Today Fantasy Literature welcomes Alison Wilgus, a veteran of the graphic novel industry as well as a prose author and screenwriter for Cartoon Network! Ms. Wilgus joins me to talk about her latest publication, Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back, her writing and artistic process, and an admirable amount of research. One commenter will win a copy of Chronin Vol. 1 along with a book-themed sticker and postcard from Tor Books!
I’d like to start by asking you about the origin of Mirai Yoshida’s story — how did this story come to you? Creation-wise, was there a fairly straightforward path from the initial sketches and thoughts to a completed publication, or were there changes and surprises along the way?
Chronin was very much constructed around Mirai, so she’s always been at the heart of it. I was building her character in the early aughts, when I was in my mid-twenties, and in a lot of ways she’s a chimera of many things I was excited about and experiencing at the time (with varying degrees of self-awareness.)
My interest in manga had lead me to do extensive research on Edo period Japan, particularly the final chaotic years of the Tokugawa shogunate, a period of history which my formal education had barely covered at all. I had long been drawn to “crossdressing” stories, particularly those involving women posing as men. The fiction I hold dearest to my heart is often centered around women characters who struggle to be taken seriously, weathering betrayal and condescension by men, and who ultimately succeed despite the long odds against them. I’m also a massive, unapologetic fan of time travel as a plot device.
Essentially, I threw all of these things into a cauldron and spent some time simmering them down into a character I wanted to spend real time with, and a story for her to live inside. Over the course of a couple of years I sketched on scraps of paper at work, made short exploratory comics, did more research, collected a massive pile of reference material, and whittled my nebulous enthusiasms into the story that would eventually find its way into print.
Once I got to the script stage, my process was slow but straightforward. I went through several drafts, incorporating feedback from friends and my own sense of what was and wasn’t working. For this first volume, I didn’t really do thumbnails — I went straight from the script and sorted things out one page at a time, which meant that some pages needed heavy reworking once I was finished with my first pass through the book. And over the course of about seven or so years of plugging away in between other projects, I had a complete manuscript for Volume 1 that I felt was something like publication-ready, as well as a script for Volume 2.
Most of the changes along the way are the sorts of things one often catches in revision. A collection of interchangeable one-off extras were condensed and refined into named characters with subplots of their own. Scenes were restructured, expanded or added. One of the protagonists was given a new name. Climactic monologues were reworked to be less hamfisted. The shipping landscape was rearranged.
Some of these things happened at the script stage, but others involved tinkering with the “finished” manuscript for Volume 1, which is of course more of an undertaking with comics than with prose. But for better or worse I had plenty of time to make most of those changes — because of various practicalities and the pace of publishing’s machinery, years passed between completing my first version of Volume 1 and turning in the pages which would actually go to print.
Volume 2 was a wilder ride all around. I did a massive rewrite of the script before I sat down to draw it, I thumbnailed the entire book this time around instead of diving right into penciling final art, and I drew all 445 pages over the course of about a year and a half. I also worked with an inker — the extremely talented Niki Smith, who’s a wonderful cartoonist. This saved me from spending another year doing the inks myself, but it also meant that I was turning the book in only a couple of months after I finished penciling it. That was back in November, and it’ll be on bookshelves in September — less than a year later! I can’t overstate how different an experience that’s been from how things went with Volume 1.
I thought your kanji were beautifully done, and I appreciated your efforts to accurately depict the differences between men’s and women’s fashion, local architecture in Edo and Kyoto, the natural world, and other key visual elements. What sort of research did you do in order to make sure that the world of the Tokugawa shogunate was re-created in a way that would be easily accessible to unfamiliar readers while maintaining historical fidelity?
As an outsider drawing a book about other people’s home and history, it was important that I respect the task I’d set myself and take my research seriously.
To start with, I just read a lot of books. I read big chunky surveys of the Edo period, ethnographies of rural Japanese communities, biographies of major players in the Meiji Restoration and collections of essays unpacking what their motives may have been. I read books about the infrastructure of cities, the organization of government, how farms were run, the makeup of a daimyō’s retinue, how people went on pilgrimages. There was a time where I’d go to the Strand about once a month to comb through their shelf of Japanese history in search of new treasures.
All of that was helpful while I was writing the script. Actually drawing the comic, however, meant I had to figure out what everything and everyone looked like.
I spent years building a dragon horde of visual reference, some of it in books but the vast majority carefully pieced together from various digital archives of antique photos; the “ref” folder on my harddrive is just over four gigs. Chronin is set in the 1860s, so I was able to find a surprising number of contemporary photographs, and even those which were obviously staged could contain useful information about people’s clothes, how they wore their hair, and what various household objects looked like. I was lucky enough to take a couple of trips to Japan over the course of working on the series, and took several hundred photos of my own — mostly architectural details I’d had trouble finding reference for, or landscapes which I knew I’d want to recapture of the feeling of later.
