Stephen Coughlin Creates a "Sanctuary"

When SLG Publishing released the first issue of "Sanctuary" as a free digital download in .pdf, .cbz and .epub formats, it was the first time comic fans heard of writer-artist Stephen Coughlin. While the book marks his comic book debut, Coughlin is an art school graduate with credits including published work in in "Highlights" and has been drawing for many years. This experience is at the heart of the book's very assured tone and style.

Upon contacting Coughlin, CBR News discovered that this was his first interview and the creator joked that he would "try not to pull a Tracy Morgan" or otherwise invite controversy. CBR News is proud to speak with the cartoonist in his first ever interview and offers an exclusive look at the second issue of "Sanctuary." We speak with Coughlin in depth about the events of the first issue, so for those who like to avoid spoilers, please download and read #1 before settling in for this discussion.

CBR News: Stephen, will you introduce yourself to our readers and talk a little about your background prior to getting into comics?

Stephen Coughlin: When I was eighteen, I was accepted at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota Florida. I went there because I really wanted to work for Disney. I was there for two years and I learned a lot down there, but it was difficult for me to keep up with the increase in tuition. Ringling was becoming hugely popular because "Aladdin" had just come out and "The Little Mermaid" and so people were rushing down to Florida because they wanted to work for Disney Animation Studios. There were a lot of people all coming in at the same time and we all wanted the same thing and we all kind of cancelled each other out. I moved up back to Connecticut in '96 and then I went to Paier College of Art for four years, which is in Hamden, [CT]. During my fourth year I was taking a lot of cartooning classes and illustration. My cartooning teacher said, "I work for 'Highlights' magazine and would you be interested in working for 'Highlights?'" And so, of course, I was thrilled and I left school and worked for "Highlights."

I was happy to work for "Highlights" and it was great work, but when you ask for more money, they let you go and try to get someone who will not ask for more money. [Laughs] But it was a great experience. At that time a friend of mine that lived in Boston called and said, "I need a roommate, I'm sure there's artwork to do up here." I moved to Boston and lived there for ten years and barely did any illustration work at all. I was very discouraged. I met my current fiancee and then we ended up coming out here to California because she got accepted to Stanford, and when I came out here I spent a lot of time just working and drawing again and coming up with new ideas. Slave Labor had a creators workshop about a year ago and I went down there and met Dan [Vado]. I pitched him "Sanctuary" and showed him some work that I had been doing and he liked the idea and he said keep on doing it.

Had you done much comics otherwise?

No. I was really discouraged being in Boston. I took my portfolio out a lot and got a lot of "thanks but no thanks." Boston has five art schools in that area, so there's a constant influx of new students and people with fresh ideas. I think I just got lost in the mix. It wasn't until I came out to California that I really got inspired again. I think it was just because while [my fiancee] was in school, I was spending a lot of time just sitting around doing nothing so I started picking the pencil again.

Where did the idea for "Sanctuary" come from?

I really love Disney's Nine Old Men. I used to watch all those Disney movies. I would always be thinking to myself, "If I was going to write a story like that, what kind of story would I write?" I had always hoped that someday Disney would do some kind of a murder mystery movie, but obviously since it's for kids, they would never do that. I started writing my own murder mystery. I read a lot of murder mystery books and so I just sat down one day and started coming up with characters and trying to make a story that wouldn't just end after six issues, but would be something I could expand on a lot. I wanted to have something that was a story that related to humans trying to bridge a language gap with animals. That's when I came up with the idea of the scientists working and doing experiments and research and trying to change the way that animals think. That was the basis for "Sanctuary."

It's interesting that you phrase it like that, because the humans are not good at trying to figure out what the animals are thinking or doing.

[Laughs] They're not good at it at all. That's when I thought, "Okay, here's where I incorporate the murder part of it." An animal is brought in and then a jealousy will take over on the first day and so all of the sudden the panda ends up dead.

The dead panda makes it clear that this is not a Disney movie.

Yes, exactly. I know somebody who had written that there were a lot of funny animals in it. There will be jokes it in, but it's going to be more murder mystery based.

As you said, it's not an all-ages book, but it's something that you could give to a lot of elementary school age kids.

Exactly. I use the word "ass" in the book a few times, but there isn't anything that's too violent in the book. I don't have characters getting slaughtered or anything. That death scene that you saw with the panda was as bad as it gets.

How did your style develop?

