Love among the ruins

It’s no secret. I have a love of ruins. It gives my beloved a lot to worry about, as I tend to like things best when they are about to fall down. It doesn’t make me the most reliable home owner...

But in watching the tragedy of modern urban warfare play out in Gaza these days, I constantly find myself appalled yet fascinated by how the inhabitants continue to survive in the wreckage of a modern metropolis. It’s an old story, yet at the same time one we are seeing played out on an industrial scale in our own time. Aleppo in Syria, one of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth, also wasted by war. Antakaya in Turkey, once the ancient city of Antioch, tumbled down by a massive earthquake. It is hard to imagine any of these cities becoming anything but ghost cities, abandoned ruins that people once called home.

On our travels my partner and I often hunt down long abandoned sites where people once lived and thrived. It’s a bit of a hobby. Throughout Europe there are a myriad of hill towns that the inhabitants simply walked away from when it became safe enough and more practical to live in the vast industrial cities being built on lower ground, by the rivers and streams needed to transport goods and drive the mills. We have visited dozens of castle ruins that became redundant with the advent of gun powder and the massive remains of a number of religious houses in Ireland, pulled down by a despotic king looking to destroy their authority and get his hands on their riches.

Marialva in eastern Portugal, an abandoned medieval hill town where ghosts walk the streets.

Somehow I find it very poignant to wander the rubble-filled, weed-choked streets and spaces of these abandoned places. There’s a bitter sweet feeling in thinking about the people that lived there, how they probably thought, like we do, that life there would never change, could not imagine how the world could turn and they would be thrust out, or simply walk away.

In Mordecai Crow, where I am drawing a collapsed world, I constantly revisit some of these places we have seen for my inspiration. In my third volume I wanted to use one such site, a place that has stayed lodged in my imagination for decades now because of its otherworldly location and bizarre history. 

Years ago, in 1990 we were in Coimbra, Portugal, and sought out an ancient medieval monastic church, Santa-Clara-a-Velha, abandoned to the rising sands and waters of the Mondego. The inhabitants had eventually left it and its attached buildings, moving their monastery to higher ground, but the church still stood, crumbling but standing in waters that filled it to near the top of the side aisles. My memory was that there was a rickety walkway that spanned hummocks of earth so that you could make it out to the building, entering through a gaping window and looking down through the water to the floor of the church ten feet below the surface, where fish swam around the pillars.

The church as it appeared in 1954 (and still when we visited it in 1990). Photo by Mário Tavares Chicó

Santa Clara as it was during our visit in 1990, still flooded.

The church, left empty since 1677 has a connection to one of the eeriest and personally one of my favourite stories of medieval Portugal. It had been the original resting place of Inês de Castro, a Galician noblewoman and beloved of Prince Pedro, the future king of Portugal, who fell in love with her, neglecting his own recent bride, Constance of Castille. Constance died at an early age and Pedro fought to have Inês proclaimed his bride. However, this union threatened the stability of the realm and Pedro's father, Alfonso IV, conspired to have her murdered. This happened in the monastery of Santa-Clara-a-Velha where the poor woman's body was then interred, but on rising to the throne, more than a decade later, the legend has it that now King Pedro I had her body exhumed and brought to Alcobaça to lie there next to his own tomb in state (their tombs are still there side by side in this beautiful old Romanesque church). Before her interment, however, he summoned his nobles and had them do homage to her corpse, setting her on the throne and having them approach, one by one, and kiss the hem of her gown. In a country rife with the religious macabre, it just doesn’t get better than that!

I'm sure you can only imagine how excited we were when we came across this painting in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon of Le Couronnement d-Ines de Castro en 1361 by Pierre Charles Comte.

Below is my inked page where I have borrowed Santa-Clara-a-Velha and placed her in my own story. As always, it was a real pleasure to revisit this church through my art. Today the waters of the Mondego have been pushed back and it is an easily accessible monument, still unused but high and dry and well cared for. If you are curious, you can see the monastery as it appears today at this site:

It will not now fall down anytime soon but, to my eyes, in salvaging it and pushing back the waters it has, sadly, lost most of its charm.

Santa Clara re-purposed for my own story...

