Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Alex Smith

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Art of the Illustrator: Evolution of a nearly graphic novel, Agency Blue

Joe Blue Siyengo, a genius kid from Khayelitsha who by sixteen has already made his name and a modest fortune creating graphic novels, is the chief protagonist in my new novel Agency Blue. Joe Blue is author and illustrator of the story within the story.

‘We’ve got budget and approval to have Agency Blue illustrated,’ Michelle Cooper from Tafelberg said to me on the night of the Sanlam Youth Literature Awards. ‘Probably not a full graphic novel, but there can be lots of illustrations and we’re very open to ideas. Do you know of any artist you’d like to work with?’

I’ve always loved picture books, so I was thrilled, even more so that Michelle and Tafelberg wanted my input. At that particular moment, I was quite drunk on champagne too, but even in the blur, I mentioned some graphic novels with particularly impressive illustrations, like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and Alan Moore’s From Hell. I also remembered an article (Something Wicked This Way Goes) I’d read on Book SA, posted by Mandy J Waston, about how the only local journal of horror and sci-fi fiction Something Wicked was closing. I’d been very impressed by the illustrations in the magazine – some of them were featured in the article, along with the names of the illustrators. So I told Michelle I did have some ideas about illustrators and would email her. The next day I logged on to Book SA, and followed the links to the Something Wicked website in search of illustrators. They had a fantastic section featuring all their illustrators, with links to their work. So I broswed for a while, and in the end, there were three I especially liked. I gave their names to Michelle, not sure what to expect – one had an email contact on the site, but the other two didn’t. It was the beginning of wonderfully interactive experience between Michelle, the illustrator (in the end only one was selected) and I.

A very short time afterwards I got an email from Michelle. She’d been in touch with two of the illustrators: Joe Doe and Pierre Smit, and she’d given them this paragraph from the novel to use as inspiration for a test illustration:

Once upon a rainy day in Khayelitsha, two schoolboys were arguing about magic, love and miracles. One of the boys, Ebenezer Siyengo, a sensitive poet type, was in love with a girl who didn’t love him back, and he was bitter with disappointment, and so he shouted in a fury at his friend, who did believe in love: ‘Get real, you idiot, there’s no magic in the world, love is a useless addiction worse than smoking or Tik, and miracles never, ever, ever happen!” At that instant, a baby boy, who would come to be called Joe, was born in an overcrowded shack, and at the very moment of his birth, SWOOSH! a bolt of brilliant blue lightening surged through the roof of the shack and hit Joe’s hands. His hands turned kind of blue, but they weren’t burned at all. People in the neighbourhood said: “WOW! It’s a miracle that baby’s hands weren’t burnt!” But the real miracle of that day was only revealed when, at the age of two, Joe found a sheet of cheap white paper, picked up a pencil in his blue hands and drew his big brother, Ebenezer, with all the skill of a professional artist. Then the people in the neighbourhood said again, this time with dropped jaws: “Wow! The baby drew that? Wow! WOW!” Actually that’s all they could say, over and over, because they were so amazed and flabbergasted.

Joe Doe sent in her beautiful illustration first:
Hi there Michelle,

I hope that you and the writer like this illustration.
This is a low res image. If you decide to use me as the artist, you are welcome to suggest any changes.

The book has captivated me already, just through those few lines, and I am looking forward to its release. Please give the writer my congratulations.

Kind Regards,

Jolene Boshoff.

Which Michelle forwarded to me, and I replied to her about it:

Wow, thank you for this email – seeing the words illustrated, I feel as excited as I did when I first saw actors saying words from a play I wrote – it’s awesome! Although, Joe Doe’s picture is more realistic than the funky look I had envisaged, it’s a most magnificent picture – Joe Blue seems so content at work on the portrait he is drawing. It will be interesting to see how the other artist interprets the words. I’m a little sad, seeing those words because, when trying to respond to the one judge’s critique that the story took too long to start, I rather changed that beginning – I’ll send you the reworked draft again on the weekend. If you have time, I’d really like to know what you think of the altered beginning (particularly the first four pages or so), since you’ve read the original version.

Oh, some other interesting news, which may be good for selling of the novel (I’m not sure if such things really are) – I heard on Friday, I’ve been shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing, and will hear at an awards banquet in Oxford in July, what the result is. I’m sure I won’t win, but it’s cool anyway.

Next came Pierre Smit’s test Illustrations, he’d sent three ideas based on the paragraph:
hie is dit nou maar..

ek is nog nie tevrede met di weerlig nie.. maar dis ni nou belangrik nie.. kort net nog “tweaking”..

voeg ook by n paar “idees” vir kitty en jo.. nog glad ni happy nie.. maar wil dit in elkgeval wys vir input..en om te voel watse rigting om in te gan

(ek hou byvoorbeeld van die boonste Jo.. hou om amper (visueel) as ‘n meer “mysterious” of “mythical” karakter .. weet nie.. ook bang vir maybe TE cartoon-y..(american tv..)
my ander kitty’s was te cartoon-y.. hierrie een maybe te ..ek weet nie ..voel noggi reg v my nie.. anyway.. hoop maybe di skrywer kan help.. hehe

ook ‘n idee gehad om ‘n “film noir” (hul is mos PI’s..:) atmosfeer en beligting in van die prente te gebruik.. (soos obv in d kantoor, strate ens..)
gan nou die storie gan klaar lees.. wat, BTW, vir my nogal baie cool geskryf is!.. die kleur potloode speel so groot rol.. mens sou graag wou maybe so een kleur op ‘n prent in bring.. een item of kledingstuk..

