It can be challenging for writing to capture the joys of other art forms, such as painting or music. For book lovers who appreciate fine art and music as much as literature, these four novels are must-reads. They show how people can feel transported while painting, singing, listening to music, or experiencing art with others.
Girl with a pearl earring by tracy chevalier
Chevalier’s historical novel imagines the origins of the 17th century Dutch painting of the same name by Johannes Vermeer. Griet, a sixteen-year-old girl in 1664 Delft, Holland, must become a maid in Vermeer’s household to help support her family. The book brilliantly describes daily life in 17th century Holland, including religious tensions between Protestants like Griet’s family and Catholics like Vermeer.
Because Griet is perceptive, Vermeer teaches her about painting and asks her to assist him with his art. Eventually, Griet poses for the famous painting, wearing his wife’s earring. It’s easy to identify with Griet and her love for art. This seems especially poignant in a society where women had little power and were not allowed to be artists.
The GoldFInch by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel opens tragically: thirteen-year-old Theo Decker’s mother is killed in a terrorist attack in an art museum. In the chaos, Theo panics and steals The Goldfinch—a real, 17th-century Dutch painting by Carel Fabritius that has never been stolen in real life. This defines his life and his grieving process in unexpected ways.
Theo’s sense of guilt over the painting consumes him. The Goldfinch asks: is it worth owning something that you cannot enjoy? Can a work of art ever belong to an individual, or should the entire world be able to enjoy it? Do our adolescent mistakes define us?
This might sound grim, but the novel also has hilarious moments, like Theo’s teenage adventures with his best friend, Boris. In 2019, The Goldfinch will be a movie, starring Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things as Boris.
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
In the 16th century Ottoman Empire, the Sultan commissions art in the new “Frankish” (European) style from miniaturists, artists of illuminated manuscripts. Some consider this style blasphemous, and one of the miniaturists is murdered in the first chapter.
This novel blends elements of magic realism and mystery. Each chapter has a different, unconventional narrator, including the murder victim; Satan; mystics; and the color red itself. This is a fascinating look at culture clashes and the religious and secular roles of art. Its unconventional style pushes the boundaries of novels as an art form.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Post–9/11, the premise of this 2000 novel might sound bizarre. A renowned American opera singer performs at a birthday party for a Japanese businessman who’s visiting a South American vice president. What starts as a political hostage situation somehow leads to close relationships between the hostages and terrorists. This sounds unbelievable, and I think it might be best to read this novel as a modern fairy tale. It’s filled with beautiful passages about the way that music can enchant people and bridge divides between them.
For more books about musicians, check out this article.
My sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Saunders, read us A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle the year it was first published. I didn’t know it then, but that story set me on a path towards pulp magazines. It was 1962, I was eleven. L’Engle’s story infected me with the science fiction bug by passing on memes that first emerged in Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. As a sixth-grader, I did not know about genres, but I’d walk up and down the shelves at Air Base Elementary or the base library at Homestead Air Force Base looking for books about space travel.
By the eighth grade, I was a dedicated bookworm. I could now distinguish genres by cover art or the blurbs on dust jackets, but I was yet to know how genres emerged from the pulp magazine era. Fiction hasn’t always been pigeonholed into convenient categories allowing bookworms to binge-read their favorite kinds of stories.
About a year later I stumbled onto two old books in the dusty stacks of the Miami Public Library, worn down and rebound, that were early hardbacks of science fiction. One was Adventures in Time and Space (1946) edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas and the other was A Treasury of Science Fiction (1948) edited by Groff Conklin. These two pioneering works collected the best science fiction short stories from the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. I was getting very close to the source of the river we call science fiction.
Then I found science fiction historian Sam Moskowitz and his books, Explorers of the Infinite (1963) and Seekers of Tomorrow (1965), that gave the history of both science fiction and pulp magazines, roughly 1900–1950. By this time, I was in ninth grade, making my own money with a paper route and mowing lawns and starting to buy books. I found a used bookstore that sold old digest size magazines that were the descendants of pulp magazines, including Galaxy, If, Analog, Amazing, Fantastic, and F&SF. Only two of them still publish today.
