret message for me to find. This was all Very Important Stuff. (After the advent of Google, I discovered that Julia Margaret Cameron even took a famous photograph of Alice Liddell that is entitled “Alethea” — how crazy is that?)
Janet: I bought my first copy of Alice in Wonderland when I was seven. I think even then I had some grand plan that it was going to be part of a large library one day; the book was bound in red leather and there was gold on the edges of the pages. Like the Bible, or something! And inside there were the most beautiful, bizarre illustrations. John Tenniel remains one of my heroes.
And I’ve simply never grown tired of it. I think I’ve spent my whole life waiting for a White Rabbit with a pocket watch to hop by. I’m sure I’ll see him one day.
3) This year at NYCC I noticed a number of handouts that were focused on showing teachers and educators effective ways to use graphic novels and/or comic books in the classroom. Obviously, in addition to being a work of art on it’s own, The Wonderland Alphabet: Alice’s Adventures Through the ABCs and What She Found There can be used for educational purposes with young children. What are your thoughts on this growing ‘genre’ of educational comic books/graphic novels? Do you have interest in doing more books like this?
Janet: Haha! Funny you should mention that! I actually am contributing a story to an anthology called The Graphic Textbook, which aims to use comics to teach kids national school curriculum. Beyond the many benefits to the students, comics in education provide a benefit to the comics community at large. Classroom use legitimizes comics in a way that’s never been done before, and it introduces kids to comics. Imagine what life would have been like if your teacher had handed you a copy of Superman to help teach you about onomatopoeia, or story sequencing. Imagine children being taught to read– and love–comics in school. The idea makes me a little giddy, and I’m absolutely up for more.
4) You both have such unique and talented artistic voices. Can you describe a little bit about your respective creative processes?
Alethea: Janet and I were just talking about this at HeroesCon actually–the fact that we don’t get our ideas from just one place, they come from EVERYWHERE. It all goes back to “writedraw what you know” eventually, but what we know comes from a million places and a million influences. Some are obvious, and some are not. That amalgam of completely seemingly random stuff is what gives us our voice or our style, and we embrace that. We are by no means breaking new ground, but instead presenting things from a fresh perspective.
Personally, I’m always asking myself a million questions. Why did X happen and Why did P happen really? What’s the story behind the story? How can I fill in the blanks and have this fairy tale or this alphabet make sense?
Janet: If possible, I like to have at least a day to mull over a script before jumping into thumbnails. Honestly, if the story speaks to me, I “see” what the images should be and how they fit on the page and their layers. If I’m having difficulty envisioning a page, I will often just doodle. Draw little sketches. Sometimes they work with the page; sometimes they generate a whole new story idea. Either way, they always help the difficult page to flow.
5) Who are some of your favorite artists/writers out there right now? Who are some of your biggest influences/role models?
Alethea: I am a huge artist fangirl. I love KY Craft, John Jude Palencar, Michael Whelan, Wendy Pini, Charles Vess, and Janet Lee. (But you probably didn’t want me to answer the artist portion of that question.) My writing influences are very heavily old school: Shakespeare, Austen, and Voltaire. In poetry: Ogden Nash, Gelett Burgess, and Dr. Seuss. In fantasy: Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Yolen, Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, Lloyd Alexander, Tamora Pierce…and pretty much every other author in the Juvenile section of the Richland County Public Library in Columbia, South Carolina. Personally/professionally: Sherrilyn Kenyon, John Scalzi, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Janet Lee.
Janet: Favorites out there now: Shaun Tan (The Arrival), David Peterson (Mouse Guard), Jim McCann/Esquejo (Mind the Gap), Layman/Guillory (Chew), Hill/Rodriguez (Locke & Key), Perez (Tale of Sand).
Biggest influences: Winsor McCay, John Tenniel, David Weisel, Chris Van Allsburg, Mo Willems, Mucha, Jon Muth. But it goes on and on. I’m influenced by everything I’ve seen or read.
6) What new projects do you have coming up?
Alethea: My first novel, a young adult fairy tale called Enchanted, launched in May of this year and was just nominated for YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list. (hooray!) The paperback edition of AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First will be coming to bookstores in July. Right now I am working on the sequel to Enchanted, tentatively entitled: Hero.
Janet: Well, as I mentioned, I have a story in the upcoming Graphic Textbook and I’m also working on the sequel to Return of the Dapper Men. I’ve also got three other projects in the wings that I can’t talk about yet. But soon…
Alethea: The Cook! In a production of Alice in Wonderland in high school, my best friend Casey (a small blonde) got to play the lead role of Alice. For successfully fake-sneezing to cue a scene during audition, my horrid, vengeful drama teacher cast me in the no-lines role of The Cook. I was to stir a pot, throw Frisbee-plates left-handed under a curtain (I am not left-handed!), and mumble “Pepper!” while Alice and the Duchess were talking about axis and axes. I stole the scene every time. On purpose. There are small parts and small players, and I’m not ashamed to say that for that particular production, I WAS BOTH. For that reason, The Cook has always held a special place in my heart.
Janet: Artistically? It would have to be the Duchess. She is creepy and a little scary and so angry. Love the giant head. Love the baby who turns into a pig. But favorite character would have to be the Cheshire Cat. So puzzling and mysterious. He’s also the only once who actually listens to Alice and, though his advise is contrary, speaks to her rather than at her.