Robin Hobb is an unparalleled giant in the fantasy genre. Tucking a multitude of awards under her belt, as well as nominations for many others including Hugo and Nebula awards, her mark in the space can’t be understated. I affectionately dub her the mother of modern fantasy, with respect to her other works, mostly due to her critically acclaimed and successful Realm of the Elderlings series spanning three trilogies (and one quadrilogy). Her works are often praised for their character work and deep introspective themes, as well as being exceptionally gut-wrenching. It all started with the revered Assassin’s Apprentice.
That story is the main topic of our interview. Assassin’s Apprentice is now being adapted by Dark Horse Comics into a 6-issue miniseries with a story by Robin Hobb and Jody Houser, the scripts being handled by Houser and art by Ryan Kelly with colors by Jordie Bellaire. I see this as two worlds I’ve lived in for years of my life colliding, and naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to pick her brain about the experience, and what the new medium could offer fans and new readers alike.
It’s been over twenty-five years since the release of the original Assassin’s Apprentice novel, what is the experience like for you revisiting the story after all this time?
Hobb: “It’s like stepping back into another time in my life. (Actually, it has been more than 25 years!) I still had teenage boys in my household, and one of them would read every chapter as it was finished. Then Giles would give me a short critique of why Fitz might not act that way. Or what he might do. It was a good connection with my son, and I think it really filled in Fitz’s character. So coming back to the story now brings back some very good memories of creating it.”
Upon reading the upcoming issue, I think this response will ring true for readers, as it lends some insight into how Hobb was able to so authentically inhabit the mind of such a young boy.
Is the intent of this adaptation to be a faithful recreation of your books, or do you perhaps see it as an opportunity to update or alter things you maybe wished you had done differently back then?
Hobb: “I oppose changing anything that I’ve written. That was the author I was then, and I wouldn’t insult that person, anymore than I would try to edit another writer’s work after the fact.
To expand a bit on that, I am 70 years old. If in my earlier work, I was insensitive in some area in which I am now more aware, I stand ready to apologize, but I won’t deny that I was insensitive or try to bury my past mistakes. People grow and change. I hope I have. Sometimes admitting you were wrong about something (or someone) and apologizing can help heal the past. Denying it? Not so much.
I have been extremely pleased with Jody Houser’s adaptation of my work. It has been very precise.”
Given that this is the first time your story has been adapted into another medium, what has it been like for you to see it come to life visually?
Hobb: “Well, actually, this is the second time Assassin’s Apprentice has been adapted to comic format. Soleil put out French comics of the Farseer Trilogy and The Liveship Traders trilogy some years ago. Those comics also came out in Dutch editions. What I learned then, as I can decipher French but not really read it, is that the pictures really carry a large part of the story in a comic. I could not easily read the dialogue, but from the images, I could follow the story and know exactly where I was in the telling. That was astounding.”
As a comic critic myself, it pleases me that Hobb, despite dedicating herself to novels rather than comics, was so easily able to ascertain the bread and butter of comic book storytelling; seeing the art as the primary driver behind the storytelling and not simply a pretty backdrop for the word balloons to sit on. I think readers will find that Ryan Kelly does a more than a formidable job of exemplifying this.
I noticed on your Twitter feed some months back that you were reading Tom Taylor’s Dark Knights of Steel (Which is a fantastic pick, if you ask me). Do you have more history with comics? If so, what has been your relationship with them? What piqued your interest originally?
Hobb: “Tom Taylor and I became friends at an Australian convention years ago. I really enjoyed his company and conversation and as a result, I picked up a couple of comics by him. I hadn’t read a comic in a long time, so in a sense he brought me back to comics. We exchange notes and stay in touch via social media, and when he was writing Dark Knights of Steel, he told me there would be some nods to fantasy and sf books and writers in there. So, of course, I had to have it. Check out some of the place names in it.”
