Today, CBR rounds out our series of indie comics creator spotlights and our Comic-Con International coverage with highlights from one of the most acclaimed cartoonists working in the burgeoning field of graphic novels aimed at teens and young adults – Hope Larson. In a spotlight panel hosted by YA novelist and “The Plain Janes” scribe Cecil Castellucci, Larson spoke about her personal history as a cartoonist, her experiences shifting from indie publishing to corporate publisher Atheneum Books and her upcoming YA graphic novel “Mercury.”
Somewhat different than other San Diego spotlight panels where things run as a more strict Q&A, the pair often launched into more full fledged discussion of Larson’s work with Castellucci starting things off noting, “One thing that I wanted to say that I personally love about Hope Larson’s comics is that they’re about girls that are individual and different. She really captures the essence of what it is to be a girl trying to navigate the sometimes dangerous waters of friendship and growing up and making individual choices without concern for group think. She also has an incredible grasp of landscape.”
When the novelist asked Larson about her choice to go into comics, the cartoonist admitted that “There was a brief period in high school where I thought I was going to draw comics, and I decided that I should probably do film instead because it seemed like less work at the time.” Though she always drew, Larson spent her college years majoring in film and illustration, which both influenced her visual style when she returned to comics. “Film was too collaborative,” she explained, adding, “I’m interested in sneaking back into film a little bit and doing both comics and film.”
What pulled the artist to comics full time was online encouragement from “Understanding Comics” author Scott McCloud, who found Larson’s work in an oft-repeated “cartoonist secret origin.” McCloud was on hand at the panel when Castellucci asked about the events that led to Larson’s comics work, prompting the artist to tell him, “I didn’t even know who you were. Bryan [Lee O’Malley] had to tell me, and people were like, ‘Wow! Scott McCloud! That’s like a really big deal.’ So I went and I got your book at Chicago Comics, and they were like, ‘Oh, is this for a class?'”
The creator’s breakout work came by way of web comics and publishing of “Salamander Dream” by AdHouse Books. While Castellucci praised Larson for the directness of the story of a girl who says goodbye to her imaginary friends (which can be viewed in its entirety online at The Secret Friends Society), the artist admitted, “I wasn’t that interested in the storytelling for this book. I mostly wanted to work with the visual elements of comics because I was a lot more comfortable drawing than I was writing. I hadn’t done any writing in college…I just wanted to draw nature imagery, a lot of trees, stuff that felt really alive.
“Now that I think about it, if you read ‘Salamander Dream’ it sort of has the normal plot, and then the third act becomes really visual and a bit more surreal. And I followed that pattern with almost everything else that I’ve done.”
By her own standards, Larson’s first story-driven effort remains “Gray Horses” which came out through Oni Press and won her the 2006 Special Recognition Eisner Award, though even there the artist’s focus remained heavily rooted in the visual nature of comics. “I wanted to do a book that would express what it would feel like to be semi-fluent in a couple of languages, and I thought I could do that in design. So the main character’s inner voice is in French because that’s how she experiences the world, but everybody else’s in is English. That was really what I wanted to work with.” Castellucci and Larson went over parts of the the process by which “Gray Horses” was created mixing the creator’s signature brush work with Adobe Illustrator tools to make for a more lyrical drawing line. That style worked to particular affect on the book’s cover. “When I did this cover, I had free reign so I could do whatever I wanted,” she explained. “It’s not in my contract that I have control over the cover. When you’re with a smaller publisher, you have a lot more freedom and control over that kind of thing.”
That tension between the outreach possibilities of working with a big publisher like Atheneum (a unit of Simon & Schuster, itself a unit of Viacom) and having complete creative say became a centerpiece of the panel when the topic turned to Larson’s last book “Chiggers.” In creating the story of friendships built and broken at summer camp, the cartoonist originally had no plans to write a story fitting into a specific publishing genre. “When I wrote ‘Chiggers’ – and I can’t even believe this now that I think about it – I was not thinking of it as a middle grade book, even though it’s basically a straight middle grade book. It’s summer camp. It’s very, very clearly for middle schoolers, but I was writing for my own enjoyment, and I thought it would be fun to set a book at summer camp where there are no adults around so kids can run wild. There aren’t really a lot of situations where you have kids being kids.”
A success with reviewers and readers, “Chiggers” faltered for Larson in the way it was presented to potential readers. “I do not like this cover at all,” she said of the final design and illustration depicting two characters on a camp dock. “I did a couple of ideas, and the Atheneum marketing department were not into any of those. What the marketing department said about the cover was the word of God…And this cover says, ‘This is a book about summer camp!’ And it is. It’s very literal. I get where they’re coming from, and I was happy to just be done with this whole fight over the cover…but I feel like it cheapens the whole book when I have a cover like this on it because there’s a lot more going on in this book than just a book about summer camp.”
Castellucci expressed her own consternation at working within the restrictions of writing a YA book for a YA market, with both author’s noting that any use of “the F word” in any book for young adults guarantees the volume not to be carried in school libraries or libraries in general. While Larson thought it better to work to get into that system, Castellucci joked that “The Plain Janes” is the only book she’s every written that didn’t drop the bomb. Although,
“They get really icky about language. I always have to cut down my swears,” Larson said of working with editors. “You can’t show any nudity really, which generally isn’t an issue, but you really have to police your visuals a lot harder than you would if you were writing prose. It’s easy to flip through a book and find a naked person if it’s a comic, and if it’s just prose, it’s really hard to flip through there and find a swear word or whatever. You know there’s a little bit of a double standard. The big one I ran into trouble with in ‘Mercury’ – which I think is hilarious – is that I wanted to include the word ‘nipple’ in the dialogue in a completely non-sexual way. And the editors were so upset about that. I have swears in there, and that was what they latched onto that went too far. But I fought them on it, and it’s still in there…I try to write based on [the fact that] I knew these words when I was 12. I wasn’t running around swearing all the time, but kids know these words.”
Speaking of “Mercury,” Larson’s upcoming graphic novel set to ship in early 2010, the artist revealed that the story is split between the 1800s and the present day, focusing on two girls living where the cartoonist herself formerly resided in Canada. “We were getting ready to move away from Nova Scotia…so I drove around and took zillions of photos of all this evocative imagery. Everything in Nova Scotia is evocative,” she explained, noting that the Nova Scotia of today is still very much like it was in the 1800s in terms of its physical landscape.
“Originally, I wanted to do a book about copper thieves,” Larson continued. “Copper is a really valuable metal right now, so there are people who go around and steal copper wire and stuff. It’s insane, and I wanted to do a story about that, and I couldn’t figure out how to tell a story about copper thieves. So somehow I got from there to ‘Mercury’ which is about a gold rush and of course, the element mercury.”
Wrapping up on broader issues of comics creation, Castellucci inquired what the pros and cons of work in the comics medium could be, with Larson saying, “It takes a really long time to draw comics. That would be the main con. It takes almost two years to do a graphic novel, and I’m getting a little bit slower with every book. It takes about six months on the script, and then there are revisions on the script, and by the time you get around to drawing it’s another year. It’s physically difficult to draw…and nobody really gets comics other than comics fans. For most people, they still aren’t interested in comics.” Though on the upside for any creator, “Comics are really, really cheap to produce, and you only need one person. So unlike film where all these other people are involved and you have so many people messing with your brainchild, you can basically do whatever you want – especially if you’re willing to work with a small publisher. They will not edit you.”