[Shanks in a full-on tussle with some pretty mean dudes. Nearby, a lady cries.]
It began as a half-crazy idea for a contest.
A man, Steven Stwalley, accepts the 24-hour comics day challenge three years in a row, but he begins to feel restless. By 2006, he starts to form ideas. Concepts so bold and scary, he can’t quite get himself to actualize them. Instead, he passes them off to a friend. He dares Kevin Cannon to create a 288-page graphic novel over 12 months by finishing one page an hour for twenty-four hours each month. And, more or less, that’s just what happened.
By March of 2008, the book was complete and in print. Cannon’s graphic novel Far Arden even beat Stwalley’s original expectations, finishing at 350-pages long.
Far Arden’s progress has been posted quite regularly on Cannon’s website kevincannon.org. You can even READ IT NOW, and you should, because it has developed into one of the most riveting comics I have ever read.
It’s about a world-weary sea captain in the Arctic who is more in love with beautiful ships than he is with the women who pursue him. But it isn’t just ladies who follow after Artemus (“Army”) Shanks. You see, there is a map to a secret place called Far Arden that only Shanks has seen, and by whatever means necessary there are people who want to get that information from him. Shanks is pursued from danger into danger by a host of unlikely characters: the Royal Canadian Arctic Navy, a mad scientist, an ex-lover, some college students and one very ridiculous orphan.
This book is funny, beautifully drawn, smart, epic, mysterious and wonderfully imaginative. Unfortunately, Cannon is one of those guys who enjoys toiling in obscurity. Well I think that’s dumb. This book is a fantastic achievement and if the fate of Far Arden’s limited 100-copy print run is to never leave Cannon’s Big Time Attic studio in Minneapolis, then there’s some Mini-Comics Editor nearby who isn’t doing her job. As such, I asked the artist to sit down with me for an interview.
So what’s your business, Kevin Cannon?
I co-run Big Time Attic which is a comic book production company and I also co-own PUNY entertainment which does a lot of commercial web design and programming, but I don’t handle the day-to-day operations of that venture.
And you went to Grinnell Colllege?
Yep, graduate of ’02.
What did you see for yourself after graduation, did you plan to go into business for yourself?
Kind of. I didn’t really know what I was going to do, but all during high school and all during Grinnell I drew realistic pencil portraits for people, which didn’t take a lot of time and made a lot of money on that for the hours I put in. So I thought, alright, I’ll start a business doing that. So I had a business called Cannon Portraits right after college that made almost no money. I think it was still too close to what happened after 9/11 and nobody wanted to buy portraits of their kids – from me anyway.
Did you ever start an operation at the fair or places like that?
No, because I’m too shy to market to people so I just kind of hoped people would call me out of the blue like they did in college.
You could have hired yourself out at parties.
No, that’s the thing, I could never do caricatures of people. Everyone said, “Oh, you should go to Valley Fair and be a caricature artist,” but that just wasn’t what I did.
You did a number of 24-hour comics before tackling the 288-comic long graphic novel challenge. How many?
I started in ’05 with all the other guys in Minneapolis. That was kind of the first time those guys got together and did that. Then again in ’06 and ’07. For the 288-hour comic, that’s kind of complicated. The original idea was Steve Stwalley’s, and he sort of proposed this challenge to me specifically. It’s not a national thing. He said I should do one of these every month and I thought ‘No way.’ But then he made it official, he put it on a blog, and then I felt like, ‘Well, I have to do it now.’ So the original idea was that I do a 24-hour comic once a month for 12 months and it would all be part of a greater story, it would all be part of a graphic novel. So that all made sense and I actually did that for the first four months where I set a weekend and just did the whole 24-hours straight. That was horrible because I was just tired and exhausted for the week after just trying to catch up on my sleep and get my circadian rhythm back to normal. Actually, after the fourth month my whole right arm from my elbow to my fingers were numb for two days straight and I was scared to death, I thought, ‘Is this it? Is this the end?’ Fortunately it went away, but I couldn’t do that anymore. The rigors are too much. So that’s a long way of saying, it ended up being a graphic novel of 288+ pages where each page is pretty much done in an hour, but not necessarily in these 24-hour chunks anymore. So it’s not as great a feat as people want it to be.
