ROCHESTER — When you think about graphic novels — or their more ubiquitous cousins, comic books — you imagine stories set in Gotham or Metropolis.
Nic Breutzman’s new graphic novel, “Pill Hill,” is firmly set in modern Rochester with details such as the annual Gold Rush antique show, St. Marys Park, the eponymous
and even some regional flavor, such as trips to Cannon Falls.
Lizard people, Breutzman said, were a fictitious addition.
“The lizard people thing came about almost as just like a joke,” he said. “I didn’t actually think I was gonna put in the book. Primarily, I was thinking of that because I had to think of some way to, you know, show certain people without showing them.”
Published in the United States by Uncivilized Books, a Twin Cities publisher, and in France by Delcourt, “Pill Hill,” with the story and art all done by Breutzman, is somewhat autobiographical. The story deals with a tough time in his life when he split with his first wife and fought for custody of both their son and for the safe stewardship of her son from a previous relationship.
“It’s all based on real life, except for me losing my mind to the point where I believe in lizard people,” he said. “That is completely fictional. But everything in this, you know, more or less happens.”
That includes serious issues of child custody and drug abuse as well as a mystery concerning wads of gum on trees.
His ex-wife, who he never names outright in the book, is depicted as a lizard person both as a form of anonymity and to show how the character had changed as a person through substance abuse.
The book, he said, serves as a way to tell a custody story from the male point of view. He felt it was important also to share how overworked child protective services can be.
Then there is the artwork. Sometimes the art is more realistic in its style. Sometimes the composition contains more fanciful elements. And sometimes it’s simple pencil sketches. Each style is designed to help tell a different part of the story.
“It’s completely kind of like this messy pencil stuff. Because I’m trying to kind of give it the feel of these, you know, kind of lonely ruminations kind of like all like up in your head too much,” Breutzman said. “Then certain stuff is just more realistic, because that’s kind of the look that that scene like calls for, right? So, I think I just try to do my best to meet the needs of the story at any given time.”
Breutzman said the book took several years from start to finish. Several rounds of editing both text and photos left some content on the cutting room floor. But, in the end, his book is about 256 pages long.
“I cut out like a really large color section that took me months to draw, just because it didn’t fit the story,” he said. “
Through the process, he had a binder full of small versions of the art that served as a prototype for the actual book. He’d go over the book time and time again, and make notes and changes. Part of that process, he said, comes from the genre because with comics “you have to keep it as malleable as possible as long as possible.”
“You really only want to do the finished artwork right at the very end, if that makes sense,” Breutzman said.
But his own process to becoming a graphic novelist began as a kid. He was always drawing, always had a pencil in his hand growing up in Rochester.
In his 20s, he began taking passages he liked from books he was reading then writing commentaries on them. It was an exercise in critical thinking about the writing process. He cites Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard as an influence and favorite author.
As for which comes first, the drawing or the story? Breutzman said he’s always drawing, but there has to be a narrative attached. So the two elements sort of form at once.
This isn’t Breutzman’s first book. He has a graphic novel called “Yearbook” that he published and had some collaboration on. He also collaborated by providing illustrations for a book titled “Motherlover.”
He’s also working on a new book, though whether that becomes a graphic novel or a more traditional work of prose, he’s not sure. And he’s also providing the art for another writer’s graphic novel, which he said is both easier and harder because while he doesn’t have to provide the story, he loses a little control of the overall project.
But “Pill Hill” is his first book that is fully his own, though he acknowledges that he got help from friends and family who read the book and offered critiques.
And he’s proud to put his hometown on display, including some quirky elements such as a park where the trees have chewed and discarded gum stuck to the bark.
It’s a mystery he — well, the character Nic in the book — tries to solve in an effort to bring some sanity to his world.
“I’m with my kids in Saint Marys Park, and I saw all the gum on all the trees. And, so that’s real. It’s all real,” Breutzman said. “It’s still there. And I was like, ‘Who did this? Like, why would anyone do this?’ Because there was so much of it.”
You can order a copy of “Pill Hill” from the publisher at