In Zatanna: The Jewel of Gravesend by Alys Arden (The Casquette Girls) and Jacquelin de Leon, the upcoming graphic novel from DC Comics that will be available beginning July 26th, 2022, readers will experience a brand-new story set at Coney Island during Zatanna’s teenage years!
The Beat caught up with Arden and de Leon over Webex to ask all about what went into creating a story that’s set at real-world locations, to find out about the unique experiences each creator has with magic shows, and to learn about the influence of burlesque dancing and Billie Eilish on the graphic novel!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AVERY KAPLAN: How did you come to be involved with The Jewel of Gravesend?
ALYS ARDEN: I met a bunch of the DC team at a publishing event, and I was telling a story about being mansplained some comic stuff. It was one of those things where I was the only person in the group at this social setting that wasn’t in comics. I didn’t have a ton to contribute to the conversation, but I had this one story that I ended up telling, and as soon as I told it, it involved The Flash, and it turned into this conversation of, “Well, we’re looking for someone to write The Flash.”
The publishing event was in New Orleans, and I was taking everyone around, and we were doing different witchy things. By the end of it, and once I started talking to them more seriously, I said, “That’s cool, but what if I pitched Zatanna instead.” Since I had met them all at a psychic tea room and they were like, “Of course, you should pitch Zatanna.”
KAPLAN: Do you have a favorite outfit from the story?
JACQUELIN DE LEON: I really love her costume in the end, her final one, a lot. I think that was really fun. I also love anytime she wears stripes. I just love stripes. I think I wear stripes all the time.
ARDEN: I like all of the outfits that Jacquelin drew, but I think if I had to pick one, it would be the outfit that she’s wearing when she gets to Coney Island, when she takes the school uniform off, because to me, the outfit itself says so much about the character and the story. Hopefully, it makes the reader go, “Wait a second. What is happening right now?”
I think from a storytelling perspective, that is probably my favorite outfit, but I love all of her outfits, all of Izzy’s outfits, and all of Kenya’s outfits.
KAPLAN: I’m curious if you had a specific creative routine during this project, and if so, was it affected by your location?
ARDEN: One of the interesting things about this project, from a timeline perspective, is the pandemic. When I pitched the project, wrote the pitch, I was living in New York. This was almost four years ago. That’s how long this process has been going on because of COVID. I am from New Orleans, but I moved to New York as soon as I finished undergrad.
I’ve been living in New York or to and from New York for the past 15 years and very much thought I was going to be there for the foreseeable future, and I ended up moving, I think, in between the time of the pitch getting greenlit and starting writing the book. I was back in New Orleans during the entire time writing the book, and I think I was in this one location the entire time, which is a bit unusual for me.
Because I spend so much time in New York and so much time in New Orleans, I feel like those witchy occult vibes definitely attributed to this story. Both the uniqueness of New Orleans and the uniqueness of Coney Island have a somewhat similar flavor to them. I think being in both of those places definitely became a part of my process. I think tactically process, I’m a very strict person. I work at the same time every morning. I listen to the same music. I had a Zatanna playlist when I was doing it.
One of the interesting things, since this was my first graphic novel, and my prose novels are quite long, I was very concerned about staying within the page count that the graphic novel was supposed to be. I actually storyboarded the entire graphic novel as I was going, because I also was not trying to write anything that Jacquelin or Sam Lotfi, who was our layout artist, would look at and say, “What is this? This can’t be done.”
I had six or eight pages where I had a huge note at the top. “Just go with me for a second guys. I swear, it will be cool.” I still have all my original storyboards that were really just helping me create movements within the book and make sure that the pacing was flowing in the way that we all wanted.
KAPLAN: Have you been to any of the real places that appear in The Jewel of Gravesend?
ARDEN: There are a lot of real places, and I think that I have been to almost all of them. It was funny. This is a very probably New York-y thing to think. It’s embarrassing. I remember the point where Jacquelin said, “Hey, I’ve never been in the New York Subway. I’ve never been to Coney Island.” I was dumbfounded. It had never even occurred to me that someone had not been in the New York Subway before still, which is ridiculous, especially being all the way in California.
DE LEON: I have actually never been to Coney Island or anywhere near that whole area at all. I grew up in the Bay Area going to Santa Cruz, where we have the Beach Boardwalk area, and I think it’s very similar. I actually took a couple of trips over there to look at the really weird hippy shops and all the fun arcades and all of the carnival rides that they have there, so I definitely drew from that area for the comic. Yes, I really want to go visit the area, just to see some stuff I got to draw.
ARDEN: Well, I think for you, too, interestingly enough, even though it’s not Coney Island, you have such a beach life, beach existence, like the beach and the water and stuff is such a regular part of your normal life, and it’s not for me at all. I’m a total city person. I like it. I think that beach part of your life is totally in the book.
DE LEON: What was hard was the Brooklyn Bridge, because there’s so many of them there.
KAPLAN: Do you have any experience with magic shows, which play a significant role in the narrative?
