If there was ever a version of the Gilmore Girls in comics, it would definitely be Rainbow Rowell (Fangirl, Eleanor and Park) and Faith Erin Hicks (The Nameless City trilogy, The Adventures of Superhero Girl). In a rapid fire exchange that was every bit as delightful as Josiah and Deja, the main characters in their new graphic novel Pumpkinheads, Rowell and Hicks dished on all the laughter and positive synergies that came out of their collaboration.
Nancy Powell: So I hear there’s a new book out?
Rainbow Rowell: So it’s called Pumpkinheads, and it takes place in a pumpkin patch in Omaha, Nebraska. And it’s about two kids who have worked at this pumpkin patch all through high school. This is the last night of their last season before they go to college. So it’s their last Halloween, and they want to do everything at the pumpkin patch on their last night. And they do one adventure after another as they go through the night looking for something.
Faith Erin Hicks: Yes, it’s super cute.
Powell: Did the two of you come up with Pumpkinheads together or did you, Rainbow, have a script from which you, Faith, drew from?
Hicks: I mean, it was your idea.
Rowell: We were matched. We wanted to work together, and we made a deal with First Second to work together. But we didn’t know what the comic would be. Originally there was this other idea that we were potentially going to do together.
Hicks: It was more fantasy.
Rowell: But we were going to do something together no matter what. We just had to agree on it. I wrote the script and showed it to Faith, and she dug it.
Hicks: I was immediately like, this is so fun! There’s a section at the end where I totally teared up and everything Rainbow has done has made me cry three times. I mean just her books, not working together!
Rowell: How is my book?
Powell: Rainbow, you’re primarily a writer and Faith, you’re primarily a comic book creator. But the two of you have kind of switched roles in Comics Will Break Your Heart and with Rainbow getting involved in comics. How has that experience worked out?
Hicks: I mean, it’s been really fun. I love trying new things, and I love the opportunity to expand my skills whether it be in the art areas or drawing and painting or in the writing area. I’m always looking for new challenges. Comics Will Break Your Heart was a novel that I wrote, and it came out earlier this year. Initially when I first started working on the story I thought it might be a graphic novel. And that was years ago.
But when I started working on it, it felt like there was a lot in the story about comics, my feelings about the comic book industry, about how our industry has really been transformed by the movie industry, how comic book movies are the most successful movie genre on earth nowadays. But sometimes that doesn’t necessarily mean the people who created those comics are benefiting financially. And if I was going to tell this story, to tell it in the comic book format seemed a little too close, I guess. It felt strange to me. So I switched over to prose, and I feel like it worked much better in that format. But it was really fun to write a book. I wasn’t chained to my drawing desk. I could actually go to coffee shops and work on my novel as opposed to sitting at my drawing desk for eight to ten hours a day.
Rowell: I started out in journalism, and I was an advertising copywriter for a while. And so for me it feels really natural to switch things up. I’m always switching things up. I like to write in different genres. I go from YA to adult so in a way, it felt really natural to be like ‘Okay, I’m going to try something new.’ And I like to try to do some things that are scary and new. And this time felt like ‘OK, let’s see if I can do this’. So I like it. I don’t think it felt as jarring to me as it appeared to other people, if that makes sense. It didn’t feel like it was a huge departure.
Hicks: Because you have a huge history of comics.
Rowell: Oh yeah. I’ve always read comics. They’ve been a real constant in my life. So I definitely was familiar with them format.
Hicks: And it’s the same with me with prose. I’ve always been a big reader. I love YA. And I mean yeah, it just made sense. It makes more sense than from an external point of view.
Powell: Had you read each other’s works?
Hicks & Rowell: Oh yeah, yeah!
Hicks: I’ve read everything she’s written.
Powell: Rainbow, what’s your favorite Faith work?
Hicks: No pressure!
Rowell: I have a problem with proper nouns always, so I’ll screw up titles. But probably Superhero Girl. But I also love One Year at Ellsmere, the one you’re doing.
Hicks: Oh, you mean War At Ellsmere?
Hicks: Sorry! It was originally published as War At Ellsmere. There will be a new edition of it published next year from First Second called One Year At Ellsmere.
Powell: I’ve read that.
Hicks: Really? Oh gosh, it’s so old!
Rowell: So I really liked that one, even if I think it’s kind of weird. It’s a little weird.
Hicks: It is weird.
