Americans owe more than $1.1 trillion on student loans.
That’s way bigger than our total credit card debt of about $659 billion, according to the Federal Reserve. It’s nowhere near what we owe on our homes — more than $8 trillion — but we’re more likely to default on student loans than credit cards or mortgages.
Christopher Kosek, a 35-year-old graphic designer from Albuquerque, N.M., is mad that no one else is mad about that.
“You see all the news stories about how our entire generation has this problem, how awful it is for the economy, contrasted against our elected leaders not really doing anything about it,” Kosek says. “You start to get a bit frustrated and angry, and before you know it you’re writing a story.”
Kosek’s story about student loan debt, The Default Trigger, was released in March as a 52-page digital graphic novel. He calls it a “sci-fi noir,” and he’s putting it out there for free. If you want to support his indie work, there’s an identical pay-what-you-want version.
“This was a topic that I wasn’t seeing anyone talk about in any facet of pop culture,” Kosek says. “I thought I’d take a stab at it.”
We invited Kosek to chat about his unique, fascinating effort, which he says he often worked on from his car during lunch breaks…
Q. What made you want to do a comic about student loans?
A. Personal experiences were a big factor. Going to those big student loan fairs at school and finding out that a lot of that information and promises they made weren’t completely true once you sign the papers, which you need a finance degree to understand. You get mad that your lenders weren’t willing to work with you when you couldn’t find a job. Aggravating phone calls with customer service reps that go in circles and endless robo-calls if you’re a day late on a payment.
Student loans are something that comes up in conversation with my friends quite often. It’s our biggest bill and this giant weight on our backs. We’re all putting off buying houses, cars, and even starting families because these loan bills are so crippling. We don’t regret our education because it enabled us to have the careers we want and pursue our dreams. But at the same time, we don’t get to use the money we earn to really contribute to the economy so it’s very defeating.
A politician in the story calls grads “coddled brats” with “an entitlement problem,” evoking criticism of the Occupy Wall Street group. How do you feel about that?
There is a perception that this generation wants our loans to be erased. That we feel entitled to free stuff, and that’s not the case. We worked hard for our degrees, and we want to pay the loans back, but there are almost no protections for us. Lenders have a stacked deck and in so many situations, a student loan lender can turn into a legally protected loan shark.
Debt isn’t a sexy or visual topic, so how’d you come up with the premise of the story?
The premise came from asking the question, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?” There has to be a reason, and that reason has to be evil. So many articles and stories use phrases like “slave to debt” so I took that a bit literally and started to think about scenarios around that. And being a big sci-fi fan, aliens seemed like a natural villain.
What about the title?
The title took me a long time to figure out. I just started researching banking terms and brainstorming ideas. Literally writing dozens of words out until things started working. “Default” is always part of every student loan article and “trigger” I’ve seen used as a bookkeeping and billing term. At some point I saw those two words in my notes and put them together.
You have a BFA and a BA in graphic design. Did you have to finance those with student loans? If so, still paying them back?
I have some student loans. Luckily, I was able to get scholarships and things like that, but it’s still enough to affect my personal finances and life decisions. Pretty much everyone I know has significant amounts of student debt, and despite our well-paying, white-collar jobs, we all struggle with them. It’s our biggest bill every month.
What do you do when you’re not writing and drawing about our secret debt overlords?
I’m a professional graphic designer and I’ve worked in advertising and publishing. That keeps me pretty busy. In addition, I’m married and I’ve got a toddler at home, so that’s my second full-time gig. I’m also a big sports fan, so I try to fit in watching some games whenever I can.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Fine art, advertising, design, movies, memes, really everything around me. But as far as comics, I tend to love the creators that write and draw their own stories. Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt, and Frank Miller‘s earlier work are big inspirations for me. It’s really a golden age for indie comics right now and a ton of great creator-owned indie comics are coming out on a weekly basis.
How long does it take to make something like this, from conception to finished project?
I’ve been thinking about the initial story for at least a year and a half. Insidious conspiracy and story ideas percolate. It took a while to start to craft a story and develop a main character. Once I got a story down, I began drawing, and from there, it was about two months to do the initial art, working nights, weekends, and lunch breaks. Another month to finish things up with color, lettering, and so on.
You said you learned a lot doing this graphic novel. What was your biggest mistake? What did you learn from the process?
The biggest mistake was not doing a full script before I began to make the art. I figured since I was drawing it myself, I didn’t need it, but as it turns out, I was wrong. There were a lot of story elements I needed to figure out on the fly. I even had to trash a few pages to fix story holes. That could have all been figured out in the writing stage.
What’s been the response so far?
The response has been great and Boing Boing was a fun surprise. People are really digging the concept and I keep hearing how relatable it is. Frankly, I think it’s really awesome that you guys reached out to me about this. Did you ever think you’d be running a story about a comic book?
That’s kind of the reason I really went after this story, because I knew the subject matter could speak to so many people. This is one of the great social/economic/political problems of my generation and it’s an important topic to bring up in fiction. I also love that I’m getting people to read the story who aren’t necessarily comic fans.
Any plans for a sequel?
Maybe, although I really like the idea of the story having some open-ended questions. Some mystery and a bit of doom and gloom. It’s kind of like the current state of things with the student debt crisis. We just don’t know how this is all going to play out. Every month we get a bill and the needle barely moves, as we write another giant check.
There are soap box promises made by politicians but in the end, we as a country aren’t really taking this issue seriously. I feel like we’re collectively treating this problem like a check engine light in your car. By the time you get around to addressing it, the engine won’t turn over, and you’re really screwed.