Home > CR Interviews
CR Sunday Interview: Chris Schweizer
posted April 20, 2012
I met Chris Schweizer
before I knew his comics, which is an interesting way to do things when someone's a talented cartoonist because you inevitably spend some time just staring at them, wondering how the hell this thing
could have come from that person you know. Schweizer's primary comics avenue by a wide, wide margin is the Crogan Adventure series
. This a series of books from Oni Press
about the men (mostly) of the wonderfully, snap-named Crogan family. The modern nuclear unit seeks moral guidance or perspective on some issue; an extravagant adventure of a past member provides some measure of commentary on what's happening in the modern Crogans' lives. It sounds simple, but Schweizer, while still a young cartoonist with all that entails, never cheats. The result is the kind of comics a person with high hopes for the industry might conceive of having out there in the marketplace but then would just as quickly explain how they couldn't possibly exist. These are comics that can be read by any number of people at any number of ages but at the same time are clearly not for every audience in some desperate-to-please way; they're unabashedly situated in a specific, western take on the adventure comics genre whose heyday might have come in the strip comics of the 1930s; they're exuberant; they're presented with unapologetic elan
, including a fan club where I believe at some level of membership or via some special offer the cartoonist draws your picture in the style of one of the characters from one of the books
. A dozen Chris Schweizers, and comics might rule the world.
Schweizer is also a comics educator
, one that came out of the general system to which he now contributes from the other side of the podium. I had plenty of questions for him. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about your background with comics? My understanding is that you had a significant relationship to strip comics, but maybe not comic-book comics. Where did comics exist in terms of your overall cultural appetites; how much of a comics kid were you? Is there a comic strip that influenced you early on we might be surprised to hear was an influence on you? How did you read the comics, seeing as that you were an artist yourself?
I don't think the artist hat really affected my comics reading when I was young. It did in high school.
I was a voracious reader as a kid, and I expect that my parents, both strip fans, probably tried to get me to read comics in the newspaper, but I doubt that I was receptive. I recollect a lot of what I consumed as a kid, and I don't remember being enthusiastic about strips until Calvin and Hobbes
came along. I read the first collection when it came out, which means I would've been six years old. And I was hooked. Not just on Calvin
, but on all comic strips. I read 'em like crazy, especially whatever my dad had in the house in book form. I always preferred reading big chunks in book form to any other format. We had the full set of that oversized Peanuts
collection, which even at age six baffled me with its deliberate avoidance of chronology. I remember complaining often to my dad about it, and his reassurance that someday someone would have the sense to put out the whole run in chronological order. So the Fantagraphics reprints
have basically been my dad's Christmas and Father's Day presents every year since they started coming out, and will continue to be so 'til the series ends. Anyway, I devoured every strip I could find, in the papers and in garage sale paperbacks. I never stopped reading strips, though these days I complain to my wife loudly about how nearly everyone phones it in these days whenever I sit down with the Sunday funnies.
Around the same time, early elementary school, there was an Eckerd's Drug Store
down the street with a bin of thin two-dollar paperback black-and-white comic adaptations of classic literature. The Pocket Classics
series. I remember that bin being there forever, but it was probably only a couple of months. My parents got me and my younger sister a bunch of those books during that time. Those books had a big influence on me, because they weren't very good, and I knew it. I read them over and over and over, and wanted them to be good, to live up their promise. The real versions, the prose originals, usually do, but I didn't read those until I was much older, high school and college. Those comic adaptations were generally pretty lifeless. But I loved the subject matter. Swordfights and whatnot. That's a big part of what I do now, trying to make books that are what I wish those Pocket Classics had been.
I got into G.I. Joe comics
in fourth grade in a big way, steered to them from the trading cards. I was a sucker for trading cards, especially file-oriented ones like the Joe
set. By the time I was in middle school, with disposable income from neighborhood lawn mowing, I was making the transition from G.I. Joe
. The cards were what spurred me here, too. I think the reason that I landed on Marvel rather than DC is the cards (with the exception of the odd Batman
stand-alone volume, some recent Bernet-drawn Jonah Hex
, and some of the Darwyn Cooke
stuff, I've read virtually no DC; I've just had no real attraction to the characters). The cards helped breach the walls of obtuse continuity by laying it all out for you before you ever used to pick up a comic. I think a lot of kids my age used the cards as an entryway to the Marvel stuff.
In middle school I got really into Bill Amend's Fox Trot
. It probably has more influence on my dialogue pacing than just about anything else, and my dialogue pacing determines almost everything about how my comics are structured, so I guess that's a pretty encompassing influence. Amend is just so good at pacing. He's one of the few comics childhood heroes that I haven't had a chance to meet. I have his number in my NCS
phonebook, but I haven't ever called him. I think it's expected that you cold call a couple of people when you get the directory, but I feel weird doing that sort of thing.
When I was in ninth grade, I stopped reading anything but strips and the odd trade collection. Cold turkey. I was buying a ton of floppies, some at a local shop, most at the gas station by my high school, and I became immediately disenfranchised. Within a very short space of time -- heck, maybe it was the same week -- three comics that I was nuts about changed artists. Olivier Vatine
was replaced in the second part of the Star Wars
" adaptations, Joe Madureira
left Uncanny X-Men
, and J. Scott Campbell
left Gen 13
. I don't know who the replacements were, and it wasn't that the art was bad... it's that the art wasn't them
. The reality of creative teams changing was one of which I was aware, but I'd never contemplated the reality of it, and I didn't like it. It riled me. I thought of those projects as the work of those guys, and had no interest in alternatives, and wanted nothing to do with other comics that might similarly deal me a raw hand. I still feel that way. I have trouble reading anything without a fixed final page or final issue in the can for fear that the artist or writer or whoever will change, so I almost never pick anything up unless it's a stand-alone book. B.P.R.D.
was my one contemporary exception, and when Guy left it was like 9th grade all over again. I love Tyler [Crook]'s stuff
, but he's not Guy [Davis]
. I just picked up the new issue -- I'm warming to it, and I do really like Tyler's art -- but I still grind my teeth at it.
I picked up Bone
at a bookstore when I was a freshman in college. I'd read the excerpts that ran in Disney Adventures
when I was younger, and had that familiarity with the series. I went nuts for it. I picked up the trades when I could find them. That was my one regular non-strip comics purchase.
SPURGEON: You mention something in your sketchbook about seeing Jeff Smith's work and realizing that an artist could bring a strip approach to comics to long-form comic-book comics. Can you talk about that distinction, that kind of different aesthetic that you see in comic strips and through Jeff's work?
That was mostly just me not having access to much stuff. I'm from rural Kentucky. If it wasn't available at a gas station, you didn't get to see it. I think what I meant was that the drawings were clearly what the artist felt like doing, rather than the dictates of the market, stylistically. And that he was writing and drawing it. Outside of strips, I hadn't seen that! Now it's something that everybody does, and tons of other folks were doing it at the time, but Jeff is where I saw it first, and it was amazing. The slick brushwork... it felt like the strips I liked. And I had no worries that it would change artists, even though it was a continuing series. And it being black and white was big for me, too, in that it looked like it was meant to be black and white, like a strip. That's the main reason we did the first three Crogan
books in black and white, because I wanted to mimic that it-could-be-a-strip-but-is-really-a-book feel that Bone had for me. I was being a toon-head, a comics snob. I think that black and white better reflects the craft, but color is more accessible. I was more worried with being credible to my peers than I was reaching an audience. You know, being young. I've been changing my inking style a little to better jive with color, which I plan to use more in the future.
SPURGEON: I'm a little unclear as to when comics became an option for you, when you started to seriously look at that as a potential career. I suspect it has something to do with your decision to go to grad school. Can you talk a bit about what led you to that decision to go to SCAD?
I joined one of those book clubs, the scam ones that are hard to quit, sometime not long after I was out of college. My wife and I ran a hotel in Mississippi, and I was at the front desk a lot, and had a lot of reading time. The book club sent you like five or six books free at first, and they carried some graphic novels -- only the five that I got as my initial offering, I think, but hey, seemingly free books, right? Among those that I got were [Scott] McCloud's Understanding Comics
, which I thought at the time would make a great textbook, the third volume of [Larry] Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe
, and volume one of Persepolis
So I was starting to get into graphic novels as a casual reader. And then I discovered webcomics. The first one I found was Scott Kurtz's Player vs. Player
, which I discovered entirely by accident while looking for some Indiana Jones
stuff on the Internet, and discovering an Indy
Scott, I've come to find, is viewed as a very controversial and sometimes confrontational figure in both the web and print comic communities. There are still NCS folks whose backs arch when his name comes up. But he's always been incredibly nice to me, and I think his work is solid, a consistently well-executed strip. At the time, I was amazed that it seemed to hold together better than any of the syndicate stuff. I never play video games, but I didn't have to know the references to get the jokes; Scott's quite good in that arena. Anyway, reading his comic got me looking at other webcomics, which led me to Raina Telgemeier's online stuff
, which really was print stuff that she posted online. One of the stories, "Beginnings
," was three pages long, just a nice, poignant little anecdote. Its length was what grabbed me. A stand-alone, non-strip short story was not something I'd seen before. And Raina had mentioned that it was a story published in one of her mini-comics. I had never seen a mini-comic, didn't know what one was, but I immediately understood what she meant -- hand assembled, etc. -- and set about making a story for my own mini-comic. I did it that day. I found out much later it was entirely on the strength of that particular story that James [Lucas Jones]
, my editor at Oni, gave me my Crogan Adventures
I did the mini as a kind of lark, I guess, the same way I had done music. I guess I figured that maybe somebody would see it and I'd hit it big, or something like that, the kind of thing you think when you're young and gormless and don't know how anything works. I had just turned 25. I feel like that's a little old to be a semi-directionless idiot. Anyway, my dad read it, and suggested I consider doing comics professionally. And that was huge for me. My parents are and have always been hugely supportive, but my dad has always been a realist, and his suggestion that I actively pursue a career in it sparked something. He works in the arts. He's a music composer, though the majority of his income now comes from writing mystery novels, a new development that I think has freaked him out a little, identity-wise, since for a long time the writing was just a hobby that paid. But he, more than most, knows how difficult it is to support a family on arts money. His suggesting that I do just that was like a light bulb going off for me. Of course I could do it; dad's faith in the success of the endeavor was like a guarantee to me. But I'd need to go to school for it, for the terminal degree so that I could teach and so that I knew the ins and outs of what I wanted to do. I've always believed that, whatever you want to do, you should study it properly. It shows respect for the discipline and for the wisdom of the folks who came before you. Luckily there were terminal degree programs in comics, at SCAD and MCAD
, and the SCAD one looked more organized. I'm a disorganized person by nature, so I need structure.
I talked it out with my wife, Liz. We met in college, and got married a couple of months after graduation. She was immediately and enthusiastically supportive. Given some of the other careers I'd considered, this one was probably likely to be the least stressful on her, so I'm sure that helped, but she's always had my back, and I like to think that I have hers. She didn't want to move to Savannah, though. We were in Natchez, another antebellum tourist town, and we were ready to be somewhere different. We saw that SCAD had a campus in Atlanta
-- it had just started -- and that settled things.
SPURGEON: I know a handful of cartoonists that have taught at SCAD, but fewer that have gone.
I think you'd be surprised at how many folks went to SCAD. A lot of near-and-under-thirties, especially. Eleanor Davis
and Chris Wright
and that whole group. Drew Weing
and Joey Weiser
and Jarrett Williams
and J.P. Coovert
. Frank and Becky
. Ben Towle
was there a while ago, around the same time as Sean Gordon Murphy
and Chad Thomas
and Kristian Donaldson
. Some animation folks, too. Phil Craven
was a SEQA major. He was head of story on the second Kung Fu Panda
movie, but he still does the odd comic. There's been a lot of big two talent, but my path and theirs intersect less frequently. The folks I mention are the folks I know pretty well, who I see fairly often, who are near my age.
I think that you -- and you have your finger on the pulse of the industry more than a lot of people, Tom, so I expect that you serve as the world at large here -- haven't heard of many people coming out of SCAD because the school itself is not really an industry or convention presence the way that, say, CCS
is. When the school sets up at a convention or something, it sets up as the school, not as a repository of student publications. The working (publishing) students are rarely at the table, the working faculty is rarely at the table. They're at their own tables. The SCAD booths are geared very heavily towards admissions and recruitment, and while I expect that this approach results in more students applying to the school (a necessity to keep the programs going), it doesn't do much to draw attention to professional work being generated by students and alums. There are student work samplers, but by their nature they don't include professional publication excerpts. They're a great way of showing off the work of students who are finding their feet -- I was thrilled to have a piece in one, when I was starting grad school -- but they're not the best examples of what enrolled students are making. The Oni and Fantagraphics and Marvel
books are the best examples, but having those immediately on hand at the SCAD table is logistically problematic, given the admission-oriented strategy.
The other reason you're less likely to have associated SCAD alums with the school is that few of them tout it. Sometimes this is active. Sean Murphy, for example, has written many posts about his dissatisfaction with his experience at SCAD. But that's the exception, I think. Most folks don't bring it up or draw attention to it simply because they prefer to be associated more with their peer groups from within the school than with the school itself.
