How to make a graphic novel 1

Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first man in space, was originally a fighter jet pilot, used to high acceleration forces. Even so, it must have been difficult even for him, to imagine what it would be like to ride the mighty R-7 rocket into space on April 12, 1961.

When I accepted the job of trying to put the events that led up to that historic launch into graphic form, I had even less idea of what I was letting myself in for. It was already the middle of 2010, and the race was on to produce a first edition in time for Christmas, to be followed perhaps by a second edition in time for the 50th anniversary.

I had a lot to learn. First there was Yuri’s own story, his experiences in WW2, and the Communist society in which he grew up. I knew the bare bones of the tale, but the details were still thrilling – and sometimes shocking.

Then there was the other hero, the man whose very existence had, for most of my lifetime, been a state secret: Sergei Korolev. Behind and around these two, a whole cast of men and women who played their parts in one of the most amazing dramas of modern times.

But there were also practical things to learn. I knew something about drawing and about graphic design and print. What I did not appreciate at first was the technical challenge of producing a graphic novel. You don’t just have to draw, you have to be able to write, to plot, to create a screenplay, choose camera angles, and ‘direct’ your ‘actors’ all at the same time. It is something like scripting, directing and shooting a movie, singlehanded.

In this blog I am going to try and show what it was like to put ‘Yuri’s Day’ together, and to pass on some of the things learned, both about the history of the time, and the craft of graphic storytelling.

I hope you will enjoy following us on ‘The Road to the Stars’….

r-7 rocket vostokkorolev – the chief designer

This book may be about Yuri Gagarin and mankind’s first journey into space, but none of that would have been possible without the extraordinary figure of Korolev, the engineer who brought the whole system into being.

I find it very hard to express what I feel about Korolev. The only way to do it really, is to tell his story. It is a tale so staggering it is hard to comprehend. It is not just the personal hardships and triumphs he saw, it is the way he took perhaps the greatest gamble in the history of mankind – to play along with the development of the Cold War, and nuclear missiles, in order to fulfil the dream of his generation of aerospace engineers: manned spaceflight.

Human destiny was at a crossroads: Global annihilation through nuclear war, or the dazzling possibility of a future in space. Korolev stood at that crossroads he had himself helped to build, and tossed a coin – making sure it landed his way. I can think of no-one else who played such a game with history. Heads or tails: Planet Earth, or the stars.

Some people don’t like books and movies with narrators. I do, especially at the beginning. I imagine the words printed in the black shape of Korolev’s outline being spoken in a rich, dark voice, perhaps with a hint of echo, perhaps with the wind sighing among the girders of the rocket gantry.

I made the girder a little abstract in a ‘tip of the hat’ to the drawings and posters of the Russian constructivist architects of the 1920′s, whose work the real gantry resembles. I made Korolev a dark shadow, because during the Cold War he was a state secret – and because we haven’t got to know him yet. I made the ground very far away because heights scare me. This was a man who faced down terrors in pursuit of his dreams.

The train is tiny, which enables me to leave out a few details. Even so, I spent a long time studying pictures and diagrams. I know what train lovers can be like – I am one. I hope I got it more or less right.

Welcome to Baikonur. Welcome, to the most extraordinary story ever told.

Top secret rocket launch site in Baikonur, Khazakstan

The Baikonur launch site in Khazakstan was top secret. Even its name and location were deceptive. It is actually located at a place called Tyuratam, several miles away front the town of Baikonur - a confusion that persists to this day. This photo, taken by an American U2 spy plane, clearly shows the long shadow of a rocket on its gantry, and the huge flame-pit for the exhaust gases released at launch.

r-7 rocket vostok

This entry was posted in Making a Graphic Novel, The Book, The Space Race. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to make a graphic novel 1

  1. Murat

    Dear authors of The Yuri’s day !My name is Darya Varlamova and I’m a joarunlist of Izvestia newspaper in Russia. I’m very intrigued by your graphic novel and would like to write an article about it. Could you contact me, please? My e-mail is

  2. P Hodkinson

    Darya, I did not get your email.Please send

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