Last year, Oni Press introduced the world to "Spell Checkers," an original graphic novel about Kimmie, Cynthia and Jesse, three girls with the power of magic who rule their high school like queens. After a final encounter with Polly, their nemesis in the first volume, everything seemed like it would be smooth sailing for the girls... but all that's about to change. This September, series creator Jamie S. Rich and artists Nicolas Hitori de and Joëlle Jones are back for "Spell Checkers: Sons of a Preacher Man," giving readers new insight into the lives of Kimmie, Cynthia and Jesse.
"The simplest is it's 'Mean Girls' with magic," Rich said of the series. "I think Joss Whedon changed the teen genre irrevocably with 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' by establishing the 'high school is hell' metaphor. Once that cork was out of the bottle, we got 'Twilight' and 'Vampire Diaries' and the like, and 'Spell Checkers' is very much sticking an elbow deep in the ribs of all that pseudo-serious stuff."
According to Jones, who crafts the flashback scenes for the book, the series was inspired by a sketch she drew at a bar. "I like to go to bars and sketch out people that are there," Jones told CBR News. "It's just a drawing exercise, really relaxing. I drew these three girls sitting at the -- I think it was a pool hall."
From there, Rich wrote the story and concept for "Spell Checkers," which draws from the golden age of high school and teen films: the 1980s. "Part of it was just a love for the high school genre. I grew up in the 1980s, which I think is the true zenith of teen movies. I love John Hughes and 'Heathers' and 'Better Off Dead,'" said Rich. 'It was also the era of cable and the VCR, so you could watch the movies in heavy rotation on TV in a variety of ways. In later years, I loved 'Clueless' and 'Mean Girls' and the first season of 'Gossip Girl,' and I think it's fun to write that friendship dynamic that, at least for me, was pretty true to the high school experience. The social order of a particular clique is always shifting: one day, Jesse might be the one everyone is making fun of, but a klutzy accident at lunch means Kimmie is on bottom later. You can be terrible to one another and still be friends.
"Maybe that's not everyone's experience. I've always had a pretty wicked sense of humor," Rich continued. "In my family, sarcasm is akin to sweet nothings. A cruel joke is the best way to say 'I love you.' If you ever get to hang out with the 'Spell Checkers' team, we're very much like the girls in that we're just really obnoxious... except Nico isn't all that slick, he's really more of a Polly. That dude can never win."
After the concept had been hatched, Rich handed it off to interior artist Hitori de, who based his designs off of the initial sketch by Jones. "Jamie wrote the story and gave it to Nico and Nico went crazy with it and created the looks for them," said Jones. "I think he did a spectacular job. One of the characters I had specific notes [on] because I really wanted to base her off of one of my friends."
"Jamie S. Rich initially sent me a quick rough by Joëlle Jones featuring all three girls," said Hitori de. "The legend said that she really saw them at a bar and sketched them, and afterwards they started inventing stories about them. I'd love to see them for real one day! In terms of my spin on the characters, I just tried to move from the rough creating my version alongside the script. As it's been almost two years now, I'm trying to evolve how I draw them while still staying true to their personalities."
"At first I wasn't sure that me and Nico's styles would look good together because they're so different," recalled Jones. "But looking at the finished book, I really like it. He's got such a light touch with the inking and the lines. Mine is a little bit more heavy handed, but I think they complement each other really nicely."
"There was only about a month between working on the two books, I almost started drawing Volume Two right after finishing one," said Hitori de. "In that little pause, I did promotion for the book and also met my co-creators, Joëlle and Jamie, for the first time, so I didn't really leave the 'Spell Checkers' universe at all. Beyond being the illustrator, I am a big fan of the script and Joëlle's flashback art, so it's a real pleasure to come back to drawing the girls and I sincerely can't wait to start Volume Three now!"
