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.