Even If You Don't Hear It, the Music is on the Page – An Interview with ALEK SHRADER about Carmen
Comic Book Yeti contributor Lauren Smith speaks with Alek Shrader about the graphic novel adaptation of Bizet's Carmen, its themes, his utter disgust for José, and this stunning creative team.
COMIC BOOK YETI: First of all, a huge congrats on being funded already – that’s amazing! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me amongst all the impending fulfillments you’ll have! How cool is it that your pitch not only won a contest, but is now going to be distributed?!?
ALEK SHRADER: Thank you! I always feel shame when I talk about good things that happen to me, so it’s with a not-so-small amount of self-loathing that I say HOLY CRAP, this is my dream! This project has repeatedly gone from “might this cool thing happen?” to “OH IT’S HAPPENING AND IT’S EVEN BETTER THAN YOU HOPED!” I’m so grateful to everyone who made it possible, especially to the incredible artists who signed on to work with a random opera guy that slid into their DMs one day. And of course, I love each and every backer of our Kickstarter. They’re getting a beautiful book!
CBY: Georges Bizet’s Carmen is one of the most famous operas in history! What pressure, if any, did you feel to re-tell this opera?
AS: Honestly, we’re all hoping that the familiarity of CARMEN will attract curious readers, which will eventually lead them to the opera house. You’re all invited! The only pressure I felt was to write good enough pages for my artists to work with! It’s my very first attempt at writing a comic book script… My early drafts were overwritten and cluttered with extra junk. Luckily, I had P. CRAIG RUSSELL and ANEKE to save my bacon!
CBY: For those that are not familiar with the original opera, what is Carmen about?
AS: CARMEN is about a spirited woman who wants the freedom to live her life as she chooses, and yet her autonomy is constantly challenged by society, misogyny, and men who won’t accept “no” for an answer. It’s about desire. It’s about control. It’s about Fate. (It is *not* about a seductress making a good boy go crazy.)
CBY: In my opinion, graphic novels are one of the best ways to tell stories! What made you and all involved decide to make this a graphic novel, instead of single issues in a limited series?
AS: WHO TOLD YOU? Because my original pitch was actually for single issues! We were all brand new to creating and publishing comics, and some ideas needed the careful consideration of more experienced minds. So we asked DAVID HYDE (formerly of DC Comics and Random House), who now has his own company SUPERFAN, and he steered us into the correct path. He’s right. You’re right! Single issues are fun, but the graphic novel tells the whole story in one easy-to-collect volume. And we want the story to be easy to consume. So we nixed the singles and instead added LIMITED RUN ART PRINTS :D
CBY: On your Kickstarter page, it says “If you love Carmen, but are new to comics, you can
appreciate the storytelling on the page. And if you are a comics fanatic but are new to
opera, here's a book that practically sings.” In your opinion, what aspects of this graphic novel makes Carmen “sing”? What can comic fans look forward to seeing and going “YES! This is my cup of tea!”?
AS: It’s my great hope that the music, even though you can’t hear it, is all on the page. So that when you do end up experiencing the opera (and you will), you’ll have an extrasensory recollection of that particular moment in the comic, the way you as the reader imagined it. To make that kind of magic, one needs P. CRAIG RUSSELL to do the layouts! He is a huge opera buff and has adapted several operas before this one. He knew exactly how to capture the essence of the musical drama and transfer that into sequential art. And let’s talk letters— HASSAN OTSMANE-ELHAOU elevates the art form of lettering. The *voices* are all there. Those two gents plus the gorgeous lines and colors of ANEKE… just one look and that’s EVERYONE’S cup of tea!
CBY: There are some strong themes throughout Carmen, including as written on the
Kickstarter page, “a power struggle between the sexes, a meditation on the question of
freedom versus fate, and a stark contrast between the exotic Roma lifestyle and a
repressed society”. Are these themes that you yourself are passionate about? Were you excited to tackle these themes for yourself?
