Faith Erin Hicks is a comic book artist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her latest comic, Friends With Boys, is a semi-autobiographical tale of a ninth-grade girl entering public school for the first time (after being homeschooled). The comic has been serialized online — it’s nearly over — and the conclusion coincides with the publication of the hard copy from First Second books. I mentioned Friends With Boys back in August when I first heard about the project, and my wife and I have both been following along with Maggie’s adventures.
If you haven’t already, check out the website, which not only has pages from the comics but also comments from Hicks about its creation, real locations she used in the comic, and some of her own creative techniques. And, of course, go order yourself a copy of the book, which is great. The story captures really well the feeling of entering the unknown, and the ecstasy and agony of making new friends.
I got a chance to ask Hicks a few questions via email about the book.
Liu: Hi, Faith! I’ve really been enjoying following along with Friends With Boys online, particularly getting to read some of your notes about the pages. What has that experience been like for you as a comics creator?
Hicks: Really great! It’s a lot of work to maintain the website and try to blog and come up with interesting topics for blogging and keep on top of reader comments, but I’ve really enjoyed the response from readers. I started out doing online comics, so I feel like I’m returning to my roots. I love the immediacy of the internet, and seeing how people respond to a certain character or a certain part of the book. Some parts readers liked and responded to quite a bit, others they were a little cooler towards. It’s really interesting, and very valuable to me as a creator.
Liu: When you started posting the pages, how much of the artwork was actually completed — were you actually finished with the book at that point, or still working on it?
Hicks: I was finished drawing Friends With Boys by the time it started going online. We (my publisher, agent and I) started talking about putting it online before I’d finished drawing, but it was such a long process I’d completed the comic by the time it went online.
Liu: I know the story is inspired by your own life, growing up with brothers and being homeschooled. Did that make it easier or harder to write the story? Did you feel more personally invested in making sure this story turned out a certain way?
Hicks: Harder, definitely. I felt this weird tug to be brutally honest in the story, about my ambivalent feelings towards homeschooling and high school, but Friends With Boys is also fictional, so characters have to act in a way that’s true to themselves, not me. Despite everything, Maggie feels pretty positive towards homeschooling, probably more so than I do, and that feels true to her character. So it’s this weird balance of “okay, this story uses my own life as a starting point, but it’s not about me, it’s about Maggie and her family.” But … it’s still a little bit about my life. So confusing!
Liu: How much is Maggie like you?
Hicks: I remember reading a comment from Bill Watterson, in response to questions about whether his characters were based on his childhood, about how every character you create is half you. I tend to agree with that. I see some of myself in Maggie, but also in Lucy and Alistair. I did wear my hair like Maggie wears hers when I was in university. People referred to me as the “Bjork girl.”
Liu: Are Lloyd and Zander (Maggie’s twin brothers) named after anybody in particular? 🙂
Hicks: Hm! Lloyd and Zander, which is short for Alexander … No idea who that could possibly be! When I was a moody pre-teen, I very much wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to dedicate the very first book I had published to Lloyd Alexander, because his stories meant so much to me as a kid. His books were the first I read with a very self-possessed female lead, one who could hold her own with the boys. As someone constantly surrounded by boys and always trying to prove I was as good as they were, this was a very big deal to me. Now that I’m a published adult, I think perhaps it is a bit weird to dedicate a book to someone I never knew, so instead I named characters after him. Hopefully that is less weird!
Liu: There are several threads in the story – Maggie starting public school; Maggie being haunted; the history shared by Daniel, Alistair and Matt; the palpable absence of Maggie’s mother – and now that we’re close to the end they are starting to converge in the Great Prosthetic-Hand Caper. In crafting your story, did you start with the threads and see what happened when they were all put together? Or did you know where it was going all along?
Hicks: When I first started in on the story, Lucy and Alistair weren’t actually from Maggie’s town, they were tourists who Maggie befriends. This probably would have made for a very different story. The ghost was always there, right from the beginning. I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is a modern city layered on top of a very old one, which creates this very strange effect of ancient and new, death and commercialism living side by side. On one of the poshest streets in the city is a very tiny graveyard filled with 1,200 gravestones, and 12,000 bodies. It’s right next to the American Apparel. I think once I figured out the ghost was an outgrowth of the setting and the town Maggie lives in, and the real story was Maggie’s evolution into a Real Girl, someone who can talk to others outside her family, all the different pieces of the story, which seem very odd and different, fell into place.
Liu: Daniel (Maggie’s oldest brother) is a great character – popular and very comfortable in his own skin without being cliquish or “cool.” Did you actually know anybody like that in high school?
Hicks: Hah, actually, he’s based on my oldest brother. Well, about 75% of him. The way Daniel interacts with Maggie is very different from my relationship with my brother (mostly because I am older than him), but the whole funny, weirdly self-confident despite himself, musical theater guy is very much my brother. I remember watching him auditioning for a play when he was in grade 9, singing like he wasn’t nervous and didn’t even give a crap what anyone thought, and the girl next to me commenting “He’s in grade 9. Where does he get that kind of confidence?”
