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The Girl Who Would Be Free by Ryan Holiday

JULY 2, 2022
In the summer of 2020, Ryan Holiday, author of "The Daily Stoic" and the gripping "Conspiracy", via the recommendation of editor/publisher Shawn Coyne, contacted me about working on a pandemic book project of his, a children’s book on the great Stoic philosopher Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Ostensibly a book he wished to write for his sons, Ryan thought it had great potential as a marketable book for kids as well as adults. On my end I was facing a career of steadily disappearing professional clients, but more opportunity to do satisfactory personal work. One of the more rewarding projects that my time was directed towards, working with Society of Illustrators director, Anelle Miller, drawing portraits of young inmates at Rikers Island, was put on indefinite hold, held hostage to the Covid crisis. It was an important subject that also had the considerable and disappointing qualification of being off limits to the general viewing population because of legal restrictions. Still, I was drawing, which is what I love to do more than anything with my talents.
 
Longish story short- Ryan and I made an immediate connection with his manuscript. He was looking for loose sketch quality drawings, minimal color, to complement the copy. I loved the story, immediately began what would become a deep dive into researching and understanding the characters in the story, had sketched out ideas to him the next morning of the first pages, and he quickly intuited our creative connection and its potentials.  It was a great give and take experience, a dream assignment for an illustrator visually realizing an author’s intentions, and when the book, "The Boy Who Would Be King" published in February 2021, it was met with very positive, enthusiastic, response by the reading public. I also posted a detailed process blog on drawger.com, https://www.drawger.com/victorjuhasz/articles/16072
 
A few months later Ryan emailed me a heads up that he was working on a follow up to "The Boy". My response was that the pencils and paper were on standby.  In June I received the completed draft of the new story, titled “The Girl Who Would Be Free”, about the Stoic philosopher, and slave, Epictetus, who had a significant influence on Marcus Aurelius’ views and actions as emperor. Unlike the vast majority of Stoics, who were of the wealthier classes, not to mention being emperor, that could afford philosophical meditations, Epictetus walked the talk. He was a slave from birth, the name literally means “Acquired One”. He lived the brutal, punishing existence of slavery in Roman times when the object of being owned was to be worked to death; in other words the owner got a good return on his investment if that happened. As the story goes his owner, who served the emperor Nero, was a cruel sadist. For his sick amusement one time he had Epictetus’ leg twisted till it broke. While this random torture was taking place Epic (let’s use the nickname from now on that I shorthanded with Ryan) warned him that his leg would break. When it did Epic’s response was, “I told you that would happen.”
 
In spite of it all Epic was drawn to philosophy as a way of life and not merely intellectual musings. For whatever reason his master allowed him to study philosophy under the notable Musonius Rufus. Sometime after the death of Nero Epic received his freedom and began to actively teach Stoic philosophy that had a wide influence. He was heard by many of the influencers of his time, very likely even the emperor Hadrian. He left behind no personal writings. Everything we know of what he taught was recorded by a student that became the “Discourses”.  The notes eventually found their way to Marcus Aurelius via one of his mentor teachers, Junius Rusticus, who plays a significant role in Ryan’s book.
 
From the start Ryan wanted to change things up a bit.  On the surface, “The Boy” was a story about a boy for sons but was also applicable for daughters. When the book came out Ryan received a number of responses from parents asking if he could write one with girls in mind. As there are no known women Stoics from the period Ryan decided to make Epic a girl. It seemed like a great idea.  The story itself doesn’t change, only the gender.
 
My enthusiasm for this new project soon turned to realizing the unanticipated and far more complicated challenges of the story.  “The Boy” is at heart a classic hero’s journey tale.  Boy is confronted by a challenge, resists, runs away from his mentor, returns to his mentor, accepts the challenge and with it brings the rewards of what he has learned back to his community.  “The Girl” works on many more levels. It is not only a hero’s tale but a deeper dive into philosophy, and a philosophy that some may find confounding. Epictetus taught that self-knowledge was the foundation to all philosophy. But beyond that he taught, insisted upon, that we have little control over the external world and that the only thing we have control over is our response. The more I re-read Ryan’s text the more it became apparent that the images had to somehow illustrate heavy concepts that kids could connect to. A boy sitting on a throne is a very clear understandable image. A girl coming to terms with cruelty and injustice outside her control but remaining free in her soul is a whole different leap visually. This book would require  a greater concentration on the nuanced, reactive, expressions of the characters to explain concepts as well as more visual detail of the world around Epic to grasp what she was dealing with and feeling and how this affected her philosophical progression. I found myself feeling anxious with images in my head of parents reading the story and getting hit with some hard “Why” questions from their sons and daughters. This was not “Make Way for Ducklings”.   
 
