Middle School Monster Hunters: Chris Schweizer On ‘The Creeps’ [Interview]
The people of Pumpkins County have two major problems. The one they know about is the Creeps, a gang of four middle schoolers who are constantly running around making trouble for everyone else. The one they don't know about --- or at least that they don't talk about --- is that their town is constantly under attack by all kinds of supernatural weirdness, and the Creeps are the only ones trying to put a stop to it before everyone is replaced by frog zombies or devoured by trolls.
That's the premise of Chris Schweizer's The Creeps, a series of graphic novels for kids that sees it second horror-packed installment released this month. To get a little more information, ComicsAlliance spoke to Schweizer about creating horror comics for kids, why the Creeps will never catch a break from their classmates, and the strange way that his own childhood heroism was rewarded by roast beef sandwiches.
ComicsAlliance: Let's start at the beginning. How did the Creeps series come about?
Chris Schweizer: I'd been kicking around the idea of doing something with kids' horror for as long as I'd been thinking about doing historical fiction. They're the two genres I'm most drawn to, from the creating standpoint. I loved things like Goosebumps as a kid, Ernest Scared Stupid, Are You Afraid of the Dark, The Amazing Mr. Blunden, The Dollhouse Murders. There's something great about being scared in a safe place as a kid, and I ate it up.
I met my agent, Charlie Olsen of Inkwell Management, at New York Comic Con a few years ago. Matt Kindt was carrying some heavy boxes and so I lent a hand, and Charlie, who's his agent too, was with him. Matt told me he was great and we grabbed lunch and I ran The Creeps by him, it was something I'd been working on. This was quite a few years ago, 2011. He gave me some direction as to how to shape the pitch, and I spent the next year or so putting it together.
CA: What was that process like? Did you start with the characters and build the mysteries around them, or did it happen the other way around?
CS: I started with the characters. I wanted four protagonists. Two is too few for a gang book, but with three you almost always end up with a main character and two supporters. Four seems the fewest you can have while spreading the narrative import equally among them. I based two of them, and their two student nemeses, too, on kids I'd had in class before I started doing comics. Loosely based. Inspired by more than based on.
CA: I ask because I know that you enjoy doing character designs. You've posted a lot of them over the years, both for your stuff and for more casual projects like redesigning the Harry Potter characters, or drawing that super-detailed nativity scene, and knowing that, I paid a lot of attention to the designs in the book.
CS: With this book, actually, I did very little of that. I get so wrapped up in the production side of things, planning out the characters and the environments and all of that, I was worried I was becoming too entrenched in it. So I decided to try and skip as much of it as I could, jump straight into the narrative with very little design. I had the four main characters, mostly, but otherwise the first time I drew this or that character or this or that environment was when they first appear in the story. No advance designing at all, if I could help it.
I was treating it as a formal challenge, a handicap, to try and force myself to have the narrative create the characters rather than me trying to work the narrative around them.
CA: Did that change the story as you worked on it?
CS: It did, a lot. With the first book, which is more of a mystery structure, I had an outline, and stuck to it, more or less. The second book, though, I felt like I knew the characters enough to wing it, and had no outline, really, just a vague idea as to what I wanted to include and where it was likely going to end. Well, not where, the location wasn't there yet, but how I wanted the characters to overcome the monsters. The end became a big, grand visual set piece, I think, which probably wouldn't be the case had I outlined it.
CA: Since you brought up the first book, let's get into the plot a little bit. How do you describe the Creeps to new readers?
CS: They're a group of unpopular middle schoolers that regularly save their town from monsters, each contributing his or her talents to that end. Carol is a detective, Mitchell is a monster expert, Jarvis is a gadget man, and Rosario is the muscle.
CA: And also the team's resident fashionista.
CA: One thing that really struck me about that first book is that there's no origin story involved. We're dropped right into the middle of their adventures, to the point where a previous adventure, one we haven't seen, is just wrapping up on the first page.
CS: There are some Amazon reviews that are mad about that.
CA: Because they feel like they're missing out?
CS: I think folks are so used to the start of a series being a hard intro that folks expect it. But I wanted to establish a status quo with them. They're always saving their town, and always getting in trouble for it.
