Friends With Boys cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks and This One Summer co-creator Mariko Tamaki both had a pretty killer 2018—Hicks wrapped up her lauded Nameless City trilogy, while Tamaki expanded her Marvel reach with a new volume of X-23—but both seem poised to top themselves in 2019.
In advance of what’s sure to be a major year for these two multi-talented cartoonists, Paste is thrilled to host a chat between Tamaki and Hicks arranged by their mutual publisher, First Second. Check that out below, and be sure to nab Comics Will Break Your Heart in February, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me in May and Pumpkinheads in August.
Mariko Tamaki: What is the first thing you know about a story before you write/draw a comic (when it’s your own work and not a collaboration)?
Faith Erin Hicks: Hm, that’s a good question! It varies, actually. For some stories (that I write and draw) I start with a character. Like my graphic novel Friends with Boys, which was about a homeschooled girl going to high school for the first time (it’s a little bit based on my own experience being an ex-homeschooled kid). With other stories, the themes of the story come first, like with my fantasy trilogy The Nameless City. I had all these thoughts about complicated friendships between two kids born on opposite sides of a political conflict that I wanted to get out of my head. With Comics Will Break Your Heart, I think I started with a theme. I was struggling with the idea of art and commerce, and how the two are intrinsically wedded together… or are they? And how art can sometimes be exploitive, and not financially reward the people who actually make it. I put these thoughts and feelings into a story, and eventually that story became Comics Will Break Your Heart.
Is it cheating if I just ask you that question back? Because I’m actually super curious. Where do the stories you write come from? Is there some germ of an idea, or do they come from a character who pops into your mind? Do you draw much from your own life?
Tamaki: Most of the time, it’s character. Skim is the best example, I saw her completely before I had any idea of what the story would be, which is to say, I knew who she was. The goal of This One Summer for me was to move beyond just the single character, I wanted it to be about a kind of community, a world away from the world. Both of those books are inspired by my own childhoods and, obviously, Jillian’s storytelling, insights and experiences make the complete book.
Writing for Marvel and DC Comics it’s a little different, I think because of the timing of these things you have to have a clear idea of what is going to happen in your story. Also, clearly, with Marvel and DC Comics you need to understand your character, which is largely canon, and then your job is “what’s next?”
What do you look for in a collaboration?
Hicks: Usually when I collaborate I am the artist and I’m collaborating with a writer. I have written scripts for other cartoonists to draw, but not nearly as frequently as when I’ve drawn stories written by other people. I want a collaborator who is going to create a story that’s engaging to me, and completely different from something I’d come up with on my own. I also want a writing partner who’s going to respect me as co-creator of this graphic novel that we’re making together. Comics are a collaborative medium, and as an artist, I don’t want to work with anyone who views me as just a tool to bring their vision to life. I want to bring my own specificity and vision to this book! Fortunately I’ve only worked with great writers who respect me and what I bring to the project, so I’m grateful for that.
I’m curious how you pick your collaborations as well. I first started reading your comics 10 years ago when Skim, a graphic novel you made in collaboration with Jillian Tamaki, was published. Skim kind of blew my mind! It was unlike any graphic novel I’d seen before, and seemed to be a very unique collaboration. Later you created This One Summer, also with Jillian. But you’ve also worked on superhero comics, and you have a new original graphic novel coming out, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, drawn by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, which I’m super excited for. It must be very different writing creator-owned comics verses superhero comics, how do you approach that collaborative aspect? Do you prefer one or the other?
Tamaki: I think the thing I like about graphic novel collaborations is the feeling of having the story evolve because it’s two people telling a story. With This One Summer, Jillian and I did a lot of editing and story work together to get it to where it is now, and I love that part of writing comics. Jillian is so amazing at getting to the heart of a story, at asking the questions that make a story that much more real in the telling. She is the reason the story with Rose and her mother works the way it does.
Rosemary and I (in Laura Dean Keeps Breaking up with Me) have done the same, talking about characters and finding nuances as she works on the book. She has such incredible empathy for the characters in this story!
