Tuskers, is an Indiegogo passion project about the journey of a herd of African elephants trying to escape a poaching militia in South Sudan in an attempt to make it to safety at an animal sanctuary in Kenya. This beautifully written and illustrated graphic novel gives readers a look into the brutal world of poaching from the view of our protagonist, an orphaned elephant named Detroit. This novel has been seven years in the making and truly comes to life with the amazing writing from Marc Gaffen paired with the 130 pages of hand drawn watercolor illustrations from Daniel Govar. Gaffen (IMDB page) is the writer of the Grimm series and New Amsterdam. Govar (check out his website here) has worked with a variety of publishers such as Marvel, DC, Valiant, and Dynamite as well as self-published several of his own works. If you haven’t seen it already, you can check out my full review of this captivating story here. You can find out more and order yourself a copy with this link.
Recently, I had a chance to talk with the creative minds behind one of my favorite graphic novels to date. I would just like to take a moment to thank Marc and Daniel for taking the time to do this. It was so much fun and really inspiring to learn so much about such an impactful piece of art. So, without any further ado, here is the interview with the creators of Tuskers:
Lily: Before I ask any questions, I would just like to take a moment to say how incredibly exciting it is as an artist, writer, and comic enthusiast to be asking the creators about one of my favorite graphic novels. This comic has left such a long-lasting impact on me, and I can’t wait for readers (including myself) to find out more about this piece of art.
That said, would you be able to give me a little background on what inspired you to start this passion project? How did the Tuskers team assemble?
Marc: Javier and I have been friends for 15+ years and we both came at this idea through separate ways.
I was inspired by a 60 Minutes piece I saw a while back and was shocked to learn that an elephant orphanage existed in the first place. The stories that were laid out in the humans and elephants were so emotional, but I couldn’t figure out a full story arch at the time so I just put the idea on a back burner.
Here is the original 60 Minutes piece:
Javier came about the project because his twin daughters were obsessed about African elephants and they asked him why they were going extinct. After doing research, he was so touched by the story that he wanted to write something about it.
Then one day when we were having dinner and playing with his kids when we started talking about projects we were tinkering with and he told me about his version of the elephant story. I loved his pitch on it so I kinda forced my way onto teaming up with him. It was perfect for both of us because sometimes it takes the pressure of a friend to make you complete a script, otherwise writers like Javier and myself will work on something and never complete it. Writers can be ultimate procrastinators.
Through Javier’s idea of the orphanage having to move from one place to the other in order to save them, that completely opened up what the story could be, in my eyes. A chase thriller with an ecological and moral bent.
Daniel (the artist) and I met when I was co-writing the Grimm comic book series based on the NBC TV show I was also working on. He was hired to do the art for our “Portland, Wu” book and I loved his style. He was able to make the panels come off the page and draw the emotion of the characters perfectly.
When the Tuskers script was done and we were looking for the artist, Daniel was the first person I called. Which is funny because we never actually met in person until the Tuskers Kickstarter was already live and we’ve been working on it for 6 months. We only talked by phone and email since I’m in Los Angeles and Daniel is in St. Petersburg. But it’s been a dream partnership since day 1.
Daniel: When Marc reached out I was actually in kind of a down swing on working on sequential art. Meaning, I was saying no to sequential projects for a while and focusing on a number of art books and the like. Working from Marc back when – his scripts were some of the best I had ever worked on, and when he told me the elevator pitch – I had to check it out. I’m a wildlife nut and very big on conservation – it makes up about half of my personal charitable donations. His and Javier’s script was just perfect. I tried finding flaws, and honestly – aside from making certain characters stories longer possibly, there just weren’t any. I told him I was on board.
Lily: It is clear from your Indiegogo and after reading the novel that this project obviously took an immense amount of research, where did you start?
Marc: The funny thing about Javier is that he is all about research. I actually think he spends too much time researching and not writing, hahaha. Which is why the partnership worked so well. I would read his book of intricate research and then have a good starting point to begin the story, but then move out from there to make sure the characters’ journeys come to life on their own.
Lily: What kind of research did you have to do in order to make this novel a reality?
Marc: Basic research like reading and watching everything we could get our hands on. We were also lucky to have the help of USC’s Annenberg Norman Lear Center which has a service that helps writers connect with their real life subject matters. They were able to connect us with researchers from the WWF, Human Society, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and also people who run animal sanctuaries in Africa. Talking to them about the current status on poaching and the underground ivory market was indispensable. It was also a great resource on things like proper verbiage and real life stories that these conservationists and elephants face everyday.
Daniel: I actually had a ton of research to do. Lots of photo hunting and more – research on elephants. I had zoo excursions and live drawing with elephants and did a lot of anatomical research and research on various parts of Africa that would need to be illustrated. The types of vehicles, the towns and rivers. What people wore, etc. It was a deep dive but now I can own anyone on animal trivia.
Marc: And I always inundated Daniel with photos of elephants that I would find on instagram. I’m surprised he didn’t block me because at the height of the project I was probably sending him 50 photos a day.
Lily: Did you know much about the elephant poaching crisis before starting?
Marc: Nothing at all! Which is the fun of being a writer. You can find subjects that peak your interest and then delve deep into them.
Daniel: I knew enough to be dangerous. There were many aspects I learned from the script and others I discovered through research. It was a little gut-wrenching doing some of my research for visuals. I would randomly need hugs from my 4 yr old son.
Lily: Were you planning on using watercolor as your medium from the beginning?
