Christie Shinn has as style all her own. After tackling her own personal monsters with her book of the same name, Christie is taking on an even darker challenge; the Emperor Caligula. FangirlNation caught up with her new project with writer James Kelly, Caligula Imperatore Insanum.
Christie: I think partnering with another writer gave me an interesting start. I decided at first I’d do it to exercise some historical muscle instead of some fantasy comic that’s out of my head. It gave me the opportunity to work with somebody else. I’m outside of my head. I can do my art with a person, for a person, not just for myself. It sort of putting the two minds together. In a way it’s testing myself to see how I can overcome. It sounds weird because there’s social anxiety. I think there’s a certain level of social anxiety that everyone has now, especially with technology. We haven’t yet adapted to how to amalgamate that fully into our lives. So, it’s okay that there’s this initial awkwardness about, well, you met someone on the internet let’s go and work on this. It could be catastrophic or it could be great. So far it’s been awesome.
FGN: How did you meet your writing partner?
Christie: We actually met on a Facebook group connecting comic book writers and artists. He had an advert up and he was talking about how he wanted to do Caligula. And I sat there and thought, well this is different than what I’ll ever do; than I’ve ever done before. I was familiar with the empire and the history behind it, and we’ve all watched that Penthouse Caligula movie in college, and I was like, “okay I’m going to go and try to push my boundaries here on this level.” I wanted to see what I could put out without avoiding the sex and violence and all this other stuff. I’m not going to say I would get into sex and violence just for that sake, but more to get over the squeamishness, rather than just shock value.
FGN: As you’ve mentioned, Caligula was into some pretty crazy stuff, including incest. The comic covers this. How did you approach this taboo subject with your illustrations and what inspirations did you draw from?
Christie: I channelled George R.R. Martin. That helped. Also, taking a couple of showers helped too. And knowing that I wasn’t drawing it out of my own personal desires, but rather “okay, here’s the character. He likes to have sex with his sister. This is not a normal thing. We are using this illustrate how he was very deviant.” But, then you kind of see why in the story how deviant he was. It’s not excusing any of his behaviors, because eventually he became extremely cruel. I mean he subjected Claudius to all sort of sh**. They touch upon it at the beginning. One of the soldiers remarks that [Caligula] threw a bucket of pee on [Claudius] just for laughs. He would torture his uncle no matter what.
I wouldn’t want to say there’s an excuse, but there’s a certain logic to how he became what he became. You actually find out that in a lot of Caligula’s backstory- there is a lot of betrayal, a lot of death. He suspects the Emperor killing off his mother and brothers in the worst way possible. I think they starve them to death. One of his sister, not Drusilla whom he had a relationship with,but it happened soon after Drusilla’s death. The only person who has actually really loved him. One of his sisters betrayed him and it’s really bad. He doesn’t suspect it. He says, “screw it I’m just not going to trust anybody anymore.”
He puts them through these little perverted tests. I know with Caesonia, his eventually wife, and we’ll get to that later, he actually holds a knife up to her throat and asks “do you love me. I mean if you love me you’ll say so or I’ll cut your throat.” That’s how he got to that level of paranoia; he’s been exposed to so much betrayal, so much death and destruction. Even one of his uncles, he got betrayed by his own wife. The only “normal” people were probably his mom and dad, and his dad was killed by poisoning. That probably changed his whole political look. Then you have his mom dying and she carries his ashes around like a good widow. There’s an issue of “oh she’s talking crap about Tiberius” and there’s all these people fanning the flames. This is going to be introduced later, but seeing the logic progression of this person, who was otherwise fairly normal, coming to these absolute weird conclusions of murder, incest and absolute cruelty and the amount of rage he has that warps him.
When I heard the thing like that like rage warps you, I never really knew until I experienced that kind of rage. It’s the kind of rage that comes from a victimized level. I’m not saying that you should stay there, it’s a very dark and negative place. Once you’ve experienced it, you can understand how people turn bad. You can understand people can be warped by how they see things. You wants to say just get over it, but the problem is they’ve been so traumatized that they can’t. I’m not saying no one can heal, but it’s difficult to pull yourself out of. It was like, I was never satisfied by betrayal in stories or the anger and rage, because to me it felt like it only scratched the surface. Once you’ve felt that visceral rage…there’s this one part where [Caligula] is with a fisherman and when you see that level or rage where it’s so uncontrollable that he lashes out at someone who has nothing to do with it. It’s literally a monster, a personal monster in you. It’s this evil gross thing that’s going to lash out at any provocation or imagined provocation. You never want to get to that level of rage.
