Cecil Castellucci may be best known to modern comic fans for her work alongside Marley Zarcone on Shade, the Changing Girl, the psychedelic launch title from Gerard Way’s Young Animal imprint, but her tenure in the industry reaches back over a decade. Castelluci, following stints in indie bands, improv groups and opera production, contributed to DC’s short-lived Minx imprint for YA-friendly comics, which makes the scribe something of a pioneer in teen-focused sequential art. Since then, Castellucci has continued to spread her storytelling purview, even contributing Leia tales to the official Star Wars canon.
Now, Castellucci and artist Jose Pimienta have hopped onto the train together for Soupy Leaves Home, a Depression-era hobo odyssey about a young girl fleeing her stifling home to live life free on the rails under the mentorship of an elder vagabond who sees the world a little bit differently than most. Of course, the traveling life comes with its own risks, and Soupy finds herself maturing in unexpected ways during her journey. In advance of the Dark Horse OGN’s release, Paste exchanged e-mails with Castellucci to discuss the appeal of teen protagonists, her varied storytelling history and her own desire to travel the open roads.
Soupy Leaves Home Cover Art by Jose Pimienta
Paste: You’ve been writing comics for at least a decade now, but many readers are likely coming to your work for the first time thanks to Shade, the Changing Girl. How long has Soupy Leaves Home been in the works, and what made now the right time to get it out into the world?
Cecil Castellucci: I came up with the character of Soupy in 2008 when I was going through a really rough time and dealing with some dark life stuff, and just kind of wanted to disappear from myself and the situation I was in. There was something about hobo life that appealed to me as I was struggling to figure out my way forward. The lure of leaving and wandering and somehow giving oneself some space to heal from the brutal bruises that life gives you really captured my imagination. I started to develop Soupy and her mentor, Ramshackle, as a way of throwing a lifeline to myself. As I started to fantasize about Soupy, I began to read a lot about hoboes and became completely fascinated with a world of wonderful outsiders who wandered on the outside of society and lived by a strict moral code. So, it’s a story I’ve held dear in my heart for a while that has been a long time in the works! I actually sold it in 2012, but comics are not something that you can rush. In a way, I feel that although it’s been a long journey to publication, it’s the perfect time for the book to come out. The center of the book is about humanity, heart and empathy.
Paste: Your work on Shade deals with identity, which is a core part of Soupy, too. Pearl leaves behind her life as a strict man’s daughter to become something of a son to an unusual hobo. Teen and preteen readers are obviously in the thick of discovering their own identities, but what brings you back to this theme as an author?
Castellucci: I think all of my work to date, every comic or novel I’ve written, comes back to that central question of identity. It is one of the things that we all deal with: trying to figure out who we are. And even though when we are young it is an emotionally charged fork in the road, because it’s when we have to find out what kind of an adult we are going to become, it is something that we grapple with all through the many different phases of our lives. But what I find especially compelling about teenagers, which is why I like writing about them and for them, is that they are at their most raw point in asking themselves this question. Every question and action is crucial as they try to figure out what kind of person they are going to become. With young characters, they are navigating this while dealing with huge emotions for the first time. First love, first rage, first betrayals. It’s raw. As an author, that is fertile ground and very full of the building blocks of drama.
Soupy Leaves Home Interior Art by Jose Pimienta
Paste: The bio on your website mentions what seems like an earlier version of the story—Pearl in the Rough—with a different artist. How did Jose Pimienta get attached to the book, and how was your collaborative relationship throughout the project?
Castellucci: Yes! Books oftentimes have working titles and go through many phases. I think I had about 12 titles for this book; Pearl in the Rough was one and is still a fave! Originally an artist named Joe Infurnari was attached to draw the book, but in the end, because of a variety of reasons and also because comics take such a long time to make from concept to publication, it just didn’t work out for us. Luckily, my editor, Shantel LaRocque, found Jose, and it has been an amazing experience to work with him. Jose brought so much heart and love to the table. I always love when I get pencils back and the art is so strong that I then throw out half of my words because I don’t need them anymore. Emotions and story just burst off the page. As for our collaboration, Jose and I had an open line with each other. I had written an open script broken down by page, and Jose did the layouts. We had a lot of great conversations.