AS: Brace yourself for a nerdy response! I’m passionate about telling the best story I can, and the best stories often ask questions. CARMEN was originally written with a sense of exoticism and curiosity for the outliers of Spanish society. I tried to be respectful of those cultures and focus on the underlying constant struggle of oppression (which obviously still exists today). I wanted to focus on the conflict of control vs autonomy, which is explored within the themes you mention. And in the end, I hope readers question the nature of that conflict.
CBY: Speaking of passion: what part of the story of Carmen speaks to you the most?
AS: The part of CARMEN that speaks to me the most is my utter disgust for José! It’s a tragedy that this type of guy is STILL all too common. He’s got destructive personal demons, he’s bound by strict religious rules (with convenient loopholes), he’s violent, he takes advantage of those weaker than himself, he is obsessive and controlling. He’s a real piece of crap. José makes me angry. Don’t be like José.
CBY: What characters were you most excited to write in Carmen? Would you say Carmen is a more character-driven story?
AS: CARMEN is all about character! Even the locations are characters. Oh no I’m getting nerdy again! As a storyteller, it’s useful to break down a character into their desires/needs based on their choices. What I found was that these characters, even as they were originally conceived, still resonate with modern sentiments. A woman wants freedom. A man is prone to rage. These are current, relatable characters, no translation needed. Then we add the traits that make them unique— Men think Carmen is magic, José needs his Mother’s rules, etc… Suddenly the characters have a life of their own! And it’s true of the locations as well! Sunny, hot Seville… the smoky, intimate tavern of Lilas Pastia… the dark and deadly mountain hideout… the vibrant, loud (and climactic) bullfighting arena. These play major roles in the story itself!
CBY: What can readers expect from your re-telling of this opera? Were there any necessary
changes you had to make that you can speak to?
AS: I tried to reconcile the differences between the original novella and Bizet’s opera. It wasn’t always possible! As a completist, I tried very hard to get all the details into the script, but there just wasn’t space for everything. The biggest change is the loss of the character GARCIA… although, he’s not even in the opera! SPOILER/TRIVIA ALERT: He’s Carmen’s HUSBAND. And Carmen’s new fling José has a big problem with him, obviously. But the way the novella was adapted by the librettists of the opera removed him completely and changed the flow of the story so that one doesn’t even miss him. Except me. I miss that lumbering, one-eyed bandit. Sorry, man.
CBY: You are a part of such a stunning creative team on this graphic novel! We’ve got you
writing, artist P. Craig Russell of AMERICAN GODS illustrating, artist Aneke on art and
colors, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou on lettering! How did you all manage to come
together as an operatic Justice league on Carmen??
AS: I got out my identicard and just said “Assemble.” Oh wait, you said Justice League! True story, I reached out to them on social media! I tried not to be too cringey, but it was essentially a cold call from a non-comics rando. I was polite and promised to pay their full rates. I always knew I needed to get in touch with Craig, even just to pick his brain, and I was blown away when he offered to do the layouts himself! It was VITALLY important that a woman create the final art, and Aneke has the perfect voice and TALENT for this story! I followed Hassan on twitter as a longtime subscriber to his industry mag PANELXPANEL (check it out!). One day he tweeted that he was accepting new projects and I immediately emailed him! And it all worked out!! These are just three of those “OH IT’S HAPPENING” moments I mentioned earlier.
CBY: With a great team and a good platform comes amazing rewards. What rewards can backers expect to see as options for this phenomenal campaign?
AS: In addition to owning this beautiful tome, we have SEVEN GUEST ARTISTS contributing exclusive art prints of Carmen and other opera heroines. They are, in alphabetical order: NATACHA BUSTOS, COLLEEN DORAN, ERICA D’URSO & MARISSA LOUISE, ERICA HENDERSON, ANA MIRALLÈS, and MARGUERITE SAUVAGE. And there *might* be even more… but I like to be MYSTERIOUS! There’s also the rewards of donating a copy to a library (a good deed!) and tickets to the opera!
CBY: Can we expect to see more graphic novels from you in the future?
AS: YOU BET! I’m working on a few opera adaptations RIGHT NOW, and I would LOVE to do even more. Hit me up! Let’s make opera together! And hopefully one day, I’ll write an original story all my own.