Thursday, September 12, 2013

Comics at ALA Annual 2013: Interviews with Alexis E. Fajardo, Faith Erin Hicks, and Raina Telgemeier

From the time I was a child reading Nickeloeon Magazine and Disney Adventures (Bone FTW!), I have loved comics. In fact, one of my biggest regrets is that I didn't preserve our collection of these magazines for posterity and future enjoyment. I dream of one day spending weeks at the Schulz Library reading all the back issues - just for fun and maybe a research paper. (Seriously, if anyone has done scholarly research about Nickeloeon Magazine, please send it my way. Considering it's where so many great artists got their start, it would make for riveting story.)  Reading comics has imprinted a love for reading and writing. So it's was beyond thrilling to be able to interview several graphic novelists during this year's ALA conference and learn more about their creative process - and just be in the presence of greatness (Does that sound too fangirl-ish?). They kindly shared their time and work with me, and I want to give back by highlighting their incredible stories. Go buy their books. Right now. I'll wait.

Alexis (Lex) Fajardo is the author of the epic Kid Beowulf series. Travel back to your Brit Lit class when you studied the Anglo-Saxon poem about Beowulf, Grendel, and the warriors of old. As exciting as this ancient tale is, it is missing a certain something - and is definitely difficult to read, even for us English majors. Fortunately, Lex Fajardo is the kind of author who wants to know why. Why are Beowulf and Grendel doomed to fight against each other? What's the deal with the dragon? Why did  Hrothgar supersize his hall, Herot? And why isn't there any potato soup in the original? (Okay, that's my own question.) Each volume starts with a tale in verse of the original epic, but reminds the reader that so much happened before the story began. As Fajardo writes in Kid Beowulf and the Blood-Bound Oath:

"At least, that's as men have told it - 
as I said, they twist the truth. 
Too blind to know the proper tale
of a king's run-rampant youth."

What Gregory Maguire/Stephen Schwartz did for The Wizard of Oz in Wicked, Alexis Fajardo has done for Beowulf in Kid Beowulf. But with 67% more dragons, bigger battles, and far fewer power ballads. He breathes new life into stories of old and myths by adding a modern style and sensibility to them. His intricate and engaging drawings transport you into the past that shows his attention to every detail. He is a natural storyteller, who plants the seeds for the future rivalry by creating a back story that is captivating and powerful. Beowulf and Grendel's origins are explored in Kid Beowulf and the Blood-Bound Oath and finally, Grendel's mother has an actual voice! Without giving too much away, Beowulf and Grendel are banished from Daneland at the end of the first book and set out on a journey that leads them to Francia (in Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland) and Spain (Kid Beowulf and the Rise of El Cid). These are wholly original all-ages adventure tales that should be added to every graphic novel collection. Kid Beowulf will inspire readers to think about the whys in stories - and encourage them to write their own perspectives on ancient myths. Lex Fajardo proves that stories live long after the heroes have faded into history - and can be reborn in magical new ways.

Faith Erin Hicks is a trendsetter in the world of comics, serializing her graphic novels, Friends with Boys and Nothing can Possibly Go Wrong in their entirety until the print version was published. Jeff Smith himself said, "I am actually following what I call the Faith Erin Hicks model," and is planning to  serialize his upcoming work online. (Read the wonderful interview with Jeff Smith and Faith Erin Hicks here. What could be better than your comics heroes hanging out with each other?) I could go on about Faith Erin Hicks' prolific history with webcomics and collaborative efforts, but you can learn all that from her entry in the excellent Women in Comics wiki. But what may be missing is how Faith Erin Hicks personifies cool with a distinctly Canadian spin, which makes her both awesome and very welcoming. She is inspiring a new wave of geek girls and guys to embrace their inner geeks and celebrate all of the things that we love, whether it's comics, fighting robots, or obsessions with a certain pale android. The debate about "boy comics" or "girl comics" is moot in her work; she creates comics that appeal to everyone. (She even cleverly tackled the topic of sexism in the comics industry in her blog.) Her stories are carefully plotted, beautifully constructed with characters you like and enjoy. They are people that you would want to be friends with in real life. In Friends with Boys, Maggie is starting public high school for the first time after being home schooled by her mom, who has recently left her family. Maggie has to deal with this transition, not to mention the drama of having three brothers, and oh yeah, a ghost that follows her. I have two words that will pique your interest: zombie musical.

