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Northern Lights

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

I am going into His Dark Materials meltdown, between the second in the Book of Dust trilogy having just been released and the new BBC/HBO series starting broadcast in just a few short weeks.

It's hard to do justice to the importance these books have in my life. Or in particular Northern Lights. I read Northern Lights no long after its publication, when I was 11 or twelve.

I was already a big reader and had read many a great book before. But for whatever reason - a combination of the timing and its particular qualities, I guess - it landed with me in a way no previous book really had. I think of it as the first time I engaged with a book as a sophisticated, not-child reader, or at least felt the possibilities of that.

And at some point I now can't quite place in time I embarked on my own graphic novel adaptation of Northern Lights. I think I must have been about 14 or 15 at the start of it. And I really stuck with it, I think over several years. I abandoned it, finally, 125 pages in (some of them only pencilled but most partially or fully inked) halfway through the chapter 9, The Spies. I think I was probably about 17 or 18 by the time I truly stopped work on it.

It's actually not bad. The art is never quite terrible and occasionally pretty good, the visual storytelling is fairly strong. I thought it would be fun to post this piece of juvenilia with a few observations attached!

And that's the first chapter! The things that spring out is that drawing is a bit bad but actually serviceable. The faces are not exactly consistent, but they are consistent enough, and the character designs distinct enough that things don't get confusing.

I like that I've kept the Master's face obscured, making him more ominous.

The framing and composition isn't anything much though it usually just about manages to tell the story coherently. But there are nice bits: the sequence of the Master poisoning the wine is a nice little set of panels, and in a similar vein of I really like the silhouette conversation. I'm impressed how much body language I managed to get into such a limiting format.

I've also got a nice sense of pace, an understanding of where you can skip detail (which actually disappeared a bit, later chapters could probably stand to be snappier) . I like the way the penultimate page shows Lyra walking towards the wardrobe and then we skip straight to the final page/panel of Asriel and the Master shaking hands. It's a really nice ending to the first chapter, paying off the action of the chapter while setting up the idea that we're going to see that conflict step up in the upcoming chapter, though of course it's exactly book's ending to the first chapter so most of the credit goes there.

The real glaring weak point is technical drawing, the environments. The perspective pretty mad. The lack of any research or reference is pretty clear and something that will not be resolved soon... but nevertheless, things do get better:

Shading and lighting is already getting a lot better. The two photograms stand out as nicely rendered.

The shot of Stanslav Grumman's supposed head really stands out for quality. But Lyra's design is changing constantly, partly due to my getting better at drawing as I go!

What even is Lord Asiel's face here.

Nice way to establish time passing. I was always averse to exposition captions. A 'later' always takes me out fo the reality of the narrative.

Lord Asriel ugly mug notwithstanding, a strong point is still a nice variety of character designs that keeps everyone distinct even when their rendering isn't terribly consistent.Lyra hiding in a wardrobe while old men sit and talk in a darkened room doesn't sound terribly promising as a premise, but actually it seems handled quite well here.

However credit must again go to Pullman who wrote in the moments and tricks that make this chapter work. Like Lyra being momentarily blocked from seeing the frozen head, thus building the tension.

But in some ways the simple story of a linear conversation makes things quite simple for me. The next chapter, in the book a narrative-voice-heavy, expository, episodic montage of moments and scenes from Lyra's life and elsewhere, is the first place any adaptational storytelling really comes up...

I'm getting a fair amount of what I imagine as Lyratic expression in here. But how on earth is that ribbon attaching to her hair? Also, Asriel puts one hand in his pocket and then has the money in his other.

I did actually draw the next page of this, and the one after, but they've become detached from the rest of the comic...

I can't draw monkeys. Prepare to see a lot of instances of blank space next to Mrs. Coulter.

It's meant to be a vista of Oxford on the right, but as you might be able to guess, my confidence in rendering scneary made that a 'do that later' job.

I think I must have got into the Generation X comic around this time - I can see the influence of Chris Bachalo's version of Emma Frost in Mrs. Coulter. Some of the better drawings like this first one are probably direct copies.

Still tending not to show the Master's face much. It's quite effective but I suspect has more to do with my struggling particularly with mens' faces than anything.

Yep, still not showing the Master's face even in a tender, unambiguous moment.

Skipping the establishing shots again.

Haircut as timeskip! Nice! And to show Lyra modelling herself -or being modelled - after Mrs. Coulter.

The rendering leaves something to be desired but I've caught something of the Mrs. Coulter I always imagine which neither the film or the upcoming series have gone for: charming, youthful, more Audrey Tatou than Nicole Kidman.

Wow and that look on Mrs. Coulter lands us firmly in the late nineties. A choker! And that messy bun!

Ooh a decently drawn room! I expect I traced it. And no establishing party shot though I heroically rise to drawing people in groups in the next few pages.

One of the stronger sequences as the black comes in. It's not a subtle way of saying 'things are getting dark' but an effective one, and for a bonus the blocks of black really helps make the pages coherent.

Occassionally you get a panel which leaps out as showing greater ability and the one of Lyra on her bed there is really nice.

I guess Lyra stopped ffor a quick trim before running away, that hair is like two inches shorter now.

Not confident with action! But it's nice to see the pencils, they can be better than my inking ability at this stage

If it's not clear here, which it definitely isn't, Lyra is on a narrowboat now.

Lyra's face has now fully transformed to be rounder with a pointier chin, and big squarish eyes. She looks more appealing but rather less like the Lyra of my imagination.

I do like my chapter name typography throughout. This is the nicest one, I think.

This and below and probably the best two spreads. Them's some nice crowd shots.

In the last few pages I've clearly got the idea that speech bubbles should be placed in a pattern that takes you through the story in a natural flow and here I'm just going to town with that concept.

It's a shame I didn't finish this page, I think the images of the recalled events playing out admist the present talkers is potentially effective.

In certain ways my drawing skill is leaping ahead. That looks like I've done a nice job os drawing a pine marten or ermine from reference.

Note Lyra's expanding head size and my cross-throughs as a note-to-self to redraw.

I think there was a break in drawing her between the last chapter and this, because the Lyra character model has changed again and the compositional ability moved on. I like the costume is getting more particular.

...Lyra's face is more inconsistent than ever, though.

Another nice crowd shot there, plus Pan's weasley form is really starting to have character.

Again it feels like there's been a leap ahead in drawing people and poses between chapters.

... And that's all she wrote! I think that last caption has a lot to do with why I finally put it aside: my skill had moved on significantly since the start of the project to the point I didn't want to be constrained by decisions made by a younger, weaker artist. And I felt like I wanted to redo those early chapters.

And actually I did. I started this project all over again later, during university, and got a chapter or so in.

I might post that another time. But this original remains the most sustained and dedicated effort I think I've put into any art project and I'm very proud of it for all its artistic deficiencies. The paradox of something like this is that it was the mechanism by which I got steadily better, but my improved ability made me frustrated with it.


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