Hope Larson has been one of this decade’s dark horses in all ages comics. From her 2008 graphic novel Chiggers to 2013’s Who is AC?, Larson established herself as a creative and animated cartoonist whose art was innovative and evocative. However, she never seemed to get the attention she deserved– until now.
2016 is the year of Larson. As a part of DC Comics’ Rebirth initiative, Larson was named the new writer of Batgirl, which will launch next month with Rafael Albuquerque (American Vampire) on art.
Today, Larson’s newest book, Compass South: Four Points, was released through Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Younger Readers (FSG BYR), a Macmillan sister imprint to First Second. Featuring Rebecca Mock on art, Compass South begins a series of stories that focus on Alexander and Cleopatra, adventurous and strong-willed twins who find themselves on the wrong end of the law when they turn to crime following the disappearance of their adoptive father. When one of their heists goes wrong though, they end up on a seafaring adventure that promises new friends, great treasures, and a chance at redemption.
Recently, Larson sat down to talk to the Comics Beat about the numerous inspirations behind her historically-based adventure story!
Alex Lu: Hope, congratulations on the release of Compass South! The book is a fascinating fictional character study, but it’s also heavily steeped in American and seafaring history. How did you come up with the idea for the project, and what was it about that idea that spoke to you?
Hope Larson: Thank you! This project has been a total labor of love. I knew I’d built up enough goodwill with my publisher that they might let me take a crack at a more ambitious and expansive project, and fortunately they did. I came up with the idea while I was on a plane, traveling and promoting A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel. I’d been hearing a fair amount from the parents of reluctant readers, and I was hearing a lot of stories about that book being the first one someone’s kid had read alone, and I wanted my next book to be equally accessible. For me, though, accessible means fun and fast-paced, not dumb. A Wrinkle in Time is as far as you can get from being a “dumb” kids’ book; it’s full of complicated feelings and theoretical science, but because it’s wrapped up in a fun adventure story with lots of pictures, it seems safe. That was how I interpreted it, anyway.
As far as the setting and actual content of the book–the 1860s, pirates, Americana–I’m a big fan of historical fiction. I enjoy researching and learning about other time periods. I like settings that allow me to write about younger characters who’re on their own in the world and forced to live by their wits. It’s nice not dealing with cell phones and the trappings of modern life, too; technology and youth culture move so fast and graphic novels take so long that any time I write a story set in the present day, it’s dated by the time it comes out.
Lu: In addition to being a writer, you’re also known as an accomplished illustrator. What led you to collaborate with Rebecca Mock on Compass South?
Larson: The vision I had for this book was beyond my skill as an artist, and when this project was getting started I was totally burnt out after drawing A Wrinkle in Time. I wasn’t sure I’d ever draw comics again. I have come back to it a bit, and I’m drawing a graphic novel now, but I hope that in the future I can stick to drawing small personal projects.
I met Rebecca Mock on Twitter. I did a casting call sort of thing, and one of her friends saw my tweet and bumped it her way. I knew pretty early on that I was incredibly lucky to be working with her; not only is she a brilliant artist, but many times I got pages back and they were just as I’d imagined them. Every time I start a project I picture it in an idealized, unattainable form, and by the end that dream has died and you’re happy just to have finished it. Working with Rebecca, the finished book is even more beautiful than I thought it could be.
Lu: The nature of collaborating to produce a comic is vastly different to having complete creative control What was the working process between you and Rebecca like?
Larson: There are three primary creative voices at work on this project: Me, Rebecca, and our editor, Margaret Ferguson, who was my editor on A Wrinkle in Time. I write the outline and revise that a couple of times with Margaret, and share it with Rebecca so she can start getting a handle on the characters. Then I crawl off into my cave and write the script, which involves a lot of soul-searching and coffee and tears. Margaret and I then revise the script several times, and when we feel it’s ready, it gets handed off to Rebecca. She does thumbnails, and I give a few notes on those–mainly on visual flow and “screen direction.” When the pencils are finished, Margaret gives us notes, and Rebecca goes on to inks and colors. When inks are finished, the whole books goes to a copyeditor. We do a number of copyeditor passes, and Margaret gives us a lot more notes on everything from coloring mistakes to story beats that aren’t quite working, and the dialogue is getting revised until the last moment. Margaret is a tough editor, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
We’re working on another project together, and this one is a little more collaborative in the sense that Rebecca’s been on board earlier than usual, and we’re constructing the characters to a greater degree before I start writing. But generally, I do the writing and Rebecca does the art.
