Crogan's Questions - a chat with Chris Schweizer

Crogan's Vengeance

We're thrilled to bring you the first interview conducted by our good friend Adam Orchekowski with an upcoming Acme hero, Crogan's Vengeance and Crogan's March creator Chris Schweizer!

If you enjoy the interview, let Adam know on the message board (he's 50 Tooth Slim) and come by and let Chris know during his signing on March 13th for March Madness 2010!

Adam Orchekowski: You have have had work printed by many different publishers and you are a professor of sequential art at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design. What made you decide that you wanted to teach and create comics for a living?

Chris Schweizer: I grew up in a house full of newspaper comics. My dad got most every contemporary trade collection that came out of his favorite ones - Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, The Far Side, etc, plus we'd have one or two from most of the others - Doonesbury, Bloom County - and old reprints, like Pogo and Dick Tracy. We didn't have any of what are usually referred to as "Zombie Strips" - ones in which the strip is either ghosted or the artist has been replaced by another upon retirement or death - not for any specific artistic or moral high ground, I don't think, but because they just didn't appeal to either me or my dad. Even my mom, not a comics buff, really, collected Cathy books, and For Better or Worse. From the time I could read (and probably before) I was devouring these trades. I also read the paper every morning. Well, the comics, at least.

Crogan's VengeanceI could draw, which is pertinent. I drew from when I was very little, before I learned to hold a pencil, which is why I hold my pencil/pen/whatever like a caveman trying to eat soup, clutched in my fist. Teachers tried and tried to break me of both habits, but neither took, and I was drawing strips and gag cartoons (neither funny, and often with gags directly lifted from whatever I’d read earlier that week) from the time I started kindergarten.

My dad was a college professor, and I was always very active at the school, hanging around in his office, being a go-to for kid roles for the theater department, looking through the museum and library, and talking with my dad’s students, who were like older cousins to me and really involved in my childhood. It was such a great environment, academically and socially, and from the time I was probably 8 or 9 I knew that, whatever field I went into, I wanted to teach it at the college level. Seeing the influence my dad had on these students, being able to teach and help them professionally, it had such an impact on me; I wanted to make a similar difference. SCAD-Atlanta is an amazing campus, with many of our programs, in my opinion, the best in the country, but its one overwhelming shortcoming is its unfriendliness towards this type of atmosphere, the family of faculty being involved in the school. Professors are more-or-less prohibited from bringing their kids into the building, which is a real shame – it helps cement the community at a much deeper level. I understand their reasoning – part of our school’s identity is its similarity to the professional arena – but that doesn’t mean I agree with it. Had my dad’s school taken a similar approach, I’d only be making comics today, and not teaching them, too.

I always loved comics, and never stopped making them, but had studied other things and pursued other avenues as an undergrad and in the years following graduation – acting, writing, filmmaking, music. When I decided that I wanted to pursue comics as a career – I had just turned 25, and prior to that had never really considered it a viability, or at least had no idea how to go about pursuing it – the first thing I did was look into graduate programs, so that I could get the terminal degree necessary to teach. I looked at a few programs, but liked SCAD’s the best. My wife was offered a job in Atlanta, so I studied at that campus. By the time I graduated, I was convinced that it was the strongest Sequential Art program in the country, and that it was my first choice for a teaching position. Lucky for me, they hired me, and now I do everything I can to help the program live up to the standards that developed under the leadership of our program coordinator Shawn Crystal (Deadpool). 

Adam: The sequences that featured the Father telling a story to his children to teach them a moral lesson is a creative way to frame the story, is this based on something that you have experienced as a child or is it something that you came up with on your own? With you being a new father do you plan on doing something similar?

Chris: As a kid – and even to this day – my mom would tell morality stories, but they were invariably fictitious. They were, interestingly, rarely about right and wrong, but were instead designed to increase the quality of service we provided – from singing in choral concerts to waiting tables, we would be overwhelmed with guilt if we gave anything but our very best, as mom would’ve concocted some character whose emotional well-being was somehow intricately, permanently, and feasibly linked to our behavior.

BoysAs a narrative structure, I didn’t conceive of it right away. While I was working on Vengeance a network had approached us about turning the Crogan series into an animated show. I was talking to Justin Wagner – you may not know his stuff yet, but he’s doing the art for another Oni book that’ll be coming out sometime soon, I think – about how an animated Crogan show would work. I said that it would have to have some sort of framing sequence, a modern dad telling his kids about their ancestors in a way that relates to something happening in their lives. The show never materialized, and for some reason I never considered putting the framing sequence in the book.

