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Francis Vallejo on creating the spectacular art for a new edition of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys

Francis Vallejo on creating the spectacular art for a new edition of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys


A colorful new book from The Folio Society

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Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

A couple of years ago, The Folio Society, a publisher of what it describes as “carefully crafted” books, released its own, beautiful edition of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel American Gods, just before Starz released its own adaptation. Now, with the show’s second season coming this spring, the publisher has released a new edition of the novel’s companion, Anansi Boys.

The book isn’t really a sequel to American Gods — Gaiman has said that he’s planning to write a proper followup, but not for a while. The story follows a man named Charles “Fat Charlie” Nancy, who learns that his father (Mr. Nancy, a character that appears in both American Gods and Anansi Boys), who died in Florida, was the incarnation of the West African spider god Anansi. Fat Charlie also finds out that he has a brother, “Spider,” who has inherited their father’s powers.

In her introduction to the Folio Society’s edition, author Nalo Hopkinson describes the book as “gripping, funny, madcap. It had magic, romance, adventure, danger, talking mythical animals, absorbing characters, an old-woman posse, brotherly love (of a sort) and daddy issues (big time).” But more than that, she points out that far too often, authors appropriate black characters and culture, reducing them to stereotypes and caricatures. Gaiman, she says, avoided this, and where he couldn’t fall back on research and existing culture, “he had done something extraordinary: he had treated the overwhelmingly Black cast of characters like people. Not in the sense of the paipsey, deracinated erasure one so frequently sees when pop culture narratives try, awkwardly, to put more representation into a story.”

This edition is spectacular, full of dynamic and vivid color that matches the free-wheeling spirit of the novel that inspired it. The Verge spoke with artist Francis Vallejo about how he went about creating the art for this edition.

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

When did you first read the book, and how did your first impressions shape how you designed the art for this edition? How did you go about picking the scenes to illustrate?

I first read the book after the contracts were signed. After my first read (I read it three times), I was struck by the variety of scenes and locales. It was a collage of moments from gloomy London, to the sunny tropics, to a mine, etc. The key word is “collage,” so I thought it would be appropriate to use a variety of approaches and aesthetics for the art. I did that via a very mixed media and purposely cluttered slipcase, more structured but neon book cover, and a mixture of black and white ink work and acrylic paintings in the interior. I referenced Tadanori Yokoo, since his worked touched on the surreal pop aesthetic I desired. 

Upon my second reading of the book, I noted 90 passages that would create interesting illustrations. That is a lot, but a good problem to have so I needed a way to whittle that down. I decided I would create six full color interior illustrations that had to be evenly spaced out throughout the book. This helped narrow down my options. Once the color imagery was established, I decided to use the black and white ink drawings as a way to establish environments and develop characters. I created various combinations of color and black and white imagery until I settled on a collection of imagery that (a) was evenly distributed throughout the book, (b) I simply was excited to paint, (c) appropriately represented the mood and narrative. 

The illustrations in this edition are extremely vibrant — even when you have no colors at all. How did the book inspire its palette and the dynamism?

Thank you! I explored how Gaiman’s work was handled by artists in the past. It’s always beautiful, but generally created in muted palettes. When I read the story I saw intense flavor and bounce, at least in the characters of Anansi and Spider. To me, those descriptors suggest color and energy. A major arc in the story is Fat Charlie’s journey out of his rut i.e. he was searching for the color in his life. I attempted to represent that through my pictures. 


Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

You have a couple of different types of illustrations here: bold colored spreads alongside black-and-white art, along with illustrations for the beginning of each chapter. How did you determine which was which?

Time, ha! The book was so inspiring I nearly doubled the original commission as far as quantity of art delivered. I knew right away that the slipcase and book covers were going to involve paintings. I also had the idea for the 14 sequential chapter headers very early on, and traditionally chapter headers are black and white. The book had so many scenes I wanted to illustrate. In the end I selected 18 more interior passages and looked at a calendar to figure out how many paintings I could feasibly create (six — those would be the scenes I was most excited to tackle) and the rest were to be done in black and white with ink. 

You mentioned in a recent video that your background is in comics — how did that figure into the work for this book?

My background in comics refers to the fact that comics are the reason I became an artist in the first place. Todd McFarlane’s comic art in the ‘90s convinced a teenage me that I wanted to draw for a living. Out of college I pursued comic work, and did work on a few projects. Between now and then, I haven’t worked on as much straightforward comic work, but rather more traditional publishing projects. With that said, I love the energy, play, design, and fun that comics represent and I hope to bring that into all of my work. For sure, the sequential element of comics directly influenced the chapter headers. If I’m doing it right, my work is a combination of comics and hip-hop thrown in a blender with a sprinkling of Norman Rockwell to finish it off. 

This volume is particularly striking — how important is the design of this entire package in the digital age?

The packaging, i.e. the slipcase and the book cover, was of immense importance. In today’s digital marketplace, many times someone will purchase a digital version of something since it is more efficient. Look at music and movies. But the more things move digital, there will always be kickback: physical record sales are increasing each year along with physical children’s picture book sales. If a book is important to someone, they will spend a little extra to pick up a really nice edition of that book, and that is what Folio counts on. I felt an obligation to make a luxury item since I knew the book was going to cost a sizable amount. The quality should be evident in the aesthetic appeal and craft, but also the way the book makes you feel. Designing the experience only a physical object provides was something I really enjoyed! The act of pulling the book out of the slipcase was conceptually explored with Anansi represented on the slipcase and the boys on the book covers literally being pulled/birthed from him. The fore-edge of the book having a spider web on it was referencing Anansi always being connected to the boy’s lives. Other elements like the extensive Easter eggs in the frontispiece, the sequential chapter headers that slowly revealed themselves, etc., hopefully add to that experience. The act of designing the various surfaces of the book was a pleasure and also an obligation of a book artist.