Interrogating First Second's "City of Spies"

World War II has always offered a rich background for storytellers, and the new First Second graphic novel, "City of Spies," takes a look at life on the home front from the perspective of a child. The book is the comics debut of writers Laurence Klavan and Susan Kim, but the two are hardly amateurs. Klavan is an Edgar Award-winning mystery writer and playwright and Kim is a playwright, television writer and documentarian with a long list of credits. Their book tells the story of Evelyn, a young girl sent to live with her aunt in Manhattan during the war and ends up hunting Nazi spies with a boy from the apartment building.

Klaven and Kim are joined on "City of Spies" by artist Pascal Dizin, a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York City, who illustrates the book in a ligne clare style for the main story and a more classical comic book style for Evelyn's own artwork. CBR News spoke with the creative team about the book, which is on sale now.

CBR: Where did the idea for "City of Spies" come from?

SUSAN KIM: The germ of it came from a late friend of mine, an elderly woman who grew up in a wealthy but dysfunctional household, much like Evelyn in our book. She said that when she was a kid, she used to hunt for Nazi spies on the upper east side of Manhattan during the early 1940s. I casually told Laurence this over dinner one night, and he immediately said, "That would make a great movie." We stayed late at the restaurant, sketching out the rough story on the tablecloth, then spent the next year writing it.

Was it important that the characters stumble upon an actual spy ring, that it's more than simply a game they're playing and overactive imagination?

LAURENCE KLAVAN: Discovering a Nazi spy ring was a event big and heightened enough for a graphic novel-especially the revelation of what the ring is working on, which I won't give away. But it was also important emotionally that Evelyn act in real life to complete her conscious quest to be a hero and her unconscious need to separate from her indifferent father, to, in other words, start growing up.

How important was incorporating Lia and Brendan's stories into the plot and making them a part of the action?

SK: You could definitely say Evelyn is the protagonist of the story and that she and Tony are the heroes. But the book's main themes are figuring out heroism in your own terms and learning how to accept who you really are. So even though they're both grownups, Lia and Brendan struggle with the same issues as Evelyn. We thought it made for a better story that all of the characters have to learn to let go of the relationships and insecurities that are holding them back. By doing that, they all become heroes - and find love and a new kind of family unit at the end.

At what stage did you decide to make Evelyn a cartoonist and incorporate her comics into the story?

LK: Evelyn being a cartoonist came early on because we liked the idea of having two contrasting visual planes to work with, and that it gave her a world to escape into and then out of as the story went on. Plus, we identified with her trying to endure and make sense of life through creativity, which we both began to do as children.

Susan, you've written a lot of children's television over the years, and Laurence, I know a lot of your work has been in theater and prose. What is the key to writing for a younger audience?

SK: I've taught a workshop called "Writing From the Child," since the best work for kids isn't created for them, but rather arises from the child most adults still have buried inside. It's about re-entering that perspective - physical, emotional, social - and tapping into the humor and imagination of being a kid while still keeping one foot in the grownup world of structure, dramatic action, and deadlines.

LK: Writing for children is relatively new for me and I know no key except identifying with the child, using the parts of yourself that are still and always will be child-like if not childish. Otherwise, you respect the story enough to structure it as well as anything else, maybe better, since kids' attention spans are shorter than adults' and they accept stories more deeply-and reject them more cruelly.

Pascal, what it that attracted you to the "City of Spies" project and what did you feel you could contribute to it?

PASCAL DIZIN: I had just signed on with my agent, who showed a mini-comic of mine to Mark Siegel, the editor in chief at First Second. According to my agent, Mark took one look at my stuff and said, "I've got something for this guy!" When I took on the job, I wasn't sure I was ready to  tackle such a big project, but the script was just too good for me to pass up. It was right up my alley: the 1940s, the humor, the adventure, the strong female characters - it was like the book was written for me.

This ligne claire style you used for the main story, what made you feel that was the right approach for the book?

PD: The ligne claire style was something that I had been playing around with a bit before I got hired and it just seemed like a natural fit for the story and time period so I ran with it on the book.

The comics within the book are done in a slightly different style.  What was the key to getting that right?

PD: That style was much harder to pin down. Where the main ligne claire style seemed obvious, this one could have gone a bunch of different ways. I did a number of different samples ranging from a more realistic Alex Raymond type look to a more modern Bruce Timm/animated "Teen Titans" look before settling on what's in the book. What wound up being the key for me was to think of the drawings as what Evelyn is imagining in her head as she's drawing, so it takes a lot from the sort of comics/cartoons she might have seen at the time (to name just a few: CC Beck's Captain Marvel stuff, gag comics artists like Roy Nelson, and "Caspar the Friendly Ghost") mixed with the cartoony way kids draw. 

"City of spies" is your first graphic novel. What can you tell our readers about who you are and from where they may have heard of you?

LK: I won an Edgar Award for mystery writing and in the past few years published "The Cutting Room" and "The Shooting Script," novels about a movie geek detective. My theater work includes the libretto for "Bed and Sofa," a musical which won two Obies in New York; and the one-acts, "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Show Must Go On," which were originally produced in NY and are now done a lot in schools around the U.S. My short work has been published in mags from "The Alaska Quarterly" and "Conjunctions to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine."

SK: I'm more of a writing mutt. I've also written plays - my adaptation of Amy Tan's "Joy Luck Club" has been performed in NYC and around the world, and my one-acts have been produced and published as well. But I've also written documentaries, including "Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust" and the WGA award-winning "Paving the Way," as well as tons of children's TV for Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS, and Cartoon Network. I also have a non-fiction book for adults out right now called "Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation." Weirdly enough, I even once wrote a Martha Stewart Christmas special, which means I now know how to make a holly wreath out of coat hangers.

Susan and Laurence, you have another book coming out from :01 this fall, "Brain Camp." What can you tell us about that one?

SK: "Brain Camp" is the story of two 14-year old losers, Jenna and Lucas, who are such underachievers, they can't even get into camp. Naturally, their parents are thrilled when the country's hottest new SAT prep camp, the Fielding Course, takes them on at the last second. But there's something weird going on that explains how the stupidest kids on earth mysteriously get transformed into genius zombies overnight... and Jenna and Lucas have to figure it out before they're next.

"City of Spies" is on sale now from First Second Books.

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