In 2011, Faith Erin Hicks made a lot of people stand up and take notice with her work on First Second Books' graphic novel "Brain Camp." It was the first time she illustrated someone else's script, and for fans who already knew her webcomics and her books "Zombies Calling" and The War at Ellsmere," it was exciting to see a talented young creator take her place in a bigger spotlight.
Hicks' latest book, also published by First Second, is "Friends with Boys." Arguably Hicks' strongest work to date, the story is a mostly-realistic slice of life tale about a young woman who enters public high school after being homeschooled. There are punks, ghosts and zombie theater pieces. It manages to be that rare book which is a thoughtful and visceral look at teenage life, but it's also fun.
CBR News: Where did the the idea for "Friends with Boys" come from?
Faith Erin Hicks: Back in 2007, I was asked by Shelly Bond to pitch for DC Comics' Minx imprint. I had a bunch of different pitches of varying levels of goofiness, and the proto-"Friends With Boys" story was the one she liked best. I remember I'd pitched a whole bunch of weird stuff to her, comics about teenagers in training to be Grim Reapers, adventure stories that was not so much what Minx was supposed to be about, I discovered. So the proto-"Friends With Boys" was my first not-rejected pitch. I snuck a ghost character in there, to retain a little weirdness.
How autobiographical is the book?
I used my own life as a jumping off point for the book -- I was homeschooled and I have three brothers -- but nothing in it literally happened to me. I don't see ghosts and I didn't have punk friends in high school, sadly. A lot of the emotions the main character goes through I experienced, like the terror of the first day of high school, or the feeling that your family is moving on without you. It's weird how a commissioned graphic novel pitch evolved into something so personal.
Did the story change much between its initial Minx pitch and what we're reading now?
Some of the story elements changed, but not the overall arc of the comic. What really changed the story was my comic drawing skills. I had different opinions on comics and what makes a good comic and how to draw that good comic back in 2007, opinions which I think would have resulted in a really different book if I'd drawn "Friends With Boys" back then. My skills are just better now. So I'm glad I had those extra couple years to develop as a cartoonist.
I'm a lot more influenced by Japanese comics, now. I really enjoy the way manga decompresses storytelling. The best manga reads like a well crafted movie, and as a reader, I find it very engaging. It's something I'd like to replicate in my own comics. Creators like Naoki Urasawa and Hiromu Arakawa really have their fingers on what really works for decompressed storytelling, and reading their comics have influenced my own.
Why is the book titled "Friends with Boys?" I ask, because the book isn't about being friends with boys. If anything, it's more about her being friends with a girl.
Growing up homeschooled meant I didn't have a lot of exposure to girls my age. All the other homeschoolers in the area were boys, typically around my younger brother's age (he's three years younger than me), so those were the kids I played with. When I entered high school, I couldn't related very well to girls, and had a hard time dealing with their social sophistication. I wrote some of that into the main character of "Friends With Boys;" this girl who has for all her life really identified with her brothers and her dad, and, in some sense, rejected her mother, who is the main female figure in her life. So she spends some of the comic learning that there are different kinds of girls out there, girls who she can be friends with. In the comic, she even talks about how Lucy, her new girl friend, is the first girl she can remember being friends with, because all her life she's had her brothers to fill that friend-need. I guess in order for the title to be completely accurate, it'd have to be "Friends With Boys, But Learning To Be Friends With Girls; Also, A Ghost," but that's a bit long.
Now, besides your graphic novels you're also doing a weekly strip, "The Adventures of Superhero Girl." What is this strip and how did you end up drawing a comic strip for the weekly newspaper "The Coast?"
"The Adventures of Superhero Girl" is a gag comic (with a bit of a storyline) about a young Canadian superhero girl, who's trying to find her superhero niche. Y'know, make a living doing what she loves best, which just happens to be superheroics. Her life kind of sucks. She's broke, her brother is a much more successful superhero, so she's constantly in his shadow, and the city she's chosen to protect is overrun by ninjas. "The Coast" is a free weekly here in Halifax, where I live. I heard they were looking for a comic strip for the paper, so I applied for the job. They pay me enough that I don't have to feel guilty about buying comics and sushi, so it all works out.
What are the challenges specific to crafting a weekly strip and how is it different from your other comics?