If a series is meant to be finite, if there's a clear ending point in the works, then it makes sense to have a clear beginning, but this isn't like that. It's purposefully episodic and while things will carry from one book to another they ought to be readable in any order. An origin book makes that a lot harder.
CA: What was it that made you want to work in that frustration of always getting in trouble for doing the right thing? At the end of the first story, there's a great scene where there are kids who have literally had their brains removed, and they're still more mad at the Creeps than they are at the mad scientist who opened up their heads.
CS: I'm not really sure. I don't think it's from personal experience. I always had good luck, so far as that goes. Like you're always told not to intervene in a fight in school 'cause you might get in trouble? I'd break up fights sometime and the principal would give me Arby's gift certificates.
CA: I have to say, that's a reward of dubious quality.
CS: Ha! At the time I was happy with them. I think the kids get in trouble because they're at the bottom rung. When you're on the bottom, anything you do is seen as a testament to that bottomness. Everything is suspect, and what they did is lousy because it was them doing it. I mean, you see that in our political discourse all the time, the merits of an action judged entirely on who proposed it, but we start that early, we start that as kids.
CA: I think that gives them this immediate hard-luck hero appeal, but have you found any frustration in having to keep it that way? If the books can be read in any order, that means you can never really have an arc where one of their classmates comes around to realize they're good kids, right?
CS: I don't think that happens much. It happens in stories because we want it to, but it's far more infrequent in real life. Kids in school together are often like reluctant co-workers. They learn to coexist peacefully and may spend tons of time together and work towards common goals but that doesn't mean that the social dynamic will ever change outside of situational context. I look forward to stories in which the Creeps will have to work more closely with their classroom adversaries but I don't think that adversarial relationship will ever dissipate.
CA: So let's get into the new book, Trolls Will Feast. I don't want to spoil much for people who haven't read it yet, but there's a great double-meaning to that title.
CS: You can spoil it. Internet Trolls was going to be the title but Amulet decided that it had too much baggage.
CA: That's understandable, but it's appropriate: You've got a story where actual giant Norwegian monsters are trying to stress everyone out by being jerks on the Internet.
CS: They need humans to marinate in their own stress hormones for a long period in order to be good troll food. I was getting pretty frazzled by the number of articles being shared on Facebook whose accuracy could be easily dispelled by a quick Google search when I wrote it.
CA: It's definitely nice to imagine that there would be actual hulking flesh-eating monsters responsible for those.
CS: I feel like the burden of guilt lays on the folks sharing them more than their authors, maybe? I can more easily forgive someone who willfully lies to service his or her own ends than someone who blindly accepts that lie. Which might be why I'm letting the town get smorgasborded in the story.
CA: That's another element that caught my eye: For an all-ages book, and one that's drawn in your typical very cartoony style, Creeps gets hilariously violent in some places.
CS: It's a silly series, but I also want it to be genuinely scary at times, too. Not the easiest balance, and one I'm probably not particularly good at, but I feel like the story has to have teeth if it's going to operate in the horror sphere. So supporting characters get supped from time to time. Trying to marry horrific monster violence with kid-friendly visuals is a challenge I really enjoy. Finding that Hays Code way of showcasing something awful.
CA: Is there a particular scene where you thought that worked well? I mean, we're talking about two books that involve electrocution, children being devoured whole, a man blowing himself up with a bomb made of aerosol cans, unlicensed brain surgery, and the ever-popular trauma to the eyes. Wertham would have a field day.
CS: One of my favorites to tackle was the kids crashing into the river, with one of them almost drowning. It's not funny... well, I guess it might be funny, because it involves exploding pants. But it was scary to write (remember, I was tackling it panel-by-panel). You can shrug off a kid being chomped by a troll but running into traffic or falling off a building or drowning, those are in the realm of possibility, and so I treat them as more dangerous than ravenous creatures, because they really scare me. My daughter can face off with boogeymen 'til the cows come home, but I don't want her climbing a telephone pole.
CA: So once you've done Frankenfrogs in science class and literal Internet trolls causing trouble online, where do you go next? Do you have plans for more Creeps stories?
CS: I'm wrapping up the third book this week. Cursed pumpkins that come to life and eat you if you carve them into jack-o'-lanterns. It'll be out this fall. Hopefully Amulet will give me the opportunity to keep new Creeps stories coming. I have quite a few story ideas ready to go.