Nice review!

I had a nice review of Secrets of Jarrow in Canadian Review of Materials this month.

Brimming with fast paced action and plenty of suspense, Secrets of Jarrow is a nice addition to the post-apocalyptic graphic novel genre. Slavin has taken very real-world issues and shows us what can happen if we do not change our ways. But, as Slavin himself notes in the foreword, this book is not about climate change; “it is simply a story of one young man’s quest, set in the landscape of a collapsing world.” 

You can read the entire review here:

And we had a terrific event at Take Cover Books!

It was a very full two hours signing books and visiting with friends, new and old, at Take Cover Books last month - a truly wonderful event at Peterborough's new and only independent bookstore. Thanks, owners Andrew and Sean and everyone who took the time to come out and help make this happen!

Signing and selling books at Millbrook's Christmas in the Village Thursday, December 7, 5-9 p.m.

If you missed me at Take Cover Books I will be signing and selling my book along with other local authors Kellie McKenty and Tony Parks at 19 King St. E. in downtown Millbrook. Christmas in the Village is a long-held event celebrating the beginning of the season with free horse-drawn wagon rides, street vendors and all the stores open late and sharing good cheer. Hope to see you there!

The return of the independent bookstore

I have been inordinately excited about the recent opening of a new independent bookstore in Peterborough, the nearest large commercial centre to the village of Millbrook where I live. It is called Take Cover Books, on Hunter Street in East City, and is owned and operated by two brothers, Sean and Andrew, who love books. 

Take Cover is the newest (and currently only) local bookstore to surface since Chapters/Indigo and then Amazon gave the one-two punch to almost every smaller city’s independents across the country. I have been making books long enough to remember the heyday of Canadian publishing (especially children's book publishing) when smaller publishers, librarians and independent booksellers worked together to bring Canadian books to Canadians. Beginning in the 70’s and continuing to flourish through to the early 2000’s, it was inspired by a national movement to support and encourage Canadian content in our schools, libraries and bookstores after decades of domination by American and British publishing.  There were two huge conventions held in Toronto, the Canadian Bookseller’s Association (CBA) and the OLA (Ontario Library Association) conferences where publishers, booksellers and librarians came together from Ontario and across the country to participate and see the year’s new crop of published books. In conjunction with this there were a number of national book conferences (Serendipity in Vancouver and Word Fest in Calgary, just to name two) that occurred regularly to promote Canadian literature. It was all driven by a committed group of book enthusiasts intent on supporting Canadian content, and at the very heart of it all was the independent bookseller.

Almost all of that is gone now or is only a shadow of what it was. That is partly because of new technology, new draws on how people choose to spend their money other than on books. Yet we are told that there are more books being bought today than ever (although we are reading fewer of them!) so maybe it has more to do with how books are sold.

It was mostly the co-opting of our bookselling industry by mega-players. We all know Amazon is evil. But the large chain bookstores are mostly carbon copies with little local autonomy. When I asked our local Chapters about stocking my book (not self-published, carried by a large Canadian distributor) I was told that all purchasing is initiated by head office! The only way I was able to have my book carried in my local store was to arrange for a signing, a cheerless four hours where I was given a table and abandoned, with customers studiously avoiding eye contact as they hurried past. Not even the staff came over to see what I was doing there!

The reason independents were (and still are!) such an important part of book culture is that they actually know their stock and know what their customers want. Their customers are invested as well in seeing the store thrive. Sean and Andrew, Take Cover’s co-owners, both love books, read profusely, and are familiar with many of the titles on their shelves. If you ask for a recommendation they will have one, no matter what your interests. If you want a book they don't have they will gladly bring it in. They put out a regular newsletter (you can subscribe here) that gives a run down of new arrivals as well as in depth features on books that they have recently read. They have an online book club you can join here. They organize author and book events that are actually promoted and supported by them and their customers, who also love books. Including mine

Andrew and Sean tell me that, with their generation at least, there is a push back to the Amazons and mega chains in this world, with a real desire to support local and small and use purchase dollars to make a difference in this world. I hope they are right - we need to push back against the soulless and mindless commercialism we are all being herded towards. I tell everyone I meet that Peterborough has a new independent bookstore.