It's hard to be funny right on cue every week. I like a certain kind of structure in my comedy comics, and I like following that structure in the Superhero Girl comics -- and wow, is it hard to maintain. I'm amazed cartoonists like Bill Watterson could maintain it for 10 years. Plus, it's always so much more difficult to tell a story in 9 panels than 200 pages. Soooo much harder.
You had posted a few comics online like "Ice" and "Demonology 101," but what has the experience been like, having "Friends with Boys" serialized online?
It's been great! I've really enjoyed the reader response, and I've enjoyed blogging as well. Getting my thoughts on my comic-making process written down really helped me to define those thoughts. I feel more like a professional. Now I know why I work the way I do! It's weird, I know. Stopping to think about why you draw comics a certain way, or looking at other cartoonists and trying to dissect why they draw a certain way and why that works (or doesn't work) is a valuable exercise.
You've blogged recently about the industry aspects of money and pitching, which seem to be two of the things we don't talk about in comics. Why did you decide to be so honest and what has the response been like?
Oh, yeah -- that. I did it because people asked about pitching and the financial end of making comics, so I decided to go for it. Is talking about pitching taboo? That seems weird to me. I don't know why it would be, unless you're afraid of giving away The Secret of Pitching, which is really silly. There is no Secret of Pitching. It's just communicating your story idea well, pitching to the right publisher and being incredibly lucky. Ta da! The Secret of Pitching, everyone! Man, I hope I don't get blacklisted for giving it away.
As for the money thing, I understand why people aren't comfortable with discussing that, because money is deeply personal. But I really wanted to write a blog post about making comics for a living and write about it in a positive way: "Hey, look, young and hungry comic creators! You can make a living from comics! You might have to sacrifice a few things, but if I can do it, you can to. This is how I live my life." And 99% of the responses I got to that post understood what I was writing about, and I think were encouraged and challenged by it.
If anything uncomfortable came out of that post, it was some comments by fellow cartoonists who don't do comics full time, wondering if I was speaking ill of those who don't do it full time. That was most absolutely not the intent of the post, and it made me clutch my pearls in horror. I just wanted to write about how I make my living. I certainly wasn't commenting on how anyone else lives their life. I became a full time cartoonist due to a series of accidents and coincidences. It happened, and I'm grateful it happened, but I don't think I am more of a cartoonist or produce better work because I do it full time. Good comics are good comics. Who cares if you do it full time or not? I don't. I just want to read awesome comics.
You do seem to enjoy alternating between more realistic tales like Friends with Boys or War at Ellsmere and then crazier stories. Have you started writing or thinking about writing another book? Possibly something goofy or weird? I hear zombies are big right now.
I'm always thinking about writing another book. It's a problem. I have too many stories I want to tell, and comics, sadly, take forever to complete. I've looked into cloning myself to become more productive, but so far no luck. I'm probably done with zombies for now, though. There are too many other genres I want to try, and I've already done a zombie comic.
What is it about zombies, anyway?
What isn't it about zombies? Personally, I like the comedy of zombies, which not what most people like about them. Grr. Argh. Brains.
What's next for you?
I just finished up drawing a young readers graphic novel for Kids Can Press called "Bigfoot Boy," written by J.Torres. I think it will be out in early fall. I'm working on my follow up to "Friends With Boys" for First Second Books now, hoping to have it out for spring of next year. It's an adaptation of an unpublished young adult manuscript called "Voted Most Likely," about two guys in high school and their volatile relationship. It's really funny and over the top, with battlebots, KGB cheerleaders and a crazy school election.
Talk a little about "Bigfoot Boy," if you could.
Gladly! It's such a cute book. Bigfoot Boy is the first in a series of young reader graphic novels I'm doing with J.Torres for Kids Can Press. It's about a kid who finds a magical totem in the woods that transforms him into–something. You'll have to read the comic to find out. I think tons of kids, boys and girls, will really enjoy this comic, so if you have a youngster in your life who'd like to read comics, this would be a great start for them.
Finally, a your upcoming book, I have to ask: KGB cheerleaders?
Yes! They are so awesome. It's this gang of cheerleaders in the high school the story's set in, and I loved drawing them. I designed their uniforms to be sort of aggressive looking, and they have the ability to know what's going on in the school at all times. They're scary. Speaking personally, I don't care for bitchy female stereotypes and deliberately avoid them in my comics. I wanted to create a pack of teenage girls who were powerful and scary without resorting to tired stereotypes.