Sanity and Tallulah are super smart kids with a penchant for trouble, which means they’re always getting into hijinks on the space station where they live — and sometimes on other worlds, too. In this kids’ graphic novel series created by cartoonist Molly Brooks, the two best friends raise a strictly forbidden, lab-grown cat, wander a planet that’s just about to explode, push their families into out-of-this-world predicaments, and use their impeccable problem-solving skills to save the day — every time.
In October, Sanity & Tallulah: Field Trip hit shelves, which is the second book in the series. Following its release, The Beat caught up with Molly Brooks via e-mail to talk about her characters, their world, and what she has planned for book three.
Samantha Puc: How did you initially conceptualize Sanity & Tallulah, and how have the characters or story changed since then?
Molly Brooks: In 2014, my super talented friend Andrea Tsurumi and I decided to do a collaborative minicomic for SPX, as a way to peer-pressure each other into spending time on a fun project unrelated to our respective desk jobs and freelance work. There would be one short story from each of us, based on the same theme/prompt: “science fiction teen girl detectives” (because we’d bonded in grad school over Star Trek and buddy cop shows). Andrea did an awesome comic called Graxa Gamgasher about two kid-aged aliens solving mysteries in their school cafeteria and a biker bar, and I drew the first Sanity & Tallulah short story.
I started with a basic plotnugget (“space teens puttering around on a learner’s permit find a shipwreck haunted by a robot”) and puzzled out the characters based on the decisions I needed them to make for the story to play out how I wanted it to: What kind of character wanders off into the forbidden debris field just for fun? What kind of character finds a giant assassin robot and decides to adopt it? What kind of character can psychoanalyse a giant assassin robot, or logic-problem their way through a mysteriously abandoned spaceship to figure out what went wrong with it? I ended up self-publishing two Sanity & Tallulah short stories, and by the time I’d finished them the characters were pretty much exactly the same ones that show up in the graphic novels.
Puc: How did you go about building this world? Did you pull inspiration from any particular sources?
Brooks: I pictured Wilnick as an old station that had been repurposed a couple times and was being kept functional by the constant repairs of the people living on it. I looked at a lot of tech from the ‘80s and ’90s in hopes of evoking a slightly retro, out-of-date vibe. Everything is boxy and sharp-angled, with lots of buttons, air vents, cords, and wires. Early personal computers and the first generation Game Boy and Nintendo NES were big influences.
I also looked at a lot of RVs, campers, semi-truck sleeper-cabs, and boat cabins, because vehicles that are also designed for long-term residence had a lot of the same features I wanted in a space station: practical and efficiently organized cubic footage, but also homey-ness and adaptability. I imagined tables and beds folding out of the wall, storage built into stairs, chairs sliding out of the floor—it was really important to me that Wilnick felt like people were actually living there, and making it their own by constantly shifting things around to accommodate the needs of the moment.
The characters’ clothing also reflects this — there are a lot of cover-alls tied at the waist, tool belts, work boots. Pretty much everyone’s ready to shift into emergency mode at the drop of a hat. They have to be, because things are constantly breaking and needing quick, creative repairs. But they also wear a lot of fluffy sweaters and other knitwear, because this is a community motivated by care for one another and a desire to make a life, not just survive. Space is cold, people need layers, and knitting is warmth and connection.
Puc: Why is it important to focus a sci-fi/action-adventure series on two young, diverse girls?
Brooks: When I was growing up I rapidly decimated my school library’s supply of sci-fi/adventure/fantasy/just-lots-of-dragons-please books, and all the protagonists were boys (specifically white boys, but that wasn’t something I noticed at the time). There were books about girls—I devoured the extant works of Ann M. Martin, Beverly Cleary, and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor as well— but what I really wanted was books about space ships and/or dragons, and Ramona Quimby met ZERO dragons. When I turned in desperation to the less age-appropriate offerings at the local Barnes & Noble’s Adult SFF section, I started spotting the occasional female hero, or queer character. I still remember how exciting and validating it was every time it happened. How surprised and glad I was. Girls flying space ships. Girls riding dragons. Girls flying space ships and meeting alien dragons.
