With this hyper-detailed graphic novel debut under his belt, we invited Drew to talk a little about the comic, his process, his work with his equally-talented wife Eleanor Davis, and traditional maritime baking. So, batten down the hatches, splice the mainbrace (and other such terms we don't really understand), and read on to adventure!
Believe it or not, I had the idea that I could knock out one panel every day - just a low-pressure side project while I worked on other things! I'd done some similar exercises in a class with James Sturm at SCAD. I think by panel 5 or so they were taking more than a day to finish. When I started researching ships and pinning down the story's era in time, the detail level increased even more. It's become obvious to me over the years that I'm completely incapable of dashing off a project.
The protagonist of the book is a down-and-out poet, shanghaied into labour aboard a merchant ship. How would you describe your hulking lyricist and his role in the narrative?
I drew that first panel with no idea of what would be on the next, only a vague notion that the character was a big dude - really physically large. I was living in Savannah at the time, and frequenting this "brewpub" called Moon River. So I thought, maybe he had fallen asleep in a bar (never good). And since Moon River was near the river (Savannah being an old port city,) I had him walk down to the docks. Then I had to figure out what he might do down on the docks on a moonlit night.
The story isn't really set in Savannah, but the cobblestones and architecture and docked ships and atmosphere down on River Street definitely had an influence. Also instrumental: The comics of my friend, Chris Wright. He'd started this nautical comic Black Lung, but put it on hiatus. Set to Sea was at least partially an attempt to goad him into finishing it. He actually did finish just shortly after I drew the last panel!
With minimal dialogue, the poetry sections stand out, and accentuate the development of the poet himself. How naturally did writing these poem sections come to you? Did you enjoy writing them?
Not very naturally at all. I tried writing some poetry back in my teens, but not since then! Usually whenever books and movies have writers or artists create some eyeshattering masterpiece, they like to keep it offscreen. It's hard enough to create good art in the first place, much less the intra-art that your characters might create! It was really tempting, but I finally decided to put the cards on the table. His early poetry was easier, since it was supposed to be a little cheesy.
Is there any connection between the protagonist and Blar? They look awfully similar!
Nah. I just like drawing big dudes with big noses.
One of the most striking things about Sea to Sea is the level of illustrative detail facilitated by its “one panel per page” format. What led you to this design choice?
A choice mostly dictated by wanting to work small in the beginning. It did rule out having any big balls-out splash panels, or those handy little panels you can use to show time slowly passing. But if your panel dimensions and size are fixed, you can concentrate on the composition and pacing.
About halfway through the thing, I finally sat down and figured out the end of the story. There was a lot of clunky pacing in the earliest part of the story (when I still had absolutely idea where I was going) that needed to be polished. I added some bits that fleshed out the main character, and subtracted some bits that were extraneous in light of the story arc. One of the drawbacks of working "live" on the internet is that everyone sees that whole sausage-making process. I had some people a little pissed that I toned down some of the violence, but it just didn't make sense in terms of the main character's "story arc."
Being made over a long period of time, is it fair to say that Set to Sea has influenced your approach to creation?
I'm very happy with the final results, but I've got to work differently in the future - if I plan on having finished more than a handful of comics in my lifetime! There's so much fussy crosshatching and detail in Set to Sea. I'm trying to work much quicker and looser in my next projects. I've been reading a lot of Richard Thompson recently; amazing drawings that are the opposite of uptight or fussy. Sfar, Trondheim, Kerascoet are doing if for me, too.
Previously, you self-published a Monster-themed mini-comic, 33 Beasties. From a design standpoint, what do you think makes a good monster? Who are your favourite pop-cultural or literary strange creatures?
Not zombies, I'll tell you that. I don't know how pop culture managed to make homicidal reanimated corpses boring, but somehow they did. Zombies and vampires can pack up their cultural capital and trek off into the sunset, as far as I'm concerned.
The Secret Science Alliance is nominated for an Eisner. Are you guys pacing the halls of Castle Weing in nervous excitement or being all super-cool and aloof about it?
Hmm, it's more of a Weing/Davis co-op around here! I'd say we weren't too nervous about it, only because there wasn't much chance of SSA winning! And, well, it didn't. I was probably more excited than Eleanor, even though it's her book (I just inked it).
It was nice to see SSA get some attention from the comics world, though. It seems like every other day I'm reading some blogger complaining about how we need more comics for kids - but when a good kids comic actually drops, it seems to make very little impression. It's gotten lots of good feedback from actual kids, which is more important.
With Fantagraphics’ release of Set to Sea imminent; what’s next on the horizon, so to speak, from you?
I'm going to do a couple short stories to try and shake up my drawing style and try new things. Actually, it's been a while since I've done regular old multiple-panels-per-page comics; time to jump back in the pool! After that, I've got a kids comic that I'm going to tackle: Margo Maloo, Monster Mediator. A lot of the 33 Beasties monsters were warmups for that.
Margo Maloo, Monster Mediator: You can't expect to drop a title like that and expect us not to be curious! Please tell us more!"
Margo is this legendary girl who kids can call when they have trouble with monsters (under the bed, in the attic, etc). One investigative boy, Thompson, sets out to find out more about both Margo and monster culture.
I'm still in the hardest stages of writing, so it'll be a while yet!
It's not so bad fresh out of the oven. Especially with some butter and jelly. But watch out a day or two later!
If you appreciate fine cartooning and classic comic storytelling, you have absolutely no excuse not to get Set to Sea immediately. We love it here, and want to offer Drew a huge thank you for taking time out of his extremely busy schedule for this interview. As a final note, we highly recommend checking out Drew's in-depth guide to his working process over on his official website, along with his appearance as part of the enlightening Craft and Process panel from HeroesCon 2010 alongside Jim Rugg, Roger Langridge and moderated by Dustin Harbin!. Seriously, just go buy this already. Anchors aweigh!