The stories behind the stories

Dumbo: Friends in High Places

“I’m studying the effect of wind shear on a flying elephant. Not even Ben Franklin did that!” — Millie

“Friends in High Places”

An original graphic novel based on Tim Burton’s Dumbo movie!
Published by Dark Horse • March 27, 2019

Written by John Jackson Miller

Art by Anna Merli, Giuseppe Rigano, Alberto Zanon, Rosa La Barbera, and

Cover by Giovanni Rigano

Edited by Freddye Miller and Judy Khuu

In the spring of 2018, I was contacted by one of my former Star Wars comics editors at Dark Horse, Freddye Miller (nee Lins) about writing an original graphic novel based on Dumbo, the live action movie directed by Tim Burton.

As someone who saw Burton’s Batman movies in the theater a combined 17 times, the notion of doing something for a movie not just by him — but costarring Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito and with music by Danny Elfman, all from those films — was hard to resist. I had also just done a kids’ comic for Star Wars, the Star Wars Adventures 2018 Annual for IDW, so Dumbo gave me a chance to write something else for a younger age group.

While you might think that maintaining continuity with a film about a flying elephant wouldn’t be a problem, I took the matter seriously. Adding to the challenge was the need to spread the work around to five different art teams by doing the book as an anthology. Further, Disney wanted to see certain characters in the cast spotlighted. That’s a lot to make happen!

What I settled on was a single story with four flashbacks, all in the form of tales told by the cast members on a rainy day at the circus. The day itself was set early in the movie: after Dumbo has learned to fly and become famous, but before his meeting with Keaton’s character.

That worked very well, allowing each of the art teams to go their own way, stylewise. Stories involving ringmaster Max Medici, magician Ivan the Wonderful, aerialist Colette Marchant, and Dumbo’s mother were worked together with the framing sequence such that each tale provides a clue to the story’s mystery.

I was delighted by how the art came out. Max runs about as frenetically as I had imagined. The Colette sequence is a wonderful segue into turn-of-the-century France. And the story with the elephants, done entirely in pantomine, worked better than I could have hoped for.

“I hope you don’t mind sharing your hiding place, Dumbo — I might need it for a while!” — Max Medici

I had to take care with the kite experiment, as we needed to explain things in a way that wouldn’t inspire any kids to go out in lightning storms. Milly is supposed to be a genius, so her explanation, which  covers a lot of ground, makes sense coming from her.

The movie beings outside Joplin, Missouri, and that’s where most of the graphic novel takes place, apart from the side-trip to Paris in the past.

A running gag in the movie is that Rongo, the strongman, is given all sorts of odd jobs by Max Medici, and we pick up on that here. He has some of the funniest lines in the book. Max’s fake brother, Giuseppe, is another element from the movie. We make the most of it here.

Millie’s “practical magic” tricks using science were real, but I had to describe them carefully so no kids would try them unsupervised. You get an idea what she has Ivan doing, but not the actual directions.

The transition to Colette’s sequence was the toughest to figure out, since she hadn’t met the others yet. But it made perfect sense that she’d be known to the members of the circus, and the magazine was an excellent way for Dumbo to prompt the others to learn her story. (I had also just seen Les Miserables on stage for the fourth time when this book was in development; that probably helped!)

Dumbo’s mother couldn’t do anything violent to the clown, but what she did — stealing his wig and throwing it away — worked fine instead, especially as it led to the gulls entering the story.