Looking back, the surprise makes me really sad, and the fact that if I’d known enough to be looking for racial diversity, I wouldn’t have stumbled upon it like that makes me even sadder. Readers deserve to see themselves in stories, and readers like tiny Molly, who are relatively privileged and forming a picture of the world through the media they consume (dragons notwithstanding), need to be shown a more accurate version of the world than the current massive overrepresentation of white protagonists in children’s books can offer them.
Publishing desperately needs #OwnVoices books — more POC, disabled, trans/NB, and other marginalized authors telling their own stories. Not only to let young readers facing similar cultural pressures feel seen, but to show all young readers a more complete and accurate picture of the world they’re living in. As a white author, the bare minimum I can do is boost diverse authors and their stories whenever I can, and not fall into the trap of defaulting to white characters in my own work.
Puc: What made you want to write comics for younger readers?
Brooks: A big part of it was that I wanted sympathetic characters to make lots of terrible, dangerous decisions, and stay sympathetic afterwards. For me, that meant kids. If an adult behaved recklessly and put the people around them in danger, I would have much less sympathy for them than a kid making completely bonkers, plot-advancing decisions based on an incomplete understanding of the world around them.
Also, I wanted to hint at a grim backstory through a younger POV. I was really inspired by Little House on the Prairie — that feeling of scraping by out on the edge of things, making do and making it work. As a child, Laura Ingalls Wilder was vaguely aware of her own hardships, but her parents shielded her from a lot of it and she was mostly focused on being a kid. That’s the beauty of a kid’s POV: extremely self-centered. I wanted to have a similar lens for the world of Sanity & Tallulah, where this generation of kids living on this space station in the middle of nowhere are vaguely aware of the circumstances that led to them living out here, and that things are difficult and kind of balanced on a knife’s edge, but to mostly be focused on normal kid stuff within that larger context.
Puc: What do you hope people take away from reading Sanity & Tallulah?
Brooks: These books are really about respecting one another and working together to solve problems. They’re my wish-fufillment fantasy: being able to trust the people around you to learn from their mistakes, prioritize the common good, and contribute to solutions.
Puc: Is there a character you identify with in particular?
Brooks: Sanity and Tallulah are really just two unfiltered pieces of my brain talking to each other, but I don’t actually identify strongly with either of them most of the time. But the relationships Dr. Vega and Hank Davisson have with their children are very much based on my parents and the relationships I had with them growing up, and the energy those characters bring to the book, of being busy and practical and kind, comes from them as well. So I identify most with Tallulah when she’s being scolded and soothed by Dr. Vega, and Horace when he’s being talked down and encouraged by Hank.
Puc: Do you have a favorite moment or scene from either of the books?
Brooks: I really liked the parts where I got to play with the lighting. The book is printed in two spot-colors, and it’s really fun to experiment with how to give different scenes different moods on a limited palette. I had a lot of fun in Book 1 when they get trapped in the dark science lab that’s also on fire, or in Book 2 when the sun goes down and they’re illuminated by the cabin lights of the crashed shuttle. All of the explosions and rocket launches were really fun to color, too.
Puc: What else do you have planned for this world, if anything?
Brooks: In the next book, the narrative focus is going to turn outward a bit. A lot of the action in Book 3 takes place at or near the frequently-referenced blockade separating the stations from everyone else. And while it’s still centered on Sanity and Tallulah, the pervading background danger is closer than they’re used to dealing with, and plays a bigger role in the plot.
Puc: Is there anything you’re working on currently that you can talk about?
Brooks: I’m almost done with pencils for Book 3!
Puc: What is the best comic you read in 2019?
Brooks: There’s so much cool stuff coming out right now, and I haven’t had a chance to read much of it because of deadlines, but I picked up Bitter Root Vol. 1 at NYCC and loved it. Super cool concept, and the art’s killer (words: David F. Walker & Chuck Brown, art: Sanford Greene, colors: Rico Renzi, lettering: Clayton Cowles) I also really enjoyed Part 1 of my friend Alison Wilgus’ queer time travel duology Chronin, and the Adventure Zone graphic novel adaptations by Carey Pietsch and the assorted McElroys.
Sanity and Tallulah and its sequel, Sanity and Tallulah: Field Trip, are available wherever books are sold. To keep up with Molly Brooks on social media, follow her on Twitter @mollybrooks. For more from Disney-Hyperion, click here.