Smash Pages Q&A: Chris Schweizer on ‘555 Character Drawings’

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Let me be clear, writer/artist Chris Schweizer [aka schweizercomics] never does anything in a halfass manner. For proof of this look no further than his latest project, 555 Character Drawings. Or more exactly gander at the nuanced answers he provided for my interview of him about the book. Thanks to Chris for his time and thoughts.

Tim O’Shea: More impressive then the ability to get 555 characters into 91 pages, is the amount of text you produce. How many words does this clock in? Did you have to cut some text for space?

Chris Schweizer: I don’t really have to cut text because I don’t write it independently (and as such I don’t know the word count).  Though I sometimes crib from the commentary on the original blog posts should they be pieces I’d posted online, usually what I do is lay out all of the pages with the drawings, guessing as to how much space I’ll need for each write-up, then write until that space is full.

I feel the same about books as I do meals.  However tasty a dinner at a fancy restaurant may be, small portions leave me feeling like I’m not getting my money’s worth.  Rural frugality, I guess.  With art books I feel the same way.  It’s hard for me to justify spending twenty-five bucks on a fancy sketchbook that has only a handful of drawings in it, though I’ll grudgingly bite the bullet when it’s an artist that I really like.  But I assume that there are plenty of cartooning fans who feel the same way that I do, and so I want anything that I put out to be calorie-heavy.  So cramming as much as humanly possible into any sketchbook or art book is always a priority for me.  I want people to get their money’s worth.  I did the math, and I think it costs less than a nickel per drawing.

Sometimes I’d have a quarter of a page in a particular section left, so I’d just draw more characters.  That happened with The Three Musketeers.  I added three incredibly minor characters because I had page space.

So, yeah, I’d write around the images and do my best to not overdo it.  The only place where I let myself be too self-indulgent was in the Crogan Adventures section, where commentary from one page ran to another.  I just found the research info too neat not to share.  Or I wanted to show off with that info.  It’s easy to let ego take a heavy hand, and though I’ve gotten better about it I’m certainly still susceptible.

The layout is exquisite, particularly given your economic utilization of space. Nothing seems crowded. How hard was it to maintain such a balance?

Thanks, Tim.  It is a balance.  I get flummoxed by sparsity of content, but I’m also turned off when there are too many drawings collaged together with no easy way to process and take them in.  A lot of it is gut reaction to composition for each page.  As soon as something goes into a book, the individual piece on a page stops being the art and the page itself becomes the art, however many pieces are on it.  So I try to make each page appealing aesthetically.  Sometimes I’m more successful than others.

Two extremes: which character almost threw themselves on the page, it flowed out of you; and which character proved to be the most challenging to execute?

The drawings themselves almost always came quick.  Sometimes I’d be unhappy with the result, and I redraw it from scratch, and there are probably ten or twenty pieces in the book that got this treatment.  Some I hit three times.  But the drawings themselves were always done lickity-split.  I spend so much time refining designs for my books, and I wanted to tackle these straight-to-paper.  They were meant to be fun something-to-do-instead-of-comic-pages pieces, so I never labored over them, or tried not to.

But the research leading up to some would take a while.  The Zapatistas in the black history section took about a full day or more of nothing but research, because while I found plenty of photos of Afro-Mex solderas I couldn’t find any documentation about names, and what documentation I found was often erroneous upon deeper digging.  Actually, most of the black history section took a while, because I was narrowing stuff down, trying to find historical figures that fit into popular historical periods that have their own adventure genres (western, medieval, samurai, etc).  Since I’m not in Atlanta anymore I couldn’t utilize the Auburn Avenue library collections, and since I’m no longer affiliated with a college I’ve lost ready access to most online academic journals, so finding credible source material was tricky for pre-1920s black fighting women, especially; much of what’s floating around the internet stems from a single publication from the 70s that cites no primary sources.  I’m not a historian, but when I put up historical stuff (which is a pretty substantial percentage of the work) I want it to be solid and beyond reproach, especially when trying to highlight things that go at odds with the popular perception of history.

