THE ORIGINS OF MAZEBOOK
Tales from the farm
One of the more common questions writers get is about where certain ideas for books or stories came from. I always have a tough time answering that for my books because the truth is that most ideas never come all at once. For me it’s usually a whole bunch of small “micro-ideas” that roll around and sit in my head for a while until it forms a snowball big enough for me to get my hands around. Sometimes these little mini-ideas aren’t even story ideas at all. They can just be a word or a phrase that strikes you a certain way one day and evokes a feeling or mood in your head. Sometimes it can be an image or an object. And sometimes there can just be a general “type” of story you become interested in trying. All of this was the case for my newest book, Mazebook that launches next week from Dark Horse Comics.
I wrote and drew Mazebook over the period of a year or so starting in early 2019 and finishing sometime at the end of 2019 or early 2020. But as you can see from some of the earliest images, drawings and notes from my sketchbooks at the time, the genesis of the book goes back to Fall of 2018.
There were a few micro-ideas floating around for a while at that point that were trying hard to form into something in my head. I had a vague idea about a grieving father who descended into the city’s underworld to find his lost daughter. This idea was much pulpier than what Mazebook became. It would have been a literal, hellish underworld that the man entered and fought through. It was a darker and more violent idea that never really found traction. Somewhere around here I also got struck by the idea of mazes. Originally I think it was just how cool they were to look at and how graphically interesting they were. These two elements sort of fused together. I saw the potential in this idea of the man following this maze through the city to find his daughter and it all began to click.
This book was also heavily influenced by the novels of Haruki Murakami. I had started reading Murakami a year or two before and devoured his body of work. If you haven’t read any Muramaki, do it. Right now. He quickly became my favorite living writer. My personal favorites are The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, Kafka On The Shore and 1Q84, but they are all incredible novels. In his fiction Murakami creates a sense of another reality just under the membrane of the world we see. A surreal, slightly fantastic other world that bleeds together with our own. It’s never treated as the supernatural. Often never even commented on, it’s just experienced and accepted by the characters. And none of the fantastical elements of his stories ever really veer into any one genre or fall into any of the tropes that accompany most genre work. So I was definitely trying to capture the way Murakami’s work made me feel with Mazebook.
I had finished working on my Image series, Royal City in 2018 and was burnt out on doing an ongoing book. I’ll speak more about Royal City at a later date, but the book had been pretty grueling to create. And it also tapped into a lot of the themes and aesthetics of my other self-drawn work, small towns, family etc. I needed to do something different. My career is sort of about bouncing back and forth like this. I’ll do a really grounded, “slice-of-life” type book like Essex County or Royal City and follow it up with something a bit more genre based like Sweet Tooth or Trillium. So I was sort of in my “genre” mode of wanting to do something a bit pulpier and less grounded. With this feeling in mind, I had started working on a Black Hammer book called Skulldigger in summer of 2018. I was going to write and draw this series myself and it would be the first Black Hammer book that I also did the artwork for. I did a dozen or so pages of Skulldigger and was not enjoying it at all. It just didn’t feel like me. Enter my friend, the brilliant cartoonist Matt Kindt.
Matt came to stay with my family and I in Toronto for a week in September 2018. The plan was to work on our Cosmic Detective graphic novel face-to-face for a week. We did do that, but we also just spent a lot of time sitting in my studio, looking at comics and talking about the kinds of books we wanted to do next. I expressed my growing lack of enthusiasm towards Skulldigger to Matt and sort of off-handily told him this other idea about the man following a maze through the city. Matt loved this idea and told me straight up to forget Skulldigger and do the Mazebook instead.
His enthusiasm for the maze idea solidified it in my mind and I started thinking about it with much more confidence. It really quicky formed into the book it would become after that. When Matt left to head back home to St. Louis I started filling my sketchbook with imagery and loose ideas for Mazebook.
At the time I was trying with calling the book “String Theory” instead as my main character would follow a string through the maze. But that idea evolved over time into something else and that title fell away even though the visual motif of the red string stuck and found its way into the book in other ways.
One thing that became clear right away was that this would be a “big city” book. A lot of my stuff takes pace in small towns. And this is because I grew up on a farm. But I have actually spent more of my life in downtown Toronto now than I did on the farm, and very few of my books have reflected this. I really wanted Mazebook to be rooted in Toronto and for the maze to be set in the same streets and area where I lived and where my studio is. This was great because I could use real locations as drawing reference. Whenever I needed a new alley or street for Will to walk down, I just went for a walk around my studio until I found a good spot. I’d snap pics on my phone and draw right from these.
It took me a while to find Will’s face. Some of the earlier sketches look nothing like the final character. The key was the beard. I sort of liked the messiness of the beard and how it was another layer for Will to hide behind. It also sort of felt like the beard of a man who had given up a bit and stopped caring what he looked like.
Since there were really only a couple of main characters in the story, and the locations would be taken from the real area around me, I didn’t need to do extensive character design work. What you see here is pretty much the extent of the design and sketch stuff I did before diving right into drawing actual pages. I plotted out the story loosely. I really only had a very broad idea of what would happen, and just started. I embraced the unknown and the spontaneity and just sort of entered the world and went on the journey with Will. I discovered the next part of the story as he walked the maze and turned new corners. It was a really exciting and freeing way to create a book, and one I am still using now with my new project. Figuring out every detail of the story before you start drawing can really kill the book for you. I find if I wrote out the whole book and figure out all the details before I start drawing, it’s like I’ve already told the story and now I am just going through the motions in drawing it and there is no risk, no surprise and no energy. I’d made that mistake in the past and with Mazebook the story itself really lent itself to embracing this less structured way of writing and drawing and just letting myself find the story as I go.
Next week I’ll get more into the actual drawing style of the book. How I found the look of Mazebook and the pens, brushes, paint etc. that I used. I’ll also share an example of my loose outlines for the first issue.
Creating it was truly one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career. It all just came to me each day, effortlessly. It was a joy to draw. I think I was in a really good spot creatively doing Mazebook. I was finally out of the grind of writing for Marvel and DC, and free just to do my own thing at my own pace. I did all of Mazebook without any idea of who would publish it or when. I just made it on my own terms. Once you get a taste of that freedom it’s hard to go back.
So, see you back here soon. And if you are near a comic book store, Mazebook #1 should be out now. The series is 5 issues and each issue is 48-pages long.
As mentioned earlier this week there will be exclusive prints, variant covers, and artwork available only to subscribers of my Substack. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for our first Secret Store drop tomorrow. -Jeff