Before Star Trek premiered in September 1966 I knew no one else who read science fiction. These magazines proved there were others like me, but where were they? At the time I thought I had discovered a secret subculture.
In the science fiction digests, I’d read essays by science fiction writers about when they were growing up reading the pulps and how they had to hide their copy of Astounding Science Fiction in respectable books because reading pulp fiction was considered very low class and reading science fiction meant you believed in that crazy Buck Rogers stuff. In 1967 I finally found a friend who read science fiction, and we’ve been arguing ever since because we didn’t agree which stories and authors were best.
I still didn’t know about the real pulp magazine then, but when I moved to Memphis in the early 1970s I saw a letter to the editor in Amazing Stories from a guy who lived in town. I found his name in the phone book and called him up. He told me about the local science fiction club. That’s where I met two older men who had large collections of pulp magazines. They were Darrell Richardson and Claude Saxon. The first club meeting I attended was at Richardson’s house, and he gave us a tour of his extensive collection. I learned later he had one of the largest collection of pulps in America—and he was a Baptist preacher. I became friends with Saxon, who had a large, but not famous, collection. Claude inspired me to start buying old pulps and to get into silent movies. That’s the thing about the pulp fans, they also loved all kinds of old pop culture.
It was the early 1970s and I found fandom, fanzines, and conventions. I remember going to my first convention in Kansas City and thinking I had finally found my people. There were many buyers and sellers of pulps at the con. This is how I learn about older generations growing up reading the pulp magazines. Claude was a generation older than most of us in the science fiction club. His favorite pulp magazines were from the 1900s through the 1920s like All-Story, Argosy, Adventure, Blue Book, before the pulps broke into genre magazines.
We owe or can blame the pulp magazine publishers for dividing fiction into marketing categories. Pulp magazines were television before television, providing Americans with fictional escapism. Short stories were like half-hour TV shows, novelettes were like hour shows, and novellas and serialized novels were like mini-series. Before television became popular in the 1950s, pulp magazine were the main source of popular fiction. The pulps offered way more genres than television ever did. In the 1950s the book, television, and movie industries consolidated the genres into westerns, mysteries, thrillers, fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance, and a few others; before that, fans could subscribe to dedicate magazines devoted to single topic stories like airplane combat or spicy ranch romances.
If I had born earlier, I might not have spent a lifetime of reading mostly science fiction. Claude read all kinds of pulp magazines. He loved detective pulps, western pulps, railroad pulps, aviation pulps, and so on. Claude seemed much older than his actual years, living in the past that existed before he was born. He was a big guy and reminded me of Sidney Greenstreet. He read more books than any other person than I’ve ever met, then and since. He handed down a love of pulp magazines to countless folks.
Then in 1977, I had to grow up. I stopped going to the science fiction club, quit going to conventions, and sold my science fiction books and pulp magazine collection. I got married and started a job I stuck with for 36 years. Now that I’m retired I’ve returned to reading pulps. I’ve bought a few pulps again but decided they are too old, too expensive, and too fragile to collect any more. But I have discovered a subculture on the internet that shares digital scans of the old pulp magazines. If you’re curious, try these sites:
- The Pulp Magazine Archive
- Pulp Magazine Project
- The Luminist League
Over the years, beautiful coffee table books about the pulps appear, but quickly go out-of-print. The Art of the Pulps: An Illustrated History is the most recent history.
Even back in the early 1970s, the pulp magazine subculture was dying. Television killed off pulp magazines in the 1950s, though a handful of digest-sized magazines continue to publish. At one time, hundreds of pulp titles filled the newsstands. Half-a-century later, a tiny subculture collects, cherishes, and preserves them. They still hold pulp magazine conventions, but the fans are old, and the cons are smaller. Old pulp fans lament they can’t get their kids and grandkids interested. They worry about what will happen to their collections.
