Have you ever gone away to summer camp? Do you have fond memories of the experience?
Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan did, and they don’t. The writing duo revisit the experience in Brain Camp from First Second Books. In Brain Camp, Jenna and Lucas have failed to live up to their parents’ expectations, and when they’re surprisingly accepted into a learning summer camp, both children are unceremoniously packed up and shipped off. But they quickly discover that things aren’t quite what they appear in this camp.
A genuinely creepy narrative (wait until you see what’s happening to the disappearing kids) about two kids learning to rely on themselves, Brain Camp recently arrived in stores. We spoke with its creators – writers Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan and illustrator Faith Erin Hicks – about its creation and development.
Newsarama: What led you to creating Brain Camp?
Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan: It came from two places. We were both horribly scarred (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration) by our experiences in sleep-away camp. Laurence went to “space camp,” the kind inspired by NASA and designed to turn kids into the next generation of astronauts (that actually had supernatural, horror-movie reenactments); and Susan went to Korean camp, where she learned, ineptly, brush drawing and folk dancing. Secondly, we’re both a little freaked out and confused by the 21st century model of parenting, which seems to place tremendously high expectations on kids for, okay, lots of love and attention. We both had feral childhoods, marked by benign neglect and almost no expectations from our parents. So we thought it might be cool to kind of morph those things together.
Nrama: In both Brain Camp (the pair’s WWII adventure about two youngsters uncovering a Nazi spy ring) and City of Spies, your heroes are kids whose stories aren’t believed by the adults in their lives. Were you trying to explore this theme in different ways? What makes the idea so powerful?
Kim & Klavan: To us, childhood really is kind of a different planet and kids speak a different language that’s informed by imagination, strong emotion, instinct, and the fact that grownups always think they know more. Yet of course kids aren’t dumb, nor are their experiences or observations any less valid for being those of a child. So the frustration kids feel when grownups don’t listen or understand, or when they try to deliberately change the subject, or when they try to be smart and analyze it as really being about something else (how annoying is that?) is not only compelling, but universal. What child hasn’t felt that way? And when you create heroes whose stories aren’t believed by the people in charge … well, that’s automatic drama right there.
Nrama: Unlike the parents (or the acting parent, in Evelyn’s case) in City of Spies who don’t believe the outlandish story of Nazi spies, but still love their kids, Jenna’s parents and Lucas’s mother in Brain Camp are genuinely poor parents. It’s a pretty serious idea for younger readers to take on. How did Jenna and Lucas’s relationship to their parents develop?Kim & Klavan: The relationship between the kids and their parents did change a lot over the course of writing Brain Camp. We always wanted the parents to believe in the camp, to think it would make their kids smarter but in a nice, normal way. In the earliest draft, Lucas and Jenna managed to convince their parents that something terrible was going on, and the parents felt so guilty, they even helped fight off the aliens. But that diluted the ending, because it made it too easy for Lucas and Jenna. What’s more, as we plunged deeper into the horror of the story, we realized that the greatest fears aren’t really about monsters under the bed or creepy noises at night … they’re about the relationships around you. What if the people you really trusted were the ones betraying you or selling you out? Who do you turn to then? The answer is “each other”… which also worked for the relationship we were building between our two protagonists.
Nrama: Brain Camp gets pretty wild, once you discover who is behind the missing children. Were you deliberately trying to do something different with the “kids at camp” motif by bringing a sci-fi/horror edge to the material?
Kim & Klavan: We weren’t consciously being that ambitious: we just both like heightened stories more than kitchen-sink realism and we admire imaginative writing from The Twilight Zone to Philip K. Dick and beyond. We also thought it was fitting for the graphic novel form that the villain be big, weird, or out of the ordinary. That way, it would hopefully become a disturbing metaphor—in this case, for control—instead of a common and containable (and forgettable) adversary.
Nrama: This book has a disturbing edge, with kids becoming zombie-like and having their heads misshapen by alien birds. Was that creepiness something you planned, or did it develop when you saw the page from Faith Erin Hicks?
Kim & Klavan: The creepiness and (we hope) amusingly nasty details were all in the script. We delivered a fully executed visual map to Faith, and she interpreted it and brought it to life brilliantly.
Nrama: Brain Camp is your second “kids adventure” book with First Second. Can readers look forward to more from you both and First Second?
Kim & Klavan: We hope so! We like writing in this form together; it’s a fun relief from the writing we do separately. We’ve got some other ideas that we hope First Second likes, and we’ve completed a script for older readers that we hope to find the right illustrator and publisher for, a college love story called “Chemistry.”
Faith Erin Hicks:
Nrama: How did you get involved in Camp?
Faith Erin Hicks: First Second Books emailed me out of the blue and said they had a script that they needed an artist for, and would I do some sample pages. I said yes and got the job. Goes to show you never know who’s looking at your website, so always have a website, kids!
Nrama: The imagery of the kids with misshapen heads is pretty creepy. Were you trying to make this book a little disturbing?
Hicks: I hope it’s very disturbing! I put a lot of my own creepy fears into the drawings, stuff like having something living inside you, living things moving around under your skin, concepts that really freak me out. I felt if I played on my own fears, I’d draw a much creepier book. I also took a lot of inspiration from John Carpenter’s The Thing. When I was first asked to try out for Brain Camp, I watched The Thing a couple of times, as I felt there were some similarities between the movie and Brain Camp. That movie is really gross, but I love it. I even gave Lucas (Brain Camp’s male lead) Kurt Russell hair.
Nrama: What sort of comics work had you done prior to Brain Camp?
Hicks: I’ve drawn literally thousands of pages of online comics with my old webcomics Demonology 101 (completed 2004) and Ice (still ongoing), and I’ve had two graphic novels published by SLG Publishing: Zombies Calling, which is about university students fighting a zombie invasion by using the Rules of Zombie Movies, and The War at Ellsmere, a mystery set at a girls’ boarding school. So based on what books of mine people have read, I’m either a Girly Artist (drawing comics about girls and their adventures) or I’m a Horror Artist (drawing comics about zombies). It’s awesome the range of readers I have.
Nrama: How did you approach the script once you received it?
Hicks: The script was very clear about what was supposed to be drawn, as Susan and Laurence had included lots of art direction, but they left it up to me to develop the actual look of everything from the camp to the characters, which was nice. You don’t always get writers who step back and let you draw, because it’s their story and they have specific ideas on how they want it to look. I enjoyed it.
Nrama: What are you working on next?
Hicks: I just finished writing and drawing my next graphic novel, which is called Friends With Boys. It’s a slightly (but not really) autobiographical story about a homeschooled girl entering her first year of public high school, and the various scrapes she gets into. And at one point there are zombies. Kinda. Friends With Boys will be published by First Second at some point… not sure yet when it’ll be out.
Brain Camp is currently available from First Second Books.Creepy