Night at the Belfry by Xavier Saxon is the type of debut graphic novel that immediately gets your attention for its artwork, themes, and story telling techniques.
Night at the Belfry (a ComiXology Originals release) is a poignant story about aging, drastic changes, and forgotten and undiscovered friendships at strangest moments. Our exclusive interview with Saxon reveals much about his approach to the story, influences, and the challenges of making your first graphic novel.
You have stated that the seed of Night at the Belfry was an “idea of a boxing match in a church belltower”. Can you explain where this image/idea originated?
Xavier Saxon: It’s just one of those ideas you get when you’re walking around, kind of daydreaming. I remember I was walking the exact path that James jogs at the beginning of the book, but in the other direction. I got a nice view of the bell tower and…I don’t know. It wasn’t like I saw the image and was immediately like “That’s it! That’s my next comic idea!” I just sort of thought “Huh, that’s kind of cool.” I’m not the kind of person who gets ideas for stories all the time, so when I think of something interesting I guess it sticks out more. At the time I was also reading the novel Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, and there are a couple action scenes in that book that take place in bell towers. Erikson specifically uses the word “Belfry” quite a bit and I really liked that word, so I was probably just looking for an excuse to use it.
How did the story develop from that point?
Saxon: At that point I just started drawing. Another book I had read a bit before I started was Jeff Lemire’s Lost Dogs, and in the introduction for that book Lemire talks about how he started drawing the book as a 24-hour-comic challenge. I was inspired to try making a comic with the same level of improvisation and speed and I think I drew eight pages in three days, the opening scene on the train, but I ended up redrawing all those pages for the final book.
After the book got accepted for publication, I decided that I’m not really cut out for that kind of cartooning and decided to write an actual script. With massive help from Allison O’Toole, who edited the book, I managed to trim away a lot of needless material and we got the story down to something that actually had some sort of arc and structure.
How did you envision your central character before you began the graphic novel, and where James ended up?
Saxon: Similarly to how I came up with the whole belfry-boxing-match thing, James was just a character design that I liked, I wanted him to look like the kind of guy I see on the metro all the time. I feel like I’ve seen his exact outfit on a lot of people over the years; Sorel boots, toque, the coat with the weird button at the collar. There also might be a bit of Frank Gallagher in there too. Like any character that starts as just a look, he ended up with more depth than I thought he would. I think I did a decent job of making him seem like a believable person.
As someone who is drawn more to fantastical stories, how do you work elements of those genres into a more realistic one?
Saxon: That’s a really good question, but I’m not actually sure how much of that preference is visible in this book. I guess mostly in concept, the idea of a fight in a bell tower really sounds like something you’re more likely to find in a fantasy setting (like Gardens of the Moon) than a real-world one. It’s interesting to figure out the logistics of something like that when your setting is more grounded.
In a fantasy book you, could just say, well the characters are trained assassins or something so they just hop up to the roof in a really cool way that would never work in real life. But when your characters are all senior citizens, well, they would need a ladder at least. And suddenly I’m looking up different kinds of ladders to find one that’s tall enough to reach a church roof but can also collapse down into something that can be carried around by my characters.
Why is boxing so essential to James in terms of his younger days and reclaiming them?
Saxon: Boxing is just very fitting as a representation of the kind of person he wants to be, or rather the kind of person he already sees himself as. One of the things that frustrates him so much is the toll aging is taking on his body. Even though he’s in pretty good shape already for a 73-year-old, he’s becoming aware that he can’t necessarily protect himself in the way he always could. Boxing is also useful when it comes to showing James’ misdirected efforts to remedy his frustration; he’s essentially trying to punch his way through problems that go much deeper than his physical fitness, and in doing so is only making things worse for himself.
How did you approach the graphic novel in terms of your visual patterns/structure in order to serve the story?
Saxon: I wanted to keep things like panel layouts and compositions pretty simple. This is still the first comic story that I ever finished, so I didn’t really want to risk making the action difficult to follow. But I also think that simplicity suits the story pretty well, a lot of the book is made up of these quiet moments, and having every panel surrounded by gutters rather than overlapping with each other gives the images a nice space. I do like overlapping panels too, though. They can really immerse you into a story since you don’t have the gutters as these clear breaks between the images. So I’ll probably use them more in future projects.
Biggest challenge/triumph in the process of creating your first graphic novel?
Saxon: The biggest challenge was learning to treat comics like a job, especially when you can do most of it lying on a couch. I still have trouble with this even after completing the book because there’s no manager or supervisor watching you all the time and making sure you’re being productive, so you can easily waste entire work days with seemingly little consequence (until you have to make up for lost time later). I’ve also found myself missing jobs I had with more structure, since I could just go to work for however many hours, and then leave it all behind and come home. Now I’m stuck with comics-brain 24 hours a day and it always feels like I’m never doing enough, whether I am or not (I’m not).
The biggest triumph was just finishing it, the whole project feels like such a mess just up until the last moment before you hand it in. And then suddenly you have one pdf with the whole book all together and not hundreds of files spread across multiple devices. And when you look at the final thing you can’t really see all the panels that I’ve changed or scenes I’ve removed or dialogue I’ve rewritten. It all just feels so cohesive. That’s pretty satisfying.
Night at the Belfry is a Comixology Originals title and is available at no additional cost for members of Amazon Prime, Kindle Unlimited, and Comixology Unlimited, and for purchase at amazon.com/comixology. Stay tuned to Conskipper for information about a physical release as well.