Smash Pages Q&A: Chris Grine on ‘Time Shifters’

The creator of ‘Chickenhare’ discusses his latest all-ages graphic novel from Graphix, dealing with grief, not talking down to kids and more.

Chris Grine’s first graphic novel was Chickenhare, which was published first by Dark Horse Comics and then was reprinted in a new full-color edition by Scholastic’s Graphix imprint, along with its sequel. This year Scholastic published Time Shifters, which, like his earlier books, is written, drawn, colored and lettered by Grine.

But this one is a leap forward in terms of his art and storytelling. On one level, the book is a wild adventure story about a boy who gets caught up with a misfit band that is jumping from one universe to another. On another level, it is a story about grief and loss told in a very real and raw way. The book manages to be both very silly and wild, and a great adventure story, but never shies away from the sadness at the core. Grine and I talked about the book’s tonal shifts, grief and never playing down to kids.

Where did Time Shifters start?

I didn’t want to do anymore Chickenhare books. I wanted to try something different, and I had this idea about this group of characters from different universes that would go on an adventure. There’d be a boy from our Earth that would be the main character and the entry point for kids. The more I thought about it, I was like, “Do they just take the kid with them? That’s kidnapping. Do they come get him and bring him back every night?” That was fun for a second, but I couldn’t really go anywhere with it. I just put the whole thing on the back burner. About the same time, my dad died. That put me in a huge tailspin in every way. I wasn’t feeling creative.

Then one day it hit me that maybe that was what the story was missing. That’s where it started. Luke has gone through a tragedy, and he doesn’t feel like doing anything anymore; he’s just there. That was very similar to what I was going through. I had the idea for these characters, and I thought that if they approached Luke and said, “Let’s go on this adventure,” he would say, “Absolutely not.” But he was forced into it and didn’t really have a choice, and through it found his sense of fun and wonder again. At the end he’s gone through something very real and chooses to continue. Which was very similar to what was going on with me. I did this book and at the end of it was really enjoying working on this and wanted to do more.

I think that’s what I responded to. It functions as a kid’s adventure story, but it’s also a story about grief and that journey. But who are these people who drag Luke into another universe?

Basically Doc is the guy who started this all. He created this device. I’m writing book two now, and it’s all about the device and Doc and his connection to the bad guy. The guy that you barely see in the book who’s in charge of the henchmen. They have a pretty complicated history. The guy was using the device to create an army so Doc stole it back with the help of Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln comes from a universe where it’s like ours except everybody’s a robot. In Artemis’ world there are a lot of ghosts there and she got a little too close and was pulled in with them and got stuck, so she’s traveling with them whether she wants to or not. I think she does enjoy it, she’s just a little snarky. Then while Doc was on Zinc’s earth, which hadn’t progressed beyond dinosaurs, he saw the earth was being bombarded with asteroids and saw the end was coming so he took it on himself to save Zinc.

Doc has a big heart and against his better judgment he wants to save them or take them with him. With Abraham Lincoln I imagine he would have been deactivated by a robot version of John Wilkes Booth in that world and maybe Doc saw the opportunity to bring back the robot and repair him. So you have an Abraham Lincoln robot running around from a world where he would have been deactivated, you have a dinosaur from a world on the brink of destruction. I haven’t gotten much into Artemis’ story yet, but I knew I wanted to have a ghost. I figured Vampire Napoleon comes from a world where vampires were a reality. He’s not the only vampire, it was just armies of vampires fighting each other like it’s normal. I just tried to be creative. I figured all the henchmen are from completely different worlds. They’ve been thrown together by this villain who’s trying to take over everything to do his dirty work for him.

I think we’re all used to TV shows and movies where the parallel universes have tiny cosmetic changes but you really go all out and make them different in big and colorful and dramatic ways.

I knew that I was going to have them go to the Old West, but where everything evolved from bugs instead of people. I just ran with that and had as much fun as I could.

You also colored this book and the Chickenhare books. How do you think about color?

I don’t really know how I think of color. I was a Hallmark greeting card artist for 16 years right out of college, so I learned from some of the best. We would have meetings on color palates like once a week or just deep dives into different aspects of production. I tried to take as much away as I could. The first two Chickenhare were in black and white, but that was because I’m a huge Jeff Smith fan. He was the biggest influence on me in comics by far. I really wanted to do a black and white book. I realized after that they probably would have sold better had they been in color. It wasn’t until Chickenhare was reprinted by Scholastic that I had to sit down and figure out, how do I do color? Between Chickenhare and Time Shifters I tried to spend as much time as I could working on random stuff so I could practice my color and practice different layering.

But you don’t have a specific palate or approach.

