A&E Q&A - Graphic novelist Chris Schweizer illustrates history's most thrilling chapters
SCAD professor's Crogan Adventures traces the adventures of a Southern family
Graphic novelist Chris Schweizer lives in Marietta with his family and teaches at SCAD's Atlanta outpost but spends much of his time in the past. His passion for history inspired him to write and illustrate The Crogan Adventures, an ongoing series about the centuries-spanning exploits of the Crogan family as pirates, explorers, soldiers, and more. He talks about why he made one book available for free online and whether his excellent new book, Crogan's Loyalty (Oni Press, $14.95, 180 pp), which will be published May 29, mirrors contemporary political partisanship.
Why are you so devoted to historical stories?
It really stems from personal taste, in that I love history and love researching history. Unlike my friends who have one period they like, I'll exhaust one period for about a year and then move onto another. The Crogan series was a way for me to do a series with the flexibility to change genres and time periods within the same family. When I started, I thought about Arthur Conan Doyle killing off Sherlock Holmes, and I wanted to do something that I could never envision tiring of.
What's the new book about?
Crogan's Loyalty is about two brothers on opposite sides of the American Revolution on the Kentucky/Tennessee frontier. What I really wanted to highlight with this book, especially in today's ideologically charged political atmosphere, is how the idea of the American Revolution as being an "Us vs. Them" situation is inaccurate. There were equal numbers of sympathizers on both sides. In a lot of ways, this was our first Civil War. That makes it sound like an overtly political story, but it's not. It's two teenagers fighting in the woods.
Each book has a present-day framing device of a father telling a Crogan family story to his sons. Is that based on your own life?
It really is. One of my favorite things as a kid was hearing my dad tell us about his ancestors, which include everything from bootleggers to architects. My great-grandfather started the American Association of the Blind. My great aunt was one of the first major woman science fiction writers, Andre Norton. What interested me more than anything else were the stories of my dad's childhood in Central Florida, in a part that wasn't developed at the time. Alligators often turned up. The framing sequence was actually suggested by my editor as a way of tying the stories together.
How much do you balance the humor with the straight-up action, and do you have a target readership?
I think of them first and foremost as adventure stories. I include humor to give a sense of ups and downs and pacing, rather than to deceive the reader into being unprepared for heavier material. Honestly, I don't write for a specific age range — which the marketing guys hate to hear. I try to write a book where, if I hadn't written it, it would be my first choice if I go into a bookstore. Books like Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Huckleberry Finn are written very much at an adult level. The fact that they're successful for kids is that they're ripping good yarns.
Why did you make your previous book, Crogan's March, available for free on your website through June 6?
I felt like this would be a good publishing strategy. I'm much more inclined to buy something if I already know that I like it. Crogan's March has been out a couple of years, so the people who'd buy it on a whim have probably already done so. And I think fewer people are likely to buy a French Foreign Legion comic than a pirate comic his first book, Crogan's Vengeance. This is a nice way for people to try the series without a financial decision.
How much research can you do for each book, and how much is factual information vs. how things looked?
It's usually a period of six to eight months, while I'm also teaching and doing other things. A lot of times the factual stuff will explain the imagery. You can see pictures of powdered wigs, but until you know they're powdered with wet flour, then you better how to draw them, how the wigs sit or move on a person's head. The more I understand something, the more comfortable I feel drawing it. I do rely heavily on movies that have reputations for being well-researched, especially for scenery. There are a lot of movies that employ substantial scholarship. Cecil B. DeMille funded most of the Egyptian academic research of his day for The Ten Commandments.
As a comics creator and a professor, do you have any predictions for the form's future?
I think the future looks good for comics as books. I think comic books as stapled periodicals are going to disappear as all but a luxury/collector's item. Printing costs are too high, and the ad revenue is not there. As an industry standard, long-form serials will go to digital. Rather than a 22-page comic out monthly, you might get one eight-page comic a week. But old-fashioned, stapled comics are basically going to be like vinyl in today's music business.