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Interview: Janet Lee on Pride and Prejudice

Many Jane Austen fans, including myself, were delighted when the news broke that Silence in the Library Publishing’s new Pride and Prejudice project would be illustrated by Eisner Award-winning artist Janet Lee. Previously known for her incredible work on Archaia Entertainment’s Return of the Dapper Men with Jim McCann, as well as the Marvel Classics Emma and Northanger Abbey - adaptations of the classic Austen novels showcasing her unique approach and style – she holds a degree in British literature, with plenty of infectious enthusiasm for the quintessential Regency author.

To say that she’s perfect for this project goes without saying.

Lee and I got together to talk about her new project, which has already launched on Kickstarter and will be running until May 6th. Don’t miss the chance to fund this campaign and help make a beautifully-illustrated production of a timeless classic come together. Any fans of Austen and Pride and Prejudice will love watching Lee bring all of these beloved characters to life, revisiting all the sordid details and insatiable drama of Elizabeth Bennet and company. Both her background and exuberance for the source material provide valuable insight into Austen’s works, particularly the many memorable characters populating fully-realized historical settings.

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Dork Shelf: This might go without saying, but I’m really excited about this project!

Janet Lee: I’m super excited about it. I got in a little too late on the Marvel stuff to get to do Pride and Prejudice. They’d already done it and it’s my favourite.

DS: But you did do my favourite book, Northanger Abbey.

JL: You know what? It’s the best one for a graphic novel! It had been so long since I read it and I kind of forgot [that] Jane Austen hides behind a character in every other book, but she is just out there for Northanger Abbey. She is full-on snark.

DS: I was going to ask you about that, because every time I’ve read it, I have felt like this isn’t just a character, this is Jane being snarky and talking smack about the people of Bath.

JL: It’s completely true, it’s one of those things where you kind of get to a certain point and you realize… it’s her. It’s her voice, it’s like she’s telling the story instead of reading it. Which I guess is probably a little less sophisticated in a way? Or maybe she’d just had enough that day.

DS: I mean it’s a story within a story; it’s about loving stories.

JL: Exactly! When I was growing up in my early teen years and really discovered Jane Austen, I started writing in my diary like I was Jane and talking about how I wished that the world was different, and I could completely see myself in Catherine Morland. She’s that girl who’s like, ‘Oh I’m going to this abbey, clearly some murder has happened here!’ She’s like Velma from Scooby Doo – if Velma was slightly delusional or something – but she’s that girl who is so in love with the stories that she wants them to be real.

DS: I think that’s the biggest appeal, and what appealed to me. I felt like she was me, or I was her, or any young person with a big enough imagination to fool yourself for awhile until you realize you have to actually grow up.

JL: I agree completely. You know you tend to pick a Jane Austen that’s your favorite, and it can evolve over time, but you tend to pick a Jane Austen that’s your favorite because you see yourself in one of the characters. I think everybody that’s in love with Pride and Prejudice sees themselves as Elizabeth. As I’ve gotten older, Persuasion – I love Persuasion - so you sort of see yourself a little bit more. It took me until college to love Emma.

DS: When I first read Emma in high school, I was like, “Why does anyone even like this person?” It baffled me.

JL: It’s like a painful sitcom or something, she’s just terrible. She’s clueless and she’s like a wrecking ball going through everyone’s lives. But then you get a little older and you’re like, “Oh yeah. I know that girl, and she means so well that you can’t really hate her, but she is a wrecking ball going through everyone’s lives.”

DS: Was Pride and Prejudice the first Austen book that you read?

JL: It was, and it still remains my favourite; I’m probably like everybody else on the planet for that one. But it kind of got to the point where everybody going to England to visit would always bring me back a Pride and Prejudice edition, so I have shelves and shelves of them.

[At the passing mention of Jane Austen adaptations like Bridget Jones’s Diary, the subject quickly shifted to some of our favorites.]

JL: There are some that are just fun. One of my favorite new ones is Austenland. I don’t know why that one didn’t do very well; I loved that movie.

DS: Did you catch that web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries?

JL: Yes! I love her vlogs!

DS: As far as very modern takes, I love the things that they did, I love the places they went. Like how the scandalous equivalent of Lydia running off with Wickham today would be a sex tape.

