@’s by Chris Shy
of THE NORTH END OF THE WORLD!!!
THE NORTH END OF THE WORLD is a collaboration of ShadowCatcher Entertainment and Black Watch Comics written by screenwriter Dave Hunaker and illustrated by Shy. They debuted the book at the 2012 New York City Comic-Con where it was a complete sell-out of available copies that weekend.
It is described by the publishers as “a bold, alternative journey into the mind and life of legendary later 19th and early 20th century photographer/filmmaker Edward Curtis and his lifelong fascination — some would say obsession — with the Indians of North America and, especially, the hidden aspects of their spirituality.” Thus, it is both biography of a controversial historical figure but also a fictional exploration of those aspects of his journey that are not known in great detail.
The key players are Curtis, his adolescent daughter Beth, his best friend George Hunt, and most importantly the Kwakiutl Indians. The graphic novel follows them deep into the foreboding woods of Vancouver Island where they become immersed in the culture of the Kwakiutl and attempt to capture on film the dark ceremonies and cannibalistic rituals that are continuing to be practiced in defiance of the law.
Chris Shy is a painter of comics/graphic novels. He founded Studio Ronin and has completed a number of works for the both the comics field and for Hollywood. He has painted graphic novels such as SILENT LEAVES and SOUL STEALER on the independent side and produced striking covers for Marvel Comics and others. For Hollywood he has created production designs and artwork for films such as FRIDAY THE 13TH, CONAN, and PATHFINDER. When not producing graphic novels or engaged in a film production, he also finds time to maintain a following as a fine artist as well with gallery shows.
Now, on to the questions.
PROFESSOR CHALLENGER(PROF): Chris, thanks for taking the time to talk to me and the AICN readers about THE NORTH END OF THE WORLD. Talk to me a little about the genesis of this project. Did writer, Dave Hunsaker, come to you with the idea ready to go or was this something you two developed mutually?
CHRIS SHY(CS): I met Dave Hunsaker through a mutual friend, Sean Davis. Dave needed concept art for a screenplay he had written to visualize a pitch on that project. The Curtis project came up later, as a general discussion. I think our shared passion for Curtis bore out the concept of me adapting the screenplay. I met the producer on the project, David Skinner, of ShadowCatcher Entertainment, whom Dave had written the screenplay for. As in anything, once you really like the people, you find a way to work together.
PROF: Can you tell me a little about the relationship between your Blackwatch Comics and the film company, Shadowcatcher Entertainment? Did this project begin as a failed film project or, rather, is the graphic novel a likely basis for a future film production?
CS: Well, it all starts with Studio Ronin. BlackWatch Comics was an outgrowth of Studio Ronin becoming too big for one studio to handle. I founded Studio Ronin in 1996, to publish art books, and do design. Ronin now handles mostly the film and concept side of things. They build special effects models, concept design, the bread and butter of pre-prep on any project I do.
Michael Easton and I founded BlackWatch Comics seven years ago as a way to concentrate very carefully on the publishing side of the graphic novels, during Soul Stealer. Michael and I had a very specific idea on how we wanted to do those books, and we knew the only way was to simply do these ourselves. We hired a team, recruited some of the best folks out there, and started publishing our own books. When we decided to go forward with THE NORTH END OF THE WORLD, for ShadowCatcher, a big discussion was would we shop the book for distribution.
In the end, we decided full creative control was what we all wanted, and to do that, BlackWatch Comics would publish and ShadowCatcher Entertainment would be our partner in that endeavor. The screenplay was never a failed film project. I think a story of this scope was something of a passion project for David Skinner and Dave Hunsaker, and knowing that this was a bit off the beaten path, adapting this as a graphic, evolving it to another stage first, was going to allow it to take on a fuller life, and breath, rather than just sending it out into the wild.
As far as I know, THE NORTH END OF THE WORLD was kept pretty close to the vest, before I was approached to adapt it. I think we would all love to see it evolve as a feature, but at this stage, we are all very proud of this book, and what we were able to achieve with it.
PROF: I'm curious about your familiarity going into it regarding Edward Curtis and the history of the Native American cultures he was instrumental in recording for history. Was he or his work something that already fascinated you or did you have to dig into something new for you?