– It’s true! In fact, in the debut issue of Dark Knights of Steel, the medieval Green Arrow can be seen in a forest called ‘Hobb Forest’. –
“Unlike many writers, I don’t have a long history of buying comics. I did not have an allowance as a kid, and the nearest store that sold comics was a couple miles away. It involved a long walk down a gravel road, and then a hike along what was then called Airport Way in Fairbanks Alaska. The little store also sold penny candy (yes, a penny a piece for bubble gum or root beer barrels or butterscotch) so once in a while, my younger brothers and I would make that walk in the summer. (Certainly not in a Fairbanks winter!). They bought mostly candy but sometimes I bought a comic. It was always Blackhawk if the store had it. I can still recall those storylines. But other than that, not a lot of comics in my life, unless you count Peanuts or the comics in the Daily News Miner.”
Obviously, this comic adaptation will be a great way to rope in new readers who have never experienced Fitz’s story, but what would you say is the incentive for long-time Hobb-heads like myself to revisit it in the new medium? How do you see the nature of comics altering the story?
Hobb: “For me, it’s always interesting to see how every artist who reads the description of Buckkeep or Fitz or Nighteyes sees something different. That has certainly been the case with cover art, and I’ve had covers from very notable artists such as Michael Whalen and John Howe. Just as every writer reads a different book, every artists sees a different landscape. When a reader looks at the words ‘the river’ or ‘the forest’ the reader fills in with a river they’ve seen. It could be the Chena River or the Nisqually or the Mississippi. Seeing an image in every panel is going to expand the reader’s idea of what The Six Duchies might look like, and the characters. It’s like the movies. Unless you’ve read the books first and have your own image in mind, Harry Potter will always look like the actor. I can’t tell you how annoyed I was that Hobbits have pointed ears in the Lord of the Rings movie. They certainly do not! But many people assume that is really so!”
Having read the first issue, I have to say I’m impressed with how closely Ryan Kelly’s depiction of Buckkeep matched the version I saw in my head. I think it speaks volumes both of Kelly’s and colorist Jordie Bellaire’s artistic talent, as well as Hobb’s own ability to effectively paint a clear picture with her original prose.
Can you tell me a bit about the collaboration process between you, Jody, and Ryan? I know Jody is doing scripts and Ryan is on art, so what does your involvement in the project look like?
Hobb: “Jody and Ryan do all the work. I sit back and look at it and say, “Yes, yes, very nice, carry on.” Seriously. That’s true.”
How much of the visual design of the book is up to you? Do you let Ryan Kelly run free with character and environmental designs, or do you have a more specific vision you relay to the team that they interpret?
Hobb: “I’ve only spoken up when there is something that really runs counter to the novel. There are very few blonde or pale skinned characters in Assassin’s Apprentice so I’ve asked everyone to stick to that. Otherwise, the Fool’s lack of color would not be so startling.”
While I’m sure this answer is at least partially sales-dependent, do you personally have plans or an interest in continuing to adapt the rest of the Realm of the Elderlings? I can’t tell you how nice it would be to have a full collection of trades next to the novels on a shelf.
Hobb: “For now, it’s only the first volume in the Farseer Trilogy that is being adapted. So only Assassin’s Apprentice. We will have to see what the reception is for the comics.”
Lastly, what have you been reading lately that’s really spoken to you? I would love to know the novels you’re enjoying, as well as comics if those are in your rotation as well.
Hobb: “I am horribly behind in my reading. I had cataracts removed, and they do one eye at a time, and then I had to wait for eye testing to get my reading glasses. So I’m very far behind. But here are six I’ve read this year that I think are top notch.
The White Hare Jane Johnson
Ship of Smoke and Steel Django Wexler
Daughter of Redwinter Ed McDonald
Art of Prophecy Wes Chu
Echo Thomas Olde Heuvelt
I’ve reviewed all of these and more on Goodreads if anyone wants to know more about what I thought of them.”
Assassin’s Apprentice #1 releases in comics shops and digitally on December 14th, 2022. You can read our review here.