Smash Pages Q&A: Kiara Brinkman and Sean Chiki

The husband and wife creative team of ‘Lucy in the Sky’ discuss how they collaborated, The Beatles and much more.

Lucy in the Sky is a new graphic novel from Kiara Brinkman and Sean Chiki, and as one might guess form the title and the cover, the book involves The Beatles – a little known British rock band – but not necessarily in the way one might think.

Centered around Lucy Sutcliffe, the book explores middle school and what it means to grow up and grow apart from people, as she deals with her divorced parents and her sick grandmother. And in the background of all this is music and the way our relationship to it changes over time in different ways. All of which is told with lovely ligne claire artwork. It’s charming and heartfelt, and doesn’t shy away from exploring the loneliness and pathos in a way that’s striking. 

This is Brinkman’s first graphic novel, but she is the author of the acclaimed book Up High in the Trees, and it’s her first collaboration with her husband, Chiki, who is best known for his own series Wunderkammer. I had the chance to speak with them about collaboration, music and working together while married with children.

To start, how did you come to comics?

Sean:  I love this question because I could talk forever about comics. But I’ll try to be brief. Comics have always been a part of my life. I really don’t remember when it began or what my first comic was, or how I became interested in them. And that’s odd because my parents never read them and I don’t have an older sibling who could have turned me on to them. It just seems like I’ve always been a Batman fan. Then, in grade school, a friend broadened my horizons to include Spider-man and the Marvel universe. When I was a kid, we’d visit my cousins in Canada and that’s where I discovered Tintin, so that Belgian/French style was something I loved early on. I read newspaper comic strips as well as comic books. My grandfather was a sort of mentor there- he loved Prince Valiant and he liked to draw as well. As a teenager in the 80’s I discovered artists like Moebius, Bilal, Daniel Torres and Yves Chaland from reading Heavy Metal and then, finally, I discovered Love and Rockets, Cerebus and the rest of the American indie comics scene. I could go on and on… I guess my life has been saturated with comics. I always wanted to draw them. As a kid, I drew my own Dr. Strange and Star Wars comics, and that obsession to draw has continued right up to the present. 

Kiara:  I honestly haven’t read a ton of comics beyond the obvious ones, like Ghost World, Persepolis, Fun Home, Blankets. When Sean and I got together, I read his entire collection of Love & Rockets, and that was a blast—I felt so wrapped up in those characters, I didn’t want the stories to ever end. At some point, when I started thinking about writing a comic script, I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which was mind opening, though I’m not sure how much of it I was actually able to synthesize in my actual work of writing.  

Kiara, you’re a novelist, Sean, you’re a cartoonist. At what point did you decide to work on something together?

Kiara:  Oh, there were conversations very early on in our relationship about collaborating on something. I can’t remember all the details, but there was talk of a comic strip about a couple of plants, who are obviously rooted in place, and yet full of their own drama, as well as the drama of the ever-changing world immediately surrounding them.

The first thing we began seriously working on together was actually a children’s picture book version of Lucy. It had some of the same themes, including an aging grandmother and a finite Beatles repertoire, but as you might imagine, it ran long as a picture book, and the feedback we were getting was to try writing it for older kids, so a graphic novel seemed like a natural segue from a picture book.  

Sean:  I don’t remember the plant comic, but it seems like Kiara was always coming up with schemes and projects to do together right from the start of our relationship. We designed our own screen prints for a while and even composed and recorded some music together. In fact, we’ve been working on creating the songs that Lucy’s band plays in the book.

Sean, had you collaborated with others making comics prior to this?

Sean:  Not a lot. A couple of times I let someone ink my pencils, but never a true collaboration. I always had an idea of the stories I wanted to draw and I was never too interested when someone brought me their story. And I’m too much of a control freak to let another person mess with my vision. For a little while I was working with a writer, K.A. Polzin, doing humorous comic strips and cartoons. I enjoyed that because it was great fun to draw humor and I have no ability to write it. Polzin was really funny and he does his own cartoons now. People should check him out. It probably helped that Kiara and I are married, for me to be interested in illustrating a story she wrote. But I’d also read her writing and admired it. The stories she comes up with are not ones I’d probably think up, but I’ve enjoyed drawing them. It’s actually been nice to let go of the writing part and concentrate on visually interpreting her story. She’s a way better writer than me, anyway.

Where did the idea for this begin? And was it always a comic?

Kiara:  It began as a children’s picture book. For some reason, attempting to write for very young children didn’t seem daunting to me at all. But, as I discovered, it’s really quite hard to write something that’s at once simple, profound and beautiful. It takes a unique talent and a crystal clear idea.  

I was honestly a bit uncertain about trying to write for a middle grade audience, and the way I was able to go about it was to just write authentically about a cast of characters in middle school, and see what happened. If I thought too much about audience or, like, what degree of cursing might be allowed, I would just get overwhelmed. So, I spent some time shaping the four main characters in my head and formulating a basic plot, and then I actually wrote it really quickly. When writing prose, I could easily spend an hour on a single sentence, and the process of writing a script was much faster. After drafting the scenes, though, I’d go back and read all the dialogue aloud to make it as sharp and dynamic as I could.  

I’m curious about the process because there are a lot of very dense pages. Kiara, were you writing a full script, or how did the two of you work?

