With the release of “Crogan’s Loyalty,” Chris Schweizer established himself as a cartooning talent, laying out his plans for a series he envisioned would encompass his entire career, telling the story of an extended family of adventurers, explorers, soldier and outlaws. Since then, Schweizer has written and drawn two more books in the series, “Crogan’s March” and “Crogan’s Vengeance,” and is currently working on the fourth. And while his new project involves more of Crogan’s adventures, they take place not in comics but in a series of radio dramas Schweizer wrote and were directed by Gregg Taylor.
Gregg Taylor is the writer and director behind Decoder Ring Theatre, which has been releasing new audio dramas twice a month for more than seven years. The company’s cornerstone production is “The Red Panda,” a serialized story about a Toronto-based superhero/pulp hero from the thirties and forties. Over the course of more than ninety half hour episodes, the lead character, voiced by Taylor, has changed and aged in real time, going from a Depression era crime fighter to one who’s enlisted in the government’s efforts in Europe and in the homeland during World War II. The stories range from the street bound to the mystical in a series that can be dark, but is never cynical.
This year, Monkeybrain Comics began releasing “The Mask of the Red Panda,” written by Taylor. The third and final issue of the miniseries hit the comiXology store today.
We spoke with both creators about teaming up to produce a series of six “Crogan’s Adventures” audio dramas. The first, “The Heart of Mabel Cottonshot,” and the second, “Crogan’s Prize” which features Catfoot Crogan, are both available now. The rest will be released on the 15th of each month. More information about the shows can be found on Schweizer’s website or on Decoder Theatre.
CBR News: Where did the idea of doing a “Crogan’s Adventure” radio drama come from?
Chris Schweizer: In my mind, “Crogan” could work in a variety of media, but radio would be the one thing where it could still fit into the continuity of the series. If we were working in animation or film or anything else, it would cease to be mine. I listen to web shows a lot, and during the making of some of the early Crogan books, the Decoder Ring Theatre stuff would be in the background whenever I was pencilling or inking. That probably played into wanting to do something in that genre.
How did the project start?
Schweizer: I got in touch with Gregg. One of the Red Panda stories had a dedication to Will Eisner and I thought, there aren’t a lot of non-comics enthusiasts who name drop Eisner, so probably this guy likes comics. I sent an e-mail and said, “I thought you might like comics, I do comics, can I send some your way?” I got an e-mail back from Gregg that was, sure. I sent him the first couple of Crogan books with a note that said, “Thanks for making your shows available for free, I hope you enjoy these also for free in reverse.”
Gregg Taylor: [Laughs] I get this email saying, “I do graphic novels and I’d like to send you one.” I said, sure, I don’t get nearly enough swag. I think about it now, and I probably was glib about it. People say, hey, I’ve done this novel and I’d like to send you a copy, and it’s really nice, but a lot of times you don’t get much of a chance to look at it because you’re being pulled in six different directions. Suddenly, they showed up and he put in a note and this beautiful drawing of the Red Panda and the Flying Squirrel exchanging that look that said he’s totally a listener of the show. If the purpose of making contact was to have me say, “Hey, why don’t you do a radio show someday,” then it worked perfectly. I read both books in an afternoon and thought, there’s got to be some way we can make something happen here. It just seemed like such a fit.
Schweizer: Well, thank you, Gregg. It wasn’t originally that mercenary. My thought was I did hope that you liked the books and that could potentially lead to a correspondence, and that sometime, years down the road, I could broach the subject. It wouldn’t have been something that I would have asked about without having had at least a few conversations beforehand because that would have been presumptuous. I was very excited, because I have a huge admiration for Gregg and the cast of Decoder Ring Theatre and think that what they do is incredible. I could not have envisioned a better group to do this with. I toyed with the idea of doing some myself, and it would have been a production nightmare. But there were some stories in my mind that really only worked as audio dramas. For example, I wanted to do a historically accurate Lost World with dinosaurs island story which in radio is actually possible to do.
I remember the Eisner and “The Spirit” reference. That was on the Christmas special years ago, which you did in rhyme! Gregg, people might also know you as the writer of “Mask of the Red Panda,” which is out from Monkeybrain Comics or Decoder Ring Theatre. Can you tell us a little about your background.