Now that the girls and their world have been established in Volume One, the second volume is set to go -- but according to Rich, it hasn't actually been that long for the girls. "In terms of the real world, it's been about 18 months since we've had the first volume, but as far as the narrative is concerned, I am setting the first three books during the same school year," said Rich. "Volume 1 is basically during the Fall semester, and Volume 2 begins with the end of winter break. In a way, I am treating this like any other ongoing series, be it comedy or supehero or what have you, so I will likely have points where time doesn't make the same sense as it would in a finite story. You know, the kids may not age despite what seems like years of story have passed. But at least for now, I am giving this opening salvo of books a contained timeline."
Although the three girls went through a great deal in Volume One to completely crush Polly, their nemesis, Rich says that they haven't matured or changed all that much. "[They've changed] to a degree, though not much. I have evoked the 'Seinfeld' rule before in regards to 'Spell Checkers:' 'No hugs, no learning,'" Rich said. "In terms of humor, 'South Park' is very much an indicator, in that there will be change but there won't be, if that makes sense. The characters will deepen, but they will essentially be the same," Rich said. "I am very interested in how things within their fictional world compound, so there are connectors from volume to volume, the world around the girls will keep growing and changing even if maybe they don't. Which actually is a big factor in how I approach the narrative. 'Spell Checkers' is a rude comedy first and foremost, but one of the emerging themes is the notion that every action does have consequence. The trouble the girls get into each time is usually a result of something they have done flippantly and not considered how it might bite them on the ass. Polly, the sorta-kinda villain of the first volume, was seeking revenge for slights against her person, for instance, and that character comes back in volume 2 and continues to have a role. I am amassing a supporting cast that will be more than, 'See them once, never see them again.'
"I also think it's just natural that the more I write them, I am going to get a little deeper into the main characters," Rich continued. "I definitely get increasingly affectionate toward them. The first volume of anything, I think, requires the creative team to go for broke and get as much out there as they can. 'You Have Killed Me' was similar, in that it had to be a very concise crime story and the hero had to be established completely and, basically, I did all the things in that story I would kick myself for not having done were I never to get the opportunity again. Same with 'Spell Checkers.' The first book is all forward momentum. In the second, we take moments to get to know the girls more, they emerge as more than just types, and their places within their particular unit become more clear. All while being absolutely rotten to everyone else and each other, of course."
Rich elaborated on how he's handling the characters this time around and noted that he's grown "more comfortable" with them. "Writing the gals is like putting on a favorite pair of shoes, and it comes much more naturally. My affection for them only grows, and the more I settle into their world, the more the characters surprise me. I know that sounds pretentious, but I am a fan of the happy accident and writing by instinct, and to keep the shoe metaphor going, I often compare writing to walking. Once you put a foot forward , the natural move to follow is putting the next foot in front of that. Sometimes, if you just see where the journey takes you, you stumble into some interesting things. There is a flashback in chapter 3 with Cynthia that was a total surprise for me when I wrote it, it had not been planned, but it works to flip around certain story elements and tropes and challenge how the reader has been perceiving events and characters up until then."
Much like the three protagonists, Hitori de also noted that his designs didn't stray that far from the original volume. "I didn't really change the design but I tried to improve on how I drew everything [else], adding more details and an increased dynamism," Hitori de said. "I met a lot of artists during my stays in the US and we exchanged a lot of tips. Working with Joëlle and Jamie is also very rewarding. As an illustrator, I don't especially have the same access to the comics culture and I learned a lot thanks to their advice and I'm still learning right now. Technically, I especially focused on the inking because my work on the first book was too European."
"I think fashion is important for characters in how they are identified and to give them credible personalities," Hitori de said. "To create the backgrounds, since I've only been in the US for comic-cons, I search for pictures on the Internet. I have to admit that I'm highly influenced by indie comics and manga for the panel layout and settings, even more now than before. My biggest inspiration lately has been Atsushi Okubo's 'Soul Eater.'"
Jones mentioned the process between herself and Hitori de is beginning to become more streamlined and familiar after working together on the first volume and that she's enjoying the experience. "It was a little closer than the first book, but this last one I think we've learned each other a little bit," said Jones. "[Hitori de] goes first and then I'll do the flashbacks while he's finishing up the book. I use his adorable outfits sometimes. He's really good. He'll finish pages and I'll wake up in the morning, because he's in France, and they'll be in my inbox and I get to look at some awesome art in the morning. It's actually really fun, that's never happened to me before because I'm usually the one providing art for everyone's inbox. I've enjoyed that."
