“Total Freedom Is Awful”: An Interview with Hope Larson

Hope Larson is probably most famous for her Eisner Award-winning graphic novel adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's classic A Wrinkle in Time. Since then, she’s collaborated with Brittney Williams to create teen detective Goldie Vance and Rebecca Mock to create the historical Four Points series; she’s also just finished a run as writer on DC Comics’ Batgirl. Her latest book, All Summer Long, is about a 13-year-old girl fighting with her best friend and falling in love with music. 

Martyn Pedler: All Summer Long captures that age where you’re “becoming more yourself”, but it’s also about choosing to live a creative life. Do you remember when that happened for you?

Hope Larson: I always identified as an artist, as long as I can remember, which is a really lucky way to be. Knowing what you want to aim at as an adult, or knowing what your identity is. And I suppose that’s a good thing, a lucky thing, when you get to do it for a job? If you don’t, I’m sure it’s awful. Right?

I’d really been wanting to explore that idea in a book for a while – what it’s like to be a creative person, live a creative life. I chose to do that through music as I’m not a musician, and it felt like a slightly less self-indulgent way of tackling those themes then writing about a writer.

So there’s no early draft where you thought about using a cartoonist instead?

No way. Absolutely not. Also music is cool, and it’s very collaborative in a way that people understand. People understand that a band is usually a guitarist, and a bass player, maybe a keyboardist and drummer. It’s normal to think of music being made that way. It’s less normal to think of the way comics can be made. There’s a writer, and a penciller, and an inker, and a colorist and a letterer, and a lot of those jobs are very obscure. It would be, like, five people alone at their computers.

You tweeted that you’re currently working on your tenth graphic novel. Do you recall what it was like working on your first?

Yeah! I have all my books right next to me on a shelf. They’re always there. My first book was Salamander Dreams, and I did it when I was 21, I think. It came out when I was 22. I’d just gotten married and moved to Toronto and I couldn’t work legally, because I was wading through my Green Card situation. So I couldn’t get a job. I was basically sitting at home going crazy and I was like, well, I want to do a graphic novel, and I guess I’ll use this time to do it. I just did it. Really fast. I think it was a few months. Because when you’re young, your body is like, "Sure, we’re going to sit at the drafting table for hours every day. No problem." You’re not falling apart yet.

And I guess you don’t have that internal critic working quite so hard...

Right. I didn’t know what I didn’t know about making a book at that point. I’d never made one before. Plus I’d just come out of art school, and I feel like art school is very much about experimentation and formalism and just rolling with it in a way that can be annoying, but also kind of liberating. It’s very permissive. So I was still in that mindspace of thinking, “I’m just going to experiment and make this thing.”

Has it gotten harder as you’ve gotten older?

Oh yeah, it’s so much harder. Oh my god. When I made Salamander Dream, I hadn’t studied writing at all. So I was more comfortable doing the visual part, the art – and that has completely flip-flopped. It’s totally reversed in the almost 15 years since. Now I feel super-confident and comfortable with the writing and I really enjoy it. And the art part is really hard for me. It’s physically demanding, and it’s also the thing that I’ve focused the least on in the time I’ve been making comics, so I’m the least confident in my art. I think you have to pick your battles a little bit? It’s hard to be great at both things. I didn’t feel like I was likely to be great at being an artist, but maybe I could be great at writing. I focused on that.

So it was a conscious decision, picking one over the other?

Yeah. It probably happened around the time I was finishing up A Wrinkle In Time. It’s this massive tome, this 400 page book. I didn’t write that book at all. I wrote the adaptation, I wrote the script, but it’s very faithful to the original novel. So I just felt like this art drone for a lot of that project, just executing this thing, and I kind of burnt myself out. After that, I was like: I want to write my own stuff. I really want to focus on original stories, and focus on the writing, because I just don’t feel like I can sit down and draw anything for a while.

What was your sense of the comics industry when you were doing your first few books?

I had been reading comics since I was seven or eight. I started out by reading adventure-type comics, European stuff like Tin Tin and Asterisk, and then in high school I got really into manga. Ranma 1/2 and Mitsuru Adachi stuff. He did Cross Game, and these really great collections of short stories that were sports-themed. From there I got into indie comics through Dan Clowes’ Ghost World. That was a touchstone book for me. I kept going through college. Never got into the mainstream stuff. Charles Burns, and Chris Ware, Jeffrey Brown, Craig Thompson.

My breaking in story – and part of the reason why I didn’t know anything about the state of the industry – was that I came in through webcomics. And I got to know a lot of webcomics people who are their own little island. Scott McCloud saw my illustration stuff and encouraged me to try making comics. In retrospect, I’m sure this was part of this whole movement to try to get more women into comics – which I benefited from.

