Kazu Kibuishi Talks Art, “Harry Potter” Covers, and “Amulet” Film Adaptation
Artwork expands the world that’s inside our imaginations. Using movement, lines, and dimension, illustrators like Kazu Kibuishi invite audiences into their stories.
MuggleNet had the chance to speak with Kibuishi at New York Comic Con, where the author and illustrator of Amulet and illustrator of the 15th-anniversary editions of the Harry Potter series sat on the Drawsome panel along with several other very talented illustrators. The artists introduced themselves while making a quick sketch of the main characters from their graphic novels. Kazu sketched Emily Hayes, his protagonist from Amulet, as well as her brother Navin in the background.
Since it was Kids Day at NYCC, there were many very excited and art-loving children in the audience. The panel took suggestions from the audience for a character, place, and object and then created unique stories using the children’s imaginations. The result was a couple of comic strips about a shrew in the desert scheduled to have a duel at a haunted castle with a shrimp! Kazu’s quick response to the prompt was incredibly impressive and his freehand drawing could have been the start of a new comic series.
The kids in the audience had the chance to ask questions of their favorite artists and get insight into their own projects. Every time someone asked a question, they were gifted by a drawing from an artist on the panel. At the end of the panel, the artists posed for pictures and signed their graphic novels. Watching Kazu interact with the kids showed us just how much he loves his work and his readers. After the panel, we got the chance to sit down with Kazu and have an interview, below. (We asked questions mainly about his Amulet series, but Kazu kept adding in Potter references!)
Meg Scott: All right, so we’re from MuggleNet!
Kazu Kibuishi: Oh, okay!
Meg: And of course, you illustrated the 15th-anniversary editions of the Harry Potter books. And your style has always reminded me of a quote from one of the Harry Potter books, and it’s when Harry finds the Pensieve for the very first time, and he looks at it and he feels like it’s neither gas nor liquid. And your art has always looked that way to me. It has a sort of weightlessness to it, and it’s also got this quality of light shining through. And so I’m wondering if your current style that you use… Are there elements of that that were in your child[hood] drawings? Do you retain any?
Kazu: Well, when I was a kid, I wanted to design rides, like Disneyland rides. I wanted to be an Imagineer. And I like action movies. I like seeing movement depicted in pictures. And so I’ve been working on this style that would allow me to express movement, and I think Amulet is essentially the first project that I worked on where I was putting that to use. So there’s a lot in my Amulet series that is based around movement, so when I did the Harry Potter covers, I essentially just did my regular style and applied it to the books. The third cover was actually the first one that I sketched, where Scholastic said, “We’d like you to do all the covers like that,” and that one had the most movement in it.
Meg: Oh, and that’s my favorite cover that you did.
Kazu: Yeah, that sketch was, like, three minutes. [laughs] I didn’t touch it. I just sent that and they said, “We want you to do all the covers like that.” And so I worked on it from a gesture drawing.
Meg: So what is your typical process, from sketching to end product?
Kazu: For the covers?
Meg: For covers [or] for any art you do.
Kazu: So with Amulet, a lot of it is research. So I’m really just thinking about the world. I’m reading all sorts of things. I’m just taking information in and getting prepared to go on stage, so to speak. When I go and draw, I feel like I am then drawing these rehearsals. So I’m a bit like a director or an actor and I’m rehearsing, and I do maybe eight to ten rough drafts of a scene. And then when I feel I’m ready to go on stage, so to speak, I will draw a penciled version of it. When I did the Harry Potter covers, I did up to 130 drafts of the covers. Sometimes I would get lost, and I’d have to track back to Version 35 in a sequence of cover designs and then go back to that and find my way back to the road. And I essentially just work with David Saylor at Scholastic, and I would go back and forth with him. I’d show him the cover and we both knew something was off. Then I’d look to see where I’d made the error: Where did I get off the path? And then [I would] go back to that and rebuild from there. So for Harry Potter… It’s rare for me to spend that much time on a single illustration. It was really nice to be able to do that. Most of the time I don’t have time to do that.
Meg: So you mentioned [that] for Amulet, you start with the arena that the characters are [going to] be in. And you said that you studied architecture and that one of your favorite buildings that you’ve [seen] is the Hagia Sophia. What are some of your other favorite pieces of architecture just in the world?
Kazu: Architecture? Oh, man. This is an interesting question. Favorite pieces… I don’t know. I just appreciate almost all architecture. I’m inclined to speak of favorites like Frank Lloyd Wright because I’m from California, so it was around me. And a lot of that is very Tolkien, you know? [laughs] It has that Lord of the Rings vibe to it. And I mean, I find that inspiring. But I just like everybody’s work. I found that everybody had an interesting style. I even like Frank Gehry’s work. It might not be functional most of the time, [laughs] but I like that it’s there. It really makes me think about the building itself. And so I don’t really have a favorite, honestly, or a favorite building. But I’m always looking at architecture everywhere I go. Here, too.
Meg: Yeah, New York City is a great place for it.
Kazu: Oh yeah. I like designing spaces, in general. And when I was a kid wanting to be a ride designer, that’s part of that. Experienc[ing] design, that’s what I like to do. For a while, I was also a web designer. I mean, I want to create shops. I just want to create any experience. When I was a kid I made a haunted house in our garage, [laughs] and that was so fun but nobody came. It was terrible. I was ten years old or so, and I got all my friends together and we made this haunted maze in my garage. And I loved stuff like that. And with Amulet, I feel like that’s essentially what I need to do because I don’t have a lot of somebody’s time. With a novel, you have them with you for maybe a few days or a week. In my case, it’s two hours. But there are experiences all around the world that are short that people actually will travel out to experience, whether it’s a ride at Disneyland or just a museum exhibit somewhere. And those are short experiences. So I looked to those experiences as inspiration for Amulet, as opposed to other books. And I tried to see if I could articulate it within the framework of the thing, and I figured that my job, then, is not to waste anybody’s time [laughs] or lock them down for too long. My job is to create a memory marker that they’ll experience very quickly and that they’ll want to experience again several times over the course of their life.
