Smash Pages Q&A: Rebeckah Murray and Jill Hackett

The creators of ‘Magical Boy Basil’ discuss their creative process, going from a webcomic to print and much more.

Rebeckah Murray and Jill Hackett are longtime friends and the creative team behind the comic Magical Boy Basil. A weekly queer webcomic about undercover teenage magicians who fight monsters, it represents the duo playing with the magical girl genre, making it about a boy and playing with a lot of the tropes and ideas found in work like Cardcaptor Sakura.

In addition to coming out weekly online, they’ve been publishing each chapter in print editions. The fourth chapter came out this summer, and I spoke with the two about how they met, the way they make the comic and how life can get in the way.

How did you come to comics?

Jill Hackett: We’ve always done comics. Back in high school we started drawing comics more seriously.

Rebeckah Murray: We always drew together and we always wrote together. One summer we wanted to make stories but we also wanted to draw so we were like, let’s make a comic together. So we spent the entire summer just drawing comics and we just never stopped. Ever since then we’ve been creating like that.

Jill: We also just consume a lot of graphic novels to begin with so we do it ourselves and then we also immerse ourselves in consuming it as well. At some point you go, this looks like fun.

Rebeckah: I could do that, too!

So you two met in high school?

Jill: Sophomore year of high school. And we went to the same college together. She said, I’m going to go to art school and I said, that sounds like fun. I want to do that, too. So we went to the same school and then we graduated and it was like, I got a job in Connecticut, you want to come live with me in Connecticut? She said, sure, I do freelance illustration. So we’ve been living together since then.

Rebeckah: It was either Connecticut or Florida, and I’ll take Connecticut over Florida any time.

I know that you both went to Ringling College of Art and Design, and I’ve met a few people who have attended there, but all I know is that it’s in Florida and that George Pratt teaches there.

Rebeckah: I love Pratt!

Jill: I took a class with George Pratt and he taught me a lot of stuff about thumbnails, which was really great.

Rebeckah: He was amazing. I learned a lot from his class.

Jill: But we were local to the area and that’s where people go.

Rebeckah: We’ve been stuck together ever since.

Jill: So not only were we drawing comics on our own beforehand, but when we got to school we had an opportunity to take a course in it, so we’ve had some training. But mostly it’s just us doing stuff.

So what is Magical Boy Basil? Or, who is Magical Boy Basil?

Rebeckah: Magical Boy Basil is a brainchild of ours, which we made because we really wanted to see a make something like Cardcaptor Sakura. Obviously magical girl stories are common and we wanted to flip that around and say, not only are there magical girls, there are also magical boys. That gave us a platform to deal with gender and other issues.

Jill: We wanted to play with the genre because at its core, the magical girl genre is about a coming of age story and growing up isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but the magical girl genre is kinda that. We wanted to take everything and twist it upside down and play with all the subjects that we don’t really get to see play out in magical girl genre stories. That’s what inspired us to select magical boy as the thing we wanted to bring to the world.

Once you had this idea, you made it as a webcomic, you make it comic book pages. Talk about these choices you made.

Jill: We knew from the start that our end goal for Magical Boy Basil was to have print comics, and we made a lot of decisions based around that. There was a lot of economics that went into that. We did a lot of research into how many pages does a comic book typically have. How many pages can we reasonably produce within six months? How much money do we want to make on the project? Where can we get it printed and how much does that cost? We had the end product, the physical aspect, the business aspect all figured out before we laid down the very first line for the official artwork. Simultaneous to figuring out the economics of Magical Boy Basil, we were also working on the story. Who is our main character? What kind of story are we telling? What are the main themes? What are the arcs? Also before we started the very first page, we figured out what the ending of the story is.

Rebeckah: We know how it ends and that’s important.

Jill: It was really important for us to make sure that we’re going to make something that we didn’t know where we were going with it. We have all of those major boulders of plot points that we figured out along the way. This is what this character is doing and this is how their arc goes. We just follow along those arcs and become better storytellers as we practice and revise as necessary. All that work that went in before we started producing the artwork.

Rebeckah, how did you figure out a style and process that worked for you? Because of course in a longform project, your style changes.

Jill: She’s already changed. You can see so much growth in her work since it launched. It’s been great to watch.

Rebeckah: You’re right. That is a challenge that every artist your style is going to change and you might not even notice it changing right away. It might change every couple of months or every couple of weeks or every couple of years, but it’s going to change. Especially as you draw every single day. I’ve drawn so more backgrounds than I’ve drawn in my life before starting this comic so I was very bad at perspective in the beginning – and now I’m a bit better at it. [laughs] That has taken a lot of time and learning. The progression of how a page comes into being has changed. I used to draw them on the 11×17 comic board which was nice but not very smart – at least timewise.

We were new at this so blue-lining didn’t occur to us in the beginning. It should have but it didn’t. That’s when you use a blue pencil or digital draw with a blue line and print them out and ink over it. That way when you scan, you can just take out the pencil lines and bam, you’ve got your ink work. The very first chapter of Magical Boy Basil I was drawing it on those big comic boards with graphite and I would ink over the graphite and erase it – but I wasn’t using the right type of eraser so sometimes my lines would get faded. It was a learning process. The process changed. The art style is changing. Hopefully for the better. [laughs]

Jill: A lot of this comes down to, you can read all the books you want about how to make comics, but you don’t know how to make comics until you make comics.

