Faith Erin Hicks’s career has seen her take on everything from Canadian public school to The Fire Nation. She’s won everything from Eisners to Web Cartoonists’ Choice Award, and has worked in genres ranging from fantasy to slice-of-life drama. But the one thing she’s never attempted was a full on romance title. “Hockey Girl Loves Drama Boy,” her latest original graphic novel published by First Second, is her first foray into YA romance. The two leads are described by Publishers Marketplace as a “hot headed hockey player,” and a “cool, calm boy in drama club.” Though Hicks herself described them as “tall, awkward disaster human” and “sweet, queer cinnamon roll who’s got some dark stuff in his past.”
We sat down with Hicks to discuss the book, its title, and what went into the development of its two title leads. Also, what happens if you can’t find an Audrey II puppet for your production of Little Shop of Horrors. We would like to thank her for her time.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity
”Hockey Girls Loves Drama Boy…” that was the original title. But it was just a working title that just kind of stuck, right?
Faith Erin Hicks: Yeah, pretty much. I remember when I sold the prototype to First Second, I sold it with that title. And they were basically like “Ehhh… the title will probably get changed.” Then all of a sudden the book is coming out and like… the title is still the same thing [laughs]. So yeah! I guess that’s the title. I don’t know. I think it’s funny.
That’s what you want from a title, isn’t it? One that gives you the story before the story, right?
FEH: Yeah! I mean– “Hockey Girl Loves Drama Boy”– it’s not as descriptive as some titles. I feel like I see titles for manga that are super long. Titles like “I Picked Up Girls in a Dungeon and That Was Great.” [laughs]
“That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime?”
FEH: Yeah! That was another one I was thinking of. I was just looking at WebToon this morning, because there’s a couple comics on there that I enjoy. And there’s a few titles there are just that. Just like an entire sentence explaining… I assume the entire plot of the comic.
You can hope at least! So where did this project come from?
FEH: Well, I wanted to do a romance. I’ve had books with romantic plot elements in them. But I’ve never done a book where the focus was on a relationship between two people. And you know, as a Canadian I occasionally enjoy watching hockey. I wasn’t an actor in high school. But I did theater tech. And I found that really enjoyable. I was never brave enough or comfortable enough in my own skin enough to go up on the stage and be an actor. But I did really enjoy being behind the scenes and doing work for our high school plays. So I thought it would be really fun to cross the streams and have two characters from basically the opposites of the high school hierarchy developing a friendship, and then something more developing from there.
And… I don’t know… I feel like when I’ve done interviews.or have had people ask me about the book, people comment on the fact that the female character is the one who plays hockey. She is the jock. And it’s the boy who does theater. Apparently that’s a role reversal. I didn’t really think of that when I first started developing the story. I wanted to tell a story about a sporty girl and a sensitive dramatic boy getting together. And maybe kissing. Maybe. We’ll see. You have to read the book to find out.
Have you ever been involved with a production of Little Shop? Because reading the Audrey II subplot… it hit a little hard. That’s all I’m gonna say…
FEH: [Laughs] I haven’t! I haven’t done that play. I’ve seen it performed a few times in high school. And yeah that prop– that prop seems really challenging. I feel like the high schools that I saw it in always rented from a local store or a theater rental shop. And it was like… hmmm… if the one you had available to rent was not up to snuff, what were you going to do? I guess you have to make your own. Which is a plot point in the book.Continued below
When you were getting into the characters, how real did you want to get, for lack of a better term? Because there are parts where it’s like oh damn, this character’s got some trauma
FEH: I’m not naturally someone who is drawn to really traumatic storytelling for the most part. If there is trauma in a book that I’m writing or drawing, sometimes I can get really depressed. It’s tough plotlines to deal with. But I feel like with this book in particular, it was important to me to show the other side of Ezra– the boy character, the main boy character– I feel like it was important to me to show his internal life. And then to show that despite the exterior that he has where he is very much the high school golden boy, who is liked by most of the high school with the exception of the homophobic bullies, who– we shan’t mention them. They’re jerks– to show that sometimes that person who does seem very perfect on the exterior, they do have internal struggles.
It was a challenge. I don’t think that’s– what Ezra goes through– that’s not a subject matter I’m particularly interested in diving into in the future, because I do find it really difficult. Just speaking personally, it isn’t something that I’ve dealt with in my own life. And I feel like if someone really wants to dive into an issue of abuse within a family, I do think that’s something that someone who has gone through that experience or has really something to say should dive into it. In this situation I just watched to touch on it I guess a little bit lightly and hopefully come to it from a place of sympathy and hopefully understanding.
Not only is there trauma, but there are also situations that are just real and awkward. The stuff with Ezra and Olive–
FEH: Oh yeah! I mean… I’ll be honest. I was a super awkward teen. I don’t really buy it when there are stories about teens who are just super put together and just have all of their shit figured out when they’re seventeen. And I’m just like “Who are these people?” Maybe they exist! Maybe they exist. That was not my experience though. I wanted to write and draw a story about messy teens trying to figure their shit out. This was the book that came out of that.
I did want to talk about the art for a second. The one thing I loved about the book was how you portrayed rage. How you use the visual language of the medium. When Ezra confronts his dad and he becomes a monster. Or when flames shoot out of Alix’s eyes. How much of that came naturally versus thinking of interesting ways to portray it later in the book?
FEH: I was essentially trying to put the feeling of rage on the page. Through the artwork. But also, there is a difference between how Alix feels when she’s basically harassed and belittled by her teammates– the captain of her hockey team. How angry she feels and how she lashes out. There’s a difference between that and how Ezra views his father, who is violent. Alix is essentially feeling all of this anger and feeling it rising up in her. I wanted to portray that. But then also trying to get across that eventually she does learn to control it and she does learn to learn to express her anger in a more healthy way so she doesn’t become monstrous, the way Ezra’s father had become.
