With the launch of Order of the Night Jay (Book One): The Forest Beckons graphic novel from Top Shelf Productions, we got a chance to sit down and chat with author and illustrator Jonathan Schnapp.
Hi Jonathan, it’s a pleasure to have you here with us.
Thank you, the pleasure is mine!
Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
Would be happy to. I’m an author and illustrator working out of Rochester, NY. I’ve come to the comics world pretty late in life, all things considered. I studied fine art photography before eventually finding day jobs in the optics world, manufacturing, R&D, and such. For some sanity and stress relief, I took up doing acrylic painting. I painted a lot of cartoon animal characters in different silly situations. As my paintings got more complex, I started thinking of them as slices out of longer narratives. It was only a matter of time before I felt one slice wasn’t enough and that these characters needed more.
What can you tell us about the Order of the Night Jay (Book One): The Forest Beckons graphic novel?
Order of the Night Jay has been such a fun venture and such a good learning experience. In some ways, I tried to do the impossible. I tried to pack in so many things. I wanted a story with mystery and adventure. But also be heartwarming and sensitive. And also be silly and cartoony. There are codes and puzzles, secrets to find, and even a few real survival skills the reader can learn, all wrapped up in a summer camp setting.
Can you tell us about the origins of Order of the Night Jay?
It all started with a painting of a cartoon bear and raccoon, dressed up like scouts, exhausted from hiking up a mountain. I can’t say that was one of my better pieces (Frank’s character design was so terrible!) but I loved the contrast between the two and knew I had to tell their story.
Living in upstate New York, I’m lucky to have the Adirondack mountains nearby. It’s one of my favorite places to be. The mountains are beautiful, but also ominous and mysterious. Can we ever actually fully explore a place like that? Or will there always be new dark corners, forgotten secrets, or magical moments?
And I was certainly inspired by my own experiences in scouting – camping, earning badges, and causing mischief!
Who are Frank and Ricky?
We meet our two heroes as they are both headed off to camp. They are both Tailfeathers, the starting rank at camp Jay Bird. They’re polar opposites, but they bond over their love of the “girly comic” Mega Bunny.
Ricky, the raccoon, is spunky, energetic, and easily distracted. He follows the beat of his own drum, which leads him to some wild ideas. Frank is a bear – the only “large” animal at a camp filled with squirrels, hedgehogs, beavers, and other small animals. Because he’s so large, the other scouts are wary of him. Until they meet him! He’s timid and unsure of himself and is scared to do anything but follow the rules. So he gets pushed around instead, especially by the two older scouts who are there to earn their Leadership badge.
In terms of the cast of Order of the Night Jay, how did you create them? Did you have the visuals in mind for each character first, or did you know what traits you wanted in each character and then created them visually?
Truthfully it was a little bit of both. When I first started sketching the story, I knew Frank’s character needed work. He went through a number of variations – I even had him looking like a teddy bear for a bit before I realized how awkward and weird that was! Edna, the camp counselor, also took a bit of work to get right.
One thing that really helped me was drawing up a cast “photo.” It cemented the design for all the supporting characters and it also seeded their personalities.
How would you describe Order of the Night Jay (Book One): The Forest Beckons?
Twin Peaks meets Looney Tunes? Calvin and Hobbes meets Gravity Falls? Wallace and Gromit meets Sherlock Holmes?
When you were writing Order of the Night Jay, did you write a full script?
I find writing graphic novel scripts very cumbersome. I’m a very visual thinker and when I just write out words without sketching the scene as well, the results are very different. Certain actions don’t make sense. New gags and silly moments pop out. I did try quite a few methods for laying out the plot structure and writing a script, but it ultimately felt like too much work and not enough fun.
I did, ultimately, write a general outline for the entire story – this was before we decided to make it a small series – but in the process of sketching and doing the layouts the course of the story changed dramatically.
How long did it take for you to complete Night Jay (Book One): The Forest Beckons?
I want to say I started working on the story in late 2019. So about two, two and a half years? I worked a full time job on top of that, so I was quite busy!
How did Top Shelf Productions get involved with Order of the Night Jay?
I’ve really enjoyed working with Top Shelf. Many publishers need you to go through an agent, but Top Shelf is very accessible and you can submit directly through their website. Of course they are still very selective, but it’s refreshing to be able to email Chris (Staros) directly and get a personal response. I’d sent Top Shelf a project a few years prior to Night Jay which was rejected, but the feedback I received helped me keep going.
Night Jay (Book One): The Forest Beckons is an all-ages story; does the story have elements from your own experiences?
Well, I never found a cave in the woods with a secret code scratched on the entrance, that’s for sure! But I was very much a “Frank” growing up. I always felt lost and really struggled to feel accepted. It’s taken a long time to allow myself to be more like Ricky – silly and a little impulsive. The tension between the two characters (Ricky wants to explore the cave, Frank wants to avoid getting into trouble) is very much based on my real inner dialogue.
And I did spend quite a few years as a kid going camping, tying knots, trying to start campfires (often with very wet firewood). The scout campground we’d go to always felt old and run down, with sections that never seemed to get used anymore, like the pool or the BMX course. It very much had a sense of history, of forgotten secrets. And Boy Scouts have their own “secret society” called the Order of the Arrow that directly inspired the title of the series. We were never great scouts, by the way. Just like in Night Jay, we got lost on the compass course, but mostly because we didn’t know what we were doing!
As The Forest Beckons is the first of the Order of the Night Jay trilogy, do you have parts two and three plotted out?
So much has changed with the story since I started. Originally it was only going to be one book, but Chris at Top Shelf smartly suggested we break it up into a series. This really made it so the story could breathe and take its time to have fun.
The main narrative for Book 2 is almost completely written out at this point. There’s going to be lots of tweaking here and there, secrets to add, and a puzzle or two. Things tend to change even more when I start on the final art.
Not to give too much away, but in the next part, Ricky and Frank get in trouble (yet again!), they meet a stranger who helps them unlock more of the history of the Order, and Jake and Spud stumble on a dark and powerful secret.
And of course there will be more “Meet the Tailfeathers” chapter breaks, activities, and sneaky educational moments.
Any message for the ComicBuzz readers?
(If you’re (at)bashing your head over this piggy penned message, the key can be found in Order of the Night Jay: The Forest Beckons!)
A big thank you to Jonathan for chatting with us; we wish him the best of luck with Order of the Night Jay (Book One): The Forest Beckons.