Hello, Aliza! Thank you for coming to the MG Book Village to talk about your debut graphic novel, BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES! Before we get to the book, would you like to introduce yourself to our site’s readers?
Hello! I’m Aliza and I write silly books very seriously.
BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES is your first graphic novel, but you have been making and sharing comics for a long time. Can you talk about your background in comics?
I started seriously teaching myself how to draw when I was around 17, back in 2010, and by 2013 I was making Demon Street, which is my longform fantasy-horror webcomic that’s free to read online. In 2014 I wrote the first story with Beetle and Blob Ghost as a kind of Halloween special and I couldn’t put the characters down, so as everything else continued to develop I kept sending Beetle around to different people and working on developing it out, first into a storyboard and then some years later into a book pitch. In the meantime I did a bunch of anthologies and shows and built Demon Street out into the 600+ page monster it is now.
Did you read comics and graphic novels as a kid? What do you say to those parents, teachers, and librarians who still don’t consider comics and graphic novels “real” books and the reading of them “real” reading?
I read almost everything I could get my hands on! I think my first really in-depth reading of a graphic novel was probably Jeff Smith’s Bone, which I still think the world of. I think everyone has come a long way in seeing comics as real reading, but I would say that the lack of an idea of comics as literature comes back to a dearth of scholarship about them. I think it trickles down from academia. Even though we generally don’t study film in k-12 in the US, you’re not going to see very many people saying that it isn’t real art, because we have broad scholarship about film and film theory in a way we don’t about comics. Graphic novels as literature may be present in an average college as a single elective class, but it just isn’t a branch of study the way film or literature are right now. But this is a unique art form with a unique language that’s separate from aping the conventions of any other media, it’s just under-studied. So I think we’re already moving in the right direction by shifting culture towards scholarship about GNs, parents and teachers who are traditionalists are naturally going to follow academia’s lead. You see a similar issue in other “low art,” like games.
Fascinating! I hope you are correct!
All right, let’s get to Beetle, Gran, Kat, and Blob Ghost! Was your creative process at all different knowing that these characters’ stories would one day be in a physical book?
So, a physical book is written in a slightly different language than webcomics. You have a finite number of pages to work with that have a specific size, and you also have to consider the gestalt of the two-page spread as well as the action of page-turning as opposed to scrolling or clicking. It forces you to tell your story tightly, similar to the way that a film works as opposed to a TV series, so you end up squeezing everything you possibly can out of every little moment. This might have been twice as long as a webcomic! There’s certainly enough material I could have added!
Can you tell us a bit about what BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES is all about?
It’s about Halloween jokes and high adventure, but it’s also about being a kid with only one friend and what that feels like. It’s about running around your neighborhood during the week where summer turns into fall for real. I didn’t know it when I wrote it, but it’s about giving the Halloween adventure feeling to kids who might not be able to do Halloween this time around!
I know BEETLE began as a much shorter comic. Can you discuss how the idea evolved? How did you decide to plant such a magical story in, of all places, a mall?
Most immediately I thought the juxtaposition would be funny, which is why the short I did in 2014 has the long title “Goblin Witch and Blood Ghost hang at the mall.” But the joke of mixing the Halloween-spooky with the mundane is a very old one. The Addams family is absolutely this joke, I’m just doing it with a very earnest heart that loves magical coming-of-age. But I’m also framing it around a kid’s experience of the world, especially young kids and how they think when they’re brought into a huge, strange, completely artificial space. There’s a fairyland quality to that. The escalator has teeth and it’s scary and it could suck you down into it and chew you and that’s how you die—we all remember thinking stuff like that. So that beast is real here. And because a lot of malls around the country are sort of decrepit and crumbling, there’s an eerie quality to the space that I’ve talked about a lot. I was 13 when the global financial crisis began in 2007 and I watched the doing-just-fine commerce around me fall apart. Kids now are growing up in a time that’s even weirder! So I think if we’re going for a kind of magical mundane, why not talk about the very real spooky feeling of seeing a place you used to be into sag in on itself until it collapses?
BEETLE is at times touching, at times exhilarating – and almost always hilarious. What role does humor play in your creativity? How do you make sure you are balancing all of these emotional notes in your storytelling?
Oh, they aren’t kidding when they say it’s harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I love jokes but they take so much craft! After that everything is smooth sailing. If I can make you laugh, the hardest thing in the world, I can certainly make you care. The rest of it is all about having characters who you can really believe in as a writer. You want to be able to just put them in a scene and keep in mind their current mental state and figure out how they would bounce off each other, that gets you most of the way there!
Are there any comic-makers or any particular graphic novels you’d suggest to readers who become fans of BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES?
Please look forward to Dungeon Critters coming soon from Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter, it’s a fantasy adventure/mystery by way of Captain Underpants and Redwall! Check out Ethan M. Aldridge’s Estranged and its sequel! For older readers I highly, highly recommend Ariel Slamet Ries’ Witchy.
What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from the BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES?
That really depends on the individual person and what they need! I hope this makes someone out there feel less alone, or believe that they can help others or ask for help themselves. Or I hope it makes someone out there feel less self-conscious about their creativity. I hope people take things away from it that I haven’t thought of yet!
Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES to their classrooms and libraries and/or recommend the book to their students?
Just that I see a lot of really vibrant, fascinating, textually dense creative work being done in comics right now, so I hope you’ll look forward to this continued renaissance of graphic novels in the future! I love this medium, and I hope more and more people learn how to read stories this way and examine them in depth!
When can readers get their hands on BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES?
You can ask for it at your local bookstore (for contactless pickup if you’re reading this in 2020) or from any online book retailer! I suggest using indiebound or bookshop, since they support local bookstores!
Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about — and see more of — your work?
I have a kids’ website at Beetlebones.net and a website with my entire portfolio at alizalayne.com! That website has all my social links.
Thank you so much again for stopping by the site, Aliza! It was great to chat with you!
Aliza Layne is a cartoonist, illustrator, and storyteller. She is the creator of Demon Street, a long-form fantasy webcomic for all ages. Her Halloween costumes have elicited the phrases “theatrical,” “don’t you think you’re going a little overboard,” and “oh, we remember you from last year.” Beetle and the Hollowbones is her first graphic novel. Visit Aliza at AlizaLayne.com.