Adventure Time meets Moomintroll? Chatting with Aliza Layne About BEETLE AND THE HOLLOWBONES
A parent has to make a series of choices determining what is best for their child. You sort through your own childhood to a certain extent, improving on some parts, deleting others. In my own case, there was at least one aspect of my early years that has caused me to embody true Nerd Parentdom: I have bestowed upon my offspring a thorough and unshakable addiction to comics.
I regret nothing. How could I? While I had to be satisfied with Betty & Veronica, Harvey comics, For Better or For Worse, etc. the kids today get full-blown high quality graphic novels on a regular basis. When I had to make the children’s collection at my library’s new branch (see my pretty little list here, if you’re curious) it was the most fun I’d had in a while. Meanwhile, talented artists keep appearing. Fun new books keep cropping up. And a recent favorite of both myself and my daughter? The delightful Beetle and the Hollowbones.
Recently I had a little online Q&A with the author Aliza Layne about her past work and her strangely touching tale of goblin witches, cutie-pie ghosts, and nerdy-at-heart skeletal gals.
Betsy Bird: Thanks so much for chatting with me. So first and foremost, I’m a big-time fan with what you’ve done with BEETLE AND THE HOLLOWBONES. Particularly since, as far as I can tell, it’s a full-blown graphic novel that started as just a four-page webcomic in 2014 called Goblin Witch and Blood Ghost Hang at the Mall. How did that tiny comic turn into something so epic?
Aliza Layne: So happy to talk with you!
That part was more about thinking about more stories to tell with these characters than a direct adaptation. I definitely envisioned these two as bigger than their original story right from the jump, there was so much I wanted to say and so much more I wanted them to do. The book has the same heart as the minicomic and I knew there was so much more to do in this world. I loved fitting everything together, and I had a lot of help from my agent and my editor on that, not to mention my friends who let me go on about it for hours on end!
BB: Speaking of which, let’s talk webcomics. I’m not sure the extent to which kids (or, more realistically, adults) understand the link between artists that post their stuff online vs. artists that publish their stuff in a physical form. You’ve got a webcomic called Demon Street that is significantly longer and larger than BEETLE. How long have you been working on it? Does it find its audience?
AL: Demon Street is a vastly different beast from BEETLE. I’ve been working on it since 2013 and the serial format has let me slowly wind it towards its conclusion, which is happening now. I was surprised when I was in the query stage for BEETLE that editors knew about Demon Street, but they did. I think people who read DS every week care about it a lot and responding to them has made writing it more fun (and I think I have a pretty wide range of ages reading, including some young people!) but ultimately it’s entirely for me. I met a lot of the most important people in my life because of Demon Street, that’s the most important thing.
BB: Have you always done webcomic work? Is that how you got your start? What draws you to the form? Any advice you’d give to kids that want to start their career with webcomics?
AL: I LOVE to see kids doing comics. The webcomics scene has some people in it with absolutely mindblowing creative power, but you can start anywhere and anyone who wants to definitely should. I started writing for audiences online when I was a teenager, writing prose short stories and drawing some pictures and putting them up. It takes a while and a lot of work to snowball that into a job, but try not to set out with that in your mind. Webcomics are about making something weird and wild and wonderful, something that’s whatever you wanted to make the very most. Like anything, that has its strengths and weaknesses, but one great thing is that you don’t need much to get started. Just some paper and something to draw with and a phone, or a library computer. I think that anybody just starting out might feel like they need to be a pro or something before they can put a comic online, but I believe you should do things before you think you’re ready. It’s the only way to actually do them for real!
BB: Getting back to BEETLE, one of the things I liked so much about it was that it really upended a lot of my expectations. First, malls. You just don’t get a lot of them in children’s fiction these days. So. Truth time. Were you or were you not a mallrat?
AL: I was a mall employee, so I saw it all. After school I ended up working in the bookstore in the same mall I used to visit as a kid, which was a gig that lasted some years. The slime thing from chapter one really happened to me; some teens upended a puck of slime onto the carpet and I had to try and chisel it up with a sticker scraper. I failed, it’s still there as far as I know. The people who work there now tried to hide it but I know where it is. It’s SO funny. The mall is so weird and funny, especially these failing dead malls in rural areas. Our mall is awful, half the stores are empty and the management is trying to strategically put things in the way so you can’t tell. I remember I got the idea for the original short comic while I was closing at the store at night in January. It’s after the holidays so no one is there, and the mall hallways are full of these old claw machines that shout at you as you walk by, so I’d be walking out to the parking lot and hear these distant eerie shouts echoing through the darkness. It was so spooky and silly. There’s a type of gothic (in the literary sense) to that crumbling retail setting, the sound of the metal gates sliding shut as you walk out into the cold air under streetlights. And I thought Halloween stuff was just perfect for that feeling. It might even be able to bring some fun back into the weird melancholy of that.
BB: Follow-up question: where did BEETLE originate?
AL: Right there in the dead January mall and in a million other places. It’s so hard to answer this question in a way that really captures it! You sort of sit in the center of the spiderweb of your life and tug on strings and a little dew-bead of experience or enthusiasm or inspiration travels right down to you. And all the little dew-beads combine together into one thing. I also think that one of the easiest ways to tell a good story, and the one I’m using with Beetle, is to start with two characters who have a dynamic. Who are they? Who are they to each other? Where are they? What kind of drama starts the story? When do they change?
BB: Love the style and look of BEETLE and it’s garnering a lot of comparisons to stuff like STEVEN UNIVERSE. What have you watched/read/enjoyed that’s influenced your style over the years? I mean, Miyazaki, sure, but beyond that?
AL: The other big one is ADVENTURE TIME, which I watched with my younger brother when he was growing up. I’m always reaching for the level of genuine feeling that show evokes and the lack of easy answers. It never talks down to its audience, and I never want to either. I really like the Moomin books as well, you can feel the spirit of Jansson’s experience in them even though it wasn’t legal to write about being gay in children’s books at that time. I think the first comic I ever got really obsessed with as a kid was Jeff Smith’s BONE. I’m drawing a lot from his comedy, strong character dynamics and powerful grandmas. I’m grabbing kinetic energy from Calvin and Hobbes as well, I had a copy of C&H as a kid that my cat barfed on and I carefully ripped the cover off so I could keep the rest of the book. More than anything, though, I’m lucky to have friends who are resplendently brilliant at comics. I’m learning from them all the time.
BB: A kid reads BEETLE, loves it, then desperately wants to read the next one. Until they can, what do you recommend to them?
PARANATURAL by Zack Morrison! It’s a free webcomic and it’s deliriously good. Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter’s DUNGEON CRITTERS is definitely the next big thing, and that’s coming out really soon after BEETLE. I also recommend ALL MY FRIENDS ARE GHOSTS by S.M. Vidaurri and Hannah Krieger and Claribel A. Ortega’s GHOST SQUAD.
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
AL: I’m finishing Demon Street! Everything else is a secret… for now!
Many thanks to Aliza for answering my many many questions and to Shivani Annirood at S&S for putting us together in the first place.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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