Smash Pages Q&A | Faith Erin Hicks

The creator of ‘Friends with Boys,’ ‘The Nameless City’ trilogy and more discusses her latest graphic novel from First Second, ‘Ride On.’

Faith Erin Hicks is the Eisner Award-winning writer and artist of a long string of comics and graphic novels. From books like Friends with Boys and The War at Ellsmere, to her webcomics like The Adventures of Superhero Girl, to her collaborations like Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong and Brain Camp, Hicks is masterful at telling stories that are about small moments, subtle changes in relationships, the ways that life often plays out in ways that are funny and relatable. She has a touch for dialogue, but it’s in depicting those small moments that become important that she’s masterful.

More recently, Hicks spent years writing and drawing the epic fantasy trilogy The Nameless City. In the years since, Hicks wrote a novel (Comics Will Break Your Heart), drew a graphic novel written by Rainbow Rowell (Pumpkinheads) and has written a series of Avatar: The Last Airbender comics. Her new book, which she wrote and drew, is Ride On. Out this week from First Second Books, it’s a book about horses and horse girls, but it’s also about growing up, about how we change, and how it can be a difficult and sometimes painful process. Funny and relatable, Ride On is one of Hicks’ best works, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions.

You wrote in the afterward that you were a horse girl, but where did the book begin? Is this something you’d been thinking about for a while?

I had wanted to do a graphic novel about girls and horses for quite a few years. While I was doing The Nameless City I was thinking about possibly writing but not drawing one. Pretty much because I didn’t want to draw the horses. [laughs] I am a former rider and for many many years as a kid all I drew was horses, but it’s been years since I’ve drawn them. Even though I am familiar with their anatomy, its much more difficult to put it down on the page and do it in a way that’s authentic. I was thinking initially that I would just write it. The story was a little bit different. Initially I also thought it would be a series. The more I started thinking about the story, it got a lot more personal. I started putting more of my own experiences into the book. I came up with the idea of making the theme of the book the transition you go through when you’re a kid and you have this one thing that you really really love and it informs your identity and then you grow up a little bit and you change and garner new interests and discover new things. But so much of your identity is tied to this other thing so sometimes it can be a little traumatic. Traumatic is a little bit of an intense word, but that was my experience growing up. I was a horse girl and that was 100% my identity. I would grow up and my identity was going to be continue to be horses. I was going to have some job related to horses. Then when I was about the same age as the characters in Ride On, twelve or thirteen, I started getting interested in science fiction and fantasy. In particular, Star Trek. I fell in love with the genres and started expanding my reading horizons, and then writing and drawing my own stories. That change and that shift from “horse girl” to I guess the person I am now. Once the story started becoming so personal, I just decided I was going to draw it myself and learn how to draw horses and here we are. Many years later. [laughs]

Your stories tend to have dramatic characters, but they’re very quiet and internal and subtle stories, and Ride On fits in with those. It’s a book about small moments.

I would agree with that. I think it has more in common with Friends with Boys than anything else that I’ve written or drawn. Friends with Boys was very quiet and focused on one character’s arc and the internal struggles that we go through growing up. The Nameless City was me trying to do something big and epic and extravagant. I’m very proud of that series, but it was very, very difficult to write and draw. I came out the other side of it really burned out and exhausted as a creator. After that I did Pumpkinheads, which was a collaboration with Rainbow Rowell, and that was also a small story about characters and their ordinary adventures. And then I was still exhausted and I wanted to do something small and focused on kids, and I just wanted to do something that was funny. Hopefully you found the characters funny. [laughs] 

I enjoyed them but I was not a horse person, but I went more than once, “Yeah, I know these people.”

I have a friend who is not exactly like Norrie, but she’s very outgoing and I feel very fortunate to have her as a friend because I’m an introvert, but I’m an introvert who loves people. When I meet an extrovert who has the time and patience to nurture a relationship with me, it’s, like, the best thing in the world. So I have a lot of affection for characters like Norrie. Her best friend in the book is Hazel who is 100% an introvert and it was a lot of fun writing that relationship. 

Many of your books are coming of age stories, but they play with those expectations because they’re not about big events in characters’ lives so much as about these small moments and choices. Like saying, “I love horses and riding, but I want to also do other things.” Which is small and huge all at once.

Absolutely. I mean, that led me to be an author. I’ve had events in my life that felt to me gigantic and huge, but looking back on them as an adult, it wasn’t a huge thing but it had a huge impact on me personally. That’s something that I do like to put into my stories.

