After Maris Wicks graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2003 with a B.F.A. in illustration, she didn’t exactly leap into her chosen field. “I didn’t draw for a year,” she says. Instead, she picked up odd jobs, did a stint with AmeriCorps, and decamped to Maine, where her family lives. After a year there, she moved to the Boston area and got a job with the New England Aquarium, working as a program educator for children and teens.
Gradually, though, art was reasserting its hold on her life. Wicks started self-publishing minicomics (Coping with Death features a cartoon version of Wicks battling a Grim Reaper, and in Everybody Has One, animals discover a critical part of their digestive systems). She began selling them at regional comics shows, along with plush toys that she created. “I was going to destroy my hands either through drawing or sewing, and I chose drawing,” Wicks says.
Meanwhile, her work at the aquarium was right in line with the science-themed comics she was increasingly interested in creating, and the time she spent meeting people and showing her work at conventions paid off when she was chosen to illustrate Jim Ottaviani’s Primates, a graphic novel about three pioneering women scientists: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. The book was published in June by First Second, just a couple of months after another of Wicks’s indie projects, a picture book by Galen Goodwin Longstreth, resurfaced. Originally published in a limited run by Tugboat Press, Yes, Let’s was rereleased in an expanded edition by Tanglewood Press in April.
First Second contacted Wicks in 2009, inviting her to submit artwork for consideration for the Primates project; Wicks had attracted the publisher’s attention when she met Gina Gagliano, marketing director at First Second, at a comics show. Wicks calls Ottaviani “one of my favorite science writers,” and she got the good news about Primates just before the two of them were scheduled to attend the annual Heroes Convention in North Carolina four years ago. “We talked about the project the whole time,” says Wicks, who signed with Bernadette Baker-Baughman at Victoria Sanders & Associates to see the First Second and Tanglewood deals through. In early June of this year, Ottaviani and Wicks debuted the finished book at the same convention.
As Wicks worked on Primates, Ottaviani sent her research he had compiled as well as video clips of orangutans and chimpanzees, so she could study their movements. She also spent time in the local library, reading up on the three women featured in the book to answer her own questions about them, such as, “Would it be right for this character to behave this way, or do this pose based on what she’s like?”
Wicks also bounced ideas off Joe Quinones, who has made a name for himself in superhero comics; the two met during their final year at RISD and have been a couple ever since. “We have a fantastic working relationship,” says Wicks, though she admits, “We don’t sleep very often. At two a.m. we’ll be like, ‘Can you proofread this for me?’ ”
With two books just out and a collaboration with Quinones as part of a Batman: Black and White collection out this fall, 2013 has been a big year for Wicks. She looks to be just as busy going forward: last September, First Second signed up a solo project from her, an expansion of one of her minicomics, The Human Body Theater Presents the Digestion of a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich, which will explore the body’s inner workings in cartoons. For Wicks, science, art, and the natural world are a winning combination and a constant source of inspiration. In addition to her forthcoming Human Body Theater book, she’s already brainstorming how to turn her marine experience into a book: “It would be silly not to do something aquarium-related.”