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Hilary Knight Talks About His Leading Ladies

Legendary artist Hilary Knight created the look of the cantankerous Eloise half a century ago. Now he’s giving the world a new version of the hilarious (and opinionated) Nina, who can’t wait to tell us all about how That Makes Me Mad! Here, Hilary Knight discusses both of these amazing girls and the impact of comics on his life.

That Makes Me Mad! is a lot of fun. It’s good to see Nina back!
Yeah, it’s resurfaced. The book was done before [with art by a different artist], but it’s very different. And the reason it has happened, reblossomed in this new form, is because of Francoise Mouly and her husband, Art Spiegelman. Steven Kroll wrote the book, and it’s been considerably altered from what his text was. He died a few years ago, so he has not seen this version. It was very similar. The layout’s different. I think they’ve done some things with the text. I’m hoping that we can do more. I would love to work in this form. It’s very different from the kind of work that I do, and I enjoy doing it. It’s a funny character. It’s such a simple little idea, really. It was Steven Kroll’s conception, but the layout was all mine.

Is the children’s market very different now? Or do you think kids are basically still kids?
Well, kids have so many diversions now and things that I don’t think are really helping them at all. I don’t think the computer is an answer to a child’s understanding of things. Kids don’t look at things. Nobody looks at things anymore. They’re far too absorbed in talking on their cell phones. It’s a whole different way of looking at things, looking at life. They’re too intrigued by what’s going on with the little, tiny pictures on their cell phones. That’s really unhealthy. What’s going on around them is much more interesting, and that’s a real tragedy. That bothers me. Still, I’ve gotten completely hooked on my computer. I didn’t think this would ever happen, but there’s a lot there. I could never draw on it, though. I would always have to go to a drawing board. There’s no way I could ever do it on a computer. I wouldn’t be interested. I don’t like the effect of it. It has a mechanical look to it. All computer art that I’ve ever seen just looks quite different. It doesn’t appeal to me. And I love the feeling of drawing. I love the process of developing something.
Would you like to do more in the graphic novel arena?
It is one of my great ambitions to do that, and I’ve got lots of ideas. I would love to do it. I’ve got a planned one that may happen, you never know. But it’s a form that fascinates me. My background is from really two artistic parents. Both my mother and father were artists and did books. That was their livelihood. They were commercial artists in a period that really began in the 1920s. They did a lot of things, a lot of children’s books, and both did in their day very important books that survived for a long time. My father did aviation stuff, almost entirely. He was a pilot in World War I and he did a book called Pilots’ Luck, which was very successful in its day. And my mother did a book about Japan. She went to Japan in 1917 to study art and she did a beautiful book that kept on from the time it was printed in ’29. It was still in print in the ’50s. So I learned a lot from both of them and I watched my father working from home late in life and my mother, all through her life she worked in her own studio. In the late ’30s, my father started doing a comic strip. So I was very aware of that form and was very interested in doing that kind of thing. And that’s really what Nina comes from, watching him lay out his daily strips. He did it with a famous pilot, Eddie Rickenbacker; it was called Hall of Fame of the Air, and it went on for years, so I was very much involved in watching that process.
Was any of that an influence on the art style you employ in this Nina book?
No, not at all. I was trying to do something that was totally different from Eloise, because I did not want to do…I mean, I had done EloiseEloise started in 1955. And because I got a lot of requests from various publishers and other authors to do books about little girls that lived in hotels, I did not ever want to do that again. But this little girl Nina is in a way a kind of spiritual companion to Eloise. She’s a feisty little kid. I wanted to do it in a very different style, which is why I chose to do that. It would be great if Nina were a success. If we did some more, I would be happy.
Was the way you came up with the style for Nina different from how you came up with the look of Eloise?
The Eloise character herself was totally Kay Thompson. She told me who this little girl was. Kay was not particularly visual, and when we worked together, she would talk to me and I would draw things. And that’s how we did all the books. We worked directly together, which is very unusual. And the other thing that I keep talking about, because Kay was so adamant about it, is that they were never children’s books. They have become children’s books, but Kay never agreed that they were. It was sort of a joke in the beginning. There was a chain of bookstores called Doubleday on Fifth Avenue in New York, and Kay lived nearby at the Plaza. She used to go in and [see that the Eloise books] had been moved into the children’s section. She would march in and carry them to the front of the store and put them in the adult section. And then they’d just get moved back again. It was the best thing, really, that happened to her because it was kind of a novelty adult book. It even says that it’s not a children’s book; it says that it’s a book for precocious adults in a banner across the top. She never wrote the books down to children. Of course, they look like children’s books and they were about someone who was getting away with something, so it appealed to kids, thank God. They’re still with us.

Did you have a good working relationship with Kay?

It was tremendous. We respected each other. I knew who she was when she came to me. I knew about her whole background, which was entirely musical. It had nothing to do with writing. She wrote music, but she basically was a musician. And she went from one career to another. She would get bored with things. She started out in radio and had this incredible singing group that really was like nothing that anybody had ever heard. This was starting in about 1934. She just kept changing, reinventing, or whatever. And she would go from one thing to another. She, I think, would lose interest in things. She lost interest inEloise at one point and took everything off the market except for the first book. They were still off the market when she died. Her estate brought them all back and they became twice as popular, probably because they hadn’t been seen before. It’s a remarkable thing. It’s something that should really be dated but isn’t. I’m not sure why. The whole concept, the way that it’s drawn, is something that is not particularly of today, and yet it seems to still work. And children are fascinated by it.
How far along are you on working on the graphic novel you mentioned?
I’ve got a dummy. It’s not really developed, but it’s something I would be fascinated to do. I think it’s a great art form. I haven’t begun to see them all, because there are masses of them now. I’ve always been interested in comics, the whole layout that goes back to Little Nemo. That’s one of my favorite things. I mean, the extraordinary drawing in those. It’s really the inspiration for a lot of stuff. That twisting around of space and scale and that perspective.

Would you stay in the children’s book genre?
No. I can’t really go into it because I haven’t gotten far. It’s a real story about a real person. It started out being a little child’s book, but the more I looked into it, the original story is so grim. It was a period in the ’20s. It’s about a little girl who became a star, and I thought it would be much more intere sting to make it not a child’s book. It’s about a little child, though. 

What is it about graphic novels that you like?
I do admire the invention of a lot of people. Comic strips, the kind of Superman stuff, I don’t understand people being interested in it. It’s all the same thing. I think that any kind of invention and changing styles and perspectives and the use of color or the lack of it, it’s a really extraordinary medium t o get into. So I hope it’ll happen. But I’m busy doing a lot of other things now. I’m doing a blog now for Vanity Fair. It’s called Hilary Knight’s Sketchbook. It started out mostly about New York theater. They’re slightly humorous takes. They’re sketches. There’s not too much out there that’s like that right now. It’s been very interesting to do. I’m constantly looking for new ideas. I’ve just been in the city getting some refreshing new thoughts.