Panagariya & Stone Make Spelling Bees Enter the Ring in "BUZZ!"

It's universally accepted that spelling bees are horrible, torturous things -- on par with waterboarding. Next time you're watching one, though, picture a contestant spelling the word "onomatopoeia" and the letters becoming weaponized. The contestant then uses "onomatopoeia" to attack their opponent in a special, finishing move sort of way. That happens and -- BOOM -- ratings just shot through the roof, and now everyone wants to become a spelling bee street fighter. That's the dose writer Ananth Panagariya and artist Tessa Stone are serving up in their absolutely mental book, "BUZZ!"

"BUZZ!" goes on sale December 11 from Oni Press, and anyone who enjoys "Sharknife" and "Scott Pilgrim" will want to pick this dandy little book up for a pre-holiday treat. There's fast writing, charged art, and spelling bee contestants reminiscent of "Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!" and "Street Fighter II." It's clear both Panagariya and Stone know the score, that they're firing on all cylinders: take an obscure idea (spelling bees), and do something only comics can do -- make that obscure idea into something visceral, something fast, something terribly cool. Panagariya and Stone spoke with CBR News about their collaboration, special moves made from hard-to-spell words, and street fighting spelling bees.

CBR News: Ananth, "BUZZ!"  is very much like "'Street Fighter II' comes to a high school spelling bee to throw fireballs and rock out dragon punches." That was your pitch, wasn't it? But seriously, where did this absolutely insane idea come from?

Ananth Panagariya: In 2005 I had a long commute that left me pretty drained, but I'd come home and channel surf and work on comics until I fell asleep. I came across competitive spelling bees on ESPN and started watching them regularly for a month or so -- they reminded me of shonen manga and all that just rattled around in the back of my head for a couple of years.

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I feel like folks who liked "Sharknife" would totally eat this book up. But that's too narrow of an observation. Who else?

Panagariya: If you like "Sharknife," "Scott Pilgrim," or "King City," you might like "BUZZ!" All those books exist in worlds a few degrees removed from ours, they all have some international influence on the visual style, and that's sort of where "BUZZ!" is coming from. Sports manga like "Eyeshield 21" or "Slam Dunk" also come to mind. You might also like it if you're into sports movies, although the approach in "BUZZ!" is um... nontraditional.

Tessa, your art is wild -- fitting for a book that shows contestants using alphabet letters as weapons and super-powered finishing moves. How did you get involved in the project? And how many video games did you play in between page production?

Tessa Stone: Man, thanks! I certainly tried to live up to the visuals I was getting in my head just from reading Ananth's script. I was really lucky to get involved, which had a lot to do with George Rohac, who worked for Oni Press at the time. He was kind enough to hit me up and ask me if this was something I was interested in, and let me tell you I couldn't say 'yes' fast enough. I've admired Ananth's work for a long time, so it felt like a dream.

As for video games, man, I probably just played a lot of ["Guild Wars 2"] in-between so I started just thinking of each speller as having their own 'class' and 'skills'. [Laughs

So letters play a really large role in the story. Heck, one could sensibly argue they are the story. How did you approach each "word-as-weapon" sequence in laying out the pages?

Stone: This felt pretty tricky for me. I really wanted to make sure that each speller had a 'theme,' as mentioned before, so I really tried to stay true to it, but also create something new and visual or else people would get bored. I sometimes would simply draw how the word would appear first, then find a way to focus the page around it and make it pop. It was important to me that the words, when used, were first and foremost.

A lot of it was also back and forth with Ananth and myself. He had a lot of great ideas and sometimes it would spark inspiration in me. It was just such a blast.

Speaking of production, what was a typical production week like for you two? Lots of revisions, lots of back and forth? Or heads-down, pedal to the metal?

Panagariya: It was a mix. Typically, when one of our jobs tapered off, the other's job picked up. There was definitely a lot of back and forth in early production stages and in late editing stages. Tessa is amazing, and a lot of our influences and ideas about where we want to go with our work are on the same wavelength. Working with her is a lot of fun.

Stone: Shucks! He flatters me, but he's the real treat. One of my favorite aspects of working with Ananth is that he has a clear vision, so he's not being lazy and letting me do all the legwork, but he definitely allows me creative elbow room to run around and have a good time. It's a tricky balance, and one that he has mastered quite well.

Sometimes, in the end though, we'd just disappear for weeks at a time from each other and have our nose to pages until we were ready to show off what we had.

What about you, Ananth? What's your writing process like? The book would suggest you have any number of fighting game soundtracks looping through your headphones...

Panagariya: [Laughs] I think I alternated between hip-hop and soundtracks. Something about the ego and narrative of rap is a good match for the flamboyant competitive undercurrent of shonen-style comics.

"BUZZ!" was a new experience for me because it required waaay more research than my past projects. I started by building an outline and doing a lot of preliminary research. Once I start writing I usually disappear into a hole until the draft is done, but with "BUZZ!" I got sidetracked doing a lot of follow-up research on linguistics & etymology. I went down a lot of rabbit holes.

Spelling bees in school would have been a whole different game with competitors like "The Cosmonaut" and "The Golden Kid." Were either of you involved in spelling bees?

Panagariya: Nah... my family was all about math. Spelling Bee kids would have crushed me.

Tessa Stone: I surely was not. I'm going to be straight up -- I am the worst speller.

OK, quickly, what's the hardest word to spell?

Panagariya: My name! Every Starbucks is an adventure.

Stone: Apparatchiks! It's in the book. When I finished all the pages, my poor (but awesome) editor, James Lucas Jones, came back to me and was like, "Sorry, this is totally spelled wrong." So in a flurry I fixed it only to find out one e-mail later that I had spelled it wrong AGAIN in a completely different way.

I'd get my butt kicked in the world of "BUZZ!"

"BUZZ" is on sale Dec. 11 from Oni Press.

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