Rafael Scavone & Rafael Albuquerque Discuss Adapting Neil Gaiman’s A Study In Emerald To Comics

by Hannah Means Shannon

Neil Gaiman’s prose story about Sherlock Holmes pursuing a case in Victorian London with horror-driven, Lovecraftian outcomes has been adapted to the comics medium by Rafael Scavone and Rafael Albuquerque, illustrated by Albuquerque, colored by the great Dave Stewart, and lettered by the excellent Todd Klein. The new hardback for A Study in Emerald will be arriving in shops very soon, on June 27th, from Dark Horse Comics. 

When I was asked if I’d like to speak with Scavone and Albuquerque about their work on the adaptation, I jumped at the chance, because the whole idea of adaptation is, at root, a fascinating thing. Creators are posed with a number of potential hurdles and challenges, and the ways in which they handle them are almost always unique, drawing on their own creative processes to make something entirely new. We’re also dealing with settings and characters who have been “seen” many times over in various TV and film projects, namely Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, but this is also a story that has never been “seen” before. It will be entering a visual medium for the first time at the hands of this creative team, which makes for a particularly intriguing project.

Here’s what Rafael Scavone and Rafael Albuquerque had to say about their journey through A Study in Emerald and about the book you’ll be holding in your hands very soon!

Hannah Means-Shannon: Each comic project is different in terms of how teams work together, but in the case of adaptation, it must be quite unique! What sort of methods did you develop to work together on adapting the original story to script?

Rafael Albuquerque & Rafael Scavone: This is the first adaptation we did together, so we tried a bunch of approaches. We must confess it was a bit chaotic at first. But since we’ve been studio partners for some years and we literally work side-by-side, it was relatively easy to try different ideas. The first thing we did was to dive into this amazing story and try to catch all of its references and nuances, so we could have enough information to cook it on our way. And from then on it was quite simple. After spending some days reading, brainstorming and taking notes, the story was so embedded in our routines that we almost found ourselves drinking tea with milk at five o’clock every day. From that point on, we finally felt comfortable enough to start the script.

HMS: At what point did you feel you had a complete working script, and what do you think led to that sense of completion?

RA & RS: We wrote drafts for about three months. At each draft, we kept changing a bit how things developed from chapter to chapter, which is very important in this story because it’s told from a specific character’s point of view. Each new chapter adds even more complexity to the main plot, and so on. A Study in Emerald is a marvelous Sherlock-esque tale and we really aimed to keep it with all its details. So, when we realized that we had considered all of its layers and brought them into the narrative, we felt that the script was good enough to go on.

HMS: What do you think it is about this particular story that makes it “work” in comics vs. staying in its original prose format? What did you discover about it that made adaptation not only possible, but a good idea?

RA & RS: We both love the original story, it’s one of Gaiman’s jewels, and for us this was already a good idea to bring it to comics. The writing style is so great that we wanted to keep it as much as we could, so our goal was actually to present to the reader our own experience reading Gaiman’s words — our own point of view and interpretation of what he wrote. After we studied his lines and its references, some cool solutions to tell sequences of the story simply came about naturally. This was the ultimate proof we needed to realize we were headed in the right direction.

HMS: In prose stories, sometimes scary elements are scarier because they are not visible and exist only in the readers’ mind. How did you decide what to conceal and what to reveal to make this story suspenseful?

RA & RS: That works for comics in the exact same way. What happens between the panels lives in the readers’ imagination and this is unique and different for each person. We played a lot with this storytelling tool, and we must say that those were the most enjoyable sequences to create. Since the story also carries a lot of Lovecraftian elements, we chose to show all the scary stuff in a very subtle way, according to the conclusions drawn by the character who tells it. Especially when he starts to realize what sort of business he’s dealing with.

HMS: How do you feel that the character design and settings you developed in A Study in Emerald relate to the other comic projects that you’ve worked on?

Rafael Albuquerque: I think the obvious association would be with American Vampire. It’s a historical, horror comic. However, I believe that, somehow, A Study in Emerald is a very unique project for me.

HMS: Did you find yourself drawing any visual inspiration or ideas from any existing comics or films for the time period and events of the story?

RA: Absolutely. I’ve found inspiration in many movies and old illustrations and pictures, trying to portray that time period in the most accurate way I could. It’s a fantasy story, but we really wanted to make it look real, believable and tangible to the reader. So, when the supernatural elements finally come up, it feels even scarier and more surprising.

HMS: When you’re handling a story in prose, and bringing it to comics, do you find that you have to be merciless about removing text? How did you decide on what narrative and language to keep vs. what to remove, while still telling a compelling story?

Rafael Scavone: This was tricky. But since the start of it, we both had a lot of freedom for adapting the story. Daniel Chabon, our editor, simply let us play around in the beginning and this was gold for us. We indeed tried to cut some of Gaiman’s speech lines on the first drafts. I think it’s because we both see comics mostly as a visual media, so we tried to solve things visually as much as possible.

However, since Neil Gaiman’s text was so nice, and everything worked just perfectly well in prose, Daniel convinced us to keep the full speeches in some cases — and it totally worked! After all, it’s a story set in Victorian England starring the World’s Greatest Detective, who’s very well-studied in almost any subject. He needs to speak with flowery words and it’s better for you to listen to him, because he really knows what he’s lecturing about!

A Study in Emerald is wonderfully well written! Neil Gaiman did a great job, as always, and we tried to honour it as much as possible.

HMS: What surprised you most about this process of working on A Study in Emerald?

RS: I think it was what always surprises me with comics. So, it was maybe an unsurprising surprise. LOL. But I’m always positively impressed by the power of the collaborative aspect of it all.

I have learned to see comics as a collaborative craft, where you mix everyone’s ideas and skills into the process, trying to do something unique — specially for the authors themselves. That’s something that is very present to me while I work. The first thing that came into my head when I had the finished graphic novel in my hands was: “Oh boy! This came out so differently from the first idea that I had in mind… but it came out so much better in the end! How did that happen?”. I like to think that this happens because of the people involved. This is what turns it all into something so unique.

We have an amazing story from Neil Gaiman, Rafa’s brilliant artwork, Dave’s beautiful colors, Todd’s precise letters and so on. For me, comics is about people who love this media and want to use this media’s magic to tell something. I can guess the same works for other media as well. I would love to see this graphic novel we did being pushed into different media, for example — maybe movies or games? — just to see how people will reinterpret what we already interpreted.

Thanks very much to Rafael Scavone and Rafael Albuquerque for sharing their insights with us here  at Comicon.com!

A Study in Emerald will be released in hardback by Dark Horse Comics in comic shops on June 27th, 2018 and in bookshops on July 10th, 2018. 

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