Liu: There are innumerable stories of kids with one or two absent parents. Rarely, though, is it so frankly stated that the absent parent just up and left. In some ways it seems even harsher than if Maggie’s mother had died, because Maggie has to deal with the fact that every day, her mom is choosing not to be around her. Where did this element of the story come from? Did you think about it in terms of the Disney/Harry Potter/etc tradition of parental absences? Is Maggie’s mom, whose side of the story we have definitely not heard, going to be redeemed? (Wait – don’t answer that last one. No spoilers.)
Hicks: That part is actually the part of Friends With Boys which is very true, at least on an emotional level. When I was in college we had to deal with my Dad leaving, and the splintering of our family. I dealt with the whole thing in the worst way possible, hiding and trying to “fix” things that had little to nothing to do with the situation, which is where Maggie’s obsession with “fixing” the ghost’s story and laying her to rest comes from. I’ve noticed whenever someone makes an (understandably) angry comment on the webcomic site, about how horrible Maggie’s mother is for just leaving, I’m quick to jump up and say “well, we don’t know what happened. Sometimes people leave because there were circumstances outside of their control,” which is very much what happened in my family, my Dad dealing with issues and mental health problems which contributed to his leaving.
There is certainly redemption, but it’s in my own life, since my Dad came back, and my parents recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. They are super old and kind of hilarious. My Mom teaches women how to breastfeed at the local hospital, and my Dad is retired, but works at Home Depot part time because he likes home improvement stuff. I thought very briefly about ending Friends With Boys with a final scene where Maggie’s mom returns, and is there waiting for her at the end of the school day, but I couldn’t bear ending the story like that. For me, in my future thoughts about what will happen to Maggie and her mom, I think her mom returns to her life. In what way, I don’t know, but I think she returns and they have some kind of relationship. I don’t know if all readers will see it like that, and I wanted to leave it open for them to decide. Choose your own Maggie adventure.
Liu: I thought your notes about being a Real Comics Artist (and some of the financial aspects of doing comics for a living) were really fascinating. At this point, do you feel like you’d want to have a steady job (part time or full time) as a sort of “safety net” for your comics work, or do you prefer working on comics full time despite the uncertainty?
Hicks: I go back and forth on this, depending on my bank account. What I miss the most about having a “real” job (besides the paycheck) is the people. I used to work in animation, and I miss the studio environment and interacting with fellow artists on a daily basis. Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming about going back to work, but it’s mostly because I’m lonely, or I wish I had some extra cash to buy a new pair of boots. Honestly, though, I’m doing my dream job, and a job I feel I’m good at, so I’m willing to deal with the insecurity. I worry about stuff like retirement, but all I can do is live carefully, save money, invest well and hope that the work will be there 30 years down the road. I don’t think anyone else, freelancer or full time employed, can ask for much more.
Liu: I know you’ve talked about this some already on the website, but could you share a little about your process creating a page for a comic? How much do you plan? Is any of it done digitally or is it all on paper?
Hicks: All on paper for the drawing part, but I type on the computer for the writing, like a proper lady. I write the script and do a first pass of thumbnails on a bunch of lined notepads, then type up the final script from that mess. I do final thumbnails to finalize the look of the scene, then start penciling on giant sheets of Bristol paper. I pencil with a light blue animation (or col-erase) pencil, and ink with a Series 7 Winsor & Newton watercolor brush, and a bottle of cheap ink. It’s very time consuming, but I think it looks good.
Liu: Do you have any favorite pages or panels from Friends With Boys?
Hicks: I love the part where they go to see Alien at a local theater. It’s a theater in Halifax down the road from where I live, so that makes me happy. But also I just really like Alien, and it was fun writing a story where characters geek out about it. Weirdly enough, that was the very last part of Friends With Boys that I wrote, because writing happy geeky dialog for characters is really hard. You want it to be their words, not your own. So Maggie has her own reasons for liking Alien, reasons that are perhaps a little different from my own. Also, Alien is a terrifying movie, and I would never watch it when I was 10, like Maggie claimed she did.
Liu: I love the insights we get from your blog posts about the pages. What are the chances of seeing a “special edition” version of Friends With Boys with all of these notes included?
Hicks: You’re not the first person to ask that, so I’m glad there’s a demand! Well, maybe the book will sell well and stay in print and in 50 years we’ll get a special edition version delivered directly to our brains via Skynet, or something.
Liu: What comics do you like to read?
Hicks: All the comics! I love pretty much everything that’s well done. My favorites are Bone by Jeff Smith; Pluto, 20th Century Boys and Monster by Naoki Urasawa; Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa; BPRD by John Arcudi, Mike Mignola, Guy Davis and others; and … well, lots more. I’m a big fan of plain old good comics, so if something’s well done, be it autobio, superhero, science fiction, romance manga, thriller manga, or gag comics, I’ll probably read it.
Liu: Ok, I think that’s about it. Anything else you want to say to our readers about anything?
Hicks: Comics rule!! Also please buy my book, I worked very hard on it.
Friends With Boys will be released February 28, and can be pre-ordered now.