Chris Grine on Camp Whatever | Interview
In his newest graphic novel, Secrets of Camp Whatever, Chris Grine follows the adventures of the purple-haired Willow as she and her cabin-mates explore an island filled with strange creatures—goblins, gnomes, fog leeches, even Bigfoot. It’s a classic adventure tale with a modern sensibility and a lot of fun detours. Willow, who has just moved with her family to the nearby town of Nowhere, is deaf, which is something she and her friends take in stride, and she’s also super not enthused about being packed off to the weird camp that her father attended (but barely remembers).
In this exclusive interview, we talk to Grine about how he came up with Camp Whatever and its inhabitants, how he developed Willow as a character, and what other plans he has for her and her newfound friends. And be sure to check out our preview as well. Oni Press will publish Secrets of Camp Whatever on March 16.
Did you go to summer camp as a kid? If so, was it as scary as Camp Whatever?
I did actually, but only once and it was kinda scary for me, but not the same way Camp Whatever is scary. For a couple of years in a row, while I was in middle school, pretty much my entire circle of friends went to this one summer camp and I was always miserable for an entire week over summer break. One year they invited me to go along and I was super excited to join in on the fun, but once there I quickly realized I’d made a huge mistake. Not because it was a bad camp or anything, I just would rather spend my time drawing and writing stories, or watching cartoons, etc. So, similar to how Willow handles the first day of camp in Secrets of Camp Whatever, I tried to hide in my cabin to sleep the week away. It didn’t work.
This story has a very classic feel to it. Were you drawing on particular books or movies from your childhood?
Thank you! Some of my favorite films or TV shows were and still are, the ones that made my imagination go crazy as a kid. People like Jim Henson, George Lucas and later, Jeff Smith had lifelong influences on my art and storytelling for sure.
In terms of characters, you have an interesting mix of ordinary and weird-looking characters, and some people’s looks are deceiving. How did you come up with these crazy characters and personalities?
Part of that I think is just my approach to character design in a way. I try to give most of my characters interesting features and hairstyles for example. Many of the wilder characters who, on the outside might seem like random comedy relief such as the Nowhere Museum Curator or the Clown aren’t just tossed in there for fun, they both have a part to play down the road. Some of the designs were also a way for me to play on the readers assumptions of what good and bad looks like to them and hopefully help lead them further into the mystery.
Why did you decide to make Willow, the main character, deaf?
There’s a few answers here but the most important one for me is I have a nephew who was born with hearing loss and has worn hearing aids for much of his life, although he doesn’t use sign language. Deafness or hearing loss is the kind of thing a lot of people might see as an obstacle, but for my nephew and a lot of other kids, it’s just something they navigated every day. I’m trying harder with every new project to create stories that reflect the kids who are reading them, and I want my nephew, and all kids, to be able to see themselves in my work. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull it off in a believable, and most importantly respectful way but with the resources I had access to, and a truly WONDERFUL Editor who always knows where my mind is at, I’m happy with how it turned out.
How did you ensure the signing and other aspects of Willow’s deafness would be accurate? Did you work with any deaf people on this?
When I decided to commit to this direction, it was extremely important to me that it was done correctly and with great care. That said, Oni hired a sensitivity reader who would review the entire book multiple times during the different stages of production to make sure the signs were clear and made sense.
There are some subtle lessons in this story, about respecting the environment and also about not stereotyping – I’m thinking about the wolf-boys who brush aside Willow’s notion about transforming only when there’s a full moon. Were these themes part of your story from the beginning? How did you revise them as you went through the writing and drawing process?
I grew up in a really rural area where many of my friends had full-blown farms and I spent a lot of time playing and helping out around that sort of thing. At my house we must have taken in a dozen stray dogs and cats just because we love animals, so while I don’t think I ever set out to make a story about taking care of our environment, it’s probably baked into me on every level.
With the characters, I like it when a story turns well-known traits of a type of character, be it werewolves, vampires, witches, etc., and gives them their own spin. I always had that in the back of my mind while I was writing the outline for this book. That said, subverting expectations and stereotypes was definitely something I wanted to address as much as possible with this series.
In Camp Whatever, the ordinary and fantastical elements coexist side by side. How do you blend supernatural elements into everyday life in a smooth way, so it feels convincing?
The short answer there is I have no idea. (HA!) I started with the backstory of the island and let it grow from there. Not to spoil anything, and I don’t think this will, but in the story there was a man who, much like Indiana Jones spent his life traveling to exotic places and tracking down the strange and magical creatures from folklore in order to bring them all together on this one island where they would be safe from the developing world. Then decades later, some uninformed person decided a good place for a children’s summer camp would be on said island. I kinda think of it like a garden of sorts where the island and its inhabitants are like weeds encroaching on a garden and over the years they’ve grown closer and occasionally manage to get in. So once I had that part established, I just had to send the children in! I had the major plot points mapped out but I let the kids tell me how to get from A to B to C, etc. For me, the key to making things like this more grounded is to stay true to the characters and not force them to make a decision that is counter to who they are and just go from there.
When you are writing for children, what boundaries do you have around how scary things can get? How do you scare the reader without making them feel unsafe?
My boundaries mostly fall into adult content area, and less about how scary something is. Growing up I saw movies like Ghostbusters when I was nine, for example. That film has some fairly terrifying scenes in it for younger viewers, and so many more that by today’s standards that not be recommended for that age range now, but I LOVED them and that’s just how it was at the time. I have my own kids now and I pay attention to what they’re being exposed to, but I think kids like being scared (within reason), especially if it’s a good jump-scare, or just something kinda creepy. I’ve never been a fan of overly gruesome stories anyway and that’s not likely to ever change. One of my favorite things to write, however, is a good, tense or scary scene and then drop a joke in there as a kind or pressure release.
When you write and illustrate a graphic novel yourself, how do you approach it? Do you script it first and then draw it? Do you design the characters first? How does the story evolve as you work?
Usually a pitch or concept has been kicking around in the back of my mind long before I actually show anyone, sometimes years. That said, when it’s finally ready, the first thing I do is a long synopsis of the story just for myself. I say for myself because they are usually riddled with typos, notes, random dialogue, character sketches, etc., and would most likely send any editor screaming in the other direction. Once it’s all mapped out, I’ll start adding dialogue so it looks more like a script, but still nothing I’m EVER sharing with another human! Obviously at some point I do try to create a document with the story and dialogue for my editor to review, but that’s usually how I work this part out.
Next, I just kinda start sketching it out page by page. I’ve discovered I could spend years laying out a book first but then it just goes out the window anyway once sketching begins, so now I just skip that part and move right in. Sometimes it creates problems, but they’re SO much easier for me to see visually than when it’s just typed out descriptions and dialogue.
I notice this book is listed as “volume 1,” and it sounds like Willow’s adventures may just be beginning. What plans do you have for her and the town of Nowhere in future books?
YES! It’s only the first book of a three-part series and even more exciting (for me anyway), is it’s also the first time I’ve ever been guaranteed a follow-up book to something I’ve written. It was so freeing because it really allowed me to plant a bunch of seeds I knew would get the chance to hopefully pay off in a big way down the road. Without spoiling anything, the next book picks up about 2 months after this book, and this world will open up a lot more for the kids as they explore the town of Nowhere and while the plot will definitely thicken (as they say), it will also get a little darker.
Filed under: All Ages
About Brigid Alverson
Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.
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