By Matt O’Keefe
For over four years Karl Kerschl has been writing and drawing his award-winning The Abominable Charles Christopher, releasing a new strip every Wednesday. I spoke to him about singlehandedly writing, drawing, printing, and distributing his weekly webcomic and got teasers about upcoming projects. Warning: there are spoilers of Charles in the interview. You can read the entire story for free on the Abominable site.
What sparked the creation of The Abominable Charles Christopher?
When I was in Toronto sharing a studio with a bunch of comics peers (Cameron Stewart, Ramon Perez, and Andy Bellanger) we had decided to do some webcomics as a collective to kind of take a break from our superhero work. We were all coming up with new ideas to do in this new medium and I had written out a long story that I was going to write out completely and tackle in a very standard three act structure and for some reason when I was commuting to work my mind started wandering and I had the idea for a woodland setting and a silent goofy sasquatch character surrounding by wisecracking animals. I hadn’t intended to do it as a comic; it was just something that was amusing to me. When I drew a picture of it I just kind of kept going and it didn’t stop from there. I like it because it lends itself to a weekly format and I can kind of play with different ideas on different weeks depending on my mood. And I’m not really attached… well I guess I’m attached to an overall story now, but for the most part I can just explore different facets of the characters or different facets of myself and have fun with it on a week to week basis.
Do you have a three act structure in mind for Charles?
I have a loose structure in mind. I don’t know if it’ll be three acts; it will probably be three books. The strips I’m working on now, the stuff currently being published on the web, are the beginnings of what will be the third book and I think just at the pace it’s going it will probably be a bigger book than the first or second one just because it’ll take time to tie up all the loose ends and I keep kind of unwittingly introducing new characters and story threads. And not all of it needs to be tied up in a satisfactory way, I don’t think. A lot of it is slice of life so it doesn’t really need closure. There are some main plot threads that certainly need to be tied up so I figure I’ll probably do all that in the third book and after that it could just end or it could continue in a very random way, some way that’s not tied at all to a proper narrative.
Were there any hybrid strips that combine adventure and strip humor that you looked to for inspiration?
I didn’t look at a lot of strips. Obviously I’m a big Miyazaki fan. The Abominable Charles Christopher owes a lot to Studio Giublu sensibilities in tone and even in design and atmosphere. I still love all of Bill Watterson’s work and he had a tendency to get serious and goofy all at the same time. Also old Peanuts. When I was really young I read a lot of Peanuts and even when I didn’t fully understand it I had a really deep appreciation for it and it’s only gotten deeper. And I think Schultz is another cartoonist who was masterful at balancing pathos and humor. Those are really my biggest comic strip influences. I hadn’t really had much experience with the strip format before starting this so it was really kind of a learning process.
So are Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes where you learned to balance the somber moments with the humor?
I don’t think I learned it from there. I think that stuff just comes from my personality. I think the somber moments just come from trying to capture… to imbue a sense of humanity upon the characters. And the humorous moments really just provide levity both for myself and the audience. Sometimes it gets so heavy I very acutely feel that it needs to be lightened up in spots. So it’s actually difficult to collect into a book because I tend to rearrange strips here and there to make the story flow more organically and have the ups and downs occur more evenly. Some of the stuff in Chapter 2 especially gets a little bit dark. So I think it’s balanced… well, to my tastes. I can’t speak to the readers but they mostly seem to be along for the ride whether it’s happy or sad. But I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know if I learned it anywhere. I think it’s just a method of self-expression.
I was really interested in how right after the gun shot there were five weeks of strips before you found out about Townsen.
Yeah and you know honestly, probably right before the strip where the gun was fired, I wasn’t certain what I was going to do. I didn’t know that that character would die and I didn’t know how that scene would play out. I usually don’t; that’s what keeps me interested. Right now in the story Charles and Gilligan are in a situation they’ll need to get out of and I honestly have no idea how that’s going to happen. Part of the process for me is just kind of writing these characters into situations that are difficult. Part of the writing process for ANYONE is writing their characters into situations that are difficult or seemingly impossible and get them out of it. So I’m as curious as anyone how they’ll resolve that. So it probaly wasn’t intentional that there were five weeks between the gunshot and finding the Townsen character dead. It was probably because I felt like it needed it for the sake of pacing. Sometimes I’ll make the choice based on, and maybe this isn’t fair to the readers online, but sometimes I’ll make pacing choices based on what will work best when it’s collected into a book, because certain things in a weekly format will play out far differently in a printed format or vice versa. So it’s a bit of a balancing act in that way. When I first started it I didn’t have print in mind at all so I was just doing what felt satisfying from one week to the next. But now that I know that its ultimately going to be collected I try to pace it in such a way that it will read as well in a one read sitting as it will on a weekly basis.
Do you still only think about Charles the day you’re drawing it?