Spread the word.

Book signing at Take Cover Books, Saturday, November 18, 2023, 12 a.m. to 2 p.m.

That's about it. I will be at Take Cover, hanging out, talking about my book, signing books and sharing some of the art and conceptual work around creating a graphic novel. If you haven't been to the store yet this is as good a time as ever to drop by! The store is at 59 Hunter Street East in East City. Hope to see you there!

My very own book trailer!

I have the best publisher in the world. On a cold Alberta winter day Alexander at Renegade shlepped out onto a frozen river with an advance copy of Secrets of Jarrow, propped it up in the snow, and then shot this video with a drone. Too cool.

And finally...

If you haven't signed up for my newsletter yet you have missed another preview, this time from Book 3! The sign up form is below...

My favourite post-apocalyptic vegetable

It's been a busy month so I thought I would re-post my October newsletter for those who may not have yet subscribed. If you would like to stay abreast of what is happening in the world of Mordecai Crow as well as get a few sneak peaks of work in progress, click on the subscribe button at the bottom of this page.

I’ve decided butternut squash is now my post-apocalyptic vegetable of choice. 

I subscribe to a few comic creator newsletters and I'm in awe of their busy schedules, new releases, and appearances at comic conventions around the globe. But I don’t envy them. My fall is a bit simpler. My second book is now off to be prepared for printing and I am back in my happy space, having just pencilled and inked page 100 of the third Mordecai Crow volume. Which is why all my news this month is more about foraging and less about my book!

Working on Mordecai Crow has got me to thinking quite a bit about how one might survive in a post-apocalyptic world. So back to the butternut squash. We harvested almost 20 of these big beautiful brutes this year and after growing them last year discovered that they keep fine for most of the winter. That could be a nuclear winter, a "Golly, climate change caused the Gulf Stream to just stop!" sort of winter, or what have you. A long time. So now we are self-sufficient in both garlic and squash when the apocalypse comes. It’s a start.

The fact that we are half way through October and have not yet had a frost is one of the few upsides to climate change, meaning our garden lives to a healthy old age and now dies a natural death. Thirty years ago, when we first moved to the country, our garden would regularly be struck down mid-September by a killer frost, with us scrambling to save what we could and bringing bushels of green tomatoes indoors to ripen off the vine. Not anymore. It probably means nasty diseases, insects and other unforeseen horrors will also thrive while species that can’t adapt will perish. But at least our garden will do well - barring floods, droughts, fires…

October is also my favourite foraging month. Elm oyster mushrooms, one of my favourite mushrooms to forage as they are so easy to identify, come out in the first couple of weeks in October. My partner is not fond of them, so I find people to lure into foraging with me because it's a fun as an Easter egg hunt!
Here's a video that will help you identify them:

It’s also when the silver berries ripen, an introduced species that now grows wild - there are many related species that grow throughout the world, but they are not well known here. I know a sunny hillside in the woods where we picked two kilos of them in a short amount of time in early October and there were still bushels left for the bears and chipmunks (which the Internet tells me are our major rivals). 
Also known as autumn olive (for its leaf, not the berry) you can read about it here:

And this year my partner, on learning how good they are for you, began harvesting some of the black walnuts that surround our yard. They are surprisingly good, walnutty but a bit greener tasting and native to this area. But beware the dye in the husks which can turn your hands brown, even if you are wearing latex gloves, and be prepared to use a hammer to break through the shell!

Personally I would miss not being able to buy most of my groceries at the store, but I’m constantly surprised how novel the idea of foraging our food from the wild seems to be to so many people when every other wild species on the planet survives by doing exactly that. Of course, there are too many of us (a hunter gatherer group needs seven to 500 square miles to survive) but by every measure imaginable, hunter gathers were healthier, happier and longer-lived than their agrarian counterparts. Than us. So go forage…

Keeping up with Comics

Speaking of newsletters that I follow, I thought I would share a couple of my favourites. These aren't creator newsletters, but rather a great way to stay up to date with what is happening in the world of comics.

The Comics Journal

I really like this one. More my speed, not so much superheroes but rather indie comics and stuff that will never be franchised into a summer blockbuster. Here is their link with a newsletter subscription box part way down.