How close in the end do you think you were in of putting in 288 hours? Would you say it’s taking considerably more time or is the process getting faster and easier?
I would say toward the end I slowed down to the point where each page took about an hour and a half. Whereas for those first four months I know every page took exactly one hour. But other than that, I finished the 288th page a year from when I started, but the book really turned out to be 350 pages, so Steve’s thing is completely out the window.
Do you generally tend to do a lot of research before writing your comics? Or did you need to research much to do this book in particular?
Yes, but not for the purpose of this book. This book Far Arden is all about the Arctic and has a lot of references to polar explorers and things like that which is something I’ve been reading about for several years without thinking it would lead to a graphic novel. I basically just drew on the facts that I knew already. But of course during the year and a half I’ve been working on it I’ve been reading more books on the arctic and stuff just for fun.
Ha! For fun, of course! Any recommendations for a good arctic read?
Yes. The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford is, I would say, the best book on polar exploration. It’s about an actual race between Roald Amundsen a Norwegian explorer and Robert Falcon Scott a British explorer who were both trying to be the first to get to the south pole about 100 years ago. I won’t tell you who wins though, you have to read the book.
You grew up in Minnesota, right?
Yes, grew up in St. Louis Park.
Like the Coen Brothers! Lakes, we have, but when did you begin to take interest in the sea?
I used to vacation every summer in Connecticut on the ocean. It was really cool. My mom’s old roommate has a little cottage on an island on the southern coast of Connecticut. It’s great, part of a cluster of tiny islands that only have about one or two houses on them each and probably only 10 or 20 of them are inhabited. So as a kid, from age 6 on, I’d kind of kayak all around and go sailing in these big Atlantic waves. So that really made me appreciate sailing and exploring the woods and things like that. The other part of it isn’t just the sea, but kind of being outdoorsy. My dad built a house in Eden Prairie right on the edge of a forest. It’s all developed now, which is sad, but a decade or so ago as a kid I used to wander around the woods for days on end tracking deer and all that kind of stuff. It was great.
I read somewhere that Into the Wild was a big influence on you.
Yah, I got it when it came out in ’96. I read it in high school and I’d never read anything like it.
Have you read Hatchet?
No, I’ve never read Hatchet. I read a lot of Gary Paulson cause they made us in middle school but I missed the Hatchet curriculum I guess.
I think I’ve read most of your minis and your other comics and, though there’s a lot of variety, it seems as though adventure is a really big theme for you. I understand now it’s probably because you grew up very adventurous yourself.
My life right now is so unadventurous that I guess you could say I use comic books to sort of return to that part of my life, maybe. I guess that’s my outlet for adventure now, because I used to have it as a kid and I don’t anymore.
Are you going to take off some day and live in the woods?
No, no. Up until I graduated from college I still thought I was going to move to Alaska and just start a life there. That was one idea. Didn’t pan out though. Actually, right after freshman year I went to Alaska with a friend of mine because we found really cheap airfare out there and we almost died. We rented these kayaks and just went out kayaking right outside of Whittier. The landscape was just gorgeous and if we had gone a bit further there were icebergs and stuff. Anyway, we forgot a stove and we had no warm clothes or anything like that, so if one of us had tipped over I’m sure we would have died of hypothermia. Coming back, he enjoyed it but I was just scared out of my mind with what could have happened. So I think that experience just got it all out of my system.
While you await next Thursday’s second installment of the Kevin Canon interview, feel free to brush up on arctic history. BONUS! Because it is a crack-up, please read the Big Time Attic comic Franky Punjob!!! You can do this by clicking on the small image below: