As Top Shelf Month draws to a close, we are very happy to have had the chance to interview Kevin Cannon, creator of the swashbuckling adventure tale Far Arden! Legendary brawler Army Shanks seeks to travel to the mythical island paradise known as Far Arden, but first he must contend with circus performers, adorable orphans, heinous villains, bitter ex-lovers, well-meaning undergraduates, and the full might of the Royal Canadian Arctic Navy!
Far Arden is both a throwback to the matinee serials of old and a slyly subversive modern epic, but don’t take our word for it: read on!
TFAW.com: Hi Kevin, thanks for talking with us!
Kevin Cannon: Happy to be here.
TFAW.com: Can you give us a quick introduction to Far Arden?
KC: Sure. Far Arden is a 400-page adventure comic set in an alternate version of the Canadian High Arctic. A crusty but loveable anti-hero named Army Shanks has a map to a legendary island and people come out of the woodwork to try and snatch it from him. I like to think of it as “James Bond meets Jack London.”
TFAW.com: I heard that Far Arden started as as an experiment where each chapter was a 24-hour marathon comic, created once a month. Can you tell us how it got started?
KC: A friend of mine liked some of the comics I’d been making for 24-Hour Comics Day and he dared me to do a whole graphic novel like that–one marathon per month for a whole year, resulting in a 288-page book. I was a naive cocksure young man, so I accepted. Well, after the fourth chapter my drawing arm went numb for a few days so I decided to quit the marathon part of the project, but I still kept up the one-chapter-per-month goal. So in a sense I lost the dare . . . but I still have two working arms.
TFAW.com: How long did it take you to complete it?
KC: About a year and a half. I tacked on an extra chapter at the end because I couldn’t wrap up the story in just 12 chapters, like originally planned.
TFAW.com: What made Top Shelf a good fit for the book?
KC: At first I didn’t want to approach publishers because I knew they’d reject it–the art is a bit rough and the first half is a bit wonky (a result of the marathon nature of production). But then some friends twisted my arm and convinced me that I should at least send it in and get some nice rejection letters. But as I looked around at publishers I found that Top Shelf was the only home I wanted for Far Arden. There’s this real sense that when you’re with Top Shelf you’re part of a family, and the books they put out all have a really strong voice behind them and I selfishly wanted to be a part of that.
TFAW.com: There are so many twists and turns to the story. Did you have it planned out ahead of time, or were you coming up with the plot on the fly?
KC: In the beginning everything was on the fly. That’s a skill I developed while doing years and years of 24-Hour Comics Days, where you just learn to throw a bunch of characters together in the first act, figure out what’s happening in the second act, and then tie everything together in the third act. Going into it I knew two characters–Shanks and Hafley–and I knew the secret of the island of Far Arden. The rest of the first chapter was off the cuff. But as the months went by I would jot down character notes and plot points and eventually by the end of the book I was writing full scripts. I don’t think I could have kept all those character threads in my head.
TFAW.com: Far Arden really reminds me of classic adventure tales or cliff hangers. What were your inspirations?
KC: I love serialized TV. In the ’80s, every Friday night my mom and I would watch Dallas together, and I got addicted to that little rush you get at the end of each season finale when the writers get their hooks in you. I have an especially vivid memory of some character–probably JR–being trapped under a huge dangling shard of broken glass. Actually, it might have been Sue Ellen. In any case, I still get chills thinking about it. Lost also did cliffhangers especially well.
TFAW.com: Although there are a lot of well-worn cliches in the book (circus performers! long-lost parents!), most of them are turned on their ear and edged in real tragedy. Was that your intent, or did the book just evolve in that direction?
KC: Mainly I wanted to write a story that was a lot of fun but still honest to the fact that all these characters are living in the middle of an arctic wilderness, and at the end of the day Nature is the only character that has any real say. Shanks himself is a kind of narrative surrogate for Nature–a force that sweeps through peoples’ lives and tends to do more harm than good, without meaning to. So, I admit the book goes to a dark place at the end, but I think that it goes to an honest place, given the context of the setting.
TFAW.com: How do you feel your artwork evolved over the course of the book?