Kiara:  Yes, I completed a full script before Sean began drawing. I remember, before I started writing, Sean said, “Try to write it without any exposition or narrative overlay,” which was a huge challenge for someone who was used to writing prose in first person or a very close third person. I mean, I was used to writing from inside a character’s head, and to go from that to writing a script without exposition was a big jump. I basically had dialogue and whatever external physical interaction or movement I could describe. It seemed like it would be impossible, but I did it, and I suppose that in some ways it simplified the writing process. The trick was getting at all the layers of emotion simply through conversations or the quieter, visual moments in a way that felt true and realistic. I actually think the incorporation of the music helped me to do that, like adding an emotional soundtrack of sorts.  

Sean:  The script was pretty much in its completed form before I did much of the artwork. So our working together was kind of like that – Kiara did her job and then handed it over to me. Most of my input for the story came as I started drawing it, realizing that maybe something Kiara wrote wouldn’t translate too well into pictures, so I’d try out something slightly different here and there. But I stayed pretty much true to the script.

One reason for the density is simply that there is a lot going on. Lucy is dealing with her grandmother’s chemotherapy, her mother who’s distant, her father, her friend dynamics changing, starting a band and all of that drama, plus of course an education on the Beatles and the culture they grew up in. Was this complexity there from the beginning, or did the story change and deepen as you worked on it?

Kiara:  The complexity was there from the beginning. All of those threads are introduced pretty early on in the book, and so I just carried them through. 

Sean:  I packed a lot of story into the pages using a four tier grid, like Tintin and other European comics. My pacing is similar to those comics as well. If I drew the panels as large as most American comics, the book might have ended up being 500 pages.

How long was the process of making the book?

Sean:  I think it took me about five years to do the art. That was with working full time as a teacher and having three babies.

So what’s next for you?

Kiara:  More comics! I find writing scripts to be better suited to my life now, as a parent of three young children. If I can get a spare hour or even half-hour, I can maybe write a scene, whereas if I were trying to write a novel, I’d be lucky to get a paragraph. I also find it much harder to get back into writing a novel after stopping for a day or more, whereas the scripts, I can jump back into more easily.

Plus, we dedicated Lucy to our oldest child, Esmé. Our next comic will be for our second child, Arthur. And I’ll have to write a third one for our baby, Julian. Of course, by the time it comes out, he won’t be a baby anymore.  

Do you want to make another book together? Cause between making a long book and the pandemic, no one would blame you if you wanted to spend a little time apart.

Kiara:  Ha-ha! Yeah, when people find out that Sean and I make comics together, they think it’s really sweet that we work together creatively, but the truth of the matter is that I’m at my laptop in a corner of the office, which has basically become a playroom at this point, and Sean is out in the garage drawing. We’re working in two separate spaces, and the moments when we come together and show each other what we’ve managed to produce are brief. Usually it’s a quick pat on the back, like, “that’s great honey.” Aside from a small amount of direction in the script, I really let Sean interpret the scenes as he sees fit.  

Sean:  I’m working on drawing our second book for First Second, which Kiara has finished writing. It’s called – wait for it – Rhiannon. No, we didn’t plan on writing another book named after a song, and I don’t think Fleetwood Mac is even mentioned in it, but music plays an important part of the story again – this time, 80’s punk rock! That’s one of things I’ve enjoyed in drawing Kiara’s story – the way music seems to weave through them constantly. It reminds me of the way Martin Scorsese used music in films like Goodfellas and Casino. That’s an interesting thing to try to do in a medium you consume silently.

So, final words. What’s your pitch for the book to the Beatles lovers, the Beatles haters, the young, the old and everyone in between?

Sean:  I can totally understand being cynical about the Beatles, what with everything that has been said, written, filmed, drawn about them over the last 50 years. That would turn me off, if I didn’t already love them as much as I love comics. But Lucy isn’t really about the Beatles, it’s about music and the power of music – the comfort and joy it brings. I think the life of a middle schooler is so rife with drama and emotions and most of us can remember that time. During those years and the teen years which follow, music can be such a powerful balm and a catalyst for introspection. Lucy comes to a love of music through the Beatles, much like how Kiara and I did as kids. And as for the Beatles – there’s a scene where Lucy is studying the cover of a Beatles album at the dinner table and her dad laughs and notes that it’s as though she’d never seen them before. Lucy says, “I never really looked before.” The Beatles’ music is so ubiquitous that you can easily take it for granted. But if you stop and just listen to say, “I Feel Fine” or “Paperback Writer,” and hear that opening guitar riff, you realize how they could take a few simple notes and turn it into something so incredibly effective, and infectious. And that was just a part of their genius.

Kiara:  I would second what Sean says about the power of music during adolescence. For me, personally, that continued on through my early twenties. There’s just something about the soundtrack you create for yourself in those years – how it shapes and defines you, and how it articulates your feelings in a way that nothing else can. As I was writing, I tried to pick songs that added a layer of emotion to the story without being too on the nose, and I think Sean was able to capture that swirling intensity of the music in his artwork. 

Also, I would say, in terms of being a book for all ages, that while Lucy and her friends are central, I wanted to make sure the adult characters were whole and dynamic, and I think we achieved that, so it’s not just a book about kids or for kids, it’s a book about a family and how much their lives change over the course of a year.  

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