It seems like A Wrinkle In Time was kind of a game-changer for you. Was it? Other than the Eisner...

One of the reasons that I wanted to do that book was that I knew it was a smart career move. The novel is a huge classic and a really big deal. I thought that if I did this book, and did a good job, then it’ll be in schools all over the country and be accessible to an audience that’s not just a comics audience. It’d get my name out there on a different level, to a different group. So I won’t have to just depend on this dwindling comics fan audience.

Do you think about your career in quite a calculated way?

I think I’m pretty calculating. But that said, I’m calculating so I can continue doing this. I want to be able to keep making books, and part of that is you have to achieve a certain level of success and financial stability. I do books that are passion project books, and I do books that are paycheck books, and hopefully I can learn something from them along the way. Batgirl would be a good example. I really needed a job when I got that one. Like, I needed it to survive. But I also thought: I’ll be able to play in a different sandbox for a change, and play with different characters, and it is totally unlike anything I’ve done before. I’d been wanting to move into more of an action-y direction anyway in some of my work. And it really was awesome. It’s what I hoped it would be.

Even before Batgirl, was it daunting to first work on something with such a built-in passionate fanbase as A Wrinkle In Time?

Definitely. My first two books, Salamander Dreams and Gray Horses, are like the indie-est stuff ever. Just following every weird idea. Any arty thing I wanted to explore, I just did it. Then with Chiggers – that was my first book working with an editor and at a book publisher. So that was when I had this YA label slapped on me for the first time. In retrospect, obviously that book is YA. Obviously it’s for kids. But at the time, I was like “I’m just a cartoonist making a book about summer camp!” I was not thinking about the market or anything like that. So that was a weird experience, to realize that I was in a box that I hadn’t consciously gotten into.

Did that YA label come with restrictions you weren’t comfortable with?

I think at first it did, because I was used to having total freedom to write or draw whatever I wanted. I had to think about what was going to be acceptable to parents and librarians at schools for the first time. I chafed at it a little bit. All the cartoonists I knew who were doing books for indie publishers didn’t have to worry about that and just did whatever they wanted. I still kind of wanted to be edgy and cool and I felt like that was being taken from me. I was in my early 20s. What a silly thing.

I meant to ask you about the decision to collaborate with other artists – but you’ve kind of answered that already, with your conscious decision to focus on writing.

It was wanting to focus on writing, it was being really burnt out on drawing, and also I write a lot of stuff that I just don’t think I’m the right artist for anyway. Compass South and Knife’s Edge, which I created with Rebecca Mock the illustrator, are really good examples of that. I was not about to sit down and draw a bunch of tall ships and battles at sea. There’s just no way. I wouldn’t even know how to begin, you know? Everything I write for myself to draw is set in the real world, because I need to be able to go out and find references: a car, or a street, or a house. I want to base it in a place where I can find photo references.

Was there any control freak inside you that found it hard to let go of doing the artwork?

It’s the opposite way round. When I started, I didn’t want to give people any notes at all. Because I was so used to being the artist, and I really hated getting notes, and I knew how much work it was to redo something. I didn’t want to put someone else in that position. I’m still conscious of that when I’m working with other artists and giving them notes, but at the same time we’re trying to make the best book that we can. If I think I have a reasonable note that’s going to really improve the book, I’ll give it. But I try to stay as hands-off as is possible.

You recently completed your run on Batgirl. How did that differ from your usual creative experience?

It was totally different. Characters I didn’t create. Turning around a book every month. Working with a big company and needing to get permission to use certain characters, or to do anything that might cause problems for other books that were using the characters I was using. We had to be conscious of what was happening in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey to some extent, because you don’t step on their toes. It’s this big machine, and you’re just this little tiny part of it. That could be frustrating, obviously, but for the most part I enjoyed it.

Also there’s like a level of stress that is taken off of you, because you can always be like, well, I had to work within these constraints, so to an extent it is what it is. You can unclench a little bit. It’s going to go out into the world when you hit your deadline, and that’s just it. And when my run ends, the character will continue on. I didn’t do anything that I think is going to be permanent. The idea of permanence doesn’t exist in mainstream superhero comics. It’s fine, because anything I did can and will be undone. It’s okay.

You say you wanted to move into more of an action direction. Did superhero comics fit with the themes and styles you wanted to explore?

It was pretty much the stuff that I wanted to play with. I wanted to work more on blocking action. I think of the physical space and the moves in the fight as I’m writing fight scenes. And I got to do a lot of that, because there’s one to two fights per issue. On my god, now that I’ve gone back to slice of life stuff, it’s such a frickin’ relief that I don’t have to write a fight scene every ten pages.

Dylan Horrocks once said that after he finished writing his Batgirl run, he wanted to whisk her away to New Zealand to live her life in safety. Do you understand the impulse?