ARDEN: No, not specifically magic shows, but my very first job, the first era of my career was working on Broadway. After that, I worked for the Blue Man Group for a long time including their show in Vegas, their touring show, and a bunch of the shows all around the world, and I definitely felt like so much of that old theater experience definitely came through in this book.
It was something that I’ve never really tapped into since, so I had a lot of fun revisiting that part of my life.
DE LEON: I went to one magic show in Las Vegas. I think it was Lance Burton. It was really exciting, and it was such a great performance. Now that I think about it, I think I drew a lot from Las Vegas as well for inspiration for that, especially with the lighting.
ARDEN: Ezra’s definitely a Vegas type.
KAPLAN: Was it important to you to include friendship as such an important element of the story?
ARDEN: I think friendship was probably one of the most important aspects for the story for me. Especially as teens, friendship can be so important because everyone has different kinds of families. Not all families are perfect, and I think we really wanted to show that family can mean a lot of different things in this book.
You can be family through blood, through magic, through friendship, through love, and each one can be just as special as the one before it. That element of found family and just really friendship was really important for me.
DE LEON: I feel like Zatanna’s friends are definitely her support system. I always think of that quote, “Your friends are the family you get to choose.” I think it’s very important.
KAPLAN: What inspired you to incorporate the Elephant Hotel into the narrative? It was a real place, right?
ARDEN: Yes. The interesting thing about the elephant for me, every story has a starting point, and this story, the starting point was the Golden Elephant. At that particular time, I don’t know why, but I was reading a lot about this elephant structure, and these original French architectural plans for this original elephant in the 18th century that the one in Coney Island was eventually inspired by.
Of course, the architectural drawings were fantastical, which is why I was obsessed with them. Then it was definitely not something that was going to happen in my novels in the Casquette Series, but I was filing it away in my head like, “Oh, man, I have to have a book set in New York one day.” It coalesced with the timing of this, and when I started thinking about it when I was writing the Zatanna book, I said, “Oh, man, magic, Coney Island… Oh, she’s getting a Golden Elephant.”
The real elephant burned down in 1896. I was like, “We’re resurrecting the elephant.” Then Jacquelin did an amazing job, both for me and our editor. It wasn’t even necessarily the architectural drawing (although that’s one of my favorite pages in the book). The page towards the middle of act one, where Kenya and Zatanna are walking there, and you see it in the background, I think that was one of the first pages where me and our editor reacted like, “Ooh, oh, my God. This is amazing.”
KAPLAN: Have you ever been to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade?
ARDEN: Yes! I’m definitely hoping for there to be a second book, so we can have the Mermaid Parade on the page.
DE LEON: I want to go so bad.
KAPLAN: Were there any stories, whether comics or any other type of stories, that were especially influential for you during the creative process?
ARDEN: This is not a story, but I definitely watched and researched a lot of burlesque. Being in the French Quarter, I know a ton of burlesque dancers, drag queen performers, and I really wanted to bring that kind of glitz and glam into the story. Anything show-wise that really just had that over-the-top performative element.
Of course, there’s a lot of books with that, but from a general perspective, it comes across I think on TV and film and live performance so much stronger, that I was taking a bit more inspiration for this story from those mediums because they are so visual rather than stories. When I wrote the pitch I definitely dug a lot into a lot of the Zatanna’s old canon, even though these are out-of-continuity books.
Definitely was refreshing on some of Zatanna’s history as well, knowing we wanted to pull all the stage magic in but also just bring it into the modern age also.
DE LEON: I think I put on as many movies that I could find that had Coney Island in them. I don’t think of any specific ones. There was one that was fully based in Coney Island, though. Besides that, I also looked at Kami Garcia and Gabriel Picolo‘s Teen Titans: Raven, just for guidelines, because this was my first graphic novel.
Then I actually also listened to Billie Eilish constantly during the first three quarters of drawing it. That really reminds me of Zatanna now.
KAPLAN: Is there anything else you’d like me to include?
ARDEN: I think we already talked about it, but we really were just trying to embrace people’s stories who don’t get told. One of the great things about Coney Island is Coney Island is really a place where you can be yourself, and that is definitely a part of Zatanna’s story. When you first start the book, you think it’s going to be a certain kind of book. She’s in school, and she doesn’t like it, and she’s shy.
You discover that once she is back in her neighborhood, in her element, you really start to see her come to life. I think we both just wanted to write a story with a lot of different characters who were different. You can see them on the page, let them just have fun, have romance, and have good times.
DE LEON: I think with creating the environment and the atmosphere of this book, I wanted to capture all of the magic. Just the feeling of being on summer break, somewhere that you love with your friends, somewhere really cool like that, where it’s just magical, and there’s just lighting and smoke and sunsets. That’s my favorite part about this whole thing, was creating those scenes.
Zatanna: The Jewel of Gravesend will be available at your local comic shop and/or public library beginning on July 26th, but you can contact your local comic shop and preorder a copy today!