I think that happened because of how big the department got over the last five or ten years. There's something like four hundred comics kids at the Savannah campus now, I think, and it probably has to do with percentages. I feel like the percentage of students that really give it their all is pretty high, but even if one in ten kids is lazy, or producing hackneyed work, when you have four hundred kids that's 40 kids doing bad work a year, and just because it's bad or lazy doesn't mean that it's not viewable to the public. If a terrible artist claims that they're studying comics at SCAD -- which is likely all they'll be able to claim to achieve any sort of peer credibility at a show -- then a good student the next table over isn't likely to volunteer the same information for fear of being lumped in with the bad one.
I know a lot of people, myself included, who are publicly silent about political or religious affiliations because of the terrible folks with whom those affiliations are sometimes associated. It's the same thing. Even if 90 percent are trying hard, working hard, that bad ten percent still brings it down for everybody. Your program isn't generally thought of by your best students, but by your worst ones. The goal is to make sure that everyone who graduates is nailing it. It's a tough goal, and infinitely tougher the larger the campus is. The greater the number of students, the more of a presence that ten percent of bad ones has, and the less likely the rest are celebrate their connection to the institution. It's a shame, but it's what it is.
We're lucky at the Atlanta campus, we're really small. We've got something around 80 kids. That means that, by the same measurements, we've got far fewer kids that are phoning it in. Because of this, they're less likely to congregate and make lazy artist subcultures (nothing lets lazy artists continue to be lazy like having each other to self-congratulate), and thus it's easier to spot the laziness and bad decision-making and stay on them until they shape up. If they don't shape up, they don't graduate. That's going to be hard to maintain if we grow substantially -- and our numbers have already doubled in the past couple of years or so -- but we've seen it happen at other schools and with other programs, and we're very mindful of it, and we do what we can to nip it in the bud and ensure that the students can all be proud of their school, which is in itself a marvelous institution. I know very few students that, when asked, don't have fond things to say about their experience. Getting them to bring it up unsolicited is what I hope our approach will do, and thus far I think that's the case with our graduates. Granted, we're pretty new, so it's easy to say this now. It'll be a challenge to say it in five years, when we've swelled, but I think that as long as we stay on it, and don't let anyone slip through the cracks and come out with both a degree and bad habits, we'll be okay. It's a challenge, but a worthwhile one.
SPURGEON: What comes to mind when you think of your formal comics education? What is that culture like, that community like, experienced as a student -- or what was it like when you were there, experiencing it?
SCAD-Atlanta was, and is, a lot different than SCAD-Savannah, so I'm ill-equipped to comment on the latter, as I never had the opportunity to experience it. For one thing, the Atlanta campus is a lot smaller. When I started grad school, there were only two other guys starting with me -- Justin Wagner
, who did the art for that Rascal
book that just came out, and Hunter Wook-Jin Clark
. Hunter did the art for Oni's Return of King Doug
, and is now working on a series called MegaGoGo
, kind of a deconstructionist "Power Rangers in Atlanta" type of thing. Very funny, very engaging. But it was really just us and our professor Shawn Crystal
, who's been doing a lot of runs on various Deadpool
titles for Marvel lately. It was a tight-knit community, and Shawn was invested in seeing all of us take off, trying to help us get publishing opportunities.
The thing that was most astounding to me, education-wise, was how immediately practical all of the instruction was. There was no class-padding, no BS, every bit of it was how to do what we do. I literally learned more in each individual drawing class with Shawn than I did in whole semesters of drawing classes in my undergrad. When I was an undergrad, we learned to draw or paint a model so that we could, well, draw or paint a model while looking at it (sorry for the dehumanizing pronoun, but it seemed the best fit). Shawn taught us how to look at the model in order to better understand the underlying human form, the anatomy, for the express purpose of never
having to look at a model because we know and understand what's there. All the classes were like that. Learning in order to ingrain.
, the colorist and designer for Mark Waid's new digital stuff
(as well as a lot of BOOM!
and the occasional Marvel comic), started teaching there my second year, and did the exact same thing on the digital end. Practical application, all of it.
My first year Shawn taught the hell out of us, and the second year Nolan did the same. We worked on our own projects at the time; I made a bunch of mini-comics, including a 300-pager that took hours to assemble (bad idea), and a big chunk of the first Crogan
book. I think I'd done about a third of it before hearing back from Oni that they wanted to do the Crogan
series, and thought that a pirate story would be the best place to start. I was lucky, there, I guess.
The social part of it was less pronounced for me that it was for others, I'd suppose. For one thing, I was married. I wanted to spend most of my free time with Liz. So I wasn't out late drinking with my classmates, at least not often. I had a lot of work to do, and a home life. Liz got a job at the school, running the admissions office (the office itself, not the folks in it). She took a pay cut from another job to do it, but it knocked off a part of my tuition, her working there, and it came out to being better for us. Most of my socializing was with Shawn, and Hunter and Justin, and Doug Dabbs
, who was an undergrad at the time. He now teaches with us, too. But it was great, being a student. SCAD was really supportive of me, I loved the classes, and I got to be kind of a student ambassador type of guy in a lot of situations. Picking up editors at the airport, taking Art Spiegelman
to dinner, that kind of stuff. Because our grad program was so small, I became close with a lot of the grad students at the Savannah campus, going up there for when they had artists or editors in.
Shawn knew I wanted to teach, too, and so that was worked pretty heavily in to my studies. He taught me how to do all the logistical stuff, gradebooks and assignment sheets and the like, I sat in on meetings, learned how to do syllabus. I've heard from other people in grad school elsewhere that their professors refused them similar instruction, paranoid about the students taking their jobs upon graduation or something. Can you believe that? Lucky for me, Shawn's a good teacher, and has been a great mentor in that arena.
SPURGEON: At what point did teaching become a serious, practical possibility? I know that your dad was a professor, so you might have realistically inclined towards that kind of career choice, but how did you get the specific opportunities that put you in your current job? How much did you pursue what you're doing now?
I know that when a teacher, especially one who teaches the profession in which he or she is engaged, claims to have always wanted to be a teacher, folks are wont to roll their eyes a little and take it with a grain of salt. You can't hack it in the job market, and so you have to teach to survive. And there's a financial truth to that -- my comic income would not support my family, at least not doing the comics that I want to do. I could freelance more, I expect, and work on projects that don't fire me up the way that Crogan
stuff does, but I don't have to, and that's really, really nice. My comic income never amounts to much more than half of what I make teaching, at least not yet. But I don't have to force it to. I do what I can to make my comics profitable, but I don't have to do comics for others, which lately, in the wake of many friends and colleagues quitting Marvel/DC due to all the ethical concerns, I see as a real blessing.
I really did always want to be a college professor. I loved the atmosphere, loved the relationship my dad's students had with our family, loved the cultural opportunities the school offered. There was this real magic surrounding higher education. The enthusiasm and the casualness and the community and this microcosm world with a library and a theater and a museum and cool uncle/aunt types that would take us to do fun stuff. I always wanted to be a part of that, and to help make college as lively and beneficial for my students as I saw my dad making it for his.
So I didn't go to grad school right off, because I didn't know what I wanted to do, what I wanted to teach. Near my senior year of college I went through the discernment process to become an Episcopal priest, and was planning on going to Sewanee
, but ended up deciding that I was ill-suited to the role. Then I looked into the Army. Me and Liz met with a recruiter a number of times, but I ended up balking when I found out I wouldn't be deployed overseas but would likely end up making maps in Idaho or something, because of my graphic design degree. If I was going to join it would be for the adventure side of things. I'm glad I didn't; I can't imagine putting Liz through such worry and loneliness if I had any other options, which I did. Again, me being a kid. In both of these cases, though, I planned to teach. To teach history or something at a divinity school, or the same at a military academy.
It was never a financial motive. The idea of having a "real job" as a support system never really occurred to me until after I had it, and realized how lucky I was to be in the position where I did. I'd always been able to find work in some capacity or another, always did what seemed interesting. I'm a quick study and used to be pretty versatile in my skill sets (though this versatility has atrophied with disuse), so the idea of providing was never a real catalyst. Again, I'm reminded at how naïve I used to be. Keep in mind that this was a couple of years before the economy collapsed. I doubt my affability would net me a job these days.
Knowing that I wanted to teach -- and I was up front about that in my application to grad school -- I spent my two years preparing myself. Publishing as much as possible, yeah, but teaching SCAD summer courses to high school kids, doing workshops, running tutorial sessions... basically, building up my teaching experience. I'd taught sixth grade social studies before going to grad school, and had been a sub, but I wanted as much art-specific experience as possible. I became really involved in the school, being a grad student representative on some of the councils and organizations. I helped run all of our events. Shawn really put me in a position where I could showcase what I could bring to the school. And I filled a niche that wasn't there; I was part of this whole graphic novel thing, writing and drawing.
My teaching at SCAD wasn't originally my plan. I figured I'd go and teach at a state school like where I'd done my undergrad, start a comics program in the art department. But seeing other programs, seeing other schools, it became clear to me that SCAD-Atlanta was, by my personal criteria, the best program, hands-down. The students were amazing. I hear from folks teaching elsewhere that teaching is worthwhile for them because every couple of years they have that one student with the drive and the talent that makes their efforts worthwhile. Nearly all of my students fall into that category. And I knew the quality of the students before I was teaching here.
Nobody comes to our program by accident. SCAD's Savannah campus is the one people see when they look on the Internet or read something, or see an advertisement. The kids who come here, they come because they did research, they read interviews with artists or talked to an alum at a convention or looked at the faculty publications or whatever. You don't really get the "college" experience here the way you do in Savannah -- the social life here is really all built around working 24 hours a day in the Sequential Arts room. There's no campus to walk around. There's nowhere to sit outside, no cheap food in easy walking distance. The kids who come here, they come because they know about the program, they know what's being offered. They want to be the best, and they're willing to forego a lot of comforts and conveniences to do that. They're the kids in the kung fu movie that stand outside the temple getting rained on, and those are the students who I wanted to have, who I wanted to teach. So I was really lucky that Shawn and our boss Pat Quinn
championed me, helped me get the position.
SPURGEON: With your family background, and your experience as a student, and now as a teacher, you might be the best qualified person to answer a question that's come up a few time in conversation. How would you describe the value of a more formal pursuit of comics? Because with the industry sometimes lacking a lot of opportunities, and with comics long-standing tradition of self-training, I think there's a lot of suspicion there.
That suspicion is fair, and in some cases warranted. Art schools in general have a reputation for buzzardly recruitment practices, targeting listless kids with no drive or direction, but who sometimes draw because it's fun. Their parents desperately want them to go to college in the hopes that they'll apply themselves, and so off they go to art school, racking up crazy debt and not really learning anything, and often not graduating, because they're not going to suddenly grow grit. A lot of the for-profit schools have been doing this lately, and it's in the news a lot. It's low and shady. To my knowledge, none of the really shady schools actually offer a comics major, so at least there's that.
There are four schools that put out a lot of people that I see working, and doing good stuff: us at SCAD-Atlanta, SCAD-Savannah, the School of Visual Arts
, and the Center for Cartoon Studies. The Kubert School
may still be doing great work, but I don't generally run in those circles, so I don't know much about it one way or the other, but I know that in the past they've had a lot of incredible graduates. Minneapolis College of Art and Design has a comics program, but I've never, to my knowledge, met a cartoonist who graduated from it. And Tom Hart just started that program in Gainesville
, which I assume has some sort of affiliation with Barks scholar Don Ault and the English department at UF
, though I'm not sure of that. I don't know what its accreditation situation is. So I'm eager to keep my eye on it, and see how it develops. I want there to be a lot of reputable comics programs, at every level and at every degree of quality. Some folks can't afford to do an undergrad at a private college; I know I couldn't. But I'd have loved to have studied it at a state school. I want us to be considered the top comics program in the country, and I want to earn that reputation. But I want people to have options, to be able to go to wherever and get a decent education in the medium that I love.
You mentioned a long-standing tradition of self-training, and I don't think that's exactly true. I think that's a recent development, something that's come about in the last 30, maybe 40 years. Formal comics programs didn't used to exist, but they didn't need to. Some folks went to art school, but even those that didn't, if you worked on a comic, you worked in a bullpen, under the eye and tutelage of your peers and betters. Even after the bullpens died away, you lived in New York, you lived in Ohio, you lived where your editor lived, at least until your strip had found its feet and you more or less had a grasp of what you were doing. You had regular feedback and regular critique; you had schooling, whether you got a diploma or not. There weren't formal programs, but there was a work apprenticeship education system in place that is pretty much gone now. You don't have [Will] Eisner
or [Harvey] Kurtzman
circling problems on your pages.
It's harder to learn on the job now, too, because nothing is disposable. You can't muddle through your first hundred, two hundred pages anymore, they'll be collected in a trade. The Internet will savage you. All that stuff. I personally love that everything is permanent now, everything from someone's body of work becomes instantly and permanently available, or at least is moving in that direction. But it does make starting blind a near impossibility. School gives you the chance to work out those kinks and come out swinging.
You're never going to make enough doing comics to financially justify what you'd spend in tuition on art school. Not here, not SVA, CCS, wherever. You're just not. Unless you're one of those ten or 20 guys who just rakes it in, you're going to earn a modest to comfortable living if you work hard and take advantage of opportunities when the groundwork you've done helps those opportunities to present themselves. You spend as much going to an art school as you would getting an MBA
somewhere swanky, but while those business majors may pull down six figures early on in their careers, odds are you're going to sit somewhere in the middle of five for your whole life, and that's if you're fairly successful. So the investment that you put into tuition, financially, is totally disproportionate to what you can ever expect to make.
