One day, Christopher Fairfax began drawing bugs. At first, the drawings just served as a distraction from his computer science studies at another college – a career path he was feeling increasingly lukewarm about. But eventually, Fairfax’s bug drawings started to evolve into something far more than just a distraction.
“I started to create this world and write this story set within this world, and eventually I realized this wasn’t just a little project. It was the big project I’d been wanting to work on for a long time,” Fairfax says. He turned the story into a fledgling web comic in 2012, but quickly came up against his own limits. “I realized I just didn’t know how to draw well enough to fully realize the idea,” Fairfax says. “That was why I made the decision to go to DigiPen, so I could learn how to draw, work with narrative art, and make Coelary what it is.”
Today, five years after dropping his previous studies to enroll in DigiPen’s BFA in Digital Art and Animation program, the 2019 graduate is preparing to publish his successfully Kickstarted, 150-page graphic novel debut, Coelary: Blood and Beholden. “I’m still blown away. I can’t believe it,” Fairfax says. “I feel like it’s not going to fully sink in until I’m holding the book in my hands and mailing it out to people.” The project is the first in a planned series of books set in the Coelary universe, an insectoid epic Fairfax has already fleshed out in rich detail through a series of DigiPen animated film projects, a rigorous internal design bible, detailed world maps and histories, and even a manifesto on his personal motivations for telling the story.
“I know for a lot of people, their first big project is them being inspired by their influences. But with Coelary, it was more like I was inspired by what I wasn’t seeing,” Fairfax says. Surveying the adult media landscape, Fairfax found most stories fell in one of two tonal camps — “flippant and silly” or “gritty and grim dark.” Coelary is Fairfax’s attempt at something in the middle. “I wanted something that wasn’t afraid to be really sincere about the topics it was approaching, but could still be bright, colorful, and not so serious all the time,” Fairfax says.
Those adult topics — like privilege, feminism, race, sexism, relationships, and identity — found the breathing room Fairfax was looking for through bugs. “By making the characters bugs, especially bugs that people aren’t really familiar with, it kind of gives you a clean slate to approach the story without preconceived notions,” Fairfax says. “It’s really funny, but by making the characters less human, I feel like you can approach human issues easier.”
Coelary: Blood and Beholden follows Arsenia Verduzco, a 25-year-old threadwing antlion returning to the eponymous city of Coelary after suddenly leaving for the wilderness upon finishing college. While finding her footing in the big city again, Arsenia starts to forge her own identity separate from the expectations of her parents. She also begins to confront her own privilege with the help of a punk-rock auto mechanic moth friend named Karine.
Throughout the novel, however, the city of Coelary is almost a character unto itself, one with well thought-out post-human histories, boroughs, architecture, transportation, and even utilities. “It’s not coincidence I chose to go to DigiPen, because a big part of my influence has been video games, the biggest being [The Elder Scrolls III:] Morrowind,” Fairfax says. Impressed by the game’s vividly realized world, from its readable in-game history books to the deep background stories of its NPCs, Fairfax took Morrowind’s detailed approach to heart. “Establishing my design bible for Coelary is a lot of that history. It’s a lot of the way the culture in Coelary has these principles they follow, these roles, these habits. They have certain industries that create all these objects. They have policies they follow. They have a whole culture with a logic behind it,” Fairfax says.
DigiPen taught Fairfax the importance of fully fleshed-out worldbuilding, but it also taught him how to package it well and pace its delivery. “One of the big things I learned at DigiPen was how to simplify things — what the audience sees — so that they’re not overwhelmed with all those worldbuilding details,” Fairfax says. “Storyboarding also taught me how to let the pictures tell parts of the story without words, which for someone who can be really verbose was a really important lesson.”
They’re lessons Fairfax quickly put to use directing his DigiPen animated film team projects, The Castores Union and The Feast of St. Lucy, both set in the Coelary universe. Although Coelary began as a web comic and continues today as a graphic novel, Fairfax still dreams of it becoming an animated series in the future. “When I started at DigiPen, I didn’t know exactly how I wanted to do that,” Fairfax says. “Actually getting to DigiPen and starting to animate, it made me fall in love with 2D animation. That then informed how I made the comic — putting it together more like a cinematic, 2D animated film.” Fairfax attributes part of the success of the Coelary: Blood and Beholden Kickstarter to the polished animated trailer he created for the book with the help of his former DigiPen film teammates, Emily Skopp, Sakina Minnis, and Lauren Brown. “It’s really cool to have these people from DigiPen I know I can trust and rely on, all with these distinct artistic strengths,” Fairfax says. “I love their work so much.”
Since graduating, Fairfax has had his share of animation industry contracts — one of which found him creating an original anime segment featured in an episode of Adult Swim’s Joe Pera Talks With You. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he took it as a cue to buckle down and finally finish Blood and Beholden, a project that had been four years in the making. “I think the most important thing DigiPen taught me was just how important it is to focus on finishing a project rather than making a perfect project,” Fairfax says. “Someone at DigiPen told me, ‘Perfect is the enemy of done,’ and being able to finish Coelary was entirely because I was able to keep that in mind.”