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Portland Book Festival: Graphic novels are for everyone

Aaron Durán, Gale Galligan, Kat Fajardo, and Christina Diaz Gonzalez talk about what drew them to create graphic novels, and who should read them (hint: not just kids).

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Aaron Durán used to wait until the mood struck him, but now he treats writing comics like any other day job. “I get up, have coffee, go for a walk, and start my day,” he told me ahead of this weekend’s Portland Book Festival. “While I write within almost any medium, comics will always be my preferred form of storytelling.”

The Portland author is among a handful of graphic novelists participating Saturday in the festival. His book Season of the Bruja is a beautifully illustrated story about a young woman with magical powers. As Althea comes into her own as the last bruja, an unusual group of friends, including a chupacabra, help her toward her destiny. 

Graphic novelist Christina Diaz Gonzalez, on the other hand, doesn’t keep a set time devoted to writing. “I’m usually crafting a story whenever inspiration strikes, or a deadline looms, which can be during the day or very late at night,” said the author, who lives in Miami. “My favorite place to write is usually at a coffee shop with my laptop in front of me and a few pieces of chocolate nearby.”

Diaz Gonzalez’s book Invisible is also about finding your way. Inspired by The Breakfast Club, Gonzalez’s bilingual story follows five teens as they decide whether to share their deepest selves with each other, or remain invisible in order to socially survive adolescence.

Durán and Diaz Gonzalez will be joined during the festival by graphic novelists Kat Fajardo, author of Miss Quinces, and Gale Galligan, the cartoonist behind Freestyle, a novel about competitive yo-yo. Durán will appear at 1:30 p.m. in The Old Church in a session called “Magic Powers,” while the other three graphic artists will speak at 1:45 p.m. in Portland Art Museum’s Fields Ballroom. Their talk is headlined “GraphixCon: Middle Grade Graphic Novels.” 

Aaron Durán: “I am hesitant to use the term graphic novel. It always feels like an unneeded attempt to turn comics into art.

While their processes, inspirations, and backgrounds differ — Durán grew up on Batman while Diaz Gonzalez read Archie comics — all agree graphic novels are for readers of all ages, and a wonderful way to get kids interested in books. 

“Graphic novels are one more way that we can explore and interrogate the world around us while learning more about ourselves,” said Galligan, who lives in Rockland County, N.Y. “They can be deceptively engaging in a way that makes them easy to incorporate into thoughtful discussion. Also, they’re fun!”

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“Graphic novels are not only a legitimate form of literature, but a great medium for readers who are visual learners,” said Fajardo, who lives in New York City’s Loisaida neighborhood. “I didn’t enjoy reading because I had a difficult time concentrating on the words. It wasn’t until I picked up manga that I started my love of reading.”

I recently spoke with each of the writers about their processes, favorite graphic novels, and most recent works. Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

When did you first begin writing graphic novels?

Durán: I started taking writing comics seriously in my early 30s. 

Galligan: I’ve been drawing comics since I was a kid. They started on random sheets of paper, then migrated into my sketchbooks and school notebooks. I progressed to mini comics (short comics that you can print out and staple yourself). I love mini comics, because you can experiment with all different kinds of media and stories without committing to one thing for years and years.

Fajardo: My earliest comics started when I was in middle school. Although they were just fan-comics of my favorite manga, it was great practice for when I made original stories in high school and college. Years later, I worked on my first graphic novel, which was the adaptation of Melissa de la Cruz’s The Isle of the Lost.

Diaz Gonzalez: I started writing graphic novels when I first came up with the idea for Invisible a little over six years ago. 

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graphic novelist Gale Galligan
Gale Galligan: “One page, four pages, eight pages… every page you do is a learning experience and the next one will be better, so please keep doing it.”

Tell me about your process. What is your chosen medium when coming up with a concept and executing it?

