Assignment 3: Graphic Novel: The Nose

The Task

Choose a short story and turn it into a mini graphic novel. The length of the graphic novel will largely depend on the story you choose, so pick something manageable. Aim to work over two or three pages only.
Be creative with how you approach this. Think about how you edit the story, the kinds of shots you take, the relationship between the dialogue and the characters. How do you depict the sounds and describe the action both visually and in terms of text?

Along with the narrative itself, design a cover for your graphic novel that includes the name of the short story, the author’s details and your own.
Reflect on the experience of converting the text to a visual form. What did you learn from this experience? How have your illustrations developed to accommodate the demands of the narrative?

For this assignment I chose ‘The Nose’ by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (see story below).

I started this assignment with the initial idea that I would do a series of pages like Zen ink paintings in tall portrait format like the landscape tryptychs one sees. I wanted minimum text, with the images doing the story-telling. As things progressed my sketches became darker and more disturbed – taking a deeper reading of the story as one with parallels in the modern obsession with cosmetic surgery and cyber-bullying. I also started to experiment with colour – Japanese regal colours blue, red and jade green. I wanted a handwritten text. I also wanted to use this assignment to experiment with ProCreate ink and watercolour styles on my iPad as part of the work on the final Review. But this first version was too complex and difficult to follow.

The final version I based on a series of new sumi-e paintings from an East Asian painting class I had started, based on the original sketches. Working on these in Procreate. Going back to A4 and printed on rice paper, I significantly simplified the text and made the flow more logical in direction for a Western readership. Still with text by hand in Procreate.

I worked a lot on the relationship between text and image. In the final version I simplified the text right down, then added a few words I thought were really necessary. This seems a good way to go, rather than just progressive reduction as I had done in the first version. I also like the idea of making text look like pictures – it works well for something quite humorous like this one. I could have worked more on the final text to make it more ironic and double meanings, but need a break from it. That approach would not work for all types of story. The approach really needs to fit the type of narrative and the meaning one is trying to communicate.

This was one of my favourite exercises. I like working with sumi-e images and putting them together in Procreate. I think the final version is now quite entertaining and successful. Though I am sure when I come to look at it again I will find more things to adjust.

Stage 1) Development of the first images

For this assignment I wanted to do a Japanese Short Story, following on from other Japanese stories I had illustrated earlier in this part of the course. I wanted to do something that would lend itself to a very different graphic treatment to what I had done in other projects. I was particularly interested in trying something that could be illustrated in a Zen ink style (see Zen Aesthetics) as I had been to some courses on this a few years back.

I started by looking through the books I had collected as part of this earlier search, and also the films by Kurasawa and novels and short stories by Haruki Murakami. I was particularly interested in Rashomon, a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa published in a series of other stories by the same author (Ryunosuke Akutagawa – Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories published by Penguin Classics 2006). This that had been part of the basis for the powerful Kurasawa film of the same name. But as I read through other stories in the same collection I came across ‘The Nose’.

“The Nose” by Ryonusuke Akutagawa

“The Nose” was Akutagawa’s second short story, first published in January 1916. It is based on a thirteenth-century Japanese tale from the Uji Shūi Monogatari.

The Nose : text with my highlighting.

Wikipedia summarises the plot as follows: Zenchi Naigu, a Heian period Buddhist priest, is more concerned with diminishing his overly long, dangling nose than he is with studying and teaching the sūtras. He pretends to ignore his nose in fear it will be mentioned, and studies religious texts in a desperate attempt to find a person with a nose like his. When in private, he constantly checks his nose in a mirror, hoping for even the smallest amount of shrinkage.

One autumn, a disciple reveals he has learned a new technique to shrink noses from a friend, a Chinese doctor who has become a high-ranking priest at the Chōrakuji temple in Kyoto. At first, Naigu feigns disinterest, to appeal to the misconception that he is unconcerned with his nose, but eventually “gives in” to his disciple’s insisting. The disciple first boils the nose, then stomps on it, finally removing the beads of fat the treatment extracts from the nose. To Naigu’s satisfaction, the nose, once dangling past his chin, is now the size of a typical hooked nose.

Naigu, excited but nervous, sets about his weekly routines. He is surprised, however, to find the people he encounters laughing at him far more openly than they had before. Naigu becomes bitter and harsh, to the point where one disciple proclaims: “Naigu will be punished for treating us so harshly instead of teaching us Buddha’s Law”. People continue to laugh at Naigu for his vanity, until one day, Naigu wakes up, and to his relief and rejoicing, his nose has returned to its original length.

Wikipedia summarises the themes: “Akutagawa explores the themes of vanity and egoism in “The Nose”. Naigu’s vanity leads him to obsess only with his nose. This vanity eventually breeds disfigurement and a coldness from his peers, recognizing Naigu’s egotism taking precedence over his religious studies and teaching. Instead of his status as a renowned priest, Naigu views his nose as the source of how society will judge him. 