In the comic I want to show how he goes to that level where even incest is okay to him. It’s like, that’s definitely not okay. The sister you have, or brother, you never think of them in that context in any normal family. It goes to show the extremes that the Julio-Claudian dynasty did. You had these great people of power, and then you had these other factions somewhere that were awful and gave birth to really terrible people. Not just Caligula but Nero. I think Livia, she’s a terrible person. That family could have been great had they been nurtured well, but there were just so many people that were so awful and so manipulative that they warped that family into having people like Caligula and Nero. It’s really pretty fascinating as a study of the human psyche.
Watching a lot of venomous snakes going at each other is helpful too.
FGN: Speaking of Personal Monsters, there’s a chance for you in Caligula to revisit some of your previous art styles. What prompted you to create a creature to haunt Caligula that has so many eyes?
Christie: I think eyes are the window to a person’s soul. I’m not saying that to be trite. I’ve noticed that distortions of features or lacks of certain features freaks you out. When I see that, I would try to override the scared part of me and ask why I was so freaked out by that. I picked out certain features. Sometimes I’d see things like no eyes, or sometimes big teeth but no nose and that would freak me out. It’s this blind biting thing. I think too many eyes, and eyes in wrong places unnerves people. Eyes are tender little things and you don’t want to destroy them. But when they’re all over and they’re looking at you, that can bother a person. I mean if someone isn’t look at you while they’re talking, or looking right at you, there’s a certain kind of attention. But, when everything is looking at you it’s just unnerving, like why are you staring at me. Why are you trying to look into me? It’s also abnormal. We’re used to two eyes and when anything deviates from that, like from a birth defect, like that cyclopean one where the head is really malformed, it freaks people out. It’s like this is not normal, I’m not relating to that person as normal. I think it unnerves us, and sometimes we have people that lose eyes to injury, or it’s gone and obliterated and that’s difficult for us because we’re used to looking at a set of eyes. People don’t want to admit it and say like, oh I accept that person. Accept that person, it’s fine, but it unnerves you on a certain level because its not the usual two eyes, nose, mouth. It doesn’t sit well with you on a certain level because it’s different. It’s not normal.
A lot of stuff I’ve gotten lately has this, and the one that annunciated it the best is the game Bloodborne. Bloodborne, From [Software] always designs these crazy creatures and I’m not sure where they get their inspiration, but there’s this one where one of the monsters is this pig. It looks like a big pig at the beginning. But, then as you progress, and this has a Cthulhu sort of overtone to it, it will eventually have all these eyes from the front to the back of the head. They’re in these gross clusters piled on each other. It’s like frog eggs, but they’re staring at you and there’s something that puts a shiver down your spine. There’s all these eyes like down his shoulders and it makes it not recognizable as a pig head so much. It’s an awful noisy screaming thing. There’s also another beast they released in the DLC. He’s like this half horse thing. There’s one section of this growth that comes out and it has these eyes and it spits. Its like these eyes are lining it. You’re thinking “oh god that’s gotta hurt.” I mean on top of eyes being in a place where they shouldn’t it. I think the reason I made all these eyes on this crab and all this other stuff, I just wanted to make it as profane as possible.
I just thought of a crab because it’s this scrambling little thing. I don’t think anyone could really love a crab. I mean a hermit crab, maybe, because it’s in a house and “oh thats kind of cute,” but a big crustacean. You don’t want to pick it up because those things hurt you. They have these beady little eyes and they have this mouth. When I was a kid, we used to catch crabs. We caught a bunch of them and put them in a bucket. What was weird, one scene actually reminds me of this. You know how they say crabs are trying to pull you in, like will pull one back in if another one is trying to crawl out? We ended up using that as a metaphor for stopping around people trying to drag you down or sabotage you. I remember one of the crabs actually wedged its claw into another’s mouth and killed him. He crushed his brain. I just looked at that like a kid. I mean, a creature so scrambling so single minded, just existing and then it does that to another of its own kind. How, wow. It’s why I drew Tiberius as a crab because they reminded me so singularly of when I was a kid and they tried to kill each other. They didn’t care. It wasn’t they, I want to kill you in my way. It was more I’m just blindly scrambling about and I don’t care who I hurt. That reminded me of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. They would do that to each other. They would set up each other, they’d try to kill each other out right. You had Lidia who actually tried to marry off her sons. She forced Tiberius to divorce his wife, whom he loved very much, to marry her husband’s daughter so he could keep her in line. It was like “I don’t care how your life is. I’m going to make it what I want.” It’s this weird kind of ultimate self-centeredness. You’re not even aware of what you do it. You just do it because you want to. I think that just stuck in my head as a kid, so I drew Tiberius as this horrible crab spider. Crabs don’t have cuddly appendages. They have claws that pinch and legs that are spiny at the ends. They hurt if you can’t pick them up right. If you notice in that image, he’s stabbed into all of his other relatives and killed them all off.