Once again, the internet is changing things. Some old pulp fans are scanning their pulps and putting them online. It’s not legal, but no one cares. No one cares because so damn few people read the pulp magazines anymore, even when they are free. Yet, these pulp scanners are doing a kind of volunteer librarian work, creating special collections for researchers and possibly future readers. At first, pulp scanners quickly scanned issues and uploaded them. Then a few scanners started taking more pride in their work. They bought better scanners, they learned Photoshop, they started removing stains, rust marks, fixing smudges, tears, staple holes, creases, and even whiting the acid browned paper. I recently saw a scan of an old 1927 Saturday Evening Post that looked pristine with bright new pages.
Pulp magazines were printed on cheap wood pulp paper that’s not archival or acid-free. Their pages turn darker brown every year, becoming brittle. If you try to bend a corner to bookmark a page, the corner will snap off. It’s almost impossible to safely read a pulp magazine today without harming it. The pulp scanners use CBR/CBZ comic book file formats or the universal PDF formats that will preserve pulps as long as we keep our digital civilization going.
Pulp scanning is a labor of love. Mostly old bookworms are preserving the pop culture of their youth. Will lovers of today’s fan fiction work as hard to preserve their pop culture when they get to their social security years? Will fans of Harry Potter and Hermione Granger preserve all the extensive pop culture artifacts they generate when they reach Dumbledore’s age?
Now that I’m retired I’ve returned to reading old pulp magazines. I am among the few of the baby boomer generation that still loves the pulps. I got that love from an older generation. I’d like to see younger generations take up that love, but I doubt it will happen. I remember being in my twenties and meeting very old men, and they were always men, who remembered and collected dime novels. In the 1960s, Sam Moskowitz wrote about the dying generation of dime novel collectors, like I’m writing about the dying pulp fans now.
Most people embrace the pop culture of their formative years. A small percentage of every generation try to keep up with succeeding waves of newer pop culture. And a small percentage of us work backward in time embracing older generations of pop culture. I was born in 1951 and I have moved both forward and backward in time. I’ve stretched my pop culture embrace from the 1920s through the 1980s, and know a bit of the pop culture three decades on either end of that range.
The pulp magazine subculture is fading away. Its fans are dying, and I tend to feel genre distinctions are beginning to fade too. Writers now must top each other by writing multi-genre novels. Maybe it’s time to stop segregating fiction by theme. But then, if bookworms keep reading by genre they’re at least carrying on a tradition that started with the pulp magazines.
Jane Austen’s books have seen plenty of remakes over the years. From film adaptations to sequels, her fans never get tired of her characters and stories. Fortunately for me, sometimes those spinoffs combine with my favorite genres to create the ultimate mashup—Jane Austen genre fiction! We all know about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Death Comes to Pemberley, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. I’m here to tell you about four lesser-known stories (based on my extremely scientific analysis of number of Amazon and Goodreads reviews and my prior knowledge).
Those Pricey Thakur Girls by Anuja Chauhan
Five sisters, a sassy and opinionated heroine, and a love interest with a reputation and a strong sense of justice? That’s right, what we have here is a Pride and Prejudice–inspired rom-com set in 1980s Delhi. Now I guess you could argue that any Austen retelling could count as romance, but that’s beside the point. This book is a fun read with unexpected one-liners and a cast of entertaining side characters. It also has enough nods to Austen to be familiar without feeling like a scene-for-scene remake, which in this case was a plus for me.
Jane, Actually: or Jane Austen’s Book Tour by Jennifer Petkus
A new technology called the AfterNet lets dead people (now called the “disembodied”) communicate with the living via text. What does that mean for Jane Austen? An agent, a publishing deal, and a book tour using actress Mary Crawford (hello, Mansfield Park) as her physical form. You know, for the pictures and the autographs. It also means a chance at love for Jane and another member of the AfterNet. To be honest, I haven’t actually read this one yet, but it’s an interesting premise and definitely on the list. Petkus also wrote the Sherlock Holmes– and Jane Austen–inspired mashup My Particular Friend, which leads us nicely into our next category of genre fiction…
Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron
If you came here hoping for a bit of Regency-style writing, you’re in luck! This mystery series stars Jane herself as an amateur sleuth, and the books are written as if they were her rediscovered letters and diary entries. The first novel finds Jane visiting her recently married friend Lady Scargrave, and then investigating on her behalf after Lord Scargrave’s untimely death. I felt like it started a little slowly, but I’m fond of lady detectives and period mysteries. After a few chapters the wit and the idea of Jane as a detective won me over.
