Cathy G. Johnson is the cartoonist behind books like Gorgeous and Jeremiah. Her new book, coming out this week from First Second Books, is The Breakaways.
It’s larger than Johnson’s previous books in many regards. The book has an ensemble cast, and it manages to find ways to reveal how each girl is much more complex than they initially seem or than they try to present. It is a beautifully made and thoughtful book that avoids a lot of the cliches around sports stories. They don’t win. They are bad at soccer. But that’s not what’s important. And the ways that this is shown in small, relatable ways, eschewing a melodramatic or sentimental approach, is what makes the book resonate in so many ways.
Johnson is a teacher and podcaster who is one half of Drawing a Dialogue with e jackson, and she was kind enough to talk about the book and her work.
How did you come to comics?
I’ve been reading and drawing comics all my life! The earliest comics I read were in the newspaper, and we would buy Archie comics from gas stations on family trips. When I was around seven years old, Sailor Moon was beginning to be translated and published in the United States, and soon after that, more and more manga from Japan started to be in bookstores, and I would read everything! I started drawing comics at about the same time I was reading them; drawing and writing was my favorite thing to do. It’s all thanks to my parents’ support. I kept reading and drawing and never stopped!
How do you describe The Breakaways?
The Breakaways is about a group of middle schoolers finding their own identities while being forced to play on a remedial girls’ soccer team called The Bloodhounds that none of them wants to be on. It’s about discovering fun, friendship and growth in spite of painful and annoying situations.
Say a little about Faith and who she is.
Faith is a brand-new fifth grader starting in middle school, and out of hope for friendship, she signs up for girls’ soccer. Faith is a quiet and thoughtful girl with a rich fantasy life and a good heart. She wants to support her teammates through their difficult times, but it’s hard to know what the right thing to do is! Faith has a creative imagination, and in her fantasy worlds she develops a character named Mathilda who helps guide her through these tough times.
Was the idea from the start to make the book an ensemble story?
The Breakaways was always about an ensemble. I wanted to give every teammate in The Bloodhounds a rich look at who she is and what her life is like. I think it’s easy to peg people as one thing, one cliché, especially during middle school. But no one is just a mean girl, or a nerd, or a jock. Everyone is a fully rounded human being. In books, you have the opportunity to see someone’s home life, and their friendships, and what they do in their alone time. I wanted to offer that to my characters, as well as for my readers.
So why soccer? Were you a soccer player?
Yes! Much like Faith, I also signed up for soccer in middle school, and it was horrible! It turned out it was because I had asthma which made running difficult, but I wouldn’t get diagnosed with that until after the soccer season was over. Up to that point, all my coaches and gym teachers had just assumed I was lazy. It wasn’t a good feeling! I know that lots of kids love athletics, but it wasn’t for me. I thought that was an interesting premise for a book to talk about middle school, which can be a difficult time for a lot of people. I wanted to make a book that talked about the difficulties with that age, but also talked about how middle school can be fun and awesome, too.
Faith is also an artist and interspersed with the story of her and her teammates are this story. Do you want to say a little about that?
Faith loves to draw in her free time! She invents a character name Mathilda, who is a medieval messenger tasked with bringing letters back and forth between kingdoms. Her fantasy land is a rich place, with large forests, hidden gardens, big parties and many fancy castles. It’s Faith’s way of processing the big new world of middle school, with Mathilda acting as her guide.
You also draw those pages differently and the color scheme is different. Can you talk a little about how you wanted these two parts to look and feel?
My colorist, Kevin Czap, is very talented! We collaborated on the look we wanted for the fantasy world, which is drawn very similarly to Faith’s daily life, but the colors are brighter. I am a big fan of castles and have visited many, and I wanted to capture that ethereal and meditative feeling castles offer to visitors. Castles are a blend of architectural spaces as well as wide landscapes because they are so large, and so these sections juxtapose themselves against the landscape of the soccer field and the interiors of the various suburban homes of the characters. The wonder in the every day is something that’s very important to me!
You teach, and I wonder how have those experiences and working with kids and teens affected this book?
They have been tremendous! This book is for everyone, but especially my community. It’s very much inspired and enriched by the kids I’ve gotten to know through teaching. When I’m writing different characters, I like to think about what their lives are like, just like when you are getting to know a new person. Empathy is something I strive for as a teacher, and it’s what I strive for as a cartoonist, too. Everyone is different, but we all can understand each other if we try. If you are interested in learning more about teaching comics, I have an educational website here: www.ComicArtEd.com
I have been reading you for a while and The Breakaways is a very different book from your previous one, Gorgeous. How much is that you trying to make very different kinds of books and how much of that is simply you growing as an artist?
Creativity is nonlinear! Gorgeous and The Breakaways are very intertwined. Gorgeous was created in the middle of production for The Breakaways, with a very different approach to exercise my skills as a cartoonist. Both books have similar themes of rebellion, school, and trying to find your pathway in life, but Gorgeous is for an adult audience. I enjoy challenging myself as an artist, and being able to create two books at once, with contrasting approaches yet complimentary themes, was a great exercise.
Now I had been assuming that you made Gorgeous and then made The Breakaways. I was seeing them as stylistically different with different audiences, but they’re about these characters who are not what they seem, about playing with expectations and archetypes. So what has the process of making The Breakaways been?
It’s a messy history for sure! I wrote the script and pitch for The Breakaways in 2013 going into 2014, which is when First Second acquired it. I started drawing the book late 2015, and completed mid-2017. Then it went to my colorist Kevin Czap, and the final pages were turned in early 2018. While drawing the book I was also in grad school, so I had a lot on my plate!
During that time, I was also doing a lot of other projects, and getting to know a lot of people. While the book took a span of six years to create, I feel incredibly proud of where it is now, and every ounce of the work shows in the final product. I can’t wait for people to read it.
You and e jackson make the podcast, Drawing a Dialogue. I spoke with e last year and I wonder how you see the podcast in relation to your roles as an artist and teacher?
Drawing a Dialogue is a comics scholarship podcast that I do with my friend and peer e jackson, and it’s about putting comics into historical and educational contexts. So we’ll take a topic that pertains to comics, such as transgender identity or autism, and then we will share academic research with our listeners to broaden our collective understanding of comics. My segment of the podcast is particularly about education. I am part of the equity and inclusion committee at the school I work for now, and it’s something that we talk about a lot, that people’s knowledge about subjects limits us and can gatekeep others. This is also true in publishing and the art world. So our effort with the podcast is to take knowledge out of the ivory tower and change the conversation around comic books, to hopefully create a more equitable future. You can hear our podcast at www.DrawingaDialogue.com
When it comes right down to it, my work as an artist, educator and podcaster are all intertwined with the core idea of community. I want to create art for people, I want to teach people, and I want them to see the joy and wonder of creation, so they can also go out and make artwork. And then I want them to share their artwork with me!
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