James, after I turned in the whole story (which started with the 1701 ship page and ended with, well, the end of the pirate part of the narrative) was worried about how it would play as a series, how to get readers engaged, and not read just Vengeance, but future books, too. Part of this was to placate the bookstore reps, who wanted each book to feature a kid character. I was adamant about how ridiculous it would be to put a kid character in, say, the foreign legion (which I ended up doing, so that shows how far-seeing I am) and James was racking his brain to try and figure out a solution that would better the book, satisfy the young adult/series bookstore market criteria, and not require me to compromise on issues of narrative quality. I wanted each book to stand alone, with different protagonists, and for a very short time we were at a kind of impasse.

But he called me one day and proposed a framing sequence, a modern dad telling his kids about their ancestors in a way that related to what was going on in their lives. As soon as he said it, it was perfect – I’d never thought about using my animation framing sequence idea in the books, but I loved it… that James had come up with the same idea, completely independently, and that it satisfied all of these concerns cemented its logistical value to the books, and helped make the series a series rather than a bunch of books loosely tied together by a family tree, which had been my rather lackluster plan.

As for my using stories to teach my daughter lessons? I'm sure it'll happen eventually. These days I just sing to her and tell her how wonderful she is, and hope she gets the gist. 

Adam: What would you say was your “big break” in the comics industry?

Chris: At the risk of sounding like a commercial for SCAD, it was going to grad school. Although I’d consistently read strips and the occasional book-length (I was a big fan of Bone and Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe series), I was really out of it in terms of having the slightest familiarity with what was going on in the industry. As part of my prep I went to a comic shop in Nashville – there were ones around my area, but they were terrible, with only the mainest of mainstream floppies and no trades or GNs to speak of – and found the first volume of Scott Chantler’s Northwest Passage and the western comic The Long Haul. I remembered Oni from high school, or early college, maybe, when they used to do the Clerks comics, and was blown away that there was hope for doing the types of comics I wanted to do, which was aesthetically indie or humor-strip leaning, but thematically genre-oriented.

SwashbucklingEarly in my grad program, Shawn took me to his office to have a talk about what my career goals were and how best he might help me to achieve them. He asked if I had a publisher with whom I’d like to work, and I said my first choice was Oni. And he smiled really big, because he and James Lucas Jones, my editor, are very good friends, and James is very heavily involved in our program. At the time I didn’t realize how small and interwoven the comics industry is; it never occurred to me that everyone knows everyone else.

I went to the Small Press Expo in Washington, D.C. a month or so later, and spent a chunk of time at the Oni booth, talking with Chantler and James a little bit, but as a reader, not actively trying to get work. My thought was that they were there to sell books, and that it would be extremely presumptuous of me to try and shill myself at this kind of event, covering their table with a portfolio and blocking customers. I hadn’t ever been to a show before, and didn’t know that this was what you were SUPPOSED to do at shows.

Anyway, I wasn’t tabling or anything, and was just walking around, picking up and trading mini-comics (I had two) and sketching people. Later that evening, at the after-show-bar thing, James came up to me and said that he’d seen my sketching, and that it looked good, and that he’d like me to “send him something.” I had no idea what that meant – Shawn later explained to me that it was an invitation to pitch a project (again, completely unfamiliar with the industry at this point) – but I took it as a good sign. I spent a lot of the rest of the evening talking to James, who is not a short guy, but our conversation group was me, Gina Gagliano from First Second, and Andy Runton, who does Owly, and all of us are at least 6’3. James was complaining about feeling like a hobbit surrounded by this wall of tall, and I had a great time, and having really enjoyed James' company hoped that, for social as well as business and artistic reasons, I'd land at Oni.

When I got back, I sent the two minicomics I had done, a concert poster I’d drawn, and an early version of the Crogan Family Tree that’s on the books’ endpapers. I’d been sitting on the series idea for a year or so prior to this, and figured “Why not?”.

ThumbnailsI didn’t hear anything back from Oni for a while, but Shawn regularly talked to James about me and about the project, filling him in on how I was developing artistically, what type of person I was to work with, etc. I don’t know how most people deal with the months of waiting to hear back a "yes," or the infinity of waiting for a "no" that you never actually hear, but Shawn kept me sane about it.

