Author-illustrator Jessixa Bagley and her husband, comics artist Aaron Bagley, have collaborated on a number of projects including the picture book Vincent Comes Home. Their first middle grade graphic novel, Duel, follows constantly-at-odds siblings GiGi, a popular eighth-grade fencing team standout, and sixth-grader Lucy, a budding fencer and middle-school newcomer, who both got their passion for the sport from their recently deceased father. When GiGi humiliates Lucy in the cafeteria on their first day of school, Lucy boldly challenges her sister to settle the score with a duel in front of the entire student body. As the bout looms, the girls recall their dad’s best fencing strategies and try to stay in the good graces of their frustrated principal and overwhelmed mother. PW spoke with the Bagleys about fencing, navigating grief, sibling dynamics, tween angst, and what it’s like to work together.

Jessixa, what is your connection to fencing and why did you want to spotlight the sport in this story?

I started fencing when I was in college. I didn’t strike myself as a super, sporty athletic person. In high school, I was on the dance team and I did really small recreational sports. But when I got to college, I remembered that my mom had taken some fencing classes when I was really little, and my sister did a bit of fencing in college also. And for whatever reason, it just kind of popped into my head, I was like, “Maybe there’s something like that here in Seattle.” When I looked into it and I took a couple of classes, I really connected to it because it was such a beautiful marriage between the physical and the mental. I always liken it to physical chess. And it was one of the first times in my life that I ever felt athletic and really in tune with my body. I loved how it felt.

And so, when I got the idea for the story—after I had stepped away from fencing due to a series of injuries, and, well, just life—I felt like all kids would benefit from being exposed to this and learning about it. If even somebody like me, who isn’t particularly coordinated and super athletic could do it, then it could be something that a lot of kids could benefit from because it’s a discipline and fun and exciting. Also, I mentioned in the book that it wasn’t until after I had gotten out of fencing that I realized that proportionately, there are not a lot of Black fencers. So, I really would love even more BIPOC kids to find the sport. I think that would just be wonderful because it can do so much for your confidence.

What was the inspiration for the family dynamic and the sister bond you depict in the book? Did any of that come from your own life?

Yeah, I mean my older sister’s name is SiSi, so GiGi, SiSi. The age gap between us is larger than the one between GiGi and Lucy, but when I was younger, I was the bratty annoying little sister. I just remember there was a lot of fighting, in little ways, not horribly violent, it was more emotional kinds of stuff. The book definitely is fiction, but it’s based on that aspect of our childhood when we would fight and bicker. I think my sister has a lot of feelings of regret. But at the same time, a lot of specific things that happened between Lucy and GiGi, those really happened. My sister never tripped me in the cafeteria, but I did kick a hole in her door. That’s awful! I went into her diary; I invaded her privacy. So, in the story, I really tried to show that there was justified animosity on both sides. That was something that I didn’t realize until I was making this book. I really wanted to embrace and understand my sister’s side of growing up. I grew up having my side of the story, but I understand that there’s more to it. And this was a way to figure that out a little.

There’s a lot I borrowed from my real life that I changed and fictionalized to fit the age and to fit what the family was going through a little bit more clearly. In the story, the girls’ fracture comes from the death of their father, whereas our father didn’t pass away till I was much older than the characters in the book. I was 17 when he died and my sister was then in her mid 20s, and she wasn’t living at home. There are a lot of other things I connected to with the mom character. Her motivation for trying to let the girls solve their problems on their own is really because she was sort of drowning with handling everything, because the father wasn’t there, and she has depression around that. In my own life, my mom was a single mom; my parents divorced when I was three. The story is very true to how my mom was always like, “work it out yourself,” because she just didn’t have the bandwidth.

Aaron, did you have any connection to fencing prior to this project? What was your approach to depicting the action and the look of the sport on the page?

I had watched Jessixa fence once or twice and she had shown me a couple of things over the years, so I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with it. And I knew that it was a very nuanced sport so going into it, I wasn’t approaching the fencing portion of the illustration lightly. I knew that I had to be pretty exacting with the details. I started with the action and the gestures and the general appearance of what it looks like to fence. For anyone who’s fenced or anyone who’s watched it but doesn’t know about it, it happens very quickly. My reference material was largely animated GIFs so I could look at the actions over and over and see them broken down into a more simple frame rate than in a video. A lot of times if Lucy was doing a move, like a flèche, she was on the right and Sasha was on the left, I would have a GIF where the person doing that move was on the left, and so I’d have to switch it. But once you get a feel for it, you can do that in your mind and translate it to the page. There were only a couple instances when I would find reference material and Jessixa would point out that it was épée [instead of foil] and the moves are a little different [for that weapon]. But that wasn’t too hard.

