Last year I wrote a piece on the Nashville Scholars of the Three Pipe Problem, a local group of Sherlockians that meet monthly to discuss the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. During one such meeting, my wife and I happened to sit across from Mr. Chris Schweizer. Mr. Schweizer is the creator/writer/illustrator of the Crogan’s Adventure series of graphic novels published by Oni Press. The Crogan’s Adventure series follows different members of the Crogan family tree through different adventures in differing settings. Crogan’s Vengeance, the first in the series, focuses on Catfoot Crogan’s pirate adventures, while the other two, Crogan’s Loyalty and Crogan’s March, focus on the American Revolution and the French Foreign Legion respectively. I really enjoyed Vengeance, and can’t wait to pick up the subsequent books. I reached out to Chris to see if he’d be available to chat with 4LN about his work and he was kind enough to fit us in to his busy schedule and answer our questions. Enjoy!
4LN – Tell us a little about yourself. After reading your bio at the end of Crogan’s Vengeance it definitely seems like your path to full time writer/artist has been full of twists and turns.
Chris Schweizer – I change my author bio each time a new book comes out. For the one at the back of Vengeance, I included a list of jobs that I’d had in my younger days. Once I turned 25, pretty much everything I did was comics related – save for a stint as a sixth grade social studies teacher. I either made comics or taught comics (or did animation preproduction, which involves a lot of the same skill sets and people, so I lump that in there.
But I liked having jobs from the time I was able to – I think I started mowing lawns when I was probably twelve, got a job at a car wash when I was fifteen, and when I turned sixteen and was legally eligible for traditional work I went hog wild, doing as much as I could fit into my schedule. The economy was good and I was affable and polite and tall, and with those advantages I was able to get most any job I wanted. Sometimes not at first – the movie theater and the video store both took quite a few goes – but I stuck at it. Not because I needed a particular amount of money, though I very much liked making it, but because I generally liked working, especially at jobs I considered interesting. I like learning new things and skills and being around passionate people. I also have a very short attention span. I’d have a job for about three, four months and then I’d find one I wanted to try and give my two-weeks notice on the old one. And I usually held two at a time, sometimes three.
When I went off to college, I didn’t have a real job. I’d do piecemeal stuff – paid ringer church musician here, art class model there, cartoons for the newspaper (twenty-five bucks a week!). But when I’d come home for breaks – spring break, college break, etc – my dad would make me go out and get work for the week, usually at one of the local factories, manufacturing parts for fridges and cars and stuff. Newcomers would get the crap work, pulling bars out of the furnace and spraying ammonia and stuff like that, really hot work, tough to breathe. But they paid better than minimum wage and if I didn’t have something set up before I got home, my dad and I would get into huge fights… really the only things we ever fought about, at least with me on adulthood’s border. He’d often have something set up for me if I hadn’t set something up myself.
The art stuff, I was just shy of my twenty-fifth birthday before it occurred to me that it might be possible to make a career out of it. As soon as that clicked, I went at it whole hog. A lot easier for me to do than some because I was already married and my wife was extremely supportive of the whole venture.
4LN – What got you interested in writing and illustrating comics, and what would you consider your “big break?”
CS – I’d always liked comics, but moving close enough to a city (an hour and a half away) and going to the Barnes & Noble there let me see the growing graphic novel section, which previously had been mostly just superhero trade collections and role playing games. Seeing all the different genres pop up helped me to realize that there was a market for non-superhero stuff. I don’t dislike superheroes, but they’re not very high on the list of genres in which I’d like to work. Specific characters, maybe but not the big two universes in general. My big break was deciding on SCAD Atlanta for graduate school. That opened the doors to pretty much all of the good things that happened in the first few years of my career. Shawn Crystal was the chair, my mentor and eventually my boss. I’ve never known anyone so skilled at seeing what people need and helping them to realize its necessity and means by which to accomplish that which allows those needs to be met. He helped me a lot. He also facilitates so many behind-the-scenes things, getting people in contact with each other, that sort of thing. I was around to see him bring specific writers and artists to the attention of editors, sharing their work, talking them up, folks that have since become Marvel mainstays. He has a podcast but I don’t think I ever hear him talking about the stuff that he’s done to help the careers of his friends, which has been a huge amount of his energy. Shawn, and the school in general, made it possible for me to both understand the industry and become a part of it.
4LN – Was there any one writer/artist that you especially admired influenced you?
CS – It changes year to year, but comics-wise, the biggest one was probably Jeff Smith. Bone was the only comic I read consistently between 9th grade and mid-college, and I pulled a lot of my storytelling instincts from Jeff.
4LN – How did the Crogan Adventures series come about?
CS – I liked the idea of doing specific historical genres (WWI Flying Ace stories, Pirate Swashbucklers, Westerns, etc) and would sketch sort-of-generic protagonists for them. The genericism of the characters, I guess, led me to think that they could be related, and so I started doing math to figure out how old they’d need to be to have kids who could do this or that, and I came up with the male side of the family tree, or most of it, in probably one day. I didn’t know if it would be a comic or prose books or what, I conceived of it a few months before the idea of trying for a comics life had occurred to me.
4LN – How did you come to partner with Oni Press?
CS – My first as-an-aspiring-cartoonist trip to a comic shop was to the Great Escape in Nashville, back when they still had the downtown location. I picked up a copy of the Comics Journal with a Jerry Robinson interview, and the first volume of Scott Chantler’s Northwest Passage. It looked right up my alley – a slim, punchy, historical adventure, drawn in a cartoony style. It was my first Oni book in years (I’d bought the Clerks comics and some of their music-oriented titles probably when I was still in high school, but this was the first I’d seen of their genre stuff). And they did a lot of genre stuff – westerns, romances, etc. I have a stake in the genre game, both as a creator and as a reader, and they seemed to be the guys most aggressively putting out material for things that weren’t getting a lot of comics treatment in those days, including historical fiction.
