Karl Kerschl has worked as an artist on “Teen Titans: Year One,” “The Adventures of Superman,” “Countdown,” “Majestic” and numerous other titles throughout his career. He also illustrated and co-wrote The Flash feature in last year’s “Wednesday Comics,” and it was that project that which earned him a much higher profile in the comic book industry. It was recently announced that his next major print project will be produced alongside studiomate Cameron Stewart on an “Assassin’s Creed” comic for Ubisoft.
His most personal project, however, can be found online at abominable.cc. “The Abominable Charles Christopher” is a webcomic that Kerschl began three years ago for which he’s twice been nominated for the Eisner Award for best digital comics. The book collecting the first two years of the strip came out this spring and CBR spoke with Kerschl about the strip. This interview took place before the Eisner Award ceremony where Kerschl lost to his studiomate and “Assassin’s Creed” collaborator Cameron Stewart.
CBR News: Karl, “The Abominable Charles Christopher” has been going on for three years now. First of all, congratulations. Where did this character comes from?
Karl Kerschl: Completely out of the blue, inasmuch as ideas come to you out of the blue. It’s really a culmination of lots of different influences that I’ve grown up with and that have inspired me over the years.
I was in Toronto working out of a studio with Cameron Stewart and Ramon Perez and Andy Belanger and a bunch of other guys. We had decided three years ago that we wanted to put together this collective to do webcomics called TX Comics. I was trying to come up with an idea for something I could manage once a week that wouldn’t interfere too much with the rest of my work. I had a much more elaborate story planned out. A linear, more traditional story, with a beginning and ending. Something that could be told in strip format, but was much more like a traditional comic book. I was writing it and I scrapped it because I wasn’t really happy with it. Going to work one morning, I was thinking about animated shows and those old Woody Woodpecker shows and a lot of Chuck Jones’ stuff and Sasquatch, for some reason. I was thinking about silent protagonists and how that might work in an animated show surrounded by chatty characters. One thing led to another, and I went into work that day and drew an image of this Charles Christopher character. I gave him that name because it seemed ridiculous. A really overly sophisticated name for a really simple minded character.
How did the story evolve from that idea and the basic concept of you main character?
I did the first strip on a whim. We were going to be officially launching the TX Comics site at the TCAF show in Toronto, so we needed something. I did a strip where really nothing happens in it. It’s just this guy sitting under a tree, and then it starts raining and he gets scared and runs away. I was enamored enough with it that I wanted to follow through on that and see where he was going, because I didn’t really know. I’ve always treated the strip as something that I do from week to week without any real forethought. Characters just appear really as springboards for him to work off of. [Charles] doesn’t speak, so I needed characters around him talking a lot just to get across a sense of narrative. I guess I could have done it silently, but it seemed a lot more interesting to show his personality and actions through his inactions involving situations with other more proactive characters.
It’s in newspaper strip form, just because it was the most convenient way to do it online. As we were feeling around for how to do comics on the web, we were aware that there shouldn’t be any scrolling involved. The last thing you want to do when you’re reading a comic online is scroll down the page. I feel like you can do long form comics on the web, but I still think that most of the online comics reading audience like to get in and out of there quickly. I think that the success of most online comics, the ones who have managed to successfully make a business of it, are delivering content that is easily digestible. That’s not to say it’s not sophisticated, it’s just something that people form habits of visiting. You end up bookmarking that and going back every day and getting a small fix. Just like newspaper comics, but more convenient. I don’t think I was aware of that in any business sense when I started this, but I knew that I, personally, would not sit around reading anything lengthy that I had to scroll down to read. I wanted to keep it pretty short. Also, we were trying to juggle these comics with other comics work.
When someone asks what the comic is about, how do you describe it?
I try not to. I hope that it describes itself. I think the same can be said of most people’s work. It is what it is. I could describe it a million different ways, and I don’t know that any one way is accurate. It’s a series of explorations of human frailties and innocence. It’s really a kind of a childlike look at the world. That’s the way I treat it, anyway. It’s small fragments of humanity.
Scenes of nature and animals are not something we see a lot of in your comics work prior to “The Abominable Charles Christopher.” Is this what you like to sketch?
