Back in 2011, First Second released Anya’s Ghost, Vera Brosgol’s graphic novel debut, and although I didn’t know anything about her at the time, it knocked the wind out of me. The book still holds up as a wonderful entry in the “miserable adolescence” genre, and it goes places and does things you wouldn’t expect it to. Brosgol writes for younger audiences, but she thinks they can handle more than most people believe they’re capable of. Even her really brief work (I’m thinking of her “There Was a Little Girl” in First Second’s Nursery Rhyme Comics compilation) gets in a lot of angst and rage. Those are important things to communicate to those audiences: it’s okay for little girls to be angry, to be unhappy, to be dissatisfied with how things are working out. That doesn’t mean it’s not annoying for their parents when they express those feelings, but if we want to bring up well-rounded humans, those attributes are part of the picture.
Brosgol’s new book, Be Prepared, covers her experience at Russian summer camp, which (surprise!) isn’t as wonderful as she expects it to be. Like her previous two books (the one not mentioned yet is picture book Leave Me Alone), it features a frowning protagonist on the cover. Thumbs up to that! Brosgol’s done a very good job covering frequently asked questions on her own website, so I decided to skip a lot of the basics and jump into some more complicated questions, including what it’s like to be Russian in the United States today.
Be Prepared Cover Art by Vera Brosgol
Paste: So you went to school to study animation, right? How did you decide on that?
Vera Brosgol: I could tell from a pretty early age that I was going to go into something art-related. I loved comic books, but that didn’t feel like a very practical career (sometimes it still doesn’t). I knew from reading Disney art books that animation was a pretty sensible commercial art career, so that’s what I went for. Not passion, practicality.
Paste: Are there things you translate from animation (in which you’ve done a lot of work) to comics (and vice versa)?
Brosgol: Visual communication is really important in both. In storyboards there was a lot of focus on communicating through characters’ facial expressions and body language—yes, there was dialogue, but not much! Our storyboards were the template for how the animators would approach the acting and it was important for that to be very clear. That’s how I approach my comics as well—acting first, dialogue second. If I can remove dialogue and have the art do the work instead, I will.
Paste: One of the things I love about your characters is that they’re rarely sunny. They tend to be mopey and grouchy and filled with self-doubt and ennui. Is that autobiographical? Or is it a deliberate attempt to counter what society tells girls and women about smiling?
Brosgol: Haha, well, Be Prepared is a memoir, and I had a pretty hard time growing up. My parents had a nasty divorce, we moved around a lot and I was shy, so friends were hard to come by. I’m writing what I know! Childhood can be miserable, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. As an adult I’m pretty upbeat, but maybe that’s because nobody can ship me off to summer camp anymore. (I DO have some primo resting bitch face though.)
Paste: You have won a lot of awards early in your career. How does that feel? Does it stress you out?
Brosgol: It doesn’t stress me out! Completely the opposite. Awards draw attention to your books and help more readers to find them. They make your publisher happy and more willing to support your future endeavors. Your work stays in print longer. Even if I never get another award in my life I’m so grateful for the things that have come from the ones I’ve received.
Paste: I love seeing how your Hourly Comics Day contributions have evolved over the years. Do you try out new media on a regular basis?
Brosgol: Yeah! I am a fiend for new art supplies. There are things that I’m comfortable using (brush pens, watercolors), but I can’t stop dragging home new colors, brands, papers… I got an iPad Pro recently and am figuring out how to plug it into my work process. So far I am mostly watching Netflix on it.
Paste: You’ve made both picture books and comics. Talk about the differences between creating them.
Brosgol: My graphic novels are about six times longer than my picture books. First of all, ouch. But second, awesome! If you’re given a microphone for an hour you’re going to approach a story differently than if you’ve got it for 10 minutes. Graphic novels have room to spread out and meander, to have layers and themes looping back around through them. Picture books have to be brief and efficient, dialed in with laser precision; every word needs to justify its existence, you fight for every extra page and it’s so hard to tell if you got it right. But because you have fewer pages, you can take the time to make each of them rich and beautiful in a way that isn’t practical in a graphic novel. I like to paint my picture books in watercolor but I would be crazy to attempt that with a graphic novel. I love that I get to do both. It scratches a lot of creative itches.