JL: Of course it would! But I think it’s a testament to Jane Austen, too, that with so little tweaking, you know all of these people. You know all of them. They might get into a slightly different brand of trouble, but you know these people.

DS: There’s always a Wickham.

JL: There’s always a Wickham! And is he really a bad guy? Or is he just slightly misunderstood? For me in some ways, Wickham is the bad boy that you’re supposed to like. Like a Brontë novel: the redeemable bad guy, but he can’t be redeemed. Wickham, and Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility is like that, too. Jane sprinkles them in because that’s what girls are supposed to do. The pure heart is supposed to redeem the bad boy, except sometimes the bad boy is just the bad boy. You don’t really want him, honestly!

DS: Do you think that’s partially why Austen is so formative, especially for younger readers? Because they recognize so much of that in their own lives?

JL: I do. I think that her genius is that you can read them at different ages and pick up different subtleties about the world she’s describing, and fall in love all over again. So you’re not really reading the same story at a different age, you’re reading it with new eyes. You can find more sympathy with Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Bennet and their relationship after you’ve had a relationship for a long time.

DS: I used to really hate Mrs. Bennet.

JL: She’s pretty darn annoying, but as you get older you can look at it with fresh eyes and go, “Wow he is really crappy to her almost all the time.” But you feel sorry for him too, because he’s sort of stuck in it; they’re so mismatched that you just have to feel sorry for them after a certain point. So for me it’s one of those things that you sort of fall in love with it innocently, and you grow into a lot of the stories. Even in something relatively straightforward like Northanger Abbey, she’s got layers to it, but she’s really talking about literature and our relationship with storytelling, as opposed to talking about the world at large. You read it at different ages and you find different things that are really intriguing about it. I just think she’s a genius and we didn’t appreciate her enough when she was alive.

DS: How did you get involved illustrating the Austen books for Marvel?

JL: When I was working on Return of the Dapper Men I got to meet a lot of different editors, and one of them was responsible for the Jane Austen books at Marvel. I had his card, so I sent him the geekiest e-mail in the world saying, “My degree’s actually in English, Jane Austen’s just my favorite, and I know you have wonderful artists that I’m sure you’re incredibly happy with, but if you ever have an opening please consider me and let me try out for it!” And as luck would have it, they did have an opening, and they sent me a note back asking me if I wanted to work on Emma. Sometimes it’s just that easy; it’s all about networking.

DS: Did you have a similar experience getting into Pride and Prejudice?

JL: Pride and Prejudice was a little different. Last year at San Diego Comic-Con, the folks behind Silence in the Library Publishing found me and had this idea for a project and pitched it to me.

DS: Is there going to be anything significantly different about your approach in this latest Austen project, compared to the sequential work you did with Marvel?

JL: This is my first stab at non-sequential. It’s an illustrated novel, so it’s a much more classic take. We’re not actually adapting Austen’s prose, we’re basically illustrating key points from it. So right now, unless we over-fund on the Kickstarter, I’m doing twelve color illustrations and twenty black and white illustrations. The black and white illustrations are fairly straightforward, the color illustrations are a variation on what I did for Return of the Dapper Men. That was all done in decoupage where it was layers of paper glued onto wood. I’m not gluing them onto wood, but I am doing cutouts and layers of illustrations again that are sort of glued together.

DS: Do you get to choose what scenes to illustrate?

JL: I do. They suggested some to me, but I have been really given free reign to choose from the list. In fact, at this exact second I’m working on the one where Mr. Darcy gives his first proposal [pictured below], the one where he says, “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” I think I’ll black and white when Lizzie just denies him.

First proposal

DS: When drawing the characters for Pride and Prejudice, where does the inspiration for their likenesses come from?

JL Lizzie’s especially hard because, again, everybody who loves Pride and Prejudice sort of sees themselves a little bit as Elizabeth Bennet. I didn’t want to do Jennifer Ehle because she’s so well known. I kind of went with Gemma Arterton [Lost in Austen]. And I tried to shake it up a little bit with another one of my favorites for Mr. Darcy. I don’t know if you’ve gotten to see Death Comes to Pemberley yet, but Matthew Rhys…

[At which point we both started shouting at each other about how great his broody Darcy is.]

