By Aliza Layne
Take a second and draw a little Halloween house right now. What kind of creature lives inside of it? Nobody is going to make the same house, and nobody is going to imagine the exact same creature; not if you really let yourself think instead of drawing something you’ve seen before. Crafting a world full of weird monsters that is still a recognizable allegory for our world was fun, but the real treat was imagining kids being able to use Beetle & the Hollowbones as a jumping off point for their own stories.
The juxtaposition between the local mall and Halloween comes from very specific experiences I had as a mall employee. For example, Beetle and her friends sneak into the back of the mall, which is filled with all these awful labyrinthine hallways that smell like garbage—hallways that really exist in malls all over the place! I once heard a story about some students who broke into a disused store in the back of a mall and lived there for a while. Can you imagine trying to relax at the end of your day and there’s this huge empty building surrounding you, full of stuff you can’t afford? Picture a metal gate between you and all these yawning, echoing dark hallways; it must feel like being in Bluebeard’s castle. There’s something really melancholy and gothic about the mall for the people who have to work there. I remember not knowing how long I was going to have to work in retail. It’s scary!
In Beetle & the Hollowbones, the setting and the characters’ emotions are designed to echo or contrast one another, depending on what works for the moment. I wanted to do justice to each character’s type of loneliness because this is a gay book and gay kids feel a lot of different kinds of loneliness. So you have those moments of isolation in the empty mall, and then you have Kat walking into Beetle’s bright, safe bedroom. For Kat, there’s the burden of knowing that everyone’s counting on you for reasons you can’t even fully comprehend, being an unhappy kid looking through the windows of a happy kid’s life. Goblinhouse is designed to evoke the happiest home possible, and although Beetle and her Gran sometimes don’t see eye to eye, it is that kind of home, possessing a magic that Kat is just now realizing she’s been missing out on for her whole, cold life. And that reflection of emotion is embedded in the design of the characters, too. Blob Ghost is a fun character to see transform on the page, but more than that they express an emotional core that a lot of queer people desire: The ability to opt-out of having a static body. More than that, though, they represent the reality that transformation and fluidity are possible.
So in this funny-eerie environment full of personalities bumping up against one another, the weird hodgepodge of themes that is “coming of age adventure at the mall in a monster town” begins to make sense. A world made the right size and shapes for dragons with glasses and ghouls in heels and giant skeleton yokai in tiny hats has something for everybody. And this is true of everybody, but especially when you’re a kid: play, whether it’s pretend or telling your own stories, lets you figure out how to model other experiences. A fun world can open your mind to other possibilities you might not have considered.
One reason I created a fictional world at all is so that people can visit it in their minds or think about who they would be. There’s a part in the book that’s all about writing your own story before you’re quite brave enough to live it out. But it’s difficult to really talk about that without spoiling the story, especially Beetle’s journey and how things weave together for her as the central character. But I’ll sign off with this: Halloween is a time when you get to be anything, so for me, the idea of transposing themes about identity onto the holiday makes perfect sense.
I have always been a person who makes their own Halloween costumes, partially because we couldn’t really afford to buy expensive pieces, but also because there’s a fun poetry to making your own mask, whether it’s a hand-drawn black cat or white-faced ghoul amongst the Batmen. Taking the idea of Halloween creatures, of silly places, and building characters onto it allows you to—I hope—tap into something real. If Halloween is a space where everyone gets to play for a night, and one reason to play is to figure out who you want to be in the future, then maybe…
I don’t know! It depends on who’s reading! You’ll figure it out for yourself, I bet.
Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne is out on August 4, 2020. You can order it here.
An enchanting, riotous, and playfully illustrated debut graphic novel following a young goblin trying to save her best friend from the haunted mall—perfect for fans of Steven Universe and Adventure Time.
In the eerie town of ‘Allows, some people get to be magical sorceresses, while other people have their spirits trapped in the mall for all ghastly eternity.
Then there’s twelve-year-old goblin-witch Beetle, who’s caught in between. She’d rather skip being homeschooled completely and spend time with her best friend, Blob Glost. But the mall is getting boring, and B.G. is cursed to haunt it, tethered there by some unseen force. And now Beetle’s old best friend, Kat, is back in town for a sorcery apprenticeship with her Aunt Hollowbone. Kat is everything Beetle wants to be: beautiful, cool, great at magic, and kind of famous online. Beetle’s quickly being left in the dust.
But Kat’s mentor has set her own vile scheme in motion. If Blob Ghost doesn’t escape the mall soon, their afterlife might be coming to a very sticky end. Now, Beetle has less than a week to rescue her best ghost, encourage Kat to stand up for herself, and confront the magic she’s been avoiding for far too long. And hopefully ride a broom without crashing.
Aliza Layne is a cartoonist, illustrator, and storyteller. She is the creator of Demon Street, a long-form fantasy webcomic for all ages. Her Halloween costumes have elicited the phrases “theatrical,” “don’t you think you’re going a little overboard,” and “oh, we remember you from last year.” Beetle and the Hollowbones is her first graphic novel. Visit Aliza at AlizaLayne.com.