Helen wakes up marooned on a lifeless alien planet 300 light years from Earth with no memories beyond a hazy sense of extinction-level urgency to return to Earth. Joined by Arther, her strange robot companion, she explores the planet to find materials necessary to repair her ship. However, circumstances are not as straightforward as they seem. Along the way, Helen’s most painful memories return as monstrous manifestations hell-bent on her destruction. Canopus is Castaway meets Annihilation, with a healthy dose of Phillip K. Dick trown in for good measure!
–From Previews website
Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of Dave Chisholm‘s. Awhile back, my fellow Graphic Policy writer Madi Butler interviewed Dave about Instrumental about an inspiring jazz trumpet player whose ambition leads him to a mystical horn that may give him masterful skills, but could also result in the end of the world. Ever since reading this masterful book, I’ve been following Dave and eagerly waiting for his next big project.
That last desire has recently come in the form of Canopus, his new sci-fi miniseries from Scout Comics. I had the pleasure of reading Dave’s book beforehand, and I immediately knew this would be on par with Intrsumental and give a medium clouted with many sci-fi stories that just about look the same. I sat down with Dave to discuss Canopus, how sci-fi can be used to funnel personal issues, many of the new bag of tricks he learned along the way during the making of this project.
Graphic Policy: Where did the idea for Canopus come from?
Dave Chisholm: I had a speaking engagement in Boston. I was sitting on the flight toward it, and at that point I had just a basic idea for the main conceit of the story which I’m not going to give away.
GP: No spoilers!
DC: Right, no spoilers. Basically, I was just flying out and ruminating on some big ideas I had. Not the characters yet, but more the bigger sci-fi stuff. The character ideas stemmed from a deeper place from my struggles of learning to let go of resentment and pain from my past. I had tendencies to hold onto grudges. It reached a point where I was like, “Man, that’s not good for me.” I couldn’t really figure out a way to let go of it, so I decided to take that angst and channel it through the story with a character who is going through a similar issue. That character’s Helen. That’s the basic origin story for this book.
GP: I’m familiar with your first book, Instrumental, and Canopus is a totally new idea, which is what I admire about you. You’re not just repeating yourself. You’re going with something fresh. Instrumental was a surreal urban fantasy; Canopus is surreal sci-fi. What made you want to do that kind of story now?
DC: I’m a huge fan of sci-fi media. I love Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clark, and writers like that. I wanted to throw my hat in and do that kind of hard sci-fi story. One thing that draws me to Philip K. Dick, in particular, is how he will take a really personal idea and filter it through this completely bananas sci-fi setting. He’s trying to understand his own struggles with hanging onto reality or his other well-documented struggles. He uses a book like his own personal diary, therapy, or exploration of ideas for topics that might be a little more personal for him. I love the ability of sci-fi to explore a big concept, like healing from trauma or love or parenthood. Something like that.
I could’ve told a story about someone living in Rochester, New York in 2019 who’s trying to understand the trauma that they’ve been through, the pain that they’re feeling, and that stuff. I think it would’ve been a good story, but I also had these bigger ideas. Why not merge the two together?
GP: Helen seems like the perfect protagonist for your story because she is the type of protagonist you would expect: an adventurous scientist type, but she’s also working through her personal issues from the past. Not going to spoil that because, again, no spoilers. How did you conceptualize her character?
DC: It boiled down to essentially writing her life story, figuring out events in her life that led her to point we first meet her, then figuring out which one of those life events would be featured in the book. Specifically, these flashbacks that occur from time to time in the story. From there it was sort of, like, reverse engineering it in a way that made sense to who she was as a character, what she wanted, and how she grows.
When the story starts off, she (Helen) is a pretty intense person. She’s very on edge. She’s not a warm or nurturing person. She is very stern in getting things done.
GP: “You’re gonna do this, and you’re gonna do it NOW!!”
DC: Yeah, that kind of vibe. Hopefully the reader will be wondering why she is that way and get a clear picture of her life.
GP: Sympathize with her.
DC: Yeah. As far as what she wants vs. what she needs, and what her goals are–some of those are plot driven, some of those are character driven. Hopefully there will be a nice marriage between the two.
GP: The only other character that exists along with Helen is her companion Arther. I won’t spoil too much about him because he’s so unique, but I want to know how did you come up with him?
DC: How Arther came into the picture is a fascinating story. A lot of it had to do with workshopping with a cabal of editors. For example, my wife, Elise, is an amazing editor. She has the keenest eye for plot holes. I’ll give her something to read, like “You gotta read this!” She’ll read it and say “I just love it…here’s a plot hole”, and I’ll be like “OH NO!”
GP: Oh no! The ego has been pierced!