CS: I would say I have been fairly obsessed with Curtis since I was a kid. I had a few books with his photos, given to me by my Grandfather. Growing up in Kentucky, exploring the forests there, camping, I felt a kinship with Curtis and the time he spent in the unknown. I carried my cameras and water colors into the forest, up the side of cliffs, and imagined carrying this giant camera with boxes of glass plates, trying to record a way of life that was rapidly disappearing. My great Grandmother was Native American, and we as a family knew very little of her, or her heritage, so I understood and felt Curtis frustrations, or not knowing, of seeing a generation watch as things changed, and disappeared, and no one bothered to try and document any of it.. I think in the end, the body of work he left behind is a treasure. It both illuminates and haunts us, it informs and yet each photo leaves behind so many questions about the people he photographed.
PROF: What type of research did you need to do for the visual side of this project? Are you going more with your imagination or are you trying to ground your fantastic imagery with a grounding in reality?
CS: If we look at this story at the beginning, Dave Hunsaker and David Skinner had been hip deep in this for quite a while. Their attention to detail was amazing. I would describe my involvement as the last member of an expedition to show up on the dock before the boat left. I had a general knowledge of Curtis, but knew very little of the Kwakiutl, or their existence in British Columbia. To that end, one of first things we did, as a group, was travel, and see the actual locations that Curtis did his work on. We shot location photos in Seattle, at pioneer square, visited the Flurry Gallery, to examine original volumes of Curtis’ photographs, and all of the wonderful large size reproductions and prints of his work, in detail. David Skinner owns a set of Curtis’s 20-volume book set “The North American Indian,” so I was able to look and study some of the volumes in great detail. A true experience.
We traveled to Vancouver Island, and I shot reference, and took extensive notes. We visited the remains of Fort Rupert, the site of a former Hudson's Bay Company fort which was built in 1849, near present-day Port Hard. Vancouver Island was where Curtis spent most of his time, and shot most of his film In “The Land Of The HeadHunters.” So, to stand on those spots, visit the remains, it was very profound. To hold a camera in my hand and take those photos, in the same spots Curtis had taken his, I understood a small amount of what he must have went through, and endured. Some of these places are not easy to get to, standing on banks, and beaches, looking at ancient Pictographs curved in to the stones, this was truly the end of the known world for some of them, and I began to understand why Curtis traveled there. It truly is a beautiful place.
From there we traveled further north, to Cormorant Island, to the village of Alert Bay, and visited several Kwakwaka'wakw sacred spots, including a First Nation burial ground. The Kwakwaka'wakw play such an important role in the Curtis story. His best friend George Hunt was Kwakwaka'wakw, and Hunts struggled within the Kwakwaka'wakw community. The role of the British government, taking Kwakwaka'wakw artifacts the at the time, and the Kwakwaka'wakw’s struggle to get those artifacts back, and retain their identity. In all of this we have Curtis’ obsession with The-Cannibal-At-The-End-Of-The-World myth. I wanted to get as many photos relating to those events as I could. I want stress we never used anything exactly as we saw it, out of respect for the Kwakwaka'wakw. They lost so much, and fought very hard to get their heritage back, I didn’t want to present anything as it was found, to take advantage of that history, or try and present it as exact, which would have been impossible. So I went about immersing myself in their artist style, to try and understand how they would have drawn certain sections of this. The artifacts housed in the cultural center helped immensely fill in any gaps.
Illustrating this was one of hardest things I have ever undertaken; I was completely exhausted at the end of this book.
PROF: That’s intense. So, given all that research for authenticity and understanding, to what extent is the story itself based on real events or is it essentially wholly sprung from the imagination but featuring characters from real-life?
CS: It is certainly based in some small part on his life, and where he went, and the relationships we know he had. As to conversations he may have had, we can only speculate. There is precious little we know about the time he shot his film at Fort Rupert. We have the film, we have some documentation, and we know the outcome of his life, his career in ruins. The fiction comes in when we try and speculate on what may have happened in those gaps at Fort Rupert, and certainly I would call this historically based fiction. I would not call it something in the vain of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. The events Dave Hunsaker wrote about, no way claim this was what happened to Edward Curtis during that specific time, but the story is woven very tightly around what we do know, and we immersed ourselves in Curtis’ life to try and have those conversations in our own heads that Curtis, and his daughter Beth, and Hunt may have had, based on that.
As for The-Cannibal-At-The-End-Of-The-World myth, that’s all based on the myth, and our speculation, and thus fiction. What would a man do when faced with a giant Raven God? Again, fiction, but based on what we know of Curtis, and his obsessive nature, it’s safe to say he would take that journey I am sure.