I think that’s one reason why your protagonists resonate so well. I have not read most of the great horse girl body of literature. Were they about friendships and small interactions that loom large?

I feel like there is a formula when it comes to writing horse girl stories. The conflict a lot of times can be between the kids who have everything and the kids who don’t necessarily have the money to afford it. I feel like that’s something I would see popping up occasionally. The series of books that I was super into when I was quite young – younger than the main characters in Ride On – so nine or 10, was The Saddle Club, which I think ran from the late ’80s to the mid-aughts. It was the horse equivalent of The Babysitters Club. With that series I don’t remember a lot of conflict between haves and have nots. I feel like most of the conflict came from personalities. This girl had a conflict with this girl and that kind of thing. 

The big theme of Ride On is identity. Being super attached to one identity and then discovering that your identity is changing. I feel like that’s something I didn’t necessarily see in horse girl books. Maybe because they were skewed to a younger age? Hopefully that won’t be traumatic to kids when they read it! I remember when I was young and crazy for horses and just being, I’m never going to change and like I’m never going to not want to ride. I had dreams of going to the Olympics, because who doesn’t want to be on the Canadian Olympic show jumping team? I will also say that even though I’m very well versed in the horse girl genre, I’m well versed in the genre from like 20 years ago. The books that I read as a kid. I also want to shout out one author, Jean Slaughter Doty. Her books were amazing. They had a lot of depth to them. In her stories the conflict would be a little bit different and would potentially be more mature. I don’t really remember reading anything where characters specifically struggled with their identity and their identity as horse girls. But again, my reading knowledge is out of date. In every generation of girls there’s horse girls and they read books. I would be curious to see what is the modern girl book look like? What does the horse girl genre look like in 2022 versus the 1990s. I looked up a bunch of the books that I read and enjoyed as a kid when I was writing Ride On and they were quite old. I had gotten from the library and they were decades older than when I read them. So not only was I reading in the 1990s but I was like reading books from the 1970s in the 90s. So maybe they’re really different nowadays.

I would imagine some have a sports competition element to them.

I remember that from the Saddle Club. There was usually an event and the characters would be competing and there was the evil rider that they had to defeat. [laughs] 

For example, a child who would not let their best friend ride their horse? Just to bring it back to Ride On. But talk about the look of the book because you worked with a colorist, but how were you thinking about the way it needed to look and feel?

With The Nameless City I remember going really hard on the detail. Looking at those books now, “Oh my god I worked so hard on this.” With Ride On I wanted it to be a little bit looser because it was aimed at a younger readership. I want to draw well and do books with impressive artwork, but I also feel like books for younger readers should not be over-detailed. They should be clean and accessible and easy on the eyes. They should have significant white space on the page. I just feel like that’s what’s appealing to kids and that’s something that’s less intimidating. Sometimes I will look at a page of a graphic novel for adults and the page will just be so overloaded with detail that sometimes I’ll get confused. I feel like clarity is the most important thing when it comes to writing and drawing for all readers, but especially for kids. I tried to be a little bit looser with Ride On. I knew I wanted it to be in color. I feel like all the middle grade books have to be in color nowadays. [laughs] I wanted it to be bright and fun and cartoony and hopefully engaging to a young reader. 

I wanted to portray the horses as accurately as I possibly could. [laughs] It doesn’t matter because not every person who reads a comic book has experience with horses, but I do. When I read a comic book and I see a horse or horse equipment drawn in a way that is inaccurate or someone has used the wrong kind of reference. For an example, what I see sometimes is that the artist has used reference from horse racing in order to draw someone riding a horse casually. If you look at a jockey and the way that a jockey sits on a racing thoroughbred, it’s very very different from an English rider sitting and riding in a casual lesson. We’re all super overworked in comics. This poor artists were just trying to make their deadline. I’m sorry to nitpick your art and I apologize – but it drives me crazy! Bridles with bits hanging out of the mouth and not attached to anything! [laughs] I’m that jerk. I would never call anyone out over it. I understand – we all have deadlines – but I wanted to portray the horses and riding and tack as accurately as possible. I rode for 15 years but I stopped riding when I was 20, so it has been a significant amount of time. Maybe there is something in the book that’s horribly wrong because something has changed. Hopefully that’s not the case. I worked really hard to draw those horses and just portray all the horse stuff as accurately as possible.