For Hitori de, some of his favorite sequences involved drawing the character of Jesse and the horror-inspired themes in the book. "I love the three characters but I have to admit that my favorite is Jesse," he said. "All the parts involving her, especially the romantic scenes, were pretty funny to draw. I'm also a big horror fan and this volume is more horror-oriented so it was so cool to draw gruesome things. It's a big change after ten years working on girly stuff for Disney. Seriously, the whole book was a treat to draw."
While drawing the horror-oriented sequences were highly enjoyable for the artist, he also mentioned that this second volume was not without its challenges. "I shouldn't have complained about all the school lockers I had to draw in the first volume," he said. "This time, I had to draw motorbikes, a church... and two twins boys who have to look alike but different. But for me, the biggest challenge in this book was to draw more dynamic characters and panels. Some panels with complicated backgrounds took pretty long to draw, too."
The twins Hitori de spoke of are those mentioned in the volume's subtitle: "Sons of a Preacher Man." "In volume 1, I had a threat that came from within, so for 2, I decided the 'evil' should enter from without. The subtitle says it all: 'Sons of a Preacher Man,'" said Rich. "A clergyman and his two sons move to town, and the boys are very different. Lee is a troubled rebel, Marlon is a straight-edge type, focused on school. I was watching 'The Wild One' when I started writing this, so they are named after Lee Marvin and Marlon Brando, though Lee lives up to the name more than Marlon does. Jesse immediately takes to Lee, while Marlon and Cynthia butt heads. It's a natural dynamic: the sort-of outcast characters flock to one another, while the alpha personalities clash. Yet, not all will be as it seems initially. Or maybe not. You know boys. So confusing! Why can't they express themselves and say what they meannnnn?"
In addition to introducing a few new characters in this volume, Rich has also added a healthy dose of other profound subjects including religion and politics, evidenced by a schoolwide election for president at Nathaniel Hawthorne High where Cynthia is running against newcomer Marlon. And how do the girls treat these subjects? "About as seriously as anything else," Rich said. "These things didn't matter to the girls until suddenly these two boys came along and they became two more aspects of the social order the witches had to deal with. Whatever makes them the center of attention, that's what is important to our gals. The race for class president seemed a natural when I thought about what avenue a boy might take to come into the school and try to shake things up and restrict the ladies. Cynthia would have never run for class president otherwise.
"As for the religion, honestly, a big reason I wanted to make the boys preacher's kids was there are bits of this volume in particular that parody horror movies, and I wanted the cool backdrop, the graveyards and the bell tower and the like," Rich continued. "Also, I was a preacher's kid for the first seven years of my life, so maybe this is my last chance at rebellion. Autobio always creeps in somehow, no matter how far afield."
According to the creative team, Volume Two is still just the tip of the iceberg for "Spell Checkers," with at least two more volumes in the pipeline and work already begun on Volume 3.
"I actually just got the go-ahead to start Volume 3," Jones told CBR News. "I'm really excited to get started on that and visit the characters again because it's been a little while since I finished that one. And I'm excited that Nico's moving to the states and we're going to be able to work really closely with each other on this third volume."
"Volume 3 is prom, and like I said, much of what they have been doing in the first two comics sort of amasses against them and I have plans to take us full circle and deal with events from Volume 1 again," Rich said. "Volume 4 is still pretty vague, I won't start writing it for several months, but I want to play with the magic more and the titular pun and so it's going to involve another external threat, devotees of magic who are not very happy with the cavalier fashion in which the Spell Checkers toss their wands around. Plus, I hate math, so arithmetic just might turn out to be the greatest source of all evil ever!"
"Spell Checkers, Vol. 2: Sons of a Preacher Man" goes on sale September 21, 2011 from Oni Press.