Chris Schweizer on Crogan's March

Since starting Talking Comics with Tim in 2009, I have made a frequent effort to not interview creators more than once. But as I am well into my second year, I've decided to ease that self-imposed restriction. Thus why I tapped Chris Schweizer again (after last year's discussion) to do an email interview regarding his second installment in the Crogan Adventures chronicle, Crogan's March (Oni Press). In addition to discussing the adventures of French Legionnaire Peter Crogan (circa 1912), the SCAD Atlanta professor pulls back the curtain on his creative process as well as his plans to participate in Free Comic Book Day in Atlanta (he has a 10-page Crogan Adventures story in the Oni Press Free-for-All). For my money, Schweizer is one of the good guys in the Atlanta comics scene and I appreciated the chance to interview him about his latest book. Once you read the interview, be sure to check out the 26-page preview that Oni has posted.

Tim O'Shea: Which character look did you come up with first--Sgt. Ludlow's ears or Captain Roitelet's chin?

Chris Schweizer: Originally, the two characters were one in the story, and that one was a short, barrel-chested moustached guy with a shaved head. As I was writing, though, I started to realize that I could use the officers to showcase the two different primary motivations for colonialism. Once I started writing Roitelet, I fell in love with him – he was so much fun to do. I plan on him popping up again.

Roitelet’s design was actually cannibalized from an earlier design – much earlier, actually - a strip called Keelhaul that I had in my college newspaper, the Murray State News. There was a character named Fop, who was based on a friend of mine (I still tend to base characters on friends), and he looked a lot like Roitelet in the face. I made the hair blonde to better play off the fair-haired dashing hero of early 20th century adventure lit ideal, and changed up the body a bit, but the core of the character comes from Fop. Since I wasn’t ever going to do anything with Keelhaul again, I thought it okay to steal, since I was stealing from myself and only a handful of Kentuckians had ever seen the original.

(Note – after answering this question, I looked for some old strips, and although in my own head I was completely ripping off my own design, there’s actually much less similarity between the Fop character and Roitelet. [See a sample of the strip above.])

For Ludlow, there was a British character actor in the sixties named Harry Andrews, who would often play military officers. I liked the juxtaposition of his big ears which would be nerdy were it not for his gravelly forcefulness. I used them as a jumping-off point for the design, and pushed it a bit more.

O'Shea: In a recent interview with ACME Comics, you mentioned your affinity for Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe, would you agree that Gonick's work may somewhat informs what you're doing with the Crogan Adventures?

Schweizer: Not directly, in that I don’t use those books much for research, and while his storytelling approach definitely colors my humor comics and my nonfiction stuff (as well as my Christmas cards), it doesn’t have much influence on my storytelling style for my fiction projects.

That said, the Crogan Adventures would be much different were it not for the Gonick books. I’ve been reading them since I was probably ten years old, and one of the things that most captured me was how each period in history directly plays into the next, intricately interwoven in a cause-and-effect tapestry, and how you can’t really understand a period without being informed about those which precede it. It’s what got me nuts for history, excited about the periods that I once thought were boring because they directly inform the periods I thought were exciting. And, in studying them, I realized that THEY were exciting of their own merits, too.

A big goal with the Crogan series is to showcase where in relation to each other all of these genre periods fall. The old west is separated from the rise of modern cities, with cars and electricity, by geography more than by time. The Napoleonic Wars end only twenty-one years before the battle of the Alamo. This is the sort of thing that got me excited about history, stuff I got from the Gonick books, and it’s what I hope will get others similarly excited.