Galligan: It’s a mix of a lot of things. I’ll usually be going back and forth between my notes app and a more organized notebook. I also keep a small sketchbook in my bag. Lately, I’ve been working digitally. I go back and forth between my computer and iPad using Procreate and Clip Studio.

Fajardo: Because I have a terrible habit of forgetting ideas when they appear to me randomly, I carry around a small idea notebook everywhere I go. Whenever I want to expand those ideas, I like drawing what the characters would look like and experimenting with different mediums in my sketchbook.

How did you come up with the idea for your most recent work?

Durán: Season of the Bruja very much grew from my own desire to connect with my cultural heritage. Being Mexican-American, I never felt like I fully belonged to either, especially growing up in a very small, rural American town. 

Galligan: Sometime around 2013, I knew I wanted to make a graphic novel for younger readers, something that pulled together elements of the stories I get excited about. I stumbled across a video of competitive yo-yo. This was the first time I’d seen yo-yo since I was a kid, and it was so unbelievably cool. I went down a whole rabbit hole.

Fajardo: Because I was disappointed in the lack of graphic novels featuring quinceañeras, the idea of Miss Quinces came about as a solution to that problem. The book was originally an autobiographical story based on my own experience; I changed the names and small details in the end. I wanted to represent the minority of kids who didn’t want their quinces and struggled with their identity within cultures.

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Diaz Gonzalez: I came up with the idea of Invisible featuring English language learners, because being bilingual and an English language learner myself, I wanted to showcase these students who are often overlooked. 

How long does a graphic novel project typically take you to complete?

Durán: Scriptwriting, once I have a good feel for the world and characters within it, only takes me a week to two weeks to write about 30 pages of script. A title like Season of the Bruja had its pitch in late 2018, and Issue 1 hit shelves in March 2022. Mind you, this book also weathered a global pandemic, which really slowed it down.

Galligan: At the moment, around two years. It would be longer if I also colored them myself. I’m forever grateful to — and in awe of – colorists!

Fajardo: It depends on each project, but generally if I were to freelance full-time, it would take me one to two years to complete a graphic novel. That includes revisions, editorial notes, and adding colors by my awesome colorist, Mariana Azzi.

Diaz Gonzalez: It usually takes me about six months to have a solid first draft of any novel regardless of whether it is a graphic or traditional novel. My editor and I then begin the fine-tuning so it can be given over to the illustrator.

graphic novelist Christina Diaz Gonzalez
Christina Diaz Gonzalez: “Graphic novels are comics, but not all comics are graphic novels.

What is the difference between a “graphic novel” and a “comic”?

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Durán:  In terms of story, not a dang thing. Both are a form of sequential art storytelling. A comic is what folks get on a monthly basis, whereas the graphic novel is simply a collection and a name bookstores provide. I am hesitant to use the term graphic novel. It always feels like an unneeded attempt to turn comics into art.

Galligan: As I understand it, this is about format. A graphic novel is a long-form story told using the medium of comics, which could be bound into a book. So graphic novels are comics, but not all comics are graphic novels.

Fajardo: I suppose the difference would be that a comic is a more flexible medium that is usually periodical and short form, such as a zine, monthly floppy comics, or webcomics. A graphic novel is a longer form of narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end.

Diaz Gonzalez: Graphic novels can either be stand-alone or part of a series, and comic books can be equally compelling/complex despite their smaller size. The key takeaway for me is that graphic novel length still gives the reader the ability to digest a larger story with corresponding subplots in one sitting.

What do you say to those who don’t consider graphic novels books or say they are not for adults?

Durán: They are missing out on some of the best writing and art of the modern era and are really only showing ignorance of their own culture. Comics are for everyone, and it’s really only America, in my experience, in which comics are thought of only for children.

Galligan: If someone hasn’t had that exposure, there’s no reason I should expect them to be aware of this incredible, wide world where people are drawing stories in every genre for every kind of reader. I would find a common ground with them. There is absolutely a graphic novel for them.

