Behind The Scenes of Steve Jobs: Insanely Great, with Jessie Hartland

The cover for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland

The cover for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland

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“A very brief history of the computer before 1975.” A final spread for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. “Throughout the book I have spreads that show what was new for the younger generation. (Click to enlarge.)

“In the early 70’s powerful computers are huge. The ginormous computer shown here would hold only eight megabytes of memory. In 2015 64,000 megabytes fit in a cell phone. So wild, huh?” (Click to enlarge.)

When we visited Jessie Hartland’s home and studio a little over 2 years ago, she was working on a picture book biography of Steve Jobs. Well that book just came out a few months ago, not as a picture book but as an accessible and engaging 240-page graphic novel for adults and teens called Steve Jobs: Insanely Great. We met up again recently to discuss the process.

Robin: When did you decide to write a biography of Steve Jobs?

Jessie: Two and a half years ago. I was trying to think of who I wanted to write about and then he died. I just decided right then and there. I went out to the newsstand and picked up everything about him that I could. I got the Isaacson book which of course I’ve used. It’s a great book. There’s this one chapter about Silicon Valley, growing up in the 60’s, and the whole music of the era and it’s so great.  

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“I did a lot of visual research with primary sources.”

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More research materials.

Robin: Did you pitch the idea to your editor first or did you show her a dummy?

The original Apple 1 computer created in 1976. Photo by Ed Uthman

The original Apple 1 computer created in 1976. Photo by Ed Uthman

Jessie: I just pitched the idea to Schwartz & Wade and they went for it. I think they pictured it as being like the Julia Child book, in color and much shorter. They wanted me to end at the Apple 1. I was struggling with that because that’s not what he’s famous for. I really looked into it and found out in detail everything he had done. He had like five careers in one relatively short lifetime. There was some back and forth and I said, you know, I really want to write about his whole life.

We decided to do a graphic novel for teenagers but the book just kept growing and growing. An editor at Pantheon, which is also part of Random House, suggested it should be for adults and that it would trickle down to teenagers and middle graders.

Schwartz & Wade is a children’s imprint and this is the first adult book that they have ever published because it started as a children’s book but turned into an adult book. I like that we’re aiming for adults actually. I’m hoping this book will be for people who are interested in Steve Jobs but don’t want to read a 600-page book.

Robin: Did you have to rewrite much of the text to change the voice from middle grade to adult?

Jessie: Not that much changed. I wasn’t dumbing it down so much. Some definitions came out, like defining “CEO” and “bootleg.”

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great covers in French and Dutch.

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great covers in French and Dutch. (Click to enlarge.)

Robin: So this is a complete biography?

Jessie: Yes, from beginning to end. It’s been licensed in 13 foreign markets.  

Robin: That’s fantastic. The book is all hand-lettered. Do they have artists who are redrawing your words in different languages?

Jessie: No, they had a typeface of my handwriting created. John Martz did it and he did a really good job. He had me do many versions of each letter. Originally I had offered to handwrite all of [the different language editions] actually but they thought I was nuts.

Robin: Did you start with a manuscript and then do the drawings?

Jessie:  I hear about how other people write first but that’s not the way that I think. I think in pictures and words at the same time because I want to also think about what makes the best image. It definitely goes hand in hand.

[CAPTION: I work with a book like this, this is a really great kind of book because you can move the pages around so when I need a little bit more about his childhood I can add more pages.]

Sketches from Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. “I work with a [3-ring] book like this because you can move the pages around. When I need a little bit more about his childhood I can add more pages.” (Click to enlarge.)

Robin: Is this the longest book that you’ve ever written and illustrated?

Jessie: Yeah, it is. I’d like to do more, I mean I could just do this forever. I’m glad that graphic novels are gaining in popularity. I’m really drawn to taking very complicated material and simplifying it with drawings and words.

More sketches from Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. (Click to enlarge.)

More sketches from Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. “These are notes from my editor [Anne Schwartz]. She was just fantastic finding the holes in the story. Sometimes I’ll draw myself in there with my dog.” Can you spot them? (Click to enlarge.)

Creating Apple 1. A final spread for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland.

Creating Apple 1. A final spread for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. “When the publishers were looking for blurbs, they were trying to reach Steve Wozniak. I thought, maybe he’s on Facebook, and sure enough I connected with him. I said can you take a look at the book and he gave me his address. It was amazing!” (Click to enlarge.)

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A final spread for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. (Click to enlarge.) “He comes [back to Apple] and he starts pruning. ‘Okay, we’re going to focus. What’s with all of these Macs? Which one should I tell my friends to buy? We’re going to innovate our way out of this. So, two desktop, two portables. These will be our new products, that’s it.'”

Robin: Did you do any character studies for Steve?

Jessie: Yeah, his look changed a lot [throughout his life] so sometimes I think, God, every picture of him looks different. I  just drew and drew and drew and then I got to the point where I could just sit down and draw from my head.

Final art before adding gray tones. (Click to enlarge.)

Final art before adding gray tones. (Click to enlarge.) “I had my assistant, Dingding Hu, helping me prepare the files for the book because I didn’t want to do all of the Photoshop work. I would show her on another overlay where I wanted the different grays and she created them in Photoshop.”

Jessie: What was really hard about this job was trying to understanding everything in detail so that I could simplify. I love writing and illustrating but the writing is very challenging. Is it too many words? Is it not enough words? It seems more nebulous. When I’m drawing I often get an idea for a picture, it just kind of pops into my head. I don’t have to think about it that much. With writing I feel like, well, you could turn the sentence around another way or you could move it here or there.

Robin: I can imagine. And if you’re writing a novel you can just cut text out, but with a graphic novel if you cut something, now you have a big hole in your page. I could imagine when your editor asked you to cut or expand something it could be a big deal. It’s a huge puzzle. Most people would find it daunting but you found it a fun challenge.

Jessie: Yeah, I enjoyed it. At times I felt like Steve Jobs was this really irritating roommate that I couldn’t get rid of. He was just always there.

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“What’s New: 1980s.” A final spread for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. (Click to enlarge.)

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Steve at Pixar. A final spread for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. “I know somebody who works at Pixar so I went out there and got a tour. I drew this doll house to show the headquarters.” (Click to enlarge.)

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Developing the iMac. A final spread for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. (Click to enlarge.)

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Developing the iPhone. A final spread for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. “He insists the phone is only going to have one button. ‘Engineers, figure it out!’ They thought he was crazy.” (Click to enlarge.)

“I taped [the thumb drive with my final book] onto a drawing and delivered it to the publisher. I put that up on Facebook and I got illustration jobs from that.”

Robin: What are you working on now?

Jessie: I illustrated a picture book over the summer about Ada Lovelace for Paula Wiseman Books. Right now I’m illustrating a book for Nancy Paulsen books. It’s about a cowgirl and it takes place on this longhorn ranch. I went out and visited a longhorn ranch in December out in California which was just great. I learned all about it. I’m also writing a book about this truffle hound, an Italian dog that sniffs out truffles. I’m starting to write a book about my childhood too, a memoir, about growing up in D.C. in the 60’s.

Thanks Jessie! For more of Jessie’s work check out jessiehartland.com and you can read chapter 12 of Steve Jobs: Insanely Great here.

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