One major hurdle in all of this was the fact that Chronin is centered on the lives of normal people, whose lives often aren’t as well documented or preserved than those of the elite. I had to draw the insides of restaurants and houses; how items of clothing were put on or taken off. I was constantly stopping to research some ultra-specific question — what kind of snack would someone serve you in a mountain village, what would the buildings there look like, and how would the residents dress? What type of bathtub would you find in an affordable roadside inn? What kind of gun would an Imperial soldier be carrying? Usually I could figure out a usable answer, but sometimes I’d spend a whole afternoon on a problem without making my progress at all, and eventually had to just settle for a best guess.
What difficulties did you face in being both the writer and the illustrator of your graphic novels? Since Chronin Vol. 1 is exclusively in black-and-white, did that create any challenges for you or provide any advantages over working in color?
From where I sit, there are two major drawbacks to solo graphic novels. The first is that you don’t have someone else around the whole time to hold you accountable, question your rash decisions, point out your mistakes, or suggest better ways of doing things. The second is related, although more psychological than practical — making a comic by yourself is lonely. For most of the time I spent drawing Chronin, I didn’t have an office job. I was able to do some work on an ipad for Volume 2, which let me work basically anywhere, but I drew all of Volume 1 at my desk in my apartment. Completing this duology has been as much about improving my discipline as perfecting my craft. It’s also been an ongoing education in keeping myself from burning out and/or completely losing my mind.
As for the way the book was “colored”? When it came time to make some choices about what the look of the finished comic would be, I did several test pages in different styles, and paid very close attention not only to how they looked but also how long each approach took me. The watercolor-esque grayscale washes I ended up going with felt like the right compromise between aesthetic and speed. Also, keeping the comic black-and-white had the added bonus of making it much less expensive to print.
The art style in Chronin Vol. 1 reminded me quite strongly of woodblock prints from the Edo period — one of my favorite art styles, and hopefully an intentional comparison on your part! Were there any particular drawing and shading techniques you employed for this duology? Do you prefer pen-and-pencil, digital tools, or a combination of media?
Many of the book’s landscapes are homages to specific woodblock prints! I particularly drew from Hiroshige’s various series depicting the Tokaido, the road between Kyoto and Edo which Mirai and Kako travel along.
Volume 1 of Chronin was drawn over so many years that the specifics of technique changed a little over time. But generally, my process was pretty typical for digital comics. The entire book was created in Photoshop, and each page was a result of multiple passes. First I’d rough out the basic layout of the page. Then I’d make corrections and refine the art into clean linework. Then I’d draw the final panel borders, lay in the text and draw word balloons. And finally, I’d use textured brushes to add the grayscale washes.
Word from the wise: don’t letter your comic in Photoshop. In fact, if you want to work digitally just learn how to use Clip Studio and forget Photoshop entirely! Don’t be me!
Chronin was always written to be one long story, and was divided into two parts for mostly practical reasons. So while I tried to make it as satisfying a read as possible, most of Volume 1 is setup. You meet the cast of characters, you’re introduced to the problems they’re struggling with, you discover some hidden details of their histories. At the end of the book, Mirai has a plan for what she’s going to do next, and a pretty good idea of who she can trust to help her.
Volume 2 takes everyone’s expectations and turns them on their head; I don’t think any of the main characters end that book where they’d have thought they would. I’m very happy with how Volume 1 turned out — other than magically updating the art to match how I draw a full decade later, I can’t think of anything I’d change. But Volume 2 is where the meat is, and I’m honestly so excited for people to read it!
Do you have any upcoming projects or news that you’d like to share?
The biggest thing is The Mars Challenge, a book I’ve been working on with artist Wyeth Yates. It’s a nonfiction graphic novel about the future of human spaceflight, it’s coming out from First Second books next year, and it’s going to be absolutely gorgeous.
Fans of time travel stories might also enjoy a story of mine that came out earlier this year — “The Backstitched Heart of Katharine Wright,” from Interzone #279. I also have a story about an alien translator (as in, a human who translates an alien language) in an upcoming issue of Analog.
If anyone reading this is curious about the comics industry — in particular, how the business of graphic novel publishing works — you might want to look up Graphic Novel TK, a podcast I co-produced with my friend, Gina Gagliano, who’s the Publishing Director of Random House Graphic. We interview a different comics professional every week, and they explain how their jobs work in delightfully excruciating detail.
Finally, we like to ask authors if they have a favorite drink; perhaps something you enjoyed to celebrate Chronin Vol. 1’s publication, or a beverage that fueled your creative process during work sessions? (It doesn’t need to be alcoholic; we’ve heard everything from orange juice to specific tea and even farther afield!)
A few days ago I went out with friends to celebrate my birthday, which happened to be exactly a week before Chronin Volume 1’s street date. I was pretty under the weather, so I asked the bartender to make me a Hot Toddy, and godDAMN that thing saved my life.
Thank you, Ms. Wilgus! I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.
Thank you for sending along such excellent questions!
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a copy of Chronin Vol. 1 and a book-themed sticker and postcard! U.S.- and Canada-based addresses only, please.