Talking Comics with Tim: Chris Schweizer
Chris Schweizer is a creator that lives in my neck of the woods: Atlanta. I always enjoy the opportunity to support (albeit imported) local talent. I recently email interviewed him about Crogan’s Vengeance (Oni Press), described by the publisher as “the first in an ongoing series of adventure graphic novels spanning continents and centuries as cartoonist Chris Schweizer climbs through the various branches of the Crogan clan’s family tree! Volume one of THE CROGAN ADVENTURES series introduces us to ‘Catfoot’ Crogan, an honest sailor who finds himself thrust into a life of piracy! Crogan never wanted to be a pirate and he never dreamed he’d wind up at odds with the most dangerous buccaneer ever to sail the Spanish Main! But there’s more to this fight for ‘Catfoot’ than just staying alive, there’s also CROGAN’S VENGEANCE!”
As noted at Schweizer’s own site: “He received his BFA in Graphic Design from Murray State University in 2004, and did his post-graduate work in Sequential Art at the Atlanta branch of the Savannah College of Art and Design . . . he now teaches as a professor of Sequential Art and Animation at SCAD-Atlanta.”
Thanks to Schweizer for an interview and thanks also to Oni’s Cory Casoni for facilitating the interview.
Tim O’Shea: Your pirate tale really relies on strategy being conveyed in battle partially with dialogue and visually, how did you strike a balance that did not make it too detailed or not detailed enough, while still being entertaining?
Chris Schweizer: A lot of it was gut instinct and hope. In some of the scenes where strategy came into play, I was very mindful of the potential to get bogged down in factual minutia. I tried to combat this a couple of different ways – firstly, by giving the bare minimum amount of information needed to understand what was going on, making sure that once an idea had been put forth in dialogue that it wasn’t repeated in subsequent dialogue. The other was panel composition and subject focus. Showing the different members of the crew in varying states of readiness rather than simply following the protagonist, Catfoot, around, bought me a little bit of extra reader attention during these expository battle preparations… at least, I hope it did.
O’Shea: The book is the first in a Historical Adventure Series–how much research did you do for the first book, Crogan’s Vengeance?
Schweizer: A lot. The plot is extremely reliant on an understanding of the world I’m depicting, from its social system to the logistics of seamanship, and until I have a fairly comprehensive understanding of the period I’m unable to tailor the story. So I read – fiction as well as nonfiction – dozens of pirate books, nautical books, books about the early eighteenth century, anything I could get my hands on that I thought pertinent. Once working on pages, I watched (almost exclusively) pirate, nautical, and swashbuckler movies, and listened to nothing but film scores and shanties. That probably sounds a bit obsessive, but my interests and enthusiasms have a tendency to latch on to some subject or another with great gusto, and it colors whatever I do, so I wanted to retain a purity of focus that I knew would be lost were I to suddenly get very enthusiastic about, say, seaplanes or mummies.
O’Shea: I was amazed at how efficiently you were able to develop characters in a few panels, get readers attached to them and then kill them off. Were there any characters that you originally developed to be killed, but that you got attached to yourself and decided to keep them alive?
Schweizer: No, although one of the more prominent characters – who dies about 2/3 of the way through the book – was hard to let go. He’d quickly become a favorite to draw, especially, and I enjoyed coming up with his dialogue, but showing the true danger and reckless anarchy that the villain presented was essential, and my hope was that, if I liked working with the character so much, that readers would be upset by his end, and there would be a clearer need for a confrontation between Catfoot and this character’s killer.
O’Shea: When do you plan on releasing the next book in the series? How many books do you hope to have in total?
Schweizer: My goal is to have a new book out prior to the holidays each year, though I’m sure that I can’t keep up this pace forever. I teach comics at SCAD-Atlanta, and it’s important for me to continue doing so; as the industry no longer has in-house bullpens in which beginning cartoonists can develop under the tutelage of comic veterans, there’s a necessity for comics education for the good of the medium, and I’m glad to be a part of that. Between class and school duties, family time, and the heavy amount of research that goes into each book, it’ll only be a matter of time before 12 months turns into fifteen, or twenty. But I’ll stave it off as long as I can.
The next book (Crogan’s March) will, if I stay on schedule, be on shelves at the end of ’09.
