The year is 2032, and much of the southeastern United States can best be described as a post-apocalyptic wilderness.
According to the story’s overview, most of North America had been wiped away in 2029 by a gene-altering disease in the drinking water. A team of researchers working for a large global initiative called the American Research and Recovery Organization – better known as ARRO – travels across the southeastern U.S. to explore what’s left of the former world. The mission for these doctors and scientists: Work to get the power grids back on, survive the wasteland, and recolonize.
And the futuristic story got its start … when two UTC students met at a screen printing shop in Chattanooga.
The year was 2009, and a chance meeting changed the lives of Tara Hamilton and Ali Burke – a pair of graduating UTC seniors. Hamilton (before marriage, her last name was Harris) was closing in on her bachelor’s degree in painting and drawing. Burke, an English major, would soon earn her degree in rhetoric and writing.
Going all the way back to middle school, Hamilton had been infatuated with drawing characters – so much so that she fantasized about creating comic books. She had specific concepts and characters in mind, mostly of a zombie genre.
Burke, meanwhile, was a science fiction fanatic. She had an interest in comics, but hadn’t seriously thought about making them.
Then, as fate would have it, Hamilton and Burke crossed paths in a local screen printing shop run by Nick DuPey – Burke’s boyfriend at the time and now her husband. Hamilton purposely had come to his shop due to an “art crush” she had on DuPey – who had received his degree from the UTC Fine Arts department two years before and had opened the shop with support from a grant he received in 2008.
“I had been trying to get somebody to work with me on a comic since high school,” said Hamilton, who grew up in Chattanooga and still calls the city home. “I was trying really hard to find somebody to work with, and those false starts were devastating; I figured it just wasn’t going to work out.
“I had three failed attempts before I finally met this amazing person I work with now, and we met in the most off-chance way possible. I was printing T-shirts at Nick’s screen printing shop. I was poor. I was like, ‘If I do the work, can I get them cheaper?’ I was an emerging artist and I was poor, and I needed shirts to sell.
“This one day, Ali came over to hang out at the shop – I think she came by with some beers – and Nick was like, ‘You’re a writer. You’re an artist. You guys should talk.’ “
Hamilton and Burke started talking, and their mutual interest in comics emerged. They started hanging out regularly at The Yellow Deli on McCallie Avenue. They began world-building – constructing an imaginary world with storylines and fully developed characters.
“Tara already had this rough concept and she’d been drawing this one character a long time; she really wanted to do a zombie comic,” Burke said. “I wasn’t too keen about the idea of zombies, so we developed these ideas together. We spent a lot of time before we even put pen to paper – just conceptualizing and researching.
“We started out just tossing things back and forth. I would write something, and she would draw a picture to go with it. Then she would draw a picture, and I would write some caption content that would fit with it. We did exercises like that, just to get warmed up.”
Through the world-building process, they created eight central characters. They developed a disease that traveled through the water system. They established storylines. They generated a post-apocalyptic adventure story.
“We hung out there a lot, and she kept making the story so much better,” Hamilton said. “Finally, Ali said, ‘Dude, we need to write this. We have to do it.’ “
And ARRO was born.
“We came up with it together,” Burke said. “We really built out these characters’ back stories and the overarching narrative. It was just a tennis match of idea sharing, and that’s the best way to make things … to sort of volley it off someone else.
“It became a really natural collaborative relationship. I think we work close together. We push each other in good ways and have a lot of it balanced in our working styles. It’s really exciting to create something with a person … to write something and see it come to life visually through someone else’s eyes. We have a very collaborative relationship throughout the process, but a lot of times the writer/illustrator relationship in comics tends to be, ‘I write … I hand it to you … you draw it … it’s over.’ But we have a lot of back-and-forth throughout. We’re always working together on it, which is a relatively unique way of working. It’s something I really appreciate.”
“Ali is amazing. Please put that in there – that I said she’s amazing,” Hamilton said. “She manages to write everything how it needs to be for my style. I’ve never met a duo that I feel is as mentally together as we are. The only thing that stops us is ourselves as far as other stuff going on, but when it happens – it’s amazing.”
The digital illustrations of a comic book or a graphic novel don’t just happen overnight. It can be a laborious process.
Hamilton, the designer/illustrator, brings the characters of ARRO to life on her computer, utilizing a clunky stylus.
She explained that comics used to be done on a non-photo blue template, so when you inked it, the initial sketch drawings didn’t show up on the photocopier. There is no reason for her to use blue, but it’s still comfortable for her to do it that way. She then sketches in black, making sure everything fits into panel templates. Because ARRO is dialogue heavy, she has to leave ample room for words balloons.
Is it a labor of love for her? Yes. But it’s laborious, just the same.
“I work a 9-to-5 job, so on weeknights, my goal is normally half a page,” she said. “On weekends, my goal is normally one full page per day – when I’m really hitting a stride, trying to get stuff done. And that’s for lines only. I wait to color it until everything is done. All I want to do after Ali has edits is change the line art. If I have to keep changing it with the coloring, it hurts. I like drawing a lot and I like doing the line art a lot. Figuring out panels … I love it. But if I have to redo color, it’s rough. Sitting there and figuring out where colors go the first time is great. But if I have to delete a panel, redraw it and then recolor it, I’m going to hate every minute. So it’s best to leave the coloring until the end.”
