Marley’s Ghost Gives A Kurtzman Christmas Carol New Life – Josh O’Neill, Shannon Wheeler & Gideon Kendall Talk Process

by Hannah Means Shannon

There’s a fabulous and moving story behind the arrival of graphic novella Marley’s Ghost arriving digitally on comiXology today as part of their new “Originals” line. Master storyteller Harvey Kurtzman left an indelible mark in comics through his work on Mad Magazine, and war comics like Two-Fisted Tales, and Frontline Combat.

Many know Kurtzman as an editor, writer, cartoonist, and even educator, but few are aware of his ambitions toward longform literary-style storytelling. Had Kurtzman been successful in his mission, he might well  have published the first graphic novel. As it stands, he circulated a pitch document in vain to several publishers during his lifetime, a pitch for a graphic adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol titled Marley’s Ghost.

After numerous rejections, with publishers reacting in horror or polite silence to the idea of a literary classic becoming a work in the comics medium in a way that would not be marketed to children, Kurtman shelved the pitch and left its layouts, completed pages, and related material in his attic for decades where it was later discovered by writer, editor, and publisher Denis Kitchen.

In an unlikely but incredibly satisfying turn of events, the project has not only been resurrected, but completed, based on Kurtman’s notes and work, by a new team of creators, including writer and editor Josh O’Neill, cartoonist Shannon Wheeler, who acted as an editor on the project, and illustrated skillfully by artist Gideon Kendall as a novella.

[Some of Kurtman’s thumbnail layouts for Marley’s Ghost.]

As part of the comiXology Originals line, Marley’s Ghost joins digital-first comics on the platform and reaches viewers in time for the holiday season, offering an unprecedented degree of access to a historically important and highly entertaining work. It debuts today at an introductory price of $2.99 for the 120 page full-color novella, and is free for comiXology Unlimited subscribers.

At New York Comic Con last month, Comicon.com had the intriguing opportunity to talk with Josh O’Neill, Shannon Wheeler, Gideon Kendall, and comiXology’s Head of Content and Senior Director of Communications, Chip Mosher following their panel at the show about Marley’s Ghost.

I asked the creative team what made them excited about the fact that Marley’s Ghost is appearing in digital format for readers.

O’Neill said the fact that the project can reach such a mass audience and be distributed so cheaply, as well as the fact that once the work on the project is done, it can be immediately released to the public, are all appealing. It’s also going to be released in time for Christmas, which is great! He feels that since costs are lower on digital production, comiXology can take more of a “gamble” on this unique project.

I said that the announcement of the project had really surprised me and changed my perspective, since the books announced previously as comiXology originals were more “mainstream”. Now, through Marley’s Ghost, I understood that the goals of the Originals program seemed much more wide-ranging.

Chip Mosher, who was standing by during the interview, said that they were indeed looking for a “diverse line up” and hoping for “diverse content” for the Originals line. That may include things that are not what a “traditional publisher would pursue”. I commented that the impression I was getting now of the line was that “Originals can be anything”. And Mosher liked that statement, he said. I also asked him how frequently things would be announced in the line, and Mosher said that would be yet to be determined. He did tease that in the next year, people might “look back and be pleasantly surprised” by how much they have released in terms of “all genres and all types” of comics as well as “creators” and “formats”.

I asked for the creators to clarify the roles they had played in the project. Kendall agreed with his teammates in saying that the artist does the “heavy lifting”, but he also said the art is also the most “awesome, fun thing in the world” to do. It was a fast project, in some ways, taking only a year to produce, so it took some intense work by Kendall.

This is Kendall’s first completed graphic novel, he said, though he’s a veteran illustrator and producer of short-form comics, so it’s been a big learning experience.

To explain the project in more detail, for the first 50 pages of the graphic novel, there are Harvey Kurtzman’s own layouts to use to create the comic. They are “amazing and intimidating”, Kendall said. As his sketches become looser and “fade out”, the team were on their own. So they took the original text of A Christmas Carol from Dickens, “marked it up, determined where the page beats would be, what we needed to remove”, Kendall said. Then they made loose thumbnails and would compare them to the text, then do another pass, he continued to explain.

Then, Josh O’Neill made their first “manuscript pass” for the text of the comic. That meant that Kendall didn’t have to start with an entire Dickens text to try to represent. They thinned it out as they went through drafts. This all gave things a “fluid and organic” feel.

Kendall said that Dickens and Kurtzman are “intimidating enough” that having help handling the text was much appreciated. Kendall provided digital line art and colors for the project. He had three artists helping him with the colors, however. Kevin Lacroix, a longtime collaborator, was the primary help, but also Kendall’s wife, who is an artist, and also Yudi Chen. But Kendall went back through at the end, making the colors as uniform as possible, too.

The color palette suggested in Kurtzman’s pitch documents appears to be quite different than the finished product of Marley’s Ghost preview pages shown during the team’s NYCC panel, so I asked Kendall what influenced those color decisions. He said that Kurtzman’s original palette was very “expressive”, much “bolder” and even more non-realistic, than Kendall’s work usually is, so he tried to keep some of that feel, but the team also felt they were able to go in new directions, too.

