The beauty of space, fantastical settings, mysterious heroes, and some frightening creatures await in Mark Wheatley and G.D. Falksen’s illustrated book, Doctor Cthulittle. Since readers still have to wait until August to get a copy, Scoop caught up with Wheatley to get more details on the project.
What started as an impromptu exercise in clever rapport developed into an imaginative space adventure with highly detailed artwork. Here, Wheatley recounts the story’s roots, it’s inspirations, and shares how he and Falksen achieved their storytelling goals.
Scoop: Let’s start with a summary of the story from your perspective.
Mark Wheatley (MW): The story is an old fashioned space opera, but it has overtones of horror and humor. And, of course, it’s inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and Hugh Lofting.
Scoop: How did this idea come about?
MW: About six years ago after a fun Baltimore Comic-Con, a bunch of us at Insight Studios went out to dinner along with some of our friends. One of those folks was Carla Speed McNeil and she and I got into kind of a dueling pun situation [laughs]. We were all cracking each other up with crazy mashup ideas and I came up with Doctor Cthulittle and it had, pretty much, the entire table roaring with laughter. I just started feeding the idea, coming up with the characters and the plot on the spot. Everybody loved it so much that I turned to Carla and said, “Sounds like something I should do.” And she said, “Absolutely!”
So, ever since then I’ve been fiddling around with it, trying to come up with something. About a year and a half later after I’d done, like, three different cover ideas for it, I realized I probably wasn’t the perfect writer for the story because, as much as I’ve enjoyed reading H.P. Lovecraft material, I wasn’t completely immersed in it. It wasn’t like a defining thing for me. And, of course, I hadn’t read any Hugh Lofting at that point. So, I reached out to a friend of mine who I knew was into both – G.D. Falksen. He is a well respected author in the fantasy field, he had the bestselling Transatlantic Conspiracy out last year, from Soho Press and Scholastic. I thought he’d be perfect to bring onboard. I essentially handed him the idea of Doctor Cthulittle and shortly after that he came back to me with a fully fleshed out plot and he had also introduced the characters of Zenobia Bishop and Farnsworth, the ghoulish manservant.
Scoop: With a name like Doctor Cthulittle, it brings to mind Cthulhu, Doctor Who, and Doctor Dolittle. Is he an amalgamation of those?
MW: It’s interesting, I’ve had a lot of people compare this to Doctor Who and I just get a blind spot when I create a character. To me he’s just the character and I don’t compare him to anything else. But, at the time I was working on Doctor Who comics, and had kind of gotten immersed in Doctor Who stuff. Once somebody pointed it out to me it was pretty obvious that there was a similarity. There’s a personality to the Doctor Who series that has a light hearted adventure with serious emotional attachments and that is exactly the flavor we were aiming for with Doctor Cthulittle. I’m not sure if I do that subconsciously, that association, but we did kind of end up in the same territory.
Scoop: You mentioned that Falksen came up with Zenobia and Farnsworth. How did he develop those two characters?
MW: He pretty much came back to me in early conversations and said that he wanted to have an aviatrix as the pilot for the trans-dimensional Bathysphere. I had asked him to use the trans-dimensional Bathysphere and he said that we’d need a pilot so we should have an aviatrix. He liked the old, kind of scrappy characters that we would see, maybe in the early 1920s or ’30s where women at that time were going through an early kind of feminist revolution in media where we would get people like Kate Hepburn. So, he came up with the Boston background for her and I really liked it a lot.
He introduced Farnsworth completely, and in fact, art directed me on it when I originally came back with a version of him. He’s the one that suggested that we use a dog as our model to create the ghoul. I’m not sure if he really was thinking in terms of creating a family unit or something, visually, but in a way, I guess we did. We have the man, the woman, and the dog. [laughs].
Scoop: [Laughs] I did pick up what you said about Zenobia being scrappy. I guess I had a little bit of Amelia Earhart in my head when I was reading.
MW: Exactly, yes!
Scoop: With Farnsworth – it’s a ghoul, you don’t think of dog, you think of a zombie-ish ghost.
MW: Which is where I originally went. [laughs]
Scoop: It makes the character cool because it makes me as a reader question more of who he is, what he’s capable of, who he really is – is he part dog or is that just the manifestation of him as a ghoul. I thought that was interesting.
MW: I like both characters because they did the same thing for me – they made me think about who they were. I like landing on some place outside the target because it forces the reader to fill in some of the gaps in their own imagination and think about it. If you can leave a book and like characters and still have a lot of curiosity about who they are, I think you’ve succeeded and done something good.
Scoop: What did you and Falksen do to set this apart from other space travel stories?
