Ramon Perez took on an assignment that would have made many other cartoonists blanch with fear: adapting an unproduced screenplay by the legendary Jim Henson, the man who created the Muppets,Dark Crystal and many other extremely unique and idiosyncratic projects. But as you’ll read below, Perez took the project as an exciting project and was given a lot of freedom to make A Tale of Sandinto a very special project. I had a great time talking with Ramon about his approach to the book and the ways that he avoided being scared that he’d be called upon to adapt work by one of the most beloved creators of his era.
Jason Sacks: A Tale of Sand was adapted from an unproduced screenplay by Jim Henson. How did you approach this project? It must have been a bit daunting.
Ramon Perez: It was interesting because I was unfamiliar with this facet of Jim’s work. I was familiar, as most people are familiar with The Dark Crystal, the Muppets, Sesame Street, Labyrinth, all that stuff. But this kind of art-house, indy filmmaker aspect I was really kind of unaware of. So when they introduced me to the project – and when they gave me the script, they also gave me some screeners of some of his old independent work and I kind of immersed myself in his earlier work that I was unfamiliar with. I learned more about the man, and as I did that, that actually helped me gain my perspective on how I wanted to tackle the script.
You couldn’t tackle it based on his more familiar work because it’s so different. There are aspects that cross over, but the indy stuff has much more of a social commentary, an esoteric and existential side.
So as I immersed myself in more of his indy flicks, I really gained a way how I thought he might have tacked it had he made it into a feature at the time. I hope I’m doing it justice. Obviously it’s going to be skewed by my own thoughts and perspectives, but it’s been great working directly with Archaia and the Henson Company, giving me the footing with all the knowledge they’ve provided me to have the right ground to tackle this project.
Sacks: How did you conceive of the characters and settings that Henson created? How specific was his conception of the characters and the settings in the screenplay, and how much of that did you develop yourself?
Perez: The screenplay is quite thorough. It’s quite detailed in its descriptions. The characters are well described – what clothes they’re wearing, how tall they are. There was no physical reference that wasn’t given to me. Unlike most of his other screenplays and shorts, he usually sketched a lot. This one had no sketches at all. But it had very good verbal descriptions. This could have been because he was collaborating with Jerry Juhl on the screenplay. The characters were so well realized that when I read the descriptions, I really formed a quick picture in my head.
One thing I did was also was also of that era. I considered what actor he might have cast if they’d filmed this movie back in the ’70s. That also gave me a tangent to work with. I moved on from that as well. The landscape and settings are very well thought out. They’re very lush in the descriptions, and some of the scenes he actually reused. He actually extrapolated sequences and reused them in other films he’s done. Not in the exact same way they were presented in this script, but elements of it were. So I could also look at how he would reuse elements of it in other movies and bring them back into A Tale of Sand as well.
Sacks: I noticed from the preview art that I’ve seen online that you’ve really made a point of making the lushness of the landscape into a major part of the story.
Perez: Oh yeah. It’s a character unto itself, yeah, for sure.
Sacks: How did you approach that part of it? Was it more of a dream landscape in your mind? Or did you present a very specific place on the Earth?
Perez: He describes it as the American Southwest. He often refers to desert landscapes, and a lot of the features like mesas and gullies and valleys and all this stuff. He references features of the desert quite a bit.
I basically worked on reference images that I scoured the Internet for. I also years ago traveled through the Nevada desert, so I had my own photos from that trip. I utilized those as well. I just tried to corral as much information about the desert and the scenery and the landscapes and the wildlife that would be there – because I actually wanted to make it a place full of wildlife, not just barren rocks – and make the landscape a character as much as the actual human characters as well.
Sacks: So much of what I think of, when I think of Henson, is imagination and dream landscapes. The Dark Crystal is like nothing we’ve really seen. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of reality with, as you put it, his existential world, as well.
Perez: This is much more of a realistic setting, but there are moments when we push the envelope into the otherworldly feeling, if you will. Since the story is so bizarre, we wanted to keep it grounded in a much more real landscape. There’s no fantasy creatures – nothing like that. The story itself takes us there in its own way, so I wanted to keep everything else grounded as much as possible to add credence to the believability of the story.
Sacks: You must have had to have a real different approach to this than the work you’ve done for Marvel.
Perez: Each project I tackle tends to have its own voice and its own look. I will never tackle any project the same way. Even when I had – earlier this year I did two Marvel books – each one came out a week apart, I think – each one was tackled in a slightly different style. One was set in 1942, so I went for a much more classic layout of a six panel grid. The art itself was more reminiscent of classic illustrators like Alex Raymond, old newspaper strips.
Whereas the following week I had a Deadpool issue come out that was much more slapstick. So I went for more of a cartoony, comedic, lighthearted feel for the art. And with A Tale of Sand I pushed the lushness and the moodiness of the characters. I want the art to reflect that as well. The layouts I’m using in A Tale of Sand are very different than my stuff for Marvel or DC, because the story is so peculiar and Jim’s filmmaking was so inventive, especially in his independent stuff, that I wanted to have that same feel happen in the graphic novel.
Sacks: Were you a fan of Jim Henson’s work before you got involved in this project?
My childhood was molded by The Muppet Show. That was probably the big one for me as I was growing up, and of course I watched Sesame Street and stuff like that. Then I became familiar as a teenager with stuff like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and many of his other movies.
