Faith Erin Hicks dives into the high-energy world of hockey in her new YA graphic novel romance Hockey Girl Loves Drama Boy. When Canadian teenage hockey player Alix physically retaliates against a bully, she seeks out classmate Ezra—an outwardly calm, cool, and collected theater kid—to help her learn how to manage her anger. Their romantic connection sparks almost immediately, but underlying challenges surrounding past mistakes and unresolved trauma threaten their fledgling relationship. In a conversation with PW, Hicks reflects on her career, her “terrible” ice skating skills, and navigating complex emotions in life and in her writing.
You mention in your acknowledgments that, even though you’re Canadian, you’re terrible at ice skating and always felt like you were trying to keep up with more talented skaters. Can you talk about why you decided to make hockey such a big part of this graphic novel?
I’ve always been very interested in sports stories starring women because I feel like they’re maybe a little bit rare. So, I was looking for a particular type of environment to tell a sports story in. My husband played hockey growing up, so I had him consult on the book. And then a friend of mine, Shelley Caroline, who is American and lives on the East Coast, told me about her experiences growing up as a hockey girl and playing with boys, which is not something that’s part of my book, but something I found very interesting. We also talked about the interpersonal conflict with the players on her team that would come up. I’m not a big team sports person, but I played soccer as a teenager, and I just remember that the team aspect could be very fraught. Sometimes you would have people who were frustrated with other players and would single them out and demand that they work harder at the sport or be better, that kind of thing. So, I thought it would be interesting to set the book in a potentially fraught environment and focus on a situation where you have this group of girls on a top tier hockey team who are pursuing an undefeated season. And one particular player is struggling to navigate that social dynamic.
Discussions around feelings of anger often come with the stigmatized perspective that it’s inappropriate or taboo for girls to express big emotions. Why was it important for you to develop Alix around her experience with and desire to manage her anger?
I don’t think of myself as an angry person. But I do experience, I guess, righteous anger, where I struggle with seeing situations of open bigotry or people acting in a way that’s cruel. That brings out a lot of anger in me, and I do really struggle with it, because it doesn’t feel useful. It’s like, “What do I do with this anger?” I’m angry at the bigots of the world, but how do I channel that feeling into something that’s useful?
Alix isn’t trying to learn how to channel her anger into something useful, but she’s learning to manage it in a way that doesn’t harm her. As someone who’s quite tall and quite strong, her physicality is a huge advantage on the ice, where she sometimes has to play rough. But now that aspect of hockey is bleeding into her real life. That’s basically where her character came from. I wanted to channel that Deanna Troi quote from Star Trek, “Feelings aren’t positive and negative. They simply exist. It’s what we do with those feelings that becomes good or bad.”
Characters express—or don’t express—their anger using varying methods throughout the story, including through Alix’s physical altercation, her mother’s emotional outburst, and other characters’ silent stewing. What do you hope to convey by depicting these experiences?
I love putting complex emotions into books because it’s a way for me to work through my own feelings. I felt like I was this hugely emotional teenager, but at the same time, I always felt like my emotions were inappropriate. They either came about at weird times or I didn’t have a proper understanding of them. I really wanted to create a cast that was struggling with different emotions and give them the chance to bring those emotions out, hopefully in a healthy way. Or, well, hopefully later in the book they would be brought out in a healthy way because by then they would have gone on this journey to discover how they could feel their feelings without hurting themselves or others.
Then you have someone like Ezra, who thinks, “Well, I have a wonderful relationship with everyone!” He’s friends with all his exes and everything is fantastic. But then he discovers that he has actually really hurt a friend of his because he thought that they were okay. And his friend, unfortunately, didn’t express her feelings to him. He didn’t know there was hurt between them. And it’s not necessarily his fault. But at the same time, he wasn’t sensitive to her needs and her emotions.
To bring up Star Trek again—I remember as a teen that I was so interested in Data, the android. I thought he was so wonderful because he didn’t have emotion, and as a teenager, that was what I desperately wanted. I wanted to be calm and collected and to not be caught up in all my feelings all the time. But that’s part of being human. I like the fact that the characters in this book are really messy and are struggling to figure things out; I think it’s relatable. These kinds of characters are fun to write. Hopefully, I give them a little bit of wisdom and a story arc so that towards the end, they’re in a better place than where they began.
Each of your works tends to have its own distinct visual mood or motif. Hockey Girl Loves Drama Boy, for example, is rendered largely in grayscale with pops of blue throughout, while other published works are sometimes full color. How do you go about deciding what kind of style to use for each project?
I tend to think about the reader. So, for this book, I’m aiming for a teen audience. Generally, my feeling is that teens are okay with black-and-white books. But if I’m doing a middle grade book, I tend to default to color because—this is just anecdotal—I’ve seen some kids actively reject black-and-white work because they want color, and they expect color.
When I was developing Hockey Girl Loves Drama Boy, I looked at other books published by First Second, like Bloom, which was grayscale with blue shading, and Heartstopper from Graphix, which is also black-and-white with some color shading. I just find that this color style adds emotional resonance to a romance story. I like the way the grayscale shading looks with the blue. It kind of made everything look a little bit cool, which I felt was appropriate for a book largely set at a hockey rink. I think an accent color makes the story a little more visually moody than it would be in full color.
Graphic novels can take several years to produce, yet you’ve created at least one every year. How do you maintain that kind of pace?
I did work very, very intensely for the first decade of my career. Like, evenings and weekends, too. I don’t regret that pace, but it was too intense. I did four books—the Nameless City trilogy and Pumpkinheads after it very, very quickly, you know, by any standard. I came out of that really burnt out and not in great physical shape; my arm was pretty much falling off. So, I had to take some time off. I think I’ve been slowing down a bit with the pandemic, just because I feel like it’s time to slow down.
Right now, I don’t know when my next book will be out after Hockey Girl Loves Drama Boy. I am working on something new, but I’m not sure yet if it will be out in 2025 or 2020-who-knows-when. So that’s a pretty big gap. I enjoy creating. I don’t have kids. This is my full-time job, 9-to-5, five days a week now. That’s what I do: I just make comics, and I’m very fortunate to be able to do so. And fast enough, I guess. But, honestly, some of it is just being fortunate enough that First Second has always been interested in the work that I pitched them, for the most part, and they still want to continue working with me. That’s been really great for my productivity as well. I just keep going, just keep working.
Can you tell us a bit about that new project? Is it a solo work, a collaboration, or perhaps a new prose novel?
Not prose. I’d never say never but, to be honest, I feel like at this point, if I come up with a new idea, I want it to be a comic. I published a novel a few years ago called Comics Will Break Your Heart, and that was a wonderful experience, but I just enjoy drawing more than I enjoy writing.
I can tell you that I’m working on a new middle grade graphic novel for First Second. It’s very loosely based on my experiences going to animation college—my background is actually in animation. I went to Sheridan College in Canada—I guess you would consider it a trade school—and trained in classical animation, and I’ve wanted to work on a story related to that for a few years now. It was super intense. A lot of my classmates actually work for studios like Disney and Pixar. So yeah, my next book is based on my somewhat traumatic art school experience.
Hockey Girl Loves Drama Boy by Faith Erin Hicks. First Second, $25.99 Oct. 3 ISBN 978-1-250-83873-5; paper ISBN 978-1-250-83872-8