A quiet jock, a rambunctious nerd and a pack of crazed cheerleaders. It may very well sound like your home room in high school, but it's also a sampling of the characters gracing Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks's new graphic novel from First Second Books, "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong." From basketball games to robot showdowns, the book is both familiar and wickedly eclectic, making the story a hard one to resist.
While one might have trepidation going back to the days of pimples, amazing awkwardness and smoking in the bathroom, "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong" is an absolute love letter to days where even the smallest adventures were somehow epic and memorable. Writer Prudence Shen and cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks spoke to CBR News about their very own "Breakfast Club."
CBR NEWS: "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong," scarily enough, feels like my high school. I know these people. My best friend was nerdy, lovable Nate and my brother was laid-back, popular Charlie. Tell me, who do you relate to the most -- and why in the world did you decide to go back to high school, even if it's to tell a wonderful little story like "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong"?
Prudence Shen: This is going to be one of the more obnoxious writer things I've ever said, but I relate to all of the characters, not any individual. I'm not sure how other people are when they're working, but each character -- Nate, Joanna, Charlie, Ben, Holly, Nora, the twins, hell, the principal -- are all a little bit me. I have a tendency to have blinders on when I'm focused on a goal (Nate), surrender to easily to my unhappiness (Charlie), usually manage to pull it out when it matters most (Joanna), and also call people chuckleheads. There's some kernel of me in each of my characters, or else they wouldn't feel very real to me.
As for high school, it turns out I'm in an apparent minority for not having had a particularly traumatic experience of it. All of my school-related angst was either forgettable or has been successfully repressed by now. More than that, I think the mistakes you make in high school and the dumb stuff you pull is fun. As you get older, the consequences for your actions worsen, and it's less of a romp and more of a sinking feeling in your stomach. So if anybody is going to blow off family gatherings and steal cars and burn campaign slander (or is it libel in this case?) onto football fields, you might as well do it before you turn eighteen.
Faith Erin Hicks: High school's a setting I've used a lot for my comics in the past ten years. The very first comic I ever did (an old webcomic called "Demonology 101") was set in high school. "Friends With Boys" was set in high school, "The War at Ellsmere" set in a prestigious boarding school and "Zombies Calling" was set in university. School is just a fun, highly charged setting to use for a story. Lots of difficult and bizarre things happen at school, and it's where you spend most of your childhood, so for good or ill, you can get some really dramatic stories out of a school setting. After "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong," I burned out pretty hard on high school stories, just couldn't stand the idea of drawing another school hallway, so [I] followed it up with a prequel to a post-pandemic video game.
How did you two get hooked up together for the project? And how was this pitched to First Second?
Shen: It turned out to be a very thoughtful arranged marriage! I had written the book (then titled "Voted Most Likely") as a prose novel, and First Second bought it with the intention of adapting it as a graphic novel, which Faith did beautifully.
Hicks: First Second gave the book to me to see if I would be interested in adapting it for comics. I read it, liked it, and thought it would make a great comic. And the rest is history.
In the book, the ragtag gang skips Thanksgiving to compete in a robot rumble -- we all have potent stories of rebellion that somehow still stick with us. Mine involves crossing the border into Mexico. What's one of yours?
Shen: I don't know that I was a particularly rebellious kid, at least not in the midnight phone calls from the police station sense of the word. This is totally counterintuitive, but if you keep your nose pretty clean, you get away with a lot more and I've had a lot of dumb adventures over the years. My greatest act of rebellion, weirdly, was completely trashing more than a decade of fine arts training and tossing it over to write instead. The fact that I did this while I was supposed to be putting together a portfolio to apply for art school was just awkward timing.
Hicks: Haha, I have absolutely none! Call it growing up with a huge heaping of Christian guilt, but I was not a rebellious kid. Probably the most rebellious thing I've done was as an adult: deciding not to get a proper job and instead make my living as a freelance cartoonist. A pretty big societal rebellion, when I think about it...
Prudence, when did you first come up with the story, and was it one that was heavily plotted from the beginning, or did your characters just lead you down their paths themselves?
Shen: It's been long enough that the story of how Nate and Charlie got into this mess feels kind of foreign. I know I wanted to write about teenagers at a battlebot competition and roadtrips. The rest of it was me playing hard against stereotype and letting their personality defects do the walking.
Reading the story, it was clear you two were very much on the same page and that you had a lot of fun working on this. What was the collaboration like?
Shen: Weirdly, less collaborative than you would think. I finished the book and First Second reached out to Faith about doing the adaptation as well as the art for the graphic novel. I think there was some minor (very minor) back and forth regarding the adaptation, but that was the extent of it.
Hicks: We didn't collaborate directly a lot. I started with Prudence's original prose book, wrote an outline that I felt would work for an approximately 250-page graphic novel, and sent that off to Prudence. When she approved it, I went to writing the script, cherry picking the dialogue I liked best and refining it so it made sense for the comic format. The only time we more directly collaborated was with one scene at the robot rumble, which changed from the original scene in the book.
There's also some sadness in this book -- some reality -- specifically Charlie's family life. Why put something in the book that feels so real? Why not keep the story whimsical with gestapo cheerleaders and deathly robots?
Shen: The prose novel, as a whole, is even sadder, I think. Everything I write is usually touched through with some note of melancholy -- not because I don't like farce but because that's the way funny things in life usually shake out: a moment in the midst of a lot of commonplace things, or you find yourself bursting into laughter even as everything is going completely to pieces around you. Life doesn't pause for comedy timing, and I would never want to read anything that relentlessly stripped away the reality of a thing in favor of slipping in the storytelling equivalent of a laugh track. I feel the same way about people in general, like Nate's myopic and sometimes nasty streak of selfishness, or Charlie's incredibly frustrating doormat tendencies. My personal opinion is that by the end of the book, they're very much the same people they were at the beginning, no big, revelatory personality changes or realizations that elevate them -- but that's okay. We have massive and visible flaws, and I believe our narrative arcs in life aren't dependent on earning our keep with our friends and loved ones through self-improvement. Humans love each other in spite of each other. Which, thank goodness. Because I can be a jerk.
Let's talk about influences for the book and readership, because I think whatever influenced you, your readers will also likely be tuned into. So, what were they? John Hughes flicks, certain music (I hope you have a playlist for this book), etc.?
Shen: Gordon Korman's Macdonald Hall series was and remains a huge influence in my life; they're hilarious and timeless. I don't care that one of the books references a computer that uses punchcards. Stealing stuff from the school office is eternal. My other major influence -- almost invisible in the graphic novel format, actually -- is my generalized love of the canon of Southern literature. I've read two copies of "To Kill a Mockingbird" to shreds.
I definitely had a playlist for the story while I was writing it, as I have playlists for all of my writing. Alas, this was two computers and about six dozen version of iTunes ago. The original probably had a lot of Matchbox 20 on it. A more contemporary version I'm mocking up in my head right now would definitely include "Internet Killed the Video Star" by the Limousines, Aretha Franklin's version of "The Weight," "A Good Idea at the Time" by OK Go, "Oh No!" by Marina and the Diamonds, and because I will always be a (North) Carolina girl at heart, "Rockin' the Suburbs" by Ben Folds.
Can we expect a "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong Part 2"? Because, let's be honest, people are going to eat this up.
Shen: Who knows! We'll see if there's a generalized clamor for a sequel after this one is out.
Hicks: Who knows? I hope people eat it up and it sells like crazy. If it does, we'll see. But I'm still kind of wiped out after drawing that 50-page robot fight scene, so if there is a sequel there will have to be much fewer robots.
"Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong" is on sale now.