It’s the return of Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our ongoing look at the best comics on the web! And what better way to kick off this new cycle of interviews than with the winner of last year’s Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic?
Fans of print comics probably know Karl Kerschl’s work from the Flash story in Wednesday Comics or Teen Titans: Year One.. But a growing cult of loyal readers know him for The Abominable Charles Christopher, his online strip published every Wednesday at www.abominable.cc and recently made available in a softcover edition available on that site.
The titular sasquatch…or Yeti…or something…wanders through the pristine world of the Cedar Forest, silently observing the life around him. But the animals are considerably less quiet – each new strip brings us into contact with the life of married birds, an owl whose kid is growing up, a cockroach psychiatrist, a bear with a dark past, and many more. As vast and alive as the forest itself, The Abominable Charles Christopher is a hilarious, gentle and sometimes moving tale that reminds us that human foibles aren’t limited to just humans.We called up Kershchl in Canada for a special two-part interview that discusses the strip’s future, how he crafts his tales, and much more.
Newsarama: Karl, at the end of 2011, you’d finished Book Two of The Abominable Charles Christopher. How many books in total do you see the strip running?
Karl Kerschl: Probably three. I don’t have a plan for it, ultimately. I think as I work on it the story sort of unfolds in my head, and I have certain moments I want to see occur. A lot of the stuff that’s going to happen in Book Three didn’t occur to me until late in this second chapter.
A lot of dire things will happen in this third chapter, but I don’t quite know how it’ll all end. So we’ll see! But three books seems like a tidy collection.
A three-act structure is traditional; I don’t know if what I’m doing has a traditional structure, but each book contains about two years worth of strips. So three books will equal about six years worth of strips, and the last book should be enough to resolve the main quest story.
It will end, that much I’m certain about. It’s not really intended to be an ongoing thing.
Nrama: When you go back and read the archives, though, it has that sense of being five or six different strips, with everything going somewhere. Sometimes it’s Charles Christopher’s quest, sometimes it’s the marital discord of the birds, or the therapist cockroach, or Vivol and Moon Bear. But I get a sense it’s tying together.Kerschl: Yeah, those peripheral stories, they don’t tie into the main plot in any concrete way, but I like to think that they add context, or some thematic resonance. Even when I cut away from the main story, I like to go to something that is perhaps not related in story, but related in tone or theme. And I just kind of go with my gut from week to week.
But when I started the strip, I had no direction for it, and it was intended to become something that continued week to week. But then a plot crept in against my better judgment. You know, I think the title character could disappear entirely, and I could just do slice-of-life stories about human frailties and foibles in the guise of forest animals.
Nrama: I was curious, was the manga Gon an influence on the strip?
Kerschl: You know, I’ve never actually read that! But you’re not the first person to make that comparison. I actually have a copy DC sent me from their CMX line, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. It does sound like it might be similar; worth a look anyway.
Nrama: How did the character of Charles Christopher initially come about?Kerschl: That’s a tough question, because I don’t know. As a creator of stuff, you don’t really know these things – he just kind of came to me out of nowhere. I was writing another story (that had nothing to do with this one) while I was up in Toronto with my friends to work on the TX line of comics.
During my commute, I read some news article about people in the wild mistaken for Sasquatches. That got me thinking about what an animated series would be like, kind of a Walter Lantz Woody Woodpecker-type show about a silent protagonist who lives in the woods and is surrounded by wisecracking animals, who has to navigate through all sorts of situational and comedic moments as a result. It wasn’t really on my radar to do it as a comic, but I started sketching it, and it became more fun than what I was doing at the time.
I thought, “I don’t have a story here, but I can do something random every week,” and then I found that I was amused enough by what Charles Christopher was doing on the page that I kept coming back to it.
His name just came about because I thought it was funny that a character who was so simple and dimwitted would have such a snobby-sounding, upper-class name. And that was that! I think the first drawing I did of him had that name, and it stuck.
Nrama: So it sounds like the overarching plot you’ve done with the strange Lovecraftian creatures and The Epic of Gilgamesh wasn’t planned, but just sort of emerged organically?Kerschl: Yeah. Shortly after I created the character and was imagining a wild man in the woods, it reminded me of the Enkidu character from The Epic of Gilgamesh, and I flirted with the idea of telling that story through Enkidu’s eyes. So Charles Christopher is sort of an analogue for Enkidu.
Having said all that, the retelling is extremely loose, and I don’t stick to the actual epic very closely. I just like using the characters and themes. If anything, it was sort of a device to get those two characters together and see what happened. The story’s been building to the meeting of Charles Christopher and Gilgamesh, and now I want to explore that relationship.
Nrama: And now you have a human in the strip, but he’s in tribal war make-up all the time – nice save there. (laughs)
Kerschl: My thinking was that because of the semi-realism of the animal depictions, if I was going to draw a human character, they would have to be similarly realistic. And I think drawing a realistic human in that world would completely shatter the illusion of the comic. I kept Gilgamesh covered up, and I want to stick to that.
There’s a dreamlike quality to the comic that would be ruined with a literal depiction of a person. So I kind of got around that by depicting Gilgamesh in this kind of warrior garb that completely covers him up and kind of makes him another animal.
If there’s any message at all in this comic, it’s probably that the line between people and animals is quite blurred, at least in terms of their sentience and value as living things.
Nrama: That leads into something else I wanted to talk about – sometimes I get a vibe like the films of Bambi and Watership Down, where you set up this community of animals, and then deal with this deeply unsettling, violent presence of man entering the forest.
Kerschl: Yeah. Obviously, I’m very well-versed in both of those, but I was very conscious of…I introduced the idea early on of man coming to the forest, but I didn’t want to make it a mission for Charles Christopher.
The only ones who notice are the lion, who is probably not really an animal but some kind of god-like creature, and Vivol the bear, who has been abused by humans his whole life.
Every other character in the story has little concern about the existence of men, and I really don’t want to tell another story about “the evil of men in an animal world.” What I’m really interested in is portraying the coexistence of the two, and not in a clichéd “good vs. evil” kind of way.
Charles may have been given a quest, but it’s not one he really cares about. I mean, what he’s really concerned about is finding friendship and figuring out where he belongs.Nrama: But you can go to some dark places, like the story with the fox, which I am not ashamed to admit made me tear up.
Kerschl: Yeah, that wasn’t planned either! I needed a direction for those characters, and felt that I could either continue doing really saccharine moments between Charles and this little fox character indefinitely and it would run its course in a very short time, or I could do something that would push Charles in a different direction.
It ruffled a lot of feathers! It stirred up a lot of emotions with readers, and for me while I was drawing it. But I like how that part ends. It seemed like a good end to the first chapter; Charles learns from it, and grows, and he moves forward.
In Part Two, Kerschl talks about how he’s evolved as a creator since starting the strip, his other projects in comics, the real-life influences for Charles Christopher’s Cedar Forest, and more.
Read The Abominable Charles Christopher every Wednesday at www.abominable.cc.