“Bad Houses” is not Sara Ryan’s first comic. The acclaimed novelist responsible for “The Rules for Hearts” and “Empress of the World” has written a number of fictional and non-fiction short comics for many outlets, and has even been nominated for an Eisner Award. For her first full-length graphic novel she collaborated with one of contemporary comics’ most unique and dynamic voices, Carla Speed McNeil. McNeil has won almost every award in comics for “Finder,” her long-running self-published series that recently found a new home at Dark Horse Comics.
“Bad Houses” is a unique book which has earned praise from Warren Ellis and others for its story of two teenagers in the small town of Failin, Oregon. It’s about how we understand the past and how we chose to not let it define us. It is the story of a community, but more than that, it is the story of things: a city, a building, a storage unit, a photograph, a relationship — the meanings we assign to them and how we live with that knowledge. Like its characters, it is a book that understands failure and loss, but it is also a romantic, triumphant and hopeful story.
CBR News: Where did the idea for “Bad Houses” come from?
Sara Ryan: I’ll tell you one of many sources of inspiration for the story. Years ago, I was waiting to get into an estate sale and noticed a sign taped to the front door of the house: “JOHN AND FRED NOT WELCOME AT THIS SALE.”
That got me thinking about the sort of behavior someone would have to engage in to be barred from attending estate sales; it was the initial spark for the character of Fred Peck.
You’ve worked on a few short comics previously such as “Me and Edith Head,” but I think it’s fair to say that people know you from your novels. Why did this idea become a comic?
Ryan: Because the book is so concerned with people’s relationships to objects and the impact of objects in their environments, I really wanted readers to be able toÂ see the objects, not just visualize them from prose descriptions.
How much did writing those short stories help before tackling something longer like “Bad Houses,” and what did you not expect about working on a comic of this length?
Ryan: The comics I wrote before “Bad Houses” definitely helped develop my sense of visual storytelling, and writing prose novels gave me a certain amount of confidence that I could manage a longer, more complex narrative in the format. Something I didn’t expect: Carla’s drawings of the characters have become precisely how I see them all in my head. I can’t really imagine another artist getting them right.
How much research into this subject did you do?
Ryan: My research mainly consisted of going to a lot of estate sales, taking a lot of photos, and eavesdropping.
The book is set in a small town in Oregon called Failin — did you have a model for the town? I know there was a Henry Failing who was a major figure in Portland, Oregon back in the 19th Century.
Ryan: Congratulations on catching the Failing not-quite-reference! I was captivated soon after I moved to Portland by the “Failing Pedestrian Bridge” — what more ominous name could there be?
That said, I invented the town of Failin because I didn’t want to be bound to the history of a real place.
I keep thinking of “Bad Houses” as being constructed and conceived in a novelistic sense. That’s unfair to say that about comics, but by and large comics do not tend to have the complex structure that “Bad Houses” does. Is that something you thought about? Did you have a model for what you were trying to do?
Ryan: I didn’t have a model per se, but I’ll give a couple examples of creators I find inspiring, both in general and specifically in relation to “Bad Houses.” I love Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” how she moves between her father’s story and her own, and also the importance of the family home to the narrative. And I love how Jaime Hernandez handles his “Love and Rockets” characters aging and changing.
Carla, you write and draw “Finder” and need little introduction to comics readers. You don’t often draw something written by others. What about “Bad Houses” interested you?
Carla Speed McNeil: Sara and I have been friends for a long time, and always meant to collaborate.
How did your process on “Bad Houses” differ from how you usually work. Or did it?
McNeil: It really didn’t. Sara sent me the script, and we shot a lot of e-mails back and forth on character design. I pencilled the book in thirteen-page increments until the entire book was done, and then it was ready for inks and finishes.
Was the decision to make the book in black and white yours?/
McNeil: I don’t remember that part. I think it was just assumed from the beginning that it would be black and white.
How much research and reference did you rely on for the book? Sara lives in Oregon, but I know you’re on the East coast. Was there anything you were very conscious of getting right?
McNeil: Between all my Portland friends and the Internet, I hope I got it down.
There are a lot of entertaining little touches in the book — the way some of the historical and expository parts are depicted for example. How much was that something Sara asked for in the script and how much was you going, “What if we did…”?
McNeil: Well, it’s a pretty fluid process. Sara has a very strong visual sense and always had a vivid idea of the feel she wanted the book to have. Every character has his or her setting, each one FULL OF STUFF, but what that stuff is and whether it’s orderly or chaotic, what it says about that character, takes some thought. When I adapt exposition to comics, the result is often collage or montage-like. For instance, the history of Failin naturally lent itself to a chocolate-box approach to each tidbit.
I realize that I never did ask what the book is about. As a last question, what do you tell people the book is about? What’s your sales/library pitch?
McNeil: I tell people it’s a love story between the son of an estate-sales arranger and the daughter of a hoarder. Culture clash.
Ryan: I say that, and also that it’s about learning when to hold on and when to let go.
“Bad Houses” by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil is on sale now.