In Zach Worton’s new graphic novel “The Disappearance of Charley Butters,” sensitive musician Travis heads off into the woods with his struggling death metal band to shoot a video. Once there, they find a wood cabin and the journals of a painter named Charley Butters who dropped out of society forty years earlier. As Worton’s story unfolds, Travis’ quest to uncover the truth about Butters’ whereabouts begins to take a toll on his existing friendships while also opens doors to new interactions.
Worton, best known as the author and illustrator of the historical graphic novel “The Klondike,” spins a tale of personal awakening in his new work as Travis reexamines his relationships after coming into contact with a strange hermit/painter. Taking time from his busy schedule, which includes work on the “Charley Butters” sequels, Worton spoke with CBR about reclusiveness, the changing nature of friendship and how we search for control of ourselves.
CBR News: Most of us have had fantasies at some point about dropping out of society; what was your particular inspiration for Charley Butters as both a character and as a book?
Zach Worton: I have no real fantasies about leaving society to live in seclusion, but I get why people do. Living just enough for the city is a tough slog! Originally I was researching to do a book on Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson, who disappeared mysteriously while in Algonquin Park in northern Ontario. Did he simply slip and fall, drowning in the lake, or did he get his head caved in by the jealous lover of a woman he was seeing? It seemed like a great story, but the more I read the less interested I became with how mundane the story was. That idea quickly faded, but the idea of a different painter leaving society to live in the woods started to form.
It was still an immature and wholly unformed idea and stayed that way for a while. It was when I was living in Montreal that the story started to form more. It probably had to do with the isolation I was feeling for the first few months of being there. I had a few friends already there when I moved, but I started getting really introspective, thinking about past friendships and what happens to them as we change. I guess you could say that isolation and not being able to connect were the inspirations for the book, but Charley is still kind of a mystery. The fear of falling prey to mental illness is huge for me, as my grandmother eventually died from having Alzheimer’s, and is definitely one of the reasons Charley suffers from some undiagnosed mental illness.
Although Charley’s disappearance drives much of the book, Travis’ maturation and redemption are the center of the narrative. What is it about Charley’s diaries that connects so strongly for Travis at this point in his life?
I think the fact that Travis can’t really relate to the problems Charley is having mentally, why he’s not getting help, why he’s making the decisions that he is, are driving him to ask these questions, pushing him to trying and figure Charley out even though there’s no context at all. Travis feels like his life is lacking control in many ways. [He has to deal with] the whole situation with [his bandmate] Mike, the man child, refusing to grow up and think about someone other than himself, his growing obsession with Charley, which is slowing creeping into his daily life, and need for companionship — which you’ll find more out about in “The Search For Charley Butters.” I suppose the connecting thread is the lack of control they both feel they don’t have.
Stuart’s also drawn into Charley’s orbit, but it doesn’t have the same transformative effect on him that it has on Travis. Is it simply Stuart recognizing an interesting story/mystery that appeals to him as a filmmaker?
Yeah, Stuart seems to not care a lot about anything except for his own comfort. There’s not a lot of emotional investment, though I suppose there has to be a little bit of love in there. Making a movie, doc or not, takes a hell of a lot more work than a comic to see it through — unless you’re Roger Corman, of course. More love of the craft than anything, I guess, but a good mystery can get anyone.
Mike seems an unlikely friend for Travis and Randal. Is their friendship mostly a reflection of where Travis is at the beginning of the book?
It absolutely is. You can see the connection loosening at the beginning of the book and I felt like showing that was a little more important than showing that they grew up together or something like that. More will be revealed about their friendship as the story goes on and I don’t even know if Travis and Mike are going to mend fences yet. If he’s anything like me, he’ll get over it eventually and remain friends, though not as close as they once were. Travis is flailing through life, and having the ol’ life raft is comforting until it starts taking on water. Then at some point you just have to bail out. I don’t blame him; I’d have done the same thing. Randal’s good though. He’s got more patience for Mike’s bull and we all need friends like that. He’s one of those guys you hate to love and love to hate.
Travis shows some growth here — gaining the confidence to follow through on asking out Kat, breaking things off with the band he hates — but you’ve left him a lot of room to grow still. His clumsy attempt at talking to Charley Butters’ ex-wife is hilariously disastrous. How many books is the Charley Butters saga intended to run?
Travis is one of those guys who just takes longer than others to grow up, not that he’s immature or anything. He’s just not fully formed. I’m putting him through the paces, though. He’s got a lot more growing ahead of him. A lot. I just have to make sure I’m not Jenji Kohan-ing the character (needlessly torturing the characters with unnecessarily bad decisions where they learn nothing), but I couldn’t resist making him totally beef the interview with the wife. Plus, it kind of sets up the chain of events for the rest of the story. The whole shebang is going to be a trilogy, the third being “The Death Of Charley Butters.”
As Travis already has Charley’s diaries, I assume you have some tricks up your sleeve to reveal more of Charley’s mysterious seclusion.
There’s a lot more about that coming! “The Search For Charley Butters” will answer some questions, but ask a couple more. Travis will endure the punishment of his own doing. It’ll be sad and joyful. I can say no more!
So besides “The Search for Charley Butters,” do you have anything else in the works? And when can we expect “The Search for Charley Butters”?
I have a couple things I’m slowly working on as I finish up writing “The Search…”. One is called “The Weird World of Lagoola Gardner” and the only way I can describe it is as a cross between [Daniel Clowes’] “Lloyd Llewellyn,” the movie “They Live” and classic B-grade sci-fi and horror. It was inspired by the entire Something Weird Video catalogue. I’m also reading/researching a graphic novel on the history of drive-ins and drive-in movies. My true love is terrible old low-budget movies. There’s another book I’ve been writing that I’m really excited about, but can’t reveal too much about it at the moment. Ideally, I’m going to finish “The Search…” this year, so hopefully no longer than two years until it’s on the shelves. Having a job really gets in the way of producing anything on a reasonable schedule, goddammit.
“The Disappearance of Charley Butters” is on sale now.
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