Taylor: I went through a theater training program in Toronto and was an actor and a writer. It’s a tough road to hoe. It starts to feel so futile because you entered this profession with the idea that you’re going to do something different, but you find yourself doing all these idiotic things that you were never interested in doing in the first place. I just liked doing theater, but you have to go to these soap commercial auditions and things you really hope you don’t get, because it’ll pay your way up back to zero and then you can start digging your own grave again. It’s very frustrating. Eventually, I started working in theater administration for a large theater company in Toronto, and — it’s a paycheck, but I could no longer just pick up and do whatever. It became, what would I do if I could only do one thing? If I’m not going to do what is expected of me, but I can do what I expect of myself — what do I really want to be doing?
It came back to old time radio and telling those kinds of stories. We played around with it a few years before and had some fun, but it was before podcasting and before the incredible innovations in digital recording techniques just made it so affordable and easy. I say “easy” because it was a big learning curve. Once I decided that I was going to go from complete technical boob to recording, mixing and distributing my own audio, there was a year of learning before we tried doing anything. I had twelve scripts of “The Red Panda” and twelve scripts of “Black Jack Justice.” We recorded them and I thought that was probably all we’ll ever do. We started releasing them, and I almost immediately starting writing more episodes and we were back into production. All of a sudden, there was an actual audience. When you’re used to playing small theaters and awkward spaces and there’s a lot of empty chairs, all of a sudden there’s thousands of people listening to this and it’s like, hey — how do we keep this going?
I had a lot of fun with this great team of actors that I assembled. It was really wonderful having gotten to a point where the things I’d been pursuing had lost their joy and then finding it again. The circus ran way with me and I haven’t been seen since. There’s this audience of people spread out all over the world, but there they are. They may not be huge, but they’re mine, and they care passionately about what happens next. That’s incredible.
It’s obvious to your fans that you’re both planners and have maps about where things are going and how they relate. How do each of you write? How much is planned ahead and how much is spontaneous?
Schweizer: For me, there’s a lot of each. I tend to have some base bullet points and then a lot of it comes from project to project. Gregg, how do you usually handle it?
Taylor: I can totally relate to that. Like I said, when we started recording the radio episodes, I had twelve scripts of each [series], but from that point, where the characters went and what supporting characters came back and were developed, all came from what the actors brought to the roles. It’s a wonderful gift for the writer; that other creative force that is looking at things in a different way and not thinking about, where does this character fit into the story and where does this character fit into the universe? They’re thinking, who is this? Certainly in the radio series, one of the most beloved characters, I think, is little Harry Kelly. A boy who starts out as a runner in the Red Panda’s network.
In the first season, I kept giving these little informational segues to newsies, which is just a straight lift from old “Green Hornet” episodes. I kept giving them to Shannon Arnold to do. Other people did them too, but Shannon had the best newsie, which is why it was great to have her doing essentially the Harry Kelly voice again as the youngest Crogan boy in modern times. She can play with that now that Harry had grown up and he’s voiced by Scott Moyle. All of that came out of how much we all laughed when she did a newsie voice. Some things are planned long in advance and some things are just gifts you find along the way.
Greg, I imagine after collaborating for years with actors, collaborating with Dean Kotz on the “Mask of the Red Panda” comic was very different.
Taylor: It’s totally different. It was a big leap. At the end of the day, you’ve got to let the actor play the part. They make choices and you work with it and shape it in the editing. Collaborating with Dean on the book was a total leap in a completely different direction. I always held the reins, and now I’m waiting for pages to appear, wondering what they’ll look like. It became really painless, because we were on the same page. We had a few conversations about things that had been established so we weren’t contradicting the established continuity. If someone comes to “Mask of the Red Panda” and they haven’t read any Red Panda stuff before, it’s a great jumping on point. But if you’ve read everything, you shouldn’t, ideally, find a contradiction. Seeing stuff come back from Dean, it was exactly as I was seeing it in my head. Certain things, I was like, wow — that’s amazing. How did I describe that? I’d go through my notes and I didn’t describe that to him at all. I left it for him to interpret and his interpretation was spookily like what had always been in my head.
Schweizer: I had the opportunity to read Gregg’s script. There are a lot of writers — especially writers from other mediums — that have a tendency to over-describe, which makes it harder for the artist to envision it in their head. Just from an artist’s standpoint, your script was so immediately readable. Part of that probably comes from radio.
Taylor: I tried to keep the descriptions to the minimum that was required to tell the story, because when you get too far into descriptions, you’re trying to play the other guy’s part. As a director in the radio show, although I also play a part, you can’t just stand there giving out line readings to everybody. If it’s wrong, if they’ve missed something, that’s one thing, but you’ve got to let the actors play their part and make their contribution. Even though I had no idea when I wrote the script who, if anyone, was going to ever going to draw this, I knew what I thought it was going to look like. But that’s not my role. I tried to stay out of the way and it worked really well because I had somebody in that role who was on the same page and brilliant at what he does.