Later you see how Tiberius’ life has been. He’s seen so many betrayals and had so many assassination attempts he doesn’t give a sh** anymore. His attitude is “I could be decent but why.”
FGN: You seem to have a really good background in the history. How did you study the Julio-Claudian empire?
Christie: I actually like it a lot. I’ve been fascinated with Cleopatra. She was a very interesting ruler. And though she never married into that family, she’s always been synonymous with Julius Caeser and Mark Anthony. Then there was that whole thing with Octavius, later called Augustin. Actually one of the things I really enjoyed was Margaret Georges’s Memoirs of Cleopatra. That actually showed it from her perspective; why she did what she did. People made her out to be this whore and a slut, but she honestly was too busy. She only chose men she felt were right for her. Yeah, she married her brother and all this other stuff, but she was going through the motions to be there. If you look at the whole Ptolemy dynasty, they really screwed each other up. They were just as bad as the Julio-Claudians. So, I guess like attracts like. Even though she was forced to marry her brother because it was tradtion, it was nothing she wanted to do. In Egyptian culture in that era, the Pharohs married their sister because you were supposed to imitate Isis and Osiris. You were supposed imitate the gods. Unfortunately, we have this thing called genetics and it doesn’t work out too well.
The Julio-Claudian dynasty with Tiberius and his half-sister Julius, that’s pretty icky too Even though they aren’t related and Augusust and Julian never have children together, it’s kind of gross to do that to keep the peace. She made her son marry, well I’m sure Augustus had his hand in it too as they were a power couple, to marry his daughter to keep her in line. [The daughter] had this habit of going out and screwing everything and having many lovers and they wanted to keep her in line. The Ptolemys and the Julio-Claudians aren’t that different in treachery, in killing each other off and all sorts of stuff. I got introduced to it by that. I saw how that whole dynasty happened. I’ve always been a history buff.
FGN: There is a ton of history. Do you know how many issues you and writer James Kelly have planned?
Christie: I don’t know off the top of my head. I know it’s going to be long and extensive. We were looking at 300 pages, but at this point…I mean, it has a conclusion. It’s going to come to conclusion, it just has an extreme amount of detail. We understand that. In a comic book format, what’s great is a picture speaks a thousand words. However, we have to keep track of names. They liked using their names over again like Agrippinilla and Agripinna. You kind of tend to lose track. We’ve been trying to make it easier to comprehend on this matter.
We have this huge cast of characters, but the thing is we also have to have a significant reason why when we introduce them. For example when we introduce Castor. Castor was Tiberius’s son that was later murdered. He’s not in there for a very long period of time, but you want to understand how these people affected their families. Now if we just introduced him and it was a passing thing, how are you going to understand Tiberus’ grief over his son that was murdered. He does talk about that. On that, you have to understand why it made him so bitter to the point of “I just don’t care about people anymore.”
I think in a lot of literature and a lot of stories, people don’t want to take the time and gloss over it. For me, I get very critical when people just go “he had a son. He died.” It’s like well, yeah, so we understand the familiar relationships but people get a little lazy. I think you need to introduce them. Now you don’t need to do it for eons and eons and eons, but do certain things and give certain traits that actually makes you like the person. Then on the way, you’re like “oh man that’s awful.” Tiberius and that son did not have the best of relationships. It was difficult. I can relate to that in my life. It’s like you love that person very much, that family member, or anyone close to you; But, you just can’t get along or see eye to eye or there’s always something that keeps it from being harmonious. And that is something we introduce.
It’s interesting because I want to make the character more human. I want to make them appalling, because they are, but I want to make them more human. When a person does something to another I want them wonder “why would they do that to me.” I want them to feel it. I’ve read some books where they just go “well, yes he does this,” but I’m not attached. If you do it in a way I’m attached and makes me understand why they turned out that way, it makes me want to have a real story about it, rather than it’s a bunch of history and we’ll throw a bunch of people in and they’ll die or whatever.
FGN: Where can our readers get their copy of Caligula Imperatore Insanum?
Christie: We are planning to make it public soon, but we are looking to put it online. We want to get it more compiled first, but it will definitely be on Createspace and probably amazon. We will have it at conventions. I will be at Wondercon and Comiccon. I will be at Expo 2016 at Frank and Sons Outbreak. It will have copies of variant art.