Spotlight: Christopher Stoll, Creator of Pokénatomy

2016 has been a great year for Pokémon fans. Really. Before Pokémon GO hit the mobile stores, Pokémon trainers were pretty much weird freaks until others caught on. (Others being closeted Pokémon lovers, because let’s be honest). But 2016 also brought us the breathtaking illustrations of Christopher Stoll. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, maybe Pokénatomy will.

His art transcends labels and can be appreciated by Pokémon noobs and masters alike. No need to worry if you’re still at a loss. After reading this exclusive interview with Christopher Stoll himself, you’ll know him better than those that first discovered him. (Really, we’ve got you covered).

Who is the man behind the wack Pokémon anatomy illustrations? A guy from Texas that struggles to pay rent like everybody else. Like Ash Ketchum, he went on some adventures when he moved to Japan in 2011 and attended Kanda University in Tokyo (legit, we know). Later, he relocated to Fukuoka, and today is kicking it back in Texas (if he hasn’t picked up and left, which happens a lot)…and speaking of kicking:

Stoll has also recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to turn his illustrations into a proper Pokénatomy book. The pledges are very cleverly named, ranging from a $1 “Magikarp” to a $250 “Elite Four(teen)” donation, which gets you a Skype date with Chris, a leather bound coffee table edition of the book, and a hand-drawn illustration of any Pokémon you choose (so wild??). As you might have guessed, there’s only 14 of these available.

We know by this point you’re all really excited to get to the interview part. It’s right below. And it’s really great. We promise.

TNL: When did you first start drawing/illustrating? Did you know from the get-go that you were a prolific artist?

CS: I’ve been drawing my entire life. While in school, every scrap of paper that passed through my hands seemed to end up with a doodle on it, but until recently it was only ever a hobby. I was never trained as an artist, and I never studied art or design in an academic setting. It actually took a long time (and a lot of encouragement) for me to feel confident enough to promote and begin selling my work.

TNL: Were you always interested in anatomy, or is it something you arrived at through illustration?

CS: I’ve always had a love of biology and the natural world, and studied to become a veterinarian in college. I love understanding how things work, and have been trying to find common ground between my mutual love of science and art for years.

nerd-league-pokenatomy-bulbasaurTNL: Have you played all the Pokémon games?

CS: Not all of them, but I was a huge fan during my formative years. I was eight years old when the original Pokémon game-boy games came out in the United States, and I become obsessed right from the start. My friends and I traded cards during recess, swapped Pokémon theories over lunch, and raced home after school every day to watch the animated show. During that time, I played red version, then graduated to silver and gold. But, like a lot of people, I aged out of the series during high school and only recently rediscovered the characters because of Pokémon GO’s popularity.

TNL: What’s your favorite Pokémon, and which has been your favorite to draw thus far?

CS: My favorite Pokémon is probably Scyther, but of the ones already drawn, I especially love Voltorb and Bulbasaur. In my mind, both of them strike a good balance between the imaginary and the scientifically plausible, enhancing and investigating the Pokémon world while still emphasizing why people enjoy these creatures in the first place.

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TNL: Did you anticipate the reception your Pokénatomy illustrations received?

CS: Not at all.

TNL: Can you tell us about your Kickstarter campaign? What led you to embark on this journey? What has been your experience with previous ‘Kickstarted’ projects?

CS: Right now I have about 50 Pokémon Anatomy illustrations finished, and the Kickstarter campaign’s goal is to finish all 151 of the original generation, and to print them into a 300 page 8”x10” fully illustrated anatomical textbook.

This is my third art-book published through Kickstarter, and I have absolutely fallen in love with the crowdfunding model.

It can be difficult sometimes. I’m just one guy, totally responsible for the writing, illustration, production, and marketing of Pokénatomy. But even though it’s a lot of work, Kickstarter puts control completely in the hands of the creator, and it allows you to develop a real relationship with the fans.

In that way, art can be utterly uncompromised by corporate influence, and weird and wonderful projects can be allowed to exist without having to answer to anyone except those who want it most.

TNL: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an illustrator?

CS: Paying rent.

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TNL: What has been the most gratifying moment of your career thus far?

CS: The success of my first book, A Natural History of the Fantastic. It showed me that my esoteric love of art and science could actually yield some success, and that there was a real chance that I could make a living doing this work that I love.

TNL: Do you know all the lyrics to the Pokémon rap?

CS: I’m not sure I know the Poké-rap off the top of my head (though if it came on I’m sure I roughly sing along). All I know is that I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was… and that to catch them is my real test, to train them is my cause.

TNL: Did you dabble in Pokémon GO? If so, did you enjoy it?