I started drawing comics professionally when I was eighteen. I became pretty single minded about the genre I wanted to work in and how I wanted to hone my craft. That revolved around the predominant genre in North American comics, which is superheroes. I tried to become better and better at doing that, and I think I had tunnel vision regarding that from an early age. What I found, and it was completely unintentional, was that I wasn’t really that interested in drawing superheroes, or even reading about them. I found that all of the work I was doing, at least in the last few years, I was attempting to inject an element of humor that wasn’t necessarily appropriate to the content. I think it is appropriate to the content, but not perceived as being appropriate by readers and publishers alike. It wasn’t until “Teen Titan: Year One” that I really got to play with a subject that I could tread with very lightly. I found that a lot of the way I treat humor, or the stuff that’s humorous to me, a lot of is reactive moments. It’s characters’ expressions reacting to the ridiculous. We were doing a Beast Boy sequence in “Teen Titans: Year One” that involved goofy animals. Shortly after that, I started working on “The Abominable Charles Christopher.”
I realized that if I went back to look at my sketchbooks from my childhood, prior to my fascination with the superhero genre, it was all animal drawings. It was sketchbooks full of pandas and cougars and wolves and whatnot. It’s weird that I’d forgotten that. Before I was interested in superheroes, I was really only interested in wildlife drawings. The memory of that had completely escaped me until probably half a year into drawing “The Abominable Charles Christopher.” It came naturally. I’ll reference an animal once or twice the first time I’m drawing it, but I feel like I have an understanding of animal anatomy and behavior. I’ve had a lot of pets. I genuinely just enjoy drawing this stuff.
You said that you don’t really plan out the strip week to week, but there is an overarching story. It ambles along, but it’s there.
I think that’s an accurate term. It ambles by necessity because the character himself is an ambler. There are overarching stories, but I feel like I don’t know what they are until I’ve done a bit of meandering. I know that for myself, and this is just completely arbitrary, I like to have a story climax or a culmination of plot elements once a year. At the end of the first year, I did a climactic moment with Charles on the mountain with a lion, or a character who was seemingly a lion. That was not planned. That came to me probably halfway through the year. I kind of like it that way. I have certain points that I think it would be nicer for him to get to, but I guess more to the point, I don’t know what that year has been about until I’ve just puttered around doing random gag strips and jokes. Certain themes crop up that I’m unaware of until I’ve gone back and looked at it. For example, I didn’t know this, but the first book collects the first two years of the strip and it ends on a note about family. I didn’t know that that arc of the story was about family until I was halfway through it. For whatever reason, the characters and situations seemed to be about the relationship between parents and children. That’s not intentional. That just kept coming up, so I go with it when I notice it. It’s really as simple as that and I just trust that. I think if I forced my own thoughts about plot the idea would really ruin the natural feeling of the work.
That’s interesting, because there are small elements that crop up later. I’m thinking specifically of Sissi Skunk. There are lots of moments that make it clear you’re planning something bigger.
I would love to tell you that I was. [Laughs] I think, and I don’t know, because I haven’t done an extensive amount of writing, but I suspect that most writers write what they feel and realize later that they keep hitting upon certain recurring themes. I think that’s what’s happening here. You’re right, though. Stuff does recur. For example, I introduced that Sissi Skunk character really early on in the strip just because I thought it was funny. I had no idea that that character probably wasn’t even Sissi Skunk. It wasn’t until recently that I started doing this wolf and skunk story that I realized that we probably haven’t even seen Sissi Skunk yet. That was just one of many salesman she has working for her, if she even exists. It’s just a fun story to me about corporate corruption. [Laughs] I don’t know where it’s going to go. It just evolved that way.
What about when Townsend was introduced? He mentioned early on about his siblings. Did you know how the story would resolve or was that just something he says?
That was just something he says. He showed up as a character to talk around Charles. I knew Charles was climbing up this mountain and he was going in a certain direction. I could do weeks of silent strips, which I’m fine with, but every once in a while I feel guilty. People probably want to read some text, so I’ll stick a character in there that counters Charles’ nature or pushes him in a certain direction or voices any fears he might have. Townsend mentioned his brothers, just because he’s a chatty kid. I didn’t know why he would be out there alone, so he mentioned his brothers. It’s a good excuse for Charles to pick him up and take him with him. I didn’t know what was happening.
