This is a project I worked on in the summer of 1998, on holiday in the Carpathians. That year I was due to begin high school, so I saw that holiday as a final chance to indulge in drawing characters from books that weren’t in the curriculum. I certainly appreciated the message of the book: a message of inner beauty pitted against social injustice, but also a manifesto for the restoration of the Gothic architectural legacy in France – a new concept in Victor Hugo’s time, alongside the equally new designation of nature parks and reserves.
However, the strongest pull towards illustrating this story myself were the outfits – Esmeralda’s clothes. This was my own manifesto for the preservation of fashion history (decidedly a more important source of information than any war chronology). Also, I was looking for some instant gratification to take my mind off worrying about my academic career. I was quite the procrastinator, and still am; except I used to believe the Blue Fairy on having to work hard, whereas now I trust in Candlewick’s wisdom, innocence and fun times… but that’s another story!
After all this time, to my surprise, I find out that Victor Hugo himself tended to procrastinate endlessly, which prompted his publisher to send him an ultimatum: finish the book in six months (this was happening in 1831). Hugo stepped up, devising to lock all his clothes away and prevent himself from socialising: less distractions, more writing. Makes perfect sense. So get this: by illustrating the book, I was procrastinating and drawing clothes, things which its author had given up in order to write the book! (What?) There is also a rumour that, to avoid shocking his housekeeper, he kept only one shawl to wear around the house – but many now doubt that really happened. Take a look at my gallery, whether you believe the rumour or not.
First in line are some different character designs I dug up in the fandom (and it seems I only scratched the surface, there are many more out there): my own version “direct and unmediated, from the book” (this is an important aspect, linking into a reader’s own archetypal landscape) then a French production, the Disney version, an Italian production, the illustration from the cover of the library book I borrowed here in Bucharest, and Noa’s Notre-Dame-themed video, Vivre – I used to “stalk” that production during every music show on TV, meaning find every detail about when, where and who had written each bit. (When I posted these on social media for the first time, an artist who identifies as lesbian was inspired by the lyrics of Vivre – “Libre de choisir sa vie, sans un anathème, sans un interdit” – and instantly drew her own version based on my old drawing. Is this how it feels to have a fan of your work? This is great, I love it.)
Here is the first version I drew of selected scenes (and the shawl):
Here is the second version, where I wrote the quotes that had sparked off the images:
I practised my drawing skills some more by drawing Disney’s version – then compared the different endings, book vs. Disney, and what they could each mean for the overall message. Mind you, our VCR machine didn’t have an Image-Pause button, so I just watched the film an inordinate amount of times, until I got all the details I needed (and, as a side-effect, learned all the songs… I could still sing you God Help The Outcasts from memory right now).
One day I chose the Hunchback tape for a movie-screening assignment, happening at said high school where I was routinely bullied by classmates and by members of the teaching staff alike (they hate tomboys, because of how we stand up on social issues and “challenge authority”). Unfortunately, the teacher concluded the dialogue was above the level of English understood by the
bullies class, so next time I was to “please bring something more appropriate to their level.” Right… I’ll let you debate the wisdom of such poppy beheadings, because I was too pissed off to even bother. Anyway, I fared better a bit further away, oh like Japan! Most Japanese didn’t speak very good English either, but communicating with them was never the insurmountable problem I experienced with my classmates (apart from a few hilarious, harmless misunderstandings). I used my drawing to create cultural bridges, and the timing made it so that Esmeralda became that bridge. In retrospect, what if this moment with the Japanese kids was one of those unconscious connections with people who were just as stressed out as I was, by the demands – and the bullying – of our respective academic systems? Again, makes perfect sense.
Finally, in August 2012, I got to explore that “Gothic architectural legacy in France,” the Eastern sacred geometry Gothic architecture alluded to, which had up until that moment been, for me, only a fictional idea from a fictional story (I loved the Gargoyles animated series, too). Most readers skip those lengthy descriptions made in the book, because the action-filled chapters are more engaging. I was no exception there, because I hadn’t found the key yet: “I think… therefore I am an emotional beastie!”
There was no school psychologist during the time I was enrolled. I think that schools should give serious thought to the emotions experienced by youth every day, and simultaneously keep this interest non-invasive. It is very important to have schools be an environment where one’s inner world is allowed positive expression, to replace the violence and repression experienced at that age. One extremely problematic approach to addressing the issue of bullying is when the people with authority, in a bid to calm the situation down, disdainfully label bullies as “less intelligent than the special person getting bullied” and say that the best method is this special person “ignoring it all, and it will stop.” This does extreme damage, by making it the victim’s problem or failure, and shutting children down emotionally who are sensitive, asking them to be insensitive and placing that insensitivity on a pedestal. That is the opposite of gaining better emotional intelligence and quality relationships, it’s the recipe for creating future bullies and class snobs. Bullying most certainly does not stop affecting people if they close their eyes to it, even late into adulthood or if the adult is so-called “successful.” Acting in solidarity, not raising mental walls, must be the approach taken. Every individual has the power to change the world, and a huge chunk of that power involves resisting the temptation to use one’s gifts or success as a way of degrading others. For me, success was just a form of expression for the things I was passionate about, and I never intended to make others feel inferior through it. I would always seek to be inclusive and share my joys with others. I would listen to everyone’s story and teachers would often ask me what I had done to those kids, because they seemed changed.