Schweizer: It’s really hard for me to not write without putting the inflection in the words because that’s such an integral part of my comics dialogue. I was able to hold off in I think all but one line in the radio shows. He delivered the line the way that I had written it, but the way that I had written it was not nearly as good as he would have done otherwise. That was my big object lesson in never doing that ever again if I ever write for actors.
Taylor: I’d like to say that you should write for actors again, and quite a bit if you care to do it. I think you see this reading the Crogan books, but definitely in the Crogan scripts, there’s an effortlessness to the dialogue and there’s a uniqueness to the dialogue. That is what makes it, for me for someone who tends to obsess over the dialogue, such a strong series. The uniqueness of voice.
Talking of every character sounding different, Chris came up for the recording of the first four [episodes]. We did four in one day, not the family framing device. We did the first four episodes in a day and there were a number of episodes that had a lot of small parts. Particularly “Mabel Cottonshot.” There were a lot of townspeople and we only have so many actors, so I said, I’ll make Chris do all of these little people that he wrote. It’s his fault, so he should have to do them. Halfway through “Mabel Cottonshot,” I got totally bummed out because I had no idea what a good actor he was because I would have given him some real parts. If you listen to “Heart of Mabel Cottonshot,” just about every townsperson is Chris doing a totally different voice. You’ve seen all of these characters in western movies, you know exactly what they all look like. Sometimes he’s voicing two or three guys in the same scene, and they’re all perfect. That was my regret out of the whole process, that I did not know to give Chris a good role.
Schweizer: You’re very kind, Gregg. Thank you. Actually, I was a theater major for a while; never particularly good at it. Radio I could lend myself more to than actual stage. I can’t act. I can perform, but I can’t act. I could never muster believable emotion without it being hammy Gilbert and Sullivan style stuff, but townspeople? I can rock the townspeople.
Taylor: And you did.
Schweizer: Well, thank you.
Taylor: You’re some of the Spanish guard in the next one, aren’t you?
Schweizer: Am I the Spanish Admiral? No, I’m the Spanish Captain.
Taylor: I’m the Spanish Admiral. You’re getting us confused again.
Schweizer: [Laughs] And you did such a great job on that one. I had written the villain of that story to be kind of a scene chewer, but I never in my wildest dreams realized how great the performance that Gregg would pull out for that one.
Taylor: My favorite supporting role ever. It’s basically like Inigo Montoya and Lieutenant Sabian had a baby. [Laughs] There is no scenery left in Spain because I chewed it all.
So you’re doing six episodes and each half hour story is self-contained. Why did you decide to do that as opposed to serializing a single story?
Schweizer: Our initial correspondence was mostly e-mail and I said, would you want all Catfoot stories or a couple different characters? He wrote back to me and said, each show is a different character and I said, okay. It was a lot of fun and it forced me to do research on some periods that I hadn’t yet done.
Taylor: There’s a certain amount of forgiveness when it comes to detail on the radio. You don’t necessarily need to know what that island looks like; you just need the right amount of waves and say, look at that island over there, and you’re alright. [Laughs]
Schweizer: True. I was able to go off visual descriptions of stuff that made a big difference rather than having to find examples of the types of the baskets being used in “The Kimberly Pit.” Environment always ends up being a plot point, which I was actually kind of concerned about so far as radio goes because I wanted to make sure that any action that took place was clear. There needed to be expository dialogue driving it, but without it feeling like it was expository dialogue. That is just me stealing from Gregg. The scripts are basically me aping Gregg.
Taylor: That’s why I like them so much! [Laughs] I can also say that in years of we’ve always had some slots that were open for other writers, I’ve said, in every single one, build up to a thing and give me a mid-show break for announcements and messages. Honestly, Chris’ scripts are the first ones that ever did that. [Laughs] He said, just send me one of yours and I’ll format it like that. Some people are very distressed that I write my scripts in Word and not in Final Draft or whatever. I don’t need to be turning a page every minute while we’re trying to record these scripts. I have to pay for the copies. I don’t want a thirty-two page script — I want a seventeen page script. [Laughs]
Schweizer: That was so great and helpful. You said it’s about seventeen pages, we can only fit six actors in the booth, so if you have more than six actors, make sure at least one of them can do different side characters, but you can’t have six principals and a side. Give me a commercial break at the end of page nine. I ate that up. I never really write for structural limitations, so that was really exciting. It gave me a framework around which to operate. There was something really fun and challenging about that.