But really, everything was researched.  The monsters, French clothing in the 1600s for the Three Musketeers set, book descriptions of characters… I even had to track down pictures of young Wilford Brimley in order to conceive a younger version of his character from a made-for-TV Ewoks movie.  Found an episode of Kung-Fu that he was in in the early 70s.  And guess what?  Young Wilford Brimley looks pretty much the exact same as old Wilford Brimley, just with slightly redder hair.

When you look back at your work, do you ever surprise yourself with an emotional response that it may have not elicited originally. For me (as an observer, not the creator), I crack up every time my eyes fix upon Olympia Maxime.

Not really.  My feeling towards a given drawing usually remains consistent from whenever I finish them.  Most of these I was generally happy with, and the ones that I wasn’t I redrew.  I was really pleased with how the “Ghost Rider in the Sky” in the monster section turned out.  It might be my favorite piece in the book.

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When you release projects like this, how often do fans offer suggestions of characters they would like to see?

Fairly often, via platforms like Twitter and Tumblr.  Usually it’s folks offering suggestions to add to a series that I’ve posted, calling me out on something they see as an absence.  Usually, not always but usually, that omission is intentional.  On the black history series I got more than a hundred notes about how it’s a shame I forgot to include Thomas Alexandre Dumas.  I didn’t.  I was limiting myself to only one figure per historical era, and I opted to include the Chevalier de Saint-Georges for my Regency swashbuckler because I feel like he’s less well-known than Dumas, whose recent biography was pretty high-profile.

It would probably behoove me to ask for suggestions when doing a big section, but I never think to.  Mostly because these are things I’m doing for fun, and I know what I want to draw.

Has Francesco Francavilla seen your version of The Black Beetle? If so, care to share his reaction?

He has seen it.  He’s got the original art for it.

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I ended up scrapping most of the pulp heroes from the book.  There were originally another ten or so, but most of them weren’t really redesigns or fresh interpretations or anything, they were just drawings of Lobster Johnson or the Rocketeer or the Phantom or whomever.  Though I got permission from most of the copyright holders I ended up leaving them out of the book because I felt like they weren’t in keeping with the rest of it, which were redesigns are new interpretations.  But I left the Black Beetle (I didn’t do any design on that one, either, it’s just a drawing of Francesco’s version) in there partially because I figured that on the off chance that there’s someone who likes my stuff that doesn’t know Francesco’s (unlikely!) it could steer that reader his way.

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Above are pulp heroes that Schweizer left out of the book, but happily shared with Smash Pages.

That’s something I wanted to do with most of these pieces.  Introduce characters or figures that I like or find fascinating to people who may not know them, or make them take a fresh look at a character that previous film or TV or illustrated interpretations have made too familiar.   I became interested in Sherlock Holmes when I was in high school because of a manic interpretation vastly different from the Basil Rathbone I’d grown up with; it made the familiar unfamiliar and was a jarring reminder that we can let one interpretation color our perception of something meant to be interpreted individually.   If I can get someone to take a fresh look at a character that they know, that’s very exciting to me.

Do you intend to keep producing these kinds of projects or these types of character sketches?

I put together 555 Character Drawings as a means by which to hopefully put a cap on these drawings.  I was kind of getting obsessive with doing them.  I might do things like these in the future, but I’ll handle them much differently, or try to.

I have been pecking away on similar project – I’ve worked up pencils based on a long stint of research for about two hundred fifty New York street gang members from the 1840s-1860s.  Once I do the 7thRegiment, 11th Artillery, and other militia and army units that actively fought the gangs during the Shakespeare Riot, the Draft Riots, etc, and civilians, it’ll top three hundred figures, easy, and I’ll likely do buildings, too.  But I don’t know what the best way to present it will be.  Maybe as an absurdly large diorama set, maybe as some kind of game, a miniatures game.  I’m thinking that I might do a kickstarter for whatever I do with it.  I’ve never done one for a variety of reasons but if I did it would probably be for something giant and nutty like this.

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