For a while now, I’ve been a huge fan of The Abominable Charles Christopher, a weekly webcomic that not only defies explanation (there’s a sasquatch? and he has animal friends? who aren’t actually very nice to him? or each other?) but is in turns breathtakingly beautiful, touching, and just plain hilarious. The strip is drawn by Karl Kerschl, whose name I had never heard before, but whose art I had probably seen in his work with DC Comics. But his work and his writing in ACC (fans call it that — there is a burgeoning group on Facebook that Kerschl regularly sends updates to) struck me so strongly that I had to get to know the guy. I contacted him for an interview (apologizing, at the same time, that I couldn’t fit it into any of the larger venues I have access to, just this little blog of mine), and he very kindly agreed.
Plus, I just wanted to gush about how great this thing is. Seriously, start here, and take in the artistry in the images and the pacing. These are classic, complete characters, assembled in just a few panels. I can’t say enough about how much I love this comic. Maybe I’ll let Karl talk for a while.
How’d you get started with comics? What kind of influences got you into drawing comics and art in general?
Karl Kerschl: I started drawing comics professionally when I was 18 years old. In the mid-90s it was a lot easier to get your foot in the door because the industry was doing so well and a lot of small, independent publishers were looking for artists. So I was essentially being paid to learn on the job. I’d made up my mind sometime in high school that I wanted to draw comics for a living. I did a lot of reading as a kid, and we lived kind of on the outskirts of town so I amused myself by drawing; mostly lots of dinosaurs and animals and then, as I got a bit older, cartoons and super-heroes. I wanted to be Robert Bateman when I was little.
And are those influences the same as what got you wanting to do something like ACC? Where did this all come from?
What’s weird is that I’ve been drawing superhero stuff for Marvel and DC for so long that it just sort of became “what I do.” Once I broke into the business, I didn’t really give much thought to whether I really wanted to be there or what my real passions were. You know, you keep doing a thing because you’re good at it, but every once in a while there’s a nagging voice asking “is this really it?” I love Batman and Superman and I always will, but I just don’t relate to those stories any more. I don’t read them and they don’t resonate with me the way they used to.
When I had the opportunity to create something for Transmission X (I was sharing a studio with those guys and they’re all, every one of them, brilliant and inspiring in a different way) I racked my brain for a story I was dying to tell, and when I finally came up with something I started painstakingly plotting and writing it. And when it came time to actually draw this thing, I just absent-mindedly turned the page over and sketched a picture of a dopey sasquatch on the back. The image in the banner of the web site is the first picture I ever drew of him. And he just kind of looked like his name was Charles Christopher.
Run us through your process for making a weekly webcomic. I have no idea how this works — do you scan sketches and then ink them on a computer (and what computer)? And has the process changed at all since you’ve started?
The process of actually producing the strip is much the same as the process of the character’s creation. I just don’t think about it. I wake up on Wednesday morning knowing that I have to do a comic before the end of the day, then I make some coffee and sit around until an idea comes to mind. Sometimes this is immediate, but usually I have to wait a couple of hours for inspiration. A shower always helps. And music. Very often I’ll know what tone I’d like the strip to have, emotionally, and I’ll put on some music that matches that tone and just allow ideas to come to me. As soon as something occurs to me that feels right, I flesh it out in my head into a mini-story.
Then the drawing starts. I rough in the sequence of panels with a blue Col-Erase pencil, and whenever I have an idea about specific dialogue I jot it down in the page margin. That’s as much ‘writing’ as I ever do. When I’m happy with the drawing (usually an hour of work) I go over it all with black ink. I use a combination of tech pens and brush pens to get the organic look I want, and this part of the process is the most time-consuming because a lot of the finished drawing takes place here. I scan the strip into Photoshop (still using my old G4 Powerbook and a Wacom tablet) and then colour it with a very limited palette.
And then I post it. And stare at it for a while hoping that it works.
The process hasn’t changed at all since I started the strip last year, except that the depth of colour has increased and become a bit more painterly. The key element of the creative process is to just shut my mind off and not force ideas. It’s an exercise of faith.
Cheer for the G4 Powerbook, I still use one, too. Though it’s hardly the most remarkable thing about ACC, I’m always impressed that you’re on time and regular (something a lot of webcomics struggle with). Has that been a challenge?
It has been, but not to the degree I expected. I’ve always had problems with deadlines and, especially when you’re trying to do something of your own, it’s difficult to be disciplined enough to see it through. I’ve failed at so many other personal projects – this time something just clicked in my head and I refused to let down my colleagues and my readers. And myself. I’m very proud that Charles Christopher has updated every week since it began, and hitting the one year mark was quite emotional for me. It’s still going strong. Now it’s just something that I do every week that takes priority over everything else. I imagine it’s a bit like having a child you have to take care of. It’s there and it’s a part of your life and you’re the only one who can look after it, so you’d better just get on with it and be happy about it. Which I am.
On the other hand, the most remarkable thing about ACC is the characters — within just a few panels each, you’re able to define them very clearly and memorably. Every line of text and art tells us who we’re looking at. Just as an example, tell us where Townsen came from. Did you see a fox and attach a character to that, or were you influenced by a person first, or did you need a character in the story and let it evolve from there?
