A beautifully realized story about the way we interact with the world around us, The Dam Keeper tells the story of Pig, the caretaker of the dam his father built to keep out the toxic miasma that has consumed the rest of the world. Thanks to the protection provided by the dam and its faithful keeper, the residents of Sunrise Valley have all but forgotten the danger that lies beyond the wall, and as such, don’t realize the great burden that Pig carries. Isolated by his responsibilities as well as by the loss of his family, Pig has only one friend–Fox, who faithfully supports Pig, despite not fully understanding him.
The graphic novel by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi picks up some time after the events of their Oscar-nominated short film of the same name, which tells the story of how Pig and Fox became friends. Since then, not much seems to have changed; Pig still winds the windmill that pushes back the darkness every day and Fox is still Pig’s only friend.
Alone in his dam, Pig’s attention becomes fixated on the strange behavior of the darkness and his attention is brought to the strange and dangerous world beyond.
Kondo and Tsutsumi answered some of our questions about their experience adapting their story for the graphic medium and the future of the series.
Why did you decide to continue this story as a graphic novel?
In our first months of our studio, Tonko House, we spent time in our one room studio going through what we call Tonko House Therapy, a session with creative storytellers to discuss personal stories that are connected to who we are as people. The goal of these sessions was to find a way to connect to a larger audience through finding personal human stories of our own that we have lived or are currently living. We believe in telling stories with a core that we can relate to. Among these stories was a personal story about Dice and his father that became the core of the longer format story set in the world of The Dam Keeper, We found Pig to be a great character to convey the story and began to work on a longer format story. It began as a feature film and in the process of creating the story, our producer, Kane Lee, came up with the idea of creating a graphic novel as a way of visually exploring the narrative. We were excited about the prospect of exploring the story for the feature through the graphic novels.
Aside from some brief narration, the short film was a silent piece. What was your experience bringing dialogue into this story? Did it change the characters or their behavior?
Bringing voices to these characters has been challenging. In the story, they are older than they were in the short, so added on top of the obstacle of bringing voices to silent characters has been the challenge of bringing an authenticity to their age. But creating their voices has been dictated by the story and the characters themselves, having the wrong dialogue is a lot like having the wrong note in music, it just sounds off, and it often sparks a series of dialogue experiments until it sounds right to our ears.
Can you talk a bit about the emotional journeys that Pig, Fox, and Hippo begin to take in this first volume of the story?
In our world, Pig is our underdog hero, protector of the citizens of Sunrise Valley. He has just graduated the eighth grade and is settled in his role as the town’s dam keeper. In this book he is ripped from his responsibility by an unnatural force and taken on an adventure through the land that has always been covered by fog. Pig must brave this journey with his best friend, Fox and his bully and tormentor, Hippo. We find that Pig is haunted and he must begin to face his own darkness that he protects deep within the dam of his heart.
Where did the inspiration for the darkness beyond the dam come from? Does it represent anything significant to you?
The darkness began as a metaphor for the emotional darkness of our main character in the animated short we made in 2013. We were inspired by a childhood story The Little Dutch Boy, about a boy who saves his town from a leaky dike, by plugging a hole with his finger. We thought about a character whose role it was to save his town everyday, only instead of water, he held back darkness. A fog whose origins are mysterious and whose properties are toxic. In the short, the fog is a symbol for Pig’s inner darkness. The physical attributes of the fog was inspired by watching the actual fog come over the Marin Headlands just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The fog there is mesmerizing to watch and felt it would be amazing to bring as almost a character onto the screen and page.
As Pig and the others come to realize, the world beyond their town is much bigger than they could have possibly imagined. What particular aspect of the outside world are you most excited to share with the readers?
We are excited to share the secrets that the world’s darkness has been hiding from Pig. In the books to come, the world and characters they will encounter will challenge their friendship and ultimately who they want to be as they are growing up on this adventure. The fog holds secrets that we have just begun to allude to in Book One. We have designed and created a world in the fog we are excited for our readers to discover. Pig is journeying home and will learn more about the ghost that haunts him and what it means to truly be the dam keeper.
The Dam Keeper is published by First Second Books, a Macmillan imprint. Find this book and other great graphic novels on their website, and find more about Tonko House and their upcoming projects here.