And that presses on my mind. It presses on Shawn's mind. Neither of us could live with ourselves if let some student get in debt for life to learn a hobby, or have a fun four years, or whatever. The notion makes me sick to my stomach. The income that I mentioned may not be flashy, but it's income from something that you love, which I reckon to be worth more than a larger amount for something you don't.
I sometimes get asked what I'd do if I didn't do comics, and I have no answer. I'd be a dissatisfied novelist. I'd be a dissatisfied animator. I want to do comics -- it's all I want to do. I love doing it. It's hands down the medium for which I'm best suited. Shawn feels the same way, so does Doug, so does Nolan
. So does June
. And so do most of our students. I genuinely believe that you should only work in the arts if you have no other choice, if not doing so would make you perpetually miserable. If your passion drives you to where you have
to do it, then that same passion will see you through the frustration that is bound to arise. Our program is designed for those kids, the kids that can't imagine being happy doing anything else. It's designed to help them get their work as good as it can be, but also to understand the realities of the industry from the get-go.
There are few publishing opportunities, you're right. We do all we can to steer what opportunities exist to our students. Every one of our faculty members publishes comics regularly -- I think that every one of us has a book out this month, actually. [Chris] Staros
probably has a handful of them. This means we're in a position to know what's happening on the publishing end of things, because we're all in the thick of it, in different arenas. We're in a position to give our students information that will help them, show their work to our editors and peers, and suggest them when projects arise. This happens a lot. Axel [Alonso]
, who does workshops with Shawn for the students, had three of our seniors do Marvel stories that came out right around when they graduated. James at Oni regularly grabs our kids. Oni doesn't table at SPX
anymore, because that show, for them, was exclusively a talent search. Now they just look to us as a talent farm. We only bring in editors who we know and trust, and who are in a position to give the kids work. Bringing editors or publishers in doesn't do anyone a lick of good unless their role allows them to hire the students, or offer a book deal, so knowing the editors personally is important, to ensure that.
I think the average is like five years, or somewhere thereabouts, from when a comic artist first starts publishing to when he or she can make a living at it. If we can get that regular publication happening by, say, a student's junior year, then we're in a position to help them with their professional work, and it means they have less time in the real world in which they're having to figure out how to make ends meet.
And of course we want them to be good, to master the principles of their craft. I take that as a given. We work hard to make sure that our classes all work together to build the students' skill levels. Because comics require a dozen different skills, they're honing those skills all the time. You have to write in an inking class. You have to color in a storytelling class. You have to letter in a drawing class. You're doing everything from the first course, and refining it, so that by the time you graduate, you're hopefully both knocking it out of the park and have some jobs lined up. And all of us have different priorities, artistically. So I'll tear into students for poor balloon placement, for tangents, for story issues; Shawn will blister them for page layout, for composition, Doug will hit them with any anatomy or mark making issues... after a page goes through the gauntlet of professors, the students know everything that needs to be worked on. And, because we have different priorities, the students eventually learn to develop their own set. They learn when to ignore me, and when to ignore Shawn, when to ignore Nolan [Spurgeon laughs]... and usually, by the time they get to this point, where they can defend their decisions, defend their priorities, they're amazing.
There are a ton of great self-taught cartoonists. But I think about how much more expansive their bodies of work might be, how much stronger their early work might be, if they didn't have to reinvent the wheel while figuring things out, if there was someone there to help them along their way, to turn to with their questions. I think of how much happier they might be if there was someone on hand to point out a bad contract, or guide them towards a publisher better suited to their work, or personality. Nobody has
to go to school to do comics -- you can certainly do them without having done so, as history has proven time and again -- but I'm glad the option is there, and I'm glad it was there for me.
SPURGEON: Given the nature of the Crogans Adventures series, I think I should also ask you specifically about history and historical fiction. Do you have a background with either? Are there historians or historically-influenced fiction writers to whom you look as examples for what you're doing now.
I took what history classes I could when I was an undergraduate, and loved them, but I don't really have what you would call a background, save as an enthusiast. And I don't have any particular historians to whom I gravitate, but that's not to say that there aren't specific works, or bodies of work, which I'd count among my favorites. It's just that I generally exhaust one author at a time, because of the nature of their directed scholarship.
My passion for learning about history generally comes in waves, very specific waves. I will read some book, or see some movie, or see a photograph, and that will be it. My interest shifts entirely to a new time period, and I immerse myself in it for months, reading all the nonfiction (and fiction set during it) that I can, watching films set in or peripherally related to the period, visit museums, go on trips (when domestic, and logistically possible)... just throw myself into it wholly. So when I was researching the French Foreign Legion
, for example, I read most of Douglas Porch
's books on the French in North Africa. But I'm unlikely to read more Porch, because I feel like I've absorbed that period enough that I could comfortably work in it again should I have a desire to do so.
I enjoy historical fiction, but like any other series genre it can be formulaic, and that can fluster me. I went a few books into Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series
earlier this year, but it really made me want to do a sea book again, and for the first time ever James [Lucas Jones] has put forth an editorial mandate against my choice of subject matter for a book. He argues that it's too soon to "return to the pirate trough," and he's probably right. I've learned that editors pretty much always are. So no O'Brian for me, for a while.
The author who has most influenced my approach to doing period adventures is George MacDonald Fraser
, an author, historian, film critic, essayist, and screenwriter, who passed away in 2008. He wrote a series called The Flashman Papers
, which showed me how swashbuckling could be comfortable shoehorned into even the stiffest periods. Fraser wrote an apologist critique of historical films -- most everything of note that had come out by the early '80s, I think -- that serves as my moral compass when deciding how to fairly approach a time period, and how to balance the requirement of presenting an audience with a riveting good yarn while also adhering to the spirit of the time in question, and the participants of its events. I've probably reread it more than any non-comic, usually twice a year. I find it endlessly helpful and unendingly fascinating. Oh, it's called The Hollywood History of the World
SPURGEON: One thing that's been a blast for me in preparing for this interview is reading your stuff seriously for the first time, and seeing the background material and getting a sense of the scope of what you're doing. I'm going to hector you with a few process questions, so I hope you'll forgive me their deliberate nature. First: where was the basic impetus for doing the series, and what was that early development period like? Was there a chance it could have taken a different form at any point?
I'd found myself drawing a handful of archetypical historical genre characters -- a flying ace, a legionnaire. I can't remember what prompted me to relate them all, but it did happen in one day. I had only the loosest notion of history, what happened when. Moreso than some, I'd guess, but I'd done no serious research. But I somehow figured on making them all related, making a family tree. Though the catalyst (I sometimes say that it was a result of poor and generic character design, that they all looked the same and that this is what prompted it, but I think that I invented that notion for story's sake) remains a missing memory for me, its immediate execution was deliberately calculated.
I'd been a Sherlock Holmes
fan, and the notion of being trapped into working on one particular project the way [Arthur] Conan Doyle
had been was, I guess, flitting around my mind. As soon as I started on the family tree (which involved me with a calculator and no reference materials, because I apparently wanted
to make things much harder on myself by putting the ninja and the miner far later in history than I ought've for convenience sake, and others far earlier), I recognized that the format would permit me to circumvent that trapped-by-your-own-creation problem that seems to plague so many writers and cartoonists. That I could jump from noir mystery to western to swashbuckler. No restrictions, catering to my tendency to love one period, one genre, and then shift my focus entirely to another. So the heart of the series, the family tree, came together in one afternoon, with me figuring out what time periods had an immediate visual iconography and seemed like they might be exciting to handle.
I did the family tree sometime in 2005, I think, probably the latter half of the year. The idea that it might be a series of graphic novels was one of many potential options for it. I also thought it might be a good series of illustrated kid's books, or an animated series. I drew this a few months before finally lighting on comics, and still wasn't sure of which direction my storytelling inclinations might take.
The form that the series has taken, though, was and is pretty wrapped up in that family tree. While the individual stories might veer one way or another as I do the research, the series itself kind of locked itself in from day one.
SPURGEON: This is pretty solidly all-ages material, or at least that's how I'd describe it. Was there anything specific to your wanting to do material that a wide range of readers could consume, particularly young readers?
All-ages can be kind of a misnomer, because often when something is billed as all-ages it's really intended for kids. I think that's why so many readers shy away from it as a category. You have your successes: Usagi Yojimbo
, of course, which I still think is one of the finest comics ever made, and Bone
, and a handful of others. The Langridge/Samnee Thor the Mighty Avenger
worked on this level, though the books didn't move. On the whole it seems to be a tough sell. But it's what I wanted to do. But all-ages stuff isn't written for kids. The best all-ages stuff is clearly written for an adult audience, at least in my view.
Toy Story 3
and Porco Rosso
, for example, are clearly films directed at middle-aged folks. At least, that's what I take from them. They deal with the issues that naturally arise from that stage of life. Princess Bride
is for adults. True Grit
is for adults (though the book is my go-to gift for any middle school girls, relatives or daughters of colleagues, for whom I need to give one. It's basically Anne of Green Gables
with guns, and a fine YA book in its own right). Harry Potter
, The Once and Future King
, King Solomon's Mines
. All the best kids books, I think, are written for adults. Me and every kid that I was friends with devoured Jurassic Park
multiple times when we were in, what, sixth grade? Most kid stuff panders, or tries to appeal to what kids want. Kids, generally speaking, want what adults want. Too often, though, it's inappropriate for them.
There are a lot of great works that have come out of the last couple of decades in comics, especially works geared to and specifically for an adult audience. It's wonderful that this is an option in a way that it never used to be. But one of the casualties of this development is that, because the themes involved are heavier, or more adult, unnecessary adult material is sometimes included that suddenly makes it unavailable to a good 50 percent of potential readers, kids and teenagers. Take It's a Good Life, if You Don't Weaken
. There's that sequence where the fictitious Seth
stands up after his tryst with the girl from the library, and you've got a full page of wiener panels. It doesn't move the story, or change anything, and were the shots to be framed in such as a way as to obscure the anatomy you'd suddenly have a book that could be read in high school English classes. The book has that light lit feel to it that would make it perfect for a certain type of teen.
There's this notion, I think, that to do anything with the consideration of audience, and universality, that this is hack thought, that it's commercial, that it should be shunned or avoided. I think that's a flawed school of thought. I understand its impetus, the post-comics code freedom, but there's a difference between doing adult work and making work suitable only for adults. There are some books that are clearly meant for adults, and to purge them of those adult elements would render the book impotent. Chris Wright's Black Lung
, for example. Heck, even Jason
(probably my favorite cartoonist) includes adult elements in a good chunk of his comics -- sometimes just one panel that shifts a book from being heady but all-ages to adult-only -- but in those cases, it is narratively essential. The story's tone and mood and message would vary from the original intent. But those are often the exceptions. A lot of comics include this stuff just because they can, not because they should.
I'm a thesis advisor for an incredibly talented student up at CCS, Mia Onorato
. She's doing a book called Rockall
, and it's just as engaging as it can be. We were going over her pencils, and there's a flashback section where one of the characters remembers being forced into having sex by her husband. Just an image, not a whole scene, really, but while being tastefully handled it was still a very graphic and visceral image, one wide shot of him atop her, a sexual encounter deliberately stripped of any erotic undertones, its animalism evident and shocking and upsetting in exactly the way that Mia intended. But everything else in the book, despite the subtly handled underlying theme of lust, is appropriate for any readers, or at least teen readers. We talked about the possibility of her showing the same scene and using more symbolic and less graphic images, but ones equally disturbing: a rough hand firmly grasping a thin wrist, an eye choked with tears, a man's salivating, smelly mouth, two feet intertwined, one pinning the other, that sort of thing. It would give the same, or a similar, effect, while allowing it to be read by a wider audience. She may decide to keep the original image -- it is powerful -- but she may go in a more inclusive direction. But it needs to be a decision, an active decision. Mia had never really considered audience, and most people don't. We're conditioned to not do so. And my insistence that it be considered is, I know, viewed by some as cheap or vulgar or opportunistic. But I'm not insisting that anyone change anything for the sake of a wider audience. If the story necessitates adult imagery, then there's no way you should change it. If it doesn't, it's worth considering. Every artistic choice should be conscious and informed, and this one is no exception.
Comics don't have the leeway of depiction that prose has. An image immediately grabs an eye, an expletive alone in a word balloon garners attention. Sometimes these are necessary, but when they're not, it's a shame. I'm not talking about sales. That's the last thing from my mind (and sales, I think, reflect that). But I am talking about readers. You pour your heart and soul and energy into something for years in the hopes that people will read it, that it will entertain or affect or teach them. Maybe just that it will get them into comics. Who knows? Kids are so much more susceptible to being informed by what they read, and I like having them as readers.