Meg: So about the Amulet series, you said the last one will be the ninth. How did you decide that nine would be the limit, and for how long [have] you known that nine would be the limit?
Kazu: I only found out that nine would be the limit after seven. [laughs] I thought it was going to be two, and then it had to go to five, and then as I was getting to five I knew I couldn’t end it. I asked for two more to get to seven. And then as I was getting close to seven, I was like, “No way. I can’t finish this within that framework.” But I didn’t want it to be bigger than Bone. I wanted Jeff Smith’s Bone to be almost a companion piece, that you could have it sitting right next to Amulet and both of them belong together. And I didn’t want to push it off the shelf, essentially. And so I thought, “Okay, this will be the cap of it because there [are] nine Bone books. I’ll do nine Amulet books and that’s it,” which is why the number eight book was so hard to do, because I have to take care of all the threads and bring it to a point where I can do a very focused book in the final, and not feel like I have too many loose threads out there that people feel are unresolved. This particular book was difficult. I’m hoping all the work I did to prepare for nine makes nine a more enjoyable experience for me.
Meg: So there’s a film adaptation coming up for Amulet.
Kazu: Yeah, very likely.
Meg: How much can you tell us about that? Is it going to be live action? Animated?
Kazu: Well, definitely it’s live action. And there is a screenplay. I’ve read it. I like it. I think they’re still tinkering with it right now. They do have a director; I can’t talk about that. But I enjoy working with Temple Hill Productions. They’ve been a very author-friendly studio. They had done the Twilight movies and the John Green movies. I think they’re doing stuff with Stephen King and they did The Maze Runner and things like that. So they’re used to working with people in the literary world, and that shows when I talk to them. They’re very good to work with and they’ve become friends, so I hope they get it made. In the film industry, it’s like catching a wave. If a movie gets made… There are so many resources that have to be marshaled to make that happen, and so in some sense luck has a lot to do with why a movie gets made. And this is a process that we’ve been going through since 2007, I think. So it’s been a long time.
Meg: What are some of your favorite movie adaptations that have come from graphic novels or short stories or novels in general? Any kind of written media.
Kazu: Oh, well, talking about Harry Potter, I think Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the great adaptations. I love that movie. Alfonso Cuarón, I felt, did a really fantastic job with creating something new while articulating the heart of the book really well. I mean, he changed it just enough to make it work really well emotionally in cinema. And in movies, you have the ability to manipulate time – possibly better than in the book – and so that whole final act in the movie I think is an absolutely brilliant use of time management. And so I love seeing things like that. As far as other adaptations, I feel like Spielberg does a good job with nearly everything he adapts. Yeah, Lord of the Rings… There are a lot of good adaptations. I enjoy seeing the process of it too. And I’m glad to see that they’re willing to change Amulet to suit the film, the producers are. And I think that’s good. I’d like to see what people would do. They shouldn’t be one-to-one. The book already exists. [laughs]
Meg: That’s it for me. JT, do you have anything you want to ask?
JT Diaz: I was wondering, between working with your own stuff like Amulet, and then working on Harry Potter, which has such a background, what were the differences working on the two of them? Did you have a lot more creative freedom, obviously, or did you go in with an idea for the cover? Or did they give you one?
Kazu: Well, in my case, because I’m an author at Scholastic and I’ve been working with Scholastic for so long, David just kept putting the keys in my hands. [laughs] Even if I asked for feedback, they would just put the ball right back in my court and say, “Well, what do you think?” And David is really smart about that, too, because when you do that for an artist, they put more into it. And that’s what I did. I put as much into it as I possibly could in the timeframe that I had. It was a very short window to make these covers. But it was enjoyable for me because it was just solving a problem. I didn’t have to design the problem; the problem already existed. The covers needed to be made. There’s probably a new audience. They’re probably my readers! So it made it a little bit easier for someone like me because I know my readers really well, and now they’re growing up to the age where they’re going to be introduced to Harry Potter. So I just thought, “I know them well enough that I can draw for them to introduce the series, and I’ll just do that.” So it was a lot of responsibility, for me, but at the same time… Because as a writer, I have to create problems to solve. And I didn’t have to create that because it already existed. I wasn’t part of the process of inventing Harry Potter; I’m just celebrating it. And so it was just enjoyable most of the time. I wasn’t really stressed.
JT: One last thing. Can you tell us maybe what is after Amulet? After that ninth one has ended, is there anything in the docket?
Kazu: Oh yeah. There’s another project that I have been developing since before I started working on Amulet. It was the other project, the other book I wanted to do. And so I’ll finally get to start working on that. [laughs] 20 years later. But the details of it, they’re still obscure to me as well. I’m going to discover it after I’m done with Amulet and I’ll enjoy the process of changing it and making it what it needs to be for the moment.
JT: Good to hear there’s more to come.
Kazu: Yeah, there’s more.
JT: Well, thank you very much. Thank you for your time.
Kazu: Oh yeah. You’re welcome.
Meg: Yes, thank you! It was great talking to you.
Kazu: Yeah, thanks for stopping by.