True North Country Comics Newsletter

John Swiminer, the driving force behind True North, not only produces a regular podcast with comic creators but also does a great round up of Canadian comic news in his regular newsletter, which can be subscribed to here:

In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king

 It was only after my serious eye issues started to spin out of control in 2019 did I make the connection that three of my four principal characters in Secrets of Jarrow were also visually impaired! In the summer pre-Covid an undiagnosed retinal detachment lead to further complications months later that have now spun out over the following four years into no less than nine eye operations, not counting a handful of laser surgery episodes as well. For the past year and a half I have been viewing the world through an eyeball full of cloudy silicone oil with a retina that resembles 100 miles of bad road and makes the world look as if it is reflected in a fun house mirror. Which is no fun at all.

But when I was drawing up Secrets of Jarrow and developing the characters for the first of the Mordecai Crow books all that lay far in my future. It was just coincidence (or maybe premonition?) that gave Podd his massive techno goggles, Veritas her eye patch and Teknos his steam punk jewellers’ loop. So why all the character eye problems?

I think there are a lot of answers to that. The first is simply visual - no pun intended. I like drawing characters with eye paraphernalia. Maybe it is partly because I have worn glasses myself since I went all myopic as an adolescent, but I find eyewear helps give the characters their unique personality. Podd’s goggles mark him as a myopic computer nerd, Veritas’ eye patch as being a bit tough and bad ass and Teknos’ loop and cataract eye as a quirky eccentric. 

I was thinking that also, in a future world, something as specific as eye care is going to be pretty unlikely. Cataracts likely won’t be treated, damaged eyes won’t be fixed and although I could well imagine that a plethora of old eyeglasses might be filling the dumps, it would be a matter of sifting through them all until you find a prescription that comes close to suiting your needs.

These days, as I walk around all squinty and blind in one eye, hopefully short term but finding out that I face yet another eye operation tomorrow, perhaps all my one-eyed and visually impaired characters seem a little bit too close to the mark. But I’m also thinking, maybe I’m just becoming Teknos - the querulous old bastard already got most of the best lines in the book and his cynical views of humankind’s future are paralleling my own more and more as I slowly morph into my own comic book character. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!

Now just to Google “steampunk jeweller’s loop”. Gotta be one out there somewhere… 

Cli-Fi - who knew?

Cli-fi. Now there is a term I hadn't encountered before. It turns out Mordecai Crow is at the relative cutting edge of a new sub-genre of science fiction, cli-fi or climate fiction. I first encountered the term in a really nice article on Secrets of Jarrow in Prairie Books NOW by David Fuller, which I will link to below.

Originally coined in the early 2010's, it has been retroactively applied to works such as Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003) of her MaddAdam trilogy (let's face it, we've known about this for a while, folks!) Most simply put, it is fiction literature that features a changed or changing climate. I get a little bit antsy having my book slotted into that genre, as there is an implied polemic quality that I never intended for my book. But as you can read here, story-telling can be a powerful tool for connecting people with possible futures and moving them from apathy to action. So I'm good with that.

My motivation for placing Mordecai Crow in a future world ravaged by climate change began, in all honesty, as a way for me to place him into a decaying world, a sort of early medieval-like setting, a period that I am fascinated by and, more importantly, would allow me to to draw things I love. Stuff like old stone, crumbling ruins, decay, rooms lit by torch and candle light. It of course also gave me a chance to explore themes around climate change as Crow unearths bits and pieces about the collapse of the world, and I am not averse to throwing in a bit of climate change soap-boxing, if for no other reason than to make my activist big brother a bit happier. But at the end of the day, like the technology melt-down and GMO-induced crop crisis that are also parts of Mordecai's future world, they are mostly devices to propel the plot forward and create an interesting and challenging world that our hero needs to negotiate.

Crow and Podd ruminate about a long lost world in Book 2, due out next spring. I would miss my pond of peepers outside!

