Cecil Castellucci, the mind behind Young Animal’s Shade the Changing Girl and DC’s Female Furies, takes a deep dive into her own adolescence with BOOM! Studios/Archaia Press’ upcoming autobiographical graphic novel, Girl on Film, which hits comic book stores November 13. The series takes a look at how Cecil’s own life experiences and the media she consumed helped shape her to become the storyteller she is today, deconstructing what it means to remember and misremember in the genre of autobiographies.
Newsarama had the chance to talk to Cecil about reflecting on her past to create Girl on Film, the comic books and films that inspired her as a creator to help shape her own narrative, and working with her art collaborators (Vicky Leta, Jon Berg, V. Gagnon, and Melissa Duffy) that each visually showcase a different time period in Castellucci’s life.
Newsarama: Cecil, what inspired you to do an autobiographical story?
Cecil Castellucci: The idea for the book came through a conversation with my editor Sierra Hahn. We were talking about my time in a punk band in the 90s and she asked if I wanted to write about that. But I wasn’t quite ready for that, and if I wrote about that (I’d like to down the line!) I would want that to be fiction.
But I always thought that my high school experience at the LaGuardia High School of the Arts, intersecting with people who contributed to culture, in a New York that doesn’t exist anymore could be interesting to talk about. What we came up with at first was very different from the book that I have coming out now. But I think the time that it took to construct and reconstruct really helped to shape it to be about art and memory. Which was of great interest to me.
Nrama: Why did you want to mix the story of film with the medium of comics?
Castellucci: I think that since for me the thread of my wanting to become an artist sprang forth from my great desire to be a filmmaker. When I was trying to figure out how to put all these anecdotes that I had together, the one thread that kept coming through was film. But these scattered stories had no through line until I started thinking of organizing them as genres. So for me, the book is about how our life is remembered in genre. Our love stories, our war stories, our horror stories, our westerns, etc. That layer, on top of the layer of my wanting to be a filmmaker and thinking that was where my artistic ship was sailing me towards, plus the fact that comics are visual just as film is kind of all came together in a perfect synchronicity.
Nrama: What films and comic books do you feel have shaped you as a storyteller over the years?
Castellucci: Oh my gosh that is the largest question I’ve ever gotten! I will talk about a few that influenced me when I was in high school and college because otherwise this list will be a million lines long.
Film-wise, off the top of my head, Down By Law, Siesta, Straight to Hell, Orlando, Metropolitain, Gas Food Lodging, Hollywood Shuffle, Brother from Another Planet, My Beautiful Laundrette, Another Country, Desperately Seeking Susan and I’m forgetting a ton.
Then comics wise, Watchmen, Roberta Gregory’s Naughty Bits, Julie Doucet's Dirty Plotte, Hernadez Bros. Love and Rockets, Yummy Fur by Chester Brown, Optic Nerve by Adrine Tomine... also too many too name that I’m forgetting. A lot of stuff that ended up on Drawn and Quarterly. I’m just name-checking the indie stuff here. There are plenty of mainstream movies and superhero comics that had my heart at that time too.
Nrama: How did you get into comic books?
Castellucci: Like everyone else: Reading them and borrowing them. My parents are French Canadian so we always had Tintin, Asterix and Lucky Luke kicking around. But I fell in love with Adam West’s Batman and so my parents got me an omnibus of golden age Batman when I was little that I would stare at before I could even read. Peanuts were pretty big in my house too.
Also I had a little brother with a pull list, so I read whatever he was reading. When he was growing up it was mostly Marvel, but once he got older it aligned more with my tastes because he started reading Vertigo. That’s probably when I got back into reading comics after a hiatus.
Nrama: You don’t just explore film with this story. What other works of art do you write about?
Castellucci: I talk about theater, I talk about storytelling, I talk about punk music. But for me it’s all about stories and how we tell them. And memory. Sharing our memories, no matter how wrong they are, is storytelling at its purest. It is how we show ourselves to the world. And how we remake ourselves, which is an art as well.
