Smash Pages Q&A: Pamela Ribon on ‘Slam!’

The novelist and screenwriter discusses her work on ‘Slam! The Next Jam,’ the BOOM! Box series that wraps up next week. Check out exclusive artwork from the final issue!

Pamela Ribon has had a long, successful writing career. She’s the author of novels including Going in Circles and Why Moms Are Weird and the memoir Notes To Boys (And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public). She’s a member of the Disney Animation StoryTrust and has written or co-written a number of films including Moana, Smurfs: The Lost Village, and the upcoming Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It-Ralph 2. In 2016 Variety named her one of “10 Screenwriters to Watch” and she is a 2017 Film Independent Directing Lab Fellow.

Ribon also co-created and writes Slam! The series from BOOM! Studios’ BOOM! Box imprint revolves around roller derby derby and two very different women – Jen and Maisie – who become friends through the sport. The first miniseries featured artwork by Veronica Fish, while the second one, Slam! The Next Jam, features art by Marina Julia and covers by Fish.

It’s a series that spends a great deal of care and attention on how the sport works, on injuries, on depicting bodies and body types properly. More than that, it’s a also a comic that takes advantage of being a comic, playing with the form in a number of small but powerful and dynamic ways that demonstrate that Ribon has a deep understanding of how the medium works and what it is capable of doing. But really it’s a story of people and passion and obsession told with care and a great sense of fun.

If that weren’t enough Ribon wrote the just-released Rick and Morty #32, and has a graphic novel coming out next year, My Boyfriend is a Bear. The second miniseries, Slam! The Next Jam wraps up next week, and BOOM! sent an exclusive look at the issue to accompany my discussion with Ribon on roller derby, relationships and Chris Ware.

I like to start by asking people how they came to comics.

I suppose that this is the one thing I hadn’t tried yet. [laughs] Interestingly enough, I came to comics through roller derby. As most do. [laughs] One of our photographers became the associate editor at Oni Press and so I’d had a friendship with him. On twitter I made some joke about how I’d spent the whole summer hearing no and I was ready for the “September of Yes”. He wrote me, you write stories and I make stories, so let’s get together. We had lunch and things started from there. Slam! happened because Shannon, my editor, contacted me and said, I want to make a roller derby comic and I just assume you’re the person to do it. So yeah, it was through roller derby. [laughs] I had been a fan before of graphic novels. I had come to them through going through a divorce – which is also how I ended up in roller derby – but I was having a hard time reading fiction and nonfiction. I don’t know it was, but I found Chris Ware and reading something even sadder than I was, was really healing and soothing. [laughs] I could spend these sad quiet moments with someone who seemed to understand what happens when you take away all the noise. I got really into that.

So tell me about roller derby.

I actually just found out that you could do it, so I did. I went and started skating. I roller skated when I was a little kid and as soon as I knew you could just go and be a derby doll, I just did. [laughs] I had already signed up for my first bout and was deep into training before I’d even seen a bout. [laughs] I never really looked back. I had to take time out for an injury. I thought I had retired when I had a baby but then I went back. I find that when I’m feeling really lost, there’s something about skating. It’s just so hard that you can’t think about anything else. You don’t skate with your name so nobody really know who you are. You bring to the track whatever you’ve got inside you. All your problems will be there later. It’s just the hardest thing. Plus you get to score points, which most of us don’t get to do in our day. You get to go home a winner on a Tuesday; that’s awesome. [laughs]

You wrote a novel a few years ago about roller derby, Going in Circles.

Yes – and about divorce. When you go through a divorce you’re changing a lot of dreams you had for yourself. That is extremely difficult. You just don’t know who you are anymore. So here’s this chance to become someone that you didn’t even know. This person could be a roller derby person. You join a team and get a name and your team has a feel to it and the league has its own feel to it and you’re in this whole other world that’s yours and protected and you get out of it whatever you put into it. It’s a very human experience.

Tell me about creating Slam! What was the process of developing the series like?

