Artist Steve Ellis Explains How His Experiences as a Father Shape the World of THE ONLY LIVING BOY
Like his co-creator David Gallaher, artist Steve Ellis has penned a meaningful essay on how parenthood has shaped his approach to his art. This article originally appeared on the ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY website and we thank them for allowing us to reprint it here.
Back in 2009, when David Gallaher and I first started collaborating on what would later become a series of graphic novels called The Only Living Boy, we envisioned our story in the vein of ‘I Am Legend,’ as the story of a young boy, alone in a big city, fighting zombies. We created a two-page proof of concept strip, brought it to San Diego Comic Con International, and circulated it around the internet. Not much came of it.
After letting it breathe for a few years, we revisited the idea and added in more of ourselves, letting the idea evolve. Rather than telling the story of a survivor in a grim, unrelenting zombie apocalypse, we focused on telling the story of an explorer discovering a wonderful and mysterious new world. As an added wrinkle, we stripped our new hero of his memory, removing any skills, knowledge, and cynicism he might have. As Erik Farrell, our 12 year old adventurer, discovered the world, he’d discover more about himself as well. It is a world filled with monsters, mad science, and mayhem.
Alone on patchwork planet, Erik is an alien in a world that has been moving on without him, who rightly or wrongly becomes an agent of change. Despite the challenges he faces, Erik isn’t prone to violence. As the parent of both a boy and a girl, that’s something I find really inspirational about the character. We live in a world of violence and conflict. It fills our newsfeeds and our entertainment. David and I wanted to create a character who had to negotiate his surroundings, think his way out of challenges, and forge new bonds across all walks of life. He stands up for what is right and what is just without jumping into battle at a moment’s notice.
Male characters in comics are often depicted as tough. They are muscular, one-dimensional characters whose fists speak for them. These portrayals in the media left me wondering why there were so few characters that were modeled after what it is like to be a ‘whole’ person. As jaded, cynical thinking made its way into characters like Superman — who would rather kill an enemy than look for a solution to a problem — what other heroes were out there for my son to admire?
Raising our children in Ithaca, my wife and I found ourselves involved in the Adventure Playground movement. In the early 1940s, an enlightened approach to play was developed in Lancashire, England. Traditional swings, slides, and see-saws were replaced by asymmetrical wooden structures, discarded buses, and abandoned train cars. These ‘junk playgrounds’ became a crucial factor in producing a more imaginative and exciting approach to children’s play.
One of the only Adventure Playgrounds in America — The Anarchy Zone — is figuratively in our own backyard. With giant ponds of mud to splash in, massive trees to climb on, and giant tires to swing on, it’s become a place that I’ve come to care about a lot. When my kids would come home covered in dirt and mud, I could tell that they had a great time. That sense of adventure and danger has helped my children understand their place in the natural world. They’ve learned self-reliance, independence, conflict resolution skills and gained a broader understanding of their place in the ecosystem.
We’re telling a similar, fictional, story in The Only Living Boy. Without skills or memories to call upon, Erik often relies on his wits and his developing code of ethical behavior. As he learns from the world around him, he is able to understand the cultures, traditions, and beliefs of others. He doesn’t let racial and societal prejudices influence his growth. He’s a thoughtful kid whose first response to adversity isn’t “punch first, ask questions later.”
It might seem naive to believe that a kind character, like Erik, could be a powerful one. Erik’s predecessors — Harry Potter and Captain America — show that kindness isn’t a weakness; it’s a virtue. I think it’s even more heroic when someone with no natural advantages still stands up and fights for what he believes in. Erik is that sort of character.
Erik may be the only living boy — but he is not alone. Joining him on his quest are Morgan and Thea, two female characters who are as vital to the story as Erik is. Strong, emotionally complex, and filed with their own share of insecurities, they compliment Erik, providing the resources and skills he lacks. Morgan, a valiant and arrogant mermaid warrior, has put herself in harm’s way to protect a tribe that doesn’t believe in her. Thea — the noble insect princess — lives in shame and fear of the monster she will one day become. They, like Erik, are trying to find their own place in the world.
And the world they inhabit — Chimerika — is an amalgam of thousands of alien worlds forged together into a single patchwork planet. Ruled by the Dreaded Lord Baalikar, the mysterious Doctor Once, and the Consortium, thousands of creatures have found themselves fighting for their very survival in this dangerous new landscape. This trinity of villains feels profoundly threatened by Erik and his friends. Each driven by their own agenda, they seek to stop him by any means necessary. As with our heroes, we’ve created a set of villains who will grow and develop over time. We can’t wait to share their backstories and their secret origins with our readers.
