Dogpocalypse: Chris Koehler and Sam Sattin Discuss ‘Legend’ [Interview]
What happens when you combine the animalistic focus of Homeward Bound with the difficulty of forging a new world in the ashes of the old? Novelist and essayist Sam Sattin and illustrator Chris Koehler have joined forces to figure out that question in Legend, a Z2 Comics series that follows a pack of dogs finding their way through a post-apocalyptic, post-human world full of monsters, cat gangs, and existential crises.
ComicsAlliance sat down with the two of them to discuss influences, symbolism, and what attracts readers to animal-focused stories in the first place, with an exclusive look at the cover of the upcoming Legend.
ComicsAlliance: I'm always interested in how people describe their own works, so how would you describe Legend? Do you have an elevator pitch nailed down?
Sam Sattin: Initially I liked to describe Legend as a post-apocalyptic Watership Down. But with dogs instead of rabbits. Plus monsters. But we thankfully developed something a little more detailed since then:
What if a biological terror agent wiped out most of humanity, and our domesticated animals were left in charge? How would our dogs and cats set about ruling and rebuilding the world? Legend is the story of animals uniting to fight mutant creatures and attempting to restore the world their masters destroyed.
Chris Koehler: I just call it “Dogpocalypse.”
CA: So what brought you two together on this project? Sam, you're a writer and an illustrator to begin with, so what did you think Chris could bring to the table, and why did you want to collaborate with an artist? Chris, what was it about Sam's pitch really attracted you to the project?
SS: I came to this project as a novelist and essayist. My two books, League of Somebodies and The Silent End, draw loads of inspiration from comics, and I’ve written a lot about the medium over the years, but the experience of actually working on a comic introduces an entirely unique set of challenges.
Chris and I met in the Comics MFA program at California College of the Arts, where he was my illustration prof. Guy can draw like a demon, and is one of those technique masters that can always show you something you’ve never seen before. When we came together to collaborate and pitched ideas back and forth, Legend was the one that gained the most traction, so we ran with it.
Also, it should be said that although I love and admire cartoonists who do all the heavy lifting themselves, there’s something I find special about what occurs when an artist and a writer, particularly two that see as eye to eye as Chris and myself do, bring their unique perspectives to a project. This is especially of consequence since, as a novelist, I’m used to working in solitude, and my drawing skills are more restricted than those related to storytelling. Chris brings so much to Legend that I never would have discovered on my own. His command of visual language imbues a level of metaphor in the story I wouldn't have thought possible when the concept was first dreamed up.
CK: When Sam and I decided to collaborate, we agreed to each propose a few ideas, make small pitches for each, and see which one stuck. Legend was one of our first, and it resonated big time. It got picked up pretty quickly, and ended up being the story we developed. Although we still are sitting on several more ideas.
Even before hearing any of Sam's pitches, I was a huge fan of his writing and we really got along as people, so I jumped at any chance to work with him. Legend in particular was challenging in interesting ways. I had never drawn dogs before, I rarely work in color, and we would have to build our own world. I saw all this as an opportunity to do something completely new and get outside of my comfort zone. Mostly though, Sam was sympathetic to my massive gambling debts and he saved me from having my knee caps broken.
SS: Hey, what are friends for?
CA: I find that the most interesting influences and inspirations for different projects are rarely done in the same medium, so with that in mind, what non-comics inspired the two of you to create the tone and general look of Legend?
SS: Inspiration seems to evolve with me. Richard Adams is and will always remain a hero of mine. From Watership Down to Plague Dogs, he created stories about animals that were equally frightening and enlightening, with a kind of moral seriousness and heft I’m not sure he could have gotten away with today… at least in terms of his target demographic.
Margaret Atwood is a big influence, particularly in terms of Oryx and Crake. Also, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Robert Repino’s Morte. Hayao Miyazaki has definitely left a mark, Nausicaa Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, specifically. Both the film, The Secret of Nimh, and its source, the novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, can be seen all over Legend. Oh, and I should mention I read a ton of Brian Jacques as a kid and young adult.
CC: For the art, most of my influences come from film. I love the heavy shadows of film noir, the lyrical movement of Miyazaki, and of course, the timeless bravado of Milo and Otis.
CA: The first issue focuses primarily on a pack of dogs and their leadership in a post-apocolyptic world; how central were the different dog breeds to the personality of each character?
SS: The breeds were chosen very carefully for the characters in Legend. Providing exact reasons as to why might lead to some big spoilers, but I think it’s important to note that people associate different breeds with different behaviors... which ultimately leads to prejudice.
Beagles are more docile breeds in many ways, for instance, but they’re also more resilient, and enormously curious. The combination of those elements is why they’re often preferred for product and drug testing... accounts of which is the stuff of nightmares. Concerning pit bulls --- though those who’ve had or have one can attest to their gentleness --- the breed is popularly loathed and feared, and thus mistreated, mostly because of how people began championing the breed for dog fighting in the 1980s.
CK: Visually, the breeds match the personalities and roles of the dogs. Legend is the straight man; English pointers are prototypical dogs; they don't have the extreme physical and behavioral distinctions of other breeds. Daisy is happy and goofy, and Rottweiler’s have really expressive faces. Elsa is small but tough, and Herman is scarred and muscled; his is a breed that is naturally good-natured, but turned towards cynicism from abuse.
CA: What is it about the comics medium that spoke to the two of you as the ideal way to tell the story of Legend?
SS: A few years ago I took up an obsession with animal-centric comics. I read everything there was to offer — We3, Pride of Baghdad, Beasts of Burden, Blacksad, Mouse Guard, etc. But I ran out quick… a little too quick for my liking. I wanted more, and with a bit of perspective and support, decided it might be a good idea to create one.
My roots are in novel writing, and I have an unbreakable connection to books, but to me, comics have become a more dynamic and, daresay, compelling medium. When Chris and I embarked on Legend, our hope was to do something no one had seen before. The story itself felt like it needed to be opened up visually. And I just love the hell out of comics. This hasn't changed since I was nine.
CK: I come from the world of illustration, so telling stories with images is natural to me. With comics and illustration, I love the idea of the first read and second read. The panels and images move the story along, but they also contain small details and hidden artifacts that will enrich the world and answer questions for the astute reader. So if you like Easter eggs, happy hunting!
CA: Animal-centric stories are almost inherently attractive to viewers and readers; from Air Bud to We3 and Homeward Bound to Rover Red Charlie, there's something that seems to appeal to an audience about a humanistic portrayal of animals. Why do you think that is?
SS: I think the easiest answer is that animal stories are about people, without having actual people as the centerpiece. This way, we can aspire to take a look at ourselves from an outside perspective with which we're somewhat familiar. Many animal stories portray a less than savory picture of humanity. In them we see themes that deal with humanity’s inability to respect the natural world. Maybe because non-human animals display a kind of rote innocence we are unfamiliar with.