I can't pretend that Mordecai's world is in anyway an accurate portrayal of a world ravaged by climate change. Things like summer snow storms and flooded cities are mostly just new ways of changing things up in the narrative, but I have loved the process of imagining what that world may look like. Mordecai's world is probably a gentler version of the real potential for disaster (I like drawing trees!) but with so many balls in the air - things like a possible slowing or stopping of the Gulf Stream that could plunge Europe into another ice age even while the rest of the world heats up, or a technological meltdown coupled with other disasters that could precipitously de-populate the world en masse (having the happy side effect of actually allowing us to reach our emissions targets!) - I don't feel the need to be accurate.

However, as we go through this summer of almost continuous bad news on the climate front, amplified no doubt by media's need to scare us shit silly but never-the-less of epic proportions, I am happy to think that this book might have the potential to shift the needle ever so slightly in our response to this global crisis. And as the bad and sometimes whacky news pours in (like a massive mid-summer hail storm in Germany the other day that required snow removal equipment to be brought out to clear the streets) I'm thinking that truth surely is stranger than fiction, and maybe a July snowstorm wasn't so far-fetched after all.

And some newsy bits...

Prairie Books Now features Secrets of Jarrow

David Fuller's interview with me that led to this article was possibly one of the most interesting interviews I have had. It is also where I first encountered the term cli-fi!

And I got to do another podcast!

I have discovered that I really like the format of podcasts, where there are no cameras and I am simply a disembodied voice wafting over the digital airwaves. I had a nice discussion with John Swinimer over at True North Country Comics Podcasts. John is doing a great job of bringing Canadian comic talent to people's attention and we had a very interesting chat that you can listen to here:

And finally, a shout out for the upcoming Millbrook Zucchini Festival, which will be happening on Sunday, September 10, 12:30 to 4. And why am I excited about this? Because it's only the best vegetable festival in Canada. (And I did the poster art, of course!)

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For the latest in all things Mordecai Crow, including some sneak looks at work in progress, sign up using the form below!

Imagining Crow

 I was leafing through some of my old sketch books the other day and found some of my early sketches and notes for Secrets of Jarrow. These aren't the earliest but rather some I created when I returned to working on the book a few years after I had first played around with the idea.

I wanted to rework my Mordecai Crow character and ended up with these, which I quite liked. At this point I was thinking he might have a crow companion, but abandoned that idea. You will notice that in the book version he acquired a coat and scarf, as he had in my first imaginings a decade ago, but stylistically I was looking for something a bit more simplified. I wanted to render the book with a brush pen rather than pen and ink, as I had on the first pass which you can see in this post here:

Here are a few of those second round sketches:

The first sketch is very stylized and stiff I didn't like it at all. But the second, where I abandoned my pencil and went straight to the brush pen captured more of the feel I wanted.

Continuing with the second rendering, I sketched out another page of Crow figures. These are obviously a bit looser and more cartoony than the book version but I liked their energy and consulted them constantly as I went forward with finals.

As almost the entire first book takes place in Jarrow Firewall, I needed to imagine that as well. I draw heavily on things I have seen on our extensive travels but in this case I was looking for something more exotic. I stumbled on some images of Armenian monasteries, and found those to be the sort of thing I was looking for. Armenia is the oldest Christian country in the world (sine 301 A.D.) and as such has had some time to figure out how to build some stunning monasteries! Jarrow ended up being an amalgam of a couple of the structures you can find at this sight.

(These I would love to see in person!  Some day, maybe...)

But I knew that Jarrow, although originally medieval, would also need some modernist touches for reasons which will be revealed in the story. I researched some images of integrating modern architecture with historic buildings, and implemented some of that. I also scattered about some re-roofed buildings, some thatched, others tiled, thinking that buildings have that had fallen into disrepair might have been made inhabitable again. I drew a quick sketch of how that might look as a point of departure.

As you can see in my notes the portico of the original monastery is in the foreground left, a ruin with modern architecture (now itself in ruins) is sandwiched in the middle, and a later 16th century dormitory with a modern copula is on the right. On the front of that building has been tacked on a stone construction, post Fall, with a thatched roof, in essence reverting to a more primitive form of construction. The tall tower I imagined as being built later than the dormitory, maybe 1800's, as a means to transport goods by elevator from floor to floor of the dormitory (possibly having been converted to workrooms) but also heightened and used as a watchtower.