Pretty much, yeah. Sometimes I feel guilty about that but I think it usually works out for the best. Sometimes on Tuesday evening I’ll start pondering what I might do the next day but usually it’s Wednesday morning. And sometimes Wednesday morning I actually forget I’m supposed to do anything so it’ll be Wednesday early afternoon. And there are times… like this week the story was dictated solely by the fact that it was Halloween so I wanted to do something that had ghosts in it. That’s just sometimes how it comes about.
Have you always been an animal person?
Yeah, definitely. I grew up in the country on farmland so I was always interested in wandering in the woods and looking for birds and looking for wildlife and even drawing animals. I used to draw animals a lot when I was really young and I kind of forgot that I did that until recently. If you go back and look at my old sketchbook it’ll all be drawings of cougars and eagles and pandas and stuff like that. But for whatever reason I stopped doing that probably when I was eleven or twelve and it was all GI Joe and Transformers and Robotech and Voltron. And then after that a lot of Marvel/DC stuff. It wasn’t until I started drawing Charles Christopher that I kind of remembered that I used to do it all the time and it sort of came naturally. The anatomy of woodland animals came to me in a really effortlessly and it forced me to recall… actually, I don’t even know if I remembered it. I think I mentioned it to my mother and she said “Yeah, you used to draw animals all the time,” and I have those sketchbooks full of them. I still like looking for birds and stuff whenever I have the chance.
A lot of the somber moments involve hunters. Any problem with hunting as a sport in the real world?
I think hunting’s part of the reason I’m so fond of animals. I know that sounds crazy, but I walk in the woods with them a lot and look at deer tracks and moose tracks and try to spot rabbits and wild turkeys and coyotes… I don’t have a problem with it because I think it’s an ethical way to get one’s meat. I’m not a vegetarian but I mostly don’t eat a lot of meat unless I know where it came from and its either from a local farmer where the animals have been treated well or it was hunted by my dad, so the only meat in my freezer is moose and deer meat. So no, I don’t think I have a problem with it. I guess there have been two hunting scenes in all of The Abominable Charles Christopher and it was really just to illustrate the idea that there was a threat to this idyllic scene. And I didn’t want to paint the human element as evil per se and I don’t think I have exactly. I just wanted there to be an element of danger lurking on the fringes of this forest and I think it’s balanced by the idea that there’s as much danger within the forest between some of the animal factions as there is on the outside. And I think a lot of that will be resolved as I go through the story and develop the relationship between Charles and Gilgamesh. But to answer your question no; I don’t have a problem with hunting.
You can be pretty hard on your characters and you said that’s necessary to storytelling. Can it be hard to let your characters suffer?
I’m emotionally troubled by that Townsen stuff because I didn’t really see it coming and when I was illustrating those scenes… yeah, it was difficult. The process of writing for me involves putting on music or a soundtrack and letting it inform the visual ideas and moments and expressions and yeah, those scenes are tough to draw and it’s kind of hard to let go of them. But what makes it worthwhile, at least in that case, that story resolved in a way that I thought was very touching and satisfying. So I don’t feel too too bad. I get a lot of flack from readers at conventions who took the book home and their wives are crying [after reading Charles Christopher]. But I would say that character’s sacrifice pays off in the end and the end kind of justifies the means. There’s a greater good at the end of it all. At least that’s how I feel about it. So it makes it easier to bear for me.
It definitely had a powerful effect. Do you full script?
[Laughs] No, not at all. When I’m writing, if you want to call it that, basically my process is I kind of ponder an idea while I’m listening to music or while I’m walking to work in the morning. Then I have several sketchbooks and I draw all the Abominable strips in them. They’re all basically the same width, sometimes they’re one tier and sometimes they’re two, but there’s a margin leftover on the side of the page and all my writing is kind of scribbly bits of dialogue notes on the side there. Usually it’s been smudged and blurred and is kind of indecipherable at that point. So no, it’s not full script. It’s hardly any script; it’s just a lot of pieces of conversation. In fact, sometimes I’ll write it and not know what the punch line will be when I start drawing it. I’ll write a thing and I’ll think “Okay, I have five panels here and I know what these characters are doing in the first four panels and I’ve gotta come up with something by the end of it.” So I’ll know where everyone’s sitting or standing and I’ll just have to trust that I’ll come up with something by the end of it. Sometimes it works and sometimes I fail at it. They’re not all winners but I do what I can.
That’s pretty amazing. I don’t see many failures
They’re hit and miss for me. But interestingly whenever I post a strip I’m not one hundred percent satisfied with someone inevitably comes out of the woodworks in the comments section and says it’s their favorite one or they order a print of it and I’m really relieved. So I guess people have different tastes so something that isn’t great in my eyes resonates with someone else.
You said in the introduction to Volume 1 that some of the characters act as fragments of your ego. Can you give any examples of that?