Research is always one of the most enjoyable parts of projects like this. I get to learn a lot in the process myself. I had already stepped knee deep with the Marcus book into Stoicism and the Roman world. I’d be neck deep soon enough in the Epic tale.
 
First off, how to portray Epic? There are existent statues and marble sculptures of Marcus as emperor as well as a youth. That established a foundation from which to build a representation. But what about Epic? First, there are no historical visual records of what he looked like- merely imaginations long after his life. More importantly- Epic is now a girl. Ryan and I went back and forth on how to visualize her. He was hoping to include some physical characteristics of his wife, Samantha, and he sent photos of her from childhood and teen years. I wanted to accommodate the request and at the same time imagine the features of this ancient Greek (Epictetus was a Greek slave, not Roman) girl. There were hundreds of sketches, too many to count. Once Ryan gave the green light I ordered a boatload of preferred bond paper sketchpads that I used for the previous book. Lots of visual reference hunting. Photos I took of daughters of friends and a granddaughter (my poor granddaughter, Joli) in various poses and facial expressions.  An entire other post could be written about the anxiety over doing Google searches for “young (ancient) Greek girls, as I had experienced similar stress when searching for “Roman boys in togas” for the first book. Wondering how many security monitors I was tripping red. Waiting for the knock on the door. I kept going back to the Google searches. I continued to overrule each and every set of “better” sketches on review. Eventually I just dumped to Ryan the best visual approximations and let him and his editor, Nils Parker, and project manager, Justin Dumbeck, weigh in. Even then there was a difference of opinion over a couple favorites. We were close. As it turned out, I went with one of my favorites of the favorites but she continued to morph throughout the progress of the book.
 
Next step was to tackle a representation of her father, who in the story is a significant mentor/teacher in her life. He also went through a number of imaginings, jumping from genial, softer appearance to, the more I imagined the harsh life and working conditions of a slave, a leaner, more chiseled semblance. I pictured him eventually as having either a kind of Vincent Cassel (actor) or Tchéky Karyo (actor) look. Making visual links in my head is a fun part of creating characters. I went with Cassel as my base for Epic’s dad. Seriously, what daughter would not want Cassel as a dad?  
 
Ah, but Karyo was not to be discarded and soon turned out to be useful. Musonius Rufus is the other significant teacher/mentor in this story. Based on a purported contemporary representation of Rufus that I found while Googling, I saw him first as a boisterous Robbie Coltrane (actor) comedic foil to the father. Ryan nixed that and wanted a more serious representation. Karyo seemed perfect, embodying that gravitas of a sage, and with some adjustments a nice echo of Marcus’ teacher Rusticus from “The Boy”, who I partly modeled on Ian McKellen, another sage-y looking actor.
 
Serious became an operative term the more we pressed on. As a matter of fact, serious is the attitude from the first page onwards. The writer, Steven Pressfield says that the artist thinks he/she is going in one direction but the Muse has other ideas.  “The Boy” gradually shifted from a lighter visual approach and rendering to a more serious coda by the last page and the drawings show that. The content of “The Girl” allowed for no whimsy as I quickly realized. We start off with suffering and its depictions. Our first sight of, or more correctly, confrontation with, Epic is that of a girl with a hardened, sad, but fiery gaze. It was clear to me that in order for the drawings to connect with the kids they must connect with the expressions of the characters and what they suggest. Identifying with Epic, her dad, or Rufus, was a paramount objective of the drawings. Hence, countless drawings were done for each page before I could finally say, “Ah hah. That’s the look.” Hopefully the effort will prove successful. If not the fault is on me.
 
As slaves weren’t much considered human, and pretty expendable save for a few exceptions, there’s not much contemporary visual recordings of what they looked like. My research relied greatly on the visualizations that historians and artists have put together from their scholarship. It also provided some protection against the history wonks who might find inaccuracies in the drawings. I did my best to remain faithful to what I researched. Far more than “The Boy” I felt a responsibility in this story to be as truthful in the artwork as possible in order that the reader understand Epictetus and her journey.
 
Challenges remained for my portrayals of Epic. Having come to some determination of her physical appearance I needed to remain as close as possible to her features.  This is not an easy task when so much depends on subtle shifts in expressions sometimes over the passage of a few pages where the focus is on her closeup and how she is responding to what she sees or hears.  I didn’t have a 3-D model of her head and worked up imaginary studies of her from different angles and with different expressions. There were many times it seemed I was in over my head trying to keep everything in a consistent style along with the faces and bodies. As the book progressed I would note with both surprise and humor on reviewing the drawings and sometimes while in the middle of one that characteristics of friends, family, acquaintances, I’ve known throughout my life were slipping into the faces and gestures. The characters were becoming everyman or woman. They were developing their own life.
 
