Cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks made her first trip to San DIego to attend Comic-Con International in 2008. "It was the quintessential broke Comic-Con trip," she said during her spotlight panel at this year's show. "I had friends who were going. I stayed in a hotel room with five other girls. We literally had no money to eat, so we were skipping from party to party, looking for free food. It had been a very difficult professional time. I was working in animation, I had lost my job and was struggling with what to do, whether to continue to work in animation. It was a very scary time professionally."
Things were different this year: Hicks came to San Diego as a guest of the show. Her graphic novels "Friends With Boys," "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong" (written by Prudence Shen) and "The Adventures of Superhero Girl" have drawn praise from critics and created a community of fans that clearly included her interviewer for the spotlight panel, "Bone" creator Jeff Smith. This time around, instead of scavenging for free food, she met her "artistic heroes," Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and the creators of "Avatar: The Last Airbender."
"It has been a wonderful professional journey," she said.
Hicks started making comics when she was in college. "I really liked the idea of comics, I was very attracted to the medium, but there were no comics being published that I felt wanted me as a reader," she said. "Occasionally I would go into this crappy little comics store in my very small Canadian hometown -- I was terrified of this store but I would go there to buy X-Men comics. That was fine for a time, but it really wasn't what I wanted to read. So I literally started making comics because I wanted something like 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' in comic form." (This was before Dark Horse began publishing "Buffy" comics.)
So she started her own comic, "Demononlogy 101," which she put online as a webcomic. "By the time I had finished that comic, it was five years later, I had graduated, I was a new adult, and the comic was over 700 pages long," she said. "I do not recommend this for your first comic. People ask me for advice starting comics: Start small. Do not do a 700 page comic for your first try. But I had fallen in love with the medium. I had fallen in love with making comics." Hicks estimates that since starting that comic she has drawn over 2,200 pages, "and I would say about half of them are not terribly good."
Expanding on her first Comic-Con trip, Hicks explained that at that time, she was at a turning point in her career: "I had previously worked in animation, and I had lost my job in animation a few months prior to that Comic-Con and was struggling with the idea of what do I do. Do I continue to work in animation? I had actually just gotten a job drawing a book for First Second. Do I pursue comics? It was a very scary time professionally. Then, in the past five years, I have become a professional cartoonist. I now make my living writing and drawing comics."
"You quit your day job," Smith said.
"My day job quit me," Hicks replied.
Hicks discovered "Bone" when she was 20. "I had kind of vaguely heard of it, but I never read anything [like it]," she said. "I bought it and took it home. I was actually at a friend's party and I spent the entire party sitting in the corner reading 'Bone.'"
"You are a comic book reader!" remarked Smith.
"I had never seen anything like it," Hicks continued. "I had never seen a comic made for me, as a reader, and that huge impact on me finding this comic where I felt like I was valued as a reader… I feel my art has two huge influences, two changing points; when I found your work in 2001, and then when I found Naoki Urasawa in 2008." While manga did not have a big impact on her drawing style, "it really had an impact on how I pace my pages, how I do my paneling."
The conversation turning to webcomics, Hicks explained to the audience the positive aspects and drawbacks of the medium. "The nice thing about webcomics is anyone can do them, and the bar to entry is extremely low," Hicks said. "In order for me to make comics, and find a readership, if I had to self publish and go to comic conventions, especially right at the beginning, I would not be doing comics, but the fact that the internet was there, it was free, it was really useful for someone if you are incredibly shy and socially awkward, as I still am, and definitely was back in 1999, this was a great way for me to start making comics without meeting scary people and talking to people."
While she didn't make any money from her free webcomics, Hicks said, they did lead to paying jobs, and First Second has serialized her two graphic novels online: "Friends With Boys" and "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong." Unlike "Demonology 101," these books were serialized after they were completed. "There's usually a year in between finishing a book and having it published, which is horrifying," she said. "You finish a book and you immediately want to have it in your hand, of course, but you have a year when the production ramps up on it and the publisher is trying to sell it. In the course of that year gap, I serialized 'Friends With Boys' online. I would post a page every weekday, and then I would blog and I would interact with readers. We serialized the entire comic online until its publication. Now, there is a 20 page preview online, but the rest of the comic has been taken down."
A model that First Second had already used with several other books, including Mark Siegel's "Sailor Twain," Hicks said she enjoyed using it to interact with her readers and build a community. "I felt like when I finished it, the level of awareness of my work was so much higher," she said. "All of a sudden, comic blogs, Heidi's blog, The Beat, and Publishers Weekly and Robot 6, and comics creators, all had more of an awareness of my work because of 'Friends With Boys,' because of my blogging. I don't mean to say controversial things. I'm the least confrontational person ever -- I'm Canadian, I'm always sorry -- but occasionally people would get up in arms about the things I would say online. I wrote about how I make my living and how I make money, and the response to that was 99% good and 1% 'How dare you blog about money and comics!'"