Heartstone by Elle Katharine White
In my totally unprejudiced and not at all biased opinion, I saved the best for last. I love fantasy, and if I hadn’t randomly picked up this dragon-themed version of Pride and Prejudice at the library I would never have thought to look for Jane Austen genre fiction. Aliza Bentaine lives in a world with gryphons, banshees, hilariously irreverent hobgoblins, and yes, dragons. Soon after losing a sister to a gryphon attack, a team of dragon riders comes to eradicate the horde and protect the town. Unfortunately, among them is the handsome and arrogant Alistair Daired. Aliza is witty and brave, and she has plenty of opportunity for badassery throughout the book. Many parts of this story are close to the original, but I was intrigued by the re-characterization of some of the less likable characters. Someone PLEASE read this and talk to me about it, because I’ve recommended it to my sister twice and she just won’t.
So there you have it! Four examples of Jane Austen genre fiction for your reading pleasure. Do you have any other (especially non–Pride and Prejudice) recommendations? Let me know in the comments!
Sponsored by The Birthday Girl by Sue Fortin
In the spring of 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover announced to his agents that COINTELPRO, the counter-intelligence program established in 1956 to combat communists, should focus on preventing the rise of a “Black ‘messiah’” who sought to “unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.” The program, Hoover insisted, should target figures as ideologically diverse as the Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), Martin Luther King Jr., and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.
Just a few months later, in October 1968, Hoover penned another memo warning of the urgent menace of a growing Black Power movement, but this time the director focused on the unlikeliest of public enemies: black independent booksellers.
Before the word processor, before White-Out, before Post It Notes, there were straight pins. Or, at least that’s what Jane Austen used to make edits in one of her rare manuscripts. In 2011, Oxford’s Bodleian Library acquired the manuscript of Austen’s abandoned novel, The Watsons.
That is cool.
Exclusive: Tahereh Mafi on her next book, ‘A Very Large Expanse of Sea,’ about a Muslim American teen after 9/11 https://t.co/8kGTGXZSVr
— L.A. Times Books (@latimesbooks) February 22, 2018
On February 20th, a group of Orange City residents gathered to petition the library to segregate their LGBTQ materials, and to stop acquiring new LGBTQ materials unless the community collectively agreed to it. The petition was starting by Terry Chi, an assistant professor of Northwestern College, a Christian college. Not only should LGBTQ books be kept separate from the main collection and labelled, but, he argues, they should also have a “content rating service.”
Next month, the board will specifically review the library’s inclusion of Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a picture book about a boy who likes wearing dresses. (I wonder how that would fare on the proposed content rating service.)
According to Chi’s own numbers, the LGBTQ content in Orange City’s library accounts for less than .003% of their total collection. He was particularly disturbed by the book title Two Boys Kissing. Clearly, if books like Morris Micklewhite and just the title of Two Boys Kissing are the examples, it’s merely the existence of LGBTQ representation that’s the problem. “We’re not asking for banning because I know that would just sink our ship,” Chi says. Obviously, he would prefer that the library had no mention of LGBTQ material at all, but making it difficult to get will have to suffice.
President of the Iowa Library Association Dan Chibnall said “We believe people should have access to as much material as possible, and it’s up to them as a community to decide what they should read and what they should and should not read with their families.” The Orange City Public Library follows the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which states materials should “not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval” or excluded because of sex, gender identity or sexual orientation.
