Eisner Award & YALSA-nominated Graphic Novelist Jason Walz
Jason Walz is an Eisner Award-nominated comic and graphic novel creator living in Minneapolis. He is the author of several comics and graphic novels, including the Last Pick trilogy and Homesick. Last Pick was a Kirkus Reviews Best YA Science Fiction of 2018 Selection and a YALSA 2019 Great Graphic Novels for Teens Nominee.
What initially drew you to comic book arts and what do you feel the graphic novel medium affords authors and illustrators?
I grew up in the middle of Kentucky fairly well isolated from a lot of exposure to things outside that farmland. The closest movie theater was just under and hour away, and there were no bookstores nearby. It didn't take long to discover and fall in love with the comic book spinner rack that eventually got setup near the register at our local grocery store. Waiting for me every week were stories full of fantastic myths and strange new worlds. There was no hope for me after this. I was all in.
I loved (and still love) science fiction and fantasy movies, and I always dreamed of being part of that creative process someday. Flash forward through the many years I spent painting and making movies on a cheap camera with my friends, and I finally realized that I wasn't having that much fun painting, and that my movies were pretty terrible. I wanted to tell the stories in my head, but they were too stagnant on a single canvas and basically unwatchable as movies. Once I began making my own comics, I felt an unbelievable freedom to tell visual stories without feeling constrained or compromised. My comic book storytelling style is as much influenced by Spielberg or Lucas as it is by Eisner or Kirby.
Before writing Last Pick, which features various characters with disabilities, your background was in special education. Do you think that working in that space has lent some authenticity to your characters and writing about the importance of not minimizing the worth of others?
I can say that because of my experience working with students with disabilities for so many years, I have certainly gone into these books with the best of intentions, and that I had two clear objectives in mind. First, I wanted to create a character on the autism spectrum that felt like a fully realized human being. Too often in fiction, those with autism are built out of tropes that in my opinion do more harm than good when showing other perspectives. How often have we seen someone with autism as having nearly superhuman intelligence, or a purity of heart that lets those around him/her to learn lessons about themselves? Many times those with autism are depicted as burdens on those around them, or unable to show emotion. I wanted to a character that certainly expressed traits of autism in his actions and thoughts, but more than anything, I wanted him to be fully human.
“...I hoped to get across in these books was the need for our society to do quite a bit more when it comes to truly making space in our world for those with disabilities.”
The second thing that I hoped to get across in these books was the need for our society to do quite a bit more when it comes to truly making space in our world for those with disabilities. Most of my teaching jobs have been in transitions programs where I focused on daily living skills, and job skills. I helped my students get volunteer work so that they could practice the routines of a work day while adjusting to the expectations that a boss places on an employee. They worked really hard and would have been fantastic employees at a variety of different jobs, but more often than not, it was extremely difficult to convince workplaces to hire those with autism. Everyone seems to have the best of intentions, but many are still unwilling or unable to make minor modifications to the workplace to help those with autism successfully compete in the workplace. These experiences were the early kernels of ideas that eventually defined the aliens in Last Pick. They are the clear analogy (taken to the extreme) for our society when we don't take the time to see the value within every human life.
The evil alien robots from your graphic novel Last Pick communicate primarily in emjois. How did you arrive at that idea and was that an artistic choice with a purpose behind it?
I always imagined that if aliens ever explored society on earth as it currently is, one of their first points of focus would be on how we now use emojis to communicate with one another. It would be a bit like how we pour over cave drawing and try to decipher how civilizations lived in the past when might understand so little regarding the rest of their lives at that time.
I also wondered if the aliens in Last Pick might use these emojis in a condescending way since they are truly despicable creatures. The idea that these massive robotic Scoopers show up on our planet to take humans away is terrifying enough, but the fact that each one has a unique and seemingly innocuous emoji staring down on you as they search the landscape seemed even more horrific to me.
How has the school and library market responded to your graphic novel?
Fantastic! Once your book is out into the world, it's often difficult to gauge how well it's selling, and it's often the school and library markets that are the first sign for a Young Adult novel regarding how well it is connecting with readers. It's here that the reviews and recommendations really count. So far I'm extremely happy with how well it has been received, and some of my favorite experiences have been stepping back into schools and talking to students about storytelling and comics in general. You'll know pretty quickly if your intended YA audience for a book isn't connecting. Kids and teens have little patience for media that doesn't connect with them. When it does connect, you really need to rely on the schools and libraries to help get your work in front of their eyes.
“...I've learned how much easier it is to have the support and guidance of a well oiled machine working with you.”
What have you learned from the experience of having your major debut graphic novel published at the level of a big five publishing house?
First and foremost, I've learned how much easier it is to have the support and guidance of a well oiled machine working with you. The team over at First Second Books has been fantastic. They know how to get a book out into the world the right way, and it's so nice for me to be able to put my trust in them and to just put in the hard work of creating the pages.
