One of the hits at last fall’s Small Press Expo (SPX) was Seamus Heffernan’s Freedom, an oversized look at a very different Revolutionay War-era US that received the prestigious Xeric Grant last year. You can check out a PDF excerpt from the book here or buy a copy of it online here – or you can check it out when it hits shops from Potato Comics in April with 72 8”by 12” pages for just $7.
We got up with Heffernan to talk about his book, and to give readers a look at the detailed artwork readers will find inside.Newsarama: Seamus, tell our readers about Freedom --the story, characters,etc.
Seamus Heffernan: Freedom is something I’m calling a “historical mythology”. At its root it’s an alternate history about the American Colonists losing the Revolution to the British. I’ve taken what might have been a likely path for history to follow in the event of the colonial defeat, and injected it with mythical and magical elements.
In doing so, I’m trying to make a story that asks larger metaphorical questions about the nature of America and it’s obsession with the idea of Freedom. It is
a massive, irreverent epic with a huge cast of characters, both fictional and historical.
The story is set in the colonial America of 1779, two years after the Revolution has been lost, and the American Colonies are a mess. Washington has been missing since the war’s end, Benjamin Franklin is in exile in France, Thomas Jefferson and other signatories of the declaration of independence are on their way to the gallows, and Sam Adams is leading the Sons of Liberty in an insurgency against the British Army.
Last but not least, a shadowy figure known as the Liberty Eagle (or the Tarred and Feathered Man if you’re British) terrorizes evildoers from the rooftops of Boston. The story follows the plights of a teenage farm boy named Adam Farr and an escaped slave called Minerva.
Their destinies become entwined with one another and with the factions struggling for control over the colonies. A prophecy that sprouts up among the people guides them on a complex and arduous path towards a fabled “Liberty Tree” and supposed salvation. A cathartic and catastrophic slave-revolt, Abigail Adam’s insanity-induced prophecies, Benjamin Franklin’s time machine, a flood of biblical proportions, and a bronze age colossus striding across the American Colonies are only a few of the big moments in Freedom.
I’m so excited to get it all out, and can’t wait for you guys to get to read all of it.Nrama: What sort of research did you do for this book, and what were some things you discovered about this period that you found particularly interesting?
Heffernan: The bulk of my research was focused on the actual characters and events that shaped the Revolutionary period. Learning about the major players of the Revolution, their characters, motives and attitudes was pretty important. Even though it is historical fiction, I want historians to read it and say, “Wow, that is exactly what Samuel Adams would have done.”
In that same respect, I did a ton of research into the everyday life aspects of the period: the type of things people ate, what they wore, how they spoke, what games, music and philosophies were popular at the time. These aspects are all crucial for creating a believable world.
There are so many interesting things I discovered during my research, it’s hard to pin down a winner. One thing I found fascinating is how often events of the Revolution had seemingly mystical portents to them. For example, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the 4th of July, within hours of each other, many years after the Revolution. Also, there were times during a number of Washington’s battles when a sudden and highly unusual shift in the weather either changed the battle’s tide in favor of the Colonial Army, or shielded their operations from the enemy’s eyes.Nrama: There have been stories looking at what happened if the U.S. lost the Revolutionary War, but those usually take place in the present day. This deals with a more immediate aftermath, and makes some very dark connections to both terrorist threats and government intrusion into privacy. Why did you make the book both an alternate-history story and a period piece? By the way, I'm going to make an embarrassing admission and say that my lack of knowledge of history made me think this was just a straight-up period piece for a good while. Heffernan: I think a lot of us would agree that the United States is in a very troubling state these days, no matter which side of the fence you are on. There is a lot of talk about our freedom being stolen away, either by big government or big business or some terrorists that hate freedom.
I’ve always thought the best way to investigate a contemporary issue is to look at its historical roots. By taking the historical events of our nations founding and mixing them up with the big, messy dilemmas of modernity, I hope to get at some deeper understanding about what this country is really about.
The Revolutionary War was a huge paradigm shift in political and social thinking of western society. It opened the pathway to greater freedom and equality among all people (regardless of how long and untraveled the path is) and yet it is largely forgotten outside of historical circles.
Just search Netflix for movies about the Civil War and then do a search for movies about The American Revolution and you’ll see what I’m talking about (and no matter what you do, do NOT watch Mel Gibson’s The Patriot). I chose to place the story in the Revolutionary period simply to contribute a thoughtful and kick ass adventure story about one of the most interesting and untold chapters in humanity’s history.
I am trying to keep Freedom’s nature as an alternate-history as subtle as possible in the beginning. I am a firm believer in the storytelling method of “show, don’t tell.” I want the reader to discover the world’s situation through the story like any fantasy tale. I also hope it will make readers interested to learn more about what actually happened, once they realize what they’ve been reading is fictional.
Nrama: How did you create Adam, the focal character for the first chapter, and how large do you plan to make the ensemble immediately?
Heffernan: I wanted my central protagonist to be both a person we can identify with and one whose situation reflects that of the world he lives in. One of the most visceral stages of growing up is that period between adolescence and adulthood. I think most people can relate to that time, when you are yearning for your own independent life but you’re still subservient to your parents and adult society.
