The story I am illustrating is an old Japanese folk tale. The version that I have been working from so far is the version below, from the Andrew Lang edited 'Pink Fairy Book' from 1879, which is available free on Project Gutenberg here Pink Fairy Book
I plan to look into other versions and incorporate elements as the story requires.
Here is the text:
THE SPARROW WITH THE SLIT TONGUE
A long long time ago, an old couple dwelt in the very heart of a high mountain. They lived together in peace and harmony, although they were very different in character, the man being good-natured and honest, and the wife being greedy and quarrelsome when anyone came her way that she could possibly quarrel with.
One day the old man was sitting in front of his cottage, as he was very fond of doing, when he saw flying towards him a little sparrow, followed by a big black raven. The poor little thing was very much frightened and cried out as it flew, and the great bird came behind it terribly fast, flapping its wings and craning its beak, for it was hungry and wanted some dinner. But as they drew near the old man, he jumped up, and beat back the raven, which mounted, with hoarse screams of disappointment, into the sky, and the little bird, freed from its enemy, nestled into the old man's hand, and he carried it into the house. He stroked its feathers, and told it not to be afraid, for it was quite safe; but as he still felt its heart beating, he put it into a cage, where it soon plucked up courage to twitter and hop about. The old man was fond of all creatures, and every morning he used to open the cage door, and the sparrow flew happily about until it caught sight of a cat or a rat or some other fierce beast, when it would instantly return to the cage, knowing that there no harm could come to it.
The woman, who was always on the look-out for something to grumble at, grew very jealous of her husband's affection for the bird, and would gladly have done it some harm had she dared. At last, one morning her opportunity came. Her husband had gone to the town some miles away down the mountain, and would not be back for several hours, but before he left he did not forget to open the door of the cage. The sparrow hopped about as usual, twittering happily, and thinking no evil, and all the while the woman's brow became blacker and blacker, and at length her fury broke out. She threw her broom at the bird, who was perched on a bracket high up on the wall. The broom missed the bird, but knocked down and broke the vase on the bracket, which did not soothe the angry woman. Then she chased it from place to place, and at last had it safe between her fingers, almost as frightened as on the day that it had made its first entrance into the hut.
By this time the woman was more furious than ever. If she had dared, she would have killed the sparrow then and there, but as it was she only ventured to slit its tongue. The bird struggled and piped, but there was no one to hear it, and then, crying out loud with the pain, it flew from the house and was lost in the depths of the forest.
By-and-bye the old man came back, and at once began to ask for his pet. His wife, who was still in a very bad temper, told him the whole story, and scolded him roundly for being so silly as to make such a fuss over a bird. But the old man, who was much troubled, declared she was a bad, hard-hearted woman, to have behaved so to a poor harmless bird; then he left the house, and went into the forest to seek for his pet. He walked many hours, whistling and calling for it, but it never came, and he went sadly home, resolved to be out with the dawn and never to rest till he had brought the wanderer back. Day after day he searched and called; and evening after evening he returned in despair. At length he gave up hope, and made up his mind that he should see his little friend no more.
One hot summer morning, the old man was walking slowly under the cool shadows of the big trees, and without thinking where he was going, he entered a bamboo thicket. As the bamboos became thinner, he found himself opposite to a beautiful garden, in the centre of which stood a tiny spick-and-span little house, and out of the house came a lovely maiden, who unlatched the gate and invited him in the most hospitable way to enter and rest. 'Oh, my dear old friend,' she exclaimed, 'how glad I am you have found me at last! I am your little sparrow, whose life you saved, and whom you took such care of.'
The old man seized her hands eagerly, but no time was given him to ask any questions, for the maiden drew him into the house, and set food before him, and waited on him herself.
While he was eating, the damsel and her maids took their lutes, and sang and danced to him, and altogether the hours passed so swiftly that the old man never saw that darkness had come, or remembered the scolding he would get from his wife for returning home so late.
Thus, in dancing and singing, and talking over the days when the maiden was a sparrow hopping in and out of her cage, the night passed away, and when the first rays of sun broke through the hedge of bamboo, the old man started up, thanked his hostess for her friendly welcome, and prepared to say farewell. 'I am not going to let you depart like that,' said she; 'I have a present for you, which you must take as a sign of my gratitude.' And as she spoke, her servants brought in two chests, one of them very small, the other large and heavy. 'Now choose which of them you will carry with you.' So the old man chose the small chest, and hid it under his cloak, and set out on his homeward way.
But as he drew near the house his heart sank a little, for he knew what a fury his wife would be in, and how she would abuse him for his absence. And it was even worse than he expected. However, long experience had taught him to let her storm and say nothing, so he lit his pipe and waited till she was tired out. The woman was still raging, and did not seem likely to stop, when her husband, who by this time had forgotten all about her, drew out the chest from under his cloak, and opened it. Oh, what a blaze met his eyes! gold and precious stones were heaped up to the very lid, and lay dancing in he sunlight. At the sight of these wonders even the scolding tongue ceased, and the woman approached, and took the stones in her hand, setting greedily aside those that were the largest and most costly. Then her voice softened, and she begged him quite politely to tell her where he had spent his evening, and how he had come by these wonderful riches. So he told her the whole story, and she listened with amazement, till he came to the choice which had been given him between the two chests. At this her tongue broke loose again, as she abused him for his folly in taking the little one, and she never rested till her husband had described the exact way which led to the sparrow-princess's house. When she had got it into her head, she put on her best clothes and set out at once. But in her blind haste she often missed the path, and she wandered for several hours before she at length reached the little house. She walked boldly up to the door and entered the room as if the whole place belonged to her, and quite frightened the poor girl, who was startled at the sight of her old enemy. However, she concealed her feelings as well as she could, and bade the intruder welcome, placing before her food and wine, hoping that when she had eaten and drunk she might take her leave. But nothing of the sort.