Out of the blue one day James called to ask which one I wanted to do first. I didn’t know what he meant, and then he mentioned the pirate story. Turns out they had printed out the family tree and put it up on the office wall, and had decided to do it as a series, more or less sight unseen, based on the concept (at James’ request, I later turned in a pitch for the book and project, which cemented things). They were just trying to decide which book should come first!  Although I was really excited, it wasn’t until I got a little more familiar with how the comics industry works that I realized how mind-bogglingly lucky I am for this to have come about this way.  I was just starting out, I had loads to learn, and a publisher who I love basically gave me carte blanche to do whatever books I want to do for the rest of my life (by and large, any genre I might wish to work in could be shoehorned into the Crogan series).  It’s still baffling to process sometimes, and I don’t know if the guys at Oni would have taken such a chance had it not been for Shawn’s steady patter of compliments and assurances on my behalf.  I sure wouldn’t have been ready to tackle the series without his lessons. 

Adam: The "Smokers of the Marvel Universe" and "Wolverine is only 5 foot 3 inches" prints are funny pieces and I often direct people to them when talking about your work.  What was the inspiration for them?

Captain America  Thing  Iron Man  Black Widow

Chris: Both of these pieces stemmed from Marvel proclamations with which I entirely disagree.  I was visiting Periscope Studios in Portland a few years ago, and a conversation turned to a French artist I really like, Pierre Allary.  Colleen Coover told me that her husband, Paul Tobin, had done a script for a Spider-Man story that Allary had drawn, but had to redraw pages because J. Jonah Jameson was smoking a cigar in them.  This took me completely off guard, and Colleen had to explain Marvel's rule against any characters smoking in Marvel books.

I can understand the social responsibility of not having role-model characters smoking - heck, Wolverine's become so popular with kids that I can even accept a Wolverine smoking ban, though I think it hurts the character - but no kid looks to J. Jonah Jameson as a figure worthy of emulation.  And Marvel has been so active in making their MU (Marvel Universe) continuity books so incredibly INappropriate for kids for near two decades that the social responsibility argument holds no water for me whatsoever.  How many kids are reading the mainstream MU books?  Precious few, a situation entirely of Marvel's making for catering exclusively to an ever-diminishing cadre of adult readers who want the MU to age with them.  And to try and keep those adult readers from being swayed by the temptation of tobacco due to whether or not characters are smoking is patently ridiculous.

Even if the social responsibility argument held validity, which I feel it does not, comics are first and foremost a storytelling medium, and to rob artists and writers of a tool to help better establish character robs the narrative of its truth.  You might as well say "no characters can have facial hair."

The Wolverine drawing I did for the HeroesCon program came after another Marvel proclamation, one which stated that Wolverine should be drawn tall (presumably to better jive with the movie version).  I'm irked enough at the use of Wolverine as a protagonist - he's a perfect character as part of a team, but I think that a number of his core traits have to be ignored or changed for each story in which he's the leading man - but what I like most about the character is the scrappy little guy quality.  If he's not little and ferocious, there's no reason for his name to be Wolverine!

I actually really like a lot of the Marvel characters, which is why I get so fired up about the way I see them mismanaged.

Red Skull  Grey Hulk  Nick Fury  Kingpin

Adam: What would be the dream project that you would like to work on if there was anything you could be a part of?

Chris: Honestly, the Crogan series gives me free range to try different genres with each book, and as historical adventure is my favorite type of story then there's nothing I'd rather be doing - the series awards me the opportunity to do my "dream project" with each new installment.

Wolverine

From Curious Old Library.com:

Cartoonist Chris Schweizer was born in Tuscon, AZ to parents who are both classical musicians. He is 29 years old, and lives on the outskirts of Atlanta with his wife Liz and his daughter Penelope. He received his BFA in Graphic Design from Murray State University in 2004, and his MFA in Sequential Art at the Atlanta branch of the Savannah College of Art and Design. His comics have been published by Oni Press, Top Shelf Productions, Image Comics, Evil Twin Comics, and Nickelodeon Magazine, among others.

Crogan's Vengeance, the first volume in his Crogan Adventures series, has received an Eisner Award nomination and a Young Adult Library Service Association (Yalsa) Award nomination, and was named the Dollar Bin's Graphic Novel of the Year for 2008. It also made the Texas Library Association's Maverick Reading List, 2010, and has been nominated for a 2009 CYBILS Award.

Crogan's March, the second book in the series, has been named one of Book Expo America's "Librarians' Hot Fall Graphic Novels."

In addition to his comic work, he teaches as a full professor of Sequential Art and Animation at SCAD-Atlanta.

He'll be appearing at Acme Comics on March 13th as part of the 2010 March Madness event!

Adam Orchekowski has attained the presigous title of Official Acme Volunteer, though he prefers the term Acme Intern. Either way, he doesn't get paid. But he does help us out an awful lot. Adam is also the brainchild behind the No Physical Man side project Tangible Chair and he makes a wicked Scott Pilgrim vegan shepard's pie.