Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Children's Book Week Celebrates Graphic Novels:
Interview with Chris Schweizer

Tour organized by Macmillan/First Second Books
See the full schedule below

Children's Book Week Celebrates Kids Comics!

It’s Children’s Book Week – where we celebrate how amazing books for kids and teenagers are!  We’re delighted to be celebrating the awesomeness of kids comics this week with a blog tour that features a star-studded line-up of graphic novelists, talking about the creative process, their inspiration, and the books they love.  Follow along throughout the week to see some of your favorite comics creators – and meet new ones, too!

Today, I'm hosting an interview between John Patrick Green, author of Hippopotamister and Chris Schweizer author of The Creeps series.  

Chris Schweizer
John Patrick Green: Your graphic novel series, The Crogan Adventures, is historical fiction, following the adventures of members of the Crogan family line across generations. The research that goes into those books is incredible and must be exhausting. The Creeps is about middle schoolers who investigate monsters and bizarre goings on in their hometown. What are the differences between your approaches to these series, in terms of storytelling or process?  

Chris Schweizer: The biggest difference is the amount of preparatory material that I produce before tackling the stories themselves.  With the Crogan Adventures, I do a lot of advance work, preproduction stuff.  There’s the research, of course, but I also design everything ahead of time.  Every costume, every character, every boat and wagon and saddle and room.  I have binders full of these designs that I reference at almost every stage of the process.  Sometimes I even build models for the more complex set pieces, including a four foot-long tramp steamer.  It has about thirty crew members, each with a specific job, and I use the model to keep track of who is where in any given scene. 

It’s an absurd amount of prep, and while I do think that it helps the stories, it takes more time than I have to spend on it. 

The preproduction work served like training wheels for me.  When I was first starting to make comics, I did what a lot of people do: I made generic backgrounds and generic background characters.  In order to force myself to create a verisimilitude with the comics, to ground the reader in a specific time and place and make it feel like a real place peopled with real characters, I needed this reference so that I could pick, say, pirate number 15 (actually, I name them all) for the background of a particular panel rather than just drawing in a generic pirate inevitably lacking in personality.  The same goes for rooms that they’re in, streets they’re on, etc.

I had a few years’ worth of pages under my belt by the time I tackled the first Creeps book, and so I didn’t feel like I needed those training wheels anymore; I’d conditioned myself to avoid genericism (I hope!).   I wanted to really challenge myself to not create reference ahead of time.  I would design characters or environments only when I reached them in the story, looking at is as a formal challenge, a way to push me out of my comfort zone.

I designed all of the Creeps’ classmates and gave them names when I hit the page in which the class is visible.  I designed their school as they walked through it.  I designed their bikes as they were riding them.  Cars, buildings, the layout of the town… the first time the reader sees them is almost always the first time that I drew them.

There’s good and bad to this approach.  The good is that the characters often surprise me as they come together.  They’re fresher and more full of personality and their appearance tells me how they’ll talk.  And I have a bad habit of writing plots to the geography of the story, and with no maps or buildings I’m better able to let the characters determine the action as the story wants it instead of conforming the story to my designs. 

The downside to not using any reference is that it sometimes makes doing the pages take longer.  I have to keep returning to earlier pages that I drew to see what someone looks like or how the environment is laid out so that the book is consistent, and often the original panel is at an angle where I have to puzzle out those logistics, figure out what it’ll look like from another side, or above, that kind of thing.

Hopefully I can find a happy medium, working up floor plans or quick sketches of a given building if I know I’m going to be using it a lot on The Creeps, and maybe I can tone down the amount of prepwork I do for the Crogan Adventures

John Patrick Green: Where do you get your ideas from? Do you just start doodling and come up with a story as you go, or do you start with a plan?

Chris Schweizer: For The Creeps, I start with a monster, and allow the story to grow from there.  For the Crogan Adventures I pick a specific time period and region and research the heck out of it until I stumble across some fact or anecdote in which I recognize the germ of the story. 

With both I work from a five-ten page outline, but I make up the details as I go in the pencil stage, writing the dialogue concurrently.

John Patrick GreenHave you worked with collaborators? Do you share your work as you're doing it, or work in secret and wait until it's done before showing it to anyone? Howhelpful is feedback from others?

Chris Schweizer: Most of the time I work by myself.  I don’t have the time to take on art for someone else’s writing (drawing takes longer), and often by the time I write something I’m too invested in it to consider sharing. I helped with a series a few years back, a younger readers thing, which I wrote and other folks did the art, good folks whose work I continue to read and admire, but it wasn’t collaborative; I turned in my part, then they did theirs.  I don’t consider that collaboration.  We didn’t work together to craft the book.

 I’m working with Joe Flood (Science Comics: Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers, The Cute Girl Network) on a couple of different projects, though.  He’s my ideal collaborator.  He’s an exceptional artist whose color work is staggeringly good and he’s a bold and pragmatic storyteller.  He’ll have no qualms about deviating from my script if he feels that it’s in service to the narrative, and I have great confidence in his ability to determine that.  I feel like, far too often, the writer is seen as the dominant creative voice in the comics world, but I think that the medium is best served when the writer/artist relationship is more akin to the screenwriter/director relationship.  The script is important, of course, but it’s up to its executor to determine how best to present it to an audience.  Joe is certainly capable of tackling that role (I’ve watched him shape projects from the artist end in the past) and that, coupled with his beautiful art, has made me eager to work together.  We’re teaming up on a franchise property monthly series (it hasn’t been announced yet), and a YA graphic  novel set in the late 12th century.

