Novel Incubator graduate Jennie Wood has worked in numerous media over the years, including fiction, graphic fiction, drama, and rock music. Jennie took time out to speak with Dead Darlings about her new graphic novel, Flutter, which was named one of the year’s best LGBT releases by The Advocate. She’ll appear this weekend at Comic Con in Boston.
Dead Darlings: What led you to pursue Flutter as a project, and why did you choose the graphic novel form to tell this story?
Jennie Wood: It’s actually when I first started reading graphic novels that everything about Flutter fell into place. I grew up reading comics like X-Men, Wonder Woman, The Hulk and Thor. But it wasn’t until later, after I read Y: The Last Man, Scott Pilgrim, Fun Home and Blankets that I realized all the possibilities, the range of issues and topics, that could be covered in comics – in graphic novels.
At the same time that I fell in love with graphic novels, I was writing a short story about a girl attempting to find the ideal mate for a much-beloved, chronically single girl friend. This girl friend had a ton of qualifications for an ideal mate, one of which was the ideal mate had to be male. Of course, the female protagonist was completely in love with this girl friend. So I started thinking what if the protagonist could just snap her fingers and become this perfect man. I wanted to explore questions like what would it mean exactly to become a different gender for the love of someone else and what would be the fallout from it. The short story format suddenly felt too limiting. That and I really don’t enjoy writing short stories.
The graphic novel format felt like the perfect way to explore these questions, so I arrived at the place where I had to write Flutter. I had no idea how to write a graphic novel. I didn’t know any artists to collaborate with. All I knew was that I had to tell this story this way.
DD: Given your parallel interest in writing text-based novels, can you talk about some of the opportunities and challenges you encountered in rendering Flutter as a graphic novel?
JW: The biggest opportunity that came out of Flutter was getting to collaborate with artist Jeff McComsey. Along with being a talented artist, Jeff is also a great writer, and the feedback he gave me early on while I was completing the full graphic novel script was spot on and very helpful. As an artist, Jeff had such a wide range as far as what he could do, what emotions he could capture, how he handled the action plot points, the shape-shifting, etc. Jeff always captured exactly what I had in mind in the script and, in many cases, made it even better than what I imagined.
The process of writing the graphic novel script came pretty quickly and naturally to me. I think that’s because I’d had experience previously with playwriting, screenwriting and songwriting. The format for a graphic novel script is not that different from a screenplay. There’s a lot of less-is-more going on because you have to leave room for the artist to do his or her thing. There are times when dialogue isn’t needed. The artist can draw a moment in a certain way that says what it needs to say without dialogue. I think I picked up on that quickly because I’ve worked with actors on scripts and musicians on songs and learned that there are times when you need to leave space for the other person in the collaboration. Writing a graphic novel didn’t feel like a new undertaking to me once I started it. It felt more like the opposite, it felt like coming home.
The biggest challenge was leaving that format and returning to my text-based novel, A Boy Like Me. I remember finishing the graphic novel script for Flutter just before my year in the Novel Incubator began. I had to switch gears quickly to revise A Boy Like Me during the year-long Novel Incubator class. It was a difficult adjustment at first because writing prose is the opposite of writing a graphic novel script. When you’re writing a text-based novel, you’re the writer and the artist – you fill in all the visuals for the reader – the setting, colors, moods, expressions, sensory details. Going back to that kind of writing took some adjusting. Now that I’ve gone back and forth a bit more between text-based novels and graphic novel formats for revisions and other projects, it’s gotten easier, but that first jump was challenging. It’s yet another reason I’m so thankful for the Novel Incubator. It came along at just the right time to help with that transition.
DD: Focusing for a moment on your gender-shifting protagonist Lily, also known as Jesse, can you talk about the ways you differentiated the two linked characters in graphic novel format without making Lily/Jesse seem like different people?
JW: I mainly let Lily / Jesse take cues from the other characters. At age 15, a lot of us still take cues on how to act and how to be by what others expect from us, how others see us. Jesse tries to be Saffron’s dream guy. He also tries to be the kind of guy Penelope respects. Early on, Penelope refers to Jesse as a meathead and, from that moment, he tries to prove to her that he’s not a meathead. The difference in Lily / Jesse is in how others treat them. Jesse is treated differently than Lily because they are different genders so Jesse acts differently than Lily. I’m exploring this even further in volume two when Lily has to clean up the mess that she made as Jesse. She’s going to experience more and more how differently she’s treated as Jesse vs. Lily.
