Eisner Award-winning comics artist Faith Erin Hicks named her first work of young adult prose, Comics Will Break Your Heart, after a quote by superhero artist Jack Kirby, and she based the story on the comics industry’s long and troubled history of exploiting its artists. The novel will be published this month by Roaring Brook Press.
Set in Nova Scotia over a summer, it’s the story of Miriam, a local teen who meets Weldon, a wild Los Angeles kid sent to spend the summer in the town where his father grew up before he left to become a big-time comics publisher. It turns out that the two are tied together by a complicated family history—their grandfathers created a popular comic book series that’s about to become a blockbuster movie. But the legal history around the comics and the financial impact of the forthcoming movie have radically different meanings to both families. Hicks spoke with PW about writing her first work of prose and creating a novel about teenagers that incorporates what she loves, as well as what she hates, about the comics industry.
You’re a highly regarded comics author who has written and/or drawn 14 graphic novels. Why the switch to full prose?
I first developed the story that would become Comics Will Break Your Heart a while ago, in 2013. It was originally supposed to be a graphic novel and it wasn’t originally about comics. The book is more about my feelings about both art and commerce. There’s a constant tension between making art, about comics being my job and also something I do for fun, and it being the thing that inspires me. I thought about making the book a graphic novel but that felt really incestuous—to comment on the rocky history of the comics industry in the comic book format just felt unfair. So I wrote it as a prose novel. I didn’t write it to make money. This novel is a story that I wanted to get off my chest.
Tell us how you developed the plot.
I started reading more about the history of comics and copyright law. At the time I started writing the book, Disney was in litigation with the heirs of [the great superhero artist] Jack Kirby. I was fascinated by the legal case, which is essentially about the long and rocky history of comic book creators and their rights, how everything has changed in the comic book industry now that you can take these old comic books from the 1960s and 1970s and turn them into billion dollar movies.
You chose a famous quote by Jack Kirby, a legendary comic book artist, to be the title of the book. Can you talk about the quote and why you chose to use it?
That quote resonates with me, especially with what we know about how Jack Kirby was treated by the comics industry. Comics, this art form that you love, can eventually break your heart. It’s easy to imagine Kirby saying that with bitterness, but supposedly the context and the story around the quote is that he was hanging out with friends, having a good time and talking to a young cartoonist. Despite Kirby’s many bad experiences, he could still laugh and say: “Hey kid, this is just the way it is. You can be one of the best and comics will still break your heart.“ There’s something kind of wonderful about that to me. You need that if you’re going to survive in this industry.
The plot is based around a well known comics industry scenario: classic superhero artists have often gone uncompensated after their original works-for-hire become wildly lucrative movie and licensing franchises. Why did you choose this contentious legacy for your novel?
For a long time I did not have a great knowledge of the cartoonists who came before me, and even now I have huge gaps in my knowledge. So, I wanted young readers to think about the people who made these comics in the past, who created their favorite characters and who made the worlds that these billion dollar movies are built on.
How would you describe the main characters?
The book is about two teenagers Miriam and Weldon. Miriam Kendrick is a high school honor student who wants to go on to university. Her family is not well off; they live in Nova Scotia, where I used to live, in a small town with bad internet. In contrast, Weldon Warrick is a rich young man from L.A. His father is head of the Warrick Comics empire and owns the rights to the classic comic book series The Tomorrow Men, which was created years ago by Miriam’s grandfather and Weldon’s grandfather.
Now, there are plans for a $200 million movie featuring the characters they created and the Warricks will reap all the benefits. Years ago, Miriam’s family settled a court case that gave all the rights to the Warrick Comics empire, so her family will not benefit financially from this movie. The two young people meet and it’s hate at first sight from Miriam—she sees the grandson of the man that stole her future. Nevertheless, their relationship blossoms into friendship and then into something a little bit more.
How did you feel about not having to draw 300 pages of storytelling?
I’m not going to lie, it was nice. I love drawing, it is my passion and my calling but writing prose was hard in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. I’ve published 14 graphic novels so I can anticipate what will work as a comic, but with the novel it was different. I did way more rewrites than I’ve ever done for a comic.
The book also offers classic YA themes about growing up, high school graduation and learning to handle friendship, dating and young love.
Hopefully I’ll inspire someone. I remember being a teenager and being terrified of the future, and Miriam struggles with that. She doesn’t know what she wants to do and she’s really scared about that. I was like that and I wanted to write a character who had that perspective, who didn’t know what she wanted, and to help readers understand that it’s OK to not have stuff figured out. And it's also about meeting boys. That’s always a great part of any YA novel.
What else would you like readers to take away from the novel?
I hope they get a better understanding of the mysterious land of Canada [laughing]. The book is mostly set in Nova Scotia so there’s lots of Canadian stuff. And we get a peek at what it looks like to go to the San Diego Comic-Con. I’ve been three times, once when I won an Eisner. At one point Weldon talks about the parties his parents hosted after Comic-Con, where all the cartoonists would sit around and talk about comics like that’s the only thing in the world. That’s part of my experiences going to conventions. I’ve always had a really good time at Comic-Con and I’ve met amazing people who do amazing comics. So yes, I wanted to bring that to the book.
Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks. Roaring Brook, $18.99 Feb. ISBN 978-1-62672-364-1