Lu: Our heroes in the story are Alexander and Cleopatra, though when we meet them they don’t act in a particularly heroic way. Did you base their voices off anyone in your life or perhaps even parts of yourself?
Larson: I guess they’re aspects of myself, like every character in the book is. It’s a tough world and everyone’s doing what they have to do to survive.
Lu: In the story, Alex is guided by spirits of loved ones several times. Sometimes he has visions of his sister, and at one crucial moment he is led by the mate’s wife. Is there something particular about Alex’s character that makes him prone to such apparitions? Do you think that we are spiritually guided by the people we love?
Larson: I totally believe we’re spiritually guided by the people we know or have known, in the sense that they inspire us to try and be the best versions of ourselves. As far as why Alex is prone to apparitions, I’d say it’s because he’s the masculine twin–more action-oriented, less emotionally open, angrier–and he needs that sort of guidance more than Cleo does.
Lu: I was captivated by the scene where Alex and the rest of sailors on the Anita unbend the sails while singing a sea shanty. It’s a beautiful and peaceful moment in the middle of such a tense journey, and I found the shanty itself in several old magazines! How did you come across this song and what made you decide to put it in the book?
Larson: I found that song in The Music of the Waters, a collection of sea shanties and work songs published in 1888. I found it on Google Books, which is an incredible boon for historical fiction; you can easily search through material from specific time periods, and even search for specific turns of phrase if you aren’t sure one was in use at that time.
I wanted to include a song because it’s my understanding that music was a part of ship life in a big way. Singing these songs helped keep the crew in sync while pulling ropes, hoisting sails and what-not, and I’m sure it helped make the incredibly difficult seafaring life more bearable. I chose that particular song because it’s about a character rising up through the ranks to become a captain and find love, which is partly reflective of the Mate’s story and partly reflective of Alex’s story.
Lu: What books, fictional or otherwise, inspired you during the creation of Compass South?
Larson: Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, from 1859, was a big help. I read a lot of travelogues from the 1800s and earlier, some of which I found on Google Books and some of which I dug out of used bookstores; first-hand accounts of sailing around Cape Horn were particularly useful. I read an intense and depressing book about slavery and piracy called The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic; although the age of piracy was pretty much over during the 1860s, it was helpful to have some context for how it arose in the first place. I got Cleopatra’s name and a tiny nugget of inspiration for the story from Anito Loos’s autobiography, A Girl Like I, which is a fun read if you like Old Hollywood stuff, but is otherwise unrelated to this project.
For tall ship mechanics, we never could have completed Compass South if not for John H. Harland’s exhaustive and heavily-illustrated Seamanship in the Age of Sail. By far the hardest part of writing Compass South and its sequel,Knife’s Edge, was wrapping my brain around how ships work. Rebecca is a saint for taking on the challenge of drawing them. Before writing and drawing these books, neither Rebecca nor I had even been on a tall ship. I still haven’t!
Inspiring comics (for content and visuals) include Tintin, Astérix, Isaac the Pirate, and Miss Don’t Touch Me. Adventure bandes-dessinés were the first comics I read and fell in love with, and I’ve been dreaming of making something along those lines for years.
Lu: What do you hope Compass South will bring to readers, particularly younger ones who might be approaching comics for the first time?
Larson: Mostly, I hope they’ll have fun reading it. I hope it will encourage them to reexamine the boxes life has put them into and choose their own paths. I hope they’ll remember it sometimes as they’re growing up. And I hope they’ll come back for book two, because this is just the first half of the story.
Compass South: Four Points is out today!