It is terrifying when you are a small person, like Ezra was as a child, and this person who is so much bigger than you physically, but also their personality is so much bigger than yours– an adult next to a child, a father next to a son– it’s absolutely terrifying. It makes sense to me to portray Ezra’s father in a moment of harm as essentially a monster. But also to show the transformation back to his father. I do really love that about working in a visual medium. You do get to portray that moment of anger, or that moment of fear and terror. You get to put it on the page in front of you. That’s just something I really love about comics. The visual element of it.Continued below
One less intense question: The way you use color is interesting. Why the splashes of blue?
FEH: I just liked it! I just thought it looked really pretty. And then also it really works for the hockey scenes as well. It kind of gives a feeling of cold. You kind of feel like you’re either huddled in the stands of the hockey area or you’re on the ice. I like blue touches in a book. I do really enjoy a black and white comic with gray shading. It can look really beautiful. For me personally, it depends on the audience who’s going to be reading the book. Typically if I’m going to be doing a middle grade book, I’ll probably have it colored. “Ride On” was a middle grade book and it makes sense to have that be in color. Younger readers really prefer color. But teen readers I feel are maybe a little more generous and okay with a book being black and white. Look at books like “Heartstopper,” right? That one’s similar in that it’s black and white with— I’m not quite sure what the color is. It’s like a blue, or aquamarine, or something like that. I basically just picked a color I thought was visually appealing.
But also it works in a real basic sense in the hockey scene. You can tell who the home and away teams are.
FEH: And that’s important [laughs].
You had kind of a team behind you too. You had a lot of folks either as sensitivity readers or as hockey experts. Who all did you have looking over and how did they add to the book?
FEH: A big part of the book, at least in the beginning stage– I have a friend, Shelli Paroline, who is also a cartoonist. She did “Adventure Time” comics for years. She and her husband do comic coloring. They also draw comics as well. And Shelli was a hockey girl. She played hockey throughout a lot of her life into her adulthood. I chat with her on the regular, and I remember years ago her talking about her experiences as a person who played– a girl who played hockey. And I was like “That sounds really interesting. Would you be able to talk about your experiences with me?” That actually really helped to shape the hockey part of the book.
My husband used to play hockey as well. I’ve never played hockey, so I had him look over my scenes in the book where I drew the hockey player just to make sure they were accurate. And yeah, I also had a sensitivity reader for Ezra. Because I’m not a sixteen year old queer boy. Not my experience. I do think it’s helpful to have a sensitivity reader and just point out places here and there where a character could be improved. It’s just nice to have a little bit of a support system there. I love reading the little back matter people have in their books. It’s always fun to see who helped out to make this book. What was your support team like?
Yeah, the hockey scenes worked, even just as comic action scenes. And it looked like all the gear was accurate too.
FEH: Yeah, hopefully! Man, it was like– the gloves were hard to draw. I feel like kinda fudged them a little bit. They were not super accurate. But as long as the gist was there!
I will say I didn’t notice anything. From the layman’s perspective they just looked like gloves.
FEH: That’s good to hear! That’s the thing. Most of the people who read this book will not be hockey players. They are probably people like me who have a passive familiarity with it, but aren’t people who have played it, or people who watch it religiously. When you get someone who really knows their stuff reading it, that always makes me nervous. I used to ride horses. And it would always really bother me when I’d see horseback riding portrayed in comics. And it was really, really wrong. I’ve seen bridles and saddles drawn insanely! I understand not very many cartoonists have experience with horses. And people are just trying to get their pages done. Get it drawn and handed in. Deadlines a comin’. You try your best and try to portray things as accurately as possible.Continued below
Speaking of “Ride On,” you did this book with First Second. You’ve been with them for… what like, ten years or so?
FEH: Yeah, more than a decade. My first book with them was a book called “Brain Camp” that wasn’t written by me. It was written by Susan Kim and Laurence Kalvan. I think it came out in 2009. So yeah! More than ten years. And that was… you know Goosebumps? R.L. Stine? Those types of teen/tween horror. It’s something like that. That was my very first book with First Second. “Friends with Boys” came next. I feel like that was kind of my breakout book. I feel like most people who read my work now, that was the first book of mine they read.
So you’ve had a pretty good working relationship with them over the years?
FEH: It’s good! The editor I worked with at First Second for more than a decade was Calista Brill. And she’s an amazing I editor. I feel like she makes me better as a cartoonist. The notes make absolute sense and improve the work immensely. I’m really grateful that I had such a solid relationship with an editor for more than a decade. And now she is, I believe, the Co-Editorial Director for First Second with Mark Siegel. She’s not really editing anymore, so the last book we did together was “Hockey Girl Loves Drama Boy.” Now I’m working on a new book, and I am working with Samia [Fakih]. She’s basically Calista’s protégé. Calista had trained her. She’s the new up and coming editor at First Second. I feel like I was just really fortunate for the opportunity to work with someone for such a long time, more than a decade. I feel like that’s very unusual. Editors kind of come and go, and you know, go off to do other things. So you’re lucky if you can build a relationship with one.
Every so often someone will tell me I’m a “fast cartoonist.” That I produce work very quickly. And I don’t know if I agree with that [laughs]. I don’t feel like I’m super fast. I struggle to get my pages in like everyone else. I just feel like having a solid relationship with a publisher, and being able to just continuously work and continuously produce books, that really allows you to produce a body of work. But I’ve been really fortunate in my career in that regard.