Faith Erin Hicks's latest graphic novel, Nothing can Possibly Go Wrong, is adapted from a prose novel by Prudence Shen. A title like this just oozes with potential foibles, drama, and things that seemed like a good idea at the time. Here's the official description:

You wouldn’t expect Nate and Charlie to be friends. Charlie’s the laid-back captain of the basketball team, and Nate is the neurotic, scheming president of the robotics club. But they are friends, however unlikely — until Nate declares war on the cheerleaders, and the cheerleaders retaliate by making Charlie their figure-head in the ugliest class election campaign the school as ever seen. At stake? Student group funding that will either cover a robotics competition or new cheerleading uniforms — but not both.

High school competitions are taken to the next level when these two very different groups face off. Faith Erin Hicks takes the age old tale of geeks vs. cheerleaders and spins it on its head when the rivals must work together. But this is no after-school special; this is realistic fiction at its finest with plenty of humor and action. And yes, there is an awesome geek girl who isn't an underdog who rises up against the boys to prove she is just as capable. In Nothing can Possibly Go Wrong, it is a given that Joanna has superior robot maneuvering skills. It is the perfect book for nerdy kids (and adults) everywhere who dream big - and are searching for that perfect community of like-minded people, who just might join them for a robot rumble or a Star Trek marathon. 

I can't wait to see what Faith Erin Hicks shares next. In a discussion on tumblr, she mentioned her interest in adapting the work of Lloyd Alexander, one of my favorite writers ever. I can't think of anything better than a Faith Erin Hicks version of The Black Cauldron. She'd get Eilonwy's signature snark down to a science.  

Raina Telgemeier is a rising star in the world of kids comics. In the library I volunteer at, we can't keep her books on the shelf. They are either checked out or on hold. If you're a kid (or adult) who likes comics, chances are that you have read (or should read) Telgemeier's adaptation of Ann M. Martin's  The Babysitter's Club, which has revitalized the series. (Have you seen her Claudia? This is why she was always my favorite.) Telgemeier won an Eisner award for Best Publication for Teens for her memoir, Smile, the story of dental disasters, mean girls, an earthquake, and growing up. Her lighthearted approach to the horrors of middle school somehow makes them easier to handle, knowing she finally found her voice - and smile. If I could, I'd like to give every middle schooler a copy of Smile and let them know that it gets better. In the process of growing up, teen Raina discovers a community of creative people and artists who share the same passion, which is the key to surviving and thriving in middle/high school - and life.

Telgemeier tapped into her experiences with theater and chorus in her most recent book, Drama. It's no surprise that I absolutely adore Drama - and not just because I am a theater geek. This time she tells the fictional story of a group of middle school students struggling to mount a production of Moon over Mississippi while plenty of drama happens behind the curtain. The action centers around Callie, a girl who dreams of becoming a set designer and has big plans for the production. Callie is unabashedly enthusiastic, determined to achieve her goals, and when she crushes, she crushes deeply. I'll leave the deep analysis of Drama for a future blog post, but sufficed to say, there's so much in Drama that makes it both an entertaining read and a jumping off point for amazing discussions. (In fact, I created a discussion guide for Drama that you can access here.)

If your craving for Telgemeier's work is not sated by her own books, you're in luck. She has contributed to many anthologies including Flight, Agnes Quill, Explorer: The Mystery Box (with the second volume, The Lost Islands, in stores October 15), and Fairy Tale Comics, out September 24. She has adapted Rapunzel with a modern sensibility and flair. There are no broken brambles for Raina's Rapunzel. Using acrobatic finesse, she saves herself and the prince, leaving Mother Gothel in the tower. When Gothel demands that Rapunzel get her down, she says, "I’m sorry, Mama Gothel… I don’t know how… besides…I’ve got the whole world to explore." Telgemeier's version of Rapunzel has a universe of possibilities in that last line. Rather than settling down in domestic bliss with her prince, I love the idea of Rapunzel becoming a world traveler and going off on adventures.

Telgemeier's next project, Sisters, will be out on September 1, 2014. It will be about "the inner workings of [Telgemeier’s] family,” focusing on her relationship with her younger sister." Fortunately, she has been posting updates on her Facebook and Instagram pages.

Thank you, Lex Fajardo, Faith Erin Hicks, and Raina Telgemeier, for taking time out of your busy conference schedule to share your incredible work with me! I can't wait to see what you create next.

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