Taylor: This is one of the reasons I had such a blast when I finally got down to writing the script for “Mask of the Red Panda” because it was completely different. I’d never seen a comic script until I started doing some research. Structurally, it’s completely different and each page has to have this much of an element of the story in it. You can only realistically have so many panels, and the more panels you have, the less can be going on in each of them. All of these intricate little elements that I never had to deal with before and it was a gas to sit down and deal with them. I started working on this prose project that some folks have me doing, and I was like, okay, so what’s the overall length? They were reluctant to give me an overall length and I’m like, no, tell me how long you want it and how many chapters you want it to be and it will be super easy for me to get this done on schedule. Structure is fun, when it’s new, especially.
Chris, what are you working on now?
Schweizer: I’m finishing up my last year of teaching. I’ve been teaching comics at SCAD Atlanta for the past five years. I absolutely love teaching, but between that and being a dad, it’s cut into Crogan time. I’m researching and plotting out future projects and doing a lot of for hire work on the side, mostly design stuff.
Right now, I’m preparing class lectures and stuff like that, but as far as Crogan books go, I’m about halfway through “Crogan’s Escape,” which is the fourth Crogan graphic novel. It’s basically about a circus daredevil who has a brush with death that makes him afraid of taking risks, which is a problem because the tramp steamer on which the circus is based is trapped upriver in Mainland China during the warlord era. There’s a particular nasty guy who wants them all dead, so that’s a lot of fun. I got to build a big tramp steamer model that I used as reference, which was really just an excuse for me to build a big tramp steamer model. That one’s going to be coming up next, but I do have a Crogan’s story in the Oni Free Comic Book day comic.
Gregg, I know you’re in midst of recording for next year.
Taylor: If we didn’t have that big lead off, I would have had a nervous breakdown years ago. The internet is a cruel mistress, and if you disappear for two months, three months, you’re gone and you have to find everyone again and get them all back. I’ve gotten better and better at it so it doesn’t take all year anymore, and hasn’t for a long time. We have our last recording session of the season this Saturday coming up which will take us through to episodes that will air in August of 2014. I’ll have to mix those, which happens in bits and pieces because there’s no huge panic to it you can take your time and really enjoy things.
So that is going on now and will continue off and on. There’s another “Red Panda” novel that is done and the cover is coming together. I still have my fingers crossed for May, but that’s looking unlikely now. It’s called “Pyramid of Peril.” I have another project I don’t quite know what to call yet. I’m still wrapping my head around, but it will be the next thing that I write. Because the comic is going well I keep having these unbidden and unrequested stories pop into my head for what we could do next for “Mask of the Red Panda” comics. I’m like, oh no, don’t go away! But don’t finish yourself just yet, because I’m not ready to write you.
The 15th of each month sees a new episode of “Crogan’s Adventures” come out, and on the first of each month there’s a new “Red Panda.” The third and so far final issue of “The Mask of the Red Panda” is out now.
Taylor: Yes. It’s been a heck of a toboggan ride and I hope we can keep it going.
Gregg, it’s nice to see “The Red Panda” getting some more attention from the comics world because it’s been really impressive how you’ve been crafting a great superhero story over the years.
Taylor: It’s super exciting. It turns out that if you actually go somewhere where there’s still an industry — [Laughs] It turns out that people sometimes pay a little more attention to it. Live and learn.
Schweizer: There’s a lot of folks who make comics who already listen to Decoder Ring just because it is so well suited to being what we can pay attention to while we’re working. The self-contained nature of it is really nice. I would imagine a lot of the re-tweets and posts have been from people in the community already being to some degree familiar with Red Panda.
Finally, what do you think about the state of audio drama? It seems like we’ve seen a lot of new work coming out in recent years.
Taylor: There are a lot more independent groups doing it than when we started. I in no way claim to have any kind of influence over that. I think people just noticed that the technology was available and the distribution means was available. It’s been terrific for the form to have people very actively interested in creating. It’s never really gone away in Britain, and there are some outfits that have continued to do some terribly good stuff, independent producers producing things commercially. There’s been a lot of growth in North America in the last few years, and podcasting has been a great gift to people wanting to create and tell stories in that way because they could have a reasonable chance, with some hard work and determination, to actually get their stories in people’s hands. I mean, you don’t mind doing the work — you just want to have a reasonable chance that someone’s going to be able to consume that. I think that’s been tremendous for the form. Certainly for us, it’s been great.