Riding the Edge: Cecil Castellucci on Her Graphic Novel “Soupy Leaves Home”

You know, when you’re going through trauma, you sometimes can’t see a way forward. Although what happened to Soupy didn’t happen to me, I think Soupy felt the same way I did. You can see, in First Day on Earth, where Mal has this inner pain he can’t express due to abandonment. Jose really took care to do due diligence in terms of making sure everything looked historically accurate. It does work best when you see someone trying to envision a world that doesn’t exist yet, like Ramshackle is doing. They’d put the call out to their creators looking for someone who could evoke a 1930s style, and somebody suggested Jose. The way that he used darkness — the moments of black, black, just blackness, there are some passages of pages that are amazingly dark with deep blues. Watching her characters fumble and ache is both pleasurable and painful for readers, who can see their own youthful mistakes echoed on the page. He’s an inventor and a dreamer. When I was going through this psychological abuse, there were a lot of people who didn’t believe me and also people who didn’t know how to talk to me about what was happening because it’s so frightening when you see someone going through trauma. Even though they were on their own, they were still together. I felt like a medusa: I felt like everyone was turning to stone. It’s quiet — I always write quiet books. They were run out of town a lot, looked upon as bums. It’s a big book for me. SEPTEMBER 1, 2017

IF YOU EVER wanted to run away from home — if you were young and restless, if controlling parents or a remote hometown locked you down — you will get why the titular heroine of Soupy Leaves Home fled her family to hop train cars as a bona fide hobo in the Depression-era United States. They were really misunderstood. She doesn’t want to be a boy, she wants to be a woman who can think and learn. It’s like this sort of parallel place, of community and peril. It’s pretty heavy. But during the 1930s, a girl just getting her hair bobbed was depicted as crazy horrible — an indication of loose morals — and women had only had the vote for 10 years. You can say, “I’m really sad,” or “This person is devastated,” but it doesn’t land quite as well when you just have a silent image. During the Depression, a lot of people took to the road. Celebrated author Cecil Castellucci pens a compelling story about what waits for those willing to step off the edge of the known, and artist Jose Pimienta crafts a sublimely evocative past out of chromatic sepia and shadow. Even though they were mostly walking on their own, the hobos had to come together and help each other out. You can imagine that she’s moving forward. I wanted it to be a period piece with elements of magical realism. I love that page too. I think Jose really played with the idea of scope and time very well. That meant a lot to me, because I do feel that trying to see a way out of a cycle like that is important. Jose makes it feel vintage, but at the same time he’s using bold colors. I liked the idea of her meeting her match — someone respecting the life choices that she made. So I started revisiting my idea of what hobos were and started watching hobo movies and Googling hobos and learning more about the hobo jungles and hobo signs and about the many children after the Depression who became hobos in order to not burden their family — and it just started from there. I had to go through a lot of therapy and care. That’s not realistic. But they weren’t bums. How did Soupy change in the eight years since you started writing it? I think Soupy is off doing her own thing. He had done a book with Van Jensen called The Leg that took place in 1935, and so it was just a good match. I just hope people find it. In The Year of the Beasts, you have the protagonist and her sister and the boys they like in the prose chapters, but the alternating graphic novel chapters follow a girl who’s a medusa and who’s trying to hide her snakes after she’s turned her parents to stone. What was your thinking in including the fantastic elements of the story? And I think that’s really important. Why this project? Her 2011 YA novel First Day On Earth stands out as an intimate first-person account of a wounded teenage boy grasping at a surreal opportunity to leave the planet, while The Year of the Beasts (2012) blends words and pictures to explore young love and life-skewing loss. Since then, Castellucci’s works have weaved between prose and sequential storytelling (a.k.a. Did you envision it as a comic at first? I feel like those three books spring from the same place. I don’t like it when, in YA books, 14- or 15-year-old characters meet their true loves and that’s it, forever. Did you want to write a hobo story and happened on this period, or vice versa? But I’d sold the book to Dark Horse and they put me together with Jose. There’s a reason they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
How did you get matched up with Jose? When you’re dealing with trauma and big emotions, words are clunky. I think they came together at the same time. That was before the other thing that happened to me. When I came up with the idea for this book, I was going through a really terrible time in my life and was sort of under care. She saw no way forward, and then she became a boy and rode the rails in order to find herself again. I think it just lends so much to the book because it really makes you feel like you’re in the 1930s. The magical parts are visualizations of conversations or concepts Ramshackle is trying to teach her. In P.L.A.I.N. We could see immediately that he could handle that stuff. If it was a standard novel, maybe she would describe them, but instead Soupy sees them in the comic. It feels vintage. The other thing, too, is I wanted Soupy to have to deal with gender issues. That’s our job. But it doesn’t depress the hobos we meet. You can see how magical he thinks it all is. CECIL CASTELLUCCI: I feel people have read it and they love it, you know? He said he was worried that, at the end when Soupy went home, it was going to be a situation of the bad cycle returning, and he was thankful that this book showed someone breaking the cycle and getting out of it. I think that lends itself really well to visualizing the magical realism. One of my favorite panels is the one with the compass rose — the one macro shot in the entire book. He too has a magical person, Hooper, who comes and helps him in a very similar way to Ramshackle. Where other YA writers might cloak teenage awkwardness in a too-slick wit or unearned wisdom, Castellucci leans into the painful truth of adolescence — that nobody gets things right the first time, or even the second or third. Yeah, I knew from the get-go. It was psychological abuse, which is invisible. That’s a lot more difficult for people to see. Together, they’ve created a book about seemingly simple characters living largely across the back pages of America — the woods and train yards and societal outskirts peopled by folks who can’t help moving on, living many lives along the way. ¤