CS: I did dabble, I was playing it regularly for a few weeks, and I still take out the game from time to time. I recognize that PoGo has some severe problems (not the least of which was the infuriating removal of the ‘tracking’ feature barely a week after launch), but ultimately I enjoyed it. It became a way to instantly connect with others on the street, an excuse to get out of the house and explore, and a chance to integrate Pokémon into my daily routine.

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TNL: As more Pokémon games are released, the graphics increase in quality and detail. Have these improvements ever conflicted with your anatomical guesses, or have they reaffirmed your hypotheses instead?

CS: We’ll see what surprises Pokémon Sun and Moon have in store, but I don’t think that my work needs to precisely align with Pokémon canon to be valuable. The goal is mostly to explore strange scientific concepts and real world biology through the lens of Pokémon, not necessarily to explore Pokémon through the lens of science. There’s a fine line there, and although I want the work to fit accurately into Pokémon lore, I’d rather it be interesting and scientifically plausible than in step with the games.

TNL: What is your least favorite Pokémon, and which has been your least favorite to draw?

CS: My least favorite is definitely Jinx. My least favorite to draw has been Digglett. It was a little nerve-racking, knowing that whatever I decide to draw below the ground was going to upset SOMEBODY. In the end, I must have drawn and redrawn it a dozen times before I found a design that I liked.

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TNL: How do you go about developing your ideas of Pokémon anatomy (given that you can’t actually dissect a real one)?

CS: I don’t think I’d want to dissect a real one, even if I had the chance. They are too cute!

A lot of the original Pokémon are based on real-world organisms, so I always start a Pokénatomy piece by researching their inspiration. For the sake of the project, I’ve found myself thumbing through books on botany, herpetology, exotic fish, and even embryology. Once I feel that I have a grasp of the basic biology I begin to tease out the more fantastical elements.

Researching real animals is helpful, but the Pokémon world is full of ghost creatures, walking plants, psychic phenomenon, and sentient code. Eventually, you have to fill in the scientific gaps yourself and do your best to make it interesting!

TNL: Where do you see yourself, and your Pokénatomy project, in five years?

CS: I have no idea. Ideally, if the project is a success, I’ll be able to continue my illustrations and pop-culture deconstructions. That’s what I’d like to do, but who knows.

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TNL: What do you want people to take away from this project?

CS: I believe we are at a point in time where the general public wants science to be a part of the entertainment landscape. More and more, scientists who tackle difficult and unintuitive subjects can use pop culture to communicate with the public, and especially with young people. However, there is a danger here. In a world where astrophysicists are regular consultants on science-fiction movie sets, and anatomical diagrams of Pokémon can amass tens of millions of views online, the boundary between real science and popular entertainment is thinner than ever.

To me, popular culture needs to be supplementary to a foundation of scientific understanding. My Pokénatomy pieces require a basic understanding of biology to be enjoyed. Each Pokémon is based upon real-world organisms, and these illustrations are intended to reward and engage with viewers who have an understanding of basic Biology, and to help explain and explore difficult concepts.

This is not always easy, as some Pokémon possess bodies and abilities that totally defy the laws of physics as we understand them. There’s always a temptation to just invent an organ and label it the “fire sack” or “psychic gland” and leave it at that. I try to resist that unscientific urge wherever possible, and in those cases where hard-science is unavailable I try to present interesting and alternative perspectives on these characters based on the theoretical rather than the outright fantastic.

I’m not sure that my work strikes the perfect balance between science and popular entertainment, but it seems to me that there is an untapped public desire to see these elements mixed. I hope that in some small way, my Pokémon illustrations contribute positively to this trend.

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TNL: If you weren’t an illustrator, what creative outlet would you have used instead?

CS: I’m not sure I can imagine a life where I don’t illustrate. It’s always been a life-affirming, utterly relaxing activity to me, and my primary form of self-expression. I’ve never had much skill in music, public speaking makes me nervous, and writing is fun but exhausting. If I couldn’t draw, I suspect I would probably be expressing myself through lengthy, exasperated, and unnecessary internet comments. That or scrawling intricate conspiratorial patterns on a wall of some insane-asylum. So it’s probably a good thing I spend my time drawing instead.

TNL: Living or dead, what creators or artists would you most like to sit down to dinner with?

CS: Robert Crumb. I’m not sure he’d like my work, but I certainly admire his.

nerd-league-christopher-stoll
Christopher Stoll is the illustrator behind A Natural History of the Fantastic and the soon-to-be-published (with your helpPokénatomy. He can be found on his website, Twitter, Tumblr, and DeviantArt. You can find our editor’s favorite illustration of C3-P0 kicking ass here.

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