Under the Surface with Zach Worton

The release of Zach Worton’s The Curse of Charley Butters is just one month away! For the uninitiated, this is the story of a man named Travis, who discovers a stack of old journals in an abandoned cabin. The journals contain the daily writings of Charley Butters, an artist who decided to withdraw from society after experiencing some success. This collection follows Travis as he becomes so obsessed with the life of Charley Butters that his own life starts slipping away.

In this installment of “Under the Surface,” we talk with artist Zach Worton about Charley Butters, record stores, and mental illness.
How long have you been working on Charley Butters? What inspired you to start the project?

Well, I started the first Charley Butters back when I was living in Montreal…’09 maybe. I got about 20 pages in, then abandoned it for about 2 or 2.5 years. When I picked it back up again, I had what would be the first chapter all mapped out in my head.

Initially, I wanted to do a book on the mysterious disappearance of the Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson, and it morphed into Charley Butters when I gave up on the Thomson project. I just didn’t see any humour in the story. I wanted to do something funnier/more absurd after The Klondike, and I wasn’t entirely happy with how that book turned out.

Still in Montreal, I had watched a bunch of black metal videos online, and they are so ridiculous that I couldn’t help using that as the comedic element to open the first book in the collection.

In the comic, Travis becomes increasingly obsessed with the story of Charley Butters. Has your imagination ever been captured by someone you’ve encountered or read about in real life? If so, who was it?

As far as Travis becoming obsessed with Butters’ disappearance, what interested me was more the total lack of direction in his life, and just being lost at an age where people expect you to have it together, mainly because it’s something I’ve always dealt with. Being in your mid-thirties, and not having a family, career, etc. freaks people out (not me, but it’s had a detrimental effect on all of my past long-term relationships with women)! So… the obsession is more with finding a direction in his life, and not being able to handle that.

What would you do if you found a stack of journals in an abandoned cabin? 

I’d probably give them to an archive, and try and get people interested in who the person was. The way Travis handled it seems like too much work.

The Charley Butters collection spends a lot of time looking at different types of relationships and how well they hold up under the stress of mental illness, including alcoholism. What were the challenges involved in writing about such emotionally charged issues? 

The challenge was really with keeping it realistic. I’ve always had alcoholics in my life, and there was even a time when I was on the verge of becoming one. That said, I never felt like I needed to pull punches, or even keep it totally serious. I find that kind of boring. I’ve seen the shittiness that comes with alcoholics. I’ve seen, and felt, the depression, so I wanted to show it. What Travis goes through wasn’t pretty, and it shouldn’t be portrayed any other way. Peter Bagge (of HATE! comics) may be the only cartoonist (that I’ve read) that’s handled something like alcoholism so perfectly.

As for Charley’s mental illness, I wanted to keep it so ambiguous that you were never really sure what was afflicting him. I didn’t want to show Charley as a character suffering from a specific malady per se, because the diaries were the only source of knowing who he was, and even he didn’t know what was happening to him. Shit, that may be a total cop-out, but I feel that handling it that way gave me more freedom to explore how Travis took in all that information, and inevitably, let it take him over. I mean, we only follow Travis through the whole story, because this is his story.

Is the record store in Charley Butters inspired by an actual store? If so which one?

Yes! The record store, and the owner Dave Kuzenko, are based on the old X-Ray Records in Regina, Saskatchewan, where I spent years working and hanging out. It was the best job I’ve ever had! The shop is still open, and owned by Dave, just in a different location.

Top three metal albums of all time?

I mainly listen to rockabilly, exotica, and garage rock.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on the second issue of the continuing saga of The Weird World of Lagoola Gardner, which I’m self-publishing (though distributed by Fantagraphics). I’m also going to be working on a couple stand-alone graphic novels with my writer pal, Jason Azzopardi, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the detective crime comics Raymond Polk, and a series of true tales of rock’n’roll, country, and jazz called, Wild, Wild, Wild.

Then there’s playing with Zorton and the Cannibals (we’ll be recording our third album this spring/summer), and a couple other musical projects I’m starting up this year.

Want to stay down a little longer? Go Under the Surface with Alison McCreesh.

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