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Interview: Ryan Ferrier and Roger Langridge on ‘Criminy’

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When their town is overrun by pirates, Daggum Criminy and his family find themselves cast adrift, literally, floating across the ocean before landing in a series of strange lands. That’s the idea behind Criminy, the new graphic novel by writer Ryan Ferrier, whose credits include the Regular Show and Over the Garden Wall comics, and artist Roger Langridge (Snarked!, Abigail and the Snowman).

Criminy has an old-fashioned look inspired by Max Fleischer cartoons and a timeless plot about being forced away from your home and wandering the world before returning there. Daggum, his wife Ditto, and their three children form a strong family unit, and one of the strong points of this story is the depiction of the relationship between Daggum and his eldest son, Nadda. We talked to Ferrier and Langridge about Criminy’s origin story, and we have a preview to share as well.

There’s lots of action in Criminy but it’s also a very classic father-son story. Was this based on anything in particular—a favorite book, or a real-life experience?

Ryan: There wasn’t one specific experience that informed the basis of the story, but the style and tone—that classic animation and cartoon look and feel—was certainly at the forefront of Criminy’s genesis. When Roger and I began working on the concept for this story, the Syrian refugee crisis was on every news channel, and it got me thinking about the lives of refugees and how different forms of government affect the concept of a home. That was one influence for the book as well, but obviously we explore these ideas and themes in much more narrative-appropriate ways.

Did the Criminy family arrive first in your brains, or did you come up with the idea for the story first?

Ryan: For me personally, I hadn’t done a story that focused on a whole family, nor had I done something for such a broad audience, so going into the project I was itching to branch out into fresh territory. We knew that a family of characters was right for the story, so that came first. But the story really did come together rather quickly and naturally.

How do you work together? Ryan, how much direction do you give Roger? And Roger, where do you take it from there?

Roger: At the beginning of the process, when we were thrashing out the basic ideas, there was quite a bit of back-and-forth. Ryan’s original concept pitch was essentially a sort of shopping list of ideas that I worked through, visualising as many as I could, and Ryan riffed off those when he was working out the story in more detail. Once the script was written, I generally stuck to what was on the page, although I occasionally tweaked the rhythm a little bit, like maybe merging two panels into one (or vice versa).

Ryan: To say working with Roger has been a dream come true is an understatement. I think we both gave each other a lot of freedom but we have always been on the same page. We dedicated the time at the start to figure out the mechanics and rules (or lack thereof) for the story and the universe of Criminy, and from there, we locked down the main characters. I wrote every line with Roger and his amazing art in consideration, and despite following the script closely, every single panel looks more incredible than I could have imagined.

Roger, I usually see you credited as a writer. How does your writing experience influence your artistic process?

Roger: Most of what I’ve done throughout my career has been as an artist, or writer/cartoonist; I’ve actually done relatively little as a writer for other artists. But I suppose having worked both ends of that collaborative relationship means one is less likely to take the other side for granted, and so I try to respect what’s on the written page as much as I can when I’m interpreting the script. Usually, if there’s something that I feel isn’t quite working, there will be a way to make it work that doesn’t walk all over Ryan’s intentions; I think there was only one occasion where I asked Ryan to change a line, and that was because it was much ruder in the UK than in the US and Canada and I thought I should give him a heads-up about it!

The language in this book is charming—the characters speak in this old-timey argot, calling spiders “eight-leggers,” for instance. How did you come up with that vocabulary?

Ryan: The language in Criminy is really all over the place, borrowing things from very old American and British slang. I also wanted to make new words for things that I thought my neice and nephew would laugh at; like, for example, ice cream cones being called “chilly lickers.” All words and names for things that are more literal and silly. One of my favorite parts of writing the script was trying to come up with new words and explore the language of this world—but really, there’s no rules, rhyme, or reason.

Also, “Daggum Criminy” sounds kind of like a G-rated swear. Where did that name come from?

Yes! Most of the names of the people from Burnswick have names that are nouns, typically short slang like “Nadda,” “Okie,” and “Ditto.” It all started with the word Criminy, then followed with Daggum, and I wanted to see how far I could take that naming convention.

This is a kind of scary book—it takes some guts to start off a book with the lead character casually beheading a live fish. How do you tailor that mix of funny and scary when you are writing and drawing for kids?

Roger: Speaking as a parent, I think you can tie yourself in knots trying to second-guess what’s going to scare kids, and you’re usually wrong anyway. My own kids, who are older now (one’s in her teens and the other is only a few weeks away) will occasionally remind me of something that terrified them as a small child which my wife and I thought was completely innocuous at the time, and yet they were completely fine with Roald Dahl’s ghastly children’s stories (e.g., Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has most of the kids enduring horrific disfigurements that are never reversed). Of all the things you might emotionally scar a child with, I’m not sure reminding them of where their food comes from is so awful. They really ought to be aware that meat isn’t just manufactured in a factory, that there’s a chain they’re a part of. Some might see it as only being a responsible parent!

Ryan: I actually think that, despite its themes, this is a pretty consumable book for kids. Maybe that says more about my upbringing than anything, haha. But I think if parents would be worried about their kids reading Criminy, I absolutely don’t think it’s more frightening than anything Disney has made, or even modern cartoons like Adventure Time. Besides, I feel Criminy has the right amoung of peril and darkness while always providing light and hope, and rewarding the reader.

You also have a lot of action happen off-panel. We see the pirates on the raft get tipped over by the shrakak, and then still water, but we don’t see the shrakak actually eat them. Does this sort of fill-in-the blanks storytelling come from Ryan or Roger, and why do you do it this way?

Roger: That’s how the scene was written, but I’m totally on board with it. One, we are writing for a general audience, so I’m not sure explicitly showing a shark eating people is quite what’s required; and two, allowing the reader’s mind to fill in the blanks is literally the most powerful tool comics has as a medium. I’m not the first person to observe this, but most of the magic of comics is in that gutter between the panels, and how the reader’s mind bridges it. It’s intrinsic to the medium, so it makes sense to use it well.

Roger, you have mentioned that your art was inspired by the Max Fleischer studios. What drew you to that, and are there elements besides the character designs that you tried to carry over into your own work?

Roger: Ryan’s initial one-line pitch was “an idea for a story in the style of a Max Fleischer cartoon”, so I felt a responsibility to see that through, particularly as I’m a big fan myself, and have worked on Betty Boop and Popeye in the past; the chance to play with that aesthetic was what drew me to the idea in the first place. Besides the overall look of the thing, Fleischer’s heady mix of scariness, seediness and humour was a guiding principle.

Will we see more adventures of the Criminy family in the future?

Roger: Obviously that’s going to depend on how this volume is received, but the door’s left open for that possibility, absolutely.

Ryan: I would absolutely love to return to this wild little world we’ve created. Hopefully people love this book as we did while making it so that could become a possibility!

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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