The end of that Townsend story arc is the end of the second year, and it wasn’t until probably halfway through the second year that I knew how it was going to end. That was a rare case of my knowing how I wanted to play out that moment in terms of plot, and that moment was in my head for a long time before I got it down on paper. It just felt right to me. I felt like rescuing Townsend’s brothers is really like the only thing for me that excuses the horrible stuff that’s happening.
How do you balance the ongoing adventures or misadventures of Charles Christopher and the larger plot with the small gags and character bits of other animals?
I don’t know. I tried early on to transition from one strip to the next even when they were completely unrelated with scenes or ideas or visuals that were similar. Even seemingly unrelated moments I try to tie together with some kind of visual or thematic cue. Not always. Sometimes it’s completely random, but in terms of balancing unrelated moments, I think part of it’s instinctive.
My strip’s called “The Abominable Charles Christopher,” so if I don’t get back to what he’s doing pretty soon, people are going to get frustrated and I’m going to get frustrated because I want to see more of him. I could spend weeks upon weeks doing random strips about animals being goofy or having family issues, but ultimately the strip is about Charles. I’ve got to get back and see what he’s doing, but also, this is something that’s unique to webcomics, I get feedback in the comments section that indicates frustration if there hasn’t been enough plot movement or if it’s been too heavy. If it’s gotten a bit too dark or sad, people will write and say, man, I really like this, but I need some relief. [Laughs] I try to feel it out for myself and gauge what the audience reaction is and try to balance humor and pathos. It’s really balancing emotions more so than character time. It’s nice to have the instant feedback from the audience. It’s helpful, anyway. It may not always be accurate. Or sometimes they’re feeling exactly what you want them to feel. There is an emotional arc or roller coaster and I feel that it might be hard to ride it for another couple weeks, but at least I have an idea of how I feel it should be paced.
The sequence ending the second year, Townsend’s death and what followed, is where the comic really established itself as an emotional story and one that worked really well as an emotional and metaphoric tale.
I don’t want to rush the characters. Charles especially, I don’t want to rush him through his emotions. I think he’s feeling certain things, and if his best friend dies, then I think I owe it to him to give him enough time to work through that. I’m locked into a certain emotional arc at that point. To be light handed with it would be to disrespect the character, I think.
Maybe some of these moments seem random on a weekly schedule and may work better when read all together. I don’t really know. There are times when I feel guilty about that for the random reader who stumbles across this confusing strip about Charles floating down the river chasing a feather. I guess that’s just a sacrifice you’ve got to make. You bite the bullet and tell that bit of the story and hope that something resonates with the reader enough that he’ll go back and read a bit more. I feel, at least in its free form online, like I don’t owe it to anyone but myself to tell the story the way I want to tell it. It’s not like I’m selling someone something and they’re being shortchanged. It’s really just an exploration of characters and emotions. The nice thing about doing it this way is I’m not beholden to anyone. I’ll just tell it the way I feel is best and hope that people stick around for the journey.
Reading all the strips yesterday in one sitting, it worked beautifully and really satisfyingly in a way it wasn’t necessarily when read weekly.
I can imagine it would be. That’s partly why I will cut away to easily digestible gag strips every once in a while. It’s not just to relieve emotional tension, but also to give people something that’s satisfying in one sitting. That’s something I was not comfortable with until I started this strip. The art of strip format comics was completely foreign to me, but I find it really interesting that you can tell a story completely differently in four or five panels as opposed to stretched out over a whole page.
You mentioned the book, which came out a couple months back. You just stopped taking orders for personalized sketch editions because you were being overwhelmed by orders.
It’s a good problem to have. [Laughs] I’m thrilled that the orders keep coming and the book’s doing very well. I feel guilty now. Each sketch takes me ten to fifteen minutes to do and I try to get as many of them done as I can every day, but they’re just backlogged now. I don’t even know how many I have to do. I don’t want people ordering them now and having to wait for a couple months to get their books. Once I get caught up, I’ll bring that option back.