MW: Well, I call it a space opera, it’s kind of an interdimensional space opera because they travel throughout space and time – and all the colors of space. It’s a metaphysical space opera. There you go, a metaphysical space opera because we’re dealing with the consciousnesses that rule the universe. We have to confront the elder gods and we are pretty much putting this into the mythology that H.P. Lovecraft created.
Scoop: Doctor Cthulittle breaks away from typical graphic novel structure taking on more of a storybook style. Why did you choose to tell the story in this way?
MW: I love illustration and I love illustrated books. Years ago I fell in love with a book called Dinotopia, that James Gurney created. The reason I liked it so much is that it told a visual story but at the same time it allowed the reader’s imagination to do a lot of the work. Here we are again with that same sort of concept. I’m a fan of the French Impressionists and one of the reasons I like Impressionism is that you can look at the picture and see the place and people and immediately understand what you’re looking at. The brushstrokes, there’s no mixing of color, generally the mixing is done in the mind of the viewer. From a writer’s standpoint, I like it when we give the reader the room for their own imagination to illustrate the book as much as I did. By doing individual illustrations for the book, but not illustrating every single action that’s described in the text, hopefully it involves the reader more and gives them some participation in the creation of the story.
Scoop: It’s such a big story with space adventure, some giant creatures, and alien objects. Did you have a clear vision from the start on how to depict everything or was there some trial and error?
MW: I wouldn’t say trial and error, I think we were always aiming for what we ended up with. My trial and error was before I brought Falksen onboard because I was still trying to define what it was going to be, in my mind. Early on I was trying to make it more of a full blend between a Doctor Dolittle Hugh Lofting source and the H.P. Lovecraft material, and I guess at that point it was trial and error. It soon became obvious to me that the real meat of the story was going to be something set in a fantasy universe, and that was already sitting there for us because of what Lovecraft developed. Except for the basic concept that Doctor Cthulittle is able to talk to the elder gods, we really didn’t do a whole lot with what Hugh Lofting developed for the character of Doctor Dolittle. I think we stayed on track, pretty much from the point that we got going.
I did a lot of rereading of Lovecraft while I was working on the book to keep the flavor and understand the choices he was making as he was creating his stories and try to stay within that same ballpark. Ultimately, though, it’s what my imagination comes up with. I’m like the project producer, so Geoff was very understanding in allowing me to make my own creative choices from what he had written. In a way he wrote it in such a way that it was left wide open for me to fill in the visual gaps. We originally thought the book would run about 48 pages, and when I got the text from Geoff, he had written a beautiful piece and as I was laying it out, I began to realize that to create the epic quality we were going for we needed to give more space to the story. In that sense, it was a little bit of allow the story to grow on its own until it got up to the 64-page total length.
Scoop: There are pages where you see the Bathysphere flying by a planet where it looks so grand and exciting. Then you have more intimate panels that are up close with the characters. How did you make the choices to create the images as they are?
MW: I really was going for an epic scope with those setting pieces. Those are, really, the two major concerns I had while illustrating the book, was to create a sense of epic majesty, a sense of wonder, and also at the same time stay focused on the characters. I really wanted us to get to know these folks and share in their adventure. Those were my two primary goals, visually.
We recently announced that we’re going to have a panel at [Comic-Con International: San Diego] about this and we’re going to include a number of other folks who’ve done similar books over the past year or two. This includes Mark Schultz and his Storms at Sea book and Armand Baltazar who did Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic. Both of those books also incorporate pictures in text in slightly different ways. We’re going to be discussing what the difference is between doing something as a graphic novel and doing it as a fully illustrated book.
I’ve been thinking that, probably, one of the core differences between those two things is that when I’m illustrating a graphic novel, it’s really important for me that I show the story – don’t tell the story in terms of words, you don’t want it to be like an illustrated radio program where everything is spelled out for you. You want it to visually tell the story. Everything that’s important for the reader to understand, they really should get by being able to just see the pictures and reading the dialogue in the captions should enrich that experience. But, it has to be grounded in what you’ve drawn. When I’m doing an illustrated book like this, it’s almost the inverse that is true. I feel that it is vitally important that I not illustrate those important visual moments. Because if you flip through the book and see those, you’ve ruined the book for you. It’s too obvious, it’s too much in your face, so it’s important for me to setup the scenes, create the characters visually, create the settings visually, and then allow the reader to illustrate the most important moments in their mind using the props and the settings that I created. I was a little surprised when I thought about it myself, but it really is almost an exact opposite of goals. [laughs]
Scoop: My interpretation of the art is that it has such a dreamlike quality that romanticizes the journey. What was the tone you were going for with this book?
