When a young sculptor named Colette, fresh out of college, gets her first major commission, she’s too excited to question the odd nature of it all. After all, living in a strange house with a 2000 year old piece or marble that needs to be carved into a portrait of an even more strange client isn’t anyone’s idea of a great job… or is it? As Colette unravels the enigmatic history of the house, the hewn sculpture and her host, she begins to find something new about herself in the process.
This sublime magic-tinged graphic novel is from cartoonist Marian Churchland, and while this is her first full-length graphic novel it’s not the first time you’ve seen her. While working on this book, she’s also done work on the Image series Elephantmen and the Dark Horse one-shot Conan: Trophy!. But this book shows a different side of this emerging talent.
With this graphic novel on the shelves now (Click HERE for a 25 page preview of it), we talked with the artist for more.
Newsarama: For someone who doesn’t know anything about the book, how would you describe Beast, Marian?
Marian Churchland: For some reason I find this the hardest kind of question to answer, especially without feeling like I'm repeating myself. I'd say that Beast is a book about a young sculptor who is faced with life decisions, and creative decisions, and must plunge onward one way or the other. It's a story about getting comfortable with empty spaces.
Nrama: The title of the book, Beast, refers to the mysterious character in the book. Marian, can you tell us about him?
Click for a 25-page Preview Churchland: It’s hard to describe Beast (the character) at length, because in large part he represents the unknown. The reason he’s mysterious in the story, is because I formed him out of things that were mysterious to me, and still are, so I suppose it would be a bit of a let-down if I could just whip out a nice tidy description. But let me try and be less vague here. Beast is a man who lived in Renaissance Florence, who has somehow managed to become a (presumably immortal) creature made out of shadow, who is linked in some kind of symbiosis with this giant block of marble.
Nrama: And how does the sculptor, Colette, cross paths with him?
Churchland: Beast hires Colette to carve his portrait in a block of marble. I hint, at a point later in the story, that he sought her out specifically, but I didn’t want to get too far into that. Beast is more about Colette needing this work, or something like it, and it being there for her to find.
Nrama: And Colette – she's an artist, specializing in marble sculpture. Where's her mind at that she'd take a job like this with someone like Beast?
Churchland: I spent so much angst on this question, you have no idea. A lot of what I cut from earlier versions of the script had Colette worrying over why she was staying, seriously, was she crazy, etc. I removed a lot of that stuff eventually because I think it was just there to comfort myself. Of course somebody in a sane, reasonable position wouldn’t meet their shadow-monster boss, and figure that was all well and good. I don’t think I would have even walked up the front steps, myself. But Colette begins this story in a depressed and exhausted state, though she isn’t a character of great outward sensibility. My point is, she is ready for some seriously doubtful, potentially self-destructive risk-taking.
Click for a 25-page Preview Nrama: As an artist yourself, what drew you to the idea of another artist – a sculptor – and a mysterious commission? Shades of your own life? Maybe a mysterious comics job?
Churchland: I have to laugh at the idea of a mysterious comics job. I'm Imagining Beast answering the door in a Red Hulk T-shirt (Rulk), with a job that will "pay my rent for a year straight". Yeah, right.
But yes, shades of my own life in the sense that the story was partly an investigation into what I wanted for myself, and that meant an artist as the main character. But it also had to be interesting to draw - the process of her working, as well as the work itself - and sculpture felt right for that. Speaking of how ideas turn into comics, in my case, a lot of it comes down to the question of simply, do I want to draw this or not (possibly for hundreds of pages)? Beast was a learning process, in that regard.
Nrama: What attracted you to the idea of a sculptor and their craft doing this job?
Churchland: Colette's being a sculptor was, I think, largely influenced by a trip to Florence I took when I was 19 (as was so much of the rest of the book). I expected I'd be blown away by the paintings, but in wandering around the city what I saw was sculpture. I was with my friend Claire Gibson, and because we were too poor to while away time in cafes, we would sit in the big piazza, escaping the rain, and sketch what was in front of us.
Nrama: This is your first major creator-owned work after doing some work on Conan: Trophy and Elephantman. What led you to do this as your first story of your own?
Churchland: Well, actually, I’d finished the better part of Beast before I began either of those projects. When I started thinking about it, in fact, it had been years since I’d put any kind of serious time into drawing comics, and I needed something that was both unintimidating (at least on the pre-plunge surface), and redemptively absorbing for me. I thought a lot about what I liked reading, and wanted to read.
Churchland: Well, I guess in terms of subject matter, it's a (painfully obvious) grouping of things that I like, or am obsessed with, or dwell on obsessively. Tea and muffins and monsters. I never have that whomsoever-pulleth-out-this-sword feeling of ideas descending in bolts of light, ready to be crafted into a story. But I do feel that there's an alchemy to it, where the end result is more than the sum of what you initially had to work with.
Nrama: With only a handful of works out, you're still fairly new to the world of comics – but in your afterword you mention doing comics many years ago. Can you tell us about your history in making comics?
Churchland: I hope that didn’t come off as too self-important, because I was just talking about the comics I made in high school, and in my early university years. Between the ages of about thirteen and seventeen, I would make short, 22 page comics, and then photocopy them and staple them together and hand them out to my friends. After that, I did roughly the same thing on a website. Somehow it’s easier to be prolific when you’re drawing comics in the back of math class, than when you’re sitting at your nice big drafting table, not having to divide your attention, or mollify your angry teacher.
Nrama: I know it's a bit early since this book isn't even out yet – but what's next for you, Marian?
Churchland: I plan to spend the next six months or so working on short projects, and possibly even some nice rent-paying work if it crops up, while I write my next big thing. That I don’t want to talk about too much, for all sorts of superstitious, silly artsy reasons, but the shorter projects are very exciting. I’ll be working on a comic called Fetchers with my friend Claire Gibson, who was a collaborator from all the way back in high school, when I was doing the photocopied-issues thing. I hope that it will be sort of like our Tin Tin. Something we build on over time (but on a smaller scale than Tin Tin, of course). I’ll also be doing another issue of Elephantmen, which this time I’ll be writing myself, and I’ll be contributing lots of back-up work, and maybe even another cover, to Brandon Graham’s King City.