Kevin C. Pyle's Stray Cats & Superheroes

Kevin C. Pyle probably isn't a name most comics fans are familiar with, but he's been working in comics and illustration for many years. Pyle's received the Silver Medal from the Society of Illustrators and has contributed to the long-running anthology "World War 3 Illustrated," and co-edited the most recent volume, issue #39, which was released earlier this year.

In 2007, Pyle released "Blindspot," a graphic novel that he dedicated to "Mom, Dad and Sgt. Rock," about a young boy and the war games he plays with his friends. It showed Pyle as an artist interested in the relationship between fantasy and reality and how they reflect and influence each other, in drawing realistic teenage characters who are trying to make sense of themselves and their lives and as an artist, and also demonstrated Pyle's considerable skill at establishing a sense of place. An excerpt of "Blindspot" was included in 2008's "The Best American Comics" edited by Lynda Barry.

Pyle's new graphic novel "Katman" is one a tightly plotted story that balances multiple story and thematic elements. It's the story of a teenage boy who starts feeding stray cats in his neighborhood, and what starts out very simply becomes a very powerful story about fighting for something that matters and the refusal to remain cynical and detached from the world.

CBR News spoke with Kevin C. Pyle about "Katman" and his body of work.

CBR: Kevin, why don't you introduce yourself for readers who may not know you.

KEVIN C. PYLE: Well, I guess currently I'd refer to myself as an author/illustrator of graphic novels. While I've been doing comics for twenty years, I only recently started doing graphic novels. For years I thought of myself as more of a gallery artist and illustrator who also did some comics, but somewhere along the way comics came to dominate. This is probably because I started doing longer and longer things that required tons of time, but also because I became increasingly fascinated by the interaction of words and pictures and storytelling. For almost ten years I did mostly non-fiction comics, a lot of which were printed in "World War 3 Illustrated" and my book "Lab U.S.A." I still do some non-fiction comics and occasionally show in galleries, but the graphic novels take up most of my time and consciousness. 

How would you describe your new book "Katman?"

Plot-wise, it's about a teen boy, Kit, who starts, mostly out of boredom, feeding stray cats and ends up with more than he bargained for. There are some heavy metal kids who hang out behind the Kwickie Mart who deride this activity, but among them is a more punk girl who is interested in what he's doing. She's also obsessed with drawing manga and ends up creating a character, Katman, based on Kit.  As things get more intense he ends up drawing strength from this heroic vision she's created of him. A lot of the action takes place in the disused places under overpasses and behind stores where stray cats end up. There's an underlying theme of abandonment and disaffection and what can happen once you decide to step outside of yourself and care about something, as opposed to the classic teenage stance of disengagement.  

There's a lot going in the book. Do you begin with an idea or an image? How do you work?  

In this case it was the coming together of a few ideas I wanted to explore and experiences in my life that all folded into a story. I tend to get a lot of ideas for stories that just bubble up, and this one seemed to have potential for exploring ideas that I was interested in. I'm really attracted to drawing abandoned places, and after "Blindspot" I knew that I wanted to keep exploring the idea of having the setting of a story communicate something about the emotional reality of the characters. One day I noticed a whole little cat village set up behind an abandoned warehouse that I could see from the platform of the train I take. I also have a friend, the comics writer Scott Cunningham, who has fed stray cats in his backyard in Brooklyn for years. I've always been struck by how it is a particularly quiet and understated form of heroism. The idea of contrasting this sort of heroism with the more dramatic parallel vision seemed like fun. So it's sort of based in my experiences, but only as a starting point. "Blindspot" was the same way, though it has much more autobiography in it. But there was a similar point, when I hit on the idea of having the kids' army fantasy look like a "Sgt. Rock" comic, that I got really excited and felt the story had enough potential to pursue in a long form. 

Reading "Katman" is obviously structured precisely. It really is a tightly plotted work that builds towards an inevitable conclusion. Do you spend a lot of time in the writing and scripting stage?  

I do spend quite a bit of time on the script, especially with this book, because it took me a while to know who the characters were. I also end up refining the plotting and dialogue in the sketch stage. I think the precise structuring comes from my interest in pulling themes out of the material while also being concerned that those themes seem to rise naturally out of the story instead of seeming to be imposed on it. Since "Katman" is essentially a hero's journey there is an inevitable level of predictability, so I decided to make that the structure within which to explore the ideas of heroism, loyalty, abandonment, etc. 

You incorporated of the Eastern religion Jainism into the story, which is something we don't see a lot of and really adds depth to not just the neighborhood, but Kit's way of thinking. What made you include that?  

Years ago I traveled in India, and when researching a particularly beautiful temple in Mount Abu I found out about the extreme non-violence of Jainism. On a very long train ride to Delhi, I sat across from a Jain man named Vinod. That all popped into my mind when I was putting together that scene. The deli I based it on is at the end of my block and is run by an Indian man, so it all fit together. I also thought it was cool to represent him as Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles, in Jess's manga version. 

One of the funniest and ultimately saddest moments was when the character who we never know as anything other than the crazy catlady quotes from "Planet of the Apes." At what point did you end up incorporating that quotation? 

Well, with the Catlady I was really trying to walk the line between her being an unhinged misanthrope and someone whose mistrust of people is seated in a larger worldview. When the quote came to mind, it just seemed to encompass all of that in one line. I must have seen "Planet of the Apes" a dozen times as a kid, so it must've been just floating around my brain. I did have to look it up though to get the exact wording. 

Why did you include the interludes with the character Katman and how did you end up designing the aesthetic look of those scenes?

The idea of the interplay between a real-life quiet story and a dramatic fantasy manga story was there in the beginning. Doing workshops with artistically inclined teens, I became interested in what attracts them to drawing manga. I haven't read much of it, but I love all the visual depictions of unseen forces and action in Shonen. I thought it would be interesting to have the events of a more quiet, realistic story reflected in that visual language. I also was into it being drawn by a girl, since it's a powerful and physical reflection of the more feminine nurturing activity that the boy is doing. At some point I decided to make the interludes red to set them apart and to make the link between Jess's drawings and the more finished fantasy pages. That led to having the pages in the "reality" sections start out gray and get progressively saturated in red as the events reach the level of intensity of the manga interludes. So the color became an abstract marker for how these two realities come together. 

Reading "Katman" and "Blindspot" at the same time, I couldn't help but feel that your work is an attempt to create young adult fiction that just happens to be in graphic novel form. Is that what you're trying to do?  

Well, that's true with "Katman." I used to work as a designer at a children's book company and was somewhat intrigued by the brief write-ups on the back covers of the YA books I would lay out.  I think writing about young characters is interesting because they are in such transitional moments.  My first book for this market, "Blindspot," started out as an attempt to capture a specific moment in my own life, but I found I could explore some interesting themes in that context. I'm currently drawing another book with young characters in it as well. 

What were the books and comics that you loved and really inspired you in terms of something that felt true as a kid?  

The movie "400 Blows" by Francios Truffaut is a huge touchstone for me with this material. I think I was around 12 or 13 when I saw it on PBS and remember clearly how it was the first thing I'd seen a kid in that felt true for me. Same with reading "Lord of the Flies." I like works of art about childhood but done for adults. As far as comics, I'm one of those art school kids who read "Raw" magazine and got all psyched to experiment with words and pictures. Farther back, as a young kid, the only comics I remember reading were "Sgt. Rock" and "Kamandi." Part of me feels I must have an epic post-apocalypse story brewing in the recesses of my mind, but I think it's going to take a while to come out.

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