The latest original graphic novel from DC Zoom, DC Comics' publishing imprint for middle grade readers, is The Secret Spiral of Swamp Kid, written and illustrated by Kirk Scroggs (Snoop Troop). The story follows a teenager named Russell Weinwright (whose last name is a nod to Swamp Thing creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson) who seems like a typical eighth grader, doodling in his spiral notebook along with his friends Charlotte and Preston. Oh, and he also happens to be a plant-based individual, with foliage outgrowths and other odd tendencies. And he possesses a mysterious link to Swamp Thing, who lives the nearby Louisiana bayou.
Not a typical graphic novel, but rather a recreation of Russell's own spiral notebook chronicling his daily life and encounters with the supernatural DC superhero, Scroggs' work is a clear labor of love and unlike anything else from the publisher. In an exclusive interview, Scroggs sat down with CBR to discuss his inspiration behind the story and characters, and why he decided to take such this storytelling route, defying the conventional constraints of the medium.
CBR: How did this project all come about?
Kirk Scroggs: DC approached my agent, and they had this idea for a new line of graphic novels aimed squarely at kids, with all their favorite DC characters, and they had a list of maybe twenty different characters they were interested in playing around with. Immediately I looked at the list and the one name that just jumped out to me was Swamp Thing. So I immediately dropped my lunch, went to the computer and, within a few hours, I had a fake cover and scanned an old spiral notebook I had in the closet and three or four different sample pages. So I knew immediately that Swamp Thing was what I wanted to do.
Here, you have Swamp Thing as a sort of mentor figure. What was the draw of the character and why did you want to reposition him in that way?
I just thought it'd be kind of fun. If you lived near Louisiana, near the swamp, and Swamp Thing existed, he would be this kind of boogeyman figure, like a green Sasquatch that all the kids would talk about and warn others about. I thought it'd be really fun to start the story with that element going on and then slowly [reveal] he's a good guy. I turned him into this Obi-Wan father figure to this kid who has a similar affliction and all these questions about his own existence.
This graphic novel is told entirely from Russell's perspective. What made you want to tackle this his musings and daily life through his notebook?
I wanted it to seem like it really came from the brain of an eighth grader. I just thought that would be the quickest way to get it straight from the source but I also wanted it to just be a comic book, with DC and I think every author and illustrator has this secret desire to write a comic book or illustrate for a comic book. So I thought it'd be great, like, what if this kid Russell Weinwright is himself even an aspiring graphic novelist that wants to write comic books eventually but he's also got all these feelings that he wants to jot down in this notebook so I just wanted to mesh the two.
One of your earlier books, Wiley & Grampa's Creature Features, was focused on monsters. What is the appeal of monsters and characters that exist on the periphery of society?
I've been obsessed with monsters [my whole life]. I have notes from my kindergarten teacher to my parents about concerns of little Kirk drawing too many monsters in class. It was always what I gravitated towards. I loved Ghostbusters and Monster Squad; that was my bread and butter. More than superhero comics, I liked spooky comics like Weird War Tales. Swamp Thing, of course, felt like it was written specifically for me. And I've really never grown up, so... I was drawing monsters two minutes ago!
This book is packed with a lot of different things. You've got comic strips drawn by Russell, you've got entries including fun sequences of his first encounter with Swamp Thing. I love the fake class notes and ketchup stains that are scattered throughout the book.
[chuckling] I figured this book would have lots of stains from all sorts of accidents; spilled soda, accidentally catching it on fire occasionally. Those were the really fun parts, when I'd get really outside the box and put actual stains or rip the pages and there's some quirky little fake stickers that we did for the book that are kind of like if you combined Garbage Pail Kids with Wacky Packages but they're based off DC comic characters. They're just sort of things you'd find in a real kid's spiral.
I mentioned you positioned Swamp Thing as a mentor but you also get him involved in some big, bombastic superhero adventures. As somebody that's done books like Snoop Troop that lean more towards conventional action, was that kind of a dream come true, to finally have Swamp Thing in a full-on superhero sequence?
Oh yes -- any of the action scenes with the panels was just like living the dream. I would've put more in there if it didn't take so much time; it takes so much longer to create those kind of sequences but, oh my gosh, it was fantastic.
With this offbeat storytelling style, what was your creative approach or process to putting this all together?
I kind of started with an actual spiral notebook and sit on the floor and doodle rough samples and pages before I got to actually laying in the art. I usually write from the perspective of a middle schooler anyway because it's kind of where my brain is at so I just really went with that.
Where did the inspiration for Charlotte and Preston come about?
Well, my family lives in Louisiana now, ironically. And I just love Cajun culture and I definitely wanted Charlotte to bring some Creole witticisms and just be really tough; she wrestles alligators, she's kind of Russell's protector. And then I thought it would be fun with Preston as a character you didn't know if Russell could quite trust him yet. He's an aspiring journalist, a kind of TMZ type that wants to post things online and is kind of questionable with his motives.
What was the idea behind Mr. Finneca?
We've all had that kind of scary teacher in school where you just can't quite tell if they were mean or just tough and good. So I wanted him to just kind of exist in that ether that this guy might be villain or he might not. And I definitely had some teachers that fit that bill...I won't name any names.
I've love that you keep the reader guessing at the beginning where Mr. Finneca asks if he can keep some of Russell's drawings. You do keep them guessing whether he's friend or foe.
I think he's secretly a little jealous of Russell's talent. He sees that creative genius.
What was the process in designing Russell? Deciding to include the frog companion and the mutated, plant-like arm? What was the visual inspiration and inspiration behind his personality?
I really wanted him to be a lot like me in school because I was a creative kid. I wouldn't say I was an outcast but I was a wallflower. I was always doodling when I should've been paying attention. And I just thought Russell should be the ultimate outcast; he's got algae hair and face tendrils. The giant arm came last, actually, I thought he needed something to just really knock it out of the park and push it over the edge. It's like one of actual Swamp Thing's arms if he just transplanted it on to a twelve-year. It's like a Hellboy arm.
And with the frog, originally they were just going to find him at the beginning like "oh, it's a frog with the same affliction as Swamp Kid." But then I thought this frog just needs to stick around so Russell's arm just kind of became a habitat. My husband was very, very upset with the idea of a frog living in his arm but I think it's cute!
What do you find appealing about crafting stories that star younger characters?
My fondest memories are of middle school. I know a lot of people had a hard time in middle school but I just loved that age. Ninth grade was the moment where I didn't quite fit in. But yeah, I loved it. And this is a book for slightly older kids; I usually write for slightly younger kids and this is a little bit of a step forward in terms of age group, I think. Which is nice because I could go a little more crazy with the artwork, maybe a little grosser with the green, swampy, plant mutations.
The Secret Spiral of Swamp Kid, written and illustrated by Kirk Scroggs, arrives October 1 from DC Comics.