Not really. I know what I like and I figure out how to do that. It’s all flat color and then I’ll have two extra layers, one of them is highlights and then shadow. I’ll take a flat purple color over everything that’s going to be shaded and turn the transparency down on it and it creates a nice color naturally. That works almost eighty per cent of the time where I don’t have to go do too much extra to it. Another thing is since I’m doing everything–writing and pencils and inks and colors and word balloons–I try to find ways not to cut corners, but where I can go faster and save a little bit of time. Time Shifters was a 258-pages book and that was some rough days trying to meet deadlines.

I know people who pencil and ink, and because they know how they work they can think ahead and find ways to save time and work.

That does help. I’ve found that if I take more time on the pencils and make them as tight as I can, I save so much time when I’m inking because I’ve already made all the decisions. If I want to include them I can and if I don’t, I don’t have to. I find that if my pencils are loose, at the inking stage I’ll draw everything and it just takes me a lot more time. That’s something I’ve learned about myself. I need to take the time. The same with color. It’s been a process for me trying to figure out the fastest way for me to get the results I want.

And I’m sure your process will change when you’re making the next book.

Yeah, hopefully. When you’re working on a book you start penciling all these characters and by the time you get to the end of the book, there’s been some pretty drastic changes in the way that character looks. Then I have to go back and rework earlier pages. When you work on a big book or a series, you want to evolve as much as you can without changing it too much. It has to feel part of the same world. Hopefully my next book will be another Time Shifters book. I wouldn’t hate that. I love the world. I have a couple other ideas. I have a couple projects I’m working on with comic book publishers and a couple little things going on. Nothing too major right now. Time Shifters took up most of my last year.

One aspect of the book I liked is that there are consequences. So many time travel stories end up convoluted and no none is sure what happened or why.

Right. They spend the first half of the movie setting up the rules for time travel but in the end they do whatever they need to do to finish the movie. I’m trying very hard not to fall into that trap.

It reminded me of Time Bandits, which is one of my favorites, or others like that where the main character gets caught up and dragged into this adventure.

That was something I was really enjoying, just letting it be crazy and wacky and not explain everything. Here’s a Spider world, just go with it. I typically don’t beat myself up and try to explain everything. I like a movie or book where you don’t have everything spelled out for you, you’re just expected to go with it. I find the best movies or books or comics set up that world and don’t explain everything, you’re just there and in it. That was something I was trying to accomplish this. There’s this device which isn’t explained much at first and then they’re off on an adventure in this parallel universe. There are crazy spiders and Abraham Lincoln robot and just go with it. Luke didn’t have a choice and as a reader you don’t have a choice either. If you want to stick with it, just go with it. If it’s a series hopefully I can get around to explaining things. I’m not making it up as I go. I firmly believe that every character needs to have a backstory whether you’re going to bring it up or not because it informs their actions and their decisions.

Making stories for kids makes it easier not to explain everything. Kids will accept things where an adult audience won’t necessarily.

Kids get it. My kids don’t have a problem with any of these things. Kids are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. I firmly believe that. My kids don’t need to have everything explained to them.

I think so. And I think also the fact that the book is emotionally complicated and it sits side by side with the story, which is more lighthearted adventure.

I knew it was going to be hard to jump back and forth between that. I try not to read reviews, because they’re never what you want to hear, but I’ve found a few where they felt like the tonal shifts were too much. I’ll give them that. There are some pretty big shifts in it. I don’t know if I feel like it tonal shifted too much. There were big fans of the tonal shifts. But whatever. Everyone gets their opinion.

I was interviewing another writer recently and we were talking about how classical adventure stories were dark and complicated in a way that contemporary pop culture stories tend not to be.

When I’m writing these stories I’m writing them for me but with kids in mind. That’s how I describe it. Content-wise it’s fine, but I’m not going to play down to them because I don’t think kids needs to be played down to. I like to think that if they read Time Shifters now at 10 or 11 years old and if they go back and reread it 10-15 years from now, it’s got another level there to it that they didn’t get. I agree with you, though. I think we’ve lost some of that. Kids movies and kids books are typically happy and safe and everything at the end is tied up with a nice little bow. That was definitely something I kept in mind as I finished the book. It’s kind of a twist ending. It could be perceived as scary by kids or parents but I felt like that was the only logical ending.

Without giving anything away, I didn’t expect that ending, but I think it worked perfectly in terms of story and emotionally. I know that I would have responded to it differently when I was, say, 10, but I responded to it because of that.

That’s all I can hope for. I’d like to believe that not just kids but parents are reading it too. When I take my kids to the comic book shop they’ll pick up stuff, and I’ll read it because I want to know what it was they were responding to. That’s all I really want, for people to read it and have an opinion and talk about it. I don’t need everybody to love it, just give it a chance.

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