So far as sharing my work goes, I share with everybody, so long as doing so doesn’t put others in a difficult position (I can’t share work from that monthly series yet, for instance).  I’m not a particularly private person (though I do like to hole up often), and I think that sharing process can be helpful to other artists.  I know that I learned a ton by not only seeing process work but also by hearing about that work as it developed, watching folks struggle over getting it right, what considerations went into those decisions.  I also hope that if I share work in the planning stages then my many mistakes and missteps will be caught before it goes to print.

John Patrick Green: According to your bio in the back of The Creeps, you've had EVERY JOB IMAGINABLE! Too many to list, even! I'll just pick three, so readers get an idea: you've been a puppeteer, a kickboxer, and you've worked in a pancake mix factory. This question has two parts: what careers are left that you'd like to try out, and what experiences from your former jobs can we expect you to turn into graphic novels?

Chris Schweizer: My job-jumping days are likely over, or at least I hope that they are.  I enjoy making comics and telling stories too much and find it difficult to envision anything I’d rather do.  And as so many people are hurting for work I’d hate to take something on as whim for the experience when someone else might wish to provide for his or her family through that channel usurped by me.  I'll dip into substitute teaching every few years, partially to satiate my love of teaching and working with youngsters, and partially to case the joint.   My Creeps stories take place in a middle school and so it helps to find myself in middle schools on a regular basis so that I can take it all in and lock it up in my noggin for when I need it, though lately I've been doing a lot of school visits, which has covered that for me.

It’s unlikely that I’d ever do a longer story about myself, but I often pull in elements from experiences that I’ve had to color the stories that I'm making.

John Patrick Green: What are some of your favorite books from childhood, and what recent graphic novels would you recommend?

Chris Schweizer: My very favorite novel, and one I habitually buy used so that I can give copies to friends who I think would enjoy it, is Charles Portis’s True Grit, a fictional first-hand account of a fourteen year-old girl who travels into Indian territory in the 1870s to capture the man who murdered her father, with the help of a surly inebriate lawman whom she has employed.  It’s well-written, very funny, exciting, moving, coming-of-age book, and I’d argue that it’s the finest YA novel ever written. 

As for recent graphic novels, some of my favorite comics have been Lucy Bellwood’s Baggywrinkles, a collection of short nonfiction stories about how historic tall ships work, and the Last Man series byBastien Vivès, Michaël Sanlaville & Balak, a French import action adventure that’s truly lovely.  Though I won’t be picking it up until this weekend, I’m very excited about Lucky Penny by Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota.  I’ve been waiting for that one for a few years!  I’ve been spending most of my comics-reading time poring over comics by the French cartoonist Matthieu Bonhomme, comics that I hope will be translated into English someday.

John Patrick Green: What advice do you have for the young cartoonists of today?

Chris Schweizer: Have patience regarding response to your work.  Though the desire to receive public and peer approbation for one’s work has surely existed since the first picture was drawn on the wall of a cave, the ability to immediately quantify that reception feels pretty new; we no longer have the luxury of coming to hate our own work before other people do.  Reblogs and retweets and likes and notes make it possible to get a numerical sense of how people respond to your art and your stories within minutes of posting them, and that can breed a tendency to try and tailor the pieces that you produce to fit specific audience appetites. 

This isn’t in itself wrong – people always have and always will attempt to create in keeping with popular tastes, for worse, yes, but just as often for better – but it can sure take the wind out of your sails.  You spend a long time on a piece and think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done and you put it up and it gets three notes.  That dramatically colors how you feel about a piece that scant hours before may have been your crowning achievement thus far in your life.  It can, and does, crush many young artists (and not a few established ones).

Know that online response (or, more specifically, lack of it) is neither a fair nor an accurate measure of your current or potential worth as an artist.  You will, through diligent and regular work, get better and better with each passing week, and by making that work available to the public via whatever means you find most suits it you will steadily garner an audience.  Comics is a long game, often an extremely long game, and the only way to keep running that ball down the field is to do it for yourself.  Fans are wonderful, applause is wonderful, and a win is wonderful, but if you don’t have the love of it to carry you then that ball gets far too heavy and the crowd seems far too quiet and that goalpost seems to move with every step you take.  Pick pieces and projects that you want to do, that you’d want to read, that you’d want to see.  Do them often, do them well, and eventually that audience will find you. 

Follow the Tour: 

Monday, May 2nd – Forever YA featuring Gene Luen Yang
Monday, May 2nd  – Read Write Love featuring Lucas Turnbloom
Monday, May 2nd – Kid Lit Frenzy featuring Kory Merritt
Tuesday, May 3rd – Sharp Read featuring Ryan North
Tuesday, May 3rd – Teen Lit Rocks featuring MK Reed
Wednesday, May 4th – Love is Not a Triangle featuring Chris Schweizer
Wednesday, May 4th – SLJ Good Comics for Kids featuring Victoria Jamieson
Thursday, May 5th – The Book Wars featuring Judd Winick
Thursday, May 5th – SLJ Fuse #8 featuring Eric Colossal
Friday, May 6th – SLJ Scope Notes featuring Nathan Hale
Friday, May 6th – The Book Rat featuring Faith Erin Hicks
Saturday, May 7th – YA Bibliophile featuring Mike Maihack
Saturday, May 7th – Supernatural Snark featuring Sam Bosma
Sunday, May 8th – Charlotte’s Library featuring Maris Wicks
Sunday, May 8th – The Roarbots featuring Raina Telgemeier

1 comment:

  1. Gorgeous post Lauren :D Thank you for sharing about this. <3 Seems like interesting books; though I have not heard of them before :) But even so, looks awesome. I hope you are having the best month so far. <3


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