This March, Archaia takes readers on a journey of self-discovery in “An Elegy for Amelia Johnson,” an original black-and-white graphic novel centering around death, life and time. The brainchild of five-time Jeopardy champion Andrew Rostan, “An Elegy for Amelia Johnson” follows Henry and Jillian, the two best friends of cancer patient Amelia Johnson, as they journey across America to help Amelia say goodbye to her closest and dearest friends. Along the way, Henry and Jillian discover how much one person can impact others and unknowingly turn their journey for Amelia into one of self-discovery.
While the book could easily have been called “A Eulogy for Amelia Johnson,” Rostan explained that there was a clear reason for calling it “Elegy.” ““I’m a huge aficionado on 18th and 19th Century British Literature,” he said. “One of the great poems of that time was Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.’ It’s all about being surrounded by death and feeling a lot of emotion towards it, but also not in an entirely negative way. It’s more selective, more peaceful. I think that’s what I was going for in telling the story. Elegy was the starting off point. In the original layout, before Dave came on. Amelia’s name was Emily Johnson. I always liked the name Emily, and it made a great title that people would remember. I changed it to Amelia, which is also a very lovely name, because a really good friend of mine who was looking over some early drafts for me, said that the title sounded like the horror movie ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose.’ It was too much of a bad association.”
According to Rostan, “Amelia Johnson” is a deeply personal story – but not in the conventional sense. “It’s a story about emotions and ideas that I’ve grappled with for most of my life,” Rostan told CBR News. “In terms of big events in the plot happening to me, the short and sweet answer is that they didn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like the things that Henry and Jillian do. I have traveled across the country twice, but that was for moving. The sentiments that the characters express are very personal for me. The moment the action stops and the characters make a personal declaration, that’s pretty much me you’re getting to hear. One of the most important revisions of the book was when I had to go back through and edit the dialogue so that all of the characters didn’t sound like me. In that sense, it is very personal.”
“I have spent my entire life dealing with insecurity, doubt, things everybody goes through,” he continued. “I don’t think that I’m saying anything terribly original about it, but I think the way the words and images look together wrap the story in a different type of meditation on those ideas. I just feel very lucky I had the opportunity to make it happen.”
“I have a weakness for slipping in references to things and arcane knowledge into my writing,” said the Jeopardy champion. “The original draft, before we got to script form, was riddled with that. It was not very good. The kind of knowledge you use to win Jeopardy was as useful and valuable as it is. It didn’t inform Amelia that much. The things I knew about going into it was more writing things from my personal experience. I’ve worked on movies, I’ve written things my entire life – the places in the book, if I hadn’t been there myself, I certainly knew people who had been there. I’ve been loved, I’ve been in love and I know what it’s like to have a little heartache in your life and people very close to me have died. That more than anything is what fueled every single page of the story.”
“From the standpoint of somebody who’s in his twenty-somethings, you graduate from school, you turn around, you go back to grad school – it’s sort of similar to what the characters go through,” said artist Dave Valeza. “They have all these achievements and everything, but you’re still really trying to find your place and you’re still struggling with insecurities. I signed up for this because I could definitely relate to it. A lot of the qualities that the protagonists have, and by qualities I mean flaws, and try to work through, those are flaws that I posses and a lot of my friends posses. The funny thing is that these characters are in their thirties and people don’t realize that this is an ongoing thing. We’re just trying to find our way in the world and it doesn’t always happen right away. I think Amelia is painted as a person who has found her way quite well and she’s done really well for herself, but as the book goes, you realize that everyone’s got scars and secrets. Andrew made a really good work in this book. It’s definitely been great.”
The project began back in 2007 in a discussion between Rostan and Archaia Editor-in-Chief Stephen Christy. “Stephen Christy and I went to college together at Emerson. He, for some odd reason, always thought that I was a good writer,” Rostan recalled. “I don’t know what gave him that idea, but he did. After graduation, we were both in Los Angeles. I was working, doing my own writing, I had just written an actual prose novel that was really crappy and I don’t want to think about it again. One day I called up Stephen, we started talking and he said, ‘I want you to write a book for me.’ I knew he was working in graphic novels, so I pitched him a bunch of ideas that were all action or horror or superhero. I still remember this day – it was in August 2007 – we were at a Panera in Santa Monica near the Third Street Promenade and Stephen told me very nicely that all my ideas were very bad. And they were very bad. They were bad.