Michelle forwarded the images to me, and I replied:

I love Pierre’s more funky style and his film noir idea, and also the idea of bringing in one colour – is that possible? – blue, it would be so cool to bring it in, but I know it costs. The pictures are great with or without a colour. Regarding his Kitty, I think she looks super, love her big hair do, but maybe she looks a little old, perhaps there is some way he could make her a bit more teen-ish, like a Hello Kitty clip in her high Do? Some element of that Tokyo street, kind of Japanse cute look may help to make her younger.

Michelle agreed about Pierre and Kitty, saying:

Yes, agree about Kitty – I think a reworked ill of her could make a lovely cover pic. Okay, I’m going to tell him we’re a go; we already talked about payment and he can do one ill per chapter and a cover for the money I have available in the budget, but yes, I don’t think we’ll manage the colour!
Have a good week

So Pierre Smit was to be the illustrator for Agency Blue – and what a fantastic choice he turned out to be. During that first week, I had an idea, and since Pierre had asked for suggestions I sent Michelle an image:

Further to what I said about Kitty and her age and Pierre’s original illustration – it probably sounded odd to have a Hello Kitty clip, but I’d seen it in wild art expo in China using Hello Kitty in art – anyway, here is a photo, taken with my mobile, so I’m sorry about the quality, which may make what I was thinking more clear, and could be of interest to Pierre.

In the meantime, Pierre sent through his first cover idea, to which I responded:

I like the cover a lot, – there are two distracting dots of sky in the top left which seem to tug my eyes away from everything else. Though. Do you think the colours could be more, is saturated the word? Kind of vivid or comic book-ish? The colours are usually cleaner. Overall though I like it. Oh, but will it say on the cover with illustrations by Pierre Smit? I really wish that is possible, I think the illustrator’s name should be on the cover.

Michelle agreed about the colour, and Pierre responded with a second cover, which in the end, after a a little more work, became the final cover:


this just an idea for starters.. (still needs some finishing.. and i see now, less of a western cowboy feel!.. haha)..
also trying some different ones and ideas too.. of course..
just putting it out there..

and i love any input/direction/criticism/commands.. ..

What was amazing about working with Pierre was how incredibly well he picked up the vibe Michelle and I were hoping to achieve, and how brilliantly he responded to input. The fact that he welcomed input was brilliant in itself – many artists resent this sort of thing.

Hi Pierre and Michelle,

Wow! I LOVE this new look. Really it’s so striking, very cool – that flat blue is glorious, and Kitty as the focus is sensational, love that she’s got the camera and that T-shirt too. If there was anything I’d query, it’s perhaps the title script could be a bit thickened up, to make it bolder too now that everything else is so strong? What do you think?

All the best,

In the end each chapter has at least one illustration and they’re perfect – it’s as if Pierre read my mind. To be able to interpret a text or a brief so well is a true gift. If anyone is looking for an illustrator, I cannot recommend Pierre Smit more highly, or thank Michelle (and Tafelberg and Sanlam!) enough for making it all possible.

Agency Blue also had a truly fantastic editor in the form of Louis Greenberg, and an excellent proof editor Louise Steyn. It will be in bookshops from next week.

There will be a launch at the Book Lounge on Tuesday 23 November, two days after my birthday, and it would be great to see you and any teenagers you know who may like to come along to the launch of two of the Sanlam prize winning books.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    October 10th, 2010 @13:30 #

    She lives, she breathes, she's bringing out a new book, hurray! Alex, I love this dialogue. Reminds me of when Annari read your emails about the editing process at the launch of Dragon's Well. Fascinating to "see" the process as it happens. And although I think Pierre has done a magical job and was the right artist for the project, I am much impressed by Joe Doe's beautiful drawing. I'd love to work with her some day.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    October 10th, 2010 @18:49 #

    You're right, both Joe and Pierre are utterly amazing illustrators - the links to their online portfolios at Something Wicked are:
    Joe Doe
    Pierre Smit

    (even if you don't buy Agency Blue, it's worth taking a peek at the illustrations when you're next in a bookshop. One of my favourites is the two rabid dogs looming over the eye of a gun...)

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    October 11th, 2010 @11:11 #

    Gobsmackingly gorgeous, Alex - the artwork and the post. File this one with your best :)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    October 11th, 2010 @13:20 #

    Alex, this is so very cool. Can't wait to pick it up.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    October 11th, 2010 @14:40 #

    Congratulations, Alex! I can't wait to see the finished version of your fabulous book. The text had so much energy and colour, I'm still seeing the story in my mind, so I can't imagine just how KA-POWWWW it's going to be now!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    October 12th, 2010 @09:09 #

    If only voles could fly, and KA-POWWWW lead to CHA-CHING. But never mind that ... thanks all for the words of encouragement. Lauren, I'm especially glad that you think it looks cool ... Ben, gobsmackingly is a very splendid word, it ought to have a picture book of it's own ... Louis, it still astounds me that you found this a lovely story, even though at least two of the characters are shamelessTwilight junkies. Not Kitty though, she's no fan of simpering vampire romances, nope, if anything, Kitty's a zombinik all the way.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Elana</a>
    October 12th, 2010 @09:41 #

    Looks totally stunning Alex. Story line, setting, illustrators all make my mouth water. Look forward to finished product and will DEFINITELY be buying!!


Please register or log in to comment

» View comments as a forum thread and add tags in BOOK Chat