Fantasy and Fencing in Indie From First Second, FOILED

Fantasy and Fencing in Indie From :01

Jane Yolen’s books, numbering quite literally in the hundreds, have entertained readers of all ages for decades.  Her tales of fantasy and adventure have crossed gender lines, finding as many female fans as male, and she’s carried home Nebula and Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards.  She’s written and edited short fiction, novels and poetry.

Mike Cavallaro, a comics fan working in animation, recently jumped into comics, with his webserial on Act-I-Vate and a collaboration with J.M. DeMatteis on The Life and Times of Savior 28 at IDW.

The pair are uniting at First Second books for Foiled.  Deftly juggling fantasy adventure with a young girl’s coming of age, Foiled finds its heroine, Aliera, torn between her comfortable routines, including a determination to become an Olympic fencer and weekend afternoons gaming with her physical disabled cousin, and the attentions of a cute new boy in school.  The boy isn’t what he appears to be, however; neither is the world, Aliera soon discovers.

When Newsarama contacted Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro to ask about Foiled, we opened by asking Yolen the obvious question about her fencing knowledge and background.

“I was a fencer at Smith College,” she confirmed proudly, “number two on our team. But we were only competitive within the college in those days. Fast-forward years later, and my granddaughter Maddison became a competitive fencer and was doing quite well here in the Connecticut River Valley and at statewide competitions, until ballet claimed her heart. Maddison, her mom (my daughter Heidi) and Maddison’s fencing coach all read drafts of the manuscript. They also sent photos to Mike (Cavallaro) for reference. Maddison saw the first pictures that Mike sent and exclaimed, ‘Hey, that’s my butt!’ And it was.

“Also, as a side note, I lost my fencing foil on a date in Grand Central Station,” Yolen said, explaining one of the origin of one of the book’s key moments.  “Who the date was, why we were in GCS, why I was carrying the foil—all lost in the mists of time!”

With that background in place in both her own life and her granddaughter’s, fencing became the apparent analogy for exploring Aliera’s awakening.  “I started with the fencing story because of Maddison’s passion at the time, as a short story for her,” Yolen told us.  “It was integral from the beginning, so analogy/metaphor/life all happened at the same time. But I think the central metaphor comes with coach Chris’ warning to ‘guard your heart.’ That is both a blessing and a curse as we shall see.”

Having tremendous experience writing fantasy, science-fiction and folklore, Yolen found Foiled gravitating toward the fantastic early on.  “The minute I thought of it as a graphic novel, fantasy wormed its way in. And the constant thought: All boys are trolls. And at a certain age, they are; I had two sons (and a daughter).”

She elaborated, “But also because I have written more fantasy and fairy tales and books about fantasy and fairy tales than most writers. It is my natural element.”

The fantasy elements come as a late shock in the book, and bring with them a series of tidal shifts in Foiled.

Artist Mike Cavallaro explained how the characters become more expressive and expansive when they find their world turned upside down:  “I think a lot of that comes from drawing page after page after page of these characters. As a writer, the more you work with a great character, the more they start to ‘speak’ to you. The same happens when you’re drawing. As the book went on, and I became more comfortable drawing all these new characters: Aliera seemed to develop a wide visual personality and range of expressions. You try to design a character with features that will allow them to act out and express a wide variety of emotions, and then you have to start drawing the final pages, hoping for the best. Aliera and Avery both proved to be great vehicles for acting out the story. I had a great time drawing them.

“For the rest, comics are a form of visual handwriting. The page layouts provide an indispensable tool for communicating the dynamics of the story, and you have to be conscious of how your storytelling choices are either reinforcing or detracting from the overall narrative. I tried to use page layouts that were down-to-Earth when the story needed them to be, and off the hook as events in Aliera’s adventure got weirder.”

In addition to the bizarre creatures springing from Cavallaro’s pen, the book moves away from its early monochromatic look, suddenly bursting with rainbows of color.

Playing with color seemed an obvious notion once Yolen decided Foiled would be a graphic novel.  “I wanted Aliera to see things in black and white—quite literally as she is color blind, though the notion of color blindness entered the script quite late in the development of the story. And then, when she begins to see the fairies, they are signified by color. So that was my idea.

“And the use of the birds—crows and ravens—was also my idea.

“But Mike took those elements and developed them visually,” Yolen said.  “I love what he did. He made it all work.”

Cavallaro expanded by saying, “The script called for the monochromatic or limited palette you see in most of the book, but what the specific hue would be was up for grabs. I did a number of test pages when we got to the coloring stage that visualized the pages in sepias, blues, greens, gray, full color, and whatever you’d call what we decided on. We kicked these back and forth, and came up with what you see as a sort of mutual decision between Jane, Mark and myself.

“The more ‘colorful’ areas and characters were, again, specified in the manuscript. Jane was very specific about how the colors for the fantastical characters should appear.”

In addition to the book’s playfulness with the presence and notion of color, Yolen plays with readers’ interactions with the character Aliera herself, by allowing the heroine to frequently offer observations directly to the reading audience.

