Superstar young adult author Rainbow Rowell has already made a splash in comics with an acclaimed ongoing run on Marvel’s Runaways. It was only a matter of time for Rowell made the jump into creator-owned material, and she’s doing just that later this year with the release of Pumpkinheads. The graphic novel, a collaboration with Eisner-winning artist Faith Erin Hicks, is published by First Second Books and due out in August. The book follows a pair of teens, Deja and Josiah, on their last night of work at a pumpkin patch in Omaha, Nebraska. Rowell and Hicks hosted a panel conversation at SDCC today, in which they talked about the genesis of the book, the experience of working together after having become friends via social media, and weird Midwest foods, among many other things.
Rowell opened the panel with a brief introduction of herself and her work before showing off a jacket her husband made for her to promote Pumpkinheads. The two ran down their bibliographies, and said they were fans of each other before they worked together. The first Hicks book Rowell read was Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, which was written by Prudence Shen. Hicks said the first Rowell book she read was Eleanor & Park, which she bought because she liked the cover. After reading the novel on a plane to SDCC a few years ago, Hicks said she immediately started tweeting about it upon landing. She and Rowell were able to bond via Twitter over a shared love of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and a mutual crush on Data.
Rowell said that First Second approached her to write a graphic novel and paired her with Hicks, though at the time they didn’t know what they were going to be working on, and that years passed before Pumpkinheads eventually came together. Initially Rowell had pitched Hicks a fantasy story that featured a lot of magical animals, which Hicks was not excited about as she doesn’t like to draw animals a lot. She said she was relieved when Pumpkinheads came about, joking that she’d dodged a bullet.
Talking about their relationship, Hicks said a lot of Pumpkinheads came out of she and Rowell’s relationship, and that it felt like Rowell was writing to her as an artist. Hicks is a prolific artist, with over a dozen published graphic novels, and she said that she only has copies of some of her books because Rowell gave them to her. Rowell said Hicks’s characters have a ‘gentleness,’ which she hopes she’s able to capture as well in her prose characters. Hicks joked that her graphic novels typically feature 50 pages of plot and 150 pages of characters staring at each other and feeling feelings.
Rowell went into a bit of detail regarding the plot of Pumpkinheads. The events of the graphic novel take place over the course of one night. The characters of Deja and Josiah have worked in the pumpkin patch for four years, and this is their last night together before going off to college. The pair are best friends, and Rowell said she was inspired by Disney movies like Freaky Friday and The Parent Trap, which feature madcap scenes where things get crazy. Rowell said she tried to capture that feel as she wrote Pumpkinheads.
Hicks called Rowell a funnier writer than she is, and said that the script is funny and engaging, and that it made her cry the first time she read it. She also noted that Rowell is the writer who has made her cry the most, but in a good way. Rowell described her editor at First Second saying she hates roadside attractions, which made her concerned about setting the book in a pumpkin patch. Hicks liking the script restored her confidence in the project.
As the book was being developed, Hicks, who is Canadian, visited Rowell in Omaha in 2017 and went to her first pumpkin patch. There was discussion of the strange food items that Hicks encountered while there, including Hot Beef Sundaes and Frito Pie, also known as Walking Tacos. Pumpkinheads does feature the latter, though a version that does not infringe on any trademarks. Hicks said her visit to Omaha made it easier for her to draw Pumpkinheads, as she could use photo reference from the trip to capture the look of the location. Rowell then described making up fake snacks for the book, including something called a Pumpkin Bomb, which she hopes someone makes at some point. A Pumpkin Bomb is two pieces of pumpkin pie with ice cream between them, dipped in chocolate and put on a stick. The physics of such a snack were called into question.
Rowell talked about how much lead time there is to make a graphic novel as compared to writing a traditional novel. She said after Hicks told her how long it takes to draw a book, Rowell jokingly told her she didn’t have to do it, as it would take a year of her life in which Hicks could be doing other things. Hicks shared a story about being at a signing for the first Nameless City book and a fan telling her she had read the whole book while she waited for 45 minutes in line, compared to the year that it took for Hicks to draw it. The fan promised they would read the book again.
Hicks described getting to know Deja and Josiah better as she drew more of the book, which she enjoyed. Rowell agreed, saying she and artist Kris Anna felt the same about working on Runaways. Speaking about collaboration, Hicks said she equally enjoys writing and drawing her own books and drawing books written by others. They discussed visual character specifics that Rowell brought to the book that differ from the way that Hicks normally draws characters. In particular, Hicks tends to draw shorter female characters, as she is short herself, but Rowell wanted Deja to be the same height as Josiah. They discussed the desire to create female characters in particular that are beautiful in different ways than are normally seen in comics.
Opening the floor to questions, a fan asked Rowell if she specifically decided to set Eleanor & Park in the ‘80s as a love letter to that period. Rowell said it wasn’t a specific choice, but that it’s normal for artists to go back to times that are the most important to them, which are often their teenage years and times when they were changing. She did incorporate elements of her life into the book, even though she is a few years younger than the characters in the book. She said she had difficulty selling the book initially because there was concern that teenagers wouldn’t want to read things set in the ‘80s, which drew laughter in the room. She likened the imagined outrage at Walkmen to reading Little Women and being outraged by the presence of candles.
