Vera Brosgol Talks with Roger

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The titular mermaid of Vera Brosgol’s Plain Jane and the Mermaid is hardly a sweet Ariel; for that matter, there’s nothing plain about Jane, a quintessential Brosgol heroine who uses her good sense and good heart to triumph over, in this case, an undersea queendom of literal man-eaters.

Roger Sutton: You say in the afterword that this book is in some ways a reaction to the Disney heroines of your childhood. Was that something you were into?

Photo credit: Charlie Chu

Vera Brosgol: Oh my god, yes, absolutely. My mom has kind of a highbrow taste, so she didn’t put anything in front of us that was actually for children. In Russia the only cartoons I watched were Yuri Norstein’s short films, a lot of Soviet adult animation. It was very brown and gray, and there were no jokes. It was beautiful and I love it, but it wasn’t for kids. When we came to America, one of my first memories is going to a birthday party. There was a VCR and TV in the corner, and they were playing The Little Mermaid. That was the first Disney movie I ever saw, and it was like fireworks went off in my head. It was so colorful and funny, and there was singing! I thought, I could get down with America if this is what it’s like. The first movie I saw in the theater was Beauty and the Beast.

RS: By that point, critics had been looking back at Disney and saying, Wait a minute, do we want to keep telling this story? I’m thinking of “Walt Disney Accused,” which was a famous article in the Los Angeles Times by Frances Clarke Sayers, where she blamed Disney for everything that was wrong with children’s culture in the 1960s. [editor's note: this article and an interview with Sayers were reprinted in the December 1965 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.] The Little Mermaid was part of a new era of animation for Disney.

VB: The Glen Keane era.

RS: Even though Ariel had the glamorous hair and the clamshell bra and all that, politically, it’s still much further evolved than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella. And now with Disney heroines such as Princess Merida in Brave, it’s very much about, Gotta be a strong girl.

VB: Ariel’s motives were not the best in that movie. But she had a lot of agency, that’s for sure.

RS: In your book, the mermaids aren’t evil, but they seem kind of amoral. Which reminds me of the way Hans Christian Andersen described the mermaids in his “Little Mermaid.” They were creatures who thought differently about the world than we do.

VB: The mermaids in Plain Jane are like wild animals...but they’re also not. Their backstory is that they’re raised in this insular environment, and they absorb their mother’s values—who absorbed them from her mother, it goes back and back and back. That’s why they do what they do. They were taught that it’s bad when you start to age, and this is how you solve that problem.

RS: When we first see them they seem pretty and glamorous but then the eyes bug out and the teeth get big and they really are frightening.

VB: That’s the mermaid mythology I always liked: the sirens who drag men to their deaths. And no one tells you what the mermaids do with the men once they’re underwater. I was always curious about that. Do they drown them and throw them in a pile somewhere? Do they decorate with their skeletons and make craft projects or something?

RS: You solved it for us, though. Now we know what they do.

VB: Totally. That’s where my head goes.

RS: What was the starting point for this book?

VB: I love anything to do with life underwater. Aquariums are my favorite thing, but I’m terrified of the ocean. I’m not a strong swimmer, and I remember getting stung by some kind of a ray when I was a little kid. So the ocean is this scary, bottomless place full of things that are going to rub up against you in the dark and eat you. But that’s super fascinating too. I think people have felt that way about the sea forever, which is why there are so many stories about it.

I started off with an idea for a short animated film: a sailor brings a selkie home to be his bride. But she’s basically still a seal—a wild animal. She can’t speak, she just barks and trashes his house. He really doesn’t want her there by the end. That idea sat in my head for a while. These images would come up, and the one that sealed it was a girl walking across the bottom of the sea to rescue somebody. I thought that was interesting, kind of funny and awkward, and something I hadn’t seen before. (That’s the worst way to get around, too; it would take forever!)

I did a ton of research and reading of mythologies from all over the world. Something that kept coming up, between cultures, was the beauty of things underwater luring down things above water. That beauty is ascribed to goodness, and ugliness is evil. Those ideas started percolating, combined with the image of the girl awkwardly walking underwater for miles and miles.

