Smash Pages Q&A | Marika McCoola and Aatmaja Pandya

The creators of the young-adult graphic novel ‘Slip’ discuss childhood trauma, teaching art, magical realism and more.

Slip is the story of Jade, a teenager at a summer art program dealing with her best friend’s attempted suicide. It’s a difficult story about mental health, and understanding our emotions and the ways that our relationships with people change over time. Like the book’s visual style, the narrative manages to fit in with a lot of other typical YA books while finding ways to transcend expectations. It’s a moving book that’s very honest about grief and addressing complications emotions, and about what it means to be an artist.

Marika McCoola is an artist and teacher who made a splash by writing the graphic novel Baba Yaga’s Assistant, which was nominated for an Eisner Award. Slip is Aatmaja Pandya’s debut graphic novel, but the artist has been making comics for years, contributing to anthologies including Chainmail Bikini, Power and Magic, and Elements: Fire, in addition to her comic Phantom, which was originally published by Shortbox, and the webcomic Travelogue. The two have been friends for many years and we spoke recently about how the book came together, working with clay, and fantasy.

Where did Slip begin?

Marika:  I started writing this nine years ago. I was living in upstate New York, teaching and working as a bookseller. I was isolated. I had just gotten out of a rough relationship. I was reading a lot of YA books because I was working in a bookstore and running a children’s section. A lot of YA deals with relationships that are the be all and end all. This is a relationship that will last you forever! I was like, that’s not what’s true in my experience! I think it’s really important to acknowledge that relationships shift and change as people shift and change. And as people we should always be shifting and changing and therefore our relationships do that as well. I was feeling a lot of emotions about shifting relationships and really wanted to be working with clay – because it’s a really great way to process things – but didn’t have access to it. The next best way to process that and be with clay was to write about it. The two came together. 

Aatmaja:  As for me I was three years out of college and I’d met Marika beforehand and we’d become friends through a mutual friend. I got offered to draw Slip and I think I was in the exact right moment to take on a big project for the first time. I was really lucky and honored to work with a friend of mine whose work I really admire.

Marika:  I will say that the art farm aspect of Slip is based on a time that I spent at Salem Art Works in upstate New York. I spent a month there between my junior and senior year of college living in a bus and making ceramics in a barn. A lot of that feeling and the emotions of living in that space and being isolated because you’re in the zone all the time in your studio was channeled into the book.

Jade is dealing with relationships changing and a friend’s suicide attempt. Your previous book Baba Yaga’s Assistant was about grief and trauma, and Slip is similarly about emotions that she doesn’t know how to even name.

Marika:  I think that a lot of times – especially as a kid – you experience things, but you don’t yet have the language to articulate it. I would say that as an adult, too. That’s why therapists are really great. [laughs] A lot of times you’re feeling things but your conscious brain and subconscious brain haven’t started talking to each other yet so you’re feeling things and you don’t quite know how to get them out. I’ve found that reading something I’ll go, oh, that is what I was feeling. Now I have the language to be able to articulate that. I think a lot of times when you are that young, you’re searching for that and when it finds you at the right time, it’s like the right book at the time. It has this resonance and it can help you put things back together. 

Naming is a way to organize and understand life. Which is what therapy does for a lot of us, I think.

Marika:  That’s why in fantasy naming things is really important.

One major theme of the book is that Jade is making art, but she’s struggling to understand why she is doing it and what it means.

Aatmaja:  I’m turning over what you’re saying in my head because hilariously I have a lot of feelings about this but I’m not sure how to articulate it. I work with high schoolers and often when I ask them – what are you trying to say with this project? What do you feel this is about? – they’ll say, I don’t know, I just did it. They don’t realize that it’s true, they are doing it off the top of their heads, but they are unconsciously accessing something that they are really fixated on or that they care about. Jade is at this intensive because they’re trying to get her to access that deeper part of her artistic brain. Not only making the work you feel like making, but understanding why you’re making it. 

Marika:  With young artists and teaching art, you have to teach the rules and learn the rules before you can break them. A lot of times as a young artist you do things that feel right, that resonate, but then you’re asked, why did you do that? Understanding how to articulate that means that you’re bringing your work to the next level. You want to get to the highest level of learning and that is being able to articulate what it is you’re doing, teach it, and replicate it. As a student artist she’s doing things that feel right but the whole point of being a teacher is to get students to understand why they’re doing it. I always tell my students to trust their gut instinct and then we’re going to break it down and learn the language to understand why you did it. And that will help you access that in the future. 

