The public's fascination with sharks seems to be never-ending; whether in movies, books, or television shows, people eat up stories of the animals. But for all the documentaries and stories about the creatures, few try to tell their story from the sharks' perspective.
Matt Dembicki's new graphic novel Xoc: The Journey of a Great White (978-1-934964-85-9, $19.99), released through Oni Press, takes a shark's-eye-view of the world, as it chronicles a great white's travels from the coast of California to Hawaii. Along the way, the reader is given a view into the daily life of the animal, as the shark (the titular Xoc, pronounced "shock") encounters natural prey and predators — from skittish seals to brazen orcas — as well as befriending a sea turtle along the way. The duo also faces danger in the form of man-made impediments, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The product of Dembicki's lifelong fascination with the ocean and sharks, the story of Xoc is based heavily on research, and features a bibliography for reference.
BookShelf spoke with Dembicki about Xoc, the research that went into the book, and the public's perception of sharks.
(Click on the page images for a larger version.)
What inspired you to create Xoc?
I've always had an interest in sharks, ever since I saw Jaws as a little kid.. I grew up in Connecticut, so I was always near the shore, near the ocean, beaches, stuff like that. I just kind of liked the ocean in general, it was like a natural interest for me. I actually did Xoc initially as a black and white mini-comic. The first one I did was kind of a little filler project between some other things I was doing. I had just finished editing Trickster, and I felt like I needed something small to do, as I kind of wrapped up the project... and it kind of took on a life of its own. I'm very grateful for that.
The story is a complete graphic novel now. When you were making the mini-comics, did the ideas keep coming and you saw where you could do more with it?
When I did the first issue, I had so much fun doing it that I was probably going to do one or two issues. As I got into it, I started developing more of a story around it. When I started I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to end it, but as I was making the second issue I had an idea of where I wanted to go... I definitely wanted it to be research-based. That's the type of comics I do anyways – research heavy. So I did a lot of research on sharks, especially great whites, how they act, what their living patterns are like. I contacted a bunch of shark experts. One of the good things about living in the DC area is, I actually work pretty close to the National Geographic [Museum] so, every once in a while they have lecturers there, and a couple of times they had shark experts, great white experts. I'd go over there and kind of corner them and start chatting with them and exchange emails, they would show me their research papers and things like that. Everything in the book is based in fact somehow.
For example, the journey itself from San Francisco to Hawaii was based on one research paper that was done where they tagged the shark and followed its swimming patterns from California to Hawaii. Also on another one, the tagged the shark on its journey from South Africa to Australia. I kind of took the research of those two were fairly parallel, so I combined them and developed a story about what the patterns are like in terms of swimming and why people think they go on these long journeys and stuff like that.
In the course of the journey, Xoc encounters a number of threats. Was that something that came up early on in your research, all the dangers to the sharks?
Yeah, again, I just kind of knew a lot of the dangers that sharks experienced anyway, before I even went into this project, but all marine life in general, because of overfishing and pollution, they had these huge challenges, either dying off or becoming endangered species because of (how) our lifestyles affect their lives. But as I got into it, I was surprised with a lot of that research. Once you delve into a project, you can cover so much that you didn't really know about. For example, I knew about pollution in the ocean, but I had no idea there was this garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And the implications of that affect wildlife and the ocean in general.
That scene where they go into the trash island, it was pretty chilling, seeing it up close and inside.
I did include bibliographies; I hope people will do more research on their own and learn more about it on their own, especially that garbage patch. The one thing about it, though, it's not like one big solid island, it's kind of like a soup. It's big patches of garbage, and it's kind of loose. It would be quite an undertaking to clean up... Before I got into the research of the story, I did not even know that existed.
There is a kind of ecological tone to the book, but I didn't necessarily want to beat people over the head with it. There's a couple of pages devoted to it, then the shark moves on to the next thing.
Throughout the journey, the subject of eating continually arises – whether Xoc trying to eat, or the other animals trying to avoid being eaten. Was that a theme you were working with?
It's such a part of life, whether human life or animal life. You always have to continually build up your energy. That's one thing I wanted to show, that on this long journey, the shark was burning up energy and needed to refuel, just like humans have to refuel. I definitely wanted to include that in there... In terms of how sharks fed, not just eating, but how they did that... But I also wanted to show the part (where Xoc eats a) dead whale, the shark isn't necessarily in it for the sport; of there's an easy meal there, it's going to take the easy meal. I wanted to show that as well because I think a lot people have this notion that great whites are just kind of hovering around on the coastal regions of various countries just waiting for seals or swimmers, and that's not really it.
Even with Shark Week, there are still these basic ideas of sharks as "predators of the sea" that persist. Why do you think that is?
For example, with Shark Week and the Discovery Channel, it's the sensationalism of it. I think a huge turning point was Jaws... After that, I think people had this idea of sharks seeing people as a food source, and that's not really the case... Sharks aren't just killing machines, they're there for a purpose – they clean up carcasses and carrion, and serve a function in the world and the ecological system.
In the book, the animals speak with one another. How difficult was it to find the voice to the different animals?
It wasn't too bad. The reason I did that was I just wanted to give it a bit of a narrative, otherwise it would be just like you're watching a National Geographic show. It kind of pushed the story along, and in some instances where I couldn't convey what I wanted to say through drawings, for example the garbage dump and how it affected the shark, or the fact that a shark can feel electromagnetic pulls. You can't really convey that through just drawings or just caption boxes. I tried to draw in the reader to have a little bit of feeling for these creatures, otherwise they're just machines moving through, and when you see what happens in the end [editor's note: Xoc does not have a happy ending.] you almost have an, "oh, that's too bad," versus when you get to know these creatures, when they're talking and conversing and they have their own thoughts and directions, then I think the ending is a bit more horrific, because I think you've attached yourself to the character. So that was the idea behind that.