The Only Living Boy offers adventure, excitement, and inspiration unlike anything else being published today. We don’t shy away from pain, struggle and adversity. David and I are working together to create something for readers that will build psychological resilience, challenge their preconceptions, and encourage them to courageously follow their own paths. We want this generation of readers to be versatile, malleable and able to find strength in problem solving. We want our readers to go out into the world and challenge themselves — find new things, get hurt, make mistakes, pick themselves up and try again.
These are the lessons I teach my children… and the lessons David and I are teaching our characters. As Erik grows into the character I want my kids to admire, my children are growing into the adults other children will admire.
David Gallaher and Steve Ellis’ ongoing scifi webcomic The Only Living Boy follows Erik Farrell, a 12-year-old lost on a strange alien world after he runs away from home. Writing for io9, Gallaher reveals the personal tragedy that inspired Erik’s story—and how being diagnosed with epilepsy transformed the way he wrote comics.
My Winter Beard had gone from “sexy lumberjack” to “backwoods survivalist” in a manner of days. When I used to work a steady office job, my beard was like a giant sweater, it would protect my delicate face from the savage city winds and arctic temperatures. These days, I work from home and have no need for such robust facial follicle-ry. But since the Groundhog predicted an early Spring, I opted to go to the barbershop to rid myself of the beard before it ventured into “sea captain” territory.
The shop I go to is a very traditional, family-owned place that serves a glass of bourbon with every hot towel shave. I walk in, say my hellos, and take a seat. “Shave the beard,” I tell the guy before he even asks. I pause to take off my hat. “And shave everything up top too,” I tell him, pointing to my head. The barber stands silent for a minute. “This scar? How did you get it?”
I hate it.
What do I say about a scar that runs the entire width of my skull? Do I lie? Say something adventurous and clever? Parachute accident? CIA experimenting gone wrong? Do I say nothing? Try and ignore it? Casually, people have come up to me assuming it was a cancer wound.
“My brother has a scar like that, from a landmine,” he confesses.
“Skull surgery,” I relent as I let him take a straight razor to my face.
It wasn’t just a simple skull surgery. Doctors call it “craniosynostosis.” It’s a birth defect that left my head malformed. I had life-saving corrective surgery, but it left me with lifelong scars, developmental delays, and brain damage. It also left me with a seizure disorder—temporal lobe epilepsy—that colors and informs so many of the stories I tell for a living.
Before my epilepsy was diagnosed, I did my best to keep the symptoms secret from other people. My inattentiveness was blamed on daydreaming or ADHD. My nausea was blamed on a spastic colon or food allergies. I’d have to pack spare underwear in my book bag because I never knew when I would accidentally crap my pants or pee myself. To avoid the mocking and the name-calling, I’d do my best to try and cover things up. I was too ashamed to admit that I had no control over my body. I let the shame alienate me from forming any lasting friendships.
As I grew up, I learned how to better bluff my way through blackouts, accidents, or unexplained behavior. I’d stumble my way through schoolwork, get frustrated at my teachers, and get angry at myself for forgetting assignments or spacing out on a test. Administrators would threaten my parents with placing me in Special Ed classes or trying to get me place somewhere else entirely.
But, everybody has a tough time in high school, right? Puberty does strange things to all of us. I did my best to rationalize my inconsistent behavior, but never felt comfortable talking about how it made me feel on the inside.
As an undergraduate, I majored in neurology and education. I became fascinated by authors like Oliver Sacks, who helped put a face on neurological disorders with books like An Anthologist on Mars and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I took upper-level classes on biopsychology, psychopharmacology, behavior modification, and abnormal psychology. I learned a lot about how the brain worked and even got to cut a few of them open to study the effects of tardive dyskinesia. Classes in education lead me to teach Special Education classes to children with autism, childhood schizophrenia, and disintegrative psychosis. I spent five years teaching before deciding to follow another passion of mine—writing.
“Write what you know,” is the clichéd piece of advice first-time writers get. The truth was I never felt like I knew or understood myself. And I was certainly in no place to write about it. My stomach pains and cramps worsened. Doctors suspected Crohn’s Disease, ulcers, and food allergies. I had intestinal surgery to treat the suspected problem. I had hallucinations, visions, and impulse control problems that I’d attribute to having too much coffee. There’s this mythology that writers are supposed to be a little peculiar or eccentric, but it was all a little too much for me, but I kept on keeping on.
One night, after a date, I passed out. My head smashed up against the window of the Gramercy Dinner. I woke up several days later at NYU Medical Center. Doctors and nurses shaved my head, wired me up to a machine, plugged me into a bunch of monitors, strapped me to a bed, and placed me in the Epilepsy Ward, where I was monitored for over a week for abnormal brain activity. Because of HIPAA laws and hospital regulations, my family, my roommate, and my friends had no idea where I was or what had become of me. I was declared a missing person.