MW: Well, I could only hope to try to evoke those kinds of responses. As the creator, I immerse myself into the moments that I’m illustrating and I’m experiencing them in a different way than, probably, anyone whoever views my artwork does. So, I can only hope that I can trigger that kind of response in a viewer.
Scoop: You mentioned that the idea came about after Baltimore Comic-Con a few years ago, how long have you been working on this project?
MW: Well, six years ago is when we did that dinner. Over crab cakes – there were crustaceans involved! [laughs] Six years ago and then, I think it was three years ago, that Geoff and I thought we were going to be plunging in and getting the book done. We made a major announcement about the book at Awesome Con that year. We had a panel and it got great reception and news services picked up on it and announced that we were working on the book. Then Geoff got a major deal writing a book that I told you about, The Transatlantic Conspiracy, and that was very well received. That took him out of play for a year and a half. Immediately they wanted him to do a sequel, so we had to squeeze the writing of the book in between the sequel. I also ended up working on several TV series.
Then this past year when we finally said, we’re committing ourselves to get this book out this year, we set the date to do the Kickstarter in the fall. Then immediately I got offered a major book to illustrate for the Edgar Rice Burroughs company where I ended up creating each illustration for that. I got a comic book that I had to pencil because my longtime studio partner, Mark Hempel, was not able to do it and I had to fill in. There were comic book covers that were suddenly coming in the door, and then I ended up illustrating three other books this year. For a time period in our history where illustrated books are not that common a thing, I have had a completely full year of illustrating books on top of trying to get Doctor Cthulittle done, so it’s been a lot of paintings this year. [laughs] I’m sorry, I think I lost the thread of where I was going with that because I was overwhelmed with all the work I’ve done. What was your original question? [laughs]
Scoop: [laughs] My initial question was how long have you been working on the book?
MW: We had semi-complete text for the book coming into it in the fall this past year and I had about a third of the artwork done. Since that point I finished it off and Geoff and I refined the text and that was it. It’s been a very, very busy year. I don’t think we cheated anything in terms of the time it needed, but there were a lot of weeks there where I could’ve used a little more sleep.
And there’s an advantage to doing something like that too because there’s an intensity that comes out of being completely immersed in something for essentially four months of my life this past year was nothing but every day I got up and painted some aspect of the life of Doctor Cthulittle and his companions. When I was done I went back and repainted the cover, and repainted several of the early spreads in the book and touched up a few things here and there. I’d say most of the work was done in the past 12 months, but there were 6 years total of work that went into getting to that point.
Scoop: I’m sure it’s exciting and a relief that it’s done.
MW: Oh, it’s exciting and we’re already talking about a second book.
Scoop: That’s actually my next question, will we see more adventures of Doctor Cthulittle, Zenobia, and Farnsworth?
MW: Yeah, I hope so. I really hope so. We’ve had interest in some mainstream publishers, in picking up our book and making a mass marketed edition, so we’ll see if that comes to pass and if it does, then absolutely, we’ll be moving forward with other adventures.
My manager in Hollywood has ‒ ever since I talked to him about the original idea, probably four or five years ago – he’s been after me to get the book out. He’s the first person to point this out, he keeps calling it the American Doctor Who and he keeps saying that he can make a TV series out of it pretty quick. It’ll be interesting to see if he can follow up on that. He’s had some success, he is one of the producers of The Walking Dead TV show and Straight Outta Compton and a lot of really successful, popular media franchises these days.
Scoop: I thought about that too. There are great stories that are self-contained and I think some TV shows get too specific with their premise and can’t sustain the momentum beyond 12 episodes because they answered the question or solved the problem. But with Doctor Cthulittle there’s endless adventures he could take to protect time and space that could entertain people for years.
MW: Why thank you! [laughs] It actually would be something I’d enjoy seeing too. I’m also very intrigued by the characters and the second story that we’re talking about will probably grow more out of the relationships between these folks.
Scoop: What else are you working on right now?
MW: I just finished illustrating another book called Wild Stars 3: Time Warmageddon. It’s written by Michael Tierney and he’s been writing these for a long time. They started out as a series of comics back in the 1980s then recently made the transition to novels. The first novel is running as a Kickstarter right now. That’s the one I illustrated. There’ll be collections of hardbacks, I think, later in the year. That’s what I just did. I’m focused on getting ready for San Diego and that takes a lot of work getting the booth and stuff together, so I’m kind of blanking on other work. That’s how I kind of survive, my brain edits out all the other obligations I have. When people ask me these questions I hang up the phone and later I think, oh yeah, I’m doing that, and I’m doing this, and I’m doing that. Right now, that’s enough.
A prerelease review of Doctor Cthulittle is also available in Scoop.