KC: I gave myself more and more time to draw each page, so by the time the book ended the pages looked cleaner and tighter, and the crosshatching less frenetic. Although I kind of love that about the first four chapters–the ones that were done in 24-hour spurts–they embody a frenetic and desperate energy that I don’t think a person can infuse strategically; it has to come out of a kind of celebratory sleep-deprived exhaustion.
TFAW.com: Far Arden was nominated for an Eisner Award in the category “Best Publication for Teens.” Were you intentionally creating a comic for teenagers?
KC: Oh god no. I wrote Far Arden for myself and for the five or so 30-something friends who I knew were reading it online. If I had been trying to craft the book for any kind of audience–teen or otherwise–I think it would have killed the spontaneity and riskiness of the work. But I’m flattered by the nomination!
TFAW.com: How did you get into comics?
KC: As a kid I wanted to be a newspaper daily strip cartoonist, but then I looked into what it took and got discouraged by the lengthy contracts, monotonous output and editorial interference. Finally in college I discovered Crumb, Bagge, and Clowes and realized that I wanted to make edgy funny books like them. Getting into comics has turned out to be the easy part. Staying in comics, and dealing with the isolated, income-free lifestyle has proved the challenging part.
TFAW.com: One of your early gigs was drawing comic strips for The Scarlet and Black, the official college newspaper at Grinnell College. How has that shaped your career?
KC: The experience of doing a comic for a newspaper has taught me two valuable lessons. One is that a newspaper goes to print whether you’ve turned in your strip or not. This helped me in both my later commercial work and with 24-Hour Comics Day–every project has a deadline and you need to plan well ahead of time to be able to make that deadline. The second lesson was that I don’t live in a bubble. When I wrote something edgy that I thought was funny, it took me a while to realize that complete strangers might read it and take offense. Now, maybe they’re being too sensitive or taking a joke too personally, but being called out helped me be more empathetic, which is a good skill to have both as a comics creator and as a human being.
TFAW.com: You also have another side to your career, illustrating nonfiction graphic novels about science and history. What is that like, and how did you get involved in this?
KC: Working on nonfiction comics saved me, in a way. For several years after college I didn’t do anything intellectually stimulating and in my mid-20s I felt markedly stupider. To fix that I was considering quitting comics and going back to school but then Jim Ottaviani swooped in and offered me and my studio mates Zander Cannon and Shad Petosky a chance to illustrate a graphic novel about paleontology called Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards. Having an excuse to learn and do research has made my brain feel whole again, and so I’m thrilled that publishers keep approaching us to illustrate nonfiction books. We’ve since done books on space science, geology, genetics, and the U.S./Soviet space race. And more are in the works.
TFAW.com: I also spotted A Time to Thrill, the comic you drew on the sides of a pinewood derby car for the Pinewood Derby Art Car Show, which was amazing. Do you have any plans to do more projects like that?
KC: Thanks, yeah, that car was supposed to be a sculpture that could be raced down a track, and instead I filleted it and drew a story on the inside of each fillet (people can read it on Top Shelf 2.0). Anyway, I always try to be involved with some community art project or another because being locked away alone working on a graphic novel can make you crazy. Fortunately Minneapolis is a great scene for comics-related gallery shows and monthly jam sessions and the like, so it’s easy to find an artistic distraction.
TFAW.com: What else do you have coming up?
KC: On the nonfiction front I co-illustrated a graphic novel on evolution called Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth and that hits stores in January. It was written by Jay Hosler of Clan Apis fame and is the sequel to our genetics book (The Stuff of Life) so I’m really excited. Zander Cannon and I have started our marketing campaign early and have created a couple of evolution-related posters that will hopefully end up in classrooms around the country. Other than that, I’ve been working for the last eight months on another long graphic novel, but that’s under wraps at this point.
Our thanks go out to Kevin Cannon for his delightful responses! Make sure to order Far Arden today at TFAW.com–you can still save 20% on all Top Shelf books through August 31! So what are you waiting for? You owe it to yourself to check out the publisher’s terrific catalog.
Also, take the time to check out our six-page preview, chock-full of adventure, mayhem, and curious plot twists!
Are you a fan of Far Arden? Have you ever participated in a 24-Hour Comics Day? Post your comments below!