As for the storylines, ARRO is really character driven. So it’s more focused on developing those eight characters than the world around them.
“I world-build a lot in my head,” Hamilton said. “I don’t draw it out as often as I probably should. But when Ali sends the chapters, I get a really clear vision of what it should look like.
“We collaborate for major ideas. We talk about it and talk about it and talk about it. Then she’ll send me this word document … and it’s magic. She understands these characters amazingly.”
Readers following the ARRO researchers know they’ll see 2032 Chattanooga both in the early chapters and in later volumes of the story.
“Part of it is just practical,” Burke explained. “In terms of drawing, you want to draw on things you know and places you know – and want to reference the places you visualize. You’re not writing about a place you’ve never been to.”
“I think we wanted it be as realistic as possible, so placing it in a location we knew felt more honest,” Hamilton said. “I love Chattanooga, and Chattanooga will come back quite a few times in later chapters.”
A little more about the story thus far – to whet the appetite without giving away too much information:
The ARRO research team spends a night at the recently established Chattanooga station, where they mingle with the crew. Three of the team members are rookies, while the others have been working together for a while, traveling across the major cities of the southeast and turning on solar power grids. They learn more about the rubrogiardia virus, which transforms the neural makeup and physical appearance of those infected.
The year is 2016, and Hamilton and Burke had often talked about publishing an anthology once the third chapter had been completed.
It had taken quite some time to get to this point in the process. Life, literally, had gotten in the way.
Since the collaboration process started seven years ago, Burke got married, moved to Boston, had a baby and took on a fulltime job as a copywriter. Hamilton, too, worked a fulltime job, got married, and went back to UTC to obtain a second degree – this time in graphic design.
“Inevitably, there have been times – when she was finishing school … when I was preparing for my wedding … when I first had a child – when there were gaps and we just couldn’t work on ARRO,” Burke said. “Like any relationship, the best ones are the ones where you don’t talk to each other for a little while, then pick it right back up again where you left off. And we’ve been able to do that consistently and allow each other space to do the other things we needed to do in our lives.”
Although Chattanooga and Boston are more than 1,000 miles apart, Burke said their conversations tend to be more ongoing these days. Despite their heavy schedules, they’re in constant contact about future ARRO chapters.
“When we started, we had a lot more time to devote to it – and a lot more face time. We were able to go sit in a coffee shop for hours and kind of play around,” Burke said. “The distance thing is difficult, but we live in a time where we have a lot of Skype calls and texts going back and forth. We have a lot of shared Google docs. We still communicate a lot. And any time I’m in town, we get together and have that face-to-face experience. Honestly, there’s no substitute for that.”
Although they have taken breaks from time to time, “I knew that I wanted to keep working on it – and I knew she did, too,” Hamilton said. “It didn’t seem like it was a big deal taking that break. Our hearts were still in it, for sure. Once I graduated last year, I knew this is what I wanted to do and this is what I was going to do, no matter what.
“Even when I was in school, even when I didn’t have time to work on pages … every day, I was thinking about it and working out plot points. I was always thinking about character development. And anything I could possibly do in here” – pointing to her head – “while I was working on what I had to for class. It was never on the backburner for me. Every day, I was coming up with something to occupy my mind with the story and try to really flush it out. Once I was finished with the degree, I jumped into it as quickly as possible.”
Slowly but surely, page after page of ARRO was drawn and illustrated. Chapter One of the anthology, good to go. Then Chapter Two. Then Chapter Three.
The first volume – the aforementioned three chapters plus a pair of mini chapters, which are black-and-white in nature and separate from the main story – was now ready for production and distribution.
Earlier this year, Burke and Hamilton started a campaign through Kickstarter – a crowdfunding site that helps creative types find the financial backing and assistance they need to turn their ideas into a reality.
Hamilton and Burke’s goal was to raise $2,000 in 30 days (from June 13-July 13) for ARRO Comic, Volume 1. All of the funding was to go toward pulling everything together into one perfect-bound, full-color graphic novel. And they had specifics in mind: Speckle-toned Madero Beach 140# paper for the cover, 100% post-consumer Neenah PC100 80# for issues 1-3, and a crisp accent of Starch Mint 70-lb for the minis.
They reached that pledge level quickly, giving them the opportunity to create incentives for a stretch drive. In total, they raised $3,444 over the one-month period.
“It just so happened that it took us long enough that the technology exists for us to reach out to people,” Burke said. “The cool thing about Kickstarter … I think sometimes it feels like you’re begging for money, but I don’t see it that way. It’s an opportunity to pre-order. It’s an opportunity to gauge interest on something.
“Think of it this way. I’m asking, ‘Hey, if I printed this many books, how many would buy it?’ And these people are saying, ‘I would buy it.’ That way, you have the money to do the printing before you go to do it. And that’s an amazing opportunity. They’re not donating to us; they’re buying what they would have bought anyway.”
Approximately one-third of those pledging were from the Chattanooga area. But they also received pledges from backers in Great Britain, Australia, Singapore, Sweden and Gibraltar.
It’s an exciting time for the ARRO co-creators.
“We plan on having 10 or 12 volumes of ARRO; this is just the first one,” Hamilton said. “I really believe in this story. I think if people read it, they’ll see the amount of work we’ve put into it and hopefully really enjoy these characters.
“I’m seriously obsessed with them. Hopefully, other people can see that and like them, too.”