So I write for adults, and make sure that there is nothing that I consider inappropriate for kids. I may be overly liberal with my permissiveness, especially regarding violence and innuendo, but I think that a mix of tasteful shot choices and a deliberate attempt to deglamorize the violence balances its frequency. I got a fan letter from a six, maybe seven year old once that said "my favorite part was when the mean captain got his head cut off." The captain in question, near the beginning of Vengeance
, is killed off-panel, you never see anything, nor is it explicitly described. The kids get it, and I can have that heavy and realistic depiction of violence without ever worrying about it being banned from libraries or whatever. I can feel comfortable giving it to a kid, and hopefully getting them excited about history, or about comics. I shoehorn my own moral sentiments into the books, too, so if those rub off, I'm not adverse to that effect either.
If you write for kids and try to make it enjoyable for adults, you get Shrek 2
. Far better, I think, to go the opposite route. Kids are smart. They'll get it, and even if they're too young to get everything, they'll like the swordfights.
SPURGEON: Another broad question about the general conceptualization of the series. I was struck when reading the latest by the strong young female character, in that the series is very much -- and not in an exclusionary way, but more for its general direction -- a boys series. You even mention that it's been difficult for you to find places for strong female characters in there. Can you unpack that a bit? Because certainly you could have three or four female Crogans in there, even ones doing things appropriate to whatever period of history.
When I originally came up with the family tree, I was enthralled by the idea of doing a boys' own adventure series, the type that I read a lot as a kid but which had ceased being published long before I was born, at least in the volume and frequency that it had been in its heyday. There was very little good gender-specific kid adventure lit when I was growing up, and I wanted to fill what I considered at that time to be a void.
I think that "void" came to exist because boys read less than girls. It's a financial liability to exclude the latter, as the former won't carry a print run. This in itself can be viewed sometimes as a circular problem. Boys don't read, so books aren't made for boys, which means boys won't read. I think it's on this platform that many of the folks who champion the Crogan
books for schools and libraries operate.
And I liked the idea of doing stories in the spirit of things like Treasure Island
and King Solomon's Mines
, which to mid-twenties me served as proof that one didn't necessarily need female characters to create a good story, that the forced inclusion of a love interest (which, at the time, is what I considered the natural role for a prominent female character in a male-protagonist adventure story) was pandering.
The problem with this logic was twofold. First, it's not really pandering if it doesn't ever work for the intended purpose, is it? I mean, there are sometimes romantic subplots to action movies that exist not to move the story forward but to "give the ladies something," a calculation that I don't think has ever worked to curry female favor in the entire history of cinema. So that's out -- doesn't mean that Bruckheimer and his bunch don't still shoehorn a picnic scene into each summer blockbuster, but as a general rule I think we all know that this approach is bunk.
The second problem was the assumption that girl characters need to be romantic figures. Sometimes they will be; in the case of Loyalty
, the character who you mentioned is. But that this is any sort of requirement, that a female character can't be wholeheartedly involved on the adventure side of things, that was me just being an idiot in my assumptions.
I think this stems from my upbringing. Most of the girls I knew growing up were very traditionally girly, at least in their reading tastes. Girls read stuff with little to no action, nearly across the board with most every girl with whom I hung out. Rurality rarely allows for deviation from social tradition. Our racial and gender lines were pretty fixed and pretty firm, and though I deplored the former I never really considered the latter, not until I moved to a city.
Before Liz and I ever had Penny, my daughter, I was terrified of having a girl. I knew I could handle a son, but a girl? I didn't know how to get invested in a tea party (though I now often and enthusiastically find myself doing so). I knew how to teach a kid to sword fight or spin a cap gun or climb a tree. I was worried that I'd be a boring dad, a dad who didn't know to or couldn't muster the attention for "girl" activities. Which is, of course, foolishness. You love your kid, you become enthused about what they're enthused about, you do what makes them happy and are grateful for every such opportunity. But still, I was scared of the notion.
And then I spent a lot of time with two little girls. Zoe, Shawn's daughter, and Zadie, James' daughter. And both were amazing. I could play for long periods of time with either, and never felt like an odd man out. And more importantly, they showed me that my expectations of what girls liked, what girls wanted, were way off. Sure, Zoe likes tea parties, but she has them with a giant spider (much like Penny's dollhouse filled with dinosaurs). The girls liked swordfighting no less than any boy their age. They liked fun books and fun movies... they liked stories where conflict was at the root (physical obstacles, not just emotional ones), something I'd grown up thinking was anathemic to girls. I never really thought of myself as having outdated gender ideas, but man, did I ever.
I did a signing, and maybe a talk, I can't remember, at the Texas Library Association's conference, and they bussed in a lot of middle schoolers. I did a lot of drawings for them, and they were picking characters from the family tree and asking me to draw them. And the girls were asking if there were any girl characters that I could draw. And I felt downright rotten. I had designed a few, for future books, and drew those for the kids, but that they flipped through the books and had to ask, that made me feel awful. Sick to my stomach. I get a visceral, physical reaction whenever I do something that I know to be wrong, or when I find out that I've done something that has caused someone emotional hurt. It's a good thing for me, my conscience is in my belly and so I can't ignore it (sometimes it's bad, in that the two are so heavily related that a stomach bug can make me feel inexplicably guilty).
This was one of those times when I realized that I'd done something wrong. Girls read comics, too. Heck, I knew that from teaching. Well over half of our department has always been female. In my desire to make something that boys would like, I was actively excluding female readers, who had no characters of their own gender with whom to identify.
I only found Sleeping Beauty
palatable because there was a prince in it, fighting a dragon. Yeah, it's a movie for girls, but there's a boy in it, and that boy made me like that movie. And yet here I was, actively keeping girl readers from having a similar experience in reading my stories. So I decided then and there that every book I do from now on, if it is at all historically plausible, they're going to have a female character, someone fun and interesting that can hold her own just as much as the Crogan protagonist. It has nothing to do with marketing. It has nothing to do with being PC. It has everything to do with never having to see the expression of a little girl flipping through my books and feeling like they're not meant for her. They're meant for anyone who likes to read. It was foolish as sin of me to not account for that in the first place, and it's something that I'm sorry for. I'm glad I figured on this notion three books in instead of thirteen. I'd been asked about it, and in one case critically savaged, but it wasn't until I saw that first kid at the TLA convention
looking at me like Oliver wanting seconds that I stopped trying to justify the all-male cast. Those justifications were logistically sound, but there were, and are, ways around them. To introduce, say, a lady pilot into the RFC
would cause difficulty (in WWI at least), because had such a character existed then the role of female flyers in WWII would have been notably different. But if I do a little research I might find that some tried. Some did try in France, and Russia. My point is that if I'm a halfway decent writer, I'll find a way. I'm sure I'll end up failing at this someday, with some book, but it won't be for lack of trying.
So far as the family tree goes, I've no plans to change it. I've worked too much of the series planning around it, and I believe that it can serve to showcase exciting girl characters. The story will still ostensibly follow the exploits of the Crogans. But it's also quite possible that the Crogan in a particular story may play more of a Watsonian role to a more active female character. I played with that a little in an upcoming Crogan Adventures
I'd like to note that I've since realized that it's not the exclusion of girls from the boys' own type of stories that made them riveting for me as a kid. It was the unabashed thrusting of the characters, adults and children, into life-threatening situations. Jim Hawkins might die at any point, so might Sir Henry Curtis
. I never really worried much for the safety of the Boxcar Children
SPURGEON: How important was it for you to have this very specific conception of certain things going into the project entire? Like I'm fascinated that you've established all of these Crogans and published them rather than adding to the family tree as you go along. At the same time, I have a sense that stuff changes as you're specifically getting into individual books, both due to research and your own evolving tastes. What works for you about the balance you're maintaining between spelling certain things out and keeping others in reserve?
It's tricky. The family tree, and what information about it I've let slip in the comics, is set in stone. This can be a good thing, in that it gives me fixed parameters in which to work, and that speeds up the creative process by giving me fixed problems to solve. It can also be difficult, in that sometimes the research lends me to wish for changes to that tree. I lucked out with March
; I'd started doing research on the Legion before Vengeance
went to press, and realized that the original date under Peter's picture (1922) was too late if I wanted to deal with the "classic" Legion, because the Legion changed considerably so far as uniforms and accoutrements go during and after WWI. So I dropped it a decade back before Vengeance
(and therefore the tree) hit shelves. Like I said, lucky. Anything else like that, though, I'll just have to make do, and make alterations accordingly. Narratively justify what exists in the tree, even if it's a headache to do so.
While researching on one period, I'll often find elements I can use in others. I've made a sort of character biography sheet, with what each person did during specific years. Any time I see an event that I think might be fun to do a story about, or something like that, I'll find the character for whom the schedule best fits, and work it in. And that helps in the long-term planning. Sometimes I know things about who the characters end up with, marriage-wise, simply because of where they need to be at a specific time. The diamond miner, for example, will at some point marry a Boer, because I need him to fight on that side in the second Boer war, a remarkable military story rarely, if ever, touched on in narrative. To my knowledge there is only one studio film (Breaker Morant
) that deals with it, and then only peripherally. Knowing his backstory -- a get-rich-quicker who hops from country to country, participating in most of the mineral strikes that occurred during his adulthood -- makes the idea that he'd go against the country of his birth (though actually, I think he might have been born in India) feasible. But I want him to marry a another character a different character that I've already written, first. So she'll have to die at some point so that he, widowed, can marry a Boer. The two kids from him will thus have two different mothers, and that will affect their relationships with each other. That's the kind of planning. Loose biographies. The sort you might piece together while compiling a genealogical record, only I get to make them do whatever seems the most interesting. And it's not just the Crogans whose biographical details I flush out. There are side characters, too, that I plan on having pop up multiple times. Captain Roitelet looks like he crosses paths with six or seven different Crogans over the course of a very long life, and Bailey and Gerald, Peter's friends from the Legion, are near that number.
Some things I like to keep under my hat -- especially romantic pairings, some of which I have figured out. Also, I don't consider myself beholden to setting the books during the years shown on the tree. Those years are accurate, in that they're what that character looked like during that year. Circa, if you will. But the stories themselves may take place sometime before, or sometime after, the tree picture. The two brothers in Loyalty
, for example, were shown as regular infantry in 1776 on the tree published in Vengeance
, but in their book they've become scouts, and it's 1778. I still operate with the idea that they were infantry before they were positioned according to their talents, but don't directly address it, as the story called for something else. I hope that makes sense.
The designs change, but I try to keep as close as I can to the original published depiction. The gunfighter's facial structure has altered a bit, but he still has white hair in his circa 1875 picture, the same as he did in the first one. It makes me mad that I made that decision, because he's only 33 at that time, at least according to my biography sheet. So I have to justify his hair turning white that young when the rest of his family keeps their black into their 40s and possible 50s. But it's my way of keeping the tree as legitimate as possible from its first published appearance.
SPURGEON: Some of the background material you've done you've talked about recurring characters and some of the historical research you've done, things that I think give a series like that a certain amount of depth and a rounded reality that you might not get doing things from whole cloth book after book. Is that a fair assessment of what interests you about those elements of creation? Do you think in those broad terms of the world building and how people might be experiencing these books as parts of a bigger whole? Is there a trap in that at all for you as a creator?
There is a trap aspect to it, in that I think it's easy for a creator to become mired in his or her own continuity. I think the goal of any good series -- something that we've fallen very short of in the post reprint/trade and TV-on-dvd era -- is to make sure that each and every installment can serve as a jumping on point for new readers. TV used to be really good about this, and sometimes it still is. Serialized franchise comics, on the whole, are the saddest example of how woefully deficient we as contemporary storytellers are in this aspect.
There are folks who still keep this at the forefront of their minds. I think that Stan Sakai
is the best of them. You can pick up any trade of Usagi
, any one of the near 30 books that he's put out, and start with it, and miss nothing. He reintroduces characters, terms, setting, everything. From start to finish, an entirely accessible read. And he keeps it engaging to his long-time readers, too. Gen the rhino
may be reintroduced as a bounty hunter in each volume, but it's always in a different way, a different context. It's fresh to existing readers, and provides all necessary exposition to new ones. Stan is a master at a lot of things, but this perfect balance of accessibility and continuity is perhaps what I most admire about his work (I say his "work" rather than "him," because his personal characteristics outshine even his incredible comics. He's such a swell guy).
I want my books to have that same accessibility, to be readable in whatever order the audience wants to take them. It's why the books have no numbers on the spines, no volume order. We got a lot of resistance from Borders with this, that a series without a clear and marked chronology don't sell as well. And they're probably right (they have to have been right about something
). But if someone wants to read about the Foreign Legion, I don't want him or her to have to dutifully slog through a pirate story first. I want those readers to pick up the Foreign Legion book. If they like it, they can always go back. If some kid finds volume six in a library, he or she should be able to take it on its own merits.
On the other side of the fence, I want the existing audience to feel the satisfaction of encountering familiar characters, of building up a store of knowledge about this "world" and how it operates, who operates in it. I think this will be more apparent as the series progresses, as the books plod on. In each book I've been careful to plant seeds for characters that will return later, either younger or older. In the fourth book, which I'm working on right now, that aspect of returning characters starts to bear fruit. So I want to have that continuity, that world-building, but never at the expense of accessibility. I look at it instead as a bonus to those who've been around.
SPURGEON: As you're a few books in, are you frustrated at all by wanting to get to other works? I know you've done some short stories and the like, but you've barely filled in your canvas and comics can be tough -- I think this latest is a calendar year late, even.
