Cartoonist Ethan Young is responsible for our favorite comic book experience of 2015—Nanjing: The Burning City. An unforgettable portrait of honor and loss, the graphic novel unravels the complexities of one of history’s reddest days until a human core remains, raw and brilliant. (It made two Paste editors cry.)
Young’s next two projects travel through space instead of history; The Battles of Bridget Lee arrives this Fall from Dark Horse, featuring a young medic on a journey to reclaim earth. Pilgrim Finch, debuting this Monday from mobile comics platform Stela, explores format as much as the cosmos. Featuring a damn adorable squirrel-groundhog hybrid in a spacesuit, the vertically-scrolling narrative shows the titular astronaut crash-land on a new planet full of mischievous fauna. To emphasize visual storytelling, Young vouches for a comic with no dialogue. In space, nobody can hear you banter.
But the cartoonist articulates sophisticated plot points and themes despite avoiding their most obvious form of expression. Pilgrim Finch emerged from Young witnessing his son, Elliott, transform from a bundle of biological need to an empathetic, cognitive being in a matter of weeks. That revelation mingles with Young’s humane values (he’s a vegan who fostered scores of street cats after college in New York City), laying the trajectory for a science-fiction rarity— a story all-ages adorable and emotionally ornate, like the best Pixar movies. Paste chatted with Young about fatherhood, the craft of vertical comics and the human race’s baffling relationship with its pets.
Paste: How did Pilgrim Finch originate?
Ethan Young: The whole idea behind Pilgrim Finch is a metaphorical, symbolic story of my son’s first few weeks of life, and how you go from being this helpless, and somewhat selfish, creature to learning how to be a well-functioning being. Not that babies function very well for their first couple weeks, because they still need their parents. But I just wanted to do something to commemorate my son’s birth, and I figured using science fiction would make it a lot more interesting for me.
Paste: Being a creator who’s constantly bringing new worlds to life, how does that relate to actually creating new biological life? Are there any parallels? Does it influence how you think creatively?
Young: I think more than anything, it fueled my desire to finish projects more quickly, because of time constraints taking care of Elliott all the time. I think it’s renewed my desire to put more family-friendly, kid-friendly material out there.
Nanjing: The Burning City was meant for an older audience, but before that I was doing my semi-autobiographical comic, Tails. That was a comic that probably could have appealed to young adults as well. I was in my 20s and didn’t have many responsibilities aside from cats, and I just cursed a lot in the comic. I stand by it, and I’m still proud of it, but at the same time that’s not something I could show my five-year-old kid now. I’ve been more cognizant to create stuff that I can show to more people. I do want to appeal to fans who are younger, and not just appeal to people who are kind of jaded and cynical, which unfortunately makes up a huge portion of fans.
Pilgrim Finch Art by Ethan Young
Paste: Coming from Tails and Nanjing, how calculated is your muse? Do you have a plan to hit certain genres in a certain time span? Or is Pilgrim Finch a little more spontaneous?
Young: Sometimes it’s spontaneous. Even with my webcomic, Tails, which had an inkling toward genre art, and then Nanjing is a huge departure from that. It’s embedded in the real world. So for my next project for Dark Horse this Fall, The Battles of Bridget Lee, I’m going full-on science-fiction genre. At one point many years ago, I thought Nanjing might be better if I did it as a sci-fi allegory, because it would require a lot less research and give me a lot more artistic license to play around with events and timelines, so I’m not shackled to actual historical accuracy. That probably wouldn’t have worked, just because stories like that would be a dime a dozen. It would have robbed the book of any uniqueness. Right now, I’m focusing on some of the things that I’ve always wanted to do, which is genre.
Paste: You stray away from using any conventional dialogue in Pilgrim Finch. What informed that decision?
Young: I wanted to challenge myself a little bit, without sounding pretentious. Just creating a comic is a challenge itself, but I wanted to see if I could tell a story in Pilgrim Finch that was largely wordless, using nothing but the emotions expressed on faces, hands and gestures to tell the story and drive that forward. I’m a firm believer in the power of visual storytelling and how, even in silence, you can say a lot in comics. My main point of advice for people who ask about drawing comics is to always make sure the visual storytelling is as clear as possible. If you can’t follow the story without reading the words, then the visuals haven’t done their job. You want to make sure that the eye does not get lost after reading it. That’s why I eschewed traditional dialogue in Pilgrim Finch to focus on visual storytelling, and see how far I could really take that.
Pilgrim Finch Art by Ethan Young
Paste: With Stela, you can’t flip pages left to right, only vertically. It’s a different way of interacting with visual storytelling. How do you approach something that innovative and different?
