Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the release of your graphic novel, Crowheart Butte! For those who may be unfamiliar, what can you tell us about the premise of the story?
Zach Kennah: First of all, thank you so much for the opportunity to do this interview with you! I really appreciate your support!
Crowheart Butte focuses on a middle school boys' basketball team in the small town of Fort Washakie, located on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. As they navigate their way through contemporary native life and prepare for their upcoming game, sophisticated, yet brutal, creatures of Shoshone legend called the Nimerigar (translated to “people-eaters” in the Shoshone language) are secretly devising their own sinister plan. The Nimerigar are a race of small beings that have been forced into hiding and now seek revenge on those that have driven them to the edge of extinction. Through a twist of events, it becomes apparent that the basketball team is the first target on the Nimerigar’s malicious trek for vengeance, and it all boils to a bloody confrontation at the spiritually and historically significant Wyoming landmark, Crowheart Butte. The boys and their coach will have to use their determination, strength, and camaraderie if they hope to survive the encounter and live to see tomorrow.
BD: How would you describe your creative process in bringing this story to life, and what (or who) were some of your creative influences in terms of the characters and tone?
ZK: Because I am both the writer and illustrator of Crowheart Butte, I did not meticulously script out the novel as I would if I were to hand it off to another artist. While I did establish the general setup, certain plot beats, and the overall direction on where the story would end up, much of the narrative was developed through the literal act of drawing and paneling, both in preliminary sketches and in art that actually made its way into the final product. I wanted the sequence of events to unfold as organically and as naturally as possible, so I tried not to force things into my preconceived outline if at certain points in the story things made sense to go in a different direction. This process was aimed to keep Crowheart Butte fresh, spontaneous, and unpredictable, but also helped me remain more engaged and stimulated as an artist.
I have many creative influences that have helped shape my work as an artist and, subsequently, helped to inform some of my decisions in creating this graphic novel. Crowheart Butte is ultimately a horror story, and wanting the book to play out similar to that of a great horror film, I looked to certain horror directors/writers that have inspired me in recent years - specifically, filmmakers of what some label “elevated horror” (although I am of the notion that horror has always been “elevated”) such as Jordan Peele (Get Out), Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room), Robert Eggers (The VVitch) and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook).
In terms of comics-specific influences, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Art Speigelman’s Maus come to mind for how they handle character and drama throughout their narratives. Despite the horror and fantasy elements of Crowheart Butte, at its core is a drama that centers on very human characters dealing with very real issues, so Fun Home and Maus are both excellent books to study in order to present these components effectively. I also appreciate how these novels both look and feel so unique due to their creators’ unapologetic originality in both art and storytelling, and it’s something I really do strive to emulate as a graphic novelist.
Because Crowheart Butte is a story about contemporary natives in a contemporary reservation setting, Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf Nor Dog was a massive inspiration, as were the works of the native poet and author Sherman Alexie, including the film based on his work for which he wrote the screenplay, Smoke Signals. All of these works helped me in developing realistic native characters and authentic scenarios/settings for those characters to inhabit.
I also have to say that my father was a strong creative inspiration for this novel. He used to tell my sister and me scary tales before bed, stories he would literally make up on the spot. He would push them in whatever direction at any moment, and it used to scare us to death, we loved it! It is this specific tradition of storytelling that I wanted to replicate with Crowheart Butte, and it’s one of the main reasons I dedicated the book to him. Also, the Shoshone background in my family comes from his side, and without him, I may not have the appreciation and interest I hold for native art, culture, history, and contemporary issues that I do today.
BD: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that Crowheart Butte's story will connect with and impact readers?
ZK: The primary goal I had when I started working on Crowheart Butte was quite simple: I wanted to create an effective creature-horror story, but I wanted it to focus on native people that are vastly underrepresented in pop-culture media, not only in horror but in genres across the board. I didn’t set out to make a statement piece, but in order to depict things honestly, I was required to explore some of the issues that contemporary natives so often face, both on and off reservations. What I discovered is that many native issues are much more universal than one may initially perceive: racism and oppression, domestic abuse, poverty, alcoholism… Despite consistently being prominent ailments of reservations and other native communities, many of these issues are widespread in many racial, social and other demographic groups, and I think this is important to keep in mind when it comes to bringing more diversity into the media that we produce, especially in the United States. Some people seem to resist diverse storytelling, perhaps fearing alienation or that they will not connect to a story that initially seems removed from them. But I believe that diverse stories, despite recognizing the differences that make us unique and give us our identities, tie us together by addressing the collective human experiences and struggles that we all must confront in one way or another. By educating ourselves on the plights of others, even if we have no personal experience with those specific issues, we can better empathize and put our own struggles into perspective, consequently allowing us to understand and respect each other. I believe that my book will thrill, frighten, and entertain, but I also hope readers will gain a better understanding of certain native issues and will recognize commonalities that we all share as human beings.
BD: The comic was successfully funded through Indiegogo. What makes crowdfunding such a valuable resource for independent comic book creators, and would you utilize it again?
ZK: Crowdfunding is an incredible resource not only for comic book creators, but really anyone trying to complete a project that they may have all the passion for but may not have the adequate funding for. Not only does one have the ability to attain their financial requirements for any particular project, but crowdfunding also provides an outlet to help build a community, even before the project has been completed. It’s also nice as you work your way through your campaign and you start to see the outpouring of support from people who believe in you and believe in your project, and it really helps validate your passion and effort.
I would definitely use Indiegogo again. This is my first book and my first crowdfunding campaign, so it has all been a massive learning experience for me. There are absolutely some things I would do differently next time around now that I know a little bit more about the process, but crowdfunding makes things so much simpler for a creator that it is almost too convenient not to utilize.
BD: Are there any other upcoming projects on which you are working that you are able to share with our readers?
ZK: Crowheart Butte has been a nearly two-and-a-half-year journey, and I still don’t consider it completely over as I am currently in the promotional phase now that the book is done and printed. So, I am still dedicating a lot of time to that. I have definitely taken some time to regroup after I poured so much into this novel, but I am always working on individual art pieces and practicing technique and exploring ideas in my sketchbook. And despite the mild exhaustion from finishing Crowheart Butte and just this last year in general, I am getting anxious and excited to begin my next book. I am still in the developmental stages, but I would love to continue exploring horror and contemporary natives in some way, and I will definitely continue to push stories with diverse characters and settings.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Crowheart Butte?
ZK: For those who would like to learn more about Crowheart Butte or just my art in general, I would encourage them to visit my website at www.zachkennahart.com or check out my Instagram page (@zachkennah). These sites provide a pretty solid representation of what I am interested in and what I do as a creator. I would also urge fans to explore more native-centered media. In general, I would encourage readers to educate themselves on native/indigenous history, so they can better understand how and why contemporary natives are where they are today and why they fight for the issues and causes that they fight for. Native history is simply not discussed enough in this country despite being a major part of U.S. history, and I would love for that to change. If you have any specific questions or comments, I can always be contacted via Instagram messenger or from the contact page of my website. I would love to answer questions and discuss more about Crowheart Butte with anyone willing!