No, I'm not frustrated at all. I do other work (usually writing) sometimes, when the opportunity presents itself and finances demand it. There have been times when I've hustled up freelance jobs to make ends meet, but doing so slows me down from working on the Crogan Adventures
's long gestation period), which is where my passion lies. And whatever I feel like doing, as a rule, there is room for it in the Crogan
books. That genre flexibility is built into the model.
Like I said, though, I do some writing. I wrote a little kids' series, a sort of half-prose, half-comics choose your own adventure
type of thing, for Graphic Universe
. The structure was based on one that they already had in place; I just adopted it for a shorter page count and fewer words to account for the younger audience. I had to do a lot of research for that one, too; all of the books were folklore based. It's called Tricky Journeys
, and each book features a different trickster character: rabbit, kitsune, coyote, that sort of thing. Chad Thomas
, and the upcoming GN Winter Warriors
), probably my closest friend aside from my wife, handled art duties for two of them, and the inestimable Shelli Paroline
did one. And I try to write the way I feel that writers should write. No shot calls, no heavy description, just the narratively essential facts. "Panel 2: Monkey jumps off the boat," that sort of thing. The writer should provide the story, the artist is the storyteller
. With incredibly, incredibly
rare exception, that's how I believe the two duties should be handled. If artists can't be trusted to direct, they shouldn't be comic artists, they should be illustrators. Comic art is directing a story, and when we're writing for them we should offer them our confidence in their ability to do their job rather than trying to micromanage the compositions. I teach my kids this in the scripting class. The post-[Alan] Moore
approach to scripting is one of the worst thing to happen to comics, I think, and has resulted in generally lifeless art as artists are chosen for their visual aesthetic and capacity for realism rather than their storytelling ability (the storytelling is done by the writer), but few writers actually understand the visual, so you get slick art on a page that is unreadable. So I try to never call a shot. I describe the narratively essential elements in
a shot, but that's it.
I'm also currently writing a project called Konquerer
, which is, I guess, a kind of experiment, an attempt to do a deconstructionist reboot of an 80s space barbarian action figure franchise that never actually existed. The idea is to take these kind of silly, action-feature based characters (Stilto, Princess Thunderpunch, etc) and make them compelling and interesting in a story about armed revolution in which the rebel force is under constant internal threat from the machinations of its champion. I'm excited about it, and the art is going to be fantastic. The artist is actually a student of mine, Audrey Morris
. This is the first time I've done any work with a student, something I'm generally reluctant to do, but Audrey was perfect for this project. She's done a number of anthology stories, and is working her way through her own graphic novella, which is gorgeous. The publication details for Konqueror
aren't being announced until July, but I'll post updates about it when that happens.
So I have options, when I have time, which I usually don't. But really, Crogan
offers just about all I'd want to do.
SPURGEON: This may be an incredibly dumb question, but do the morals derived from the story in the framing sequence come before or after the stories themselves? Do you ever find yourself with a different story than the story you set out to tell -- because these books very rich narrative-wise.
It's not a dumb question. I expect you ask because the frames feel somewhat at odds with the rest of the book, or at least it does in March
. I've very unhappy with the one in March. It's too wordy, too preachy, too much of me laying out the basic theme of the political situation rather than letting the story make that situation evident. It feels cheap. So I expect that anyone reading the book with a critical eye is going to notice that disconnect, and wonder at its development.
The framing sequence was originally an appeasement to the big bookstore buyers. They wanted a kid character ("Like hell!" I said, "I'm not going to put some kid in the Foreign Legion!" And then I end up putting in two), and they wanted recurring characters, and neither worked for how I envisioned the series. James suggested the framing sequence, and I had earlier thought of the same thing, back in the pre-comics days, when I was considering animation as a possibility and wondering how to tie an animated series together. So I actually already loose design for the dad and the kids, and I told James that this would be perfect. It satisfied the buyers, which was good, and it gave me a way to tie the series together, and it was a way that I liked, even if I was ill prepared to do it.
The sequence in Vengeance
was tacked on. I did it after I did the rest of the book, and struggled to find a real-life, modern connection. Moral relativism was the best solution I could come up with. It ain't great, but it's serviceable. For March
, I think I had an idea of it, but I think I did it afterwards, too. Loyalty
, though, Loyalty
is the first time it felt like it belonged, and I think that's because there's an actual story there. It's not just something-happens-to-the-kid-so-dad-tells-a-story, there's a beginning, the middle is the dad telling the story, and an end, a resolution. It felt more right, and I had worked it out before ever doing the book itself. I started with page one and ended with page one seventy-three, so the framing sequence was a part of it from the get-go.
I feel more comfortable with it now. I had to write six of them for the Crogan Adventures
radio dramas, and those came much more smoothly than the first two books. So I think I've got a handle on it now. I don't want to look for a theme in my own work and then apply it to the frame anymore, the way I did in March
. I imagine the theme that I would choose to address is not the one that most interests the audience. So I'm going to use situational similarities rather than theme or morals in the future. I think it just works better that way.
SPURGEON: Last development question, and I apologize for its broad nature, but I'd love to hear your thinking. Why a pirate story first?
I mentioned those waves of intense interest in specific historical periods? Well, I was going through one of those at the time that I was ready to start on the book, and it was pirates. Simple as that. I'd been really into the Second and Third Crusades and what Western European history lay in their interim, a result of either the director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven
or of The Lion in Winter
, of both, but switched to pirates almost overnight as the result of some nicely budgeted Blackbeard
special that aired on National Geographic. See? I'm that fickle.
I'd loved pirates since I was a kid (who doesn't?), owing mostly to regular Disneyworld visits. My grandfather, a prominent Orlando architect in the 70s, designed Epcot's Mexican Pavilion
, and as a result of that and my grandparents' location we were able to go far more often than we would have otherwise been able to afford. So Pirates of the Caribbean
, the ride, very much colored my sense of play as a kid. So I was enraptured by pirates, and that welcomed emotional captivity was only emboldened by other exposures. My dad ran an opera company when I was young, and was also very involved in both the college and community theaters in central Louisiana, and I attended an inordinate amount of rehearsals and performances. They did Pirates of Penzance
when I was little, and I loved that one. I got to keep a lot of the props afterwards, too. Same when they did Peter Pan
. I should say "we," rather than "they." I was John. I got to fly on these hoisted wires, and it was great. My dad was Captain Hook. We still have the hook somewhere, I think, an immense and heavy weld that featured into a lot of my Halloween costumes afterwards.
One of the first nonfiction history books that I ever picked up as an adult was David Cordingly's Under the Black Flag
, which was a history of pirates, and it hooked me pretty good on nonfiction history. I read it sometime early in college. So I had a little familiarity, a starter familiarity.
So I was immersing myself in pirates while I was in grad school. I would have been doing so regardless of my career choice, but it was nice knowing that there was an output, a reason for it. I started working on the book well before I heard anything from Oni regarding the series' publication. Luckily, when they did get back to me, they said that they wanted me to do the pirate book first. I expect their reasons were the obvious ones. Pirates have a pretty broad appeal, they're very accessible as a genre. Plus it was first on the family tree, chronologically.
SPURGEON: Related to that, how difficult was it to plot and conceive of a big story like that one so early on in your career? How easy does structure come to you, how difficult was it to make decision on how to give over to the execution of action scenes but also advance the plot you have? How much of that books represented a learning curve, and is there anything specific you see in it that may not have happened were you to take it on now?
was all learning, one big example of everything that I was figuring out as I did it. I literally made it up as I went along, almost page by page. The exact opposite of how I work now. I think it holds together, for the most part, but that's due entirely to luck and unconsciously internalized rules of the craft made manifest while I was working. I'm very lucky, very
lucky, that it isn't terrible. It's got a lot of flaws, yeah, but I think I can be proud of it.
The whole thing was very much influenced by gut. That isn't to say I didn't plan. I did. Just not regarding the structure. I made a character lineup with some 20 "extras," for plugging into the background, that I might avoid drawing overly generic faces. I had an outline for the first half of the book. A very
rough outline. It included direction that would madden me later: "Catfoot does something clever so that the Captain will think him worth keeping around." That ended up being probably 20 pages.
The book would be very different were I to do it now. For one, it would have a prominent female character, which would mean an entirely different story. I'm never going to shoehorn one in, but will make sure that the story calls for one. But it would have an outline. Catfoot would have things he desired to accomplish. I sort of figured on the necessity for that one halfway through. For the first half of the book, he's pretty aimless, just swept up in the tide of the events unfolding around him. As I neared the climax, I thought, "Hey, I'd better make him do something of his own volition."
As I said, I think it works, but that's luck. The action sequences happened when I thought the book was getting boring. I'm very conscious of structure now, almost slavish to it.
SPURGEON: I've talked to only a few people that have worked with Oni, as you've done on the series. What was that relationship like for you as a young cartoonist? What was your relationship with your editor like? How much give and take was there for you in terms of how the project was presented and sold?
My relationship with Oni has been as good as I think one can expect to have with a publisher. That sounds backhanded, and it's not meant to be. I like being in control of everything, being in the know of any logistical developments, and the only way you're going to get that is to self-publish, and that's not something I'm interested in doing, at least not in the immediate future. Having contended with logistical problems before (the first run of Vengeance
had a printing error, and it was out of print for the first seven months that March
was on shelves, making it impossible to use the second book's existence to bolster sales of the first) has left in me a state of perpetual terror regarding those logistical details. I should be confident -- the problems that created those issues have all been addressed, and George Rohac, the new managing editor, is a mastermind. Even doing monthlies, Oni hasn't missed a date in quite a while now. But they have two dozen projects to contend with at any given point, and I only have the one. My desire to oversee every aspect of its printing, solicitation, and distribution and being unable to frustrates me a lot, even though they're doing a fine job of it.
My editor, James Lucas Jones, really took a chance on me, early on. He liked the idea of the series, and envisioned in his head the same thing I was envisioning in mine, something grand and foolish and entirely at odds with sensible publishing strategy. Who opts to do a 15-plus volume series with some nobody, some kid? Not anyone with any sense. And James has sense, and so that decision meant going against what was comfortable, I'm sure. He believed in me, and he believed in the project, and that means a lot to me.
James leaves me to do my own thing with the books. He really isn't involved during or after a projects' creation, at least not on my end. I'm sure he's involved on an administrative standpoint, selling the new book to Joe, that sort of thing, but basically I do the whole thing without outside influence. Sometimes that's been frustrating to me -- how much better would this book have been if James had edited the crap out of it the way more that infamously hands-on editors like Staros or Calista [Brill]
might have? -- but it's a reflection of James' trust, and of his intent to see the project remain wholly mine. I think that there's something powerful about that notion, that single-mindedness of single authorship. And I very much prefer it. James knows that whatever problems I encounter, narratively, I'll do best by working through them myself, and be stronger for it the next time around. I'm glad to have the free hand that I do. It's bafflingly free. The Foreign Legion is hardly blockbuster material, and the way I approached it is probably not all that easy to market to the middle school audience, which I think is where the majority of such energies are focused. But I never got so much as a nudge to move in a more commercial direction, and I'm very grateful for that.
This doesn't mean that Oni just takes a non-participant role as an editorial strategy. I've had friends who have had to redo entire books, redo scripts multiple times, that sort of thing. But they've never done that with me, never made me change anything. They copy edit, but usually I end up with no more than half a page of word changes for grammar or consistency's sake. Jill Beaton, who also edits the book, is great about this. A recent note was that I had a female character refer to herself as a "confidant." She noted that the feminine was "confidante," with an "e." That made me totally love Jill, that she'd both catch and know something like that. The German dialogue went through two hands before it got to her, and then she checked that, too.
To be fair, I ruthlessly self-edit. By the time Oni sees anything, I've gone through every facet of it a hundred times, made tons of revisions. I spend a lot of time on each book, on trying to make it perfect. It's not perfect, certainly, but it's as close as I'm going to be able to make it, with or without editorial direction.
Now, I said that James has little impact during, or after. James does have impact before
. He's scarce with his dictates, his directions. I can only think of three. I mentioned his suggestion that I not do another pirate book so soon, and I think it was just that, a suggestion. I imagine if I made a case, showed that I was impassioned, that he'd acquiesce, but believing that to be the case makes me less likely to do so. He trusts me, and trusts my decisions, and likewise I trust him. He says it's too soon, I believe him. I also mentioned the framing sequence; again, a great idea, and one handed down from James.
There's only been one other time that he's given me a mandate, and that was that I thumbnail the pages for the third book before moving to final pages. He professed a logistical reason. I was giving them finished books. It wasn't until the last page was done that Oni had any idea what the page count would be. They didn't have the slightest idea, because I didn't have the slightest idea. I had outlines, but I'd do two pages, from dialogue through finished inks, each day. So Oni couldn't accurately solicit, they couldn't price the print run, they couldn't do anything that knowledge of a fixed page count would've allowed.
I can't just thumbnail, because my panel composition is entirely dependent on my word balloons, their shape and size, and I can't know for certain what that shape or size will be without doing my pencils (I pencil small, around 4x6", and then blow those up to ink). I've tried, and I still do plenty of thumbnails, but every 20 pages or so I realize that my thumbnails won't work because I underestimated how much space the balloons would take. This means that all subsequent pages would change as a result. Long way around, this means that James was inadvertently insisting on pencils for the whole book. And I hated the idea. I liked penciling very loosely, but I could only do that if I was inking right away, otherwise I'd forget what a mark was supposed to be. So I had to do tight (for me, anyway) pencils for the whole books, and I hated
it. I was even more furious because James seemed to like them. I figured that if I was going to be doing pencils, showing stages rather than just plopping the completed book down in the FTP that I should be getting feedback, but the only feedback I was getting was that it was looking good.