A fan asked about cameos from other Rainbow Rowell characters in Pumpkinheads. There are none, which Rowell said is a missed opportunity, but Hicks did say that both she and Rowell and their spouses appear in the book. Rowell said that Pumpkinheads is contemporary with her forthcoming novel Wayward Son. Wayward Son also does not feature any cameos, though Rowell said she did almost include Cath and Levi in the book, but she decided not to in order to avoid questions about what’s fan fiction and what’s not.
Another fan asked from what fandoms the creators draw inspiration. Hicks immediately said Star Trek. She said she contributed a ‘thinly-disguised Star Trek homage’ in a story she contributed to an adult comics anthology called Smut Peddlar. She also cited being a fan of Cap and Bucky in the MCU, and of Full Metal Alchemist. Rowell said she typically has one ship at a time in a fandom, and that she’s been reading Star Wars fan fiction for about a year, though she declined to go into specifics on who she is shipping.
A question was asked about the vampire rules in the Carry On universe, and whether they can eat garlic. Rowell said yes, and that she didn’t follow the established vampire rules in general because they’re all made up anyway so it’s not that important to be ‘accurate.’ She described spending hours researching dragons for the book so that she could get a specific thing ‘right’ about their wings, before eventually realizing it’s all made up and she can do whatever she wants. She said readers will learn more about Baz’s vampirism in Wayward Son.
Asked for advice on how to get into creative endeavors, Hicks said that if your work is good people will find it. Create things, she said, and self-publish and get things out there for people to see. She came up at a time when web comics were less prevalent than they are now so it was easier to get noticed, but she still recommends self-publishing or using the internet as ways to get work out. Rowell said to practice a lot in order to work out the kinks, and to share art in places where you and your friends are so that people can find it. Hicks said she’d written and drawn over 1000 pages of webcomics before her first book was published. “Make stuff and don’t wait,” she said.
A fan asked Rowell about adjusting from writing prose to comics, and Hicks about the reverse of that. Rowell said she’d been reading comics since she was a teenager, and that she was specifically hooked on the X-Men line of comics, and that she absorbed comic book storytelling methods from having read comics for so long. With Hicks, Rowell gave her essentially a screenplay, and Hicks broke it down and paced it for comics. Hicks said that in comics you can often tell where the writer ends and the artist begins, but that it doesn’t feel that way with Pumpkinheads. Rowell said it took her a couple of issues to get used to dictating story pacing within monthly comics, but that she developed a rhythm with Anka early on while working on Runaways. She also asked her editor for help, and he didn’t make her feel bad for asking. Knowing he had her back made Rowell feel more comfortable with the process. Hicks said it was an adjustment to learn how to convey her characters’ emotions in prose, as she’s so used to how to do that when it comes to comics.
Hicks was asked about the process for coming up with character designs. She said she typically just doodles until things come together when she’s working on characters for her own projects. Sometimes they’re inspired by people she knows or strangers, or wanting to do a particular kind of person. Rowell had specific ideas in mind for Pumpkinheads, so she incorporated those details while working on the characters. Hicks said she tends to tinker with her characters’ designs up until the last minute, but deadlines demand that she settle eventually on a design, however imperfect it may be in her eyes.
Rowell was asked about the system of verbal magic in Carry On, specifically the nursery rhymes, and if there were any that didn’t make it into the book. Rowell said there were none, as they are very difficult to come up with. She described having to come up with spells on the fly while working on the book, and said it would stop her for hours while she researched phrases and idioms that properly convey what she wants the spell to do. She talked about asking her husband for help in coming up with spells but never using what he comes up with, but joked that it’s part of her process.
Rowell said she prefers to create her own original content versus playing in another person’s universe. That said, she cited Runaways as being the best thing that could’ve happened to her, as not owning the characters relieved her some of the burden of responsibility for building the characters and their relationships. She said she enjoys picking up on past continuity threads for the characters, which she wouldn’t be able to do if she had created the characters herself. She also described the mindset of working while knowing that at any moment the series could be cancelled or given to someone else because she doesn’t own the characters.
Hicks was asked if she would ever adapt one of Rowell’s books into a graphic novel. Initial discussion with First Second was around adapting one before they decided to do an original story. Hicks said Fangirl is her favorite, but that she’s glad they did Pumpkinheads instead.
A fan asked Rowell about her fandoms influencing her work. Carry On is somewhat Harry Potter-esque, and could there be a Star Wars-esque book from Rowell in the future? Rowell said she would love to write a Star Wars book, as it was her original fandom, one for which she read all of the Expanded Universe books and even attended the first Star Wars Celebration. The Last Jedi reignited her love for that universe, Rowell said. No one has asked her yet to write a Star Wars project, though, so maybe she’ll write her own science fiction book. Rowell said she thought it would be hard to write Spider-Man or Thor or other characters who are so important to the Marvel Universe, whereas the Runaways characters are a little more niche so she can do more with them, and that a similar situation exists with the Star Wars universe of characters.
Eleanor & Park is being developed as a movie with Plan B and Picturestart. The novel was optioned a long time ago, and Rowell has written the screenplay and revised it multiple times. She said she is very protective of those characters, and that it seems like the studio is invested in the project, so hopefully it will happen.
The final question asked Rowell and Hicks, who are both very well-read, if they were ever worried about ripping off other people’s subconsciously. Rowell said it’s okay to repeat yourself, and that even if something has been done before by someone else, no one has done it the way that you would do it. Hicks agreed, saying that what matters is the execution. With that Rowell and Hicks thanked the assembled fans, and Hicks took a picture of the crowd, calling it her most well-attended panel ever.