PROF: Curtis came under criticism during his life and afterward. Is this going to deal directly with any of those more controversial aspects or leave that to the historians?
CS: I have my own opinions, but leave that debate to the historians. Our book touches on that only lightly.
PROF: The sample images are darkly foreboding with a true sense of horror. Is that the tone you set out for on purpose, or did it evolve organically as you started visually putting it together?
CS: I knew from the beginning how I wanted to approach the book, and then that promptly vanished after our research trip. I took it one page at a time. I did plan the overall tonal shift as Curtis went from Arizona to British Columbia, but after that, I found myself very much in uncharted territory. I worked very long hours, and at times I had it, at other times, I felt I was chasing what I wanted, and it was always just out of reach.
PROF: What philosophical and emotional themes are you examining?
CS: Man against nature?
Man against man?
Certainly, it was man against himself.
There were scenes where Curtis seemed almost doomed to me, his quest not unlike a search for the mythical Holy Grail. Madness, the quest of a truth, and the obsession of understanding what came before the modern, what shaped us into the species we are now. When Curtis descends under the waterfall, to the bottom of the lake in the Hamatsa initiation, is this Dante? Is this penitence? In the Greek Mysteries, initiation connoted not a "beginning" (initia), but the opposite: "finishing." In this part of the story, Curtis was facing darkness, a final truth, The-Cannibal-At-The-End-Of-The-World. That for me, was our ancestral truth, the horror we overcame to become what we are now. Under that water Curtis would face The Ancestors.
PROF: How long have you actually been working on it?
CS: I think, from beginning to end, almost two years. If you count the publishing side,the principle art took a year. I think my original estimate was 6 to 8 months.
PROF: Just because I’m always curious about how each artist approaches putting pen or paint to paper, can you describe your medium and technique a little bit -- give the readers insight into how Chris Shy works when he takes a blank canvas and builds a world?
CS: Every book is different. I use tempura, watercolor, and photography. I print some things out, then over paint, then scan them, and over paint again. For some of the scenes in this, I used a certain shot that Curtis took, but used it for the middle, and painted everything outside of it, the unseen background. I wanted to bring him to life. Beth, his daughter, I loved painting. I only had one good photo of her. I kept one of Beth, and a Curtis photo of an Apache girl from 1903 on my desk during the project. I often blended the two together for my work on Beth.
PROF: Do you block and pace the story before you start ruminating on what designs, colors, and textures will best serve the story?
CS: I read and thumbnail pages as I go. I read it several times, sketching each page out very small. Pacing is very important. I don’t concern myself with page count. It takes what it will take to do it right. If a project is 96 written pages, I let the story unwind according to how long I feel it must be. Certain things need to be uncompressed. It’s one of few precious things we can still do in this medium. Let it be. Just let it become what it must.
PROF: Your painting and storytelling style are evocative of a strong synthesis of fine art with graphic storytelling. That's such a truly rare fusion. Graphic storytelling, as a commercial art, has tended to be driven more by pragmatic art techniques mainly to increase speed and reproduction. The advent of the modern notion of graphic novels as literature and a business that has come to embrace more time-consuming and expensive mediums and techniques has laid the groundwork for someone like you to create beautiful and haunting works of art that also tell stories. Is it more your heart to touch emotions through painted imagery or through the flow of your unique way of storytelling? Or do you see this as an impossible separation?
CS: It’s impossible to separate it. I have always been a Comic Book artist. I was doing comics when I was 8. It has been, and always will be my true love. The story pushes you into creation of a world, and the art brings it into focus, and it is the force of creating every scene, based off that story, has always made me a better artist, and storyteller I do fine art, gallery work, but all that comes from doing graphic novels. I have never done monthlies, I search out complete stories, and paint them from beginning to end.
For me, it’s the only way. I think they call us “Graphic Novelist” now, but I was always proud of just being a comic book artist. It’s a unique job, a tough job, and not a job easily explained to anyone outside of those who do it. I have completed 14 books, and I have immersed myself in each one of them. Approached each with no rules based on previous work, or experience. I may have a style, but I always try and shake it on each one. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes I fail, I have a marvelous team I work with, who bust me if my panel structure gets too confusing, or my art gets a bit abstract.
My production manager, Emmelee Pearson, Editor Kevin Stein, I depend on them. If something gets too esoteric, if it isn’t smooth they gut me like a fish. I need that. Two hundred and fifty pages into a book, is like Alice slipping down the rabbit whole. Each book is a war, a struggle, and a unique level of abstract thinking. My team keeps me sane.
