The exact genesis of Hair Shirt, like the story itself, is a little nebulous and hard to locate precisely in time and space. It’s the most recent and fully developed manifestation of some ideas I’ve been working with for some time, but this incarnation can probably be traced back to 2003 when I’d written and drawn a short story called The Queen of Darkness (fig. 1 & 2) for the Dark Horse Book of the Dead. It’s a piece I’m quite fond of, but not something I thought would lead to anything in particular. I hadn’t been that active in comics for a while, working mostly in animation for a number of years, so the idea of a follow-up didn’t even occur to me.
But my good friend Dave Cooper had other ideas, and brought it to the attention of Joann Sfar, who was then developing the fledgling Bayou imprint for Gallimard Jeunesse. I had only recently discovered Joann’s work during a trip to France. His lyrical approach appealed to me with its richly textured, gestural quality, so I was deeply flattered when he expressed interest in what I was doing, but I didn’t expect him to give me carte blanche to write and draw a 120-page graphic novel in full-colour. To be honest, I was a little overwhelmed, in part because I had nothing on the boards at that time. I was just beginning my Master’s Degree in Studio Arts and was focused on large-scale drawing/installation (fig. 3).
Thankfully, Gallimard wasn’t in a huge rush, so things were allowed gestate at their own speed. My initial proposal to Joann was sort of a sci-fi thing that neither of us were that excited about. Then I sent him a jpeg of some characters I’d done for a “pin-up” exhibition as a sample of my work in colour. Joann responded enthusiastically, encouraging me to put something together about “the nauseated teens.” (fig. 4)
The more I thought about it, I realized I’d accumulated plenty of material over the years that would easily span 120 pages: sketches, fragments, notes, things I’d been amassing in between freelance projects without a specific end in mind (fig. 5).
In fact, the 2 main characters in Hair Shirt, John and Naomi, are more or less the protagonists from the Queen of Darkness, who are, in turn, more adult versions of characters from Luna Park (fig. 6 & 7), a very short-lived strip I’d developed for Disney Adventures some years prior. Their relationship had begun as something very storybookish and evolved into something a little richer and more complex over time. If not quite achieving the depth and maturity of an adult relationship, they had certainly entered the arena of adolescence, with all the attending angst and melodrama.
Two of the first scenes put down on paper were John’s encounter with Ivy at the cinema, adapted from my initial 10-page proposal to Gallimard, and the exchange between John, Naomi and Shazia in the café, which was a fragment of dialogue I’d sketched out a few years earlier as an exaggerated account of some relationship tensions. From these two starting points the rest of the story started to fall into place, more or less writing itself. Recapitulations in the story seemed to echo or suggest recurring themes in my life, and while I didn’t start out to make the story explicitly autobiographical, it became clearer as I saw it materialize on the pages in front of me that I was excavating some important aspects of my experience.
At the risk of stating the obvious here, it should probably be said that all the characters, settings and events are loosely based on people I’ve known, places I’ve lived, and things that have happened to me or people close to me, but as with most fiction I’ve taken some significant liberties with chronology, attribution and intentions. It’s not meant to be a definitive interpretation of actual events, but more a sketch of how some currents in my life resonated for me from late adolescence and about some of the lessons learned (or not) on the road to adulthood. In a foreword to Dave Cooper’s Dan and Larry collection, I tried to describe a similar emotional landscape as follows:
If you were lucky, the lessons you learned weren’t so much traumatic as just disappointing, from the first realization that EVERYONE is at least a little fucked up to discovering that those who help you can also hurt you.
I think that holds true for Hair Shirt as well, albeit for slightly different reasons.
The next instalment of this blog piece will be posted on Wednesday morning.