Jane Yolen: “Again, it was like that from the very beginning of the short story. I am an instinctive writer, not one who thinks and plans and plots ahead, which frustrated the amazing editor of the book, Tonya McKinnon, no end I am sure. That was how I heard Aliera’s voice, how it spoke to me from the first. I wasn’t thinking ‘break the fourth wall’ or anything else, just jotting down what she said and how she said it. And believe me, adolescent snarkiness has long been in my vocabulary, having been a snarky teen myself, having raised three of them, and now surrounded by grandlings who seem to have begun their snarkiness in the cradle.”

The book’s expressive, wide-open panels enable readers to linger over Aliera’s story.  The visual design came directly from Yolen’s script Cavallaro explained.  “Jane’s script,” he said, “definitely set the tone for many of the spacious layouts you see in the book. As I’ve said, I had a lot of freedom to reconfigure these as I saw fit, and I think Jane trusted that this was the sort of thing I brought to the project. But whether I shifted a panel to one page or another, the density of the panel arrangements is certainly implied in the script.”

Cavallaro’s role in the book completes a circle, in many respects, of a life-changing moment.  His partnership in Foiled may not have occurred without the intervention of a previous First Second book.

“I was immediately impressed by First Second’s opening volley of books a couple of years ago. They had translated some works by a few of my favorite European artists like Joann Sfar, and were soon putting out graphic novels of unparalleled quality like George O’Connor’s Journey Into Mohawk Country and Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese,” he proclaimed.  “I bought everything they released, and remember showing them to my girlfriend Lisa, saying, ‘Someday I want to work with these guys.’

“At the time, I was working in a commercial animation studio on a variety of projects that were leaving me extremely unsatisfied. While commuting to and from the office, I was reading Sfar’s Klezmer, still one of my favorite First Second books. In it, a variety of characters from different walks of life that nevertheless feel similarly trapped, disillusioned, or disenfranchised, abandon their unsatisfying pursuits, accidentally meet each other, and form a traveling band.

“That made a lot of sense to me,” Cavallaro said.  “I walked into the studio and quit my job.

“Soon after, I began posting my webcomic, “Parade (with fireworks)” on ACT-I-VATE.com (LINK), where it caught the attention of First Second editorial director Mark Siegel. We talked comics for a few weeks, and then Mark gave me Jane’s manuscript for Foiled to look over. I read it over a weekend, and immediately was captivated by the creative possibilities the story provided, and that was that.”

Cavallaro said, “In a very real sense, it was the artistic message of one First Second book that helped put me on the path to co-creating another First Second book. I can’t think of a higher compliment I could pay to an author and a publisher than to say, ‘Your book made me step off the treadmill and do what I was dreaming about doing.’”

Even with all her accomplishments as a prose author, Yolen looked forward to finally writing for comics.  “I have loved comics since a child,” she confessed, “and had wanted to publish a graphic novel for at least fifteen years with no success, until finally meeting First Second’s Mark Siegel. He was the one who—reading the start of the short story—urged me to think of it as a graphic novel. In fact his urging was accompanied by a contract, and we were off! Amazing how galvanizing a contract can be!”

She has her own approach to writing for comics, she admits.  “But I am bringing more words than the usual comic, really bringing the poet/novelist’s sensibility to the undertaking. Not a lot of ZIP! BLAM! OOF! here. Though I am hardly the first to do that—see much of Neil Gaiman’s comics and graphic novels. Watch how much text there is in Hellboy or Maus.”

Yolen’s being a first-time comics author never manifested to Cavallaro, who said of his collaborator, “The fact that Jane hadn’t written a comic before never seemed to matter much. Hopefully, in a similar way, we’ll be reaching readers that may have never read a comic before. A great story is a great story, and all we can do is send it out into the world and hope it captures peoples’ imaginations as it has ours. Jane’s script was formatted like a traditional comics script, similar to a play, with direction and dialogue. It was broken down panel-by-panel, page-by-page; a ‘full script.’ That was my starting point, and Jane gave me all the leeway in the world to interpret her layout suggestions as I saw fit. She basically handed it off to me, and let me run with it. You can’t ask for more than that. Jane seemed genuinely excited to see the pages develop from pencils to inks to colors, and offered insight and encouragement at every stage. I can’t stress enough: it was really a breeze. Lots of work, but also lots of fun and freedom.”

Open-ended, Foiled leaves room for plenty of sequels.

Of his interest in revisiting Aliera and her friends, Cavallaro would only say, “Heck, yes! I’m here as long as Jane and Mark will have me. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say this or not, but the wheels are already turning…”

Yolen was less vague: “Curses Foiled Again is already done and at the publisher’s. Well, done as to the draft (something like the thirteenth, I think) that has gone to Tonya. She and I had a marathon conversation just this week in which she explained to me why I have to totally rewrite it. And she is absolutely right. So I have already begun the process of deepening characters, making them earn their magic. I have already added four whole pages, and that’s only in the first two sections. Now I will go over those again and again before sending the two sections back to Tonya to see if I am on the right track.  It may be summer before poor Mike gets to see anything.

“Tonya has suggested there is a third volume to be written. Right now I am just working on this one and not thinking too far ahead.  Cautiously excited, always worried that this is the time I can’t pull off the magic trick, that the talent or whatever it is that has gotten me this far will slow to a trickle in the desert.

“See – scratch any artist and you find a neurotic,” she laughed, “though in my case it’s a cheerful, upbeat neurotic.”

Foiled is available April from First Second Books.  More information about Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro can be found on their websites.

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