This is both ridiculous and infuriating. In 2015, I wrote a post called Kids Need Queer Books, and most of what I have to say remains the same. It is unethical to deny people access to media that could improve their lives. It is cruel to demand that people’s identities be publicly debated before a picture book that includes them can be placed in the library collection. It breaks my heart to think of someone closeted or questioning trying to sneak into the LGBTQ section of the library, frantically scanning the shelves and hiding the LGBTQ sticker on the book they selected. What will the sticker say? “RESTRICTED”? This picture book is not appropriate for all ages? Will it be a rainbow, the symbol of Pride, slapped onto the books to appease people who think shame is a more apt response?
Orange City manages a collection of 63,000 items. Imagine debating every book or movie or CD or video game publicly before it was allowed inclusion. The idea is ludicrous, especially for someone who used to be on the library board to propose. Of course, it being cumbersome is entirely the point. What are the chances the library is going to arrange a town meeting every time they want to buy a new LGBTQ book? Easier to just not order it in at all.
Last year, Orange City has its first Pride festival. Despite negative feedback online, the event was entirely positive, with a big turnout, including people coming from as far away as Arizona. Downtown was filled with people sporting rainbow heart stickers. It was a huge success. Times are changing: Even small towns, even religious areas, even traditionally conservative areas. And when there’s change, there’s pushback. I hope that Orange City Library upholds the values that they claim, and that the city holds onto that hopeful energy from that first Pride festival. Don’t put the LGBTQ books in a closet.
Book Riot Deals is sponsored today Penguin Random House Audio. Love is in the air when you play an audiobook. Find your perfect match for your next galentines day book club pick with some great listening suggestions. Get started at PenguinRandomHouseAudio.com/bookclub.
Today’s Featured Deals
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter for $2.99. Get it here, or just click the cover image below:
The Black Presidency by Michael Eric Dyson for $2.99. Get it here, or just click the cover image below:
In Case You Missed Yesterday’s Most Popular Deal
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott for $2.99. Get it here, or just click the cover image below:
Previous daily deals that are still active (as of this writing at least). Get ’em while they’re hot.
The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester for $2.99.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman for $2.99.
The Perfume Collector by Kathlee Tessaro for $2.99.
Black Panther Volume 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates for $2.99.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis for $1.99.
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera for $1.99.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal for $1.99.
Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull for $2.99.
Native Son by Richard Wright for $2.99.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell for $2.99.
Jubilee by Margaret Walker for $2.99.
Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti for $0.99.
Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li for $1.99.
Allegedly by Tiffany Jackson for $1.99.
Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde for $2.99.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan for $1.99.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes for $1.99.
The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier for $1.99.
Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levensell for $2.99.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith for $2.99.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks for $1.99.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone for $1.99.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor for $3.99.
Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston for $2.99.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman for $1.99.
Bitch Planet, Vol 1 for $3.99.
Monstress, Vol 1 by Liu & Takeda for $3.99
Paper Girls, Vol 1. by Vaughn, Chiang, & Wilson for $3.99.
The Wicked + The Divine Volume 1 for $3.99
The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin for $9.99
The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith for $0.99
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for $4.99
Girl gangs are one of my all-time favorite character configurations. All the emotion and complexity of female friendship, combined with the raw power of women protecting each other and looking awesome. Girl gang comics are especially satisfying because we get to see that killer fashion and all the attitude the characters exude. I like all kinds of stories about women and friendship, but sometimes I need a break from the way society likes to make women’s relationships sentimental or superficial. For me, good girl gang comics dig deep into the fierce heart and glorious diversity of femme.
Paper Girls by
When four of the first female paper boys join up the morning after Halloween to make their deliveries safe from pranking teenagers, things get weird. FAST. Set in suburban Cleveland in 1988, Paper Girls is a gorgeous sci-fi mystery playing out in the pre-dawn hours. The relationship between new girl Erin, local legend Mac, Jewish jock KJ, and nerd Tiffany hits on the organic reality of girl gangs: a common need to be protected.