Rowell: It’s a really strong vibe. It’s like this dream feeling to it, like I have a very distinct feeling when I think about it. So I think that might be it. Superhero Girl is funny.
Hicks: Yeah, that was a lot of fun. For me, my favorite is definitely Fangirl. I read that one a bunch of times. I listened to the audio book as well. And then also Fangirl has some personal connections, like some of the family stuff, the situations that I’ve gone through in my own family. That really resonated with me. I was never a big name fan or anything the way that Cath is, but something about her college experience just really resonated with me.
Powell: So now that Pumpkinheads is done, are there any other collaborations in the works?
Rowell: I would totally work with Faith again.
Hicks: I think we’ve we’ve talked about it. Yeah, we are very open to working together again. For me, in particular, I love Deja and Josiah. I feel like that’s the story of Pumpkinheads was sort of unusual for me as an artist working with a collaborator. I don’t know. They resonated with me, and I grew attached to them in a way that I hadn’t necessarily on previous collaborations with different writers and different artists, and so that was a very unusual experience.
Rowell: I think we both have a lot we want to do individually. For me, it was really a nice experience, a very harmonious experience, even though there are difficulties. It’s such a big project that you do encounter things where you see things differently or one piece of the process falls through the cracks. And so it’s not like every day is easy. But I felt that every day was pretty harmonious.
I’ve thought about this a lot, actually. There are people you kind of feel at home with artistically and their view of the world. And I knew from reading Faith’s books and even just from following her on Twitter that her worldview and my worldview, of how we want to move through the world, is similar. And so it felt right for me to be writing characters that she would draw because I just knew she would take care of them in the same way that I would want. She wouldn’t be cruel to them. She would love them and sort of want good things for them. So I really felt like we had commonality there. I know we’re very different people.
Hicks: As collaborators.
Rowell: I would trust Faith with my kids, you know what I mean? My actual children would love you, so it felt like artistically I could trust her with my kids, too.
Powell: Do you find that your two styles are complementary?
Rowell: I think they are. I think we like each other’s work. I think we like spending time in each other’s worlds. And so it’s nice to be in a world together. For example, I created this pumpkin patch that’s supposed to be sort of supernatural. It’s like the best everything in it is the craziest, the most fun, the most delicious. And I wanted it to be filled with that so that even in every panel you would get this extra oomph. Think of how great this pumpkin patch is! And that’s me asking a lot of the artist. If I were the artist, it’s fine for me to go the extra mile, right? I can add all the little puns and silliness I want.
It’s another thing to go to an artist and say, ‘Hey here’s the thing that I want you to draw [in the] foreground, but could you fill the background with all of this?’ It just seems like I’m asking you to do so much work. With Faith it was just like she fell in love with the place as much as I did. And so we were, I think, delighted in this world that we could build.
Hicks: For me, I’d actually just come off doing Nameless City which was a fantasy trilogy and there was historical inspirations for it. But at the same time, I was still creating a world and with Pumpkinheads, even though it’s contemporary, and yes, it’s based on real life, l felt like I was filling these panels with background characters. It was just so fun and whimsical.
Rowell: It really was. It’s very rich. You could have turned in, I think, a third as much visual content and no one would complain, you know? But it feels, so rich. It’s so delightful.
Hicks: And that’s something that’s just really fun for me. As an artist, I want to be inspired. I want to be challenged. I don’t ever want to go into a book bored. I felt like with Pumpkinheads I was always excited. Every day I got to play in this world and create things. It was an unusually rich collaboration for me. We’re just now finding out these things!
Rowell: I’m thinking we weren’t. You were happy doing your job! It’s funny because you really become a part of each other’s life. I wrote it kind of in my own space. But you drew it in your own space. Then we really came together at pencils down, at every stage, and I do think that’s one thing I surprised you guys with. I am not hands off with anything.
Hicks: Yeah and I’m actually the opposite. We had regular meetings.
Rowell: Weekly meetings.
Hicks: With our editor and that kind of thing, and I’ve never done that as a creator. I’m pretty happy to go off on my own for six months and turn out a book. Adjusting to that, I think, was the biggest shock.
Rowell: It really was the biggest adjustment. I do think that there may be some expectation that I would turn the script in for you guys.
Faith: Which is usually how it is. With writers, that’s normally how it is. Like I get handed the script and it’s like ‘Byyyye!’.
Rowell: I was in every five. I mean we were very candid.
