It’s an uncharted wasteland known only to the fortunate, the foolish and the bold. They call it early retirement.
It’s there, in that alien landscape that a Citadel Middle School teacher-turned-science fiction writer is working, charting yet another world in graphic detail.
Greg Tjosvold is the author of the Lump Sum Saga, a science fiction story that begins with alien explorers scuttling across a barren landscape in search of water.
“I’m a big sci-fi geek,” Tjosvold says, discussing his affection for Star Trek and Babylon 5.
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For a time he was content to channel that geekery into his work as an educator.
“When you’re working with a group of gifted students you’re always looking for ways to challenge them,” he notes, speaking from his home in Coquitlam.
Lumps in the road
When he was Maple Creek Middle School he challenged his students to write the first draft of a novel in a year. While they might not finish their story, they would forge a confidence upon arriving at university.
“They finished the year knowing that they could write 5,000 words,” he says.
The project also changed Tjosvold’s perspective about teaching and writing.
“Much of what we do in language arts is kind of backwards,” he reflects.
Ordinarily, the curriculum focuses on the more detail-oriented aspects of language arts such as where to put the comma, and whether or not an exclamation mark is warranted! And; finally; whether the semi-colon does anything except let the reader know the writer has been to university.
But in writing a novel, those details are often dealt with after the research, the character profiles and the story arc are completed.
In a bid to have his students focus purely on putting words on paper, the whole class attempted to write a book during NaNoWriMo – national novel writing month.
That effort included the teacher.
“I know it’s national novel writing month, but I wonder if I could write a graphic novel,” he remembers thinking. “In the back of my head, I actually kind of thought it would be easier. . . . Oh man, did I ever learn the hard way.”
In looking for ideas, Tjosvold opted to write what he knew. His jumping off point, in fact, was something he knew like the back of his own hand.
Making a world
He has lipomas – small, fatty lumps – on his arm.
“Every once in a while a student would notice that and go, ‘Oh, what are those?’” he recalls.
His standard response was: “They give me my superpowers.”
Something about the joke stayed with him until he got his first glimpse of Lump Man. And, as often happens when we meet someone knew, he had questions.
How did Lump Man get his lumps?
Was it technology? If it was, who came up with the tech, a shadowy government agency or aliens?
“Let’s do aliens,” he decided.
But what type of aliens? Explorers or conquerors?
Maybe they were aboard a probe, he decided, something like NASA’s Curiosity rover, emissaries from a planet with one side in perpetual light and the other in perpetual shadow. Perhaps they crashed their probe and traversed a monster-strewn enivonment while saying “frass,” a versatile bit of profanity that seems good for occasions of mild discomfort or pending catastrophe.
“The world building side got kind of out of control,” he says.
Like a goldfish that overwhelms its glass bowl, the class experiment grew and grew until he’d determined the animals that would survive on his planet.
There would be a lightsider, a kangaroo rat with a parasol tail he could use to shield his face like a beach umbrella. The darksider would be a cave spider with a protruding claw on its legs he could use like chopsticks, Tjosvold explains.
“It’s kind of like Spider-Man if half the story was about the spider.”
Talking about his new career in comics, Tjosvold is often self-effacing, referencing a famous study that found people who are bad at things are often so incompetent they become incapable of recognizing just how bad they are.
“I’m still in the Dunning-Kruger stage of life where I don’t know what I don’t know,” Tjosvold laughs.
An early example of the challenges of comic book writing came when his darksider tarantula was drawn as a crab.
Communicating with an artist presents its own challenges, he notes.
“Take a friend and write a paragraph describing what you want them to draw,” he suggests. “See if you actually get what you ask for.”
Rewriting a comic book also comes with myriad challenges, he says. Unlike slotting a paragraph into a book, inserting a single panel into a finished comic book could conceivably throw off that page and every page that follows.
“As a writer, you are working a fine line between describing things for a pencil monkey and describing things in a way that are clear that an artist can run with.”
During a lengthy conversation, Tjosvold asks me if I know anything about the literary publishing world. I tell him I know the basics.
“The comics world is incredibly different,” he promises me.
Unless you’re working for one of the two major publishers, the writer is often tasked with serving as project manager and paying out of pocket for artists.
Working through Comics Experience Creative Services, Tjosvold has secured drawings from accomplished artists and letterers including Jeffrey Veregge, an artist from the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe near Kingston, Washington. Known as “Salsih Geek,” Veregge has two superhero murals in the Smithsonian.
As an independent publisher, Tjosvold likens his role to an art dealer. Buyers at a gallery wouldn’t think twice about paying $100 for a limited-edition print, he notes.
Instead of producing thousands of copies of Veregge’s cover, he published 50.
“And I can charge significantly more money for that,” he says.
The idea is to appeal to a mix of collectors and speculators.
“This year I would say there’s a lot more speculation in the market than there ever has been,” he says. “It does mean I can pay artists for the next issue.”
With his Kickstarter exceeding its goal, Tjosvold is busy with the next editions of the Lump Sum Saga, which he’s hoping to eventually collect into a graphic novel.
“It’s just the start of things to come hopefully,” he says. “I’m thinking about retirement and I can’t waste money.”