The reason I hated it, the worst thing about it was the mental energy it required. I would write the dialogue more or less as I went, page to page. I'd write it scene-by-scene, as I'd come to it, but I'd finalize it as I thumbnailed and penciled. And this meant that I had no mental break. My mind was on, problem-solving, from the moment I got up until the moment I stopped working, and that was exhausting to me. I have pretty pronounced A.D.D.
, and while I've not (since being an adult, anyway) been unable to tailor my work conditions to account for this and in many cases take advantage of it, adhering to one part of the comics-making process rather than dealing with multiple aspects of it per day is anathemic to my nature. It's hard for me to stay focused on one task. Lots of little tasks within a larger framework, that I can do, but doing the same thing for months at a time in the penciling stage was difficult. I had to focus. There was no part where I can turn my brain to autopilot and relax, consume. Usually inking is when I can have a procedural mystery TV show on, or listen to a book on tape. None of that, this time around.
But then, when I was all done, I could go back through and make revisions to the pencils. Keep characters more on model, which is a struggle. Change the odd panel, make things more narratively sound. And then, when I inked, it was incredible. Inking, to me, is like getting to actually play
the piano after you've spent all that time drudging away at the scales, and the fingering, and the theory. It's the fun part, the easy part, the part where you get to show off. It resulted in a better book, and I'm going to do the same thing again. Even more segmented, actually. I'm writing all the dialogue ahead of time, this go around, to limit the frustrations of the penciling stage, and because doing the radio scripts led me to think that my dialogue would be better if I concentrated entirely on it, rather than working it in. Anyway, I think James knew it would result in a better book -- better art, at least, and I'm glad he forced it on me.
So far as how the project has been "presented and sold," I had far more say and direction than any author probably should. I wanted them hardcover, I wanted them black and white, I wanted the figure on a standardized series template cover with a face on the book spine and I gave them a font that I liked and I wanted the endpapers to be the family tree and I wanted it priced at 15 bucks. This was all in my cover letter, with the pitch, I think. Jeez, how much of a prima donna I was! I guess I knew what I wanted it to be, but I should've given input rather than direction. Publishers know what they're doing, designers know what they're doing. Keith Wood
, the designer, would have come up with something amazing if left to his own devices. His Queen and Country
books look incredible, as do most of the other things that he's done for Oni. He basically made what I asked for, and I think he did a fine job of it, but he's a talented guy on his own. If the trade dress ever changes, I'd prefer to take a back seat. Letting other people do their jobs is not my stong suit, but I'm trying to make that my custom.
The 15-dollar thing was important to me, and Oni never balked, even though there wasn't anything like that happening at the time, at least not amongst the standard comic publishers, at least not that I knew. Most GNs that size were 15 or 20 dollars if they were paperback, probably 25 for hardcover. The hardcover decision for Crogans
was meant to convey a permanence to the books, the look of the old childrens' library sets. I think the original design was nearer to what ended up being scrapped due to the design similarity of The Dangerous Book for Boys
, that embossed foil over plastic-y flat color, as that book got extremely popular during Vengeance
's execution. Plus the sides of [Scott] Chantler's annotated Northwest Passage
had been done that way, with that type of cover material, and Oni was getting all sorts of returns from bookstores where the color had scuffed off.
Anyway, my thought on it was that, while comic folks might drop 20 or 30 for a hardcover without blinking an eye, regular people wouldn't. A kid or a grandmother or a teacher or whoever. And that's who I wanted to reach. I wanted to get people into
comics more than I wanted to grab readers from those already reading. My hope is that the latter would find it, but my worry was that, without a low price point, the former would not.
Oni must've contacted a good 20 printers before finding one that could make it happen at cost that would make it giving it a 15-buck price tag feasible. They ended up finding a printer in China. They'd printed mostly in Canada before. In finding the Chinese, they ended up doing a lot of books that way, and then lots of other small press outfits started doing the same. A lot of GNs are printed in China, now. I don't really like that this has become the case, because I love print shops and am loathe to see them lose business to overseas concerns, and because now the time between when a book goes to press and when we get it is quite a few months, rather than a couple of weeks. But it has resulted in the price of GNs dropping pretty significantly across the board. So that's a good thing to have come out of it, being able to afford more books by others, and hopefully more books will be read as a result.
Anyway, Oni has been incredibly permissive with everything that I do. And that's been wonderful. And anytime I want to do something new, they say sure. I write up a bunch of reasons why something should happen, and call James up, broach the subject, and he immediately goes for it without me having to tell him the reasons. It's a pretty great relationship. I just hope to listen to them as much as they listen to me. I try to.
SPURGEON: The thing I find most interesting about Catfoot is that he operates under the influence of two codes -- he has a strict, internal moral code that puts him into conflict with various authority figures, but he also seems inordinately gratified when the external mechanism arrives at the end of the story that puts his pirating into a firmer, more legal context. Did you intend to have him work as such an explicit commentary on the value of moral frameworks? What's appealing to you about a character that seems so confident in some areas yet so completely desirous of approbation in others?
A lot of this is probably very personal. As a kid, I wouldn't break rules nearly as often as I would actively attempt to have rules which I thought poorly reasoned or arbitrary rescinded, or changed, or, failing that, I would adhere to the letter of the law, but not its spirit. I attended three of the four high schools in my hometown, and one of them was an extremely conservative private Christian school, and there was no end of head-butting there between me and the administrators. Part of the school's charter was that there would never be dances, and my friend Brandy and I basically filibustered the school board well into the early hours of the morning before that was eventually changed (had I seen Footloose
, I'm sure I would have swiped some lines for my impassioned speech). So, to rid themselves of us, we were allowed a "social" in which dancing was permitted, and within a year or two that snowballed into a regular prom, which the school still has. There were dress code rules that I felt did not merit obedience, as they didn't have good reasons behind them. We had to wear belts, for example. But the code of conduct didn't say where
we had to wear them. So I sold belts that I'd gotten at the thrift store and cut down to ankle size, and we all wore them under our pants cuff. I had worn a belt 95% of the time before the rule was announced, but I thought it a foolish rule, and so I tried to circumvent it. We had to tuck in shirts unless they had those slits in the side, like Polo shirts have. So we all cut slits in the side of our t-shirts. Then it changed to you could only wear shirts that had pockets. So we sewed pockets to the inside of our t-shirts, near the bottom. That sort of thing. Anyway, my point is that I, personally, don't like breaking rules. I feel like what rules exist should be followed, but that the rules should only exist if logic says that their absence would produce a specific and tangibly negative result. In college I was the type to organize a call-a-thon to disrupt the working conditions of an office whose new policy was at odds with student interests until said policy was reversed, the type to write opinion essays for the paper, that kind of thing. I still feel that way, and any time SCAD does something that I feel is at odds with student interest (as every school is wont to do) I have to bite my lip to keep from yelling at the kids who complain about it but do nothing to force its reversal.
So I imagine that this kind of sums up Catfoot in a nutshell. I never really thought about it, but I guess there's a lot more of me in the character than I thought. I guess there always is. But yeah, I expect that's the way Catfoot feels, even if it's he's not fully cognoscente it. He wants things done a certain way, and isn't afraid to stand up for or fight for those things, but he feels most comfortable doing so from inside an accepted social framework.
I think that this notion of social framework covers the whole book. D'or is a villain not because he's a pirate, but because he opts to actively break the rules of his society's social system, even though that society is in itself an illegal one. His desire to shrug off any sense of order makes him ideologically dangerous, at least to me. And Captain Cane, in his attempt to use his authority to put D'or in harm's way, similarly breaks that social covenant, albeit it with the best interests of his men as its justification. But he passes that moral boundary, the moral boundary that has been established in context to his situation, and that's just as bad as what D'or yearns to do. I guess there's a lot of latent social conservatism in the story's structure. Then again, the book's beginning testifies to a viewpoint that a finite and specified morality (the captain as law) is hardly in the best interest of those whose inclinations or station put themselves at odds with that establishment's determinations of morality, even if it is for sake those interests that the establish is considered to be necessary. I guess that's as far from conservative as you can get. Eh, I hope folks take from it what they will. I think that a good story will allow readers on either side of an ideological divide to find arguments in favor of their viewpoint within the work. The David O. Russell movie Three Kings
does that really well. It's either one of the most effective anti-war movies or one of the best justifications for American interventionalism ever filmed, depending on who you talk to.
Vengeance is set during a fairly transitional period for piracy... how much in general do you seek out kind of historical commentary/correction in terms of the period you're portraying? How much do you want to draw on things "more as they really were,"
per se, and how much is that you just finding compelling story hooks and narrative beats?
I want the narratives to be solid and engaging, of course, but period believability is the foundation upon which a historical story has to be set. If any historical inconsistencies take an informed reader away, cause them to stop or question the factual legitimacy of whatever else I'm giving them, then I fail as a storyteller. This isn't to say I don't miss stuff, and screw stuff up. I do, but it certainly isn't for lack of trying, and it is never cavalier.
I try to familiarize myself as much with the period before I ever start writing as possible. If you try to put together a story and then plug in the historical details afterwards, you're asking for headaches. Things may not jive up, and some point upon which your story was based might prove itself impossible fdue to some factual error. What I do, what works for me, is that total immersion, get to know the period as well as I know, say, my hometown. Then, when I do write, I never have to question anything, never have to look up anything but details. The story becomes so interwoven with the environment as to make it to where I don't have to draw much attention to that environment, to those differences between the reader's era and the character's. It'll just be there, as much a part of the whole as anything else. At least that's my hope.
The story hooks manifest themselves. 100%. I'm excavating them, in a way. The reason I read the books, the reason I do the research (in addition to that immersion) is for those very rare but inevitable moments where I'll stumble across one sentence that will provide me with the meat of the book's plot. One sentence every ten thousand, every one hundred thousand, but it's there. I just have to look for it. There are elements that I'll want in a book -- characters, maybe some visually iconic genre-specific scenes -- but I won't try to force them together until I find that sentence. And when I do, it all comes together. Take the upcoming Western, fresh in my head because I've just finished (more or less) on the research end of it. I found that sentence, and now I can do it. It was a line from a newspaper, from September of 1869:
"The colored citizens of Arkansas are smart. They pre-empt land, and hire Chinese laborers to work it."
And that was my line, this time around. I wanted to deal with homesteaders, because I feel like there's always a good/bad dichotomy drawn to either one camp or the other (cattlemen), and I'm no fan of that sort of thing, and I wanted to have a Chinese character that features into Crogan's Escape
, the next book that'll be coming out, as an older man. I also wanted a reason to introduce Gerald and Bailey as kid characters, and as Gerald is black wanted to find a way to show his family's role in the west in a way that I hadn't seen handled before. Non-military black folks owned land and served as farmers and cowboys, but as a rule they're shown predominantly at a fixed trade -- blacksmithing or working a livery, say. Anyway, this line gave me what I needed. A fixed situation in which the protagonist could find himself, and from there everything else rolls out. I had to read a dozen or so books and a lot of old reference stuff to find it, but it was there, waiting for me.
So I give the basic plot a work through, very slowly, very casually, let it come together over the course of months without too much active working so that it will find itself. Then I take that plot and rigidly apply a structure to it, this thirteen-point order of events that I reasoned out while trying to figure out the best way to explain to writing teachers how the five-act structure, the three-act structure, and the "story mountain," as the kids call it these days, how these still all employ the exact same events in the exact same order, and the pacing is the only divergent factor. My plots generally come fairly close to fitting, so I tweak it to where it fits better.
I think that you ask the question here, related to the pirates, because so much of what we think of concerning pirates comes from fanciful, romanticized fiction, but there's an essence of truth to that, at least near the period that I'm doing. The buccaneers were horrible, the late pirates were horrible, but there was about a five year stretch in between where the crazily romantic figures of popular imagination really held sway, and I picked the period that I did (a decade or so before this golden stretch, as the preceding generation of pirates made the transition from illegality to legal privateering) in order to give Catfoot an opportunity to later transition from that established legal recourse to a sudden lack of it at the war's end, when those spirited public figures came to fruition, and the even swifter turn towards the terrible as a war of escalation turned both sides quite nasty. But even the more cartoony elements have historical precedent. Studying the pirates of the era, it's amazing how many things -- the striped shirts, the parrots, the peglegs, the duels on the beach, that sort of thing -- have reality behind them, things likely considered more cartoon fare than history.
I try to draw attention to historical discrepancies, things I consider to be generally believed, by acknowledging that belief in the text and addressing the correction. In the case of Loyalty
, that would be the misconception that the Hessians were mercenaries, something I was taught in school. It comes up specifically so that I might note its inaccuracy. I think that happens a few times in each book. One character is ill-informed in the same way that a reader might be so that another character can present the facts. This, hopefully, keeps readers possessing this "false" history from being pulled from the story, thinking that I got something wrong. By addressing their concerns, I negate them. Or attempt to.