Not off the top of my head. I think all writers’ characters are fragments of their egos or ids… I know that a lot of the raccoon strips usually express some sort of message of meditative compassion that’s important to me. I never want it to feel preachy but I put it in there because I think it’s an interesting point of view and it’s usually a point of view that’s not communicated often enough. Some of the early Gilgamesh strips involved speeches that he was projecting to his city that were pretty heavy handed in terms of ethical treatment of animals or lack thereof in this strip. That was very much me and that was really pushing the envelope of being preachy and I try to get away from that, but at the time I’m writing it… I can’t remember what the circumstances were surrounding the writing of the strip on those particular days, but it probably felt important at the time and I think its stuff that especially collected will start to indicate some sort of theme. Once it’s all said and done, once it’s all been completed, I think those bits of communication will stand out more as kind of a clear message among the narrative.
The hardcovers are beautiful. Will you be reprinting Volume 1 with the release of Volume 2?
I can’t. I’ve had that question many times but the reality is the hardcover books are really expensive to make and when I printed Volume 1 I didn’t know what to expect in terms of sales and I sold out completely within six or seven months. I think, were I to spend the money on another print run, I’d be selling it to relatively few people. For that reason I decided to do a larger run of the softcover edition so I could keep it in stock, because wouldn’t be that expensive to make and people would always be able to get the story in print. So I think I’m kind of doing a limited run of the hardcovers and a year or two later I’ll do a softcover release of the same stuff. But who knows down the road. If there’s still demand maybe I’ll return to that. But there’s certainly no reprint of the hardcover right now.
You’re self-publishing the printed editions. Why did you decide to do that instead of going through an established company like Cameron Stewart (whose Sin Titulo is being released through Dark Horse Comics)?
Just because I wanted to do it myself. I felt like doing the endeavor entirely on my own. I was self-published online, I was running the store by myself, and I weighed the options. I talked to a number of publishers who approached me to publish the book and I felt like I had a specific treatment in mind for it. I happened to have some contacts with some printers locally and after talking to them I thought, “You know, I can probably print by myself and do well enough in presales that I wouldn’t completely break the bank.” Even if I didn’t sell out of them I’d at least hopefully make most of my money back, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. And it just seemed like an interesting experiment, both in terms of running an independent store and trying to print my own book; that’s something I’ve never done before. So putting that stuff together and dealing with the printer and designing the book cover, which a friend and I did here… it was all a really cool learning experience. It was something that was terrifying and is no longer terrifying because now I know how to do it. I’d recommend it to anyone, really.
I saw very few advantages to going to another publisher because I might have gotten the book into more stores and more hands but I probably wouldn’t have made very much money on it. So in this way I was able to keep all the profits and learn something. So now that I’m printing Volume 2 I’m going to reach out to retailers and try to distribute the book to stores from the studio here; in that way I think we can expand the retail a little bit more. But I’d still like to handle all of the actual publishing of it myself. I don’t know that current publishers really do a lot in terms of promotion nowadays, either. I could be wrong about that but, from talking to friends and seeing how a lot of publishers operate, they seem to cover the printing cost and get the stuff to actual stores but most of the promotion’s done by the author so I don’t really know why I would bother [with a publisher]. Like, why would I give away some of the profits for very little return? I could change my mind in the future based on not having enough time to handle the stuff, but for now I think it’s fun and I think I’d like to see at least see this story through on my own. But who knows what I’ll do in the future.
Charles Christopher has been a part of your life for over four years now. How have you grown in that time?
I think I’ve grown. I’ve learned to trust myself a little more, or if not myself I’ve learned to trust the human storytelling consciousness. The stories that we all share have so much in common, there’s such a collective mythology to them that I think it’s become easy to depend on that in the writing process, if that makes any sense. I was a lot more frightened of it. I think what I’ve learned is the less I think about these stories the truer they feel. Because when you go with your instincts I think you tap into something that’s more primal and more resonant to the human collective. I’ve tried to write things that are… For example, when Cameron and I were writing the Assassin’s Creed stories and the conceptual stages are very free form but then it gets quite structured by necessity because we’re two people working together and we have to share ideas and then we have to present it to the Ubisoft guys in a way that’s coherent. So by necessity it is a more regimented approach to writing. And that has a place and I enjoy that too, but I think nuances get lost in that kind of storytelling. When you’re beginning to adhere very strictly to a proven act structure and the pacing of modern storytelling I think the meat of it, the stuff that really grabbed you on a gut level initially, kind of falls by the wayside because you feel like you don’t have any logical place for it I think the truth is you have to throw away that logical thinking and just sit down and draw whatever feels right in the moment and hope it makes sense. And usually it does, and usually it’s a lot better.
You said you devote your Wednesdays to Charles Christopher. What kind of work do you do the rest of the week?
Well, the Assassin’s Creed stuff has taken up most of working time for the last few years. And I’ve basically been doing little bits of things here and there… cover work. Now I’m working with my friend Brendan Fletcher who co-wrote my Wednesday Comics Flash story. We’re working on some new stuff that’s taking up all my time but it’s all conceptual; none of it is actually paying me right now. But it’s what I’m doing every day at the studio that isn’t Wednesday.
You can buy the softcover of the first volume or pre-order Volume 2 of The Abominable Charles Christopher in the Abominable Store.