Curb Stomp by
Curb Stomp is about a girl gang in the most traditional sense. Five women make up The Fever, and they’re the combination bodyguards/law-enforcement for one of three boroughs in their city. The gangs running the other two territories are building empires of guns and drugs, while the Fever girls are just trying to keep Old Town—poor and crumbling—from collapse. When a neighboring gang member comes onto Fever turf and breaks the rules by pulling a gun and threatening Betty’s family, she takes him down, hard. It’s an action that triggers a war. Gritty and violent, Curb Stomp doesn’t pull any punches. Particularly great is the way The Fever are portrayed—diverse and real. The art is gorgeous in its honesty, never minimizing the dark brutality of these women’s lives by smoothing them into idyllic beauties. If you want your girl gang comics hardcore, this one’s for you.
The Kitchen by Ollie Masters, Ming Doyle, Jordie Bellaire
When their drug-dealing, mafia-helping Irish gang leader husbands are carted off to jail, Kath, Raven and Angie face a dilemma. As the battle for their work and territory ensues, the woman have to decide whether they’ll let everything fall apart or step in and take the reigns. Dark and intensely realistic, The Kitchen takes place in Hell’s Kitchen, circa 1979. This book flips the macho game of gangs and crime to put these women at the center. Each wife is refreshingly individual, with differing opinions, approaches, and reactions. This is a girl gang of necessity, for sure, but just as they never magically become best friends, the women don’t fall apart from catty, petty story lines that so often overwhelm narratives about female leaders.
Rock & Riot by Chelsey Furedi
A true joy from the internet, Rock & Riot is the campy, good natured tale of rival gangs in a 1950’s high school. One gang is made up entirely of girls—of all shapes, colors, and orientations. In the second comic, the badass leader of the pack falls hard for a cute girl in the hallway and the whole thing is off to the races. Leather-clad lady-friends, fabulously fifties hair, and queer romance—what more could you POSSIBLY ask for?
Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch, Stjepan Šejić, Tess Fowler, Owen Gieni.
The Rat Queens are a rowdy adventuring party (which is fantasy/RPG talk for ‘gang’) made up of a gruff dwarf, a snarky elf, an atheist cleric, and a hippie halfling. These women combine their abilities to bring down monsters, collect bounties, and gather riches. Through the ups and downs of professional and personal life, the four of them share a dwelling often filled with epic parties and just as epic fights.
Aliens forcibly recruit a colony prodigy for an elite school. This school teaches its students to conquer planets for exploitation. Young Vep would rather stay with her family, but her teachers offer no alternative. Her family lives in a colony where they work was indentured servants. Vep briefly hopes if she succeeds in school, she can return. To survive, Vep has to learn how to fight, change her perception on reality, and persist. This is Prism Stalker by Sloane Leong, a beautiful sci-fi adventure. Vep’s colorful misadventures tackle colonialism, identity and agency in a monthly serial.
We are happy to have Sloane Leong with us on Book Riot. Her other comic credits include A Hollowing and A Body Made of Seeing. Future projects include A Map to the Sun.
Prism Stalker explores colonialism on a galactic and interspecies scale. It takes a different angle from most works on colonialism, by focusing on an oppressed character who is selected to help her oppressors. What inspired you take this approach?
A lot of different things are colliding in this project for me. As someone who comes from native ancestries AND colonialist ancestries, I’ve always felt a lot of conflict with the cultures I was raised in and bitterness over the indifference towards native peoples rights to their homelands. I also felt a big disconnect to some of my cultures growing up because of displacement, the false notion of blood quantum and the general atmosphere of ubiquitous racism fragmented down to minute scales. Especially in Hawaii, where I grew up as a teen, those elements were always very present and tourism really drove home how other and lesser native peoples seemed to visitors. Prism is me filtering all these feelings and experiences into a loud, sci-fi kaleidoscope.
Online communities have brought up that creating fantastic allegories for racism and colonialism runs the risk of erasing real POC, but you managed to sidestep that issue beautifully with Vep. How do you think other comic artists and writers can follow that example?
I’m not sure! This is a very personal story to me so I couldn’t help but make Vep someone like me and other girls I know.
Each planet and landscape has a unique personality, with the academy having constantly changing rooms. What were your sources of inspiration and references?
