Hello Graphic Novel Lovers,
Today it is The Black History Channel’s great honor to present our interview with author, educator, filmmaker and graphic novel writer, Mr. David F. Walker.
How’s that for an introduction? But we’re not done yet. You see, Mr. Walker has quite an impressive resume. He has also worked for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Boom, Dynamite, and Image, and today this mega-prolific creator is here to tell us all about the writing journey behind his 2019 graphic novel masterpiece, The Life of Frederick Douglass.
So without further ado, let’s get to the interview!
Hello, and welcome, Mr. Walker. What inspired you to write this book?
I wanted to write a nonfiction graphic novel for quite some time, but the opportunity never presented itself. An editor from Ten Speed Press reached out to me, said he was a fan of my work, and asked if I’d been interested in writing a graphic novel about the life of Frederick Douglass. Honestly, Douglass was not my first choice for a graphic novel like this, but here was the opportunity in front of me, and more than just an opportunity, it was a creative and intellectual challenge. I knew that it would be a difficult project, but I also knew that if I didn’t go for it, I would regret it.
We’re certainly happy you “went for it” because it truly is a visual and literary masterpiece. We’re wondering, how long did it take to write this graphic novel?
My part of the book, the writing of the manuscript/script of The Life of Frederick Douglass, took a little over a year, including research time. I can usually write something like a superhero comic relatively quickly, but this was something completely different. At times, this felt more like I was working on a college research paper than writing a graphic novel.
It’s an amazing book, and the detail that went into the writing proves you put your heart into it. What did you enjoy most about writing it?
I love the fact that it led me to do so much research on Frederick Douglass, which in turn taught me so much that I didn’t know. Education was a huge part of Douglass’s life, and to be working on a book about him, while educating myself, so that others could then be educated, was pretty amazing. I loved trying to answer certain questions that were difficult to figure out. For example, Frederick Douglass knew Harriet Tubman, that much is a given. But figuring how and when they first met, and the circumstances of that meeting, was a challenge, because most books simply started and stopped with “Douglass and Tubman knew each other.” I must have read three or four books that talked about different aspects of both their lives, which allowed me to form a theory, which then led me to other books that eventually backed up my theory. I relied heavily on the research skills I developed working as a journalist for more than ten years, and that felt great.
Wow! We can’t wait to see what else you do with the information you harvested on the relationship between Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. In the meantime, what was the biggest challenge writing this particular graphic novel?
The entire book was a challenge, but there was a strong emotional component that I hadn’t expected. I spent months buried in research, reading about the life of Douglass, the history of slavery in America, the Civil War — all things tied to the subject — and it wore me down. Most people never do a deep dive into the history of slavery, and I understand why. I had to deal with a lot of depression issues as I was writing this book, and I kept thinking about my own family, who had been enslaved, and it became very difficult.
How well we identify with the emotional component that goes along with researching slavery, oppression and the burning, unquenchable desire for freedom! But we’re so happy that you worked through it, and that this book, The Life of Frederick Douglass, was the result. Thank you for sharing it. Any other challenges?
From a creative standpoint, one of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to condense information, and figuring out a way to convey some of that information visually. Even though I didn’t draw the book, I needed to have an idea of what would be on each panel and each page, and then convey that to the artist so he could draw it.
That’s wonderful, especially since most authors do not have the luxury of communicating with their illustrators. All told, how long did it take to get this book to the market? Did you rack up any rejection slips before you found a publisher?
I want to say that from the time Ten Speed first approached me to the time the book was published was just under two years. The artist on the book, Damon Smyth, started drawing before I had finished writing, but he had close to a solid ten or eleven months to work on the art. He finished drawing in the summer of 2018, and the book came out in January 2019.
From what we’ve been told, 18 – 24 months is the typical amount of time it takes to get a book to the bookshelves, so at least there were no surprises there. Was there ever a time you thought this book wouldn’t get published? If so, what kept you going?
I was fortunate, because the book had a publisher from the beginning. My concern wasn’t about finding a publisher, it was about simply writing a good graphic novel.
You definitely wrote a good graphic novel. A great one, in fact. What do you hope children (and adults) will learn from your book?
Honestly, I hope people learn things they didn’t know — whether it is about Frederick Douglass, or the Civil War, or slavery — and that what they learn sparks an interest to learn more. As I was doing research for this book, I learned so many interesting things — things that either weren’t in the book, or barely in the book, that could be graphic novels in their own right. As an example, I became obsessed with John Brown while working on this project, and took some of what I learned about him and eventually spun it off into a fiction project I’m working on.
Your fiction project sounds amazing! We can’t wait. In the meantime, any tips for aspiring graphic book writers?
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you need to understand the medium of the graphic novel and visual storytelling. It doesn’t matter if you only write; in fact, if you are a writer who doesn’t draw, then I think you need to understand the visual aspect of this medium even more. Check out books like Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative by Will Eisner, or Making Comics by Scott McCloud.
Read a lot of graphic novels, in a variety of genres — not just superhero stuff. If you’re writing a nonfiction graphic novel, know your subject. There’s no such thing as too much research, but there’s definitely such a thing as not enough research. Give yourself at least three to do your initial research, and plan on doing research the entire time you’re writing. I was literally still going to the library and checking out books and reading up on various subjects until the last day of writing this graphic novel.
Great advice, thank you! What are you currently working on?
I’m co-writing a comic series called Bitter Root, and working on several titles that I’m publishing myself, including a western called The Hated. I have a new nonfiction graphic novel scheduled for January 2021 that is about the Black Panther Party. The artist on that is Marcus Kwame Anderson, and his work is phenomenal. I consider this Black Panther Party book to be the companion piece to The Life of Frederick Douglass. And I’m currently negotiating a fiction graphic novel with Ten Speed Press, so we’ll see if that comes together.
Your plate is wonderfully full, and we’ll definitely be on the lookout for your new projects. One last question: What’s one thing your fans DON’T know about you?
Well, if anyone follows me on social media, they probably know too much already. A lot of people don’t know that I have a background in film and journalism, or that I also teach part time at Portland State University. Graphic novels and comics are just part of what I do, and part of what interests me, and at this point in my life I don’t see the need to restrict myself to just one creative medium, or even one vocation. I can teach, write graphic novels, and produce films — all of which are in my future.
THANK YOU, MR. WALKER!
Thank you so much for your time and your generosity, Mr. Walker! We’re so happy that teaching, producing films and writing graphic novels are all in your future, and believe us, we will be watching for your next masterpiece.
Until next time,