Death of Ötzi the Iceman: A graphic novel in National Geographic

One of the biggest pleasures (and challenges) of working at National Geographic’s graphics department is to be able to art direct amazing artists from all over the world. Data-driven graphics, cartography and diagrams share the space of the magazine with paintings of historical events and depictions of the natural world. A long tradition carried over for 124 years that has showcased masters like N. C. Wyeth, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Charles Knight, Ned Seidler, James Gurney, Bruce Morser, Jon Foster and so many others.

Most of our contributors specialize in scientifically accurate and detailed illustrations of paleontology, archeology, geology, technology, natural science and so on. Each of these fields has its own specialists.

But sometimes we need a special edge to keep us fresh and even surprising, taking a leap of faith to try out artists that haven’t done scientific illustration but whose skills are unique. One such case is Alex Maleev, a Bulgarian comic book artist well known for Marvel series such as Daredevil and Spider-Woman. For our November 2011 issue we decided to make a new story on Ötzi the Iceman and the new hypothesis about his death based on a recent thawing and autopsy. We knew we could approach the art as a true “noir” graphic novel: What happened during the last few minutes of Ötzi’s life 5,300 years ago, 10,500 feet high in the remote Italian Alps? Who murdered him, and how?

Here is the finished piece (click a couple of times for a hi-res version). The version with text is at the end of the post. Unusual for National Geographic to say the least! But still informed by the advice of multiple experts regarding the clothes, weaponry and landscape:

My brother Martín, an avid comic book collector in Spain, had alerted me about Alex Maleev’s cinematic and realistic compositions, his mastery of human figure, and the edgy, dark, textured scenes. His paneled scenes and rhythmic composition create the motion and drama we were looking for. See some of his Marvel work (copyright by Marvel):

Like everyone else, we had covered the Iceman before, most recently about 6 years ago when it was discovered that Ötzi was killed by an arrow to the back. In that occasion, we used the more traditional illustration style of Kazuhiko Sano, the Japanese master that created so many iconic illustrations for National Geographic in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

But this time we were looking for a true paneled graphic novel approach. The following images show a bit of the process of working with an artist in the magazine.

The fist rough sketch (below) had 4 panels with a nice variation of camera angles showing the basic premise: At some point during his climb, Ötzi had probably stopped for a quick meal (we know he was killed very shortly after eating based on the undigested food found in his stomach). There, the new theory goes, he was ambushed by an individual or a group that not only shoot the most famous arrow in history at him, but also hit him in the head with a blunt object. The perpetrator/s fled the scene without taking any of Otzi’s possessions, and after retrieving the shaft of the arrow (locals would have known other people’s highly prized and personalized items, revealing the murderer).

The panels are nice, but the identically sized boxes seem static and don’t work together. We needed more rhythm and variety of sizes, and maybe having something go across the gutter to integrate both pages more fluidly.

A second sketch moved nicely in that direction, but still a bit timidly. You can see more energy and motion:

The next iteration, however, started to look confusing, with all images blending into each other. At this exploratory phase, we are happy to see really quick roughs to set the composition.

Forthe next version, I asked Alex for a more organized layout that would place the second step of the sequence (Ötzi being hit by the arrow) in the second page for a more integrated spread. A closeup of the arrow would add drama and pace:

But I still knew something was missing. Our A-HA moment came when Design Director David Whitmore and I went through the layout David was creating. The well-defined blue and gray color palette of the photos took us back to some of the samples we had seen of Alex work. The image below was not only an example of a color scheme that would be ideal for the story. It also made us realize the entire layout was in itself very cinematic.

The bold photographs (some examples below) follow each other with dramatic zooming-in and out, black panels and short text call-outs that follow each other throughout the pages, sequencing the images like a comic book.

So we suggested Alex to go for well structured rectangular panels on a black background and a blue-gray color palette. When we saw the next sketch, we knew it was the way to go:

Alex developed the panels further but I thought the panels sizes, relatively similar to each other, made it still a bit static. In a quick Photoshop rough, I played with the panels and indicated Alex areas where each panel could expand to have a variety of more vertical, more horizontal and larger/smaller images.

Here is the finished page (see the nice hi-res, color corrected at the beginning of the post):

Alex is a fantastic artist and easy to work with. Below is another illustration he recently finished for us: this time a full spread opener scene for a story on the rising sea levels of Northern Europe thousands of years ago, for our December 2012 issue.

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