The Family Pirate: Schweizer on 'Crogan's Vengeance'

Every family tree has a bit of history – you can help it. Whether big or small, each of our lineages trace their way in and out of important historical events. The lives your forefathers (and foremothers) led were just as interesting as yours – maybe more. In the Crogan family, adventure is in their blood. Crogan's Vengeance is the first in an ongoing series of adventure graphic novels that profile the Crogan family tree. This volume documents "Catfoot" Crogan, an honest sailor who ends up in the pirate's life abard the ship of the most dangerous buccaneer on the Spanish Main.

According to Oni Editor-In-Chief James Lucas Jones, Schweizer's original pitch included a poster-size copy of the Crogan Family Tree. That set the tone for the publisher and for the readers, with future adventures promising private eyes, gunfighters, legionnaires, flying aces and even a lion tamer. Schweizer admits that this series is inspired by "great adventure stories" such as Treasure Island and the Three Musketeers, while being a good old fashioned comic book at heart. This 192-page hardcover is published by Oni Press and is Schweizer's first standalone work in comics. Crogan's Vengeance debuted at Small Press Expo on October 4th.

Newsarama: It's good to talk to you, Chris. So what's Crogan's Vengeance about?

Chris Schweizer: While the story is a high adventure tale centering around a young sailor, nicknamed “Catfoot” Crogan, the book is really about piracy. There are two different schools of thought among pirate historians: that pirates were either the swashbucklers of popular fiction whose society was one of the first examples of pure equality and personal freedom, or that they were horrible, murderous brutes who used fear and aggression to nearly collapse the trade and economy of the New World. Both, I think, are true, and I wanted to use this book to show how that’s possible.

NRAMA: Tell us more about Catfoot Crogan and how he ends up a pirate.

CS: Though the book doesn’t dwell much on his backstory, Catfoot comes from what used to be an extremely well-to-do line, but his family was stripped of their wealth and position when they took the royalist side during the English civil war. He’s seen firsthand the consequences of making waves, and so he really just wants to go through life without finding himself in the middle of a conflict.

Like a lot of pirates, Catfoot “goes on the account” not so much because of a love of plunder as to free himself of the unfairness of nautical life in the eighteenth century. Even aboard private merchant vessels, crews were subject entirely to the will of the ship’s master, and were often poorly paid, poorly fed, and harshly punished for every infraction, real or imagined. Piracy offered freedom in a time when the social order was extremely hierarchical and it was almost impossible for anyone to not be under the thumb of someone else.

The problem that Catfoot faces is reconciling this need for freedom and personal liberty with the reality of pirate life; namely, having to steal and kill in order to survive.

NRAMA: The title of the book mentions 'vengeance' – so what is Catfoot seeking vengeance for?

CS: Though he's surrounded by cutthroats, one stands out above all the others as a real villain. This character is out to get Catfoot, and though the latter would prefer to avoid confrontation, the villain consistently forces him to make a hard choice; either stand idly by while cruel and barbarous exploits are undertaken, or intervene at the cost of his own safety and position. The final choice that Crogan has to make is if, once no longer in the proximity of this character, he should still seek him out in order to put an end to such misdeeds. The "vengeance" in question is the potential outcome of such a choice.

NRAMA: This is an entire series of graphic novels – quite ambitious. Did it come to you as a big series, or just grow out of the first book

CS: I had the series idea before I ever thought of specific story details. I had a job where there was plenty of sit-at-a-desk-and-draw time, and I found myself drawing this WWI flying ace a lot. One day I drew another character – probably the pirate, I’m not positive – and realized that they looked like they could be related. That gave me the idea to try and draw all of the other relatives in this lineage, so with the help of a calculator I figured out what years each generation would fall into, and tailored the “professions” to fit the time periods allotted. I think I drew out the whole family tree in one day, and I named most of the characters after my Dad’s brothers.

Like a lot of creations, its birth feels like pure chance – I happened to be thinking about the right thing at the right time, and it fell into place. I feel so lucky to have come up with it, because it allows me to stay within the framework of an established series while still getting to try a different genre with each successive volume – a swashbuckler, a western, a noir detective story – it’s a project that I’m unlikely to ever tire of.

To tell the truth, I had no idea at all what it’d be for – this was before I decided that I was going to be a cartoonist – I just knew that it was a series that I’d probably enjoy reading or watching. I’d become disheartened by the lack of gender-specific children’s literature out there, and I knew that I wanted to create an old-style Boy’s Adventure series. While I think it’s wonderful that there are so many books that are aimed at both girls and boys, like Bone and Harry Potter and The Secret Science Alliance – I think that books aimed at one or the other can be really fulfilling as well. I loved Howard Pyle books as a kid, and the Hardy Boys, and Tom Swift; my wife, like so many other girls, loved the L.M. Montgomery books, and Nancy Drew, and the Babysitters’ Club series. While I certainly hope there will be a crossover in terms of readership, I think it’s good for kids of both genders to have work specifically aimed at them.