Rebeckah: Pretty much. There comes a point where you have to put yourself into it and learn that there are things that the books just don’t teach you. Because it’s going to come down to your own individual style, too.

So how are you drawing the comic now?

Rebeckah: Nowadays a page is an 8.5” x 11” piece of bristol board.

Jill: We do our thumbnails and scriptwork sitting side by side so that we’re constantly communicating about what is the story we’re telling, what are the actions we’re picking out, what is the emotional impact we’re going for in this sequence. We make sure that all the visuals are helping tell that story. Beckah takes that and we try to come up with three different ideas for every single panel and pick the best one. Then what happens is Beckah takes that and prints out a piece of printer paper and starts drawing. She’s really fast with pencils and then we scan that into the computer and we make any necessary edits. Which is less of a thing we’ve had to do recently. In Photoshop she turns everything into blue line, then we print out the blue line onto bristol board. She’s really fast with traditional ink work. It’s amazing. We scan that into the computer and she hands it off to me and I turn all of the inkwork into vectors in Illustrator and then I color and do the lettering in Illustrator. It’s a combination of traditional work and digital work and those decisions are based on what gives us the highest quality results the fastest.

Rebeckah: That was three years of trial and error. Lots of errors. Mostly on my part. [laughs]

So you’ve sat down and worked out the plot points, the story beats and spent time working out how to design the page before you sit down to draw.

Jill: We’re on chapter seven right now and we have a little bit of a formula for creating comics within the 24 pages. When I say formula I mean you kick off the story and tell what is this story about by the time you hit page four. Then by the time you hit Page 12 there’s some sort of turning point. We want a lot of the visual impact to be a page turn and so if we have some visually dramatic surprising fun thing, we always make sure that lands on an even numbered page. And then of course the cliffhanger on page 24 so you buy the next book. [laughs]

Rebeckah: Comics are a science.

Jill: They are a little bit of a science. At this point we can sit down and say, this scene we can probably tell in four pages and then as we’re refining the script we make sure we’re hitting those points. If it’s going to go over, then we will say, what is absolutely necessary and then remove some things and pitch it to a later issue. It took a lot of learning to get there.

It sounds like you’ve really gotten a feel for the rhythm of a comic and writing for that.

Jill: Comics are a very special storytelling medium. When you are creating a 90-minute movie – I work in film full time – your story is about one major event that occurs in a character’s life. Comics allow you to take that character and blow it up and follow all these different storylines. It’s more about moments that are occurring and over time those moments start to build into a larger picture of what is this world and this person and so the writing is different for a comic book. We really took that account when we were thinking about what kind of story we wanted to tell and what kinds of beats we wanted to hit.

You said that this is a long story. How do you define long?

Jill: The arc we’re in right now is about a quarter of the story – and we’re probably halfway through that arc. That’s the first quarter of Basil’s story, so there’s a lot.

Rebeckah: We’ve introduced pretty much all the major players at this point, but if you’ve been following along we’ve really just focused on Basil, Aaron, Noah and kind of Eli. We also have other characters and their familiars we’ve seen and touched base with but they have their own involvement with the plot further along the road. We’ve only scratched the surface, basically.

But you were thinking from the start in terms of a longform series.

Jill: Not because it’s the smart thing to do. We 100% made that decision because that’s what interested us the most. If you’re going to make your own comic the smart way to do it is to come up with a story you can tell in about 100 pages. It takes the first 100 pages to learn how to tell a story. But to us, the idea of being so emotionally invested in a character only to say goodbye to them so soon, we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to come up with something that was more serial and that we could really learn from and live with this character for as long as our interest held – and it’s held for years so far.

Rebeckah: I’m terrible with one shots. I don’t like to say goodbye.

Jill: It’s the type of storytelling that excited us. The idea for Magical Boy Basil came to us we were working on projects senior year and we would do was have people over to our dorm and just turn on Cardcaptor Sakura. After brainwashing ourselves with this very long, elaborate story we were like, we really want to do that.

Rebeckah: The magical person genre has exploded since we started thinking about Magical Boy Basil, but at the time there were hardly any out there. Especially queer stories.

Jill: Even now there aren’t too many magical girl or boy stories that are explicitly queer.

Rebeckah: Where it’s explicitly stated, sure. The magical girl genre has been inherently queer since Sailor Moon. I mean there’s definitely something there. This is not necessarily about being queer but it’s more than just the subtext we’ve been living off of all our lives.

Jill: No more subtext.

Rebeckah: No more subtext. That’s what helped kick this project off. We had dabbled with it here and there but when we started getting more serious, we didn’t see this sort of thing out there – and we wanted this sort of thing to be out there. I would have liked to have seen more characters like myself. And especially in a genre that I enjoy.

You just kickstarted the fourth print issue and online you’re in the midst of the seventh.

Jill: There is a phenomenal amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to make a Kickstarter work. In the past 18 months I’ve been working full time and working on a masters degree so we had to slow everything down a bit. That’s one reason why we’re producing seven chapter but we’re printing chapter four because we needed to give me more breathing room. We do plan to catch up.

Rebeckah: That’s the thing with making a comic – sometimes real life happens and you just have to roll with it and do your best to keep on track.

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