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Aarne-Thompson Class #130: Karl Kerschl on Fairy Tale Comics

Karl Kerschl is pretty much universally praised for his comics art — from superhero work for the major publishers to videogame tie-ins, to the critically-acclaimed, Eisner-winning The Abominable Charles Christopher — and is constantly in demand for various projects. The latest of those will see release next week in the form of Fairy Tale Comics from :01 Books, edited by Chris Duffy and with a couple-dozen of the greatest talents in comics contributing. Kerschl was kind enough to take time away from his newborn daughter to talk about how he almost passed on Fairy Tale Comics, a shift from his usual artistic style, and the stories that grab us.

Fleen: When Chris Duffy invited you to be a part of Fairy Tale Comics, what made you decide to contribute?
Kerschl: I wasn’t going to, initially. I really liked the concept but I was extremely busy and I think I actually turned him down. Chris eventually badgered me into it by extending the deadline. I like Chris a lot and it’s really hard for me to say no to things, even when I probably should.

Fleen: What was it about fairy tales that intrigued you? Something made it different than, say, a miniseries tied to a videogame.
Kerschl: Fairy tales have always resonated with me; the structure of them and the lyrical quality. It’s much closer to my heart than working on traditional superhero/action stuff. And I also really liked that they’re open to so much interpretation. You can read the same fairy tale told by a dozen different people and they all differ in some way — some quite drastically — as they’re retold over the years. That’s one of the fun side-effects of an oral tradition, I guess. So it was an interesting challenge to try to adapt one with my own spin and contemporary sensibilities.

Fleen: I was hoping you’d have an answer like that at some point; the lyrical quality, the sense of scope and power, and lessons inherent in them are a big part of what I read into Charles Christopher.
Kerschl: Charles definitely follows a lot of the same patterns — morality tales, rules of three, and a slightly surreal quality.

Fleen: A fairly loopy sense of humor, too. Not that fairy tales are all funny, but there’s a dry wit in a lot of the Grimm Brothers’ tales. So given that you’re a fan of fairy tales, what made you choose The Musicians of Bremen?
Kerschl: Chris gave me a choice of Puss in Boots or The Musicians of Bremen, probably because they feature animal protagonists and I’ve sort of pigeonholed myself. I considered them for quite a while and finally chose the musicians because I felt like there was more room for comedy in it. Puss in Boots didn’t have a really strong theme, either; it kind of wove through some odd story beats and I wasn’t sure what it was trying to say. Musicians was more straightforward story. I also connected with the German heritage, honestly. I thought it would be nice to honour that.

Fleen: I was wondering if the consideration of you + animals would enter into it. I find The Musicians of Bremen interesting because in fairy tales, there’s often one magical critter hanging around, but the focus is on people. The musicians are all animals, and they aren’t presented as especially magical, and the humans are seen on the periphery. It’s a neat inversion of the usual story.
Kerschl: Yeah, I agree. It was purely a character piece and the humans are just sort of there to build them up.

Fleen: It makes you wonder if there’s an entire parallel set of fairy tales out there from the POV of the animals, with one or two token humans to provide contrast or act as a low-level obstacle. Which, again, kind of describes Charles Christopher and his interactions with Gilgamesh.
Kerschl: I seem to have become the comics industry’s go-to guy for animal drawing, which is totally fine with me.

Fleen: Gotta play to your strengths.
Kerschl: I guess Disney has sort of done that, haven’t they? Retold these tales with anthropomorphic characters?
Fleen: I guess they have, although their most animal-heavy works that I can recall are Robin Hood, The Jungle Book, and The Lion King — none of those come out of that “moral instruction” school of fairy tales. Lots of animals in films like The Little Mermaid, but they’re comic relief and sidekicks. I get a more fairy tale-ish feel from Miyazaki than Disney; Totoro and Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke all make me think of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller.

Fleen: How did you produce your version of The Musicians of Bremen? It doesn’t visually resemble your pen-and-ink-wash work on Charles Christopher. I found it a really nice contrast to what I’m more familiar with. [Editor's note: for those that haven't seen it yet, Kerschl's work in Fairy Tale Comics has a very painted look rather than his usual emphasis on line, with a hint of Becky Dreistadt somewhere in there.]
Kerschl: I always try to apply a different (and hopefully appropriate) style to a new project; this one seemed to warrant it. I knew I wanted to do something that was colourful and would be aimed primarily at children, since that seemed to be the book’s target audience, and the Charles Christopher pen & ink style seemed a bit melancholic for the type of story I wanted to tell here. I was also eager to get away from an art style that was dependent on lines. These illustrations were all built up from basic shapes and blobs, which is a very different approach for me.

I don’t know if I like the end result. I mean, I think it was a really valuable learning experience, but the end result is muddier and less consistent than I’d hoped. It betrays a lack of confidence in minimalism and especially colour theory. I’m hyper-aware of that. I’m a total novice when it comes to colour. But I have a pretty good idea of what I’d do differently now and I’m eager to take another stab at something similar.

Fleen: Well, I thought it looked great, and my youngest niece (not quite 2) and nephew (5) loved it.
Kerschl: I just hope it doesn’t drag down what is, otherwise, a really beautiful book.

Fleen: Not a chance of that.
Kerschl: That makes me feel a bit better.

Fleen: So if your kids asked for a story tomorrow night, which one would you tell them? It could from from the book, or one that you have always liked .
Kerschl: Three Billygoats Gruff. It’s my all-time favourite. Mostly because of the illustrations in the Ladybird Edition I had as a kid, though.

Fleen: It’s got a bit of a scary edge, depending on how the troll gets described.
Kerschl: Actually, when I’m putting my son to bed and I have to make up a story, it’s usually very close in tone to Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. Pretty much all of my stories are that story, told in a slightly different way.

Fleen: That’s great! In that story are you Max, or is your son?
Kerschl: I’m always Max. And I just have to hope that he is, too.

Fleen thanks Kerschl for his time, and urges you to check out Fairy Tale Comics. Don’t forget to check out interviews with the other FTC creators, appearing all over the web this month. Thanks also to :01 Books for providing a review copy of FTC and asking us to be a part of the blog-based book tour.

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