Nrama: Why did you feel BOOM! Studios was the perfect place to publish this story?
Castellucci: I love what BOOM! Studios does with their Archaia books. They are so beautiful and they are into doing things a little bit differently. Also, I was very keen to work with Sierra Hahn. I had worked with her on Soupy Leaves Home at Dark Horse before she left for BOOM! Studios. So you could say that I was trying to follow her.
Nrama: What made you decide that you wanted to do this in the comic book medium instead of a prose novel?
Castellucci: One idea that I had with the genre stuff was that maybe not everyone would be just a regular high school kid. Since I went to a theater school, I thought we could have clowns and masks and costumes.
Comics is visual and I thought it would be a good way to show that diversity of story and times and ways of being theatrical and styles of genres. Like a noir in black and white, or an animated thing with bright colors. But when I hit upon the idea of having that conversation with my dad, it all came together because then it was like you could actually walk through a memory. Show it. Be in the brain. Show how neurons work. So in the end a lot of those ideas got married together.
Don’t get me wrong, I love prose, but comics has a way of getting to the heart of things in a way that simple words can’t. Especially when you are dealing with memory, which is often so misremembered. You can really show that with pictures. I couldn’t have done it without the four artists that I worked with, Melissa Duffy, Vicky Leta, V Gagnon, and Jon Berg. Each one of their styles, that goes along with a different age helps to really demonstrate how memory is shaped and morphs and grows. I felt that they really just nailed the zaniness of the genre stuff and kept it really real. And I think that helps to show how memory is a fluid thing. I’m so grateful to have worked with them.
Nrama: Why did you decide to make this a graphic novel instead of a story in a single issue format?
Castellucci: At first, Sierra and I did think that maybe we would do it as a single issue mini-series, but as the project came together, we thought it was better served by being an OGN and the whole being read in one sitting.
Nrama: How did you pick your art collaborators for such a personal book?
Castellucci: Well, I did a call on Twitter and I compiled a big list of names of people whose art I thought was great. Sierra Hahn also had a list. We even had some crossover. And then Sierra, who is a brilliant editor, kind of honed down our list to the people that she thought would match best to the four parts we had. I feel so lucky to have gotten V, Vicky, Duffy, and Jon. They were great.
Nrama: What were some challenges you had writing about yourself?
Castellucci: [Laughs] Everything was a challenge!
It was hard because sometimes the slow part of your life is kind of boring but we hold onto it as essential. Also, I combined a lot of people because I wanted to keep the cast smaller than my real life. Then, there are somethings that are unpleasant to think about. Like the bombing or the sexual assault.
You know, I had to take a few days off sometimes and just stare at the wall. And it’s hard to really take a hard look at yourself. I talk about it in the book with my dad. Where I tell a story now one way, but when I looked at my journals I wrote it down so differently. It was kind of embarrassing how dumb and young I was. And it made me rethink so many things in my life.
But I wrote by a motto that my godfather Jacques d’Amboise, who wrote his own memoir I am a Dancer, told me when we lunched a few years ago. “Do no harm.” I took that to mean do no harm to anyone nor to myself. I think also, the conversations with my dad about the mechanics of memory gave me a little more freedom and context on how to sift through memory and not feel badly about the way I remembered or misremembered. In the end, it was really fun to dig through it all. And I feel kinder about myself now than I did before the project.
Nrama: Was there any section of the story you had the most fun exploring now that you could look back at it from a new perspective?
Castellucci: I think maybe my obsession with Herman was interesting and fun to look back at. I mean I felt so tortured about that crush for so long and realizing that I still use him as a muse and that I could still have a relationship with this big love I had and what it meant to me then and now was really nice. I mean, it’s way more complicated than what’s in the book, but I feel like it makes much more sense now, 30+ years down the line.