David Lumb is a New York City–based freelance journalist who writes about tech, culture, and gaming. Because a woman at that time really had to fight to be modern, even though in the 1930s people were all, “We’re modern!” And then, of course, there’s a Louise Brooks silent movie about hobos, and there’s Sullivan’s Travels — this was all in this window between the 1920s and ’30s and early ’40s, so it just seemed like the right time. About five years ago, the character of Professor Jack showed up. As for The P.L.A.I.N. I feel like writing this story was a way for me to become a hobo — I mean, for me to be able to disappear for a little while, to find my way back home. It’s a human story. Soupy Leaves Home is Castellucci’s latest work in a career of writing sincere, engaging stories for a young audience. This book helped me find a way forward when I thought there was no way forward. And I am too. But that’s what we do as artists. In the months leading up to the much-awaited seventh Star Wars film, Castellucci’s Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure (2015) portrayed the veteran princess-general’s youthful exploits. So there were a lot of children going on the road and becoming hobos. ¤
DAVID LUMB: Soupy Leaves Home explores a fantastical setting and the romantic idea of leaving an old life — and an old self — behind for whatever lies around the corner. Released in early May, the graphic novel is a delightful paean to liberation by self-determination, a tale of the costs of leaving an old life behind. Janes, in First Day on Earth, trauma is a central theme: how they pick themselves up, whom they meet along the way that shape them. I was in an abusive relationship and it was really devastating. And it sucked. Not all of my work is about trauma, but those books are. They looked for the hobo signs letting people know where you can get food, whose door you could knock on, where you could get a soft touch, a doctor, all those kinds of things. Fans today know Castellucci as the writer of Shade, The Changing Girl, a series debuting last October in DC’s Young Animals imprint. Because, when you’re going through trauma, sometimes there’s a person who can just pluck something out of you — they’re like a light that leads you forward and that is kind of a magical thing. I feel he did such a great job of pulling you right into that world so you know viscerally what it was like to be there. I think he did an extraordinary job, and he did the coloring as well — the way it’s slow intention, the way it changes and helps with the story, I think is just beautiful. The person who wrote that Facebook post was a comic illustrator (not Jose Pimienta), so I thought, “Oh, that’s a comic guy so it’s a comic I’m thinking of.” Also, one of the things I love about writing comics is that you can have silence and pauses. Janes, I experienced a terrorist attack when I was young, so that sprang from me never really being able to figure out how to work through that. I feel like, maybe Ramshackle is just a normal guy, though I do think he has a particular vision of the future. Janes, came out in 2007 as the first title for DC Comics’s YA imprint, Minx; a sequel, Janes In Love, followed the next year. Or that triptych, each is a different color, but the train is moving, and they’re moving through the day or week. After playing in the indie bands Bite and Nerdy Girl, she released her first novel, Boy Proof, in 2005. Do you have any plans for a sequel to Soupy? The person who had written the Facebook post and I talked about maybe doing the book together, but then he got super busy and had to drop out. So, yes, I feel like the whole picture is in those books. There’s violence in the book — not just what happened to Soupy, but what can happen out there, whether it’s the bulls [railyard police] chasing the hobos off the trains with truncheons or rail-riding hobos falling underneath the cars. I felt like Soupy needed a contemporary and a sort of kindred spirit that she didn’t know was kindred. Why this period? I don’t know if they’re going to get together or not but I feel they’re going to be friends for the rest of their lives, in a mutually respectful way. It’s interesting because I feel like I wrote three books at the same time when I was going through my trauma. It was a true pleasure and an honor to work with him. Then a friend posted on Facebook about hobo names — that theirs would be Ramshackle — and I wrote back saying mine would be Soupy. Also, I think one of the nice things about it not being in black and white yet not being in full color is that it allows you to experience that time period. There’s something dreamlike about hitting the open road and becoming a hobo, working a little bit here and a little bit there. Those three books really deal with it. It was First Day on Earth, The Year of the Beasts, and Soupy Leaves Home. comics), with most aimed at young readers. You find out, at the end, that these alternating stories are the before and after of the death of one of the sisters — and the surviving sister feels like nobody knows how to talk to her anymore. Soupy and Rammy are walking and he’s teaching her about the hobo signs, and they’re all around them. He captured that idea we all have about traveling across the United States. I think this makes the magical realism more tangible for the reader. Despite the variety of her work, Castellucci usually tells stories about young people dealt difficult cards, struggling with broken parents and shattered hearts. If it was full color, somehow the mood or tone or time wouldn’t come across as well. Also, when I was doing my research, I discovered that a lot of children would leave home in order not to be an extra mouth for their parents to feed. So they had to have a society that allowed them to help each other. How has the reception been since the book launched? What’s your attraction to these aftershock stories that examine the widening ripples of trauma? You can’t make a comic book without an amazing artist, and Jose is amazing. I did Free Comic Book Day and a guy came up to me who said he works in Watts, a neighborhood here in Los Angeles, where he deals with a lot of troubled youth. He thought it was helpful. I wanted there to be something magical about Ramshackle. Why this book? We take things — particular moments — and we pull out the threads and weave them into a tapestry that we can understand. Her first mainstream graphic novel, The P.L.A.I.N. So it seemed like a good confluence of women’s issues, too. A lot of my work is about art and how art saves. When you live on the outside of society, there’s a certain violence to it because people don’t understand. That’s why they have rules, the Hobo Code and ethics. In the months since the book was released, how have people — especially trauma survivors — approached and appreciated the magical elements of the story? If someone were to read First Day on Earth, Soupy Leaves Home, and The Year of the Beasts, would they get the whole picture of your recovery experience? I started thinking after that post about hobos and about how they work outside of real life — not that they aren’t living a real life, but that they’re in the interstices of society. At the end [spoiler alert!], Soupy goes to Bennington College, which had only opened in 1932.