I asked Wheeler if he could elaborate on his specific role in the project. Officially his job title was something editorial in nature, but his main contribution was making sure, as an experienced comic artist, that the text of the comic wasn’t repeating the information conveyed visually. This is a big pitfall that can happen when adapting literature into comics. Shannon was “impressed by how well [Marley’s Ghost] works as a visual story”, almost possible to be read without words. He often sees repetition of words and images in comics being made, and wanted to help avoid that issue, here.

I commented that in adapting the work of a great literary master like Dickens, it must be hard to resist including every single word he wrote in order to convey his title. O’Neill laughed and reminded that Dickens was also very wordy because he was “getting paid by the word” on his newspaper-published stories like A Christmas Carol.

Kendall said it’s about finding a “fine line” where the story is still definitely A Christmas Carol, but is spare. There was some negotiating, even “haggling” back and forth in the pruning process, with each team member wanting their own favorite “adjectives” included here and there.

Wheeler is not “reverential” in this case, and asks, “What’s the minimal we can have on this and still have it function?”, then you “build” the comic “up again” from that point, visually. Wheeler’s work on cartoons for The New Yorker have worked with this “reduction” process, line by line and word by work. “Almost the briefest comics can be!”, I observed. That’s a big contrast with “the florid” style of Dickens.

Kendall thinks, as an artist, his weakness is “too many lines”, and looking at artists like Daumier and Dore for inspiration on this comic. They, too are “full of lines”, but for Kendall that “describes Victorian London” to him and it’s needed, to some extent. Occasionally, he’d look at one of his own panels, though, and realize he needed to go back in and remove all the “cross-hatching” to let the panel breathe more.

With the ComiXology Guided View function, it changes how the project will be read, since it reduces the importance of the overall page, Kendall explained, but “emphasizes the individual panel”. Which, for Kendall, who comes from an illustration background, it is gratifying knowing each panel will be viewed as an illustration. They will see a “pen and ink watercolor illustration in every panel”, so that hard work pays off.

I brought up something that Denis Kitchen had said in the Marley’s Ghost panel at NYCC, that if Kurtzman had succeeded in getting Marley’s Ghost published by a literary publisher in the 50’s, which he tried to do, it would have potentially been the first “graphic novel” published. I asked if the team knew that before working on the project, and if it influenced them in wanting to work on it. I called it, “The first graphic novel that never happened” since the publishing world wasn’t ready for it, and they said that worked as a tag-line for Marley’s Ghost.

O’Neill said that when Kitchen explained the project to him, that was what he became aware of, and it was fascinating to him. It’s a “road not taken”, because it could have opened new “doors” for comics. However, the team laughed that it gave them the opportunity all these years later, to collaborate with Kurtzman.

Wheeler brought up the fact that Kurtzman worked on an adaptation of Moby Dick, and he wants to have a closer look at it. I asked why that had come into being, and not the graphic novel for Marley’s Ghost, and Wheeler clarified that Moby Dick was published in comic, and not graphic novel format, which was treated as ephemeral, and for children, therefore acceptable. Comics were “trash” and weren’t accepted, and it was a “big compromise” for parents to let their kids read them, thinking, “Well, at least they are reading”, at the time. Or kids would read them as Cliff Notes, of a sort, when they had a book report due.

Circling back to O’Neill’s process as a writer on the project, I asked him if upon hearing of the project, adapting both Kurtzman and Dickens, he wanted to “run away and hide”. He said he was very excited by it, wanting to “tackle” this project “lurking in the unknown past”. I commented that O’Neill is known for “rescuing” unknown comics lodged in history. He agreed he’s “into that”. He’s the “stray cat” guy of comics, I joked. He said it was true.

Finding the right artist for the project was the hardest and most essential thing, and the thing he’s proudest of on the project is “picking Gideon [Kendall]”, O’Neill said. Though they have since worked on other projects together, at the time they had only recently met. He was aware that Kendall doesn’t draw like Kurtzman, but even more aware that on a project like this, you can’t try to draw like Kurtzman and shouldn’t. Instead you should look for a kind of “kindred spirit” rather than a “similarity in art style”.

Kendall’s style, as it happens, is actually a lot like the styles of the collaborators Kurtzman chose for himself during his lifetime. Self-conscious about his artwork, he would do the pencils on his cartoons, and enlist a collaborator to do the inking. Kendall has been accused of imitating the styles of Jack Davis and Mort Drucker, both of whom are spot-on for a Kurtzman adaptation. He grew up on Mad Magazine as much as Marvel Comics, Kendall assured us, and that was the influence people were seeing in his work. And those were artists whom Kurtzman really respected.

I joked that Kendall would have been invited to Kurtman’s party if they had been contemporaries, and O’Neill said that now Kendall had been. And that’s what the project has felt like for all of them, “a pretty awesome party”.

Comicon.com thanks Josh O’Neill, Shannon Wheeler, Gideon Kendall, and Chip Mosher for finding the time to talk with us during a very busy convention!

Marley’s Ghost is available on comiXology starting today, November 8th, 2017, and is highly recommended as a work that combines the vision of a master storyteller with modern sensibilities.