When I was in school I tried a lot of different styles. I liked working in pastels and charcoals, but I also liked using gouache watercolors. I think when I was in Connecticut, the style of using wash as a watercolor and then using colored pencils over it was something that I really liked. It keeps the illustration looking really sketchy. I think when I had gone to Dan at Slave Labor, I brought in a lot of work that had watercolors and pencil overlays. We scanned them into his computer and it just looked horrible. [Laughs] So [Dan] said, why don't you do the sketch part of it for the pages and then you can get a colorist to come in and do the grayscale. I met my colorist, Guy Jordan, through a friend and he is the one that does all my grayscale cheating stuff.

You said earlier that in creating "Sanctuary," you wanted an idea that you could expand on and tell a larger story.

I didn't want a story that began and ended. I really like Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead," because the first six issues of the story plant a seed for an ongoing series. You can read the first six issues of the book and when the book ends, you'd be satisfied and put it on your bookshelf, but the story continues from that point. I felt that was a good way to start an ongoing series, so I wrote the book that way with a beginning and ending, but some parts of the story will continue on.

What about this idea of animals in a zoo appealed to you?

Ever since I was a kid I always preferred drawing animals over humans. It's not that I'm bad at drawing humans. I really enjoy incorporating facial expressions into animals, so when I started writing this book, the animals that I picked were animals that would be challenging for me to make facial expressions for. I had never seen a movie that had a giraffe in it, so the giraffes in the story were really something that I wanted to make facial expressions for. The panda. The tigers. I did the same thing that any animator would do, I put a mirror in front of my face and made weird faces and then drew them on paper. It's strange because I enjoy much more drawing the animals in the story than I do the humans. When I get to parts of the story where I have to draw the humans, it kind of bores me. [Laughs] I go, "Okay, let's just get this over with."

When people ask you to describe the book, what do you say?

I know the banner that Dave created said "Part Lost, Part Jungle Book." I was a big fan of "Lost," but "Lost" was very magical and mystical and there are none of those story elements in this story. Other than the animals speaking, it's very much based in reality. I try to tell people, when describing the book, think of a Disney murder mystery.

I kept thinking of it as Nick Park's "Creature Comforts" as written by Agatha Christie.

[Laughs] I'm a big fan of Nick Park. I love all the Wallace and Gromit stuff. I appreciate all the animation in it, but he really writes a good story. I really try my best to make sure all the story elements that are featured make sense at the end. I think part of the reason I was so excited to write season two was that I wasn't going to do a murder mystery. It's really difficult to write one. You have to make sure everything makes sense toward the end of the book and that all the plot lines are tied up.

One of the reasons I mentioned Agatha Christie is because it's a zoo, so it's both highly monitored and a very sealed world, which was one of her specialties.

Exactly. The whole reason I put the walls around the sanctuary [is] because I thought, isn't it creepier when somebody says, "The murderer is in the room," because you're all stuck in that room with that person. By putting a wall around the sanctuary they're all stuck in there with whoever killed that panda. Nobody's going anywhere. No one's escaping.

What can you tease for us about what happens in the next five issues?

There's a lot of investigation that happens in chapter two. The humans start doing their own investigation into how somebody got into the panda pit and why there was no power going to the area. The animals start their investigation. There's four stories that will take off from that point. The gorillas have their own storyline that will head off in a different direction. The giraffes have their own one. Then the humans investigating and the tiger father and cub do their own investigation. There's going to be a lot more involving bridging that gap between human and animal language.

After the first issue, the only real interaction seen between humans and animals was when one of the gorillas threw a clipboard at a scientist, which the scientist described as a breakthrough.

[Laughs] There's a lot of crazy things that are going to happen in the book. One thing that I really wanted to push writing the book was that I didn't want to write things and tell stories that would make people say, "Oh, I already know what's going to happen." I really went off the deep end and wrote some really bizarre plot twists and put the animals in really strange situations that you wouldn't normally see them in. In chapter two I have the humans taking the male gorilla and putting him into a lie detector.

So, more fun.

Yeah. Like I said, it's a fun book. I don't know if it's for little tiny kids but I would think kids see a lot worse on television now. I'm just having a lot of fun writing the story and moving the characters into really strange places. The relationship between the tiger father and the cub will develop a lot more and we'll learn a lot more about what the humans did to that tiger and what the humans did to that lion when they were cubs living together inside of the domed building and how it's going to affect their lives from that point on. The tiger cub is going to start developing the same things that tiger father has and he's going to teach the kid along the way.

"Sanctuary" #2 is on sale now.

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