At this point, Smith asked Hicks and the audience for advice on serializing his next book. "I am actually following what I call the Faith Erin Hicks model," he said. His plan is to do a 25-page comic book every three months or so, serializing it online with daily updates. That would mean the comic would go on hiatus between issues, however. After some discussion with the audience, Hicks opined that consistent updates, even less frequent ones, are better than a hiatus.
Smith then turned back to Hicks's work, asking about "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, which was based on an unpublished novel by Prudence Shen.
"I had just finished 'Friends With Boys,' and I was looking for my next project," Hicks said. "I pitched First Second something, and they were like, 'Nooooo,' which is fine, First Second has needs as a publisher and this particular book did not fill those needs, which I understand. It is my most rejected pitch. It is this extremely weird story about work, and about people who work in this office, but it is literally an office that is a way station for dead people, and so it's all about having a crappy office job but with this insane supernatural bent and it is a ridiculous story, but the thing is, it has been rejected everywhere.
"So your coworkers are all zombies?" Smith asked. "That sounds like real life to me."
"I think it is the sort of thing that would work well as a webcomic rather than a published book," Hicks said. Eventually, her editor at First Second, Calista Brill, gave her Shen's manuscript to read. "It was a really vibrant, contemporary young adult novel," Hicks said. "It had a lot of action and comedy and characters that were over the top but still very three-dimensional characters, and I thought it would be translate very well to comics if I could really adapt it, if Prudence would respect what I needed to cut to make it a good comic. She was fantastic to work with, and she was OK with me basically adapting her work. I stayed pretty close to the source material."
"As far as cartooning goes, I think it is your best," Smith said. "The syntax, just the panel-to-panel stuff, really moves quite well."
A big believer in deadlines, Hicks actively sets them for herself in order to maintain her discipline. "They are important, and you must maintain them and you must respect them. This goes back to being a freelance professional. If you miss your deadlines, you are not going to get hired by this publisher again," she said. When she was working on "Demonology 101," her deadline was to finish it up before Smith finished the last volume of "Bone." "I loved your work, and I said, 'I am going to beat him. I am going to beat Jeff Smith I'm going to finish 'Demonology 101' before he finishes 'Bone.'
"But I had school and you didn't, so you won."
While much of her recent work has ben adaptations or collaborations, Hicks says she will always want to do her own stories first. " That's a personal thing," she said. "I know some people who are absolutely thrilled to be working in licensed comics, to be working in superhero comics, and that is what I want to do, but that is not necessarily my priority. A lot of times when I am interviewed by a publication or website, at the end of the interview the person interviewing me will say, 'So, you have done a lot of creator-owned stuff. What do you really want to do? Do you want to do Iron Man?' And I'm like no, really, I'm good making my own comics."
"I really respect your career for that," she said to Smith. "You make the comics you want to make."
"I did do 'Shazam,'" Smith said. " I don't have anything to say about Superman and Batman, but Captain Marvel was fun."
"I love the idea of superhero comics, I really do," Hicks continued. "It's such a fantasy, this idea of being strong, especially being a woman, the idea of having superpowers and not having to worry about walking home in the dark and stuff like that. Imagine that. That would be wonderful and exciting. There are very few superhero comics I enjoy. I really enjoy the Matt Fraction/David Aja 'Hawkeye,' that is an amazing book, I highly recommend it, and I have actually been going back and reading some of the original the Chris Claremont/Bill Sienkiewicz 'New Mutants,' which are wonderful books. I absolutely love them. But there's not a lot that I enjoy, so I did 'Superhero Girl' because it was literally like, 'I am going to make superhero comics for me.' I feel like that's my entire career: I look at what is being published and I don't see this particular comic that I would like to read, so I guess I'll go make it."
"I think that's one of the things that appeals about your work," Smith said. "It's definitely something I'm drawn to. I can tell you are having fun."
"I really have to be interested in the project," Hicks said. "At this point in my career, I am extremely fortunate that, even though I spent time and years working on other people's projects, they have all been projects I have been passionate about -- even 'The Last of Us,' which was a licensed comic."
Still, an audience member asked, does she have a dream comic?
"My creator-owned work, and especially the work I am producing with First Second, those are dream projects for me," Hicks replied. "I am really hoping to do something longer form. My published comics have been one solid volume. I would really like to do something longer, three books maybe, and I am really into Asian history right now. I am really interested in the Silk Road, Asia during the breakup of the Mongolian empire, and I would like to do something set in a historical fantasy setting.
"I would love the chance to do something that is in a longer form and that is not set in a school full of lockers. I really enjoy making my YA comics, but after I finished 'Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong,' I said, OK, this is it for a while. I need to do something else. I need to not draw schools any more, not draw teenagers."