RS: What order do you work? Do you write something down first?

VB: For this one I started writing things down in a notebook and doing some drawings, kind of playing around. At the time, I was working at LAIKA, the animation studio in Portland (OR) that made Coraline. I wrote it as a screenplay with some illustrations to support it. They passed on it, but I still really liked it. That was back in 2014, maybe. Mark Siegel [editorial and creative director at First Second] pretty much wants to see anything I’m excited about, and he was really into it too. The story changed so much between the two stages, and I think graphic novel is a great format for it. 

RS: This is your third graphic novel. What made you realize it was a possibility as an art form?

VB: I grew up in upstate New York and New York City. As a teenager, I had access to the internet and found out about manga that way. I discovered indie comic-book stores, whatever wasn’t Barnes & Noble, and that’s where I found the weirder, more subversive comics. Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez, all the stuff Slave Labor Graphics was putting out, and Top Shelf’s books. I was obsessed with the Transmetropolitan series. When I started buying comics, that’s when I got really excited about the form. That was where the kinds of stories I was telling myself fit better.

RS: I’m still learning how to read a graphic novel. Your books give me some good practice.

VB: What’s the challenge for you? I’m really curious.

RS: Knowing where to look first, how to let my eye go down or across the page. And even now as I’m understanding some of the conventions, I get stopped by thinking something like, Oh, she’s made the type slightly bigger than it was before. That makes a difference. I don’t consider myself a visually sophisticated person. But I feel smarter every time I read a graphic novel.

VB: Visual literacy is something kids take to so quickly. I also don’t know about a lot of it.

RS: Oh, come on, if anybody should know.

VB: No, no one taught me anything. I’m doing the same as you. I’m reading it and trying to figure it out and reconstruct it afterward. When you make your graphic novel then you can tell me what you’re going to call it.

RS: Yeah, not happening. But you did go to art school?

VB: I went to animation school. What you do in animation is literally draw an arrow with where you want the arm to go. It’s much more literal because it…

RS: …has to move.

VB: Right, it’s just a template for someone else to pick up. It’s not the final product, it’s a step along the way. The graphic novel is a final project. Everything I drew in animation goes in the garbage; it was just the next step in the production pipeline, not for anyone to look at.

RS: Does that feel frustrating?

VB: No, not at all. I liked that you weren’t trying to make a beautiful finished drawing the way you would if you were illustrating a picture book. With a comic there’s a bit less pressure, but it’s still got to look pretty good. For an animation story board, you can use a stick figure as long as you understand what the character is doing or feeling. It’s the most boiled-down, fast, and efficient storytelling possible. I love doing my terrible drawing and then it goes to the next stage and the next stage, and by the time I see it again it is gorgeous. It makes you part of a team in a really cool way.

RS: And now you’re on your own. Do you like it?

VB: I do and I don’t. I definitely miss having someone to bounce ideas off. The longer you spend with yourself working on something big like a graphic novel, the more doubt sets in. You’re so far away from where you started when you were really excited. And you’re really far away from your readers. Mark Siegel put a great thing together at First Second, getting a group of book creators together to share the projects they’re working on and give feedback to one another. Mark did that with a bunch of different artists and put me in a great little group of comic artists, including Ben Hatke and Gene Luen Yang. I gave them the script for Plain Jane; they read it and talked among themselves for half an hour while I listened. I could see what they were responding to or what confused them. The second half-hour I could ask them questions. That was so helpful with this book. It was like an extra round of editing but with a bigger pool. It felt like the teamwork that I really missed.  

RS: I also saw in the afterword to Plain Jane that you described what the colorist does. I never knew exactly—thank you for showing us! I imagined someone with, you know crayons, going through your black-and-white book.