I feel like sci-fi has had a dominant aesthetic for so long—clean, white, angular—which reflects a sort of Anglo/Western ideal. I wanted to embrace my cultures visually in these alien landscapes and pieces of architecture: warm, neons of flowers, forests, and fish in Hawaii and the bright vivid colors of Mexican folk art. I’m also really fascinated with biology and I think the potential of organic components on a grander scale is overlooked a lot in the genre.
It’s fascinating that Vep is forcibly recruited to join a military academy and learn to fight, only succeeding when she believes she has agency. What thoughts on agency, choice and consent were you hoping to convey?
There’s a lot of deception and grooming around the student’s ideas of agency, morality, and ethics in Vep’s academy that will get explored more as the series unfolds. One point of inspiration for me is how capitalist culture right now is intersecting with technology and how we form identities and perform these personas across these platforms. There’s a lack of control over the context of how we develop as people, how we shape our goals and desires and this reflects greatly in Vep’s academy, where they’re being molded in multiple, subtle, insidious ways to pursue and fulfill the goals of those in power, and not their own despite thinking so.
Related to number 4, how much agency does Vep have, and does it change throughout the story?
It’s definitely going to change as the story moves forward. There will be cruel realizations and denial and then, maybe, some form of freedom and choice presented to her. But all of her choices are in a vise-like grip of dire consequences so I can’t say how much agency that really gives her.
The coloring is highly fascinating and reminds one of a kaleidoscope impressed onto a flat page. What tools do you like to use for drawing, inking and coloring?
I use a brush and dip pen with sumi ink on bristol, scan it in and then color in Clip Studio Paint! I’m obsessed with bold, bright colors as you noted. I’m always experimenting with how visual loudness or dull constrained palettes change the tone of a scene.
Your previous works include The Hollowing, a horror comic about guilt and grief, and A Body Made of Seeing, an autobiographical collection. How was working on Prism Stalker different?
I love working on short stories and comics but Prism will be my first really longform work of my career. The thematic punch and efficiency that short comics can deliver are always fun to create but being able to go in and spend time with a cast of characters for a longer time, getting to know them intimately, and orchestrating a story and picking away at its themes have been very exciting for me.
What upcoming works can you tell us about, like A Map to the Sun?
A Map to the Sun is a slice-of-life girls basketball drama which follows five ragtag 10th grade girls and how they make friends, enemies and grow as a group. I’ve been working on it simultaneously with Prism Stalker which has been intense but it’s nice to have projects to bounce back and forth between that have different visual goals. It’s inspired by sports manga, a genre that American comics have barely used until recently (many helmed by other women cartoonists!). It’s slated for release in Spring of 2019.
Prism Stalker releases in March 2018, from image comics. Don’t miss it!
Shirley Hughes is a writer and artist of children’s books, and I admire her in that very particular way that you admire the people that you love. Her work is kind. She is a kind and generous author who understands the child’s point of view and seeks to preserve that. Sometimes when I read her books or look at her artwork, I sort of want to cry at how lovely and perfect it is.
Here’s five of my favourite books by Hughes. As she’s written over fifty books, and illustrated over two hundred, this is just a fraction of her work. But it is a fraction that has made me remember just how wonderful and eloquent a book can be, and how remarkable Shirley Hughes is.
Alfie Gets In First
This book has possibly the smartest use of the gutter in all of picture books. If you’re not sure about what the “gutter” is, it’s the bit down the middle of the book and this post by the Eric Carle museum provides a really good look at how it can work. What Hughes does in Alfie Gets In First is use the gutter to signify the front door. And when Alfie gets in first, and accidentally locks the door, you can see him inside the house on one page, and his mum and sister Annie Rose on the other. It is the simplest of techniques and yet the mark of a genius at work.
It’s impossible to discuss Shirley Hughes without talking about Dogger. This is a classic childhood story that will be familiar to everyone; a beloved toy has gone missing and nothing can quite replace it. All seems lost, or is it? Dogger has a timeless quality about it, even though the artwork is thick with lovingly specific detail. This is a book that endures.