No. I’m maybe more detached than he was. I loved writing the character and I had a great time, but I also didn’t grow up reading her. I don’t have this idealized childhood image of Barbara Gordon or anything like that. I came to this character not really knowing anything about her, and doing all this research. When I go online, it’s like, here are the 16 different versions of Batgirl, and you can cherry-pick bits and pieces. So no – she’ll never be safe.

What do you think your collaborations with other artists have taught you about your own art?

I drew All Summer Long right when I was starting Batgirl – in the first third or half of my run – and I’d written the script before starting Batgirl. Now I cram a lot more information into every panel. It’s a lot harder for me to draw my own scripts, but I think they’re richer at the same time. I’m definitely more about panels that provide a lot of information and background and character interactions than I used to be.

I read you saying you only draw for work. Do you ever feel like those artists who carry sketchbooks everywhere are the “real” artists?

Yeah, I do feel that way. For a while I was doing Solo, my webcomic, and that’s fallen off because I’ve been so ungodly busy for so long it’s hard to imagine being able to carve out the time to go back to that. I do have a lot of friends – like Jillian Tamaki and Lisa Hanawalt – and they always seem to be posting these gorgeous sketchbook pieces where I’m, like, “I would’ve worked on that for days!” I don’t even have a sketchbook. Yeah, I don’t draw for fun. I’m enjoying it, as I return to these characters for a sequel to All Summer Long, but I’m not "man, I finished my pages for the day, let’s crack open that sketchbook".

Do you think the YA market has changed a lot since you were first given that label?

I came in on that first wave of comics for young readers in book publishing. It seemed like everyone was getting a book deal, all at the same time, and then the publishing industry just imploded. A lot of those comics didn’t earn out, they didn’t earn back their advances. And book publishers got really skittish for a while after that – this was in the mid-00s. Now it’s come back, and we have these superstars of kids comics like Raina Telgemeier. And the other thing that’s really cool that’s happened is that comics are one of the, if not the, highest circulating collection in most libraries. That’s what I’ve heard from librarians.

And a lot of teachers have finally started to recognise the value of comics in reluctant readers, or kids who are maybe on the autism spectrum and have a hard time connecting emotionally with characters through prose. But with comics, it can be easier for some kids, because they can look at a face and see the expression on it and understand it. I think that’s incredibly cool, and it’s been one of the most validating things as a writer and a cartoonist. Knowing that the thing I do – and it’s the only thing I know how to do – is meaningful to kids out there. That’s one of the reasons I’ve wanted to stay in the middle grade space. I’ve actually stepped down from YA to middle grade. It’s a little younger. Like tweens. 9 to 12ish.

Kurt Vonnegut said you should "write to please just one person". If that’s true, who is All Summer Long written for?

I feel like everything is written to please myself, ultimately. But if I have to pick someone else, it was probably my editor. Okay, that sounds weird. My main editor who I’ve worked for for a number of years is Margaret Ferguson. I started working with her on A Wrinkle In Time, and we did Compass South, and Knife’s Edge, and All Summer Long. Margaret is a really tough editor which scared the crap out of me at first. The editors I’d had before then had been more nurturing. With Margaret, I felt like I didn’t get the buttering-up part. She’d get straight down to work. At first I was like, “Oh my god, I’m doing terrible work and it’s just a disaster.” But that’s just her way, and once I understood that it was awesome.

I’d just finished Knife’s Edge and I wasn’t really sure where to go next, or what the publisher wanted from me – or if they even wanted another book from me at that point. I did five paragraph pitches for them, and submitted all those to get a sense what they would like... and they liked none of them. They asked me specifically for a book that was set in the summertime, and was about a boy and a girl having friendship problems. I thought, okay, I can work within those restraints. And it’s actually a relief, because now I can write something with those elements and at least we’ll be in the ballpark.

I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and was dating my DJ ex. He was also a promoter, so I was able to see a million shows for free over a really short period of time. I was immersed in that music scene, and seeing behind the curtain a little bit. I thought it was really interesting and wanted to write a book about that. So I outlined a book: set in summertime, about a boy and a girl having friendship problems, and also set in LA and about a girl who wants to be a musician. I got to write the story I wanted to write and the story they wanted to hear.

If you had to choose between total freedom, or writing within certain creative restrictions, which would you choose?

Restrictions. I don’t know if you get the thing where you just freeze up because you’ve got total freedom? Total freedom is awful. Okay, every once in a while you have this idea, and think “I’ve got to write this thing! It doesn’t fit in any box, and I don’t know if anyone will like it, but it’s crying to get out”. But I usually don’t feel that way. It’s so incredibly helpful if someone asks me to write in a generous-sized box.