November 17, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #162: Devin, Eric, & Terry Fan (aka The Fan Brothers)

Today's interview is special for a couple reasons. It's special for me because it's my first-ever interview with THREE creators at once! Now while you'd think that'd be a lot to coordinate, what makes this interview extra special is that the creators are The Fan Brothers. You've probably heard of The Fan Brothers and their award-winning books, but the cherry on top of this extra special interview is that The Barnabus Project marks one Fan brother's picture book debut and the first time all three brothers Devin, Eric, and Terry have created a book together. Check out our conversation below!

About the book: 
Deep underground beneath Perfect Pets, where children can buy genetically engineered perfect creatures, there is a secret lab. Barnabus and his friends live in this lab, but none of them is perfect. They are all Failed Projects. Barnabus has never been outside his tiny bell jar, yet he dreams of one day seeing the world above ground that his pal Pip the cockroach has told him about: a world with green hills and trees, and buildings that reach all the way to the sky, lit with their own stars. But Barnabus may have to reach the outside world sooner than he thought, because the Green Rubber Suits are about to recycle all Failed Projects . . . and Barnabus doesn't want to be made into a fluffier pet with bigger eyes. He just wants to be himself. So he decides it's time for he and the others to escape. With his little trunk and a lot of cooperation and courage, Barnabus sets out to find freedom -- and a place where he and his friends can finally be accepted for who they are.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Devin, Eric, & Terry Fan, aka The Fan Brothers!

LTPB: Congrats on your debut book, Devin! What made The Barnabus Project the right book for you, Terry, and Eric to work on together? What was the impetus for creating it?

Devin: Thank you so much, Mel! Barnabus has been such a rollercoaster but I've enjoyed every minute of it. My childhood dream was to write and illustrate children's books so I can't believe it actually came true. Barnabus has actually been around for almost 30 years. He was born when I was trying to design my own Perfect Pet and wanted an elephant that was tiny that I could hold in my hand. That led to the idea of a genetically engineered Elephant/Mouse. I drew a picture of him sitting in a box of OXO cubes to show how small he was, and the story grew from there. Believe it or not we've, worked on lots and lots of projects together over the years, but none really came to fruition until now. The idea popped up at a dinner table when Terry started talking about Barnabus to Tara Walker, one of Terry and Eric's publishers, and she loved it. It became strangely important for us to find the original Barnabus drawing. I tore apart my house with no luck, but Eric - after a comically long search - found Barnabus sitting in the bottom of a pasta pot at the very back of his storage locker. He had been waiting there all that time. 

LTPB: What was used to create the illustrations in The Barnabus Project? For Terry and Eric, is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book? 

Eric: We use both traditional mediums and digital. In the past it’s been exclusively graphite drawings that were then digitally colored in Photoshop. We’ve started to grow more comfortable drawing digitally as well, so some of the art in The Barnabus Project was drawn digitally as well, or was a combination of pencil and digital.

Terry: In The Barnabus Project we did most of the drawings in pencil and then coloured them in Photoshop. As Eric mentioned we’ve grown more comfortable with digital illustration, drawing with an Apple Pencil on the iPad, using a popular drawing app called Procreate. It’s like a simplified version of Photoshop, with the added benefit of being able to draw directly on the iPad. The technology has improved to the point where a pencil line in ProCreate is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. I find there are a lot of advantages to working digitally because it’s very flexible and encourages experimentation. It’s also great when traveling because of it’s portability. 

LTPB: Can you each talk about your individual contributions to The Barnabus Project? How did you work together to create the book, and for Terry and Devin, how did your process change with a third person in the creative mix?

Devin: I'm not sure how Terry and Eric normally work together, for me the process felt familiar because it involved constant back and forth and bouncing ideas and pictures around. One thing that made it possible was the ability to text images and words. I don't know how we would have done it otherwise since we no longer live in the same house like we did growing up. As far as contributions, I hope I brought a fresh outlook to things and a bit of a different vision. Eric has an innate ability to look at the structure of a story and identify weak spots as well as come up with creative solutions, and Terry can bring out the richness and detail in a situation and uncover visual treasures in a delightful way. 

Eric: As Devin said, we’ve all worked on projects before in the past so it felt natural to collaborate on a book together. Terry and I have fallen into a pretty comfortable pattern of working together, and I think Devin brought a fresh viewpoint to things. It’s hard to parse out individual contributions because our process involves synthesizing all those diverse contributions into a seamless whole. All of us had a hand in the writing, development, and the art. As with all our books this involves a lot of back and forth, revising and working over each other’s writing and art in a collaborative way. We were also able to composite various disparate visual elements together in Photoshop.

Terry: I think Devin and Eric have that one covered!

LTPB: What are you each working on now? Anything you can show us?

Devin: At this exact moment most of my drawing time has been taken up making little creature cutouts to hide inside copies of The Barnabus Project to help out local booksellers who've done such an amazing job supporting our book. Then we have another top secret project that I'm not sure if I can share or not, and finally I'm working on a poetry project that is a modern, urban take on the medieval poetry travel-journal form. I hope.

Eric: I don’t think I’m allowed to share any visuals yet, but we just finished final art for our next book with Simon & Schuster called It Fell From the Sky. It’s publishing in 2021 and is about a mysterious object – a child’s marble – that falls into a garden. All the insects wonder what the object is, until a spider decides it’s his and risks losing his friends over his attempts to capitalize on the discovery.

Terry: Yes, I’m really excited about It Fell From The Sky. At its heart, it could be viewed as a cautionary tale about the dangers of materialism and greed. The insects in the book all wear little hats and other accessories, so it was a lot of fun doing the illustrations. I think we can share this one little vignette without really giving anything away.

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

Devin: That's an awesome question. After deep consideration I'd have to say Jules Feiffer, who among other things illustrated The Phantom Tollbooth. Is it true that you admire in others qualities that you yourself don't possess? His line-work is so elegant and effortless and flowing, I could look at his pictures all day. They have a sparkling, effervescent quality that makes it look as though they're floating just above the page. 

Eric: I would choose my friend Sydney Smith. Not only is he an incredible artist but he also has a great feel for Toronto, which he’s used as a setting in two of his picture books: Sidewalk Flowers and Small in the City. I think for an autobiographical story it’s important to have an artist with a deep understanding of the primary setting. I did a radio interview with Sydney on the CBC and he talked about how art was a refuge for him when he was growing up, so I also think he would be empathetic to the inner life of a young artist as well.

Terry: I’d have to say my friend, Seth, who is a brilliant cartoonist/artist/storyteller. Both his aesthetic and themes have always deeply resonated with me. His graphic novel series Palookaville was autobiographical so he has a very solid understanding of the form. Clyde Fans is his most recent publication, an epic graphic novel over twenty years in the making. It’s such a wonderful book on so many levels and I can’t recommend it enough. Seth and I first met at The Ontario College of Art way back in the ‘80s. We lost touch after art college but have reconnected in recent years. It’s funny because we just kind of picked up where we left off and it feels like no time has passed at all.

A million thanks to all three Fan brothers for talking to me about this special book! The Barnabus Project published earlier this fall from Tundra Books!

Special thanks to Devin, Eric, Terry, and Tundra for use of these images!

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