Vengeance also has this great contrasting physicality between protagonist and antagonist, which is something that comics has traditionally done very well but it's also something that cartoonists sometime ignore. How important was it to you to show how these characters operated in their respective environments as a precursor to setting them at one another?
I think it's very important. The best film villains are depicted this way, I think, shown doing their evil deeds so effectively as to keep us constantly concerned for our hero's safety should the two ever find themselves at odds. Sometimes this is taken to the extreme -- however badass the Josh Brolin character in No Country for Old Men
may be, for example (and he is badass, evidenced by the cool-headed dispatch of the attacking dog, a masterfully handled scene), we instinctively know that he's dead, flat-out dead, if he comes within even a hundred yards of the Javier Bardem's character, who is depicted as almost a force of nature, and this renders any sort of traditional hero/villain face off impossible. But, you know, Westerns tend to do this. Good, Bad and the Ugly
does it. Martial Arts movies, I guess. Justified
does it a lot, and with good effect. So I think that's necessary.
I also think it's important to show that the bad aren't bad. They're bad in context. D'or is a real bastard, sure, but everything he does makes sense. He's frustrated at the code of behavior imposed by Captain Cane. They're outlaws. They're going to be executed if they're caught regardless of whether or not they adhere to some internalized legal system, so why not take all they can, as fast as they can, and get out before they are? He cares about his comrades. He saves the whole crew at one point. I think that's important, to show that there's good reason for those men that side with him to do so. There are very few mustache-twirlers in the real world, I think. But it's important for the reader to not side with the antagonist, or else you're not going to have a satisfying reading experience. His motives can be logical, but his base personality -- the enjoyment he derives from inflicting harm on others, more than his willingness to inflict that harm -- that makes us want to see him fall.
SPURGEON: Was there any desire on your part to do the first volume as a complete, stand-alone work in case the work didn't do well enough for a second or third or fourth volume? Was there any tendency to make it more of a complete unit and representative of the series generally that wasn't a pressure as it became clear you'd be doing more than one?
Not really. The idea of not doing a second volume never really crossed my mind. The Oni contract is for the individual books themselves, publishing rights for the pages that they publish. The series, future stories, whatever, those all belong to me. And if a book goes out of print for two years, the rights revert to me, too. So even if Oni decided it were financially untenable to continue the series -- and I think that unlikely, because, though it's hardly a blockbuster, it has sold consistently (the first book is on it's third printing, I think, and March
its second) -- I could continue the series elsewhere, and would. And I knew that going in. I didn't have to fight for that, either, that's standard boiler for them. They have extremely creator-friendly contracts. No, I wanted the first book to stand-alone because I want all the books to stand alone. I hope I'll feel the same way when I get to the 25th. If I don't, somebody punch me at a con in 2056. You have my permission.
SPURGEON: Is there anything to moving towards the Foreign Legion as a second work? Was there a specific contrast you wanted there, a specific visual with which you wanted to play?
I wanted to pick something far removed from pirates, have a big contrast from the first book to the second. I imagine that the shift from ocean to desert probably seemed like a stark one at the time, despite the overwhelming similarities between the two environments, at least thematically. But contrast was important. The first book would be light, the second heavy. Characters you might not expect to die in the second would, in order to create a precedent for future books. I may not be so cavalier with character lives down the road, but that precedent will hopefully add to the reader's suspense. The time period jumps. One is ancient; one is modern. My original idea was to jump back and forth with a post civil-war book and a pre civil war book each time, in order to never be too close in tone or spirit to the preceding publication. I don't know if that will stick, but the idea of making each book different in tone is very important to me. I'm hopeful that my artistic and storytelling tendencies, the stuff that I don't necessarily actively consider, that those will tie the series together, and in all other aspects the books will be miles apart. The radio shows gave me a chance to play with this idea, too. One's a romance, one's a locked door mystery, one is winking, madcap pulp story. But it was that contrast that I wanted. One man against all in the first, one man among many in the second.
I also wanted to familiarize audiences with the Legion and its existing genre elements, given that many might be unfamiliar, especially those under a certain age. I think I'm of a generation where the Legion exists only as a film subject, an indicator of the types of movies made in the '30s and '40s moreso than a thing unto itself. I saw The Majestic
and Secondhand Lions
in college, and both applied that approach, using the Legion or something like it as a catchall for cinema serials, that arabesque swashbuckling thing. And, while I understood the self-aware referential nature of those bits in those two films, I was surprised that I could not name, nor had I seen, a single film that fit into the mold that those films were referencing. Same for Raiders of the Lost Ark
. I got that it was hearkening to something, I just had no familiarity with the original material. So I started seeking out Legion films and books, attached to the idea of it before I ever had any sense of what it actually was. I wasn't disappointed. Beau Geste
especially captivated my attention.
SPURGEON: That work more than the others seems to set up really bold dichotomies -- the two (
de facto) commanding officers, these two armed forces in conflict, a villain that's more of an existential threat than physical opponent but is very much in the way, and this split between the caretaker/combat part of the Legion's mission. Are you cognizant of setting up these kinds of relationships as you do them, or does the narrative kind of pull you into places?
I guess if there's a unifying theme to the books, at least as I see it, this would be it.
I love to argue. I'll take the devil's advocate stance for just about anything. It would probably be more accurate to say that I like to debate, as I'm rarely emotionally invested. Actually, that's not true. I'm very emotionally invested, I just don't take offense when another's views differ from mine. It's never personal. That's probably why I'm so easily swayed, ideologically. Whatever side makes what I consider to be most logical argument, that's what I'm for. I'm never happy, politically, but then who is? The one thing that does
get me riled is when someone considers his or her own viewpoint to be the right one. Everyone thinks that they're right. We can't all be right. I fervently believe what I believe, but I know that there's a 50/50 chance that I'm wrong about everything. And as easy as it is to paint the other side of a political argument as being either willfully ignorant, immoral, or inhumane, the other side likely has good reasons for its decisions, its ideals. Its proponents are using an internalized moral compass to determine their approach to these issues, same as the folks opposing. That's why I take the devil's advocate stance, I guess. To try and showcase that other view in a way that humanizes it, explains that it is not borne of malice.
I don't know, I suppose it's awfully presumptuous of me, and pompous, to assume that I'm somehow elevated from this. I'm not. But I know that I'm not, and I know that each side's arguments have merit. That desire to play devil's advocate, to be sure that everyone gets a look at both sides, I think that colors the books. March
more than the others, because the whole book centers around it. The characters are viewpoints in miniature. In Loyalty
, I probably underplayed the arguments in favor of independence, partially because I so vehemently disagreed with them. Putting myself in the position of the characters, knowing what they knew, I wouldn't have touched independence with a ten-foot stick. And I probably unfairly painted the resistance to that movement with more color than I would had I been working with a lesser-known period, a lesser-known issue, confidant that the Patriot's arguments have been more or less internalized, at least in the US. So I went against my own code of author ethics in that one, though I did have a reason for it.
I don't think the arguments in favor of independence, at least early in the war and preceding it, have any validity at all, any sway. I think that what came out of it, though, is incredible, the most amazing political and social system that the world has ever seen, but that was luck, man. We were darned lucky we had the founding fathers, otherwise our revolution might've devolved into what the French got, or the Russians. So I'm grateful that it happened, but I'd have fought vehemently for the other side, because all logic points to a collapse of society should America split from Britain. And see? I'd have been wrong. Even with the full exposure to all the related facts of the time, I'd have been on the wrong side of the ideological divide. And there's always that 50 percent likelihood that anyone else will be, too. With Loyalty
, I hope that the reader will lean towards Charles' motives (the Loyalist) and find him or herself coming to the same conclusion. I loathe stories in which the author tries to push a political ideal on his or her audience, and I guess I'm doing that with my books, but as it's never a fixed ideal so much as a "hey, there's a good chance the other side may be right, and both sides consist of people working towards what they think is best," I feel like that's an okay message to push on readers. I'm sure some people will vehemently disagree, and hey, there's a 50 percent chance they might be right, eh? They probably are. Any intended message, hidden or overt, probably mars a story, but I can't help it, it's gonna find its way in there.
I try to be subtle with it. March
is not subtle at all, and I worry that it suffers for it.
SPURGEON: The time we spend in the cave... I was actually sort of surprised by that because of the rich metaphorical territory that's also available in the desert -- why did you spend so much time underground in that book?
It's probably some sort of internalized belly-of-the-whale type of thing. I wasn't consciously using [Joseph] Campbell
to aid in the story's craft -- if you're familiar with Northrop Frye's five modes of literature
, I'm of the opinion that Campbell's asserted framework only works for the mythic and romantic modes, and sometimes more mythically-leaning ironic (like Quixote
, or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
), and my stories hover somewhere between low and high mimetic, making them incompatible with Campbell -- but in retrospect, that seems to be how the scene plays. Maybe the book's pacing, so frantic immediately beforehand, necessitated that rest. So I may have been using it as a chance to slow down, to slowly build back up. If so, it was an unconscious decision.
Originally, I thought March
was going to be a horror story. When I'd first read Beau Geste
, the opening sequence... wow, it is so creepy. It felt like a scene in a Guillermo Del Toro
movie. It quickly shifts away from that, but I thought that the idea of a horror story set in or around a Legion fort would be wonderful. As I did my research, the story moved in a different direction, but that element of some unknown thing picking people off one by one stayed with me. I'd known what the creature would be from the get go, influenced, I'm sure, by that one Balzac
story with the Napoleonic soldier in the symbiotic, semi-erotic relationship in the desert. My dad suggested the idea of the missing man to me (he was already lost, in my story, purely as a means of showcasing desert peril), and for a long time I couldn't decide which of the two were doing the actual killing. The logistical necessity of someone to take word back about the event so that the frame's modern dad would eventually have the story to give to the kids determined the outcome of that decision for me.
The other reason was purely to challenge myself. Line is where I feel most comfortable, and working in form, laying in shadow, has never been my strong suit. Putting the characters in a cave with one small light source would force me to address these shortcomings. Make me overcome them. It's the same reason that Loyalty
is set outside, because I really sucked at drawing trees. I also wanted to play with a scene entirely in the dark. See if I could have multiple characters, and tell an engaging story using only the lettering. Still be clear as to who was talking. I give my students a similar exercise to help them learn lettering, and I thought I'd see if it could have real-world applicability.
Loyalty comes to my mind mostly for the richness of the setting, this kind of virgin, tangled forest. I know that you studied nature for the work, but how much of that follows the need of the story and how much does the story work out of your desire to work with certain visuals? In fact, how much time do you spend working on unique visual approaches generally, either in the work itself or the sketchbook?
It's hard to peg. The story calls for certain visuals, and I build elements of the story around visuals that I want to include. So it goes back and forth. Like I said, Loyalty
's trees originally arose from my surety that I needed to get better at drawing trees, and I rarely get better at anything without a fixed endgame, a specific reason. Oftentimes I'll craft a reason simply because I want to get better at something. I recently wanted to get better at my quick draw (single-action revolver, not drawing pictures quickly), and have come up with a self-justification related to the books to allow me to practice. I do that a lot, and it often enters the projects that I'm working on. I was drinking (and ordering) an inordinate amount of lapsang souchong
tea this last year, and felt that I was spending so much energy on it that it had better affect my work. So it actually becomes a pretty major plot point in the next book. That's probably a very weird way of determining narrative inclusion, but it seems to work, keeps me rooted in all aspects of my life to the projects. My hobbies all relate to the work, because I tailor it to be related. I joke and say that it's for tax reasons, so that I can write everything off, but in truth I can't imagine not doing it.
I can't do anything just for the fun of it. Why do a sport if you aren't going to be the very best at it? Why play music if you're not going to be a musician? I can't shake that mindset. I realized that I had plateaued with martial arts when I was probably 19 or so; I came up against a guy in a tournament and he landed a perfect kick right in the middle of my chest. Perfect technique, just perfect. There was no way I could've blocked it, no way I could've done so perfect a kick myself. It must've knocked me a good ten feet through the air. And that was it; I was done. I wasn't petulant about it. I was clinical. I certainly wasn't going to get in better shape than I was already in; I was barely out of my teens, and I spent a good three hours a day minimum (and sometimes much more) working at it full throttle, between the school and the barn that my parents had allowed me to convert into this crazy Rocky 4
training setup. I lived and breathed it, I'd been doing it for years. The realization that I was never going to be among the best (a result not of any lack of enthusiasm, but of simple physical mechanics) meant that there was nothing more to aspire to. Self-betterment for its own sake is not something I can handle. The books give me an arena into which any skills I wish to acquire, any knowledge I wish to ingest, anything, it has a clear output. I can't stress how hugely important that is to my happiness and well-being.
I don't want to sound cavalier about it, but so far as the visual approach goes, I just draw. I pick the shots that I feel best convey the story, and draw with a balance of my natural stylistic inclinations and a desire to make it look as good as possible. What development there is comes entirely from puzzling out the mechanics of what it is that I'll be drawing. Knowing what it looks like, how it works. I never want to fake things. If I can understand it, I can draw it, and it will be easier to aesthetically integrate any subject into whatever I'm doing. I've found that I have no sway over how I draw. If I try to control the aesthetic, it's a nightmare from beginning to end. So I just draw, and try to make it better each time.