I've also learned a bit of humility. It's rare in life that an opportunity comes along that suddenly makes everything easier, and expecting that to happen is a surefire way to live your life constantly wanting more. Getting your book put out through a large publisher certainly does put a spotlight on you work like never before, but it has been important for me to also learn that there are thousands of spotlights beaming down on new books at any given time. Like most things in life, success is defined by each individual, and if you decide that success should be defined any other way you might be setting yourself up for disappointment and anxiety. A larger stage with a larger audience doesn't always mean you've got the next bestseller. Sometimes it's just another step toward building an audience.
“...the drawings help tell the story in ways that I wouldn't be able to do with just writing.”
Writing a book is hard enough. Does writing and illustrating a graphic novel up the ante? How much time and dedication does that take?
This is a question that I've gotten quite a bit recently. The writers out there that don't also illustrate believe that what I do must add an extra layer of difficulty, but I have to say that I don't believe that's true. For me, the drawings help tell the story in ways that I wouldn't be able to do with just writing. It's not easy for me to establish and flesh out an entire scene full of believable characters and environments through only words. Rather than taking a few paragraphs to create a sense of what is happening in the story, I can sometimes get that same information across within a single comic panel through only background images and body language.
For me to sit in front of a blank screen with a blinking cursor that's just waiting for me to create a world through only text would take so much more dedication from me than just sitting in front of a blank drawing page.
You’ve mentioned that Craig Thompson’s Space Dumplins was a big influence for you. Others have expressed that they see inklings of Judd Wick’s Hilo in Last Pick. Are there any other graphic novelists or comic books that have influenced you?
Craig Thompson is a big one. His graphic novel, Blankets, is a stunning work of art, and a beautiful and honest autobiography. Because it's so phenomenal, there's little that I would ever attempt to replicate from it, but it has informed my storytelling in the sense that the emotional journey for my characters is more important to me than the plot devices that move the story along. I try to shake off as much irony as possible and to let the heart of the characters show through. I'm attracted to writers that aren't afraid of exploring "love" and "being in love" in a positive way.
Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise is another good example of this. If you've ever read it through, you might remember that it's full of fantastic action set pieces and international intrigue, but what resonates and stays with me always is the love story at the core of all the drama. It's honest and beautiful. If I can incorporate even a small portion of that into my own work, then I'm completely satisfied that I've created the type of comic that I'm drawn to (pun intended?).
How did you obtain your current literary representation and how did you go on to get published?
I had been a full-time teacher for the past fourteen years within special education. I really loved that job, but I also loved making comics. Splitting my energy and time between those two jobs while also focusing on my family began to take its toll on me. I needed to either just teach, or just make comics. With that in mind, I put together the early ideas for Last Pick as a final effort to reach out to the larger publishers. As luck would have it, you, Mark Gottlieb at the Trident Media Group literary agency contacted me out of the blue around that same time.
You were a fan of my first published graphic novel, Homesick, and offered me representation right away. I remember opening that email when I probably should have been paying attention during a staff meeting after the students had gone home. I couldn't believe what I was reading. The illusive agent representation was finally going to happen! I quickly researched the other authors that you represented and knew this was my best opportunity yet to focus on comics as my primary job.
“...things came together so quickly after fighting so hard to get my previous comics and graphic novels out into the world.”
Within weeks, we had the pitch for Last Pick put together and in the hands of some of my favorite publishers on the planet. Within months, I was working from home full-time and beginning to put the first graphic novel of a three book series together. There's no way for me to accurately explain how fortunate I felt and how shocked I was that things came together so quickly after fighting so hard to get my previous comics and graphic novels out into the world.
Do you have any advice for aspiring comic book creators or graphic novelists?
I do! It's the best advice that has ever been given to me. When I was working on my first graphic novel, I was feeling overwhelmed and full of self-doubt. An artist friend of mine told me to "just finish it". Simple right?
The thing is, there's a good chance that what you create will never be exactly as you hoped. It may never live up to the spectacular story that you envisioned in your mind before you ever began. You'll be tempted to just quit. Don't. Once you've completed a comic or graphic novel, you can now call yourself a cartoonist, or graphic novelist, or writer, or whatever other title you think is appropriate. You've done it! You've entered the clubhouse, and once there, you now have a bit of access to other creators out there that you can share your work with. It feels really good, and it makes sitting down to start the next one so much easier.
Can you give us a little preview or snippet of what you’re working on for your next graphic novel series or standalone title? Or can you tell us what’s to come next in Last Pick 2?
The second book comes out in October, 2019, and it's called Last Pick: Born to Run. What I can tell you is that the book switches between Wyatt and Sam's story as they both struggle for survival and try their best to escape their horrific situations. Even though they are a universe apart, their love for each other connects their two adventures together as they rise up against even more ruthless aliens and higher stakes then ever before. There's more action than ever, but I'm most excited about seeing these two characters come into their own now that they're separated and seeing how they build new relationships now that their previous ones have been stripped away.
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