The solicitation blurb for Chickenhare: House of Klaus is a little offbeat, but so is Chris Grine‘s graphic novel: “He’s a chicken! He’s a hare! He’s Chickenhare! And he’s your new favorite comic book character, whether you know it or not!”
The all-ages book, due from Dark Horse in September, follows the title character and his three companions as they try to flee the grasp of an insane taxidermist with an eye for unique animals — like, say, a creature that’s part chicken, part hare.
“Chickenhare is the kind of story I’ve always wanted to do,” says Grine, a graduate of the Ringling School of Art and Design who now works for Hallmark. “It’s definitely a sinister plot, with lots of funny violence and, hopefully, some good laughs.”
Blog@Newsarama: I’ll resist asking how you came up with a character who’s part chicken, part hare. (“He’s Chickenhare!”) Instead, I’ll ask how you sold Dark Horse on a graphic novel about a character that’s part chicken, part hare. Was it an easy sell?
Chris Grine: Actually, my original pitch was to do an ongoing monthly comic book, based on a full-color webcomic I had been doing on my website. I submitted it to a handful of publishers but they all passed on it, including Dark Horse. The two main reasons were the fact that doing it in color was too expensive and the story was a bit too dark.
So, I decided to rework Chickenhare into a black and white version and, let me tell you, I am so glad I did. Not only was I much happier with it, but halfway through inking it Dark Horse actually contacted me just to see if I had done anything with Chickenhare yet. I told them I hadn’t, but I was actually working on a newer version that I felt would work better and I’d like to send it to them. My now-friend and Dark Horse editor, Shawna Gore, helped me get Chickenhare rolling in the right direction. We worked it into a graphic novel format and, almost a year later, I got a phone call just two days before Christmas to tell me they they were going to publish Chickenhare. Best Christmas present ever!
B@N: As you said, Chickenhare started life as a webcomic (back in 2004). How did that differ from what we’ll see in the graphic novel?
Grine: As I already mentioned, the webcomic was full color where this one is black and white, and they were also complete opposites in the way they looked artistically. The first one was vector-based and graphic where the newer one has the look of a traditionally inked comic book. Even with those giant differences it’s still quite a bit different.
When I started the webcomic, I really had no idea where it was heading. I would just do a new page every week, mostly just for myself and to make some friends laugh, and let it just unfold as I went. After Page 12 or 13 I decided to start trying to squeeze in some kind of narrative story, so I introduced a villain with an evil plot to kill Chickenhare. That’s what I originally submitted, but Chickenhare since then has evolved into a very well-rounded story with what I hope will be an ongoing series of books. The early version was very sinister and dark, full of amputation and dark humor, but it really didn’t have any heart to redeem itself, just more dark humor and violence.
Trust me, though, that’s all still in the new version, the difference is the main characters are far more developed, each with their own unfolding storylines and personalities, and I’d like to think I even managed to give the story some of that much-needed heart.
B@N: What can you tell us about Chickenhare and his friends, Abe the turtle, and those vaguely simian characters on the cover?
Grine: I don’t want to give away too because that would take all the fun out it for me. So let’s see, There’s four main characters: Chickenhare, Abe, Banjo and Meg.
Abe is a very rare specimen know as a bearded box turtle, and if the characters represented different aspects of a story, Abe would be its heart. Next would be Banjo, the mouth of the story. Banjo’s very sarcastic but he isn’t necessarily mean — maybe just a tad bit insensitive. Meg is the brains of the group and not somebody to be trifled with, especially by Banjo. Banjo and Meg’s history is my little secret for now, but I can tell you that if this book does well enough to merit a sequel, a large part of it will be about those two.
That leaves the main character, Chickenhare, who aside from being a bizarre cross-breed, is actually a fairly normal guy. I see him as the balance between the others and the voice of reason when bad situations arise. And they do.
B@N: What about the story’s antagonist, Klaus the insane taxidermist? What drives a taxidermist to madness? Is it the chemicals, or those creepy glass eyes?