Be Prepared Interior Art by Vera Brosgol
Paste: How much do you think about visuals as you write? Are you a narrative-first person or do you think in pictures?
Brosgol: I think about narrative first. I break down my stories in outline form, moving pieces around on post-its before I draw a single page. But once the themes and structure are there and the script is written, visuals become more important. I thumbnail my comics carefully, cutting as much dialogue as I can get away with. That handoff and tension between text and art is one of the funnest things about telling stories this way.
Paste: Can you talk a little bit about the process of creating the visuals for this book? You went back to the campsite, right?
Brosgol: Haha, I sure did. I wanted to get the details as specific as possible and my memory is garbage, so I stalked the camp’s Facebook page till there was an open house and flew across the country for it (and to visit my mom, hi Mom!). I thought it was kind of an alumni event but it turned out to just be parents visiting their camper kids. Oh well, I guess I’m old enough to pass for a mom? I snuck around taking pictures and sketching, and a counselor was curious about my drawings. After I explained the project to her she was awesome enough to email with me and answer my boring questions about camp rank, insignia, routine, etc. I owe her big. I could’ve made everything up but I think you can taste the reality baked in somehow. And nobody could ever make up that horrible outhouse.
Paste: How did you develop your work ethic? Much like Raina Telgemeier, you seem to be really focused and driven, which makes you fairly productive. How do you stay on task?
Brosgol: I’m a horrible procrastinator. So I made a whiteboard chart to track my progress on the book. It had rows for each stage (thumbnail, pencil, ink, scan, color, etc.) and every time I completed a step I got to mark it off. This is organizational masochism, but it worked. As long as I did the right number of X’s every day I kept on track and the deadline was no problem. Marking that last X was so incredibly satisfying. I haven’t had the heart to erase it all yet but I probably should.
Paste: What are you reading these days?
Brosgol: I’m thinking about my next graphic novel, which is about beauty and body image. So I’m reading things to get in that headspace: Truth & Beauty by Anne Patchett, Cyrano de Bergerac. I also just started The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and it’s so, so good.
Paste: Is it weird being Russian in the U.S. today?
Brosgol: I was five when my family moved here, so I’m very assimilated. I don’t have a trace of an accent and I identify primarily as American (and hey, I’m white! Curiously enough nobody seems to mind those kinds of immigrants). We get a very one-sided view of Russia from American news. My mother is pro-Putin and often upset about American coverage of Russia. Those are where my Russia-based conflicts are, with my family. I am deeply appreciative of Russia’s culture and history, I’m sickened by the behavior of the current regime, and those feel like two separate things.
Paste: Another thing that seems to hover over your books is the experience of what it’s like to be relatively poor in this country. Having lived in other places, do you think it’s harder in the US than elsewhere (and why or why not)?
Brosgol: The poverty we experienced in Russia (a communal apartment, a family of four crammed into one room) certainly happens here. We had literally nothing when we arrived but my parents and siblings were able to build good lives for ourselves, lives that would not have been possible in Russia. Some of that was thanks to government services, and some was thanks to the help we received from religious organizations when we arrived. A lot has changed in 30 years, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen the country strip away many of the things that helped us get out of poverty. Public education, support for the poor and the disabled, for children and the elderly. The saddest, most viciously inhumane thing to me is the American healthcare system. Families struggle to pay for “care” that is unsympathetic and inadequate, and even those who are not in poverty can have their fortunes completely reversed by illness. It’s inexcusable and embarrassing. I am grateful every day for the life that this country has made possible, and will fight to keep those opportunities available for people who come after me.
Be Prepared Interior Art by Vera Brosgol