It was definitely inspiring as a child to watch the Muppets. I still have some of my Muppet books from when I was a kid, with stuff like sketches in the margins and stuff like that. So he was definitely an inspiring factor in my life, combined with many other things. Like I said, I didn’t even know this side of him existed. I think most people don’t. They just know him for the popular, mainstream work, but they’re not really familiar with his more independent, more of his creative tangent work. It’s nice to become part of this and actually learn about this facet of him that I didn’t know existed.
Sacks: That’s fascinating to me. I grew up watching his stuff, too, but I never knew that any of this stuff existed before I spoke to Stephen Christy of Archaia about this. This seems like a completely different side of Henson’s life and his career.
Perez: Oh yeah. It’s a side that he loved, but unfortunately due to the fame of projects like The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, which were taking off at that time, he never had the chance to further follow it and make it happen. It would have been interesting to see him be able to explore this side of himself that had to be shelved because other stuff was becoming more dominant in his life.
Sacks: We get to see it finally, now.
How closely did you work with Lisa Henson on this project? How hands-on were the Hanson family with the project?
Perez: I actually had the pleasure of meeting Lisa Henson this weekend. I don’t really work directly with her. I work more closely with the Archaia people, who then go out and meet with the Henson Company and go over artwork and the story elements. She’s been involved indirectly in the project – with Archaia but not with me – but she has submitted comments here and there, based on either storytelling or layout or something – moments where she wanted a scene to sing a little better or present itself in a different way.
It’s been actually quite great. Her comments have been very complimentary and quite valid whenever she wanted something. Whenever she suggested something that should be changed, it was a valid critique.
Sacks: More collaborative than them coming down with strict rules.
Perez: I’ve had a very free reign to adapt the script. It’s probably the most freedom I’ve ever had on any comic book outside of my own creator-owned stuff.
Sacks: You mentioned earlier that you like to adapt your style to the script. I was looking at “Kukuburi”. That strip is also in a different style. Do you enjoy working in different styles?
Perez: Oh, I do. I love it. I think it would be boring for me to work on every project the same way. It might work for some people, but for me I think every project has a different feeling. The way I would tackle a Western as opposed to a romance comic or as opposed to a kids’ book would be very different. You want to evoke a certain feel, a certain mood, and I think the art definitely plays an big part in doing that. There have been a lot of great comics that maybe feel short because the art either didn’t match or sell the mood of the story.
A strong script can be deflated by bad art or poor art. I try to mold my art a little bit to better suit each script that comes across my table.
Sacks: One thing I noticed about “Kukuburi” and the most striking think in the preview art I saw of A Tale of Sand was the sense of color. That series is so lush and attractive to the eye. And of course when you draw scenes in the desert, that’s got to be a big part of the process.
Perez: There will be color involved in A Tale of Sand, but unfortunately due to time constraints I won’t be doing it directly. I’ll be working in conjunction with a colorist, very closely. I’ll almost be in control of the art, setting my vision of the art down with the colorist, telling him where I want color to happen and how we were going to use it.
Even though the desert is a barren wasteland for the most part, it’s actually quite lush in areas with color. Whether it be the color of the earth, or the flowers or the plants, or even the sky or the nighttime settings or things like that… there will definitely be color used in A Tale of Sand. Not to the extent it’s used in “Kukuburi”, but in a very different manner; in a more designy, interactive manner if you will.
That would better reflect the way that Jim would have done it. He often played with color and sound in a lot of his short independent films, and used it to complement a moment in the movies. I’m trying to translate that into the graphic novel medium as best I can.
Sacks: Is this your first long-form graphic novel?
Perez: I guess officially for a company, yes. I did an independent graphic novel, 120 pages, for a publisher called Palladium Books, a science fiction book in 1999, which I wrote and drew. “Kukuburi” is a long-form online. It’s already at 160 pages and will be collected next year. I guess for an actual publisher in the comics realm, this would be the first big book like this, yeah.
Sacks: I was just curious if you took a different approach to drawing something like this, that’s going to be a longform project. How do you conceptualize it, and how do you plan out the work that you’re going to do? Do you consciously think about recurring images, or page layouts that resonate later on in the book, stuff like that?
Perez: I think A Tale of Sand is the most designed, layout-wise, in a very long time. I wanted to reflect Jim’s arthouse cinematography on his independent projects. I’ve had the liberty to play with that moreso on this than any of my work for DC or Marvel or Dark Horse.
As for approach, though, I tend to approach a comic and a graphic novel in the same way. I guess I am aware that for a longer-form story that I’m not reusing too many of the same poses or same moments visually. I wanted to obviously keep the reader interested over the long form story. On a basic principle of storytelling, I approach it the same way. I just have the liberty to play a little bit more with pacing and layout than I would with a normal comic. Especially with A Tale of Sand, because I’m adapting directly from a screenplay that has no page layouts, I’m designing the page layouts. I’m creating the pacing, the mood. I’m essentially the adaptor of the screenplay to the page, taking the place of what a writer would have done.
Sacks: It’s got to be interesting, too. It’s not a page to page comparison. One page on a screenplay doesn’t match a printed page.
Perez: Not at all. It’s a 76 page manuscript. Some sequences could be two lines in the script which would turn in to 10 pages. Other times it could be 5 pages script but turn out to one page of comic. It’s interesting how that works. It was a great joy to do, though, and to be given that liberty as well by Archaia to trust me to be given free rein to lay this story
Sacks: Must be a great project for you.
Perez It’s been very exciting. It’s inspiring to work on it.
Sacks: Is there anything else you’d like the readers of Comics Bulletin to know about you or your work?
Perez: I just hope people enjoy the book as much as I’ve enjoyed tackling it and bringing it to the page. It is truly an interesting and inspiring script, so I hope that readers take something like that away from this project.