Joe Sutphin is an illustrator of children’s books including Andrew Peterson’s treasured Wingfeather Saga, the New York Times bestselling Word of Mouse by James Patterson, the bestselling edition of Little Pilgrim’s Progress, and the official graphic novelization of Richard Adams’s timeless classic, Watership Down. Joe lives in a barn in Ohio with his wife Gina and five cats.
KidLit GN is donating a signed copy of Joe’s Watership Down graphic novel. See below for details on how to enter to win.
Do you have formal art training? When did you become interested in illustrating graphic novels?
Actually, other than the comics that I made in middle and high school, the only graphic novel that I have ever done is Watership Down. In my teens, I drew a lot of Dick Tracy-type crime stopper comics on folded printer paper that I would staple together and pass around at school. But as I grew older, I found that it wasn’t the type of artwork that I felt most comfortable working in.
I attended the Columbus College of Art and Design but unfortunately I dropped out before the end of my third year. At the time, I didn’t really possess the fortitude that’s required to make large quantities of art under deadlines. I was becoming interested in music and playing in a band and decided that I was moving on from visual art. I think it’s good for anyone to stick it out and finish. But thankfully, I’ve never had an art director or editor ask me where I went to school. They just want to know that you can get the job done and the work is good.
During the time I was playing music, a friend was building a concept website for our band with a fictional, fantasy theme. I was intrigued by the story that he was writing. After the band ended, he encouraged me to continue, and I did with the intent of getting it published as a novel. That was in the early 2000s, and I had not been doing art for several years. In trying to figure out how to get into publishing, I looked up websites of illustrators that I liked and emailed them. They all responded. Back then, before social media took off, people were more open to making connections through those types of interactions.
Tony DiTerlizzi (Spiderwick Chronicles, Search for WondLa), took particular interest, gave me advice, critiqued my work, challenged me with projects, and kept encouraging me. I took on all his challenges, like storyboarding existing stories, and learned so much from these exercises. He became a real mentor to me.
Eventually, Tony was presented with a project from Simon and Schuster that he couldn’t take on and pitched illustrators he was friends with. That was my first opportunity to do something in print, one piece of art in the John Carter of Mars anthology. I took whatever money they paid me and flew to New York for the book launch. There, I pounded the pavement, cold emailing art directors and editors, trying to get my foot in the door. I got to have a face-to-face with an art director at Abrams. In less than a year, he had a book series for me. That’s how it started. That experience taught me that if I put in the effort to get in front of anyone in publishing (who was willing), it was the best way for me to put my foot forward.
How did you get paired with James Sturm? Was it through your agent or a publisher?
I’ve been without an agent for four years. It was an interesting and wild scenario. I posted a photo on instagram of a book my mother-in-law gave me, Denys Wortman’s New York, a tribute to a forgotten Depression-era cartoonist. I tagged James Sturm, an editor for the book, and that alerted James who followed me back. A couple of months later, he messaged me and told me that he was hired by Ten Speed Press to put together a team for the graphic novel adaptation of Watership Down. I was one of four artists that James proposed. We each illustrated the same page and presented it to Richard Adams’s Estate. James and I got picked as the duo. It was a pretty wild chain of events, almost surreal.
How long have you been working on WD? Please tell us about some of the challenges and joys of working on an adaptation of such a beloved classic?
From the start of negotiations to the book coming out in October, it will be just shy of five years. And we really needed that time to do the book justice. We had an entire team of people making sure we got it right and did 3 full rounds of read-throughs where we scoured the book for errors in text and imagery, making changes up until 4 months ago.
It was a real blessing to work under someone like James Sturm who co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, won multiple Eisner awards, and is a pro at the craft. He storyboarded the entire novel, wrote the script, and showed me where my lane was, and how to stay in it. It was priceless. The pressure of working on such an enormously respected book could be high but thankfully, I didn’t feel that pressure because I had James guiding me the entire time.
After we signed the contract, James and I were flown to Hampshire, England to meet with Richard’s daughters, Juliet Johnson and Rosamond Mahony to tour the locations in the book. Aldo Galli, a good friend of Richard and previous Watership Down illustrator, guided us on the tour. He brought a copy of the book and when we got to locations mentioned in the book, he read the passages and showed us how Richard lined everything up. It was very helpful to see the real locations and come home with hundreds of photos to make it as accurate as possible.
What media did you use, what were some technical challenges, and how did you make the rabbit characters look individual and distinguishable?
Everything is drawn on Bristol board with ink pens, colored pencils, gouache, and white pen. Anything that needed adjusting was done later in Photoshop. My wife Gina scanned all the pages and got due credit in the book.
Coming off of drawing a lot of rodent books, I was not good at drawing rabbits and had to get a lot of bad rabbits out first. Through finding injured rabbits on our property, I met a woman who rehabilitates them for the wildlife center. She allowed me to come sketch and study wild rabbits up close and figure out what I was getting wrong. It got easier after a while, but in the beginning, I was getting pushed! I had to trust my instincts to make the rabbit look different without getting too dramatic. Because I had to draw these guys thousands of times, I didn’t want to get buried in details and trusted that the coloring process would lend to making them distinguishable.
What advice do you have for graphic novel creators and illustrators just starting?
I didn’t get into publishing the traditional route, so I don’t know if my advice applies. But in general, get in front of agents, editors, and publishers and have something to show. Find ways to get where they are and always have something like a small portfolio or sample art, or postcard to leave behind. Go to Comic Cons, SCBWI events, participate in portfolio reviews, and sign up for critiques. What worked best for me was building relationships on social media. Also, if someone is offering suggestions, it’s important to actually make changes and apply them. Make those edits and show them the progress you made after taking in their insight.
Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your fascinating journey with us. Congratulations on Watership Down’s upcoming release date on October 17th!
You can meet Joe in person at Buckeye Book fair in Wooster, OH on November 4th, and Books by the Banks, Cincinnati on Saturday, November 18th. Follow Joe on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/
To enter to win a a signed copy of Joe’s Watership Down graphic novel, please comment below with your name. To enter more than once, share this post on social media, then reply to your original comment with the link to where you shared the post. You can enter as many times as you shared. This contest will close by end of day on Oct. 8, and the winner will be selected shortly after.