Inside my hospital room, I felt like a missing person. As the Manchurian Candidate played on public television, I found myself filled with delusions and crippling anxiety. What was happening to my body? What was happening to my mind?
When the nurses moved me from the Epilepsy Ward to the Cardiac Ward, I was able to reconnect with my family and friends. Thankfully, most of the wires and straps were gone, but the anxiety was still there. My experiences left me changed.
For the next two weeks, I wrote from my hospital bed. I scribbled down the overwhelming sense of isolation and paranoia I felt. I wrote about the uncertainty. I wrote about the horrible food. The rapid weight-loss. The silent nurses that would parade around my bed during twilight hours. And about the time I flatlined in my room. Those experiences became the foundation of BOX 13—the neo-noir thriller that Steve Ellis and I developed for comiXology.
I entered the hospital on August 1st, 2004; I was released 25 days later. I entered weighing 200 pounds. I left weighing 130 pounds. I came in wearing the clothes on my back, I left with a backpack full of narcotics and pharmaceuticals and a copy of Ender’s Game that was given to me as a gift. I was banned from swimming, video games, driving, alcohol, and coffee. I was given a diagnosis sheet that was 17 pages long. I would have felt broken if it wasn’t for one man, Oliver Sacks, who came to speak with me a few days before I was discharged. I don’t even remember what all we talked about, but he said something nice that stuck with me, “I think you’ll do great things.” Maybe he said that to every patient. Maybe I’m misremembering. All I know is that it made me smile.
Two weeks after I was discharged, I was back in the hospital. Two days after that I was in the hospital. Four days after that I was in the hospital. From August of 2004 to September of 2005, I spent a total 155 days in the hospital. When my epilepsy was at its worst, I was having up to nine seizures a day. I wasn’t expected to see my 30th birthday. Things got very bad for me.
My recovery didn’t happen overnight. It happened over the course of several years. Physical therapy helped with the pain management from the damage the seizures did to my body. Cognitive therapy helped improve my judgment and executive functions. Counseling helped me deal with the emotional challenges I would face trying to adapt to my condition.
The side-effect of multiple traumatic brain injuries was a loss of long-term memories, including nearly all of my childhood memories. While I could remember certain names and landmarks, I had difficulty recalling events surrounding those people and those places.
When it came to continuing my writing career, I found myself making more mistakes, typing slower, and often miscommunicating. I found it difficult to hold multiple ideas in my head at once. I became depressed and heartbroken at how my life had become so disrupted. I wrestled with tremendous physical, emotional, and mental setbacks, some comical… others not so much. It was hard to find any meaning or purpose in life.
Journaling my progress became the beacon to my recovery. I started capturing, through words, the moments when I was memory-less. Without the burden of memories, I found myself enjoying life a little more. My recovery stopped being a slog and became more like a video game, where I’d spend every day leveling up.
A month after a major hospital stint, I found myself well enough to rejoin the working world. I took a position at an advertising firm, where the day-to-day structure facilitated my recovery. As my health recovered, I found myself working hand-in-hand with the New York City Police Department. On my way from the NYPD focus group, I found myself wondering through the film set of I Am Legend. I found myself lost trying to piece together my memories of the story. Was it related to the Vincent Price movie or the Charlton Heston films? As I tried to make sense of my environment, Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” popped up on my iPod.
The song triggered something profound in me. I found myself lost in my imagination, in a world that was equal parts Jungle Book, TheIsland of Doctor Moreau, and Flash Gordon. A fantastical landscape littered with monsters, exotic locales, and esoteric alien races. And the hero? The Only Living Boy left in the world.
When thinking about Erik Farrell—the protagonist of the series—Steve Ellis and I went back and forth on his age. After a series of conversations, we settled on 12, which we felt would be the right age developmentally for many of the story challenges we had in store for our hero. Being a pre-teen is tough — you’re constantly filled with anxiety about growing up and feel torn between being mature and still being a kid. And when a child experiences something traumatic at this age? It can pull their whole world apart.
Getting deeper into The Only Living Boy we recognized the importance of having a villain, who was riddled with scars of his own. Doctor Once became that character—a medical monstrosity who transforms others into tormented monsters. He’s gnarly in appearance, and plays into our fear of doctors and the scars they leave behind.
When people ask me about my own scar, I try to not dwell. I try not to feel broken. I try not to feel like a monster. People don’t want to hear unpleasant things. So, I deflect, downplay, laugh or squirm my way out of talking about it when I can. I avoid talking about the depression, the frustration, and the anger I have over my own medical condition. When I don’t talk about my scar, these are the things I don’t talk about.
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