O'Shea: You deal with death in this book to a certain extent, did you hesitate having that be part of the book (given that it's for teen readers) or for historical accuracy did you always intend to acknowledge the risk of death in this setting (1912: French Foreign Legion)? {First spoiler warning, skip this question if you wish for the story not to be spolied}

Schweizer: I’ve never wanted to shy away from death in these books because I think that narrative plays an important sociological role for children in helping them encounter and deal with emotions they hopefully won’t HAVE to deal with in their “real” life – terror, vengeful anger, grief. By giving them the opportunity to feel these emotions in a safe and structured setting, stories help kids to be accustomed to these emotions and thus better equipped to deal with real-life situations that may evoke them. Also, these are adventure stories, and the time periods in which I set them were violent. These things necessitate the characters being at genuine risk of life and limb, and I have no qualms about including them; I simply try to handle it tastefully, so as to not make it visually inappropriate for any age group.

Crogan’s March Spoiler (here's your second spoiler warning, folks, skip this answer if you wish for the story to remain unspoiled): Peter Crogan’s death was calculated, in that I wanted to establish early on in the series that just because a character is the protagonist doesn’t mean he’ll survive his story. Hopefully, this will create a genuine concern for the protagonist’s safety in all future Crogan books (and Vengeance, if folks read that one second). I may never kill another one, but it sets a precedent that I might.

O'Shea: In the "Thanks to" back pages of the book, you thank Hunter Wook-Jin Clark for meeting you in the early morning at the local (for you and me, that is, given we're both Atlanta-based) Majestic Diner to iron out plot challenges. Can you give folks a glimpse of how some of those sessions in the diner went? And I'm curious, that's a diner (around since 1929) with a hell of a lot of character (and characters) did anybody ever chime in when you were talking to Hunter?

Schweizer: No, mostly because we were there in that quiet time about an hour after the bars close but two or three before the early risers make there way out. I wrote down one of our more illuminating conversations afterwards, but it’s long and consists of nothing but spoilers. I was trying to nail down the exact ending, which was mostly formed but lacking specifics, and Hunter, who recently did the art for The Return of King Doug, helped me with articulating those specifics.

I’ve put the transcript online – you can read it here, but remember, if you haven’t read March yet, it’s all spoilers.  (End spoiler section)

O'Shea: From pages 143 to 159, major chunks of dialogue take place in absolute darkness. Some of the pages you don't even have dialogue or sound effects. Without giving anything away, page 157 is an absolute black panel, nothing else. Page 158, the darkness is split into three distinct panels. How the heck did you decide to take a narrative risk like that and how much (if any) editorial pushback did you get?

Schweizer: Page 157 is the only splash page I’ve ever done!

The cave sequence stemmed from two challenges – I’ve never been strong with depicting form through lighting rather than line, and this forced me to address that shortcoming, and I wanted to see if I could manipulate the reader in a suspenseful way in the same manner as a film. To me, monster movies are scary only until you see the monster, and the imagination can conjure up things far more terrible than can a comic artist. The black sequences are my attempt to do this, to stretch out and create that suspense. It seems like it would be a really easy sequence – there’s no drawing – but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend as much time on it as I did any other page. In one instance, I realized after doing the waking episode that I needed one more black panel than I had originally put in there in order to get the pacing right, and ended up redoing about four pages as a result.

[Oni editors] James [Lucas Jones] and Jill [Beaton] didn’t give me any flack about it – it’s not like I was trying to reach a page count by cheating (the book is actually about forty pages longer than I originally told them to expect), and they could tell what I was doing. I did get flack from my students, who call ‘em “Schweizer Boxes,” and tried to include them in as many assignments as possible for the week or two following their execution.

O'Shea: What was the hardest scene for you to execute to your liking? In terms of historical accuracy, which was the hardest element to research?

Schweizer: There are two scenes in which Crogan goes pages without talking. I try to keep my characters paired up as often as possible, so that one can always be narrating to another, but sometimes the protagonist is forced by the story to be alone, and in these instances I invariably fret over whether or not the audience is going to be able to tell what’s happening. In my thumbnails, sometimes even in my pencils, I write stilted monologues (“if I can just… get this chain…loose…”), trying to make sure that wha’s happening is clear. But by the time I get to inks, my confidence in the audience’s ability to figure it out with just the acting overcomes my concern, and I ink it without these. It’s really, really hard to let go of that, though. I’m so reliant on dialogue.