It’s raining a lot in the strip. Why is that? Are you even conscious of it?
Not really. Now that you mention it, I guess it does. It starts in the rain. No, I don’t know what that means. I know that the moment where he’s rushing to find Townsend it’s raining. I think at the time it was probably just used as a tool to keep up the emotional crescendo there. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s rained since then. Maybe it has.
It hasn’t rained much in the strip recently.
I don’t know. I wish I had a better answer for you. It’s one of those things that I’ll hopefully figure out as I go. I like the way the characters behave when it’s raining. Everyone holes up and you get these tender moments between characters just conversing because it’s raining outside. I particularly like the relationship between that father bird and his two children. That works, I think, because he is locked out of the house during the rain. If it wasn’t raining, that moment probably wouldn’t have played quite as nicely.
It’s a touching but also really funny relationship that they have.
I’m not a parent, but I really like the moments about parents in this comic. I think one of my favorite moments is the first time we see Townsend’s mom. It’s just one strip, she’s outside waiting and I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Something rings true about it. It reminds me of my own mom. I didn’t set out to tell a story about parents, because I don’t really know anything about parenting, but I feel like there’s more of that to come. There’s more of that I want to explore. Particularly with those two owls. I think there’s something interesting to say there.
I really like the owls.
Me too. They only really turn up at major chapter endings. I don’t know why that is. Initially, it was just because I like owls and I wanted them to be something special, so they only turned up once a year. I think there’s something to be explored in the relationship between that father and his son. I don’t know what that is yet.
Things are going to change drastically, though, at the end of this year. I think. I’m a little scared of that. I know how this year is going to end, but I don’t know how I’m going to play the strip after that. I’m essentially writing myself into a corner. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it, but it should be interesting. It will mix things up. Which I guess puts us at about the halfway point of the whole story if it’s going to be three books, which is my intention.
Is it a challenge to balance the strip with your other work in comics like “Wednesday Comics?” I know you’re working “Assassin’s Creed” for Wildstorm.
It’s difficult to balance. I have to say the webcomic is probably the only thing I’ve been truly professional about in my whole career. It’s the only thing I’ve never missed a deadline for. It’s the thing that takes priority for me always. I’ll take one day a week to do the strip, no matter what else is happening. That’s maybe not always the best decision, but it’s what I’ve been doing. It’s the thing that’s closest to me, so I don’t want to shortchange it in any way. I value all of the work I’m doing, but this one is the most important to me. It’s not easy. It’s a lot of work to juggle. Especially now. I’ve got so much stuff on my plate right now that it’s becoming more and more difficult.
Any chance to we’ll see a plush toy of Charles Christopher?
I’d like to do it, but all of this stuff, managing myself and the comic and the book and the merchandise surrounding it, it’s all stuff I don’t know how to do until I figure it out. Making shirts was a pain. I made one shirt that we sold out of and that was a big deal. I’d never had shirts made before. Making the book was a colossal learning experience and luckily was very successful.
Making plush toys is something that I would like to do, but I have to learn how to do it first. I don’t even know where to begin. I’m pretty sure I could contact a Chinese company and send out some designs, have a bit of a back and forth and get something made that’s pretty cool. If it’s possible, I would like to do something locally. It would be nice to get those made here in Canada, but I don’t know if that’s financially feasible or even how to do it. (laughs)
That’s part of what makes doing all this stuff amazing. Being in control of all this stuff is an incredible feeling and it’s something I wouldn’t trade for anything. The more of it I do, the more I wonder why I ever do anything else. Once you learn how to do some of this stuff, you realize that you don’t need anyone else to do it for you. The idea of handing over, not just control, but the experience of doing it personally, is kind of unthinkable. With the advent of digital publishing models, we’re going to see a lot of people doing this stuff for themselves in the next few years. I’m really excited for it, because I’m not interested in ever pitching an idea to someone again. There’s no reason to do it. There’s no reason for any professional artist or writer or creator to pitch a publisher on anything. If you’ve got a good idea for something, you should just go and do it. You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. It’s free to do and you can do it all yourself, find an audience yourself, and there’s no better feeling.