As with “The Boy” the coloring was done in Photoshop on my Wacom Cintiq. We were on a tighter than before deadline and there was zero desire on my part to ruin a good original drawing with colors that might turn out disappointing upon finish. Luddite that I am I have come to truly appreciate the pleasure of deleting a layer of color that isn’t helping.  As the book went through revisions in both manuscript and page pacing the necessity to change colors was not unusual and it was then that technology was most appreciated with the mere deletion of all layers and returning to the scanned drawing. We deliberately kept the color palette limited.
 
I think musically when working on a long form project like this book. I try to insert visual leitmotivs that reference and echo previous scenes, and pace the scenes as best as possible with an ebb and flow like a musical score. I think of Gustav Mahler and how his entire symphonic output is like one long expansive novel where each piece contains references and links to his previous works and hints at what is to come in the next.  While this book is not a Mahler symphony, from a visual standpoint I try on a far smaller scale to employ those kinds of echoes and hints. Even the covers of both “Boy” and “Girl” have a similar from-behind-view with a hero’s journey feel. I don’t know if Ryan thinks musically but his inclusion of Marcus and Rusticus in “The Girl” is a nice tying together of the two books.
 
The book was originally set for a March printing. Supply chain issues plagued Ryan as he was self-publishing again and there was a sigh of relief from Bastrop, Texas, when he informed me it would be out in July.
 
As mentioned earlier, I noted to Ryan that considering he is a best-selling author of some major works it seemed odd that “The Boy” was not reviewed by major publications. The Stoics would say that is something not in one’s control so just enjoy the process of the creation. And while the response from the general reading public, as seen on Amazon and elsewhere, is also not in one’s control it is still gratifying that it was overwhelmingly positive and as the illustrator I am thankful for the many kind comments about the artwork and how people and their kids connected to the images. I hope we can say the same for “The Girl”.
 
A final note, though I suspect I will continue to return to this posting and tweak it for a long time to come, is on the matter of Epictetus being portrayed as a girl. When Ryan first proposed the idea to me along with his reasonings why and wanted to know what I thought, my one and only caveat, which I didn’t say then but only when he interviewed me recently for a podcast, was that Epictetus is such an unpleasant sounding word let alone name for anyone, especially a girl. He expected pushback and he has gotten some. People who have not even seen or read the book getting all worked up that this is some endorsement and proselytizing for “trans” causes, for turning boys into girls, for Ryan caving in to “woke” pressure (“Woke” for what it’s worth, to me has turned into such a loathsome, lazy, reactionary invective meant to kill any conversation in a similar way that from a left/progressive standpoint referring to anyone on the right with whom one disagrees as “Nazi” or “Racist” is designed to find nothing in common.).  As I read the comments on his social media pages it seems amazing that this gender change becomes such a deal breaker issue. It’s a literary device. Firstly, responding to requests from parents, Ryan wanted to write a book for daughters the same way “Boy” was a book for sons. Secondly, and probably more to the point, if one is new to Stoicism, and unaware about the life of Epictetus, the man, and just read the tale, does the essence and message of the story change? If a black, Latino, or Asian actor plays the role of a Danish prince, Hamlet, does that change or diminish the essence of one of the great works of literature?  I would respectfully suggest to readers with objections that they read the book first (and hopefully enjoy the pictures) and appreciate the essence and message of the story.
 
Compared to “The Boy” this book was a number of steps up of a challenge, on many levels, to get it right. Once again I am grateful to Ryan for bringing me in on another project of his. He was juggling many plates while we worked on this book and sometimes I felt I was charting territory on my own, and feeling a bit lost, despite the efforts of Justin to keep the project managing as smooth as possible. The last PDF iteration of the book I saw prior to printing made me feel very good. We had a director friend visiting us up here on Crackpot Farm and she looked through that last PDF and was blown away not just by the character portrayals but by the camera angles and pacing in the illustrations, adding that it was making her reconsider scenes in her own work back in L.A.. That felt good.
Early studies of Epic.
A friend's daughter inspired this sketch that created an "Ah hah" moment.
Sketches for Epic's father.
Vincent Cassel- Epic's father.
Tchéky Karyo- Rufus.
Opening page.
Introduction to Epic.
I sent a draft to my friend, esteemed writer Steven Pressfield, author of "Gates of Fire" who sent his blessings with some extra interesting information. I quote: "Here’s one piece of trivia re slaves in the ancient world. The word for “slave” in Greek is ANTHROPOD, i.e. “thing with the feet of a man.” How they came up with that — and what it says about the ancient Greeks’ conception of slaves and slavery — is a mystery to me."
A bit symbolic here but illustrating the contrast between the brilliant colors of wealth and the inner b/w of emptiness in the midst of all the surface splendor.
Imprisonment can take many forms.
My first forays into Rufus.
The re-realized Rufus.
A favorite sketch that didn't make the cut to the book.
© 2022 Victor Juhasz