On first reading I found ‘the Nose’ amusing, and envisaged a Zen ink cartoon. However as I read and re-read the text I started to see more in it than this, as a darker story with parallels in our obsession with appearance and plastic surgery today. I think the issue is not at all just the vanity of Naigu, but the hypocrisy and pressures of society also to conform and look good, even for monks. These constant pressures lead to obsession. Although I had started to experiment with Zen styles and landscapes in Corel Painter, I found that my sketches and ink doodles were also becoming dark rather than amusing (see below).

I researched a bit more on Akutagawa:

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介 Akutagawa Ryūnosuke?, 1 March 1892 – 24 July 1927) was a Japanese writer active in the Taishō period in Japan. He is regarded as the “Father of the Japanese short story” and Japan’s premier literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him. The final phase of Akutagawa’s literary career was marked by his deteriorating physical and mental health. He committed suicide at the age of 35 through an overdose of barbital.ūnosuke_Akutagawa 

This led me to change my approach – to start to follow the darkness of my sketches – and also consider the use of colour like Japanese woodcuts (Japanese woodcut prints) and imperial scrolls. I also wanted to use a non linear narrative style drawing on the work I had started to do on Chinese perspective in Assignment 1.

I also wanted the images to speak mostly for themselves with minimum text. I started by reviewing the text and making some notes:


2) First version – long tryptych

Title Page

The title page started with a Doodle. I tried making the letters of the Title itself look like a nose. This is not yet entirely successful – I would like the letter to look more japanese. But more Yoshimoto Nara than Zen – or if I can somehow get an interesting hybrid of the two. I chose the colour blue at the end to match Page 3.

Page 1

Page 2 started with some of the sketches above worked up as coloured images in ProCreate. I decided on a red background because that is the colour of royalty and temples. I then experimented with layouts – I wanted the pictures rather than text to tell the story. Minimal text was added at the end, once pages 2 and 3 had been combined as a spread.

Page 2

Page 3 also started with some of the sketches above worked up as coloured images in ProCreate. Initially the background was a complementary green to the red – partly to highlight the red in the images. But then I looked again at Japanese colours, and changed it to a lighter japanese jade green. On this page I just wanted some explanation of the disciple’s trip to Kyoto. The ‘A Cure’ with the images telling the rest. Here particularly I think the images need redrawing, in more of a Nara-like style. I got too attached to my orginal Zen monk image in the Feature picture on this page.

Page 3

I started with manipulations of the Zen monk drawing trying to make it look darker and darker. I added the random doodle images as texturing background – I like the dark, anxious feel this gives.

For the bottom I combined in images from the Internet drawing closely on the text – images of Bodhisatva Fugen and the Kyoto palace spires. I liked the way the elephant trunk from the Bodhisatva Fugen image echoes the nose. I used Ginko leaves to make a lotus-like base for Naigu – now spruced up like a Buddha, no more dishevelled hair, meditating on a clean long nose.

Page 3 hangs together least and still needs a lot of work. The basic narrative is there, but the images need to be more tied together stylistically. The final Buddha image needs to be more shining and meditative.

Assessment of first version sent to my tutor

In general I like the images and their cartoon character and the podgy pinkness of Naigu – the long nose taking on somewhat phallic connotations (somewhat unintentionally). This still needs more work and thinking through:

  • The backgrounds have become  too dark compared to the images. I also want to experiment a bit with printing the line drawings onto acetate and then doing the colour shading on reverse in oil pastel. And maybe doing the background in watercolour on rice paper. Then overlaying the separate layers in Photoshop again.
  • The text I want to design my own type like Japanese script – trying to also get a long nose in there. Or at least the writing needs to be properly had done – I need practice at that.
  • The layout on Page 3 in particular needs to be more fluid.
  • I could further build on the cosmetic surgery/cyberbullying parallels more. Maybe drawing more on the art of Yoshimoto Nara than just Zen. Also Harue Koga‘s photomontage paintings. Possibly also Sara Fanelli’s Pinocchio.

Final version

For this final version I did a new set of sumi-e ink drawings based on my original sketches. Earlier flower and frog paintings I had used 2-sided tape to keep flat. But these images I stuck these with PVA glue into my sketchbook – this created some interesting texturing that I think adds to the character of the images for this particular purpose.

Then using the first version for reference I composited and manipulated these new paintings in Procreate. I paid particular attention to the text, drawing this in Procreate, then using transparency lock to colour it and blend it in. I also tried to make the text itself an image.

Title page

The final version looks like the word ‘Nose’ is a face staring open-mouthed at Naidu.

Page 1

This page I first simplified the text to a minimum. But then found some amusing detail had been lost, so I added a few more words like ‘obssession’ (like the perfume).

Page 2

Page 2 remained minimalist with the text, but I tried to make the word ‘success’ smiling and happy.

Page 3

This final page I experimented with different shapes and colours for ‘wake up’ to make the words seem to come out of the elephant’s trunk looking cheerful.