DC: Haha yeah! She was so helpful with this project. Thanks to her help and those of my friends who also workshopped it, Arther evolved over time so much. He started as something that was pretty different from what he ended up being. I hate to say this, but one of the last, big revelations for Arther, when I put the last piece of the puzzle in, was quite late in the process, even as I was pitching this to publishers and had a couple of issues drawn. Probably wasn’t the smartest thing. It’s one of the bits in the story that I’m most proud of, too. So, for people working in comics, publishing, working on art and stuff, you should work on it all as you go, like re-examining plot points or anything really. You’ll figure those things out, you’ll find something.
Anyway, Arther turned out to be a great character. His look didn’t really ever change. His look was based on a character I’ve been doodling for years, and he’’s really fun to draw. I really liked the idea of a robot that was squishy and plushy, not hard and geometric. I struggle with those shapes, so if someone asked me to draw a Transformers, I would have a hard time. I think Arther’s design makes him cute and adds to that child-like quality of who he is. Arther’s always curious, always wondering what’s going on, and everything like that.
GP: What strikes me about Arther’s relationship to Helen is how complicated it is. It starts off with her relying on Arther to act as a guide given that she has lost her memory. As those memories slowly resurface though, it turns their relationship into a parent/child kind of deal, except there’s some serious resentment toward the child. Was figuring out that out part of conceptualizing Arther, and does it tie back to Helen’s issues with letting go of past grievances?
DC: That’s a little bit of a difficult question, mostly because the answer would give away too much. I’m just going to embrace the fact that their relationship does get complicated over time as those memories are revealed, and I’m just happy those story beats fell into place.
GP: I’ll move on to a less sticky question then. Canopus, the star. Up until I read this comic, I was not aware that it actually existed. It’s such a unique choice for a setting. It’s not something generic like Mars or creating a phony-baloney planet. You chose something that actually existed in space. Why did you choose Canopus? What is its significance to the story beyond just the setting?
DC: I knew the comic was going to take place on a star that was far away, and, frankly, I just googled star names thinking “Maybe I’ll find a star with a cool name.” There isn’t a whole lot more to it than that. It does sort of tie thematically into the story, again without spoiling anything. I’ll leave it at that.
GP: I noticed that instead of a full-length graphic novel like Instrumental, you decided to make Canopus a four-issue miniseries. Is this your first time doing single issues?
DC: My first series in single issues was a book I did called Let’s Go To Utah! That was self-published from 2007 to 2009. It was a 9-issue series that was done before Instrumental. I did that back in my 20s. I still sell it when I go to conventions, but let’s just say I look forward to when I have enough books on my table that I don’t have to sell that one anymore.
GP: Haha. I get it. Not all darlings are precious. Some you look forward to killing.
GP: Another difference I see is that Canopus is in color. Did you know this was going to be in color? Like did you have a deeper reason for that choice? I feel like Instrumental was purposefully black and white because the visuals you put in that book had to be that way. Canopus seems like a book that works more with color and uses it to tell the story.
DC: Right! It’s cool because the story behind that is I got hired to draw a children’s book a few years ago that I don’t think is out yet. It was a really cute children’s book, independent contractor, and it was a very fun gig. I didn’t realize until after I signed the contract that they expected me to color the art as well. My coloring experience before that was pretty limited in terms of the workflow, meaning that it took me a really long time to color a page or an image or whatever.
Over the course of the 20-some illustration images I did for this children’s book, I really learned how to have a good workflow for coloring and just how to color in general. It was really just a great education for me. I’m a real autodidact. I can mostly teach myself, go at my own pace, find my own approach, and always be critical of my own process. I learned from that experience that I really like working in color. It’s super fun and adds this element of storytelling I had been ignoring as a creator. In that moment I was like, “Oh man. I gotta color the next project I do!”
The first project I wanted to get to was a much larger one than Canopus, but I wasn’t in a place with my comics career to pitch it. I sat on it and decided to pursue Canopus instead. With how the color plays into the story…hoo boy, this is going to be a long-winded answer, but the one thing I’ve really learned in music school, like 10 years of music college, is this idea that sometimes crafting a narrative is about what you don’t put into it, like setting up really rigid boundaries for yourself. That way when you do reveal to the reader that thing that’s been missing all this time, it’s mind-blowing.
Let’s say that you have a song and for the first two minutes there are no bass or drums. The listener thinks they’ve figured out the song. “Oh, it’s just guitars and vocals. There’s a little bit of piano in there.” Then come along the bass and drums into the song. It’s like BAM! It’s loud as hell. Their (the listeners) whole paradigm explodes. With Instrumental, I attempted this with the formal structures of the pages. Remember when Tom blows the trumpet, and all of reality is bent?
With Canopus, I’m taking a similar approach with color. I don’t want to spoil it, but it has to do with what is left out and with a limited, more focused color palette to set up a sense of normal for readers. I’m really happy with the way the colors turned out. With that said, I can’t wait to take all the stuff I learned working on this comic and level up with whatever comes next.