I grew up very physically active, so I really got into what it would feel like in my body, what it would take to do this, and which muscle you’d be using to push off or to land or make all the gestures. And I just really liked drawing people. The equipment really was the hardest part, getting the lamés and all the fencing gear correct. We had to go back after Jessixa looked at it and correct the helmets, the masks, and make sure that the bell guard was consistent or make sure that the color of the instructor’s jacket was right. These are little things, but Jessixa made it very clear that she wanted the book to speak to people who have fenced and would understand this visually. And so, I begrudgingly made the changes sometimes, but it was totally worth it.

I really connected to [fencing] because it was such a beautiful marriage between the physical and the mental.
—Jessixa Bagley

Jessixa: He was good about it; he was a sport. I kept coming to Aaron and the art director and the editor with these very late-in-the-game changes, like, “Oh, I forgot to tell you that if he’s a fencing coach, he’d be all in black.” They’re like, “wait, what?” I didn’t think to mention it, but I knew it. I explained that fencers are going to read this, and they are very logical, very exacting people. [The sport] draws an intellectual mind, and they’re going to be like, “That’s wrong.”

Aaron did a great job. Because we’ve worked together for so many years, I know he’s good at abbreviating what he needs to abbreviate, then including the details where he needs to. I think it was a mutual agreement to say let’s not overwhelm and overcomplicate, but let’s get it right in a lightly simplified way. So there was a little bit of noodling that had to go with that. There were details I didn’t explain in the book because it would have bogged things down. But I tried to think of it in a way that was going to be fun for him, like specifically with the boob protectors. I wondered, “How am I going to explain that they have to wear a chest protector?” And Aaron did such a good job of drawing this gesture of the Sasha character knocking on it, and that’s all you needed to know—they have something that protects their chest.

As you’ve mentioned, the two of you have collaborated before. Can you talk more about what that looks like?

Aaron: We live in an 1,100-square foot apartment with an eight-year-old, so there’s not really anywhere to escape to and we just make the most of it. We’re always around each other and we work near one another—and I mean, all of us do, our son draws with us when we’re drawing. We’ve always done it at the dining room table, and so we bought an extra-long one to accommodate. Even when we tried having a studio, it just ended up as storage, and we would work out in the main living area. I think having that sort of closeness has benefited the collaboration process, because we did start out in college just drawing together and handing off drawings back and forth, and then doing little gallery shows, continuing to collaborate that way. Then we got some paid gigs and started being a little more professional about it. We did Vincent Comes Home with Neal Porter at Roaring Brook Press and that was a book we wrote and illustrated together. And it was super fun, and so easy to do. Then, when the idea for Duel came up, Jessixa was going to write it as a middle grade novel and our agent suggested a graphic novel instead. Jessixa was planning on illustrating it, but then felt like it was just a little too close to her and asked me if I wanted to do it. Of course, I thought you’d never ask!

I had wanted to illustrate someone else’s work for a while as I don’t write as frequently as Jessixa does. And to have her hand me something to illustrate, I was delighted, like this is it, this is perfect, a golden opportunity. It was a little strange, at first to have the collaboration be one of us doing one thing and one doing the other. But, you know, we couldn’t not have input on both aspects of the process. So, I didn’t write any of the book, but I contributed thoughts and ideas, and she bounced things off me.

Jessixa: He would tell me if a sentence was too long to fit in a word bubble. I would be working on another book, and he’d come out from doing sketches or thumbnails and he would just put it in front of me, saying, “You need to shorten this,” which is a huge advantage to living with your collaborator; you can actually make on-the-fly changes. Or there might have been something that was going to be shown in the illustration a little bit more, so we could edit out some of the text to accommodate it.

And I didn’t need to give him art notes, really. I had to put art notes in the manuscript so that my editor and art director could know what was going on, but I was so relieved, because I’ve heard so many stories about graphic novel writers who if they aren’t illustrating the book they have to put in meticulous art notes, like “in panel one on the upper left,” and there’s no way that I could ever do that. I just trust Aaron; I know that he’s going to do something interesting. I didn’t even have to stress about breaking up the text in certain places because I knew that he was going to make this work in creative ways. It was challenging, mentally, to be like, “Oh, I’m not going to illustrate this.” It was something I emotionally had to let go of. But I had more faith that Aaron would do it justice.

Aaron: Really, when I’m working on the book—and this is where the collaboration part is so great—my audience is Jessixa first, and then kids. It’s like a little love language, where I’m trying to impress Jessixa with my interpretation of this text. It feels like, the better I do, and the more I see Jessixa happy with the results, then, I think the better the book is going to be. When you create work, “Who is your audience?” is a question you always want to ask yourself. When I examine that, and I think back on Duel, I’m really trying to honor the text, and my wife wrote it. So obviously, there’s a huge part of me that is trying to impress her and make it right for this thing that I consider sacred. I mean, that’s what’s so fun about collaborating, and I don’t see any reason to stop, because of that great working relationship.