'You will not let me go without a little present?' said the greedy wife, as she saw no signs of one being offered her. 'Of course not,' replied the girl, and at her orders two chests were brought in, as they had been before. The old woman instantly seized the bigger, and staggering under the weight of it, disappeared into the forest, hardly waiting even to say good-bye.
It was a long way to her own house, and the chest seemed to grow heavier at every step. Sometimes she felt as if it would be impossible for her to get on at all, but her greed gave her strength, and at last she arrived at her own door. She sank down on the threshold, overcome with weariness, but in a moment was on her feet again, fumbling with the lock of the chest. But by this time night had come, and there was no light in the house, and the woman was in too much hurry to get to her treasures, to go and look for one. At length, however, the lock gave way, and the lid flew open, when, O horror! instead of gold and jewels, she saw before her serpents with glittering eyes and forky tongues. And they twined themselves about her and darted poison into her veins, and she died, and no man regretted her.
So the first step I took was writing down the characters, their traits and personal appearance, as taken from the text.
The next step is to read through the text and try to visualise it sequentially. I try to imagine how the scenes described could best be visually explained. From this I create my first draft of thumbnail story boards, but first I need to write down each scene as it would logically progress. This is an initial attempt to distill the story, but don't worry, it will change tons as we go on along the project. I only know if Im going about things right by visually looking at my ideas, so it makes sense to keep going at it till the good stuff comes through the cracks.
I write up my plan from the text in much the same way you would imagine adapting a script for film or plays, by writing down scene/page numbers and describing the content. Again, as draft 1, I'm not too worried, and usually for me, when thinking sequentially, draft 1 has far too many panels. But this is why I take all these steps, to more accurately condense it in the future.
Here is an example of the first 4 rough plans.
You can see how vague I work at this point. The next step is to begin the character designs.
The process of character design (for me anyway) is something that starts pretty terribly and grows more whole as you really get to know the characters personality. A thousand things can be drawn before the posture, clothing or exageration of certain features suddenly describes the character without any written explanation. The only way you can encapsulate the personality in physical form is to continually try new things till it begins to fit into place. In the past I have got characters to what I thought was fully refined, but then found that as I was inking the final comics, there were vast changes of appearance and style from page 1 issue 1 to the last page of issue 2, as if I had been hanging around with it more intensely and finally understood the natural movements and expressions. Again this is why repetition and reinvention of character drawing is essential to me.
When you look at a picture of a character in something sequentially as short as a children's book, where there is limited pages and words, the character must be instantly visually described. There is no time in the story to say "yes she looked like this but she behaved in a much more deeply complex way than you would imagine". A child needs to be able to look at the pictures and say "thats the bad guy, thats the nice guy". This doesn't mean that you need to think obvious. The more subtly you can show a trait though appearance, the better. Like comedy, the best and smartest character designs have obscure or hidden but inate observations at the core.
So my next course of action is coming up with a vague start point for the characters, in order to create the thumbnail storyboard.
As we noted, the old man is good natured, honest, gentle, caring, quiet. We may see him more in depth later, but at first look this is about all thats obvious.
Not having much to go by is good and bad. You've no restriction, but also no start point. It's like when someone says "pick any song". So at first thoughts, the old man went through these rough sketches. You can see how nothing is decided at this point, more just getting a grip on who he might be.
We know the woman is greedy, quarrelsome, jealous, angry, bad tempered and hard hearted. How do we show that? On the obvious side we could say she's likely chubbier than her husband if greed is to be apparent. We could also show an emphasis on brows to show moods, and some pointed features to give her roundness a bit of a tough edge. I imagine her to be short, to show reason for quarrels, as a need to prove herself.
She has a lot of sketches as there is more to go on at this point.
You can see that I haven't pinpointed her yet, but the last go at it is easy to play with so we can move on from here.
First Draft of Storyboard
The other characters involved - the bird, the girl and her maidens, can be dealt with later on. The next step is to begin to storyboard it roughly to the guides you have made with the written scenes and the rough characters. Like I said before, the only way I get to know the people, and like wise the landscapes and interiors is to draw stuff and re draw it till I understand it better, so without being precious, I began the first draft of the storyboard.
By doing this I hope to understand the flow of the story more clearly than by just reading it. You can see how rough I go at this point. Each panel is scribbled in my notebook and then for the purpose of showing them more clearly, shoved together on photoshop, reading left - right. It's good to look at it without words, as by the end of the book, the whole thing should read perfectly with the words. It should stand alone if its successful. The squigle lines show places I am considering placing text. At this stage thats not too important, but in the final compositions has to be factored in. These boards at this point of progress only reach about 1/3rd of the story, so obviously there will be too many pages. I will need to examine the importance of each scene to the story upon its completion.
Well thats as far as I am now. I will continue to update it as it moves!