With superhero comics, it’s more of a writing exercise, in terms of the mechanics. I think you as a writer have to have a very strong sense of what the final will be before you write, because there’s so little time (maybe a month tops) to get the whole thing done. Writing superhero stories has forced me to outline. Also you have to think about pacing (which I don’t spend as much time thinking about with a graphic novel) because you only have 20 or 22 pages per issue and you need to make sure what you’re asking is possible within that space. That said, it’s still collaborative. You still have conversations, figure things out. I love the emails I get from people I work with on superhero comics, the wild “what ifs” I get in the middle of the night from artists.
What is something you think people might know about you from reading your work (by which I mean, what insights about you do you think you seed in the stories you write)?
Hicks: I’m always very concerned with empathy and trying to understand the points of view of people who are different from me, and I hope that comes across in my work. Is that cheesy? It feels cheesy to type, but I think it’s true. I’m curious about other people, where they come from, what their experiences and damages are. I feel like the stories I write and draw are usually kind of about that? Trying to figure other people out, and see how I can relate to them.
On a related note, I’m curious how you bring your personal stamp to your licensed or superhero comic work. Do you always try to bring a personal angle when you write characters who were created by someone else?
Tamaki: I have this joke now that almost every Marvel comic I have ever written has cake in it. Which is (mostly) true. It speaks to my obsession with cooking shows. But I also think that there is something to the comics I write that is always personal. Which is maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but is something I always want to see in a hero story. I think the thing that makes the big moments (the fighting and the galaxy stuff) big is the smaller, more intimate things that come before and after. I want that contrast so I typically put that in there. Also I like a jovial camaraderie with my characters, and so I tend to play that up (with She-Hulk and Hellcat or Laura and Gabby in X-23) because I like some good ribbing between characters.
What is it you think (other than actual art) that distinguishes people who work in comics from other medium/genres? What makes comics people different? Are we just nerds?
Hicks: I hang out with a lot of animators (I live in Vancouver and my fiance works in animation), and I think cartoonists and animators are actually very similar. We’re all passionate, hardworking people who sometimes view the world a little bit differently. Or a little bit strangely? As someone who writes and draws I feel like I’m constantly scanning the world for inspiration, looking for new stories or characters to latch onto and shove into my next graphic novel. And I see this behavior in the other creative people around me, whether they’re cartoonists or animators, they always seem to be looking around for inspiration for stories they want to tell. I think we are nerds, but we’re, like, story nerds! We have stories inside us that we want to share with the world.
So I’m always fascinated by the origin stories of people who work in comics, because we all have such different journeys. How did you come to work in this medium?
Tamaki: I started making comics because my friend Emily Pohl-Weary had a magazine called Kiss Machine, and she started a series of mini-comics written by and illustrated by women. So it was a very safe, low-stakes place to start. You know? A MINI comic. A feminist magazine. Nothing like being wrapped in the cozy wool scarf that is a Canadian periodical! And I just happened to have an amazingly talented cousin who was an illustrator and willing to work with me, Jillian. And that went well, so we expanded the original comic to a graphic novel, which was published by Groundwood Books. And then, well you know, it’s just a really great medium, who wouldn’t want to work in comics?! I’d worked in theater so I was really into the idea of writing with other people, and so I kept looking for and working on other comics projects. Now I’m basically hooked. I love comics people, I love comics readers, it’s a very nice place to be really.
Mariko Tamaki writes comic books for BOOM! Studios, Marvel and DC Comics. She is the co-creator of the New York Times bestseller This One Summer with Jillian Tamaki, which received Eisner and Governor General awards, as well as Caldecott and Printz Honors. Mariko lives in Oakland.
Faith Erin Hicks is a writer and artist living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her previous works include the Nameless City trilogy, Friends with Boys, The Last of Us: American Dreams (with Neil Druckmann), Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong (with Prudence Shen), and the Eisner Award-winning The Adventures of Superhero Girl.