Smash Pages Q&A: Chris Schweizer

The ‘Mars Attacks’ and ‘Crogan Adventures’ creator discusses his latest book from First Second on how to fix your car.

Chris Schweizer has been making comics for years and remains best known to some for his series The Crogan Adventures, which was not just three graphic novels but six radio plays as well. He’s made a number of other comics and illustrations over the years including the art book 555 Character Drawings, he made the graphic novel The Creeps, and has worked on other comics projects including the recent Mars Attacks. He’s regularly posting illustrations and short comics on social media and his Patreon. His new book is Maker Comics: Fix a Car.

Part of the new Maker series from First Second books, it’s a departure for Schweizer, which we talked about. Not just an instructional manual, the book is the story of Ms. Gritt who is running a Car Club and teaching a cast of teenagers about car maintenance and repair, about how various parts of cars and trucks operate and offering valuable information. Schweizer is masterful at integrating both these elements together, crafting an ensemble story with large blocks of information, and I was thrilled to get to talk with him about the book, how he works and his many projects.

I always like to start by asking people, how did you first come to comics?

I read mostly newspaper strips growing up, but when the graphic novel boom happened it showed me that long-form comics could bear a wealth of different genres, and that got me very excited. I decided to pursue it wholeheartedly, and went to graduate school to study it. My first book, Crogan’s Vengeance (republished in color as The Crogan Adventures: Catfoot’s Vengeance) came out the same year I started teaching comics at the Savannah College of Art and Design – Atlanta, and I taught and comicked both for about five years. For the last five, though, I’ve been making comics exclusively.

So what is Maker Comics: Fix a Car?

It’s part of First Second’s Maker series, each book in which delves into how to tackle a particular undertaking. This one, as the title suggests, is about car care, repair, and maintenance.

Can you talk a little about the process of putting the book together. How did this happen?

From their very first year, I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of the books that First Second puts out and the way that they go about putting them out, and have wanted to work with them for a while, but the right project never manifested itself. I had a lot of friends who have worked on or are continuing to work on First Second’s Science Comics line, and I reached out to either Calista Brill or its series editor Dave Roman, I forget which now, about whether or not they had someone doing the science of cars, how automobiles worked. Turns out they did, so that was that.

But a few months later, I think, I was talking with Calista about something unrelated and she mentioned that they were considering this Maker line, that one of the books they wanted to do would focus on car maintenance. She asked if I’d be interested if the line ended up getting the go-ahead, and I said yes, and when it was greenlit I was tentatively brought on board. I talked with Robyn Chapman more about it at Cartoon Crossroads in Columbus, a wonderful academic comics festival put on in conjunction with OSU and the Billy Ireland Museum, and we sussed out some details and more or less handshake dealed it, and I started working on it in anticipation of the contracts being finalized.

Besides being instructional, it is also a graphic novel with characters. Was the plan from the start to make this a story with instructional elements? What was the challenge of putting together these characters and how to balance their stories?

Robyn said that she wanted the book couched in a narrative back in our first meeting, so that was part of the parameters of the project as I took it on, and not something to which I can claim any credit, aside from how it was executed. The clearest advantage to this approach, and hopefully one on which I was able to deliver, is that the book feels more propulsive as a result of the journey of the characters, and it gives folks who might not have an immediate interest in a specific car repair a reason to read about it: it directly affects this or that character, and thus the entire book might be read whereas had it been presented in a strictly clinical, diegetic fashion the reader might only touch on the repair of immediate practical applicability to their circumstance. Given that the book is, I hope, grounded in generalities about the accessibility of maintenance and stewardship of one’s vehicle, I’m glad that the characters give readers a reason to read from beginning to end. I’m hopeful that they get more out of it than the sum of the individual lessons.

Was there ever a concern about how detailed should the instructions be, how involved should it get? Who is the audience for something like this?

I try to make sure that my books are readable to any age – that a precocious five year old might still find the thing engaging even if they can’t process everything in it, and that adults won’t find it cloying. But this one is, very specifically, targeted at that middle reader to junior high market, which is one of the reasons that two of the characters are younger than driving age – for practical purposes, the majority had to be drivers.

I look at it as a kind of driver’s ed course, the sort of stuff you learn and internalize before you ever start actually driving so that when you need to drive you understand the theory behind it and can concentrate on practical application. This book falls kind of into that field, prepping you for when you do need to maintain your car.

I wanted the instructions to be clear enough that, in a pinch, you could use it as a manual for some things, but really I wanted to get into the reasons behind the steps, behind the instructions. I retain info much better when given good reasons for why said info is what it is, and am much more likely to follow rules or directions if the reasons for them are clear and the consequences for not following them are explicit, and so that was my central guiding principle when doing the instructional bits: not so much the how, but the why.

One of the reasons I wanted to chat – besides the fact that I liked the book – is that it is very different from Crogan, not just in terms of the subject but also stylistically. Could you talk a little about how you worked and finding the right way to present the story

There are a lot of factors to explain the difference. The biggest is simply the natural shift that one’s art takes as one does it. I’ve probably spent around twenty thousand hours drawing since the last Crogan book (Crogan’s Loyalty) came out, and you grow and change a lot with that kind of mileage between two projects. But there are more specified, more technical reasons, too.

Working for color means I’m a lot more likely to be more precise and deliberate with my environments than I did when I was working for black and white; having to work out the details in color with a lot of open line ends up looking clunky. The nature of the book, with lots of engines and interconnected car bits, necessitated another degree of technical precision. I still draw the same way I would other things – like, I’m not using smaller pens or anything – but the way in which I draw it is very concerned with technical detail, at least on the car and tool side, and I have to make sure that the characters, etc don’t feel like disparate elements, that they integrate aesthetically with the cars.