Finally I realized I would need a ground plan to keep everything in order as the story progressed, so I sketched out that in my book as well.

The gestural sketches of Crow along with the ground plan and concept sketch of Jarrow stayed attached to my drawing board throughout the final art stage, keeping me firmly on track in the making of this book. 

And some newsy bits...

Signing at Chapters in Peterborough

I had the pleasure of meeting a few new faces and sharing Secrets of Jarrow along with showing off some sketches and finished art at the Chapters in Peterborough last weekend. Thanks to everyone who showed up - it was a great afternoon!

A really nice interview

While at my book signing at the Peterborough Chapters I had the pleasure of talking with Brendan Burke from the Peterborough Examiner about Secrets of Jarrow and my adventures in comic book making in general.
 Brendan wrote a great piece - thanks, Brendan! Here is a link to the article...

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Thumbnails to finals - the story continues

After my brief segue last month into gushing over one of my favourite graphic novels, Jeff Lemire's Essex County, I thought I would pick up where I left off previously. So I'm back to talking about about how Secrets of Jarrow came together. 

I spent a pretty idyllic summer a few years back sitting on my porch thumbnailing through the story in my sketchbook. I don't know if most comic book artists go through a thumbnail stage (see April's post) but I have always loved this part of book making. Unencumbered by the need to get everything right, it allows me to see the page in its entirety, think about points of view, darks and lights, close ups or distant shots, balloon placement and just generally how the story is best told graphically. Sometimes I will decide to spend an entire page or two with no words at all, just imagery to carry the narrative forward. Many of my important decisions are being made at this stage, as my written script is very minimalist with little or no description of action or panel breakdown. Minimal script writing is a luxury I can allow myself as I am writing my own text and don't have to communicate what is in my head visually to the artist, unlike many comic book writers.

So as I have said, my path forward is mostly determined at this stage and during the time spent creating the finals (a couple of years minimum) I reference these sketches closely and constantly. If I don't then it is easy to get bogged down in the details of the final art and lose the big picture. Often, in a gestural way, I have captured exactly the pose or expression I want or the scaling of art that I need in any given panel, and if I stray from this too far the final art can feel a bit flat.

Recently I have gone completely digital with my work (other than the thumbnails, which I still do in my sketchbook) and as a result have taken this one step further, scanning in the thumbnail as a first rough draft of the page that I can layer at the bottom of my document. I then work directly from that for my first pass - but more on my digital transformation later, Secrets of Jarrow was mostly done analogue!

Here in this thumbnail from the book I'm currently working on I managed to capture exactly the feel I wanted...

which I hopefully was able to replicate in the final art.

I will post a couple of examples here, showing the thumbnail and my final inked page from Secrets of Jarrow, just to illustrate how closely those quick sketches resemble the finals. Ideally I would show the final pencils rather than the inked page, but as I inked directly on the pencils, that intermediary stage no longer exists for this book!

I always liked this sequence, which happens early in the story. Hopefully you can decipher my thumbnails (they really are just for me to understand!) but I think you can see how the page structure and Crow's body language translates to the final line art. I adopt a more cartoony style for my thumbs as a short hand to getting the action right.
My only real change in the final was adding the Crack! in panel three, which sets up the sequence on the book's following page.

Again, you can see how the layout for this page tracks pretty closely to the inked final below. Interestingly enough, in this sequence I have Podd with Crow (upper right). This is p.26 in my thumbnail layout, but I did a major re-write after finishing the thumbs, inserting ten more pages before this one, so that the inked version below is numbered p. 36 in my file.

Speech balloons have moved around a bit and Podd is no longer in the scene, but the shape of the page remains the same!

And some newsy bits...

My First Podcast!

Wayne Hall at  Wayne's Comics (Major Spoilers) contacted me last week to talk about Secrets of Jarrow and comic-making in general. I spent a really enjoyable hour with Wayne and we covered a lot of ground! If you would like to hear the podcast it can be found here at this link:

And my first review!

I was really pleased to open the Toronto Star today and find a review of Secrets of Jarrow in Mike Donachie's graphic novel column. The review of Secrets along with three other great new Canadian comic releases can be found online at this link: