Human Souvenirs: Eichler and Bertozzi on 'Stuffed!'

Tim Johnston is a nice guy. His late father was…well, not as nice. They hadn’t spoken in a while, but the old man’s recently passed away, and his estate includes a small museum of curiosities. The highlight of this collection just happens to be a taxidermied figure of an African warrior called “The Savage.” Tim’s dad used to scare his kids with it.

Tim, a white guy, is understandably freaked out by this unfortunate inheritance. So he tries to turn the statue over to a museum to get the poor guy a proper burial. Unfortunately, museum official Howard Bright (who happens to be black), finds that doing this isn’t as easy as it seems. And when Tim’s brother Ollie, aka “Free” (who happens to have a literal hole in his head) shows up with his own plans for the statue, things get very, very complicated.

That’s the premise of Stuffed!, a new full-color original graphic novel from First Second Books that premieres this August. It’s the comics writing debut of Glenn Eichler, an Emmy and Peabody-winning writer for Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, who’s perhaps best-known for creating the character of Daria Morgendorffer on Beavis and Butt-Head and masterminding her long-running spinoff, Daria. He’s teamed with veteran cartoonist Nick Bertozzi (Rubber Necker) in bringing this tale of fractured families and very awkward race relations to life.

Eichler and Bertozzi shared with us the story behind this bizarre tale, and the real-life events that helped inspire it.

Newsarama: Glenn, how did the idea Stuffed! come about, and why did you want to do it in a graphic novel format?

Glenn Eichler: I got the idea from a tiny story I’d read in The New York Times some years ago about a museum in Banyoles, Spain called the Darder Museum of Natural History.

The museum had had a stuffed human skin on display for years, and was refusing requests to take it off display. It had become an issue because Barcelona was going to host the Summer Olympics and Banyoles was slated to be the site of a crew race, but the Olympics were threatening to relocate the race over the controversy. Ultimately, the stuffed man was repatriated to Botswana and given a state funeral.

I originally wrote the story as a screenplay, knowing it had about a .001 percent chance of getting produced, but when I met Mark Siegel of First Second Books and was discussing ideas with him, this story leaped to mind. I thought it would make a great graphic novel because it’s a very visual story, at least to me, so I rewrote it as a GN. I’m delighted with what Nick did with it.

NRAMA: Nick, what drew you to the story?

Nick Bertozzi: I was tired of drawing white people.

NRAMA: (pause) What was your collaboration like?

GE: This is going to sound weird, but we haven’t met in person yet. We’ve exchanged emails, notes about the story, etc., but that face-to-face meeting hasn’t occurred even though we’re both in New York. I guess that’s a comment on the way people communicate today or something profound like that.

As for the actual collaboration, Nick is super busy and likes to work independently, so there wasn’t much back-and-forth on the art. Once he had the manuscript, he basically sent very detailed thumbnail sketches, which were followed by a round of notes from me and First Second.

The next time I saw the book, it was in the form of more or less finished galleys. I asked for some more small changes at that point, and soon afterward there was an actual book.

NB: Very easy. Glenn and Mark wrote very good notes.

NRAMA: What kind of research did you do for this story, and what was the most surprising/disturbing thing you discovered?

GE: I did some reading on the history of anthropology, particularly the issue of repatriating remains, including a book called Skull Wars by David Hurst Thomas. The most surprising/disturbing I learned was just how freaking common it was for white European and American “adventurers” to take human remains as souvenirs.

All the stories in Stuffed! about human souvenirs and “skull science” are true. Human beings’ capacity for denying the humanity of other human beings is amazing.

NRAMA: There's a very subdued tone to this story. It unfolds realistically...well, as realistically as a story with someone like Free can unfold. But it has a very laid-back quality, where everyone is trying to do the right thing, but isn't sure what that right thing represents. Glenn, how important was it for you to maintain that tone in the story, and Nick, what were the challenges in telling this visually?

GE: If by “laid-back quality,” you mean that there’s no obvious, sneering villain, and no epic battle between good and evil, then yes, that is by design. Most people in real life aren’t storybook heroes or villains, and are trying to do the right thing, and as you implied, the problem is that it’s not always easy to determine what the right thing is.

Race relations is our thorniest unresolved issue in this country because of our heritage of slavery, and while we’ve made huge strides, it will probably always be problematic for us. I guess I wanted to show that the issue is complex for everyone, no matter what their color or background.

NB: I wanted to see if I could tell a story set in the mainstream, and that means drawing a lot of pretty people, which is not my strength. There were several times while drawing one of these characters that I had to erase and start over, to avoid the book looking like it had been published by Archie Comics.

NRAMA: Glenn, do you see yourself doing more graphic novels in the future, and what was it like working in this format?

GE: I’ve already written another graphic novel for First Second which is about neurotic talking sled dogs, so I feel safe to say it’s the polar opposite to Stuffed!. Get it? “Polar” opposite? I would love to keep writing graphic novels. I’ve always loved comics and animation.

Working in this format just meant learning a new vocabulary for telling a story. It’s different, but not that different from TV or movie scripts; instead of saying, “Cut to,” you say “Panel.” The main thing you have to remember is that your characters can’t move; you must be able to convey every bit of action as a snapshot.

NRAMA: Nick, what were the advantages and challenges of doing a full-color OGN like this?

NB: Working in color certainly takes up a lot more time than black and white, but color is all also another storytelling tool that can subtly alter the mood of scenes if used correctly. I tried to swipe as much as possible from Hergé. No one can do night-time better than he could.

NRAMA: And God help me, I am curious about Free -- what was the inspiration for this character, and what was it like designing him, particularly his head...um, injury?

GE: I knew I wanted responsible, straight-arrow Tim to have a super-stoner brother, and I’d seen a documentary on Discovery a few years ago called A Hole in the Head about trepanators, and I just fell in love with the idea.

There was one guy in it who made Tommy Chong look like John McCain, and he was calmly describing how he drilled a hole in his own head, and how he remembered being surprised by how the blood sprayed all over everything when he did it. It was great.

NB: I've traveled through San Francisco and Berkeley, and observed this particular genus close-up.

NRAMA: What's next for you?

GE: Well, the manuscript for my sled dogs GN has been accepted; I have no idea when the art will be done or what the publication date will be. I also write full time for The Colbert Report, which tapes four half-hour shows a week, so that keeps me pretty busy.

NB: A Lewis and Clark graphic novel that I'm writing and drawing for First Second.

NRAMA: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

GE: I would like to know whether if you burp, fart and sneeze at the same time, you will really die.

Stuffed! hits comic shelves this August.

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