GP: One thing Canopus does share in common with Instrumental is surrealism. Although Canopus is more restrained than how off-the-walls, bonkers Instrumental got, there is still some zany elements. The first that comes to my mind are the panel layouts for Helen’s flashbacks. It shows a sequence in linear format, but there are repeated, multiple images of every panel. To me this symbolizes how she processes memory. I want to know what was your thought process in designing those panels?
DC: The first inspiration behind those particular scenes is from the graphic novel Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, if you’re familiar with that.
GP: I know the book you’re talking about. I just haven’t read it yet.
DC: Oh my god. I recommend you read that as soon as possible. There’s this beautiful scene where the character gets a blister on his foot…and the story is that we get present day scenes along with flashbacks, so kind of similar to Canopus is, although I would hate to compare my book to this book because it’s the most genius book I’ve ever read. Anyway, the main character has a blister on his foot, and it opens to this whole sequence where it triggers his memory with an ex, then that triggers another memory, and soon it becomes a kaleidoscopic display of all these different memories about his ex, all surrounding this basic narrative of her breaking a Q- tip in her ear and getting scared as he tries to fish it out with a pair of tweezers.
It sounds like such a mundane scene, but it’s profound with how it associates with all these separate memories that are blinking in and out of this single narrative. So, the memory scenes of Canopus were inspired by that and also pages from Chris Ware books where, like, the way a single object will generate a memory field in a person. Like, when you pick up a favorite toy from your childhood, and all of a sudden you have this visceral recall of the most significant memories around that object. Now those memories tend to be non-linear. I didn’t quite have the courage to do so in my comic, but I still wanted to hit that feeling. I hope the way I laid out the panels is a good stand-in from the fuzzy, more grid-like layouts you see in the “present day” story proper.
GP: I get the feeling that, since these scenes are related to Helen, it’s a representation of her trauma and trying to piece back together these memories, where and when they happened and all that. I do know from reading about PTSD that it can affect memory. I know there’s the concept of certain things triggering bad memories, but also I’ve read elsewhere it can cause emotional distance from them. In a way, does Helen’s amnesia symbolize all that, especially now that all those memories are coming back to her?
DC: I think that this idea of how PTSD works in people is definitely some kind of inspiration, although I can’t say it dictated the layouts. The way someone has a PTSD trigger or an anxiety attack has a more physical response, but I don’t know. Honestly, it’s really hard for me to come down strongly in this book. Her (Helen) character is definitely inspired by the idea of someone going through therapy. It’s sci-fi as therapy though. Inspirations for that are stuff like Russian Doll, Maniac, and The OA. These Netflix shows are, from my point of view, really like therapy in a fantastical presentation. All of those are about people learning to change their mind and reconcile their traumas. It’s just so inspiring.
GP: Another detail of the surrealism I wanted to ask about are the obstacles and enemies Helen faces. They’re all these twisted manifestations of her memories. Remembering those memories seems to be part of her defeating or getting over them. It’s like the whole therapy thing you’re talking about. I just want to know how you came up with them because each are so unique and utterly terrifying.
DC: Thanks, man! I think that, even in Let’s Go To Utah, it follows a thread of thinking where let’s take this really normal-looking thing and give it a charge of weirdness, like capital-W Weirdness. In Let’s Go To Utah!, my goal was to make this ice-scraper an extremely profound thing. In Instrumental, it’s a trumpet. In one of the very first story beats for Canopus, Arthur falls into this hole or crater on this surface, and it’s full of dolls and children’s toys. That imagery was just so creepy, compelling, and weird. It’s taking the normal, mundane and giving it a profound twist by associating it with something 300 light years away from normal, with symbolism and motifs. It’s an attractive idea to me, and I just hope it pays off.
GP: One last thing I wanted to mention was the twist. I have to say, I’ve never seen a twist this crazy in a comic before! When I got to it, my reaction was “Wait, he went that far?!” I’ll say it, your twist tops even Rick Remender’s twists.
DC: Hahaha! Thanks, man.
GP: Seriously! I want to know how your twist ties back to the theme of the story.
DC: The twist is something I’m really proud of. I’m happy the way it turned out, and I hope readers really get something out of it. If I tried to say anything further though, it would give it away. I’m just going to leave it at that and let everyone see for themselves when that issue comes out.
GP: This is just such an audacious series with a fresh sci-fi story and pulls off a lot of great storytelling ideas. It all comes together and has a very important message to people going through a lot of similar issues, me included. Do you hope it engages your readers on an intellectual and emotional level as much as it entertains them? I know you as a creator, and you always go into a story with something to say. You don’t just entertain, but help, if not enlighten, engage readers with new ideas and ways at looking at things.
DC: Absolutely! That’s everything to me. So, my answer is yes. Definitely yes. I have high hopes that it will connect with people and gets into the awareness of people who need it or can empathize and identify with the story. That’s the goal.