Cartoonist Kevin Pyle’s latest graphic novel, Katman, is the story of Kit, a teenage boy with a complicated family situation and an antagonistic social life. In search of a place to belong, Kit winds up caretaker of the neighborhood’s other disenfranchised population – the growing population of stray cats.
“Katman is about a teen, Kit, in an economically-depressed town who finds himself at loose ends when his scholarly older brother pushes him out of the house in order to study for his college exams. Out of boredom and reasons he doesn’t entirely understand, Kit falls into feeding stray cats,” Pyle explained. “This action attracts the derision of a group of metal kids who hang out behind the kwickie mart. Among them is a more punk girl, Jess, who is intrigued by what he’s doing and a tentative friendship forms. Jess is into drawing manga and she ends up creating a character, Katman, inspired by Kit. Her friendship with Kit strains her relationship with the group and as events unfold she’s forced to make a choice. Meanwhile Kit has to work out how far he’s willing to go in ensuring the well-being of these abandoned creatures. Even though it’s called Katman, the story really follows two people’s struggles with the consequences of committing to something or someone outside themselves.”
With all of the home issues weighing on Kit at the start of the story, Pyle says he developed the character in an interesting manner. “Well, I was starting with the premise of a kid who sort of falls into feeding stray cats, so I worked backwards to try and build a character who might have some below-the-surface reasons that he could identify with these abandoned animals,” he said. “Having his dad split, his mom work all the time, friends who just moved away – it’s to push the point that his tethers to other people are frayed. The circumstances of his life, combined with his basic sense of decency, answer the question that he struggles with when people ask him why he’s feeding these cats.”
If it sounds like Kit and his family, Jess and her peer group, and the ragtag cats all have something very noticeable in common, it’s not accidental. It’s a theme that extends even to the landscapes of Katman.
Says Pyle, “I think once I had the characters together and talking, and when I saw a parallel between the kids, the cats and landscape, all sort of abandoned, the ideas of a place to be and finding an identity started to assert itself. I knew that I was interested in disused spaces, like under the overpass or behind the kwickie mart, where kids make their own place away from adults. But I also definitely wanted to capture that feeling of random social groups that I think are a part of a lot of kid’s lives. There’s a transitional moment where you no longer define yourself so much by the people you hang out with as the much as the things you’re willing to make sacrifices for.”
Although the core narrative is very focused on the day-to-day lives of teenagers, Jess’ Katman character takes control of the book during several sequences, showing another form of heroism and another side of Pyle’s artistic talents. The chance to stretch his artistic muscles, he says, was a prime motivator when developing Katman.
“Definitely. Formal experimentation is something that drives my inspiration quite a bit and I’m excited by the potential in comics to use style and color as story-telling tools. In this case, I wanted to set up these contrasting stylistic versions of the hero’s journey, one very quiet and one quite dramatic,” he explained, before expanding on the point. “I tried to emphasize how these two realities, which are reflections of the main characters, come in sync by having the steadily increasing saturation of the red in the quiet part of the story as events rise to the dramatic level depicted in Jess’s manga vision of what Kit is doing. And then there’re also the full page still shots of the cats in the semi-abandoned landscape that serve as chapter breaks. I think drawing them in a more realistic yet emotionally tinged style invites the reader to contemplate the stray-cat-as-unmoored-teen metaphor a bit and emphasize the sense of place.
“It’s been different for different stories I’ve done, but it’s pretty organic, I think because setting and wordless story-telling are particularly interesting to me right now,” Pyle said of his working method. “I’ll sometimes know where I want a scene to take place and how I want it to look but not have an idea of the content of it, what it needs to move the story. So I’ll do sketches but save the dialogue for later. With this book there was a lot of back and forth where I’d dip into drawing the manga-inspired sections before continuing on. I do a lot of skipping around when I’m writing, going back and planting seeds or pulling out themes that are emerging or drawing for awhile, to avoid getting stuck. But ultimately I don’t start drawing full pages until I’ve got a scene-by-scene script with dialogue, though the dialogue does shift a bit in the drawing process.”
Three of the supporting characters in Katman, Jess, Bleep and the Cat Lady, seem to be working with a “can’t judge a book by its cover” theme; however, Pyle says that he didn’t introduce that idea consciously.
“Not so much that as I wanted to subvert Young Adult clichés a bit. In a way I see Katman as a genre piece, the genre being outsider YA fiction. There’s this convention with that genre where you have the smart girl, the tough girl, the jock, etc. and those labels stand in for character. There’s a nod to this in the early scene where the metal head kids are pigeonholing all their classmates. So I think the process of trying to create more complex characters lead to them defying expectations a bit. Something similar to a “don’t judge a book…” theme was conscious in that I wanted to talk about how the process of naming things can limit our understanding of them, but also, in the case of Kit and “Katman,” can be a source of strength. I also knew very early that I wanted Kit to gain strength from the female characters, especially since his form of heroism can be seen as classically feminine as in nurturing. So you have this contrast between Jess’s dramatic power-oriented manga vision and the more quiet reality of what Kit is doing and those end up playing against traditional gender roles.”
What’s next for Kevin Pyle? “I’m working on another book for Henry Holt that is currently entering the last stage pencils. It’s two parallel stories that take place in different moments in history that ultimately have a connection. One the stories has the same main character from Blindspot, which is fictionalized version of myself, at a time when I did a lot of shoplifting. There’s an emphasis, even more so than Blindspot and Katman, on a sense of place and how the environment can function almost as a character, strongly influencing the decisions made by the kids in the story.”
Katman goes on sale in September from Henry Holt. More information about Kevin Pyle and his comics is available at his Blindspot website.