Yongjin Im: On Illustrating Game World by C.J. Farley
In celebration of the publication of Game World by C.J. Farley, and the launch of Akashic’s Black Sheep imprint for young readers, we invited Game World illustrator Yongjin Im to discuss his process of creating the marvelous illustrations within the novel.
When Chris Farley asked me if I would be interested in illustrating his new novel, Game World, I was really excited, in part because I have personal connections to the book: Chris and I have been friends since college, and the real-life children who inspired certain characters in the book are near and dear to me. But it was particularly exciting from a drawing perspective because it’s a multicultural fantasy novel—unlike a lot of other middle-grade fantasy tales out there, the underlying mythology isn’t American or European, but Caribbean, with bits of folklore and legend from a few other cultures sprinkled in as well—so the story is full of unusual creatures and characters, and it presented an opportunity to draw things that not many people have seen before.
I wanted the illustrations to look good, but at the same time I wanted to differentiate their look from what I see out there in other fantasy books in the bookstores. Specifically, I wanted to stay away from a style that invoked comic book or manga illustrations, because people are just so used to seeing middle-grade fantasy illustrated in those styles. I really wanted the illustrations in Game World to reinforce the idea that this book is different from the usual.
But as I started re-reading the book and planning the drawings for each chapter, I realized that I wanted to keep away from depicting some of the more visually colorful creatures, like Baron Zonip himself, or the Moongazer, the Dlo or the Hai-Uri, essentially because I didn’t like the idea of restraining readers’ ability to visualize the world Chris created. I think a reader’s imagination can usually conjure up a creature that is much more interesting, or terrifying (to that reader) than what an illustrator can put on paper; that’s just part of the magic of books.
And so, I made a decision to focus many of the illustrations on mundane things—feathers, a sharpened stick, a flower, a map— so that the drawings as a whole would add atmosphere to the book, but not somehow restrain the reader’s ability to create his or her own perception of this fantastical world. But I couldn’t resist taking a shot at interpreting a few of the creatures, like the Iron Lion, the Rolling Calf, and Nestuh, and had a lot of fun doing it!
But what was probably the most fun thing about this project was collaborating with my daughters, Ines and Allegra. They each have a gift for drawing, and I decided early on that I’d ask them to contribute to this book—really, how often do you get to do something like that with your kids? They loved the idea! We spent hours reading and talking about what they might draw for certain chapters, and then, for those chapters, they took the first cut at the illustrations. I ended up doing finishing work on their illustrations to conform in style to the other drawings in the book, but in many cases, that work was minimal—chapters ten, eleven, thirty-four and thirty-five, for example, were largely the girls’ solo efforts.
The results have been great! My own mother couldn’t tell which drawings were mine, and my daughters have really enjoyed the chance to take the book to show-and-tell to their classmates at school.
The biggest challenge within the project was the cover. Chris didn’t have a specific scene in mind for me to illustrate, but he did have a wish list of a few general ideas. First, he wanted the poses of the characters to be “heroic in some way, but understated,” and second he wanted the landscape to be “tropical, with palm trees” and with a color palette inspired by the Jamaican flag. Finally, he wanted the cover to evoke that iconic Star Wars poster practically everyone of my vintage remembers from the 80s: the one with Darth Vader’s head much larger than life in the background, with Luke Skywalker in a flowing white tunic in front, poised with his lightsaber at the ready, and with Princess Leia at his side. After going back and forth with a couple of preliminary sketches, I did the sketch below of Dylan, Ines and Eli, for feedback:
Chris’s response? While he liked the general direction of the cover, he was concerned that Dylan looked too much like he was wielding his “member” rather than a flaming machete! Concerned about middle-grade–age kids possibly having a similar reaction, we changed Dylan’s pose to the following:
I’d originally intended that the original of the cover would be an oil painting. But after some consideration, I figured I should try a computer painting program instead, so that I could learn something new (computer painting programs didn’t exist the last time I had done an illustration project!), and have flexibility to modify the cover as it developed. After A LOT of trial and error, I got the hang of virtual painting with a mouse, so Game World got its cover! I was going for the eye-catching look of a cover you might find on a graphic novel, but without being too “cartoony” or manga-like in style.
Anyway, I really hope the illustrations were able to do some justice to the exciting story inside the book. The saying goes that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I know we often do, so here’s hoping the cover catches peoples’ eyes!
YONGJIN IM is a former Art Director for the Harvard Lampoon, and is a corporate lawyer who has rediscovered his love for drawing. Game World is the first novel to feature his artwork and the work of his children, Ines and Allegra.
Posted: Feb 11, 2014
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