Claire Gallagher’s The Story So Far is a work in progress. Now showing at the Northern Front Freespace Gallery in Waterfront Station, Gallagher’s exhibit walks viewers through their ongoing artistic journey to produce a horror graphic novel set in the Yukon. 

Working from their completed script, Gallagher has spent the last year figuring out “how to make the story and imagery that I have in my head come out on the page.” It’s been a process of trial and error, partly because Gallagher hadn’t worked with colour pencils a lot before. 

Graphic novels are Gallagher’s favourite art form. Their love for the medium goes back to early childhood, when their mom gave them Calvin and Hobbs collections to read when kids’ literature became too boring and they weren’t quite ready for adult fiction. 

Just as Gallagher’s love for graphic novels came early, so too did their interest in horror.

“I’ve always liked horror,” Gallagher explains. “My folks are big horror buffs so I kind of grew up with it…With horror there’s always been this fascination, because there’s a lot of really terrible horror movies out there and I became really obsessed with the differences between horror that doesn’t land and horror that does, and why and what makes something scary and to whom.”

For Gallagher, characters are key to what makes good horror. There needs to be a villain, and also a protagonist to whom we become attached. It’s this attachment that makes for an emotional roller coaster for horror fans. 

“What really, really good horror manages to do is to find the balance between having really, really terrible things and yanking the audience’s emotions around, but also having protagonists you care about and you want to survive even if you think they aren’t going to…and having moments of levity to offset the terrible things so that they hit harder by comparison.”

The villain in Gallagher’s story is a vampire named Lilith who moves inconspicuously through the world in hiking boots and a yellow Mackintosh jacket. But Lilith has startlingly large, icy blue eyes, and a mouthful of pointy, yellowed teeth. All the better to do what makes her a monster – Lilith eats people.

Gallagher’s protagonist is a girl name Inez. The story’s themes revolve around the story around the two young women.

“It’s a bit about isolation and loneliness and the way that it’s a lot easier for a person who, in the case of this story, is a literal monster – but in real life people who are figurative monsters —to prey on people in communities who for whatever reason don’t have any sort of a support system,” Gallagher says in discussing the themes of their story. “In the case of Inez it’s because she’s gay and on the autism spectrum and she lives in a northern mining town in the sixties. So she’s a very alone sort of person and ends up being befriended by someone who is very much going to take advantage of that.”

The characters are drawn in a realistic style which required numerous drafts before Gallagher was happy with the result. The process at times made them want to pull their hair out, but eventually Gallagher had the characters nailed.

“People are my favourite things to draw,” Gallagher says. “I know this might make me sound like a space alien, but human faces are really, really interesting, the way people’s facial expressions kind of mush and contort, and their different facial features, and the way they go together. I think it’s really cool. So out of everything, I put the most effort into the character design and trying to give everyone a really distinct look.”

There are aspects of the story that Gallagher derived from real life. In two beautifully-drawn panels, a character named Curtis attempts to comfort another named Victor, whose potted flowers have been kicked over by vandals. This scene is based on an actual event that Gallagher witnessed while in Keno for the Mardi Gras one year.

“It’s definitely informed by my experiences,” says Gallagher of the story. “There’s bits of it that are drawn verbatim from what I’ve dealt with.”

One of the most obvious references to Gallagher’s life is the story’s Yukon setting. There are frames featuring ravens, wood-clad buildings and pink clouds above distance mountains that characterize the charm of northern towns.   

Gallagher’s Yukon is beautiful but disturbing. Bad things will happen. Lilith will eat someone, but don’t expect to see those terrible scenes because they haven’t been drawn yet.

“I’m working my way up to the most horrific scenes,” Gallagher says.

While the project will take years to finish, The Story So Far is meant to show people what Gallagher has accomplished, and for them to get feedback after working in a “self-critical echo chamber.” Their hard work over the past year paid off.

“I’m pretty proud of what I put together.”

The Story So Far will be showing at Northern Front until the end of September.