Dragon*Con Report: “The Art of The Way of Kings

So, Monday at Dragon*Con was, as usual, actually pretty chill. Kind of like Sunday at most regular cons. Yeah, there was still programming until like 4:00 PM, but most people were more worried with packing and hitting the road, and most of the programming was “goodbye and feedback” panels. But, Brandon Sanderson, true to form, kept on trucking, and at 11:00 AM, he and two of the artists that had worked on the twenty-plus illustrations for The Way of Kings sat down for a good long time and talked to us about not just the art, but the inception of the book in general.

But this isn’t a post about art. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the panel was mostly about the art, and I did sort of title this post with the name of the panel. But no, this is more about what The Way of Kings is in a general, postmodern sense. To that effect, I need to reference the wonderful essay by Brandon that went up on John Scalzi’s website titled: “Postmodernism in Fantasy”. It is kind of long, but a good and interesting read. For those who want to “tl;dr” it (and why the heck are you reading me if you are that kind of person?), the gist is that fantasy hit the “hipster ironic” phase really fast, where people try and use the tropes to twist the tropes in ironic ways then chuckle at their own cleverness. Sanderson talks about his own “postmodern” fantasy, Mistborn, and his worries about doing that with The Way of Kings as well. See, he didn’t want his great epic to still be in the shadow of Tolkien and Jordan. He wanted it to be something more, to transcend into what he thinks the next generation of fantasy writing should be. And that brings us back to the panel and one of the things he did to get out into his own ray of sunlight.

In the panel, Brandon asked a simple question: why do fantasy novels have maps? His self supplied answer: because Tolkien did it. Now, this is actually a good thing, he points out, as typically it is nice to be able to geospatially figure out where people are during the story without having to pen-and-paper it yourself from the vague (or sometimes not-too-vague) references. Still, it was standard and expected, and Brandon had been trying desperately to break away from it. Elantris, he somewhat lamented, had a standard fantasy map and he didn’t fight too hard about it because that was his first book. But the  Mistborn and Warbreaker maps got to move a little closer to his desire for the maps to be more “in world.” That is to say, these were maps that someone in the story might have access too. Which is why the Warbreaker map kind of looks like a tapestry and the Mistborn map is scrunched and kind of hard to read.

The Way of Kings got to go a step further, but Brandon had to push for it. Even with his rockstar status, Brandon knew Tor would be somewhat reluctant to just greenlight a novel with twenty interior illustrations, many of which would be drawn by two of his friends. So he had said friends put together a pitch package, a la Hollywood, and he flew to New York and had a meeting directly with Tom Doherty, where he did everything he could to sell the idea. At this point in the panel, we actually got to see that concept art, which was rather interesting, especially to see the concepts for Shardplate and Shardblades. Tom was reluctant, but Brandon made a good case, and so despite his fear (in Brandon’s estimation) that this might be a half-graphic novel, he tentatively gave the thumbs up.

But, what exactly is it that Brandon was and is going for? Well, Brandon actually referenced a graphic novel in explaining this: Watchmen. At the end of each “chapter,” Moore inserted a text-based snippet, but from in-world, like a newspaper clipping or a diary entry. They world-built, progressed the story, and enhanced the characters, but they were text, not graphic. Well, Brandon wanted to do something like that with his novel, creating a mostly text story that would have occasional in-world art to help our immersion. This flowed very naturally from one his characters being a natural historian and constantly sketching things. There were also tapestry-like maps, or maps that appear to be set in stone or glass, or even an illiterate soldier’s map of camp carved on the back of a shell. And beyond maps, we had illuminated manuscript pages, drawings from old books, and a rubbing of a stone carving.

And you know what? It works. A picture is a thousand words (which is roughly three printed pages), and the quick rush of information and the stimulation of a different region of the brain does well to increase immersion. But, the question remains: is it a gimmick?

Brandon had commented that Mistborn was a gimmick, and that is why it worked but also why he didn’t want to repeat it. He is trying for something beyond a gimmick with The Way of Kings, something that perhaps other authors will cleave to, and other publishers. It definitely isn’t going to be easy, but in this age of mixed media, it does seem like a valid path to try. There is something important for anyone trying this kind of work, though. Do not actually illustrate any scenes in the story (except for the cover, but that doesn’t count). The illustrations, I think, need to add to the story without repeating it. Brandon seems to have stuck to this, and it definitely works for The Way of Kings.

Can we expect to see other novels with large amounts of in-world images inside that are still managing to stay away from “graphic novel” territory? I truly hope so, although how publishers and the business model will take to it, I’m unsure. I have heard it said that narrative prose is one of longest lasting media styles, and I doubt that it will change, but I think there might be a new kid on the block that will be making a home for itself. What shall we call it? Well, a brief search found this article from back in 2007 on The Guardian’s webpage, and I like it: Illustrated Novels. Until I hear otherwise, that’s what I’m sticking with.

Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and sucker for pretty pictures. You can read more of his ramblings and some of his short stories at http://RichardFife.com. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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