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Interview: Stephen Hesselman on The Golden Key

We have an exciting announcement for our Rabbit Room members! Next week, we’re sending out a very special collection of coloring pages from Stephen Hesselman, the editor, and illustrator of the graphic novel adaptation of The Golden Key.

The collection will not only include some of our favorite inked drawings from The Golden Key, but also a series of whimsical summer-themed drawings (which may or may not include a sketch of Tolkien, MacDonald, and Lewis celebrating the 4th of July). We cannot wait for you to see them!

Amidst another joy-packed FIKA, Stephen and I sat down at North Wind Manor to talk about The Golden Key and his upcoming coloring collection. Read the interview below and become a member today to support our programs and enjoy a lovely afternoon being swept into the lovely imagination of Stephen Hesselman.

Stephen, thanks for coming! Before we jump in, can you tell us how you got into art in the first place and how you got connected with the Rabbit Room? 

I really got interested in art maybe around junior high. I had some friends that were into comic books at the time so I started out with lampooning comics. I did “Splatman” instead of Batman as a first attempt. But I gradually got a bit more serious. I still have a bit of that “you make fun of the things you like” when it comes to art for some reason…but it was a fun way to start.

Please tell me you still have some of those Splatman drawings.

I do! I totally should’ve brought them. I’ll bring them up to the Manor another time. Soon after that, I started making up my own characters and once I got through high school I got interested in book illustration- children’s books and classics. A lot of my art was inspired by those stories. 

Where does the Rabbit Room fit into this?

Stephen: Years ago, when I was on Facebook, I heard about it through my love for Andrew Peterson’s music.

Sounds like a familiar story!

I figured that’s how a lot of people find themselves here. It was fun discovering a community where it’s not just Andrew’s music that everyone relates to, but also Tolkien, Lewis, and others. After that, I knew that the Rabbit Room people were my people.

It’s fun seeing how so many people get connected this way, and then end up contributing to different aspects of the community. I’m sure it was quite surreal to hold your finished edition of The Golden Key and now work on this Membership project with our team as well. Would you mind diving into a bit more of these projects? Maybe starting The Golden Key?

Yes, absolutely. 

Tell us a bit about The Golden Key, how did this come about and what made you want to tell this story?

Ten to twelve years ago, I discovered George MacDonald, (not like he was lost, I just didn’t know about him). I had exhausted the fictional worlds of Lewis and Tolkien when my sister told me that they were heavily influenced by MacDonald’s work. There’s this great collection of George MacDonald short fairy tales called “The Complete Fairy Tales” from Penguin Classics that includes a lot of his short works, one of those being The Golden Key. Out of all of those, I would have to say that The Golden Key was the most gripping one for me. It’s a fascinating story with so much visual language and meaning. I relate to a lot of the story and am so compelled by the imagery that just grabs you. I would say it’s the most visually gripping story that I’ve probably ever read. 

Going along the lines of imagery, how do you transfer this fairy tale to paper? Did you grow up with illustrated versions? 

No, I didn’t grow up with any illustrations like this. This graphic novel came really from the words of MacDonald and my imagination. It was a bit of a discipline not to look at anything others had created before me because I knew these stories have been around for a while. I’ve heard of others doing different versions, but I didn’t want anything else influencing my idea of it. I wanted to give it a stab at whatever I could come up with so it ended up being just me trying to work with MacDonald and see what my imagination conjured from his words.

That just sounds so complex. Because you’re not just dealing with a story set in this colorful, complex, fairy world, but you’re also dealing with a classic author from the 19th century, which adds its own level of difficulty. I just wanted to say that looking at the book from start to finish, it just ended up being such a beautiful portrayal and really honored the visual complexity and beauty of MacDonald’s writing. 

Well thank you, I really appreciate that. 

Would you mind showing me your favorite page in the book?

Absolutely. To give you some context, the two main characters, Mossy and Tangle are in this place called the Shadowland and they end up losing each other. From this scene when it closes, all you know is that Tangle doesn’t know where Mossy went. Getting to tell this scene and interact with this concept of the Shadowland was very interesting to me. It felt like a metaphor for us struggling through life. 

I love hearing that you’re most proud of this scene because I wouldn’t necessarily expect that based on so many of the images in the book. It’s these giant two-paged, complex, colorful prints that seem to stick out the most when you flip through all the pages, yet the scene you’ve chosen is very different from this. Its beauty seems to lie more in the story itself rather than any extravagant or colorful images. 

Yes, I think that’s why I like it so much. I love the images that were chosen to promote the book, I’m so proud of them. But this scene, in particular, holds a lot of complicated and powerful meaning for me. It was really hard to put it to paper when you don’t necessarily know how to do it justice. I ran what I had by a few friends and I ended up reworking several times. Besides how it turned out, I think that the collaborative part also makes it a special scene for me.