Again, it’s a matter of not thinking about it. It’s probably a cliché to say that all of these characters are facets of my own personality, but it’s true of any author’s work and it’s what makes this process so satisfying. You get glimpses of yourself through these other people (or animals, in this case) and they can surprise you because often they’ll behave in ways that you never expected. The thought that you can always surprise yourself is very comforting to me.
Townsen wasn’t planned. I was moving Charles up the mountain (also not planned) and I guess I just needed someone for him to talk to. Someone to change the tone of the story. I don’t know why I drew a fox, except that the scene was snowy, and I didn’t know until the following week that he’d been separated from his brothers, but man, when I was working on that strip and that line of dialogue came out of the blue, it hit me so hard. I felt so sad and felt such a strong connection to him that I knew it was the right thing to do. I love that moment — I still get goosebumps when I think about it.
I feel the same way about Vivol and Moon Bear. Those strips come up when I wake up feeling sad or depressed, and they have a lot of fire behind them. I don’t know where it comes from, but there’s a gut-wrenching quality to them that I seem to need on certain days.
Completely selfishly, I’ll tell you that my favorite strip so far is the two little birds learning to fly. Got any behind the scenes tidbits you can share about that one? The whole bird family is great.
The birds are my outlet for social/relationship frustrations. It’s fun to take little slices of romantic or domestic life and express them in an honest way. I never take sides with either bird, I just like to see the scene play out and know that it’s expressing some sort of uniquely human truth.
As for the baby birds, there’s a funny story about that. I was doing an interview for a local news station, trying to get some exposure for Charles, and the reporter asked me to hunch over my desk and look like I was drawing because they needed footage for the segment. I hadn’t started the next strip yet, so I just grabbed a pencil and started sketching something, which turned out to be a baby bird on a branch. And that turned into the ‘Learning to Fly’ strip. Again, completely unplanned.
The other amazing thing about this characterization is that it’s not done with people, it’s all done with animals — the skunk infomercial is a great example, where you have animals people don’t normally think of as salesmen perfectly displaying a sales pitch. Does the fact that you’re drawing animals rather than people make it easier or harder to create characters that way? And where do you get your references from? I’ve never seen a skunk do a thumbs up, but if one ever did, it would probably look exactly like that.
Drawing an abstraction of anyone or anything usually simplifies the concept of a ‘person’ for the reader, so they can very easily get an idea of what that character might be like from the visual cues alone. I don’t think it’s any different with the animals; I start with some photo reference the first time I draw any animal and then go from memory after that. The result is a representation that isn’t entirely accurate, but close enough that you get the idea, and they evolve over time. The lion, for example, looks much different in his first appearance than he does in the following strips because I stopped using reference. His design took on elements of his character and elements of what I, in my head, think of as ‘a lion’. So it’s very personal in that sense.
Evoking personalities for them is really just a matter of being honest with myself. I won’t put words into their mouths that seem out of character just for the purpose of furthering the plot. And because I don’t have any real story agenda for them, they can just be whomever they want to be and deal with whatever ‘human’ issues they might have and it translates as a sincere human expression. None of them are ‘bad’ or ‘good’, they’re just complex bundles of emotions and insecurities like you or me.
On the “False Prophet” strip, you said you had the scene (with the lion and the tentacles) “rolling around in your head for so long.” How far ahead do you have these planned? ACC himself seems to have his own story, with all the fun distractions from it with the other animals (even though it’s all part of the same universe) — do you have the ACC story planned out a ways and jump off on the other stuff as you go?
Not much of it is planned, but I have a longer story in mind that’s very loose and that I’ll keep coming back to in order to maintain a linear narrative flow. I learned quickly that it was a lot more fun to do one-off gags about random animals than it was to stick to a plot. But the strip is called ‘The Abominable Charles Christopher’, so I can’t go too many weeks without featuring him and letting the readers know what he’s up to. Charles moves the story forward, and the rest of the cast is just gravy. But the amazing, magical part of it is that as I’m writing bits for the other characters, they seem to fit naturally into the longer plot, as though they were always intended to be there. An maybe they were. I’ve always said that my subconscious knows how to do this better than my thinking mind does, so if an idea pops up and feels right, I just go with it blindly. Even if it threatens to upset all of the carefully-planned moments.
The scene with the lion and the tentacles was intended to be an Act One ending. It introduces a sense of horror into the strip which was only hinted at before. I think the end of each year will require a similarly climactic moment, and I’m just sort of getting a sense of what the next one will be.
And I think I heard at some point that you were planning to make a book of these, but maybe I’m imagining that. Any plans to make this stuff available to us any other way than a signed strip and panel at a time?
Absolutely. My goal is to stop doing mainstream comics and make a living off of my own creations. Right now, I make nothing from this strip except for the few print sales I’ve had, which is certainly not enough to live on. I’m going to collect these into books, but I want to do it right. I have to figure out how much content I need for each book, and how much it’ll cost me to self-publish them. It’s something I’m very excited about, but it’s a lot of work and I still have some DC projects in progress, so when I find the time…
Honestly, I love Charles and the rest of the cast and I’m so happy that people are enjoying the comic and relating to it. It’s very much ‘me’ — moreso than anything else I’ve ever worked on, and I’m eager to devote more time to it as soon as possible. The moment I have any concrete news about a print edition I’ll post it on the blog for you all.
Thanks very much!
Big thanks to Karl for submitting to my questioning. Go read the comic.
Posted on Wednesday, August 27th, 2008 at 10:17 am. Filed under general.