DD: About half-way through Flutter, Lily steals an electric guitar from a music store so she can join Penelope’s rock band. That action takes place over two pages, with visuals and sound effects, no text. Can you describe the process of mapping out a cinematic scene like that?
JW: I wanted a way to show Lily going to an even higher level of desperation to get acceptance, to get the love of a girl. Not only was Lily willing to lie about who she was and what she was, but now she was going to break into a pawn shop and steal something, become a thief. The sequence also revealed that another character was up to no good, so there’s a lot going on in the scene, but I knew Jeff could more than handle it. In fact, while writing the script, I got excited about those two pages, what he could do with them. Anytime I could come up with an action sequence instead of dialogue to advance the story, I always went with it. In this particular scene in the original script I also had some police sirens going on, approaching police cars, but Jeff didn’t include them in the final pages and it’s better that way. I had it in the script to add more drama to the scene, more tension, but it wasn’t needed at all. The tension was within Lily as she takes another desperate step for love and with the other character following her. We didn’t need anything else.
DD: I’d like to explore this issue of psychology versus action a bit more, in the context of graphic novels. Flutter contains a lot of complex psychology relating to Lily’s gender-shifting, her yearning for Penelope despite the constraints of a judgmental small-town high school. At the same time, the narrative makes ample use of comic book conventions – gun fights, exploding mail box, car crashing through guard rail and plunging into river. How did you negotiate a balance between psychology and action in this project?
JW: Having a good balance of action and psychology was something I really wanted in Flutter. I’m a huge fan of works of fiction that give equal importance to both, especially ones that play around with what happens psychologically to a character who gets forced into an extreme situation, like Brian K. Vaughan’s graphic novel series, Y: The Last Man or the TV series Breaking Bad or Kathryn Bigelow’s films. In Y: The Last Man, we get to see how a guy handles being the last man on earth. In Flutter, I wanted to take a girl who had feelings for other girls as well as the ability to switch gender and see how she handled it.
For me, growing up, comics were an escape from reality. In fact, it was that escape through comics, anime, etc., that helped me deal with the reality of growing up in an unhappy home environment and a small conservative town. So when I started working on Flutter, I wanted to play with those comic book conventions that were such a refuge for me as a little girl. I had no interest in doing a graphic novel that just had a psychological side to it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to write a story that played with the comic book conventions that were such solace for me as a kid. Writing it that way felt right, felt like a homecoming.
DD: Your graphic novel Flutter and text-based novel A Boy Like Me deal most centrally with the issue of gender identity. With the benefit of hindsight, how do you think your treatment of this theme has expressed itself differently in these two forms?
JW: I think the difference is with the two protagonists and how they view their world. In A Boy Like Me, Peyton is transgender, pure and simple. He’s a boy trapped in the body of a girl. He sees the world in an old school masculine way. For him, it’s all black and white. In his head, he’s a boy and his love, Tara, is a girl. Flutter is more about the gray areas in gender, in right versus wrong, etc. Lily truly enjoys certain aspects about being a boy. She gets more attention and respect as Jesse. But Lily also yearns to be loved for who is she, like we all do, and that makes her no different from any other girl or boy. I didn’t plan it this way, but looking back on it, I think both projects deal with the big gender debate, the major questions about gender – are the two genders really that different? And if so, is it because of how society sees and treats men versus women? Peyton would say yes, the two genders are completely different. Lily (with her unique shape-shifting point of view) would say the only difference is how other people treat her as a boy versus a girl.
DD: Restricting ourselves to active graphic novel authors for a moment, whose work do you admire most?
JW: If I had to pick only one author, it would have to be Brian K. Vaughan. There’s such a range in his work. Not just in subject matter, but in how he tells the story. Each project is action packed, clever, funny, and also extremely moving, heartfelt. It’s always the right amount of everything. It never feels forced or contrived. I never feel manipulated as a reader. And it doesn’t matter if he’s dealing with all the political nuances in Ex Machina, or the cost of being the only guy still alive in Y: The Last Man. In Pride of Baghdad, he shows us the point of view of four lions as they struggle to survive after they escape from the Baghdad Zoo during an American bombing raid in 2003. More than anyone else writing graphic novels at the time I started working on Flutter, it was Vaughan’s body of work that made me see that the sky was the limit with what I could do with the format.
DD: Where is your graphic novel work likely to take you next?
JW: I’m currently working on Flutter, Volume Two, which will be another full length graphic novel. I’m also co-writing a graphic novel project with Kelly Ford. Beyond that, I see myself continuing to write for ongoing series when the opportunities present themselves, like I have in the past with the FUBAR anthologies. I’m having so much fun with the format that I can’t imagine not working with it right now.