Metaphrog Interview: On Graphic Novels and The Little Mermaid

Comic creators Metaphrog are back with a critically acclaimed retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale The Little Mermaid. Described by the Sunday Herald as 'a gorgeous, swimmy version of beauty and despair', the book is Metaphrog's second venture into fairy tales after 2015's The Red Shoes and Other Tales. We caught up with John and Sandra, the faces behind Metaphrog, for a chat about the book, fairy tales, illustration and what makes a good story.

To celebrate the book, Metaphrog have also created a fantastic list of graphic novels for 8-11s inspired by myths, monsters and ghosts - check it out in our book lists section.

Tell us a little bit about your new book!

Fairy tales are stories that tell us what it is to be human

Our new book, The Little Mermaid, is published by the New York-based Papercutz and it’s a follow up to The Red Shoes and Other Tales. It’s an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale and is closer to the original than to the Disney version that most people know. It’s about a young mermaid who falls in love with a prince and with the human world above and it tells of the lengths she is willing to go to, to try and make her dreams come true. She even goes so far as to make a dangerous pact with the sea witch…

This is your second work which retells old fairy tales. What has attracted you to retellings? 

Although we both grew up in different countries and different decades, we were both lucky enough to read when we were young. We read a lot of the same books, literature, and also comics and we both really loved folk tales, or fairy tales. There is something powerful about them. They allow us to suspend our disbelief and enter into the most amazing fantastical worlds. But they also speak to us. These are stories that tell us what it is to be human, they tell us about ourselves and tell us about others.

The artwork for The Little Mermaid is beautiful. Can you explain what has influenced your illustration style? Or has its evolution been quite an unconscious process?

Thank you! What influenced the illustration style are all the images and paintings I (Sandra) have loved and sought refuge in throughout my life – so that’s a lot of things! On a first level the artwork is a direct evolution from the Louis graphic novels, especially Louis - Night Salad and its underground city. But I also drew inspiration from the masters of fairy tale illustrations like Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham, the early 1900s fashion illustrator George Barbier - I pay homage to him with his dancing couple on the full page illustration of the people dancing on the ship – and even Frida Kahlo, who also features dancing on the same page. I wanted to create illustrations that people could take time to explore and even lose themselves in – not to be read very quickly like comic books can sometimes be.

Artwork from Metaphrog's the Little Mermaid - a group of mermaids

What do you think the key is to good storytelling?

It’s a difficult question, to be honest. Some people say there are seven basic story types: overcoming the monster; a transformation; a quest; a journey and return; romantic disaster; romantic happiness (tragedy and comedy) and rebirth. Clearly these stories resonate deeply with us because of our human psychology. For example, the journey is a metaphor for life. So these basic stories work well because we recognise them on a subconscious level. With overuse the stories risk becoming clichéd and no longer have the power to fascinate people.

People need stories. We believe that stories tell us much more than just where to find food, for example, as some thinkers have contended. The greatest works of art interrogate an essential philosophical question in an aesthetically pleasing way. Form and content work together, combining to produce something almost magical. Perhaps the key to good story telling is a love of stories. Being a good reader, a careful reader makes for a good writer and for a deeper interaction with a book. Interestingly, stories don’t have to believable to be great, and fairy tales are a good example, there can be elements of the fantastic or utter nonsense and the world of the story can even be absurd, but as long as the reader is satisfied then we can have a good story. Every element of the world of the story, including the characters, has to be strong and then the magic can work.

The Little Mermaid isn’t without hope, but it’s certainly not a happily ever after story either. How do you feel about this – did it attract you to the tale?

Interestingly, stories don’t have to believable to be great, and fairy tales are a good example

The poignancy of this tale is what attracted us to it. The Little Mermaid (the original, un-watered-down version) was Sandra’s favourite tale as a child and it stayed with her because of the strong emotions it creates. The Little Mermaid is a tragic heroine. The unfairness of what happens to her in the story really makes you care for the character, much more so than if it had a “happily ever after” ending. But we did give our ending some hope, even if it’s not exactly the ending The Little Mermaid was longing for. Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale also had a hopeful ending which was criticised at the time, apparently.

Want to try creating comics with your pupils? Metaphrog have written us a comprehensive, step-by-step resource to help you do just that. Check it out in our extensive learning resources section.