Jessixa: The funny thing about it is that when we were finished with the book, and we both had it in our hands, it felt the same as when we would do collaborative drawing, where everything overlapped and there would come a point where we’re like, “Oh, I don’t remember what I did on this piece.” While obviously I know that I wrote it and that Aaron illustrated and there was that very clear separation, it still feels very much combined.

Did it feel different to do your first middle grade project? Was that any kind of a challenge?

Jessixa: It felt so natural! When I do picture books, I’m very limited, comparatively, because you’re trying to tell a full story in a much shorter amount of space. This was amazing because I had just hundreds of pages to write. And with picture books, I have a really hard time incorporating dialogue. But this was only dialogue, and I loved it! I think it’s because there’s a part of me that’s always going to be a cringey tween. I just resonate so hard with this age group, like 11 to 13 is such an intense time and those stories are what I love, love, love to read. It’s cathartic to get to spend time in this space that is so brief and so horrific in real life, but being present with it as an adult, you have a better vantage point of looking at the experience. You’re the same, right, Aaron?

Aaron: Yeah, I love middle grade, junior high; I put my mind in that age, like when I was 13, 14, 15, when I was working on the book, and I think I’ve been there for the last three years now. I must say on a personal note, it has brought up all sorts of things that are coming up in therapy. [Laughing.] It’s great, though, I mean, what a healing process. Your heart really goes out to the kids. It forces you to treat the material with a sensitivity: to just be authentic and honor that experience rather than try and pander.

Jessixa: Yeah. I think that one of the strengths that Aaron and I have in how we move through the world, how we parent our child and how we make books, is that we don’t ever want to forget those child parts of ourselves. That would be like the saddest thing ever to let go of. And that includes the pain. People who make kids’ books, the ones who are really good at it, remember the joys and the pains of childhood equally. I have so much empathy and so much respect for children and teens. Making these books heals us a little bit, but hopefully it will also create a little bit of space for healing or being seen or safety for the kids who are in it right now.

GiGi and Lucy are processing their grief after their father George’s death. How did you choose the visual elements that make his presence still felt throughout the book?

Aaron: There were a lot of times when I was trying to think about how to incorporate the dad in flashbacks, or maybe have him appear in a certain way. But in the end, I was like, you know, I’m not going to overdo it. This book isn’t about the dad, it’s about these living people, these three women—well, four, because the grandma’s there—and how they’re moving on after this. They’re not forgetting about the father, but integrating the loss into their life rather than trying to hang on to how it was before. It’s really nice to see these characters come out for the better in the end. And I found that exciting to illustrate. Not only is it an ode to fencing, and deals with grief and siblings, but I feel like it is also about real strong female characters.

The chapter openings are designed like the pages of a classic fencing manual—that element was nice to break it up and be like a meta reference in the book to the fencing book that the dad had. It was funny because we did some little details on those pages, the chapter title pages, where it looks like the dad had made notes in the book, and it wasn’t until later on when we were finishing up the book that Jessixa suggested that. It felt like a really honest way to honor the character.

Jessixa: It’s not just that it was an extra detail. It’s George’s imprint. It incorporated him so much more into the flavor and the feeling because there’s little things that show his sense of humor in those spaces. It gives the reader a little bit of a connection. Because it was hard to have this one character who only exists in the memories of the family, that’s the way it’s depicted. But he was alive on those pages.

You’re also collaborating on a second middle grade graphic novel, is that right?

Jessixa: Yeah. The second book is tonally different. I don’t know how to explain it without giving too much away, but it’s an identity book.

Aaron: Two friends are entering middle school, and they both sort of unknowingly fall into separate friend groups that they don’t identify with. There is an exploration of gender norms and then how they navigate that and remain friends and remain true to their own identities.

Jessixa: This one is also very much inspired by my experience growing up, of trying to figure things out, like who you are and how you fit in with your friends and family. It’s such an intense time for that aspect of identity. I feel like this new one is a lot funnier, but there’s also more of the stinging junior high stuff.

Aaron: To use your word, there’s a little more of the cringey.

Jessixa: Yeah, there’s more cringe. It was fun to do something that is a little bit different.

Aaron: I’m having a lot of fun illustrating it. I really love the characters.

Duel by Jessixa Bagley and Aaron Bagley, S&S, $14.99 paper, Nov. 7 ISBN 978-1-5344-9654-5