Well, Adam Farr is right there. All his hopes and dreams of independence and adventure are taken from him when he is sent to apprentice under a Tory merchant. The story is the same for his country, its own independence ripped right out from under it.
As to the broader cast, in the next issue the ensemble will grow with the introduction of our other main protagonist, Minerva, as well as the ex-brigadier general turned slave-catcher, Francis Marion. When we return to Adam’s story in No. 3, the cast will take a big jump in numbers as some of the bigger players start getting more directly involved. Benjamin Franklin and a huge villain, Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, will make their first appearances, which I’m pretty excited about.
Nrama: Tell us about the book's format, and why you chose to go the oversize route.Heffernan: I ended up printing a saddle-stitched comic book that has 76 black and white pages, a full color cover and is 8” wide and 12” tall. This was a tricky decision. I actually had originally planned to print the book as a period-correct broadsheet. If I had done so, each page would have been 1:1, that is to say it would have been printed at the same size I drew it: 11”x17”.
This turned out to not be viable, due to modern printing practices and the needs of a shelf presence, as cool as it would have been. When I realized I needed to make an actual comic book format, I did a little research on common printed sizes from that period. Turns out there were a good number of printed propaganda and philosophical works in the 8”x12” format.
It’s of huge importance to me to make my book seem like an artifact from the time period (as much as possible while keeping it modern enough to tell the story I want to), and the art being of such a dense, detailed nature, seemed to demand the oversized format.
I know I will probably suffer some retailer’s ire, but I hope the quality of the work will overcome any reservations stores might have against shelving an over-sized book.
Nrama: How has the Xeric helped you with the book's production?
Heffernan: Oh man, the book most likely would not have been published at all if not for the Xeric Grant. And even if I had found a publisher willing to take it on, I’m sure they wouldn’t have allowed the format decisions I made.
Also, the Xeric Foundation was kind enough to grant me twice the amount of money I requested because they liked the book so much. This allowed me to print oversized, with nicer paper, and use a smaller local printer (DesChamps Printing, in Salem, Massachusetts) who did an outstanding job. The grant’s visibility and money has been instrumental in helping to promote the book.
They’ve been so encouraging and thrilled about Freedom No.1, I feel like I owe them just for their positivity. It’s a shame they’re closing down shop for their self-publishing grant, but I suppose that’s the Internet’s fault.
Nrama: What are the long-term plans for Freedom?Heffernan: Just keep going. This is a very, very long story with a huge ensemble cast and an art style that takes a long time to draw. I’ve basically resigned myself to it being what I do for the rest of my life, at least in comics.
I am entertaining the idea of seeking a publisher for it in the future, should there be any takers, but for now I hope to just keep self-publishing each issue myself as I finish them. My ultimate hope (as I’m sure many of my colleagues hope for themselves) is that some movie or TV studio finds it interesting enough to take on. I would love to see the Liberty Eagle brought to life on screen.
Nrama: What are some of your favorite Revolutionary War stories, in terms of fiction and nonfiction?
Heffernan: Last year I read The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson. It’s a two book fictional series about a truly unique slave experience during the American Revolution. I’ve taken a great deal of inspiration not just from the language that Mr. Anderson seems to so effortlessly write, but also from the dark and amorphous themes around the nature of freedom. I could not recommend it more highly.
I also enjoyed Jerome Charyn’s Johnny One Eye, another historical fiction about a clever double agent and his relationship with George Washington during the British siege of New York City. For non-fiction, the book and subsequent HBO mini-series John Adams is the most enthralling, accurate and well-told story about the time period I’ve seen yet. I’ve used many a still-frame from that show for photo reference.
A few other heavy hitters are David McCullough’s 1776, which is completely historically accurate but reads like a kick-ass action adventure flick, Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, and Ray Raphael’s The People’s History of the American Revolution.
Nrama: What else are you currently working on?
Heffernan: Oh man, too many things. Besides working on promoting Freedom No. 1 and churning away on Freedom No. 2, I am a full-time illustrator/designer who does a lot of work in the video game industry. (My commercial portfolio site, for the curious: http://cargocollective.com/seaheff )
I just came off of a quick stint doing concept art for a robot-smashing-cities game, and am currently helping to design the visual and brand identities for a number of unannounced, ridiculously cool games that I’m not allowed to talk about. I’m also about three weeks away from being a first-time father, so there are a lot of drawings of my pregnant wife and cute children’s book illustrations floating around the house.Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't talked about yet?
Heffernan: I figured I should mention a little about my process making Freedom, because people seem to ask me about it a lot. I start with medium to tight pencils and then ink the entire book with a tiny little crow quill nib. Even the big spots of black are slowly built up with a bunch of little pen strokes so as to create a consistent texture.
This style kind of evolved on its own in an attempt to emulate the distressed appearance of old 18th century printing. While it’s extremely time consuming and while I’m not sure if I’m completely successful in doing this, I feel it brings an interesting enough flavor of “hand-wroughtness” to the art to justify the time spent on it.
Freedom rings out in comic shops this April. If you’d like your retailer to order the book, the Diamond code is FEB121132; the book is also available at http://seaheff.com.