Illustration students at Edinburgh College of Art have been working with English Literature students from the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures to adapt a Robert Louis Stevenson short story into an original graphic novel. The Literature students were invited to a recent crit and feedback session where the ECA students presented their work to date and discussed the strengths and areas for improvement in their designs.

The work being adapted is The Isle of Voices, a story set on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. The project builds on last year’s collaboration between the two Schools, where students collaborated in adapting Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp. While Stevenson is perhaps best known for works such as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he also wrote a collection of short stories (as well as historical, non-fiction work) inspired by the time he spent in the Hawaiian Islands, Gilbert Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Samoan Islands, having left Scotland in search of warmer climates in an attempt to counter his ill health.

The project is led by Dr Michelle Keown (Senior Lecturer, English Literature) and Harvey Dingwall (Lecturer, Illustration), who are guiding the students from initial planning and sketches through to a complete and published graphic novel. The activities have been supported by a Principal’s Teaching Award.

“The collaboration is really about looking at the nexus between visual and verbal storytelling, and I’m really impressed by the work that’s been produced,” said Michelle, whose research areas include Postcolonial literature and theory in the Pacific region, “Unusually, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote these stories for both indigenous and western readers, and with indigenous narrators, who are portrayed positively and have agency.”

“One of the biggest things that’s come out of this year, and the thing I think we’re going to focus on in this project is that sense of authorship, and of people’s histories,” said Harvey.

Illustration students present their work
Edinburgh College of Art

“When you create a story you have a whole world in your mind, but then you have to choose what to write and include in that specific moment. That was really interesting to see happen visually, when it usually happens in someone’s mind.”

Miranda Garralda-Wong, English Literature student

Adapting certain parts of the story presented challenges to the Illustration students in how to present the text in a visual medium.

“There was a lot of it that was challenging, from an illustration point of view, because it obviously wasn’t written to be illustrated,” said Rebecca Sheerin from Illustration, “For example, in the section I worked on, there’s a teleportation, but it’s not described, it just happens. And so how do I draw that? We were also restricted to creating a two-page spread and with a certain amount of bleed, and so it was also about working within certain limitations.”

“From the way we’ve been doing this course, we’ve been in the mind-set of considering how we can create an image out of text, and I also think a lot of us naturally think that way. While there are some things that are unlimited, like the colour, the tone, the composition, you’re obviously limited by the story itself,” said Kat Cassidy from Illustration, “Stevenson is such a big figure in literature that you can’t change his words. You can’t take someone’s craft and just totally change it. That’s not our job as illustrators.”

The English Literature students’ role in the project is part of their studies on the Modernism and Empire course.

“That’s a major concern within the context of the course we’re studying, that question of representation and of authority, and of power dynamics,” said Andrei Smolnikov from English Literature, “there’s a recurring theme of who has the right to create the authoritative image of whatever it is. Over the course of history, it’s often been the colonising power who has had that literary authority.”

“Watching the illustrators run into the same problems of interpretation that we’ve been discussing on our course was really interesting,” said Max Walker from English Literature, “There’s this self-consciousness that you begin to feel when dealing with a text from an uncomfortable period of history.”

Illustration students present their work
Edinburgh College of Art
Illustration students present their work
Edinburgh College of Art

In working through some of these challenges in adaptation and dealing with the subject matter of the text, the students produced a double-page spread that will form a part of the collaborative finished article.

“I think adapting something from text to illustrations can add another layer to the story. The illustration can set a certain mood that’s more instant, and then you read it to get the detail,” said Melanie Grandidge from Illustration, “I was struggling with how much text to take out, because I didn’t want to rewrite anything. I ended up leaving quite a lot of text in as I felt like it was important for the images and words to complement one another.”

“It was nice to have such visually-rich material to work with,” said Hannah Riordan from Illustration, “This year, a lot of the work has been about us generating the ideas, and Stevenson’s descriptions have so much imagery to them to get us started.”

The project also led some of the students to consider ways of thinking about how we approach reading and writing, both as writers and illustrators.

“Picking out motifs and symbols to draw is quite a literary thing, I think. When you create a story you have a whole world in your mind, but then you have to choose what to write and include in that specific moment,” said Miranda Garralda-Wong from English Literature, “That was really interesting to see happen visually, when it usually happens in someone’s mind.”




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