Grine: Villains are something I take very seriously. I really tried to make him not just evil because I need him to be evil, but to give him a backstory that would lead him to make the kind of decisions he ultimately makes in the book. Mostly I think he’s lonely — no mostly he’s insane. But it started from being lonely. He collects these animals and has them stuffed in order to keep them from abandoning him. There is a little bit more to it than that, but I wouldn’t want to ruin the story for anyone.
B@N: You keep coming back to the “heart” of the story. What is the heart of Chickenhare? What are its overriding themes?
Grine: I guess when I mentioned that the story didn’t have enough “heart” as a concern by publishers early on, it was because it was just so dark and cruel. The story consisted of Chickenhare finding Banjo washed up on shore, missing all his arms and legs. He takes him home where he and Abe try to cheer him up, which leads to Abe being very badly burnt, giant blisters and all. In fact the first issue’s subtitle was to be called “Nubs & Blisters” It was just really dark humor and there was really no reason aside from the fact that I was trying to make my friends laugh. There wasn’t anything light-hearted happening, so publishers were right in passing on it, I think.
The other “heart” I mentioned was Abe. He is just the character who is nice all the time, always looking at the bright side of stuff even when things are really bad. Banjo uses that to ridicule him on more than one occasion, I can assure you.
Karma is the theme of the first book I think. Basically, Klaus has done many horrible things to lots of innocent animals over his lifetime and Chickenhare and Abe’s arrival sets things in motion that have been brewing for a long time.
B@N: Chickenhare is being published as a black and white, 152-page graphic novel. Why did you choose that format?
Grine: Some of it was my idea, some of it was Dark Horse’s idea. I set out with the intentions of making this monthly, full-color comic book, but that didn’t really pan out. So I then pitched the black and white monthly idea to Dark Horse who told me its was really hard for an unknown talent and an unknown character to survive in that arena, so they asked me if I would consider a 80-page graphic novel. That was a huge shock to me because I thought I would have to work up to that kind of a thing, so the opportunity to do a full story all at once was very exciting to me.
What I did, however, quickly find out was the sheer amount of work that was going to entail. It was one thing to layout 24 pages, but something entirely different with 80 pages. Did I say 80 pages? Right, well I also quickly found out that this wasn’t going to be 80 pages either. I told Shawna, my editor, that I needed at least 100 pages to make this work. She said that was fine. Then I had to ask her, “How about 140 pages?” Again, she agreed, but said not to go any longer. Imagine my concern when my layout of pages came to 152. I was nervous that I would have to trim some stuff out and I really couldn’t see where I could do that. To her credit, she gave me the full 152 pages but told me I would have to save the Chickenhare “director’s cut” for later. That was late January ’06. I started inking in mid-February and I finished in May … so I’m kinda tired right now.
B@N: What is it about the all-ages category that appeals to you?
Grine: All-ages means more readers, but that’s not the reason I shot for that. I wanted to do something that had an ongoing story, was fun, had lots of humor, was kinda sinister, and a tad bit violent but never anything younger readers couldn’t handle. You can push the boundaries pretty far these days in the all-ages category, anybody who has read Harry Potter can tell you they have gotten pretty dark. So I don’t feel to boxed in by that.
B@N: You’re a fan of Bone, and it’s easy to see Jeff Smith’s influence in your work. But who are your other influences?
Grine: Mike Mignola is right up there with Jeff Smith as far as influence goes. It might not be as obvious in my work, but I really study his artwork and the way he leads you through a page. I love the way he drops out background elements completely at times in order to focus on the character. The Tick was one of my earliest influences, though. That was the first time I really noticed how funny a comic book could be.
B@N: What’s it like working for Hallmark? Do you spend your days designing cards?
Grine: Hallmark’s a pretty good gig actually. Ive worked there since 2001 in the Humor Department doing the artwork for greeting cards. As of lately though my schedule has been super crazy with the new graphic novel work. Basically when I get home from work, my wife and I eat some dinner then it’s off to my studio until midnight or so, every single night except for weekends. The weekend is when I spend all day in my studio working on Chickenhare.
Chickenhare is listed in the current Previews catalog for September release. It’s 152 pages, black and white, and retails for $9.95.