Hero on a Bicycle
I have a very soft spot for Hero On A Bicycle. It’s Hughes’s first novel, a fact which is rather outstanding when you consider her prodigious output, and is set in Florence in 1944. The city is under German occupation and there’s only the Italian resistance left fighting. That is, until life takes a rather particular turn and Paolo and his family are drawn into the fight. One of Hughes’s great strengths is writing about people, and Hero On A Bicycle is all about people. It’s an honest, heartfelt novel that doesn’t hold back from the darkness.
Ella’s Big Chance
The subtitle for this is “A Jazz Age Cinderella,” which should give you an idea as to what sort of book this is. And whilst the fairytale part of it is important, what makes this book sing is the fashion. This is the 1920s, and high fashion spills from every page. The dresses are Hughes’s own designs, inspired by the great couture houses of the period, and provide a host of fodder for fashion students of the period. But this is a story about people and the moments that stitch lives together. This book doesn’t let you go; there’s not one inch of dead space in it, and it is remarkable.
A Brush With The Past
A Brush With The Past covers a period of fifty years, 1900–1950. It is, I think, one of Hughes’s most epochal works. There’s often a lot of talk in the children’s literature world about the idea of the classic, and I tend to think a lot of that is too often influenced by the idea of patriarchal values. Girls, women, and their experience are all too often sidelined from such a discussion. Here, Hughes makes a history of people. She recognises the detail of life, the good and the bad, and packs her work full of it. She is a powerful artist, able to capture light and shade, and able to make it honest and true. Like I said, she’s kind of remarkable.
Pulp fiction: it’s a crucial part of the history of literature! It is the intersection of changing technologies—the new introduction of cheap paperbacks—and changing social attitudes. It’s a fascinating part of the progression of publishing. And it’s pretty much synonymous with trash.
It’s no wonder! Pulp novels were, as a rule, salacious and disposable. They were cheap enough that you could read them on the train and leave them behind when you were done. They weren’t meant to be great literature. But despite being so cheap (or because of it), they were big business. A lot of publishing companies were jockeying for space on those drug store racks. And what better way to get noticed than to have the most ridiculous, over-the-top cover?
The standard cover used a realistic illustration and combined a shocking title, a scantily clad woman, and an intriguing front cover blurb. These covers were the main selling point for a title. And it’s not hard to see how they connect with the clickbait links of today.
“Killer Shark! Your Life Depends On This Site!” accompanied by a photo of an enraged killer white could easily be a clickbait ad today. And pulp run the gamut of any topic that might be seen as scandalous in the 1950s: drugs, homosexuality, and a lot of terror about women getting too many ideas. Of course, mystery/thrillers and sci-fi also dominated the pulp world, though those also almost always found a way to feature a nearly naked woman on the cover.
One of the defining features of clickbait is also present in pulp novels: you don’t always get what you were promised. In lesbian pulp, for instance, the romance is often (usually?) between one butch woman and a more feminine woman, but the covers will show two feminine women who don’t resemble the characters at all. The scene on the cover may not actually take place in the novel. (Does that rose monster actually make an appearance in The Green Girl?) The authors had no control over them, so they would sometimes end up puzzled by the covers that got slapped on their books.
But of course, as derided as they are, clickbait and pulp novels are pretty hard to resist. I collect lesbian pulp books—mostly just for the ridiculous covers—but I have made the leap to read them a few times, and, sadly, I’ve always been disappointed.
Take Pajama Party by Peggy Swenson. Though the cover promises a fun, trashy read, the content proves more uncomfortable than anything else. It did make me realize that although pulp often sells itself with sex, the plot is more soap opera. After all, there’s still only so sexy you can get in the 1950s, so the book is instead padded with traumatic backstories for every character (which all seem to involve being raped).
Pulp novels hold a special place in the history of the printed word, and they are also absolutely ridiculous. Let me know in the comments if you’ve read any pulp that lived up to the cover—and hey, while we’re at it, if you’ve read any clickbait that lived up to their promises!