NRAMA: One thing I noticed on the family tree artwork is that they are all men – will there be any story of the Crogan women?

CS: There will definitely be prominent female characters, but the protagonist of each of the main Crogan books is going to be a guy – at least that’s my plan as of now. Mostly this is because the series is, as I mentioned, targeted primarily at boys. The reason that none of the mothers are on the family tree is that seeing who the mother is would give away some key story elements that I want to keep secret. If the reader knows that two characters have a child, then the suspense built in a romantic subplot as to whether or not they end up together would be negated.

But historically, there are a lot of periods in which women played a big role on the adventure side of things, especially in the early part of the twentieth century, so don’t expect many of the protagonists to go it alone.

NRAMA: How far are you along in doing the first book, Crogan's Vengeance?

CS: The first book is actually completely finished, and is being shipped over from the printers as we speak – it’s debuting at the Small Press Expo on October 4th. I’m working on the plot of the second book, Crogan’s March, which I hope to have finished and on shelves in the later part of ’09.

NRAMA: This series is about the adventures of the Crogan family throughout history. Is your family tree this adventurous?

CS: Actually, yes. As a kid, I loved hearing stories about my family tree. There are a lot, but a few spring readily to mind.

My great-grandfather, an engineer and Germanic Literature professor, found himself in America because he was enslaved on a Cuban sugar plantation with a friend (long story), and escaped through the jungle, building a raft and making his way to the Florida coast (both men contracted Malaria, and his friend didn’t survive the escape; my great-grandfather almost didn’t). Then there was the Revolutionary War colonel on my Grandmother’s side who escaped from a swarm of hostile Native Americans by diving his horse off the side of a giant cliff (there’s a national monument there now, called “McCullough’s Leap”), and was subsequently able to bring relief to a besieged fort. I had a great-great-grandmother who ran a bootlegging operation, another great-grandfather who was the founder of America’s Vocational Placement for the Blind program, and an ancestor who was skinned alive by the British during the war of 1812. My grandfather designed Epcot’s Mexican Pavilion, and my great-grandmother’s sister, science fiction novelist Andre Norton, wrote her first published novel at age 16 during school (the tradition of working on stories while we’re supposed to be paying attention in class is an old family tradition, apparently). There’s also a surprising amount of alligator-related incidents on my dad’s side, plus some shadier characters who are probably be best left unmentioned, though everybody in the family is pretty open about the immorality of some of our forebears. It’s pretty likely that I’ll borrow from my ancestors’ experiences for the Crogan books sometime down the road.

NRAMA: This is your first major comics work, but can you tell us about your art career leading up to this?

CS: There’s not a whole lot, actually… though I’ve drawn all my life, most of what I’ve done to this point can be seen as preparatory, trying different storytelling mediums (film, prose writing, a college newspaper strip, illustration, theater, etc) that now inform my comics work. I had never really considered cartooning as a career possibility until my dad suggested it a couple of years ago. My dad, while very encouraging, is also very pragmatic, and kind of an quality snob, so his suggestion carried a lot of weight for me – if he didn’t think I could do it, he wouldn’t have said it. I thought “you know what? I would LOVE to make comics for a living!” and went about trying to find out how to do so. I made my first short story – the Goodbye Beard, which can be read on my website – at the beginning of ’06, and took a job as a sixth grade history teacher while I prepared for grad school, making more comics so that I’d have a portfolio with which to trick them into accepting me into the program; I was so nervous about getting in.

NRAMA: You graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with an MFA in Sequential Art. How do you think that college training helped you get to where you are today?

CS: Absolutely. Firstly, it increased the quality of my work tenfold. My drawing got better, my process sped up as I learned quicker ways to do things that heretofore had taken me hours, and I was exposed to a lot of artists whose work I had never seen. The faculty at SCAD-Atlanta also bend over backwards to make sure that we get all the opportunities possible for us; Our grad program was small, but all of us came out working (Hunter Clark is drawing The Return of King Doug, which was recently optioned by Ben Stiller, Douglas Dabbs just did the art for the Resurrection Annual, and Justin Wagner is doing the art for Greg Thompson’s Lonesome Town, and I was finished with Vengeance by the time I had my last class) thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of Shawn Crystal, who takes time away from his own busy freelancing schedule to really help the career paths of his students. There are also lots of visiting artist and editor workshops and panels that allow the students face time with everybody from James Jean to Art Spiegelman, and that’s invaluable. The contacts I made through SCAD-Atlanta were, I think, just as valuable career-wise as the actual education, and that’s saying a lot.

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