“I was still eager to work with him because I love to write period, anything. I thought this would be something new,” he continued. “So, I asked Stephen what kind of book he would like to see get published. He thought for a minute and he said, ‘I’d like to do a story that revolves around love and time.’ I’m walking back to the parking garage where my car is and thinking about love and time. Suddenly, death popped into my head, putting those two almost together. From there, my thought process went to the story being about death, but also I’m a happy ending kind of guy like Walt Disney. I thought what if I told a story where the central focus of it is somebody dying, but the dying leads to a growth of love from the people the dying person loves. From there, 'Amelia' took shape. It took about three months of writing before the story got to a very close resemblance of what it is now.”
Joining Rostan on “Amelia Johnson” is artist Dave Valeza. A graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, Valeza was contacted by Archaia directly to provide art for Rostan’s story. “[Archaia] had seen my work because SCAD prints these sequential art anthologies every year,” Valeza said. “They contacted me, told me about the project, which sounded great, they sent me the rough notes and I thought it sounded awesome. It was really incredible because I had just done minicomics and short stories and stuff like that, so it was really awesome because a publishing company contacted me! It was a little intimidating, but I was ready to sign on even though it was ten times longer than something I had ever made before.”
While Valeza provided the layouts and early art for the project (“As the layouts were coming in, I would have a bit of a heart attack every time I would open my email because I could not believe that somebody this good was putting pictures to go with my words,” said Rostan), he had to take a step back during the process for personal reasons. “In terms of the timeline, everything was going great, but then I had to step back for some personal commitments,” he recalled. “Stephen Christy brought on this great artist who went to SCAD with me, Kate Kasenow, and she’s responsible for a lot of the linework that you see in the book. I pretty much did everything in the beginning and the whole book’s layout. She has a really great style and she took the reins very well and very confidently. I want to give a shout out to her because she’s really awesome for doing that.”
“I don’t really feel phased by it,” said Valeza when asked how he felt about the change in artist. “I guess the typical answer is that there are a lot of things that you as an artist would like to have done instead, but she actually did a really great job. I went to class with her and everything. I’ve seen her work in person and on her website, I’ve seen her portfolio. When Stephen said he was bringing on Kate because I had to step back a little, I never questioned the fact that it was Kate. The only thing in my mind at that time was the decision to step back. It wasn’t an issue at all, her art is great. Stephen made a really great choice because our art styles are really compatible. She’s a really talented and competent artist.”
Although he had to step back from the project, Valeza still was in huge support of it and identified with many of the themes. “I related with the themes of Amelia’s friendships,” he said. “Friends are a really important thing to have. When I graduated from SCAD, me and my friends separated and scattered across the country. You have a lot of time to think about the people and your friends and how they affected you. I think that theme is really present in the book. I feel like people support you in the things that they taught you and all the times they’ve been there before. That’s one way that friends can support you even when they’re not there.”
“Jillian and Henry both come from these places that they’ve done very well on the outside, but they’re still in kind of a dark place on the inside,” he continued. “They found a place, but they haven’t found the place they wanted to be in the world. I think that’s something that me, my friends and a lot of people my age try to find. That’s a really strong thread in the book – if you’re feeling lost or you’re feeling alone, you should pick up this book.”
“If there’s one idea that I could emphasize, it’s just how unexpected and full of amazing things, sad things and beautiful things life can bring,” said Rostan. “At one point, I had my whole life planned out the way Henry and Jillian did, and the life I’m living now is completely different than my original plans but it’s better than it would have been. That’s because when you open up your heart to stuff and have a little faith, you don’t know where life can take you. That’s the one lesson Amelia can teach Henry and Jillian and by extent, all of us.”
“An Elegy for Amelia Johnson” releases this March from Archaia.