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Fajardo: Graphic novels are just books that are formatted differently, similar to poetry. There are so many wonderful graphic novels that have won prestigious literary awards, not to mention been successfully adapted into popular movies and TV shows. As humans, we are visual creatures, so it makes sense that we would be moved emotionally by pictures. So yes, graphic novels are indeed books for everyone.

Diaz Gonzalez: I believe all forms of reading are important, and graphic novels are certainly valuable additions to the book world. They are a wonderful tool to develop cognitive learning and improve visual literacy. 

Why is it important for young people to read graphic novels?

Durán: Graphic novels offer a much wider range of genres for and can better connect with younger readers. The young reader can feel supported within the pages of many modern graphic novels.

Diaz Gonzalez: It allows them to use other parts of their brain to acquire information and helps them use visual literacy to infer different aspects of the storyline.

What were your favorite graphic novels as a young reader? Which authors have influenced your work?

Durán: I grew up a big Batman fan. He just looked cool and I loved his rogues gallery. As a kid, I was very much into some of the classic fantasy authors like C.S. Lewis, and a few years later I got hooked on Madeleine L’Engle. Within comics, I draw a lot of inspiration from folks like Greg Rucka, David Walker, and Kelly Sue DeConnick.

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Galligan: When I was growing up, there weren’t as many graphic novels for young readers. I read a lot of comic strips and manga. My absolute favorites were Calvin & Hobbes, Garfield, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Card Captor Sakura. Some all-time favorites are Fumi Yoshinaga (What Did You Eat Yesterday?), Jen Wang (The Prince and the Dressmaker), K.A. Applegate (Animorphs), and Diana Wynne Jones (especially the Chrestomanci books).

Fajardo: In my senior year of high school, I came across my first graphic novel, The Education of Hopey Glass by Jaime Hernandez. His work, especially with his Love & Rockets series, was a huge influence on me and my work, because it was the first time I had encountered Hispanic characters that looked like me or reminded me of my family. It was also the time I was coming into terms with my queer identity and was getting into punk music, so the characters really called out to my young, misfit soul.

Diaz Gonzalez: As a young reader, I loved the Archie digest comic books. In more recent times, I’ve been influenced by authors such as Jenni and Matthew Holm, Gene Luen Yang, and Jerry Craft.

Graphic novelist Kat Fajardo
Kat Fajardo: “Graphic novels are not only a legitimate form of literature, but a great medium for readers who are visual learners.”

What is your advice for aspiring graphic novelists?

Durán: Like any creative job, don’t stop reading and writing. When it comes to comics themselves, start small. No editor will look at your multi-generational fantasy or sci-fi epic. Also, self-publish your first few books, if you can. Put out a professional comic and use it as your calling card.

Galligan: Keep it up! Make things! Try making mini comics first. One page, four pages, eight pages… every page you do is a learning experience and the next one will be better, so please keep doing it. I want to read your wonderful comics.

Fajardo: Keep writing, drawing, and getting inspiration from everything you can get your hands on. Most importantly, self-discipline is very handy in completing projects, so try setting a reasonable schedule that keeps your mental and physical health in mind. 

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Diaz Gonzalez: Write the story that speaks to your heart — one that you wish you could read right now, but doesn’t currently exist.

What are you most excited about for the Portland Book Festival?

Durán: Having been an attendee and sometimes volunteer for so many years, I am just over the moon to be a part of it. Finally meeting many of the authors I share panels with is what I am most excited about.

Fajardo: I’ve never been to the festival before, nor have I ever been in Portland, so I’m very excited to explore the city and meet so many wonderful authors and readers. 

Diaz Gonzalez: I’m extremely excited to spend time with other graphic novelists and also see Selma Blair.

Galligan: I’m still very starry-eyed over being able to see readers in person again. I can’t wait to talk to the kids in Portland, see what they’ve been drawing, and ask them for book recommendations. It’s my favorite thing in the world.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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