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Interview: Hope Larson on ‘Compass South’

Hope.LarsonHope Larson and Rebecca Mock’s Compass South: Four Points is an adventure-filled graphic novel starring not one but two sets of red-headed twins who are making their way to San Francisco in the mid-19th century in hopes of convincing a rich man that they are his children. This is no travelogue, though; the twins are split up when one of each set is shanghaied and put to work on a ship traveling around the Horn, and the other two have to make their way to San Francisco to meet them. Filled with period details and colorful characters, Compass South is a delight to read—and it’s just the first book in a projected series. Larsen is also the creator of Chiggers, Mercury, and Who Is AC?, and she won an Eisner award for her graphic novel adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. We asked her to tell us about what she had in mind when she created Compass South—and how she filled in the details.

There’s something sort of old-fashioned about Compass South—it reminds me of the stories I read and the movies I watched when I was a kid. What sort of books and movies influenced you? Were you a fan of swashbuckling adventure tales as a child?

I was a huge fan of adventure stories. The first non-newspaper comics I remember reading were Astérix and Tintin books, and I grew up on series like The Chronicles of Prydain, The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and of course Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet. There was also a cartoon I watched in preschool, The Mysterious Cities of Gold, that was a strange blend of historical fiction and sci-fi, and that had a massive impact on me. On top of that, I lived near a good video store and probably watched every live-action family adventure film Disney has ever produced. I wanted to write a story filled with bite-sized chunks of adventure that could be inhaled in one sitting or broken down into one-chapter-per-night chunks.

CompassSouthOne of the things I thought was interesting was that each of the sets of twins has one who is dominant—Cleopatra is more level-headed than Alexander, and Silas is stronger than Edwin. When they split up, you put the stronger ones together and the weaker ones together. Why did you do that? How did it enhance the story?

It’s so interesting that you see it that way, because I think I switched the dominant twins. Alex is not level-headed, but he’s a more assertive, take-charge character than Cleo is. The idea with splitting up Cleo and Alex was for Cleo to gain confidence and take charge of her life a bit–a journey she’ll continue in the following book–and for Alex to become more empathetic, more open, and more of a team player.

Why did you choose the 19th-century setting?

I love this time period; it’s the second time I’ve tackled it, the first being in my graphic novel Mercury. The 19th century is far enough away that it was another world, but it’s not as different as the 1700s, or even the early 1800s. The west was wild, the United States was on the brink of civil war, and the world was rapidly changing. If you go back and read first-hand accounts of these periods, they’re often surprisingly modern and accessible. It’s particularly fun to write about Americans at this time because we were a rough-and-tumble bunch, and many of the rules of polite society were (temporarily, at least) thrown out.

All that said, the 19th century of Compass South is intentionally inaccurate because there weren’t any pirates left by then, at least not in the Pirates of the Caribbean sense.

What sort of research did you do to prepare for this?

I did a lot of reading, mostly on Google Books. There are tons of 1800s travelogues floating around out there, and I mined them for ideas and descriptions. I devoured Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms. I dug around for as many images as I could find of period clothing and locations. I read books on the history of piracy and colonialism, which is incredibly dark stuff.

Hands-down the best resource I found for Compass South is John H. Harland’s Seamanship in the Age of Sail, which is an incredibly detailed reference book for writing about tall ships. Neither Rebecca Mock nor I had an prior knowledge of sailing before working on this book, and I don’t think we could have completed it without Mr. Harland’s help.

There are a number of people of color in supporting roles in this story. How did you approach creating a diverse cast in this historic context?

I approached it carefully, but I’m sure I could have done better. It’s a tricky thing in any book, but possibly more so in a historical project that takes place during a time when slavery was a fact of life in America, and the world was a brutal place in general. I did a lot of research and tried to make my characters of color as fleshed-out, positive and autonomous as I could while still keeping one eye on history.

As a writer, working with an artist, how do you convey the visual aspects of the story? Do you use thumbnails or storyboards? How is this different from being a writer-artist, as you were on some of your previous books?

Everyone’s fascinated by this part of the process, which makes sense, because the writing in a graphic novel is largely invisible. I write scripts which are broken down by page and panel, like a screenplay but more specific. I start out by setting the scene for Rebecca: Here’s where we are, here’s what time it is, here’s what’s happening in this location, and here’s a bunch of visual reference. I specify what characters are feeling emotionally and doing physically. If I have a clear idea of the “shot” I’ll specify that; for example, I might say that a panel is a close-up on Cleo, and we’re looking at her from over Luther’s shoulder. Or, I might say we’re looking down at a scene from above.

From there, the ball is in Rebecca’s court. She draws thumbnails, and I give notes on those, focusing mainly on the flow of the action. Our editor and copyeditor weigh in on pencils, inks and colors.

It’s not dramatically different than writing and drawing myself, but I’m working with an artist who is much more skilled than I am.

Compass South is the first book in a planned series. How do you balance the need to have a full story in the first volume with the need to have a larger storyline that runs through all the books?

That part is hard! It’s a matter of breaking things off at a point where part of the mystery is solved, but there’s something left to pursue. You’re setting things up for next time. Even when you’re not setting up a book for a sequel, my favorite endings imply that the story will keep going forever, and the characters will keep having adventures whether you can read them or not.

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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