Making comics and graphic novels can feel like a marathon. With two books coming to market this fall — including Dear Creature, which hits stands today — within a month of each other, I need to learn new methods in multi-tasking — not really a marathoner’s skill. Like running in a straight line for a long time, making comics is both personally rewarding and incredibly baffling to most normal people, so I’ll do my best to explain how it hooked me.
In the interest of clarifying things up front, Dear Creature is my very own book, and the other, Green River Killer, is a collaboration. In both cases, I’m telling stories visually, but with the second book, the script was in place when I began work.
No matter how streamlined things get, though, making comics takes time. Seven years ago, I was fresh out of college with a degree in acting. I decided I didn’t want to go to New York or LA and attempt to climb the tall ladder of show business to possibly, one day, tell my stories. I decided comics was a better answer to my passion for telling stories, acting, and drawing. So I moved to Portland and began work on my first original book, Dear Creature.
A play I wrote, called Sea Freak, served as my jumping off point. It’s a story about an atomic sea mutant in the ’60s (with a poet soul) who gives up his habit of eating people in hopes of finding love. My dream was to enter the book market with a full-length graphic novel, telling just the story I wanted to tell. You can do that with comics. Most professionals will advise against trying that with your first project, and mostly, they’re right. I was pretty full of myself after college. Beyond stubbornness, though, I had many helpful voices to see the project through. My friend Alex Kamer (now employed at ShadowMachine Films in LA) provided terrific editorial support, and I sought out regular rounds of critique from willing comics professionals and my future colleagues at Periscope Studio. Outside perspectives were essential to making a worthwhile first book, and I’m indebted to the people who gave me their time.
After a year writing and revising the script, I started laying out the book with rough drawings until I could read the comic start to finish. Then final art began. Because the book is set in the ’60s, I wanted to emulate that era’s expansive black and white cinematography. I eliminated shading and cross hatching to focus on composing with solid blacks. The efficiency of that approach served me well as I worked at an oversized format, twice the size of modern comics pages.
I finished Dear Creature in early 2010, when two things happened. Tor came along and expressed interest in its publication, and just as I polished it up for delivery, I got a call from Sierra Hahn, an editor at Dark Horse Comics. She asked if I wanted to do artwork for Green River Killer, a graphic novel written by Jeff Jensen, of Entertainment Weekly. “It’s the best book I’ve worked on,” she said. “It’s going to be huge.” It’s a true-crime story about Jeff’s father, who worked as a detective on the Pacific Northwest’s Green River Killer case in the ’80s and ’90s. Unsettling stuff.
I wasn’t sure it was for me. I’d just finished a book about a monster, and I tried to keep him on the muppet end of the monster spectrum. I didn’t want to take on a serial killer and steer myself into a progressively darker niche. But Sierra and Jeff had seen some of Dear Creature, and they were adamant that my storytelling style and even my hesitance to go for the jugular was just right for their project.
We started work on Green River Killer in spring of 2010. After being in complete control of Dear Creature, working with another writer’s script was very freeing. Jeff gave me a broad outline, but I didn’t know exactly where he would take us. Script came in chapter by chapter, and I received reference material in batches, while gathering some of my own. The book ended up being firmly focused on Jeff’s father and his experience, which gave it a heart I hadn’t expected when Sierra first pitched the project. I’d connected to Dear Creature through my love of the sea. With Green River, I joke that it was through my familiarity with ’80s mustaches; every dad had one.
With a deadline of one year to complete over 200 pages, I worked at a smaller page size (the modern standard), which kept us moving quickly. The freedom of not being in charge combined with that smaller size effectively doubled the pace of my output. The aesthetic also called for tighter panels than Dear Creature’s, meaning I focused more on faces throughout. Faces are much faster than backgrounds.
In a year, art for Green River was done. Then I found out it would ship to bookstores in fall 2011 — the same time slot as Tor’s publication of Dear Creature. I still can’t believe the timing. After all these years, Green River beat my first book to press!
At first, I scratched my head over how the double release would work out, but I soon recognized that it’s really an ideal situation. I have two books to share with readers this fall, with one graciously introducing the other. The multi-tasking is the challenge now. I feel a little like I ran my marathon, accidentally won the football game, and arrived at the homecoming dance with two dates. You can’t complain, but it’s almost too much for one person.
Jonathan Case writes and draws books in Portland, Oregon, as a member of Periscope Studio, the largest cooperative of comics creators in America. His work is featured in the Eisner award–winning Comic Book Tattoo, and has been lauded as some of the best show of new talent in comics. Dear Creature is Jonathan Case’s first book.