Paste: Soupy’s story sticks pretty close to reality, but there are scenes where Pimienta adds a touch of magical realism with surprising visual flourishes. Was that something you discussed together, or something he brought to the script on his own?
Castellucci: The magical realism was always there in the script and always a part of the story. It was how I felt that Ramshackle saw the world, being a dreamer, a visionary and a futurist. I put all of that in the script and I added suggestions for flourishes for how it might be interpreted visually. But then Jose took that baton and ran with it. That is the genius of working in comics and working with such amazing artists. It’s a true collaboration between words and pictures, and a great artist can take the thread from the words and illustrate it beautifully on the page. Jose brought a lot of that visual surprise to the next level. Incidentally, I do the same thing with Marley Zarcone for Shade. I describe some things that I think could depict madness, but then Marley takes what I write and morphs it into what continuously blows me away on the page. That’s what great illustrators do, and it makes for wonderful collaborations. For a writer, it’s a true thrill to work with masters like Jose and Marley, who are capable of taking things further.
Soupy Leaves Home Interior Art by Jose Pimienta
Paste: Pearl’s dad isn’t her only obstacle—even other women in her life try to force her into the role of a dutiful daughter. Was it important to you to address gender inequality of the era in addition to Pearl’s specific familial situation? And did your research lead you to any real-world tales of women hoboes living undercover as men?
Castellucci: Absolutely it was important. Her family was, as were many others, still reeling from the Great Depression. That definitely plays a part in the dynamic that is going on there, which you can see on page one. Pinched times affect people and how and what they try to hold on to. I think for Soupy’s family, gender dynamics and the idea of being proper and what is proper is what they cling to. You have to remember in 1932 a bobbed haircut was considered scandalous. Pants on women were still kind of weird. [White] women had only gotten the vote a decade earlier. Bennington College, while not the first women’s college, opened its doors that year. Soupy saw herself as a different kind of woman than what her family saw. She thinks of herself as becoming a modern woman, and while the idea about what that meant was emerging, it was still a very difficult road for a girl. Frankly, it still is. And while there was no particular girl or woman hobo that I can point to in my research, every book and documentary and fictional film about hoboes includes girls and women who rode the rails. They oftentimes traveled as boys, not only for safety reasons but for the freedom and ease it granted them.
Paste: You’ve done sketch comedy, opera librettos, YA novels, performed in a band and written Eisner-nominated comics. When you’re developing a story, how do you choose the medium? Is there an intuition, or is it more about practical considerations?
Castellucci: The nice thing about moving through different narrative forms is that the stories eventually tell you how they want to be written. So it really is intuition. Stories are flexible, and the nice thing about doing so many things (so many!) is that I can tell the story in the way that best serves the story. For example, one thing that comics does so well is silence. There can be pages or panels with no words, and still the entire feeling that you want to convey is there. For Soupy’s story, those moments of silence were essential. I couldn’t write that as a novel because with a novel you can’t get the reader to rest or pause on the page the way you do with a comic book. So for me, once I get an idea, I try to figure out what the best medium is to tell that story. I look forward to coming up with a story one day where I get to tell a story in a totally new way. I’d like to write a play one day. So many ways to tell stories that I haven’t tried yet. Bring it!
Soupy Leaves Home Interior Art by Jose Pimienta
Paste: Along those lines, can you tease anything else coming down the pipeline aside from your work on Shade?
Castellucci: Yes! Shade is continuing, and I’m pretty excited about that. I have a new novel, Don’t Cosplay with My Heart, that comes out in January 2018 from Scholastic. It’s YA romance and comic book conventions! There is also my new opera, Hockey Noir, a noir hockey opera that will debut in Montreal in 2018. And I am working on an untitled graphic novel that deals with my time at the LaGuardia High School for the arts in NYC that will come out sometime after 2019.
Paste: Now that you’ve embedded yourself in the hobo life, can you see yourself ever setting off for an American vagabond tour? Maybe with more Airbnbs than forest camp-outs?
Castellucci: Hell yeah! I kind of feel like I already have dabbled in being a vagabond. You can’t be in an indie rock band in the ‘90s and not have lived the wandering tour life, going from city to city and crashing on strangers’ couches and relying on the kindness of strangers. I am also a big train traveler, and while I’ve not jumped a freight train, I’ve taken many of the lines—the Southwest Chief, the Sunset Limited, the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder, to name a few. My plan is to take them all.