So in my head, they were the only suitable publisher for the Crogan books, and were the only people I pitched it to. I met James Lucas Jones, my editor, at the Small Press Expo in DC shortly after I started grad school. We both were big Wes Anderson fans (to be expected) and big Whit Stillman fans (not as ubiquitous) and I was genuinely enthusiastic about the books that Oni was putting out, and so we had a lot to talk about, and hit it off. Shawn walked me through the pitch process, which I’d otherwise have certainly botched. We started the series in 2007, I think. I think.
4LN – I read the first book in the Crogan series and was impressed by the amount of history you were able to fit in. How do you prepare for a series like that?
CS – Foolishly. I read a lot of stuff about the period, including fiction. I start with broad, general stuff unless I have a clear idea about the period, and I slowly work my way to specifics. Like I’ll start with general American Revolution and end up reading five or six books exclusively about the southwestern frontier and Native American tribes in Kentucky and the Ohio River Basin in the late 18th century, stuff like that. Basically I try to immerse myself in it to the degree that, when I start writing, I don’t have to look anything up, I just know it.
I’ll do a lot of sketches, try to marry design, character and graphic elements, with the historical records, uniforms and artifacts and that sort of thing. Lately I worry I’ve been getting too historical and not enough designy, so I’m hoping to correct and end up somewhere in the middle. I’ll go to museums, battlefields if they’re available, anything I can do to get a sense of the period and location.
4LN – I read recently that you have a new book coming out next year sometime; can you tell us a little about your plans for that series?
CS – It’s called the Creeps, and it’s a middle-reader horror series. A little bit of mystery thrown in for the sake of the plots, but it’s mostly horror. Which is really exciting to me. I love history, but I also love horror. If I’m writing a story it’s almost always one or the other, though thus far I’ve only had a chance to do history professionally.
The books are going to come out twice a year. The town in which the kids live is a lot like the town in which I grew up, except that there are lots of monsters and no one seems to care, they just wish the protagonists wouldn’t rock the boat.
I’m working with Carol Burrell, who was my editor on some choose-your-own-adventure style comics I was hired to write some years back. She’s the senior editor at Abrams Amulet now, for their graphic novels, and she’s great to work with. I get tons and tons of notes and every single one of them is a great insight that makes the book better. And she patiently lets me make a case for anything that I don’t want to change, or want to change to something different than she suggested. Which isn’t often, she’s got a great sense of storytelling. She’s a cartoonist herself, she’s done a long-running historical strip. So we’re similar in our subject matter interests.
I’m looking forward to having books out through Abrams because they have such a great bookstore, book fair presence. They know how to reach kids much more effectively than I could ever hope to, and it’s what you want, as a storyteller, for your stories to reach as many people as possible.
I get to make the books scary, which is really exciting to me. I love horror but I don’t like gore. So this is a chance for me to make the type of stuff I loved as a kid, or wanted as a kid.
4LN – What advice would you give to an aspiring comic writer/artist?
CS – Don’t try to find a style. Your style finds you. If you try to pick it you’ll be fighting against your own natural development and it will take you way longer to get good than it otherwise might. Just draw, how you draw. Understand what you’re drawing. If you’re drawing a machine, understand how it works. If you’re drawing a person, understand how anatomy works. How it works is more important, developmentally, than how it looks. How it looks will come with practice and time, your style will be the shorthand by which you convey the information you’ve processed. Don’t be afraid to copy from your influences. Don’t do that for professional work, but in your own sketchbooks, learning by how others did it will serve to help you develop and will demystify the process.
Who is your favorite superhero and why?
In general I don’t like tragic superheroes, I think they suck the fun out of the genre, and the genre should be fun. But I love Spider-Man because of his inherent tragedy. That belief born of his experience that any crime committed, any life lost because he wasn’t there to stop it is his fault, that’s such a powerful motivation, such a terrible burden, and it makes the struggle of his personal life really sing, narratively. But I like Ditko Spider-Man, when he’s married and whatnot, it doesn’t work for me the same way. I think the reset thing was dumb, yeah, but not half as dumb as it all happening in the first place, locking in time-growth into the superhero franchises, that was a bone-headed move, editorially. But it was probably inevitable.
Are there any comic characters that you would like to see get their own film?
I’d love to see Southern Bastards as an FX or Cinemax show. Or 6th Gun on cable. There was a pilot for 6th Gun but it felt very network, and I think the show would be far better suited to cable. Truth is, it’s unlikely that if I have a real affection for the comic that I’d like the adaptation. The best things, I think, are great movies or shows based on mediocre comics, ones that can take a great concept that never reached its full potential and see it through and make it sing.
If given the opportunity, what comic book character would you love to write?
I’d write a Star Wars comic in a hummingbird’s heartbeat. I don’t know if that counts, but I would. When I felt like I finally had enough clout to not get tossed straight into the slush pile I pitched about ten or twelve different SW things to Dark Horse… right as they lost the license. Cest la Vie.
The sketches you put up on your website and on Facebook are awesome (I particularly enjoy your take on Star Wars, the Avengers, and your Charles Bronson Wolverine). That’s not really a question; I just wanted to let you know those are awesome.
Thanks! I love drawing, so those are my chance to do fun things outside of my books.
For more on Chris Schweizer’s work and projects, check out his website: www.croganadventures.blogspot.com