Young: When it was first proposed to me, I thought, This will really be easy enough, because it’s not that different from a traditional comic, other than the panels are broken up differently. When I dove into it, I found that the main challenge was how I had to rewire my brain and how I paced the story. With traditional pages, you can change panel sizes. Here, I’m trying to treat every single frame as its individual panel, which is its main intention—panel for panel. I found that certain shots didn’t warrant such an emphasis, but I had to give it an emphasis , because those are the rules in this format. It forced me to really think prudently—what absolutely needs to be shown? If I was doing Nanjing in this format, it would be challenging, because I couldn’t get away with so many silent scenes and so many shots of characters looking at one another, and characters giving each other warnings with their eyes. I’d have to be more judicious.
That’s what Pilgrim Finch has taught me, even in the short amount I’ve worked on it—to be very judicious with how I use any panel.
Paste: Is it difficult to create visual continuity between panels, knowing the reader won’t be able to reference two of them simultaneously?
Young: That’s where I think some old animation skill comes in handy. I did a little bit of work with Animation Domination doing character designs. We were constantly being beaten down with issues of consistency. Things that would pass as consistency in comics would not pass in a cartoon—if even the jawline is remotely off-kilter… I approached Pilgrim Finch slightly with animation principles in mind. The consistency of the composition and the consistency of the environment were incredibly important, and even color. If you look at the first chapter of Pilgrim Finch, the hues and the tints all have to relate to one another. They can differ from time to time, but largely if the color is inconsistent, much like with any part of the drawing or illustration, it will throw the reader off a little bit.
Pilgrim Finch Art by Ethan Young
Paste: You’re a vegan with a host of cats who’s pretty active in animal rights. How did you land on a bear as a protagonist?
Young: It’s funny that you say bear, because I actually think of Pilgrim Finch as a weird squirrel/groundhog hybrid. I think I wanted to draw something that I found to be very adorable. If this ever does go into print, I think, What adorable face can I plaster on the cover that will appeal to kids?
Paste: And the document thieves—a cross between a lemur and a slow loris maybe?
Young: I actually call those characters the critters. They’re a combination of lemurs, aye-ayes and lorises. I definitely use lorises as an example. I also wanted to use them as an example because I felt bad for them. People kept passing around those videos of them being tickled, after I learned that they actually hate being tickled. But it’s something where we project a lot of our human emotions on our animals. We want to anthropomorphize them, and lorises are perfect for that because they have those huge, soulful-looking eyes. And really they’re like, Holy crap! I’m terrified for my life! But we think, They like being tickled! There’s almost a tragic paradox of their cuteness, and I wanted to use them as these poor little specimens that Pilgrim Finch has ignorantly and selfishly entrapped.
Pilgrim Finch Art by Ethan Young
Paste: …and that corresponds as an analogy for your son learning to be more communal.
Young: That’s going to be the running theme in this series: how Pilgrim can learn to be more empathetic. If I could have just made the main character in Pilgrim Finch a straight-up tabula rasa…if I could have gotten away with that I would have. But I think a character like that who’s a complete blank slate would have been really, really hard for some people to connect to. Even something like WALL-E, which is wordless and has an adorable character—the character’s not a blank slate and he shows a lot of emotion. It’s just presented through the eyes and what he collects. My editor [Jim Gibbons] and I figured, Well, if he’s something like a collector of these animals and he’s imprisoning them against their will, that’ll be something for him to work through. And he learns.
Paste: Why did space appeal to you in the first place, coming from projects that were autobiographical and then historical?
Young: It’s like Patton Oswalt said in his book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland: when you deal with those settings, you’re basically rewriting the rules of the world. That’s why those settings appeal to so many young creators, especially first-time creators. You get to create your own internal logic, you get to create your own internal rules. That’s the great thing about Pilgrim Finch—I don’t have to explain why this little bear creature is a traveler, other than several markers. Here’s a specimen container—Ok, that tells us what his vocation is. He has a spaceship. It’s cute and bubbly. I modeled it off an Akira Toriyama design, from Dragon Ball, which I loved as a kid. The designs were always bubbly and Volkswagen-y. I just love this kinds of design—compact and cute.
Science fiction lets us explore modern ideas through allegory, that we would sometimes be uncomfortable facing. We love to explore politics through science fiction because in our reality, it’s the GOP race. This is ugly and disgusting and I want to turn away. But you’re exploring this Philip K. Dick story and it’s appealing because you can win in that story. Sometimes in real life, you can’t win.
It’s escapism. You can be political and have as much insight as you want in science fiction, but people come to it for escapism. And that can be a shame; sometimes science-fiction stories that don’t offer pure escapism are largely ignored. I feel like if Terry Gilliam offered more pure, fun escapism, he’d probably make more money. But that isn’t Terry Gilliam’s style.
Paste: Will Pilgrim Finch have political overtones?
Young: No. This is definitely an emotional story. I do have some loose plans for a sequel, in case Pilgrim Finch is popular enough, where it might get a little more political. But political in the vein of Avatar—some themes of environmental exploitation. He’s on this pure untouched planet right now. What’s it like for such a pure, untouched land to be slowly exploited and stripped away? As I describe it out loud, it sounds kind of depressing…[laughs]