As for the number of books? Though Oni has agreed to fifteen, my hope is that I can continue making these stories until I’m no longer capable of holding a brush. Many of the characters could merit more than one book – the Rough Rider is the right age to work as a soldier of fortune during the Mexican Revolution, for example – and as I do research on one book I see more opportunities for others, see ways that the stories might tie together (though each book will, by design, be able to stand alone).
O’Shea: Piracy is a favorite genre of many songs, movies, novels–out of various entertainment genres do you have any favorite pirate tales (other than your own)?
Schweizer: This is probably the hardest question to answer for me – there’s so much! For movies, my favorite is probably Roman Polanski’s Pirates, which, for all its seemingly aimless wandering, really does a wonderful job of combining the iconic with the historical, and is a lot of fun. For books, though I’m tempted to lean towards Sabatini or Farnol, or even Treasure Island, I’m going to have to go with Peter Pan, because it had such a huge impact on my childhood and my lifelong love of pirates. Barrie’s pirates are silly and grand, and I love them for it. I always enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, which I’ve performed in myself a couple of times. And though the movie is abysmally bad in just about every respect, John Debney‘s score for Cutthroat Island is perhaps the best high-seas adventure music ever written, and that’s a tall order.
O’Shea: The book strikes me as the perfect kind of book to get reluctant young male readers into reading–have you done any presentations at local libraries or middle schools to generate interest?
Schweizer: I want to be as involved with schools and libraries as possible, and I’ve done a few things here and there since the book came out – a talk at a library, workshops with a homeschooling group, workshops and readings at bookstores and colleges, but nothing with elementary and middle schools, which is something I hope to rectify in the future. The book’s only been out for a couple of months, and as far as I know it hasn’t yet been reviewed in Library Journal or any teaching trade publications. If those reviews are positive, I hope that it’ll open doors for me to be more involved with the schools. One problem is that (because I teach) my traveling schedule tends to be open only on weekends and when schools are out of session, a schedule which doesn’t lend itself well to school visits. But if anyone – especially within driving distance of Atlanta – would like me to visit a class or library, please, get in touch with me; if it’s something that I CAN do, then it’s something that I WILL do.
O’Shea: Are there certain visual pirate narrative cliches that you tried to avoid–such as did you say to yourself: “No parrots and no peg legs”?
Schweizer: No, because as cliché as they might now seem, there was definite historical precedent for all of the cartoonish flourishes that the pirates of popular imagination possess. Peg-legs, hooks, parrots (or monkeys), striped shirts, wigs… there’s a reason that pirates have been depicted like that since the earliest editions of Captain Johnson’s tell-all tome. I avoided some, but not for credibility’s sake; as a rule they just didn’t fit into the plot. Folks with hooks – like Barrie’s eponymous captain, or Farnol’s Tressady – they should, by all rights, be terrifying, and I didn’t want anyone to pull attention away from the palpable menace of my villain, whose has managed to retain all of his appendages. Other considerations were made for fear of being derivative. I’d have loved to have included a monkey, but seeing as one had been employed in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, I considered it off-limits.
O’Shea: Did Oni give you complete free reign in developing the story, or were they able to provide you with constructive editorial feedback that helped you improve your story?
Schweizer: Oni really left me to my own devices for this one, for which I’m very grateful; they’re always there with helpful advice and as a sounding board for ideas, but there was no editorial interference at all, which is appealing for me as I always tend to think that I know best. James and Randy did provide the idea for the framing sequence at the beginning and end of the book as a way to better tie the series together, and for that I’m extremely grateful; I had concerns from the outset about whether or not people would follow a series with few, if any, repeating characters, and, though the storytelling father and his two sons are on stage for only a handful of pages, I believe it makes all the difference.
O’Shea: Is there anything else on the creative horizon for you?
Schweizer: In addition to the Crogan stories in the books, I’ll occasionally have the opportunity to do shorter stories featuring the Crogan characters. One such story – a duel between David Crogan (a smuggler) and a vengeful samurai – will be published early this summer in Awesomer, an anthology being put out by Top Shelf. I’m particularly excited about this project because the cover of the book is being done by Jeff Smith, whose work, which I greatly admire, has been very influential to mine.