Hicks: With every collaboration, and I’ve done a lot of collaborations over the past 10 years of my career, it’s like with every collaboration it’s just figuring out what the other person needs. Once we figured that out, I felt everything went fine.
Powell: So were the two characters, Josiah and Deja, based on any personal experiences that you had?
Rowell: Definitely! My best friend sort of inspired Deja because she is very outgoing and she’s the sort of person who just like makes friends everywhere she goes. And I can only make friends for long periods of exposure. So I have to work with someone and sit next to them. I have to sit at the same bus stop. So I don’t make friends easily, and to have this friend who just everywhere she goes everyone’s like ‘Hey! Hello!’ I can’t even imagine going through the world like that. And so that’s kind of what Josiah and Deja are like. Josiah is someone who really has to Deja as a friend. And Deja has the whole world as a friend.
Hicks: I identified a lot with Josiah to be honest.
Rowell: Like I’m definitely the person who pines for someone from a distance and that kind of thing.
Powell: You know, the weirdest thing when I read the sampler for this, I was reminded of Friends With Boys. For some reason I could see the character relationships there.
Hicks: Yeah, for sure. I definitely think tonally Rainbow is a much funnier writer than I am.
Rowell: You’re also very funny!
Hicks: Thanks! I appreciate it, but it’s hard for me. Being funny is hard.
Powell: Superhero Girl?
Hicks: Like situationally funny. Yeah, I’m definitely the kind of writer where the humor has to come from the characters. I can’t do gags. I could never write like Conan O’Brien. But what was I going to say?
Rowell: Friends With Boys…
Hicks: I mean I think Friends With Boys has an air of melancholy that runs through it because Friends With Boys was based on my experience going from being a homeschooled kid to a public high school for the very first time. And it was a very lonely and abrupt adjustment. Whereas with Pumpkinheads they’re comfortable in the world. Like, it’s Josiah and it’s more cheerful.
Rowell: It’s much more cheerful for both of us. And I think it’s a little bit lighter and more joyful than what we normally do.
Hicks: Yeah, I do agree with that, which actually was a really cool experience because I don’t often get to do fun romantic comedies.
Rowell: I’m always thinking about what will happen to these characters next. And whenever I have an idea for them it’s very angsty and I’m like….
Hicks: Oh no! No!
Rowell: Back to my own ways. I have this one angst-free book. And then it’s back to silence.
Powell: So if you were to do another project together, what type of book would that be? Maybe something historical?
Faith: To be honest, I would do a Pumpkinheads sequel. I feel like if our schedules lined up, if we were able to make it work, I feel like that’s what I would want to do first.
Rowell: Personally, I would pretty much do anything. The thing is, it’s a bigger investment of her time, right? I mean, it’s not that it was a small investment for me, but for the artist, when they’re working on something they can’t really be working on something else. It was the same with Runaways. I’m doing Runaways, and I’m doing two or three other things. And the Runaways artist is doing Runaways. So I feel for her it’s a bigger decision. It’s bigger level of commitment. I would do anything with Faith. She’s just wonderful! She’s a great artist. To me, if she was like, ‘I’ve got time on my schedule,” I’d be like, ‘Let’s see…let’s figure something out.’
Hicks: It might be fun to do a short story!
Rowell: I personally feel we can do anything, and it would be good. I feel like after this experience we would work out whatever we needed to work out. But for you, and I was thinking this for her, it’s a year that she doesn’t have a Faith Erin HIcks book, and I know that’s a relief.
Hicks: Sometimes I enjoy when I’ve kind of done like a one for me and one with the collaboration because it gives me the chance to work with other creators. It gives me the chance to do different kinds of stories. But I like to intersperse so probably my next graphic novel, and I don’t know what that will be, but I don’t have anything on the plate right now. Probably my next graphic novel will definitely be something that I write. But maybe after that?
Powell: I would love to see a short story!
Faith: Less time consuming.
Rowell: Like a 10-pager or something like that?
Hicks: Something like that.
Powell: You could work at the coffee shop.
Rowell: It’s fun collaborating as I work alone all the time. And so these collaborations have been really good for my mental health, get me working with different teams. It’s funny because I’m probably on three different teams now. And each one of them has different strengths with everything. It’s like going into a different room every time.
Powell: So short story in the future?
Rowell: I think we’d work together again.
Hicks: Yeah, for sure. I’d be up for it!
Pumpkinheads hits shelves August 27, 2019 from First Second.