VB: Oh my gosh, no. Alec Longstreth, my colorist, who is also an amazing cartoonist, is better at Photoshop, computer anything, than I am. He’s so organized. He needs an extra credit as production manager or something because he made all these spreadsheets to track our progress and make sure we were on deadline. He put together this beautiful, more limited palette, so the whole thing would feel more cohesive. He did tons of research and made Pinterest boards. I don’t think all colorists do this; I won the lottery with him.

RS: Would you be working at the same time or is your work done when it goes to him?

VB: I got all the pencils done and signed off on, so as I started inking I felt like I was laying track and he was the train coming behind me. I had to make sure I had enough pages inked ahead of him. I tried to have a buffer, maybe thirty pages or so, and I'd give him a chunk at a time and he’d blast through. We finished one or two months apart from each other. We went back and looked through it again to make sure we hadn’t missed anything.

RS: And it was all digital, right, on both your parts?

VB: Yeah. That was a first too. It saved a lot of time.

RS: This was your first time creating pictures digitally?

VB: The final inks, yeah. I used a brush and a little pot of ink for Anya’s Ghost and a brush pen for Be Prepared. That was fun because I like having the originals; I like tactile stuff, pen on paper. But this is a much longer book—it's one hundred pages longer than Be Prepared. It just wasn't practical; I didn't want to be working on it for a year and a half.

RS: How does holding a brush or a pencil and using a digital tool feel different?

VB: Better for your body probably.

RS: Why?

VB: I have a better setup for computer work, which I learned in animation. We did all our work on Wacom Cintiqs, a big monitor that you can draw on like a giant fancy iPad. Mine is mounted on an arm so I can move it around and tilt the angle. I can sit down or stand up. It’s much more ergonomically healthy. If I'm inking on paper, I’m hunched over really close to the Bristol board. I don't have the systems in place to make that not hurt.

RS: Do you feel sentimental about the difference?

VB: Well, the nice thing is I do picture books as well. I get the traditional media other ways.

RS: You could do a picture book digitally. We see a lot of them now.

VB: I've done that once, and it's nice. But I like painting. I don't think I'm ever going to stop doing that. Just not 350 of them.

RS: What made you decide on pursuing animation in art school rather than illustration? 

VB: Illustration was the other option at the school I went to. I loved animation growing up; I loved the big, beautiful Art of... books for the Disney movies, where I could look at the concept art and storyboards. I thought, These people have good jobs, they have health insurance and stuff. It seemed like a good lifestyle.

RS: It’s nice to get a paycheck. A job that you just do and they pay you.

VB: Yes, exactly. It seemed practical. I'm a first-generation immigrant and that's a factor. I feel like I have to be able to take care of myself and my family. Working in animation seemed like it would check all my boxes. I hadn't seen illustration modeled as something that wasn’t stressful and hard. I think I’m right about that.

RS: It is stressful and hard.

VB: I know that now. 

RS: Is it hard having to be a self-starter in terms of your work?

VB: Running a business? I don't know how good I'm doing at that; that it is hard. In 2019 I went back to animation for Guillermo del Toro’s movie Pinocchio because I really wanted to work on it. They approached me and offered me a head of story position, which I'd never done before. All my friends were working on it, and it was this perfect-fell-out-of-the-sky opportunity, so I took it. I feel like that recharged my battery for working on books. I would totally do that again for the right project. It would be nice to keep that balance of, Oh yeah, now I remember what it's like to have to go into an office every day. Right now, though, I'm pretty happy; I'm in Mexico in a small town on the beach.

RS: Is that vacation?

VB: It's an actual vacation. I never take vacation, but I'm on a vacation like a normal person.

RS: What do you do on your vacation?

VB: Nothing.

RS: I mean, you're working right now, but otherwise.

VB: I'm going to draw. I'm going to wander around and look at Chihuahuas and eat fruit.

RS: Are you going to bring a dog back?

VB: Thinking about it; I have one at home already. I don't know if he needs one of these. He's pretty anxious.

RS: Yeah, my dog wouldn’t want company.

VB: Especially non-English-speaking company. That could be stressful.

RS: Could be another book in there, though.

VB: Maybe. I’d like to do a dog book. That’s been percolating.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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