The literary antecedents are countless. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Coraline. Spirited Away. Children on the doorstep of a major life change pass through a portal into a strange fantasy world of confusion, excitement, terror. In Australian cartoonist Campbell Whyte’s remarkably assured debut graphic novel, he’s exploring this territory, but adding his own unique voice to the conversation. Home Time sees six friends, entering the summer after their final year of elementary school, awash in a wave of emotions about their impending move to high school and the cusp of adulthood, tumble off a walking bridge into a river.
They emerge somewhere else, somewhere different. Who are the Peaches, and why do they think the kids are prophets? More importantly, how does each of the kids react to this wholesale upheaval in his or her life? Illustrated in variety of styles to capture the distinct voice of each protagonist, Home Time delves deep into the six experiences. Home Time arrives in stores in late June from Top Shelf.
Whyte took time out to answer questions from CBR News about Home Time’s creative ancestry and the selfish advantage to changing up art styles in mid-book.
CBR: Campbell, there is a rich history in literature of kids at transitional ages being drawn into fantasy worlds – from Narnia to the 1980s Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. Did those previous fantasy tales impact your thinking about Home Time?
Campbell Whyte: Oh definitely, that was kind of the beginning of the project. How would I tackle a portal fantasy like that? I love those sorts of stories, there are so many of them… and yeah, they are such a familiar story structure that just about everyone is familiar with.
What I am really interested in, though, is imposing it upon an Australian landscape and culture. What happens when we take this form that, in children’s literature, has been so heavily utilized in England and the United States, and place it over Perth? What do we get? What can that tell us about childhood here? What can it tell us about the history of the place?
I think that’s what’s interesting about works like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan is how much they reveal about the culture that produced them. Part of that is intentional on the part of the authors, but a lot of that comes out naturally and only reveals itself when viewed from a distance, either cultural or time-based.
For you, what makes this such a rich metaphor for adolescence?
I think there’s a sort of realness in that story structure. The fantasy speaks to a deeper truth that’s sitting just behind the everyday. Everything is changing at that age: your position within society, the expectations that people put on you that you have to reconcile with who you’re trying to grow into. The very body you inhabit is shifting around you in some kind of ultimate act of betrayal. There’s no stability.
There’s also a great deal of fear and promise in that time, and a lot of pressure. As an individual you’re pushing boundaries, going into new places, having adventures, meeting strange people. There are risks, and sometimes rewards, and lots of mistakes. I guess this sort of fantasy setting is dressing up adolescence so we can see it more clearly, from arm’s length.
The transition from primary school to high school is a major adolescent shift, one of the biggest steps away from childhood. How are your characters coming to grips with that change?
They’re all dealing with it in different ways. Some are brashly rushing into it, others are really fearful, some overwhelmed with a wave of “now-stalgia” for what they’re about to leave behind. That’s really at the heart of the story for me, how these characters navigate, or don’t navigate, this transition.
David is bolting away from it as fast as he can; he thinks he’s ready to be a teenager and abandon all the ‘baby’ stuff of childhood. While Amanda is really in a vulnerable space; she’s already pretty uncomfortable as a child and the thought of being pushed out of that space before she’s ready is really intimidating.
I’m trying to capture some of my experience moving into adolescence and the experiences of those around me. That period can really tear apart friendships as you grow into different people, it can also bring people together in unlikely ways.
Each section is drawn in a slightly different style – from a shift in color palette to Nathan and David’s section drawn with old video game pixelated visuals. How did the content of each chapter influence your artistic approach?
The different styles came about for a number of reasons. When I’m reading a long form comic, I often find myself kinda getting snow-blind to the illustrations after a while. Sometimes I’ll find myself just rushing through reading the text and only using the illustrations as diagrams. I wanted to counter this visual fatigue by resetting the art style every chapter. Make the reader recalibrate every 30 pages or so, to reassess what they’re seeing and what it means.
Then, having made that decision, I had to figure out what styles I was going to use. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, so the styles should reflect something about that character. Reflecting their point of view, their outlook on life and their understanding of what’s happening.
So you have David’s chapter operating as a sort of ‘house style’, with soft pencil and watercolour-like colouring. Amanda has an aesthetic that is supposed to allude to a 90s anime series, like Sailor Moon, with watercolor backgrounds and cel-shaded figures. Ben is illustrated in a Belgian, Ligne Claire style, with clean lines and flat colors. Nathan is illustrated to look like a classic 16bit JRPG, like Chrono Trigger, and finally Lily is all paint on linen, referencing lots of seminal Australian paintings.
So a character like Nathan: he literally views everything as a game, he essentially gamifies his life, and so that pixel art style really perfectly visualises his thought process. A character like Ben who is a little quieter and is more steady and confident in himself has a more clinical clean line style. So on and so forth.
The other reason for shifting styles is purely selfish. I knew I’d be working on this book for a long time, so I wanted to keep the project interesting for myself. Shifting up the styles, having to learn new techniques and really pushing what I could do kept things fresh.
The diagrams, childhood songs, and diary entries at the end of each chapter add considerable depth and detail to the world. Where did that idea come from?
I’ve always loved books like Dinotopia by James Gurney, and The Gnomes by Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen that are filled with journal entries and notebook sketches. The idea that these are observations from some sort of ‘unknown land’ is endlessly appealing to me. So when I was developing Home Time, it involved a lot of sketches like this, figuring out how the world would function, the internal logic, how things work. None of those sketches actually made it into the book, but they gave me a lot to draw on.
Then I also considered how these extra pieces of text could fit into the reading experience and the narrative flow. There are time gaps between the chapters; some are little, some are large. The pages at the end of the chapter serve to fill in these gaps to a degree. You don’t need to read them, but if you do, it gives you a much fuller sense of the world the kids are in and how they’re engaging with it.
This is labeled as Book One. How many books will Home Time be?
This is Book One of Two; however, those two books tell the one story.
Way back when I had originally conceived of the work, I had loosely plotted out nine stories, but pretty much the first 3 of those stories got compressed and collapsed into this book. I fell into that trap of, “Oh, my fantasy story has to be as big as Middle-Earth before I even start it.” Luckily I was able to edit myself down from there and actually get started.
It can be really suffocating, though, when you set yourself up with this massive expectation before you even begin. Then getting tied up in timelines and world-building and never actually telling a story. I had to just be brutally honest about what I could realistically achieve myself, compress what I could and cut the rest. The story is much better because of it, and the book is actually finished.
How did you get involved with Top Shelf?
It was through a portfolio review with Ted Adams from IDW. He was out in Perth, Western Australia at a comics convention, and a friend of mine signed me up for the portfolio review. I went along and showed him some of my work, including the first 60 or so pages of Home Time.
He was really supportive, saying he didn’t really think my work was right for IDW at the time, but would forward it on to some people who might be interested. I thought that he was just being polite, but Chris Staros from Top Shelf got in contact a few days later and we went on from there.
They’ve been really supportive of the work and all its little peculiarities.
Beyond the remainder of Home Time, what’s next for you?
Yeah, Book Two is going to be taking up a fair deal of my time for the near future. I have a lot of ideas for projects that have been kicking around though, so am excited about the possibility of getting to realise some of them. I’d like to work on some shorter projects next, more album-length. I have a cyberpunk story that’s set in a near-future Perth that I’m excited about, there’s a choose-your-own adventure book I’ve started writing and a outback prisoner road-trip story that I’m keen to explore. Hopefully in the future, finishing one a year would be great.
For the rest of the year though, I’m taking some breathing space to be with my wife and son and rest up.
Home Time arrives in stores in June.