SPURGEON: The Hessian officer is a memorable character... is there any worry at all when you get one of these supporting characters, one with an obvious bit of historical interest and grind to them, that they overwhelm their place in the narrative? Do you ever find yourself tamping down on a character like that one?
Oh, I'm sure they overwhelm the narrative, but I don't mind too much. I like Captain Haddock
, I like Captain Easy
, I like Han Solo
. I don't care a fiddle for Jim Hawkins
, but I'll follow Long John [Silver]
's exploits. Same for Rooster Cogburn
, same for Hipshot Percussion
. Folks say that Shakespeare
early in the story because he was in danger of overwhelming the narrative with his presence, and I think that's bunk. Mercutio dies because the story calls for it.
I think that readers need a morally straightforward protagonist, almost a cipher, in order to identify with the narrative and place themselves in it. But while we need those characters, we like the ones with whom we could never really identify. Heck, we probably wouldn't want to be near them in real life, but we like them as characters. We love them as characters. I think the danger in using them, in letting them really spread their wings, comes when one tries to make these supporting characters into protagonists. Jack Sparrow
is a terrible protagonist, as evidenced by the sequels. My struggle is not to tone down the supporting characters, but to make the actions of the protagonist more deliberate, and keep what thoughts and conflicts he has as internalized as possible, that the audience might bring more of themselves into him.
SPURGEON: Did the visual milieu in which you were working have anything to say in terms of how you presented the motivations and actions of the character in
Loyalty? Because the takeaway a few weeks after my initial read is this virgin forest, yet one marvelously tangled and visually complicated. How much do those kind of setting issues matter to you, given that this is your third very specific, very grand, choice of background?
It's actually the reverse: the physical characteristics of the environment serve to direct the narrative, and what visual metaphors are present tend to affect the thematic aspects of the story. It's in drawing that I notice the narrative connections to the visual, rather than having those narrative connections and attempting to draw in a manner that showcases them. I'm just not a good enough artist to do that, I've tried. It goes to that idea of forcing an aesthetic.
SPURGEON: How important is the supplementary work like the club, the radio shows and the newsletters, to the overall project? That stuff seems very ambitious to me, but also a potential time drain. Who does that material reach, do you think? How right-brained are you in terms of strategizing something like that?
It's very much a time-drain, especially the newsletters. I like doing them, but it's always this burden, 'cause I'm always behind on them. But the club, the newsletter, that's a way of giving the really enthusiastic readers (I hesitate to say "fans," because I can't imagine meriting fans at this point in my career) something extra. I want stuff like that. If I'm enthused about something, some book or author or franchise or band or whatever, I want to have something special, something exclusive, partially for the sake of furthering my knowledge or enjoyment of the thing, and partially for vanity. I have the recording of the band's front man doing covers and original acoustic songs at a bar in Boston. I have an early copy of the script, before studio revisions and the inclusion of a vehicle character for an interested actor. I have a figurine, a print, whatever. The club is my way of offering that type of thing to people who want it. It's not a ton of people -- around a hundred -- but those hundred people are enthusiastic, and I want to offer them something for their enthusiasm, and, oftentimes, their evangelism. These are the people who get other people to read my books, and I'm grateful for that. Plus, it gives me a chance to annotate things before I forget where I gathered the original information, which may prove useful sometime down the road.
The radio scripts were a wonderful experience
, a learning experience, because they gave me a chance to work with six different characters in what was for me a rapid-fire time frame. I got a better sense of the series, what it is and what I want it to be. They're also the best things I've ever written, without a doubt. I feel really good about them. The rigid structural framework required, the challenge of figuring out how to make it all work... only so many actors can fit in a studio at one time, there needs to be a cliffhanger scene end at the end of page nine, that sort of thing... I thrive on that kind of stuff, and it results in better work. So I'm going to be giving myself similar logistical obstacles in future books, restraints to better focus my energies. I found the dialogue was better, too, and so I'll be doing the dialogue independently on future books, rather than doing it alongside the thumbnails. I expect that'll make the penciling stage less frustrating, too.
The radio shows were also something of a dream, too. It's hard for me to envision Crogan
stuff in any medium other than comics, except as radio dramas. That probably sounds silly, but with any visual aspect besides my drawing it stops being Crogans
, at least in my head. I loved Decoder Ring Theatre
before we ever discussed collaborating on this, and was over the moon when it was suggested. And DRT
gets a ridiculous number of legal downloads per episode (discounting torrent and sharing copies, they have some 16,000 each go). If even ten percent of the listeners gave the books a try, as I hope some will, that's half a print run. So it can also be seen as a marketing strategy.
Looking at it from that endgame perspective, too, this will
be a book, eventually. Crogan's Prize and Other Stories
. I put the "Crogan's ____" as one of the episode titles specifically so that it could serve as a book title and match the rest of the series. It will collect the scripts, and it'll be heavily illustrated. Almost as many drawings as you'd get with a GN. James thinks it would be a harder sell than a GN, and he's right, but I think it could be marketed as a "reader's theater" book, which is a thing a lot of middle and high school English classes do, and I'm willing to forgo my advance on it, which would lessen the financial risk that Oni would be taking on it. I want it to be out there and available, though, because it will play into that series continuity. I'd like for it to be the fifth book, after Escape
, but we'll have to wait and see.
SPURGEON: I greatly enjoyed your sketchbook... can you talk a little bit about how you conceived of that project in terms of being a teacher, what you wanted to see and how you went about providing this in that work? Did you have an ideal reader in mind? Have you heard back from anyone?
My ideal reader is always me. I made the sketchbook what I wanted to see in other sketchbooks (not that my art is anywhere near what other folks might be able to muster; I mean in format). I was sick of the 24-page mini-comic sketchbooks that folks had at conventions and were charging 20 bucks for. I buy a lot of those from the European guys through Stuart Ng
and, though I'm glad to have them, it always gets my goat. I wanted to show that a $20 sketchbook could be 200 pages, and big in size to boot (it's eleven and a half inches tall). I wanted to try and set that as a precedent. There are plenty of other folks who have big sketchbooks -- Immonen's are big -- but the majority seems to be the tiny stuff. And I understand it. There's not a lot of time to put them together. The folks who are buying them would probably buy them whether they were five bucks or $20, and Lord knows we need all the supplement to our income that we can get. But as a reader, it makes me mad, and I wanted to push against that. I also don't like that most sketchbooks are art books, finished work. I like to see process, I like to see the down and dirty. I understand the desire to show off one's best pieces, but I want to see how you got there.
The annotations are for the same reason; I like annotations in sketchbooks. The whole thing probably took its model from Guy Davis' supplemental pages in the back of the B.P.R.D.
trades. I loved those annotations, his explanations for why he made the decisions that he did.
As a teacher, I wanted to show that the sketchbook is a place to be working through problems, making decisions. Not every drawing that one does is going to be finished, beautiful art. Heck, probably only one in 50 will be. I know a lot of kids (I was one) who labor over each sketchbook page, and that doesn't get you anywhere. Volume of work and an attempt to better oneself with each successive attempt is the way to get better, and I wanted to showcase that.
The whole reason for the book's existence is that I wanted to have a new book in 2011. Loyalty
was later than I wanted it to be because I got sidetracked with two things: a for-hire project that paid very well and through which I got to work with some folks who I both liked and admired, and an inordinate interest in Star Wars
. I can't justify the latter one. All I wanted to draw for a little while was Star Wars
stuff, and it put me behind. I hoped that it would result in some Dark Horse
work (I would love to write a Star Wars comic
; it's the only franchise, save for Indiana Jones
, in which I have any real working interest), but it didn't, so there's no excuse for it. Pure, useless self-indulgence. Sorry. Anyway, the sketchbook filled that publishing void. I want to have something new each year, and I guess this was a way of seeing that happen.
I've heard back from a lot of pros, especially animation folks, and that's been very neat, very satisfying. It's resulted in some nice correspondence and new acquaintances. I haven't heard much from anyone outside the pro circuit, though. No, I take that back. There was a girl in California, a high school girl, who wants to be an animator. Sent a beautiful drawing along with her letter. She's had work in some film festivals; I looked her up. Really talented. Stephanie something... Dezaleri? Delazeri? Something like that. Clearly a go-getter. I expect she'll be worth keeping an eye on. Oh, geez. I never wrote her back. I just realized. I'm terrible with correspondence, terrible. I write like three-page e-mails and letters, and so I put them off. Yikes. I'll write her back tomorrow.
SPURGEON: One question someone asked me to give you: do you have any advice in terms of how you schedule your time, how you stay productive -- because you could cut your comics output into thirds and no one would think of you as an unproductive cartoonist.
I just work whenever I'm awake, or most of it. I try to make sure I spend as much time with my family as I'm able. When I'm teaching, that's usually only two hours a day, Monday through Thursday. Two other days, it's closer to four hours, maybe five. I try to take one day a week off to play with Penny, to do stuff as a family, though usually I sneak away for an hour or two to work. I'd like to spend more time with them, but the project obligations are pretty heavy, and I get really antsy whenever I'm not working. Penny will sit in the studio with me sometimes, drawing at her own drawing desk (a gift from my boss, Pat Quinn). This kind of thing becomes more and more feasible as she gets older. She's only two. I come up and do dinner with the family, play with Penny for anywhere from a half hour to an hour, then I do her bedtime stuff each night, read to her, hold her 'til she falls asleep. Then I go to bed, because I get up at 4am to squeeze some work in before school. School isn't all the time; I only teach 30 weeks out of the year. When it's in session, I leave at 7 each morning, come back at 2:30, then work until dinner.
Most nights I'm the one who takes care of Penny if she wakes up, just 'cause I'm a much lighter sleeper than my wife. It's hard balancing the desire to be with them with the necessity of supporting all of us financially, especially when you work at home and have to hole up a lot for concentration.
I read a lot, but it's rarely at a stretch. Post office lines, during meals, at traffic lights, the bathroom, any time I'm not moving or engaged in something else. Otherwise I'd have no time. I envy Theodore Roosevelt
and his two books a day. Discounting comics, I'm a two-a-week man. I just don't have the mental faculty for speed reading; I can't process comfortably while doing so, and I worry that I'd miss out on those epiphanic lines that I mentioned earlier. You know, though, I should probably work on it. Get quicker. Honestly, doing anything to emulate TR is probably a good idea.
I watch very little TV. I watch Justified
(begun because it's set where I grew up, and continued because I enjoy the heck of it) on my own, and three sitcoms with the missus. That'll drop to two, now that Dan Harmon's been fired as show-runner for Community
. That's pretty much it, these days. When I'm inking I'll watch stuff as background. The only movies I watch anymore are thematically related to what I'm working on. I don't play video games. I don't really have any hobbies that aren't immediately related to the work. So the time management is that I work all the time, save active breaks to visit with the family. I'm bad about seeing and staying in touch with friends. If they're not at the school, I don't see them.
I stay productive by giving myself projects about which I'm wholeheartedly enthusiastic.
This summer we're going to try and figure out ways for Liz to take over some of the more managerial-type stuff, like shipping and press releases and things like that. I'm bad at that type of stuff, and extremely slow. It takes me like a minute and a half to address an envelope. That, right now, is the biggest time drain, so hopefully this will make things more efficient.
There's also a lot of travel for cons, library visits, that sort of thing. I try to get to where I'm ready to write before traveling. I get a lot of writing done in airports. Probably a third of anything I've written has been written at an airport. If someone could digitize Rodale's Synonym Finder
, it would make my travel bag a whole lot lighter.
SPURGEON: Ideally, is there a place you want the comics to be in five, ten, 20 years time. Do you work with that kind of destination in mind?
I guess I think of it as more of a what-will-I-leave-when-I'm-dead thing, actually. Again, it's presumptuous to expect that anyone will care, but without that presumption, what's the point of doing it? I think about Stan's oeuvre
, and of Hergé
, and of Carl Barks
and Hugo Pratt
and all these others who have left a substantial (both in size and quality) body of work related to one series. There's a magnificence to Bone
, but they're finite (as they should be). The idea of working on a project from its inception until the day you die (a la Peanuts
, or Aubrey/Maturin
) is a powerful one, and it's something I hope I can do. If my hand doesn't go, or my mind, or my eyes, I'll do it. I hope to do at least 25 books. I think I can swing that by the time I'm 75. So I hope I last that long.
* Crogan's Loyalty, Chris Schweizer, Oni Press, hardcover, 150 pages, 9781934964408, May 2012, $14.99
* Crogans Adventures
* Crogans Adventures Blog
* cover to the latest book.
* Schweizer at a Heroes Con in I believe 2008; I just like the picture, so let me big his forgiveness for using such an old one.
* three images from Crogan's Loyalty
; I wanted to get some near the top of the interview. If you want to link them into the context, the first one is a kind of wester-action scene and the latter two kind of depend on drawing from nature that Schweizer did in the area near where he teaches. Hopefully, you'll just enjoy the art.
* Schweizer is a natural-born teacher
* Crogans is historical adventure
* the new book's prominent female character; a first for the series
* that Crogan Family Tree
* panels like these make me feel bad for mentioning the lateness of the new book
* five images from the first book in the series, including the cover placed near our discussion of Oni and presentational issues
* three images from the second book, Crogan's March
* the Hessian character being discussed
* from the support material
* a vibrant panel from the new book
* Crogans in color
* one last panel from Crogan's Loyalty