Smash Pages Q&A: Terry Blas on ‘Lifetime Passes’

The writer and artist discusses his new graphic novel ‘Lifetime Passes’ from the Surely imprint at Abrams Books.

Terry Blas has been writing and drawing comics for years. A member of Helioscope Studio, he’s written graphic novels like Hotel Dare and Dead Weight, and made the webcomic Briar Hollow.

His new book Lifetime Passes, which he made with Claudia Aguirre, is the debut book from the Surely imprint at Abrams Books. Curated by Mark Tamaki, the imprint publishes LGBTQIA+ stories by LGBTQIA+ creators, and this book feels very much of a piece with Blas’ other work, while also being deeper and powerful in really interesting ways. It’s a darkly comedic premise that is thoughtful and moving and in Jackie, the main character, Blas and Aguirre have created one of the great teenage characters in comics.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I moved to Portland and went to art school. I’d always loved comics and actually started out doing covers for Boom Studios with comics like Adventure Time, The Amazing World of Gumball, and Regular Show when I joined Helioscope Studio. Eventually I got the itch to write and began working on pitches for books. Portland is great for meeting other people in comics and after a while I got to know some editors and was able to pitch to them. 

Where did the idea for Lifetime Passes start?

I lived in Southern California, in Santa Clarita, for a while and noticed the culture and obsession around theme parks. I began doing research and reading strange stories and that’s where the idea began.

I’m not going to lie, the “plot” by Jackie and her friends made me laugh out loud and it felt very much like the kind of idea teenagers would craft.

Yeah, I think the plot is that Jackie and her “friends” concoct is pretty insensitive and desperate but it definitely sets the story in motion, right? 

Jackie is such a great character and what’s stayed with me are so many little moments and there’s a lot that’s specific to her family and being a DACA kid, but you really capture this sadness and loneliness that a lot of teens can relate to. 

Thank you. Jackie is very special to me and I think a lot of people will relate to her. She’s someone who is very damaged and not dealing with it well, but ultimately, she’s a good person who figures things out. 

I’m sure some people will read the description and go, she’s poor, she shouldn’t go to the park, but the book really gets into what certain things mean and about how places and things become imbued with so much meaning.

I mean, I don’t know how I feel about someone thinking that someone who is poor shouldn’t get to have fun, but yeah, Kingdom Adventure means a lot to Jackie and of course Phyllis, the old woman who goes to the park too. It’s a place that holds many of their happy memories so neither one wants to let go of the place. Hopefully readers will understand why.

I don’t really want to spoil anything but I wonder if you could talk about constructing Phyllis’ backstory, because she has this life that’s very colorful but never becomes over the top or too big to be real. 

I just really wanted to write a book about appreciating our time. Who better to learn that from than someone who has lived a long and interesting life. Phyllis is in an elder care facility in Southern California so that’s where I started. Creating characters is my favorite part of the process. I then ask a ton of questions about her. Why is she there? What happened to her husband? Did she not have children? Why is she in Southern California in the first place? If she’s in her late 80’s or early 90’s then when was she born? When was she a teenager? – that stuff is really exciting to me. 

This isn’t the first time that you and Claudia Aguirre have worked together. How did the two of you first connect?

The amazing comic artist, Steve Lieber, met her at a convention and connected the two of us. I love Claudia with all my heart. I consider her a creative soulmate and I call her Mi hermana Mexicana – My Mexican sister. Her instincts are great and she is so quick while never sacrificing quality. I’m constantly in awe of her. 

Did you know when you started writing this that you wanted to work with Claudia again?

I’d love for Claudia to draw everything, but I never want to assume. She also has her own amazing stories and books she is working on but if the timing works out then it’s wonderful.

By this point do the two of you have a shorthand when you work?

I think so. We talk all the time and communicate pretty well. I think by now she knows what I’m looking for and always delivers. 

I can’t help but compare this book to Hotel Dare just a little. Which is a book for younger readers and it’s a fantasy, but at its heart it’s about questions of family, about kids learning that older people are so much more that they seem. That’s a facile comparison, I know, but those relationships are so important and are at the heart of both.

Yeah, you’re not far off. Mama Lupe from Hotel Dare and Phyllis from Lifetime Passes are tough old ladies who are holding in many secrets. It’s important for me when I write an elderly person to show the strength of their character and not frumpy frailness. I think young people and old people are often disregarded in similar ways and I love writing stories that pair them together. 

It’s also a very colorful book and yes it’s largely set in a theme park, but we’ve grown up at a time when “realism” and “seriousness” often means gray and so much of your work having these colors feels a very intentional choice.

Yes, definitely. The reason the book is set in Santa Clarita is because, at least when I lived there, it felt very planned and manufactured. They filmed an episode of The X-Files there about a cult that all dressed the same and had the same exact looking house. The intro to the show Weeds with the “Little Boxes” song shows all the same houses is Santa Clarita. So I wanted Jackie to live somewhere that is real but felt very fake to her, because that would make the very fake Kingdom Adventure feel much more real to her. 

This is the first Surely book and I’m curious about working with Mariko and Charlotte and the process of the book.

It’s an honor to be Surely’s first book. I believe it’s my first graphic novel to come out that’s published by a company that doesn’t exclusively publish comics so that was new for me. Mariko and Charlotte were helpful in sorting out some story stuff that I feel made the book stronger and I’m definitely grateful for that. 

Just to give you the final word, how do you describe Lifetime Passes? What do you hope people take away from it? Who do you hope finds this book? (take it wherever you want)

I describe Lifetime Passes as a dark comedy with heart. Most people so far have found it surprising. I hope people walk away from the book appreciating the people in their lives and the time that they have left with them. And obviously, I hope everyone finds this book. 

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