In terms of historical stuff, finding out how the different pre-WWI North African tribal system worked was really tricky. Not much of it ended up in the book – very little, actually, which is always frustrating considering how much time and effort went to trying to track it down all of it – but it does inform certain things, so it was worthwhile.

O'Shea: In the pursuit of historical accuracy, how do you make sure you don't get so bogged down in the accuracy that it does not derail the rhythm of your storytelling?

Schweizer: By doing all the research beforehand. I read as much as I possibly can, try to get as much of a feel for the period as possible, and then simply write a story. By this point, I hopefully know the period well enough to know what will or won’t be right, and little details that I picked up along the way stick with me and inform the plot. But at this point it becomes all about story; I don’t have to start tailoring things around certain facts I find, the facts are a part of it from the beginning, the same way as if I were writing a story taking place in my hometown while I was in high school. It becomes peripheral. The location and period are a part of it, yes, but only insomuch as they allow for the story to take place. I hope that makes sense.

O'Shea: Are there certain scenes that you look at and realize they benefited from the feedback you get from beta readers at SCAD Atlanta?

Schweizer: No one really “read” the book, except my wife Liz and my editors. I gave out a few copies of early chapters to a few folks for feedback – Matt Kindt was especially helpful in a couple of spots where off-panel balloons weren’t really clear as to whom they belonged – but mostly it was just showing people the drawings, out of sequence. Pat Bollin, who did a Resurrection story recently and is drawing a book called Ciudad, helped me out in a few places. For some reason, I hadn’t drawn in the inner line of Ludlow’s ears for a big chunk of the book, and he pointed this out, that they looked like weird tumors. I’d made Walad’s – that’s Arabic for “boy,” he doesn’t really have a name – I made his eyes grotesquely big in later scenes when in earlier ones they’d been little dots. Lots of scenic stuff. He’s a grad student, too – our students are a sharp bunch. We all help each other out on our work.

O'Shea: In a recent post at your blog, you wrote: "I definitely prefer the Crogan series to be in black and white." Simple question, why is that your preference?

Schweizer: I feel like there’s less distance between what I’m doing on my drawing table and the reader. Color adds a sort of middleman, and for me comics are as much about the art form as they are the stories. By putting my stuff out in black and white, without tones, it’s a story, yes, but you can also look at it to see technique and process, should you choose to approach it that way. Most of my favorite comics are in black and white, and I try and get my hands on as many black-and-white, non-toned versions of color comics that I like – the Calvin and Hobbes Sunday Pages OSU catalog, the Russ Cochran EC box sets – for this reason.

O'Shea: Care to talk about your plans for Free Comic Book Day?

Schweizer: There’s a ten-page Crogan Adventures story in the Oni Press Free-for-All, which also has stories from Matt Loux’s Salt Water Taffy and Ray Fawkes’ Possessions. It should be available at any shop participating in Free Comic Book Day. I’ll be doing signings that day at Criminal Records and at Oxford Comics, both in Atlanta. So far, no one in Atlanta has come close to measuring up to the type of FCBD that’s put on by other folks in our general vicinity (I’m thinking especially of Acme Comics in Greensboro and Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find in Charlotte), but we’re hoping these stores make a real event out of it. There are so many comic fans here and so many comic creators here, it’s a shame that no one has been successful at bringing the two together in a meaningful way.

I’ve spent the last couple of years doing signings at Heroes, where they have hundreds of folks coming in all day for signings and sketches by ten, fifteen different artists. This year, I’m giving ATL a try because I’d like to see that sort of thing done here, but it’s on the shoulders of the retailers to properly organize and promote it. I’m optimistic, though, which is why I’m staying home this year.

Doctor Doom Rules Over Marvel's Future in 2099 One-Shots

More in Comics