PROF: When do you know you are done?
CS: It’s never done, in my opinion, but I am very good at knowing how long it’s going to take, to get those pages completed. I try and build in a month or so for polish, and as I have said I thumbnail, essential for coming in on deadline.
PROF: Do you find yourself going back to the work and tweaking it or are you easily able to step away and move on to the next thing?
CS: Yes, I do spend about a month going page to page, doing my own art changes. Then I invite my team to read through and tell me where I went off the rails. I always do a certain amount of concept art. I can always tell when a book has been a tough ride, based on how many pieces I have had to do to work out a sequence. THE NORTH END OF THE WORLD took hundreds.
Once a book is done, I try and move on to something completely different. I usually can switch gears pretty fast. I like to take a month or so off between each book, if possible.
PROF: What is your involvement on the actual design and production of the printed version of the book itself? I know some artists, just hand it off and wait. Are you involved in the technical side of production as well?
CS: Yes, from the very beginning, back in the 1990’s Studio Ronin began handling the layout and production of all of our books, and this was no exception. I have a very precise idea of how I want a book laid out. I like to ease into a story a certain way, and ease out. I open, and close a story with as many pages as I feel necessary for this to stand on its own. I don’t like house ads, I like the credits to be presented a certain way, I like everyone working on a book to get their credit. I have fought some very bloody battles for Studio Ronin and BlackWatch to get the credit they deserve. It’s a team that has been working together for a long time. We think the same, argue the same, and are very truthful and caring about what we do. For us, this is making the best novel we can, a film on paper, when adapting a script. This is our life’s work.
PROF: The aspects of your art that resonate with me is that it always moves me emotionally but also there are marks of intelligence in all of it -- something almost archetypal or mythological -- whether it is based in familiar reality or drawn from the suppressed imaginations of our nightmares. Not every artist is able to combine the intangibles of intelligence and emotion in each image. Is this planned on your part or just something that happens without your conscious knowledge?
CS: I am always aware of it. I have always been fascinated by myths, the beginnings of man, the rites of passage, and rituals, the countless stories of The Dying God, Indian Culture. These are the great heritage of everything that came before us, and the basis for all of our ability to Story Tell. Isis, Osiris, Demeter and Persephone, Moses, Christ.. Every character is abandoned, a reluctant king, a Dying God, a Sacrificial Hero. In my mind, Curtis was yet another, who sacrificed something for those he loved. Elements of Christ, elements of Ananke, obsession, all stories are told and retold. The Devil is in the details. Dave Hunsaker wrote an amazing story. David Skinner gave me the freedom to approach it the way I wanted. They worked long before me, on this, and I worked very hard to find things in this they had not found.
PROF: What’s next for Chris Shy?
CS: I just finished another novel set in the DEADSPACE Universe, loved doing that, and just returned from a place called Madeline Island for a new trilogy I am working on called I SLEEP IN STONE.
PROF: Thanks again for taking the time to talk to me, my friend. I look forward to talking to you again, soon. Readers can find out more about THE NORTH END OF THE WORLD or order a copy directly at www.thenorthendoftheworld.com, at www.blackwatchcomics.com, and find more info at www.artemisperfecteditions.com/thenorthendoftheworld.html.
About ShadowCatcher Entertainment: ShadowCatcher Entertainment is an independent production company that develops, produces and distributes character-driven feature films, documentaries, books, plays, and television network/cable programming for worldwide entertainment markets. Based in Seattle, the Company collaborates with studios, networks, film and theater producers to produce a wide variety of programming, including films like Skeleton Key, Outsourced and Smoke Signals.
About Black Watch Comics: Founded in 2009, Black Watch Comics is a publisher of fine graphic novels. With studios in New York, California and Wisconsin, the company has been a noteworthy force in producing some of the most beautiful graphic novels in the world. Black Watch’s catalog includes The LEAVES trilogy by Christopher Shy and the long-awaited SOUL STEALER: THE COLLECTOR’S EDITION, which launched at San Diego Comic-Con 2012. Authored by Michael Easton and illustrated by Shy, SOUL STEALER won “Best New Graphic Novel of the Year” as designated by Prof. Challenger for AICN Comics.
Prof. Challenger is Texas artist and writer, Keith Howell. You can read his stuff here and over at profchallenger.com. You can also get in on the ground floor of his new endeavor, "Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned from Comic Books" here.
Proofs, co-edits & common sense provided by Sleazy G