Aatmaja:  A powerful intention is the best device for creating art, I think. Jade obviously has that very strongly, but the problem is that she can’t separate that intention for making art from every other emotion she’s feeling. [laughs]

Marika:  We were talking about this last night. Aatmaja asked, so who gets the scholarship? You never tell us. I think that as teachers discussing the students, Asher really has his shit together. He knows why he’s doing certain things, he can articulate it. Mary has an idea about why she’s doing some things but for her its way more playful. It hasn’t gotten to a more serious deeper level.

Aatmaja:  Mary’s working purely on instinct.

Marika:  And her instincts are serving her well, but she needs to that is part of the process of leveling up. It was fun to break it down and look at each student and what they’re doing.

Aatmaja:  Kim is kind of funny because she’s doing all the right stuff on paper but her heart isn’t in it so her intention isn’t very strong. 

That’s interesting. The question of who gets the scholarship never occurred to me.

Marika:  [laughs] I never thought about it until she asked last night!

Aatmaja:  The competitive part of me is like, okay, but who wins?! [laughs]

You have a good scene where Jade and others are talking about artists and mental health around the dinner table and those stories about wild crazy artists are not necessarily the stories that people, and teenagers especially, need. We’re not always presented with healthy, well-adjusted models.

Marika:  I would agree. We’re both illustrators and we’re trained in illustration so we’re not “fine artists.” We have that training of, you meet your deadlines, you have clients, you have your shit together. I think that that is really interesting when you look at artists you have this idea of the fine arts where it’s about feeling and emotion and intuition – and the applied arts are not that. Which is untrue, obviously. That’s an important conversation to have with students. Why do we have those biases.

Aatmaja:  And how craft and your own personal practice and your relation to your art is always present no matter how you choose to manifest it. And why it matters to hold onto that integrity.

I will say that my favorite scene in the book is the two of them flirting over the color samples.

Marika:  That is my favorite scene. It was not in the manuscript that I queried. It was cut out and the manuscript was sold without it and later on I was asked to put in another cute romance-y scene and I said, I have the perfect scene!

Why did you cut it initially? Just for space? Conciseness?

Marika:  I think it was conciseness. I think I got a critique that it wasn’t pushing the story forward. It was just light and cute on the side. But not does really help ultimately – which is why it went back in – give a sense of their budding relationship.

Aatmaja:  It gives a glimpse of what Jade’s life could be like if she learned to let some things go.

Aatmaja, people may have read some of your short comics and for a book length project like this, how were you thinking about the style you need, the color scheme, the approach?

Aatmaja:  I do have a malleable style and I change it according to the story. For this to be a little bit cold about it, it’s a YA book and so it does need to be appealing in some way. At least in my mind. I wanted the characters to be friendly looking and the art to be nice and energetic. This is a book about making art and creative practice so I wanted the actual physical materials to be present in the work. A lot of this book was inked with a brush and pen. The scenes of magical realism are done with charcoal pencil. Initially I started penciling this book in pencil because I had such a strong feeling that this should be done entirely on paper. The way I was taught about art was that intention matters. Everything about the way you create it informs the final piece. In a perfect world I would have done this entire book on paper, but it had to be done more quickly so I moved to digital work but I needed to keep that hand drawn touch in the work as much as possible. That was my compromise. I will make it commercially appealing, but it also has the loving touch of an artist. 

For the color we knew it was going to be a two color Pantone book because the publisher asked for that. Marika and I were allowed to pick the color so initially we decided it has to be terra cotta because pottery! We took that to the publisher who said, it looks like poop, we can’t do that. [laughs] They suggested a few shades and so I picked this blue and this raspberry pink. Mostly because it was in a conversation with other books that have similar palettes like This One Summer and Bloom and Spinning. The desaturated monochrome palette. It’s used for a reason. It’s very effective for telling a story about something a little bit serious. It evokes nostalgia and also a vintage-y feeling so it makes you feel comforted and sad at the same time. The pink very striking and really stands out. It kind of brings to mind blood fire energy all at the same time.

I was going to say that that shade is familiar but also strange and unfamiliar at the same time. Just a little off from what we see in nature.

Aatmaja:  It’s a little too bright to be natural. Which was our intention.

There’s a general style right now for YA and Middle Grade comics. I’m looking at your figures, which fit into that general style, but throughout you very consciously tried to make the book feel and look different from that style.

Aatmaja:  I tried. I was given a very good arts education and my brain is firmly rooted in that. There’s a part of me that’s always going, make it a little bit weird! [laughs] I’m grateful for that.

It works because of the surreal or magic realist sections of the book. Or I don’t know how you think of them or what you call them.

Aatmaja:  They’ve been referred to as magical realism in reviews, but I don’t know. What do you think?