I’m also working for a set page count, and any time I’m doing that I really pack in the panels. Left entirely to my own devices, I like to let a book really breather, but I haven’t really been left to my own devices for the past five graphic novels I’ve done, so they’ve all been pretty panel-heavy, because I want to pack a lot in there.

In recent years you’ve been doing a lot of different kinds of projects from Mars Attacks to Pirates of the Caribbean, and it feels like it’s been a while since you’ve written and drawn a graphic novel solo. Is that fair? How have you enjoyed getting to do different things, and then making a book on your own again?

It feels like that, sometimes, and still does here, really. My last graphic novel before Maker Comics: Fix A Car was the third Creeps book, Curse of the Attack ‘O Lanterns, which I did in early 2016 for a release the fall of that year. But I wrote and drew Fix A Car in early 2017, so it didn’t feel like there was that long of a wait between them. I’ve written and drawn another graphic novel since then, too, a nonfiction history book, also for First Second. But since The Creeps, it’s been pretty much all work-for-hire, and I’d put Fix A Car under that blanket, too. That doesn’t mean that I don’t retain authorial rights to it – I do, First Second is treating it much like they would any book in their stable, which I think is commendable. But it was part of a series, which necessitates relinquishing certain aspects of control (and that relinquishment exists any time one works with a publisher, it just varies in scope), and it was First Second’s idea in the first place, so even though it’s a book, and one on which I did my best and in which I have a great deal of emotional investment, it doesn’t feel like a return to making books so much as it does an extension of this broader class of work that I’m creating under the express direction of publishers.

This goes to a larger question that I struggle with sometimes – if my artistic voice is present in a work, is it a personal work? Is it only a personal work if I conceived the project from its onset? How does editorial oversight come into play? There was far more direction, negotiation, etc. on this project than Kyle Starks and I had on Mars Attacks, so is Mars Attacks a more personal work because it has fewer fingerprints on it, even though it’s a franchise?

You never know how many years you’ve got, and you want to be able to look back on them and say, “I’m glad I did this” if you’re able, and so weighing which projects I take on is really important to me. I guess everything I do is a personal project, in that I’ve never worked on a project that I didn’t have enthusiasm for and believe in from the onset, and don’t expect that I ever will. I would like to return to doing historical fiction again, though, although publishers are generally pretty wary of it because it statistically has limited commercial appeal.

I enjoyed your sketchbook/travel diary of your recent trip to Denmark. Is there a chance you’ll collect them one of these years? And a book collecting some of your illustration work?

It’s been a while since I did an artbook or sketchbook, and I’m getting to that point where I’m starting to look unkindly at a lot of the work done since the last one, which means it’s unlikely to ever get collected. I need to do one sooner rather than later, but I’m a heavy annotator and haven’t found the time.

I did one a few years back, 2015, I think, called 555 Character Drawings, which is just that. I sold out of the run, I’m afraid, though I think Stuart Ng Books still has some of the hardcover editions that I printed up exclusively for that store, and I make a pdf of it available to Patreon backers.

You mentioned on Twitter recently that you’re working on a big Sherlock Holmes project. Care to elaborate?

I’ve been fiddling around with both card figures and woodcraft a lot over the past few years, and have been working toward eventually undertaking a venture that would produce wooden toys and holiday ornaments. I found a fella near my parents who can print on wood with an underprinting of white in certain areas and create an effect that I’ve been able to get myself, but which hasn’t proved particularly durable (a must for toys) and which takes longer than I can reasonably do in any quantity, and I’m waiting for the test pieces to see if it looks the way I’m hoping it will. If they do, me and Liz, my wife, will be turning our attention to said venture for the next few months, working up a few different playsets for which I think/hope there’s a market, mostly because I’d buy them myself. The first of these, the line we’ll launch with (assuming the test pieces are up to the standard we’re expecting), would be a pretty sizeable line of figures from the Holmes stories – 32 in all. We’re thinking we’ll launch in late March, but that’s contingent on a lot of logistical factors.

Because I’m a fan, I have to ask, Crogan Book 4?

The book 4 that I started years ago might never see completion, at least not any time soon. I packed too much into it: a cast of hundreds, lots of boats, an elaborate temple, just a whole lot of stuff that took me a very long time to draw. I think I’d be faster at it now, quite a bit faster, but my narrative priorities have changed and so I doubt I’d like the story half as much any more.

I would love to do more Crogan stuff, but in the past Oni and I haven’t been able to figure out a way to go forward with it that fits both of our logistical and financial needs. That doesn’t mean we won’t, but I have been so gillpacked with other projects that it’s not something I’ve taken the initiative to pursue. Going forward, though, I’d like to do much shorter books, and more of them. Treat them like long short stories or short novellas and take advantage of that format to cover a wider variety of locales and eras.

Just in closing, why should people read Fix a Car? What will they get from it? Why is this the book they don’t know they need to teach them what they don’t know they don’t know?

The main point I hope to make with this book is that auto mechanics are not some mysterious and insurmountable obstacle. Many of the more common repairs that your car might need are entirely within your ability to do them, and I hope that this book emboldens folks, especially new drivers, to have the confidence to consider it. Whether you want to do your own car maintenance is up to you, but you should have that choice, and if reading this book helps you feel like you do, then I count it as a success.

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