Chris Schweizer might be best known for his Eisner-nominated historical adventure series The Crogan Adventures, but it’s his middle grade horror series, The Creeps, that draws on the cartoonist’s most terrifying experience: his time as a sixth-grade social studies teacher. Starring four middle school misfits who spend their time dealing with a town full of monsters and mayhem that no one else seems to acknowledge, The Creeps features a mix of whimsy and horror—think of a junior high Middleman or Night Vale light.
The second installment of the Creeps’ adventures, The Trolls Will Feast!, came out March 8th from Harry N. Abrams. It’s full of group projects, exploding deodorant, social media-savvy trolls, and the power of friendship.
NFNT Interviewer (KatieRose McEneely): Can you tell me a little about your background? What led you to create a story with such a distinct mix of humor and horror?
Chris Schweizer: I’ve been doing predominantly historical adventure and historical fiction comics since I started. Horror is a genre that has always been of interest to me, but I tend to gravitate to designing horror for a kid audience.
There’s a famous monster named after my hometown, and I never heard of it until well after I moved out—no one ever spoke of it because it was so embarrassing. The idea that there would be a town where weird stuff happened and everyone felt like it was destroying property values struck me as something weird and worth exploring.
NFNT: How do you build a Creeps adventure?
CS: Usually what will happen is I’ll think of what kind of monster I want to tackle. And how can I change that to make it different from the way you’ve seen that monster before, and is there a way to make it modern. With the trolls, they’re playing off the internet trolls idea—you can create stress by badgering people online. How could that translate to being beneficial to a monster?
NFNT: Does Pumpkins County Middle School resemble your own middle school experience?
CS: It does, both as a student and as a teacher. I taught sixth grade social studies at the same middle school I attended as a kid. It enabled me to see this school through the lens of a student and a teacher. The main classroom that the Creeps are in is based very heavily upon mine.
NFNT: The second Creeps adventure has them chasing (and being chased) by trolls outside of school. What were some challenges that came with the change in setting?
CS: The biggest was the amount of time I had to spend coloring, because most of the story took place outside and in daylight. I had to stick to local colors, literal colors. It expanded the environment of Pumpkins County more than I might have.
NFNT: Do you have a favorite Creep?
CS: The one that is least like me is Rosario, and she is also my favorite. I’ve never had much concern for embarrassment, but that’s pretty much her key feature. Her loyalty and her concern for her friends forces her to confront that on a regular basis. There’s a nobility there that I wish I possessed.
NFNT: How many designs did you go though for the Creeps?
CS: The one that changed the most was Mitchell. He’s kind of a goth-y kid, and I drew him the way that goth-y kids looked when I was in high school. Subsequent to the realization that I was defaulting to what people were wearing when I was younger, the kids sort of were stripped of any period identifiers. I just started treating them in the way that Wes Anderson might treat costume design, a cartooniness that speaks more to character than to any part of fashion.
NFNT: Like Tom Rigby’s sweater frock?
CS: That was originally the joke! What kind of outfit would you have been mortified that you wore when you were younger? I do that a lot: I’ll make a bit of dialog that’s meant as a joke and then it later becomes a plot point. In the second book, Jarvis mentions things that were taken from his utility belt; I put “pants ejector” because it sounded funny, and ended up using it as a plot device twice over the remainder of the book.
NFNT: What should librarians know about this series?
CS: I think it’s good for kids who are excited to read scary stories but may not want to take on stuff that’s too graphic. Here you get horror, but it’s presented in the context of comedy, and hopefully that makes it more digestible for a wider age range.
NFNT: I can definitely see those layers in there, like in the first volume when the kids are getting their bodies swapped with the Frankenfrogs. Carol’s the only person who’s horrified by it; everyone else is like, oh, it’s fine.
CS: The Creeps are the characters who make it horror. I can’t remember who said this, but there was an academic argument that horror as a genre means that what’s happening was seen by the characters as being wrong naturally, that there was something inherently problematic about something. In science fiction and fantasy, there’s an acceptance of weird things happening. Carol is the one who recognizes that things aren’t as they should be.
NFNT: Who’s the primary antagonist in this series? I get the sense it’s Madison [a Creeps classmate], not the monsters.
CS: Madison Gruss is their primary foil. She’s been an interesting character to tackle as well. She’s based on a kid I knew who was sort of the queen bee of one of the classes that I taught, and was absolutely brilliant and very biting and genuinely motivated by her morality. I like the idea of those qualities permitting one to be villainous. She can dislike the Creeps because they are upsetting the status quo, she can have a problem with her teacher because she feels the assignment conflicts with her moral center. It’s not her motives that make her problematic, but the way she goes about trying to see them enacted. She lacks empathy, and that puts her in conflict with these outsider kids.
I’m guessing as the series progresses, there will be more events where she teams up with the Creeps. I think as adults we often forget that kids are forced to coexist and it doesn’t change the social order. You can work towards a common goal and you can still hate each other.
NFNT: What’s your favorite part of volume two?
CS: Rosario’s climax was a lot of fun for me to tackle. I was making it up as I went along, so I was getting to see her make these tough decisions and it was kind of a roller coaster. The most fun thing to draw was, of course, the explosion propelling a wheelchair with four kids on it through the air.
NFNT: I love how sweet the Creeps are with each other—they’re very supportive, which is nice to see when they’re being chased by monsters.
CS: I had a couple of instances where the kids were kind of sarcastic with each other, but I thought, if they are as disenfranchised as the plot sets them out to be, they need to be each other’s advocates. I made a real effort to make sure that they weren’t biting to one another—that’s something that in middle school is really easy to do, to make fun of each other. Their situation would be too dire if they were to allow those baser instincts to come to the surface.
NFNT: Yeah, I saw that in Mitchell’s relationship with his older brother.
CS: In my outline he was a jerk, but as soon as I started writing him, he didn’t come out that way. I never know until the character starts talking whether they’re going to be patient or impatient, kind or unkind. Mitchell’s brother became a guy with well-meaning bad advice, the sort of advice you would get from a 16 or 17-year-old.
NFNT: Does he lose his driving privileges, or are the Creeps the only ones who have to deal with the monster fallout?
CS: He probably lost them. I am really curious to examine the consequences of things that happen in a town where if you accept the consequences, the whole system would fall apart. The villain in the first book getting a pass almost has to be the way that things usually are, because if there’s a steady call for justice or accountability every time something happens in this town, nothing would ever get done. The Creeps are the only ones who really have to deal with consequences.
The Creeps: Book 1: Night of the Frankenfrogs
Harry N. Abrams, 2015
The Creeps: Book 2: The Trolls Will Feast!
Harry N. Abrams, 2016