Marika:  I think its magical realism. When I finished writing it, my bookseller brain placed it there genre-wise.

Aatmaja:  I think there’s some debate among readers as we’ve seen of whether or not they’re hallucinations or whether they’re actually happening and Jade is the only one who witnesses them. That’s fun for me. 

Marika:  It could be actual magic. 

As you were writing the book, where did that idea come from? Was it there at the beginning?

Marika:  Magic is really important to me. Magic just shows up in what I do. I created a lot of creatures out of clay in college and I had this one pegasus that was about four feet tall and had legs that were the size of an eight year old’s legs. It was a big pegasus made out of clay and it sat in my senior studio and it weirded out a lot of people. People would come around the corner into my studio and go, what is that doing here?! [laughs] It unnerved them, I think, because it was in their world and you do in fact think about it moving. When I work with clay – especially with earthenware clay – it feels alive to me. Working with clay is very sensual. The body is in it. You are moving your body and immersed in it. And afterwards you are covered in it. Or at least I do. To me there is a sense that this is a living, moving, breathing thing that could come to life. That could happen in my magic brain. 

For the burning part I wanted a way to have flashbacks but I also wanted to show how memory is not always reliable. How you can think about things and try to project onto the past, but you could be wrong. When I was first writing it, I did think of it as having a sense of magic, but I scaled it back so it was what it needed to be. I like that there is that ambiguity. It could be magic if you want to view it that way, but it doesn’t have to be. I think part of that ambiguity comes from the fact that I do write a lot for middle grade and the reason I do that is because middle grade is this really special moment where you know how the world works, you know that magic isn’t real, but you will still check the back of every single wardrobe in case it goes to Narnia. It’s both/and. Both can exist in the world comfortably. Both magic and the way that the world actually works. I think I still have a part of that deep-seeded in me that I channel as a writer. For this, magic could exist. It could be magic but it also could just be the world. The way that Jade in particular interacts with the world. I’m a huge fan of reader response theory. The book exists when somebody reads it. If the reader wants it to be fantasy, then it is fantasy. If the reader believes that this is entirely in Jade’s head, that is what is happening. I don’t want to tell you what it is. I went through different phases while I was writing it but whatever your experience is with it, that’s all that matters. 

You said before that you’re friends. So you knew each other before making the book?

Aatmaja:  We did, through our friend Molly Ostertag.

Marika:  Molly and I went to camp together.

Aatmaja:  Molly and I went to college together. Molly had a vacation with a bunch of friends and we were both invited and met and stayed friends.

So did you envision Aatmaja as being a possible artist for the book early on, or how did it happen?

Marika:  After I went through all my edits, I was asked for a list of people who might be good for it. My editor also developed a list. We started reaching out and Aatmaja was one of them. My thing is that I’m an illustrator and I did not want to illustrate this book. This book was emotionally really hard to write. I was at a point where I had put so much into this and I was ready for it to go into the world and see what somebody else brings to it. I really love collaboration. I’m always excited to see what an illustrator could bring to a project and pull out things I didn’t see, add things, and push it to be better than I could make it alone. I write very tight scripts and all of the information is on the page. It is now up to the illustrator to do their job and I trust them to do their job. 

I said, we are friends, but I’m not going to talk to you about the book. If you have a question about the book, you can text me or go through our editor, but I am hands off because I trust you. Go for it. I didn’t want that working relationship to get in the way. I do think that writers should step back. If you’re going to be in a collaboration you need to let the other person give it what it needs.

Aatmaja:  I was very grateful for that because I think for it to be a true collaboration it needs to have room to grow under the under person’s care as well. If you gave it to five different people, they would all illustrate it differently. It was fun. I had never worked with a script that tight before because I myself don’t script that way so I learned a lot reading it and implemented some of it into my own writing.

Marika, you’re an artist as you mentioned, are you interested in drawing a graphic novel?

Marika:  My agent has a book she’s been pitching which is my online dating memoir comic. There’s no magic there. [laughs] That one I would draw in pencil. It would be black and white and millennial pink. I have some pages online and a mini comic which is my sketchbook pages I drew while I was working on the book. I was reading a lot of manga and that impacted how I want to panel the final book.

Are you two going to work together again?

Aatmaja:  I wouldn’t mind

Marika:  It would have to be the right book

Aatmaja:  Marika mentioned a project about playing the violin and I played the violin for eight years just because I’m crazy. I wouldn’t mind illustrating that. It would be fun.

Marika:  I should show it to you. It’s been sitting in a file for like five years

Aatmaja:  If the timing was right, why not?

Marika:  Okay, lets take a look at it later. [laughs]

Marika, Aatmaja, thank you so much.

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