I called the book quiet before and part of that is introducing these characters and this world in a simple, straight-forward way.

I feel like I’m going through a bit of a change as a creator. Doing The Nameless City was such a huge challenge and I wanted to challenge myself to write a story that was complex and had politics. I came out the other side of that a much better artist and writer, I think, but I also came away with an appreciation for more simple stories. It can be very, very challenging to write and draw a simple story that hits all the correct character beats. That was for me the greatest challenge in Ride On. There are four main characters and making sure they all have a satisfying arc. There’s Norrie and her family struggles, Hazel and her struggles with anxiety, Sam and his struggles with his brothers, and then Victoria and her arc of her shifting identity and her relationship with her former best friend. It’s a lot of invisible struggle trying to refine a story and making it as simple and straightforward and satisfying as possible.

Victoria’s arc requires a lot of emotional beats and there are stories where characters have an emotional arc and you get the gist of it but they don’t earn it. To do that well is a big challenge, which I think you managed quite well here.

I feel like that’s the greatest challenge as a writer. Are your characters going on an emotional journey that makes sense for them? Or are they just hitting certain story beats? We’ve all read books on storytelling and you have to do this here and that here and on page whatever you do this. Are these characters being authentic to their character? Or are they just doing what you the author want them to do?

After The Nameless City trilogy, which I’m sure was exhausting on many levels – if only because you’re tired of drawing architectural detail. But since then you drew a book that someone else wrote, you wrote a novel, wrote other things, but this feels like your return to comics in some ways. What did it feel like?

It felt so good. Earlier in my career I was just really struggling to do as many projects as possible. Taking every job that was offered to me and trying to pitch at every opportunity and trying to build my career and make money. It is difficult to make a living as a freelance artist. Then I got really fortunate and my books started selling a little bit better and I could focus on just one project at a time. I didn’t need to do a ton of freelance or other jobs in order to pay the bills. I drew Ride On during the first year of the pandemic, so that really sucked! [laughs] That was a terrifying awful year, but the actual writing and drawing of the book was unusually calm for me. I didn’t have to put in a ton of overtime. I actually finished it a month early. I couldn’t believe it. It was crazy! My publisher did not even notice. I handed it in and they did not even notice. [laughs] I love them dearly, I’ve worked with them over a decade, but there is no reason to turn in things early to your publisher. They only notice when you’re late! [laughs] But the experience of writing and drawing the book – with the exception of the pandemic, which was terrifying – was very chill and very pleasurable. I liked the characters and I liked drawing them. It only appears in the book for two or three pages but the section where I got to draw the science fiction TV show Beyond the Galaxy, oh my god, I was so excited to do my own version of Star Trek. It was a real pleasure to do that.

I was going to say that you seemed to have fun there.

So much fun! I just loved the idea of a captain and these three tough ladies going around the galaxy with the rest of their crew righting wrongs.

So you’re back and you’ll be making more.

I’ve actually drawn another one since finishing Ride On. 2021 was a really difficult year. This year has not been any better. I am fine personally. My family is okay. My loved ones are okay. It’s just everything happening around us is horrible and stressful and really difficult. So basically I put all my frustration and anger into another graphic novel. I don’t think the graphic novel is a terribly angry book. It’s a teen romance between a girl who plays hockey and a boy who does theater and they start a relationship. It takes place on Vancouver Island. It’s nearly 300 pages. I couldn’t believe that I drew it all, but that’s where all my pandemic anxiety and frustration went. So I have no plans to not draw or to take a break or anything like that. Right now I’m doing promo for Ride On and writing Avatar comics. One of them was just announced over Comic-Con. And getting ready for my next project, which will be a graphic novel.

I feel like there was a period where I was kind of trying to branch out. I wrote a novel – which was all about comics. While I really enjoyed that experience, I feel like comics is where my heart is and remains. I enjoyed branching out for a little bit. I did some work in Hollywood that was really fun, but I don’t think it’s for me permanently. It’s nice to be back making comics. It’s where I belong.

Glad to have you back, Faith.

Yay! I mean I never really left, but I know what you mean. [laughs]

It was really lovely coming back to the kind of story that was fairly low stakes and that I could have a lot more fun with. I’m so glad that it’s resonating with people. You never know what to expect. You try your best, you write stories that appeal to you and hopefully will appeal to other people, and you send it out into the world and hope for the best. I’m absolutely thrilled.

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