The black eyeliner around Hope Larson’s doe-like eyes curls up at the outside edges. It’s a tiny flourish, one that might go unnoticed, unless you know that Larson’s work and art consists of drawing lines similar to those she paints across her eyelids.
Larson’s a cartoonist, although that word doesn’t seem to carry the respect her work commands. She’s actually both a writer and an artist: a graphic novelist. Larson’s work has earned her, at the age of 25, much acclaim already. Her latest endeavor, Chiggers (Ginee Seo Books), a graphic novel about a couple of nerdy girls at summer camp, hit stores on June 17.
“She has one of the most relaxed and musical lines,” says Scott McCloud, cartoonist, comics advocate and author of the best-selling nonfiction graphic novel Understanding Comics.
He’s describing Larson’s drawings, but he could just as well be describing the lines she draws around her eyes. Her work defines her. Just like the fact that she grew up in Western North Carolina’s lush mountains.
An overnight camp outside Asheville serves as the setting for Chiggers.
Larson herself attended camp near Asheville, and says that her experiences there inspired this story. She definitely has camp life dialed. Footnotes in the novel include instructions for a card game called “Egyptian Rat Screw” and how to make a friendship bracelet.
The novel’s plot covers much more than camp, however. Themes of friendship, adolescent angst, girl-sniping and, ultimately, redemption and learning how to stick up for friends, are woven into the seemingly simple visual story.
The novel’s protagonist, Abby, even resembles Larson at age 13, which is intentional, although the author says that they are each their own “weird” person.
Her first two graphic novels, Salamander Dream and Gray Horses, were more “visual play,” Larson explains, while Chiggers “follows more of a plotted story line.”
“At the beginning, I really thought of myself as an artist, not a writer,” she says. “Chiggers is the first time I felt comfortable as a writer.”
That growth isn’t lost on Ginee Seo, vice president and editorial director of Ginee Seo Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
“Chiggers is a graphic novel, but it’s also a full, deep and satisfying reading experience,” Seo says. “I don’t think anyone else has come out with a graphic novel that’s both ‘graphic’ and a ‘novel’ in the full sense of both words. One of the reason I love Chiggers is that it’s the comic book I wish I had when I was 12 or 13. If you combine Judy Blume and Alice Hoffman with someone who can really draw well, you have Hope Larson.”
An Ashevillean comes home
In Chiggers, Asheville is described, with typical teen disdain, as “a total hick town.” Another character in the novel, referring to Asheville, says: “My aunt lives there, and she’s scared to walk downtown ‘cause of all the hippies.”
The references inform the story, but in the end, Larson says being back in Asheville, where she grew up and experienced her own adolescent angst, is all good.
“Asheville’s an unbeatable location, and I have family here,” she says. “So far, they’re not smothering me.”
All that’s missing, in her mind, is an active comics community. But now that Larson and her husband, Bryan Lee O’Malley, are here, other comics creators and enthusiasts could follow. O’Malley, better known in the comics world as “Mal,” is also a renowned young cartoonist and author of the Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels.
Larson and O’Malley met online after Larson, a self-proclaimed “huge fan of his comics,” contacted him. The couple moved to Asheville from Canada, O’Malley’s home, last October.
Larson left her hometown after graduating from Carolina Day School. She first attended Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, then transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago to study printmaking.
“I started at Rochester for college because I wanted to study film animation, and that school didn’t have a portfolio requirement. Although I always drew in high school, I didn’t think I’d get in anywhere based on the work I had, so Rochester was the only place I applied,” Larson recalls, laughing.
When she was a college senior at the Art Institute, Larson published some of her illustrations online. They caught the eye of comic-book theorist Scott McCloud. He contacted her and suggested she try drawing comics.
Double whammy times two
Larson graduated with a bachelor of fine arts and moved to Toronto to be with O’Malley. Unable to work without a visa, she took McCloud’s advice and started drawing comics.
She drew her first graphic novel, Salamander Dream, in five months, and posted several pages online. A few weeks later, AdHouse Books offered to publish it.
Larson emphasizes that she’d already attended a number of comics conventions with O’Malley and met folks in the industry. So the contact from a publisher wasn’t totally out of the blue.
“They were aware of me,” she says. “Also, my number one piece of advice to people is that you have to be nice and you have to put yourself out there.”
Given that Larson describes herself as shy, working the conventions can be stressful, but she knows that half of successful book sales is promotion.
Larson describes what happened next as a “double whammy.”
“I was picked up by AdHouse in April. Salamander Dream was published in September 2005. The next weekend, I started work on Gray Horses. That book was published in February 2006,” she says.
Then, Larson began writing Chiggers. Agent Judy Hansen sent out the script to several publishers, including Ginee Seo of Simon & Shuster. At 23 years old, Larson got what most writers only dream about—a two-book contract with a major publishing house.
Then she had to produce.
“Drawing a graphic novel is grueling work,” she says.” I work 9 to 5, five days a week. I can draw about a page a day.” She even carries a portable drawing board and draws in airports when she and O’Malley travel to comics conventions.
Her hard work has paid off. In 2007, Larson won a “special recognition” Eisner Award (like an Oscar, only for the comic-book industry) for best new talent in comics. She was recently profiled in Publishers Weekly and touted as one of the five rising authors of the “Comics Class of ‘08.”
The new movement in comics
“Hope is definitely part of the new young movement in comics,” McCloud says. “She’s handling her work in a way that reaches out to a broader audience. Comics aren’t so cultish anymore.”
He also notes that comics marketed to girls have been scarce, historically.
“But today’s comics are a real girl-dominated phenomenon,” he explains. “If you go into Barnes & Noble or Borders, three-fourths of the graphic novels are for girls. Most are Japanese comics. Hope’s at the forefront of American girl comics.”
Larson’s first book signing ever, for Salamander Dream, was held at Spellbound Children’s Bookshop in West Asheville in 2005. She’ll sign copies of Chiggers there on June 28.
“She has a real ear for the way that adolescent girls talk,” says Leslie Hawkins, owner of Spellbound. “Chiggers has lots of girl appeal, but boys this age are very curious about girls and that might make this book interesting to them as well.”
Larson currently is drawing her next graphic novel. Like Chiggers, it follows the story of a young girl and has elements of magical realism. The novel, whose working title is Mercury, also weaves in some of the history of Nova Scotia, where Larson and O’Malley lived before moving to Asheville.
Visit www.hopelarson.com to learn more about Larson and her work.
[Anne Fitten Glenn is an Asheville-based freelance journalist and photographer. She writes the weekly parenting column, Edgy Mama, for Xpress].
who: Hope Larson signs copies of her new work, Chiggers
what: Local graphic novelist to watch
where: Spellbound Children’s Bookshop
when: Saturday, June 28. 1-4 p.m. (Free. www.spellboundchildrensbookshop.com or 232-2228)