BOOM! found Veronica, which was so fortuitous because she’s excellent. She’s an incredible artist and her ability to show action in a static shot is insane. Everything looks so vibrant and exciting and gritty and underground – just like roller derby can feel at its best. I had tried to make Going in Circles a TV show but I was a little ahead of the game on that. I kept hearing, there’s a lot of women in this. [laughs] One network said, ‘We need more men.’ I had gotten really frustrated. I spent years working on a movie of the week for Disney Channel, and it just kept being difficult to get off the ground. I had pretty much given up when BOOM! said, ‘What about this?’ I thought ‘This is great,’ because I knew the kinds of stories that I wanted to tell about balancing your life on and off the track, and I also knew how empowering it was for a young woman to have the female experience and female friendships that were not based on anything other than strength and character. I started from there, about how roller derby can give you a part of yourself you never knew you had and bring incredible friendships into your lives.

So this idea of focusing on two very different people, at different points in their lives, who are brought together by this, was always key for you.

Yeah. It brings out the best and the worst in you. It’s all up to you with what you do and what you find. I joke that nobody goes to roller derby because they’re super healthy and having a great time in life. [laughs] It takes up too much time, it hurts, it’s grueling, and it’s filled with wonderful weirdos who are just a bunch of people who often didn’t fit in or who have found themselves falling out of their life. You have athletes who have aged out of their own sport. People who thought they would never get to be athletic again because they had kids. College people who have come up from junior leagues, which was not the case when I started skating. Now you skate against someone who’s skated roller derby for most of her life. It’s crazy. We’ve gone from the cheeky underground thing to trying to be in the Olympics. It’s gone through a lot of changes in a very short period of time. I try to write about a little bit in Slam! about that.

I remember reading the first issue, knowing nothing about you or the book, and thinking that you or Veronica or both of you had either played roller derby or spent a lot of time around it because there was such care taken to depict the physical reality of this, from the physics of the track to the ways that bodies get bruised and injured.

Thank you. There were many notes were I was like, this should be waaay purpler! [laughs] Yeah there was an early when Brittany’s colors came in and there’s a shot overhead shot of Maisie lying in bed happy in the first issue and I was like, it doesn’t look like she’s had a day of practice. Particularly when you’re first starting you bruise in different places from when you’ve been skating for a while because you don’t have the muscle memory to get your wrist out of the way. I sent a lot of photographs from games and youtube clips because flat track derby is different from the bank track so how we how angle our feet and our hips and our shoulders in order to make a hit and take it is a little different from what one would guess just running around in circles. But thanks, I’m glad you noticed. We worked on this a lot.

You’re also very authentic to the kinds of bodies and the diversity of bodies that are in roller derby. 

That was my rule number one. I said, I want to talk about what it’s really like and that you actually need all these different bodies in order to have a good team. You can’t just have a bunch of tiny girls. You need people who can build walls and be sturdy. That super sexy version of roller derby that exists – to pose in fishnets – while it is a part of roller derby, it is not the overall look. I’m going to say it’s an important part of roller derby to be able to wear whatever you want to wear and whatever makes you feel confident and makes you know that you can get out there and kill it. For some that is a little bit more skin than others, but it certainly isn’t everyone’s jam. It’s great to watch people really love their bodies because of what they can do. The fact that I walked out in fishnets and hot pants in public is insane. [laughs]

The first series in some ways foregrounded roller derby more and The Next Jam has felt more character-based. Even as I say this, I’m thinking of counter-examples, but you did take a different approach and are focusing more on the characters in different ways.

I also with a new illustrator I wanted to write an arc that would be servicing her talents and skills. I started thinking about what happens when you’re injured and sidelined. You go from this boom boom boom style with Veronica to when you’re injured and benched everything feels different. The league feels a little out your reach at times because you can’t get back on that track like you want to. I thought that might be an interesting place to explore with her and take a character we had just met Kristen and see what happens if we could bring that out and give Knockout a romance because Maisie’s romance was more in the first four.