I’m scared to go into this next question, but a project like this had to take a lot of time. Can you walk us through the timeframe?

Stephen: This has taken years. I will say it wasn’t the only project I was working on at the time so that didn’t shorten the length by any means. I have a very distractible personality so there are plenty of other things that came up that prolonged the process. I remember starting it seriously when I moved to Nashville in 2014. Now it’s eight and a half years later, but I wrapped up the part of the process I did alone after about seven years.

So you pencil sketch the drawings and then ink them yourself. After that what happens? You send it off to be colored and then what?

I gave a draft of black and white with my ideas on word placement and MacDonald’s text with speech bubbles, thought bubbles, and narration. I knew it wasn’t the final placement of everything, but it was enough to send over to Pete and get his thoughts. When we felt ready to move forward, we brought Hayley Evans to color it and then Jonny Jimison to letter it.

This is quite the collaboration piece between visual artists. I feel like that’s typically not something you have the opportunity to do as much. 

Yes, I loved that. It isn’t often you get to collaborate with other visual artists on a single project so it was nice from both the color and lettering standpoint. I feel like a lot of times you get a better result when you have several people involved, even though a part of you wants control of every aspect of the project. Around the time I finished inking, I was in a good spot to let go of those details and glad to have the help. I’m glad I was because it’s typically hard for me to give up control of my projects.

On top of that, it’s like “I’ve already been working on this project for 7 years….”

Exactly! I don’t want to spend 3 more years coloring or whatever it would’ve taken me. 

Do you typically color your stuff or just pencil and ink?

Typically just draw and ink. Something that is helpful to know in terms of this art, is that, most of the time, comic book artists will do one part of the comic and pass it off. Because they are productionized and have to release a new comic monthly, they almost always work collaboratively, with a writer, a penciler, an inker, etc. But for me, it’s really tough for me to let other people ink my stuff. I do a lot of things with the inking that goes beyond the penciling. Penciling doesn’t look like my final product. So in terms of penciling and inking, the average time it takes me can add up to a total of 8 – 10 hours per image. Because of this, I haven’t really been into the process of coloring. Most of my stuff is just black and white illustration but I’m starting to play around with some watercolor stuff for fun. 

Would you want to do another project like this? Has a different fairy tale caught your eye? 

I had originally hoped to do a trilogy in terms of George MacDonald. Who knows if that will still happen, but it’s on my mind!

I know we all love to hear that! With everything you’ve recently been involved in at the Rabbit Room, it felt silly to not ask you to draw some coloring pages for our Members too. 

I’m really happy you did. This has been so much fun for me.

And I’m really happy you said YES! So just a few questions about that…our members will receive some of your inked images from the Golden Key and these summertime-inspired drawings. Tell us about the drawings you specifically created for the project. Is there a theme or are you just having fun?

I jotted down about 10 ideas in my sketchbook with things I might want to do with it and decided on 6. So I’m basically sticking with the summertime theme and trying to also think about what would fit with the Rabbit Room community. I also considered what would be fun to color if I were the one with markers and colored pencils.

I’m assuming somewhere in these drawings, you see bits of yourself and your own style come through. Where do they pop up in this collection?

Well, I threw in a minion in this one garden photo. I feel like there needs to be a fantasy element to any sort of Rabbit Room piece. So I have this garden gnome who’s up to mischief and it feels like we should put a Minion in here, you know? The gnome obviously needs a friend. My mind is random like that. There’s another one where you have a willow tree kind of the concept from the Willow in The Lord of the Rings, but I want him to be super distracted. 

There’s a bit of humor in all of them and pokes fun at things that I like.

Is there one you’re most excited to share?

Probably the goofiest of them is the one I’m most excited about. It’s one with Tolkien, Lewis, and MacDonald wishing everybody a “Happy 4th of July” because it makes absolutely no sense. 

I can already tell you that that’s probably going to be the crowd favorite of them all. I can’t wait to see people take a shot at coloring these. 

If people want to support any upcoming projects or check out more of your work, where can people follow you or hear more about what you’re up to…

Stephen: You can follow me @stephen.hesselman on Instagram to see some ink art. I’ve done a few pieces for a project with Jonny Jimison that’s coming up, and then I’m still thinking about what the new big project will be. Probably something MacDonald related but we shall see!

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To our members, look for the collection in your inbox next week, and be sure to share your coloring talents with us! You can email us or tag us on social media using @rabbitroom to show your finished product and share it with others. As always, thanks for supporting the work that goes on here. We’re grateful for your partnership and investment!

You can get a copy of Stephen’s adaption of The Golden Key at the Rabbit Room store and receive the coloring collection by becoming a member today! 


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