JL: Mr. Collins is super hard, because for me, whenever I picture him now, I picture him from the BBC because he was so spot on, so smarmy; you can’t get any better than that. I’m sort of picking and choosing different actresses and actors from the different movies to kind of combine them for the ones I like best. It’s too good not to use since they’re in our imaginations anyway.

DS: Aside from the characters, is there anything you really like about drawing this era?

JL: Oh, I do. I learned pretty early on with Emma that we Jane Austen fans are every bit as crazy about our costume history and getting the details perfect as any Spider-Man or Batman fan in the world. It has to be perfect. You also have to be careful about making your characters too demonstrative. It’s one of the distinguishing features of Lydia and Mrs. Bennet that they’re so harum-scarum, always jumping up or speaking loudly or talking very animatedly and that wasn’t done; it’s very low class. So you have to be careful with the reactions of the more proper people to make sure that you’re conveying emotion, but still being true to the period. I feel like my years of rereading Austen over and over again probably helped in making sure that I was trying to capture the era in a true way.

DS: Do you have any major influences in your illustrated work?

JL: My first influences are probably children’s book illustrators. At seven, I got my first copy of Alice in Wonderland and I fell in love with the John Tenniel illustrations. I get to use it from time to time. I just finished doing a new Once Upon A Time anthology from Marvel, I got to do a Mad Hatter story and I went full on Tenniel. One of the Christmas presents I always ask for are the Caldecott winners for the year so I can see what people are doing for children’s books. Craig Thompson, Blankets. I love his detail, I love the way he composes a page. I really feel like everything we read, or see, or do helps inform our art one way or the other. Sometimes more directly than others.

DS: Is there a genre you would be interested in exploring that you haven’t yet, or anything within the Regency era that you still want to explore past this new project?

JL: I’m actually getting to do one of the ones that I’d most wanted to do. I was at Emerald City and got a script from Vertigo for a horror comic, so I’m getting to design monsters, which is so much fun. I love doing period pieces. I would hate to only do period pieces, but I love crossing a lot of that design into book projects. So something like Dune, something like a science fiction where I get to really draw on some interesting costume designs, it’d be a blast. Sherlock Holmes, I would love to do some mysteries; I haven’t really gotten to do that yet. Is it terrible to say that I want to do all of it? I kind of want to try all of it and see what I like best.

DS: Maybe something like that sketch you were doing for a Regency era Batgirl? I thought you were really onto something there.

JL: Yeah, I do those a lot! I’ve also started doing this kind of crazy little series, I get to conventions and I guess I’m so tired, so I start drawing superheroes drinking coffee. It’s fun. You also think about what they’d eat for breakfast. Like Zatanna? Clearly she’d be eating Lucky Charms because they’re magically delicious. You have to think of what goes with whom. Harley Quinn would drink coffee, but she’s pouring some gin in it.

DS: Superman would probably be sticking to his Wheaties.

JL: I think he would; he’d have something very healthy. Extraordinarily healthy. Maybe with a glass of milk.

DS: Okay, I have a really silly question. If you could have tea with any character in a Jane Austen novel, who would it be?

JL: Isabella from Northanger Abbey, just because she would be such a gossip, she would tell you absolutely everything about what is going on. The other one would probably be Marianne from Sense and Sensibility, I think Marianne would be a lot of fun to have tea with. Maybe I’ve got a little too much Mr. Bennet in me, but I think I would enjoy the really full of themselves, non-self aware characters. Sit back and watch them, wind them up slightly and watch them for the rest of the meal, it would just be endlessly entertaining.

DS: Is there anything else you want to talk about for your upcoming Pride and Prejudice project?

JL: Well we are still working on funding, so I would love it if anyone out there that really enjoys Pride and Prejudice would like to hop in, or just share it around.

DS: And it seems like there are some unique incentives for people who back it, too?

JL: We decided to do an Elizabeth Bennet Christmas ornament for this, the ones sold through the Kickstarter are all that will ever be produced, so that’s a real exclusive. We’re about to make some announcements about some new stuff. We’re going to have a drawing, so if you participate even at a low level, you can go into a drawing for original pages. There’s a wonderful fan that an incredibly accomplished fan maker has agreed to make for us, and then there’s pendants.

Go here to fund the Pride and Prejudice Kickstarter campaign. For more information about the artist and some great examples of Janet Lee’s other work, visit her official page.


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