I’m like Jen where I need someone to tell me these things so when she goes, what relationship? I was like, yeah, I hear you, I’ve been there. [laughs]

[laughs] I would say that I don’t think Jen is completely in the wrong here to be like, what relationship? I’m trying to talk about a romance where everybody isn’t necessarily on the same page. I’ve been in that situation. I think I’ve probably been on both sides of that situation honestly. [laughs] I mean does any relationship ever really start with: hi, we are beginning a relationship?

We are both on the same page and know what’s happening at all times. [laughs]

Let’s hold hands forever and make every decision at the same time. [laughs] That’s love, isn’t it? [laughs]

The way you were talking about wanting to work with a new artist and play to her strengths, in the series you really play with the strengths of comics. You have asides, you get cartoony, it never feels like you wrote a TV script and then handed it to an artist. You really wanted to make a comic.

Thanks. That’s true. [laughs] This might be all the Chris Ware, but I really like that a comic book can just take a second and go, let me show you what I mean by that. I love those little tangents and asides which aren’t even a b-story, they’re just a moment and you can put a magnifying glass on this tiny thing. You don’t get to do that in a lot of other places and I think that’s really cool. I like Jeffrey Brown’s work where he really looks at his mistakes and focuses on a moment, this is what I regret. Roller derby can be so pretty looking from the outside, but it’s really very complex when you get down to each skater. It’s amazing that each skater tends to blend into what looks like a unified team. There’s so much going on with each person on the track. And expand that out to the ref and the DJ and everybody has a lot going on. To be able to volunteer their time and their heart to that experience. It’s such a long answer, but yes, I set out to make a comic book. [laughs] That’s the thing. I’ve done TV and film and I do approach it, who is the audience for this? What are their expectations? What are the reasons I want to try this and what can I test out? I write Rick and Morty for Oni and that’s a pretty specific template. Your challenge there is to sound like the show and be interesting and different and satisfy all of their questions. So here I tried to do things I didn’t know if I could do or that I didn’t know could be done. I’m pretty sure there are some emails where I’m like, is this okay? I think I wrote a few times – does this make sense? Did I break anything? [laughs] Does this still feel like a comic book? Because I haven’t read all the Spider-mans or whatever so I know that sometimes I am probably breaking the rules. There have been a couple times where I’m describing a layout that I’d like and the response is, I don’t think we can do that. [laughs]

You also have a graphic novel coming out from Oni next year, My Boyfriend is a Bear. I think everyone laughed when the preview came out online a few months ago. Do you want to say a little about it?

My Boyfriend is a Bear is about a 27 year old girl who lives in East Los Angeles who dates a 500 pound American black bear who came down from the mountains during some fires. They had originally had a brief encounter when she was camping one night. She had just gotten out of a relationship and this bear shows up and he’s kind and good at cuddling and she decides to give it a try. He’s a bear so they can’t really go for a run because people will notice, but they can go to The Grove or the mall because nobody’s looking up from their phones. It’s about how to navigate dating in LA and what if the perfect person for you is not from your world. The things that we do to bend ourselves into a relationship when our heart wants something more than society says is okay. Not even society, I mean, it’s difficult for the bear but he does his best. It’s just that the world is not shaped for a bear. It’s not about is this relationship taboo? I’ve seen people saying is this bestiality and I’m like, no! [laughs] There’s a touch of disbelief, it’s not erotica. My now husband – when we first started dating – I was like, this guy sometimes hangs his jacket on a tree? What is this gentleman? I remember thinking, I’m living with a bear. I have to hide my food. And he also didn’t live here; he was in town just for business so I started thinking in terms of hibernation where he’s gone for a while but it’ll be okay. That’s how the story came up. That was the first meeting that I had with Charlie all those years ago. Seven years ago when he said, I’d like to hear your story and I told him about this and he said, let’s do it. [laughs] And here we are on the other end of that really long journey. I’m excited about it coming out.

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