By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Damian Alexander to the WNDB blog to discuss Other Boys.
Other Boys is a graphic novel memoir for a middle-grade audience. Why were you drawn to MG instead of YA or an adult memoir? What felt right to you about this audience?
I had actually never really thought of writing a memoir at all. But I’ve been making these short comics about my childhood and posting them online and people connected with them, and the book slowly grew out of that. It’s funny because I’ve always enjoyed reading memoirs, but never thought I was interesting enough to write one. I think it being MG was simply because most of my core memories were formed before I was even in high school.
As a graphic novelist, what is your writing process like? Do you build out the plot and what will happen first? Do you create storyboards? Do both words and visuals come to you around the same time?
My process for memoir comics generally starts when a single memory pops into my head and I scribble it down to work into a comic later. Other Boys came from stringing a bunch of those together. I like to imagine each memory like a paper doll holding hands with the next. The process of Other Boys was a bit stressful because I’ve never created such a long comic before. So the scribbled memories became a script and that script became thumbnail sketches, line art, colors, and the lettering.
I also lost my mom when I was a kid and really appreciated the honest way that grief was portrayed in Other Boys, especially interactions with other kids who don’t necessarily know what to say. How do you think that graphic novels can show us this internal battle—how someone might feel when confronted with these questions versus how they respond—in a way that novels often can’t?
I think graphic novels have this very special way of conveying emotions through facial expressions that you don’t get from traditional written prose. A lot of times when I was writing a novel I would get stressed because I could see the image I wanted to describe so clearly but just couldn’t portray it through words. An animated character or actor can show so much on their face with just a single frame that you can’t get without visuals, and I think comics can present those emotions as well. In one single panel, you can show a character’s expression, their thought, and a piece of dialogue. All of which can be delivering a different feeling. I repeatedly watched Studio Ghibli movies while working on Other Boys because I loved how the animators could portray so much emotion with these relatively simplistic characters.
Other Boys presents how beneficial therapy can be and also how animals can help us heal and give us a reason to keep going. Why did you want to show these two examples of ways that kids take care of themselves during and after trauma?
Therapy and my cat helped me so much when I was young and made me feel so much less lonely and I wanted to show these things as beneficial to any young reader that might come across this book. At first, seventh grade me was against therapy because there’s this stigma in media that people with issues relating to mental health and trauma who see therapists are bad or scary. I didn’t want people to see me that way, but after a while, I found comfort in having someone impartial to talk to. I think people also have this idea that after something traumatic you just talk to a therapist once and you’re good, but most people deal with this trauma the rest of their life. It’s not about “getting over it” but rather, learning to cope with it.
In writing a memoir, how did you prioritize self-care and make sure that you were taking care of yourself while writing, especially since Other Boys deals with death, bullying, homophobia, and classism?
In all honesty, this book was a lot more emotionally draining to make than I had thought it would be. Much of my experiences didn’t make it into the book and I softened a lot of the bullying and language that was used against me to make it more “appropriate” for a middle grade audience. There were times that a single panel or page triggered a memory for me and I had to take a break from drawing. A lot didn’t end up making it to the page simply because it was too hard to write and even harder to draw. I only realized I need to start prioritizing my mental health about halfway through the process, so I started allowing myself longer breaks and taking a couple of days off here and there. It was hard because when I write or draw fictional stories I don’t experience this sort of stress much at all.
Your author’s note touches on the challenges of writing a memoir, especially the fact that people are often reduced to a single story or identity, and that you wanted this memoir to offer a fuller picture of your life as a kid and who you were. Do you think the same challenge applies to fiction as well? What are some ways that you included a variety of experiences in Other Boys to paint a fuller picture?
Continuing a bit off of the last question… it’s hard to just fit everything a person goes through into one book. As soon as the book was “done” I would remember something that would have fit into it perfectly and would kick myself for not including it. One of the main issues I ran into writing memoir versus fiction is that I had to rely on memories to move the story forward, whereas with fiction I could just imagine/make up something that would fit perfectly! I also think fictional contemporary stories get called out too often for being “unrealistic” because things seem too fast, but that’s just because we generally don’t get to see all of the in-between moments that make a person fully realized. Mostly because following a character sitting in class for two hours or going to the bathroom is boring.
If you could design your dream panel to promote Other Boys, what would the panel be about? What other authors would you like to have on it with you?
If I was on my dream panel it would definitely be a few of my favorite authors like Brian Selznick, whose work I’ve admired since I was in second grade. Though to be honest, I would probably be so starstruck I would pass out and break my glasses on one of those metal folding chairs! I would also love one with Raina Telgemeier, whose graphic novels helped put middle grade comics on the map and inspired me to go with this format. In all honesty, though, I would also just love to be on a panel full of diverse and upcoming graphic novelists.
What other books do you think are in conversation with Other Boys (they don’t also have to be graphic novels, MG, or memoirs)?
Flamer by Mike Curato and Spinning by Tillie Walden are two LGBTQ+ graphic novels I think are in similar conversation with Other Boys, but aimed at a YA audience. Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka also follows a kid with a similar family structure to my own, and is set not too far from where I grew up! I also think the upcoming graphic novel Big Apple Diaries by Alyssa Bermudez, which follows a girl who loves to doodle and lives in New York during 9/11, would appeal to a similar audience.
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books?
I could recommend three pages of books but I’ll try and stick to a handful of more recent publications with similar themes! For older readers, I’d suggest Surrender Your Sons, an LGBTQ YA novel by Adam Sass, as well as Caleb Roehrig’s LGBTQ+ mysteries. For younger readers who might’ve enjoyed Other Boys, I’d suggest the Real Friends series by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, as well as the Click book series by Kayla Miller, which both deal with early friendships, bullying, and fitting in.
Damian Alexander is a cartoonist and storyteller who grew up in and around Boston. His first graphic novel, Other Boys, is based off his viral and award winning autobiographical webcomics. Damian’s illustrations and comic shorts can be found on The Trevor Project, Narratively, The Nib and others. He loves ghost stories, miniatures, and watching cartoons with his cats on sunny afternoons.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.