Marc: When I originally talked to Daniel I told him I would like the book to be black and white (no color) except perhaps red to represent blood and anguish during emotional moments of the characters.. Then after Daniel started to think about the project he came up with the great idea to add an orange color palette with watercolor that we ended up having. (he can talk more about that.) His color scheme made the book. You can see the care and emotion of our characters with each brush stroke.
Daniel: Tonal work in comics is just now starting to catch on here in the US, but European and Asian comics have been doing it for years. Watercolor is my art weapon of choice for fine art, and really the only thing I could see using for a story like this. Originally we talked about black and white and pointed to stories like “300” and sin city with its use of a sting color, red. I thought making blood a focal point was too heavy handed and took you out of the environment and lush landscapes we would need to visualize and thought red didn’t evoke Africa to me. I love the richness and vibrancy of Azo Orange and thought it would create a beautiful color for skies and accents. I did some tests with it – mostly concerning value ranges and mixing with lamp black and a few other colors and decided it was the palette for our story.
Lily: Having watched the time lapse of the creation of a single page, I found myself amazed and curious. On average, how long did each page take to paint/ finish? What was your artistic process in bringing the story to life through the illustrations?
Daniel: Each page varied in time, but on average they took about 6-10 hours. My process was fairly consistent – I would rough things out – starting with loose gestural elements in pencil. I would never hard line anything before going to ink. I always think art feels more alive when the detail work is in the ink and watercolor phase. After setting up my heavy blacks in ink, (or watersoluble graphite in those sandstorm and underwater pages), I would then move on to watercolor. Some pages – especially the flashbacks I made it a point to remove all line work – to give it a feeling of a fuzzy memory.
Lily: I have never read anything quite like this, so I am interested to learn more about the evolution that led to this point. What was your process to laying out how it would be structured?
Marc: The structure came about naturally once Javier came up with the idea of the elephants having to move sanctuaries. In essence, it follows the flow of a classic western cattle drive movie — A group of people are suddenly thrust together by being threatened from outside forces, so then they have to move from point A to point B in a classic chase scenario, which adds to the tension and drama. Movies like Apocalypto, Red River, and Gorillas In the Mist were a major influence on how we pieced together the structure and equaled it with emotional moments.
The hardest part was thinking of who the characters are in the story. Do we tell it from the Elephant’s POV or the peoples? Do we have the elephants talk like in a Disney movie? We decided to be true to the real life situation so we could play up the hard choices that are factually happening in Africa to the elephants. We didn’t want to condescend and trivialize everyone’s struggles and sacrifices.
Daniel: For me – I took cues from the script mostly, but in terms of perspectives and the such – I went with how I would visualize the scene unfolding as a film each time. This is pretty common with comic storytelling, but this one felt like the pacing of a movie like Ronin. I watched it and films with similar scene changes and tried to figure out their approach to camera angles. Unlike film noir storytelling I put in few if any dutch angles and things like that – the opposite of what I did with Marc on Grimm.
Lily: This passion project has taken seven years to bring to life, so I’m sure that there have been a lot of highs and lows. As a reader, learning more about the behind the scenes is not only fascinating, but it gives newfound appreciation for all the work that goes into such a colossal project. What has been your favorite part of working on Tuskers?
Marc: Seeing the writing from the script come to life in Daniel’s artwork. That’s always amazing to see. Collaboration is always the best part of any project, be it tv or film, or comics, and seeing your words transform into art… there’s nothing better.
Lily: What was your greatest challenge over the course of this project?
Marc: Finding a way to make the project. No one wanted to make it, for various reasons, but it was a project we believed in and decided to go the independent route with Kickstarter. We realized the graphic novel format would give us the freedom to make the story in the way we wanted without unwanted notes or compromises. Then seeing all our backers’ support on Kickstarter really made us proud to know others saw the importance of telling a story like this.
There’s an old phrase in movies/tv since lots of the time on a set is spent waiting to work – “You get paid to wait and you work for free.” That rings true with this book – the hardest part waiting for the funding, but soon as we had it, it was a dream come true to work on.
Lily: For you, what was the hardest to write/ create in the story?
Daniel: Working with the guys, and seeing it all come to fruition has been the best. Watching close friends and loved ones read the story for the first time – their emotions and gasps come across their faces…it shows we did things right which is the absolute best feeling. I would say the greatest challenge was time and illness for me. As THE artist, getting sick is a huge setback and I fell ill a couple of times during production. On top of long planned convention appearances – time was always a huge juggling act for me. The hardest aspects to illustrate were some of the horrors in the book. They were necessary though.
Lily: One of the last things that I would like to ask you about is what you hope this comic does for those who read it, since this is based around such an important issue that not everyone knows about. What is the most important idea that you hope readers take away from Tuskers?
Marc: I’d like to hope this project opens people’s eyes to where things come from and their effect on the natural world. We may look at a piece of ivory art and think it’s beautiful… but there’s unseen blood and pain in each piece of ivory. Personally I’m always fascinated by the etymology of objects. Where does that food come from? Who makes a phone or computer and where does the nickel that is needed in that device come from? By learning about the supply chain you begin to see the world as the haves and have nots. And that brings a sense of empathy into your life which I feel the world drastically needs today. We are all in this together.
Daniel: Awareness and sympathy. I know for a fact most Americans don’t understand how elephant poaching happens and what it really means. Tusks aren’t just cut off. The creatures are slaughtered and their babies left to wander around the carcasses of their families. It’s truly a horror. I hope real lasting changes are put in place and my son can know the wonder of elephants.
Thank you both so much for your time and thoughtful answers. I cannot wait to share more about this beautiful novel with the world! Be sure to check out Tuskers, spread the word about this project, and raise awareness of this important cause.