5 Questions for Johnnie Christmas

Interview by the Young Adulting Editors

Johnnie Christmas is a #1 New York Times Best Selling graphic novelist. His 2022 middle grade graphic novel debut SWIM TEAM earned a spot on the National Book Awards longlist, a Coretta Scott King Award Illustrator Honor, and a Harvey Awards nomination. He’s currently hard at work on two new middle-grade graphic novels for the HarperAlley imprint of HarperCollins. Writer of the Image Comics sci-fi series TARTARUS and CREMA, a haunted romance published by Comixology. His book FIREBUG received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and it earned him a Joe Shuster Outstanding Cartoonist nomination. He’s perhaps best known for co-creating the series ANGEL CATBIRD with celebrated writer Margaret Atwood and adapting William Gibson’s lost screenplay for ALIEN 3 into a critically acclaimed graphic novel of the same name. His credits also include co-creating the pre-apocalyptic thriller SHELTERED. A graduate of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, earning a BFA in Communication Design/Illustration. Johnnie makes Vancouver, BC his home.

1. Hi Johnnie! Thank you so much for joining us here at Young Adulting. We’re so excited to have you! What part of your process do you look forward to most when you begin a graphic novel?

Thanks for having me, Hannah! The parts of the process that I enjoy most are the beginning and the end: I enjoy getting the initial part of scripting/outlining which consists of getting ideas out in a big, formless, shapeless nebula of words and feelings. It’s very fun because it doesn’t have to be perfectly edited, formatted or structured at that point. It doesn’t have to be anything at all.

They are just ideas being jotted down. It’s a very freeing, no pressure, part of the process.

The other part of the process I enjoy is the end. The stage that we call “Inks”, basically the final drawing. It’s very enjoyable because at that point the script is written, the thumbnails are done, the pencils down. Acting, blocking and all of the other structural elements are already laid out. It’s just drawing with ink (or digitally), one last time. You can be bold with the line, knowing that you’ve already laid everything out. It’s the part of the process where I achieve “Flow” most often.

2. You have experience storytelling with both visuals and words—do you find one form more effective when conveying certain themes?

Each form has it strength. The written word can be very direct and helpful if you need to describe something that isn’t entirely visual (the smell or sound of something in the story, for instance. Since comics are solely a visual medium). Also writing is also very efficient for expository storytelling. Words are a very fast, clear way to get complex ideas out in a very short amount of page real estate. You can also describe emotional feelings with a bit more complexity with the written word. However, emotional complexity is sometimes best shown. Reading the emotions on a character’s face can be more powerful and subtle than a long block of exposition. Also expressing place is very effective in pictures. Showing what a world looks like is far more effective with an image. If I wanted to depict the interior of a gas station as gritty and grimy, showing it would be clearer. Yet describing it may better convey how I feel about the gas station, perhaps I despise it. Maybe it’s a nostalgic happy place for me. This is where words and action have a leg up.

3. In Swim Team, Ms. Etta plays an integral role in Bree’s quest to learn how to swim. Often in books for middle grade and young adult readers, parental-like figures play a small or even absent part in the main character’s story. Why was it important for Bree to have such a strong mentor in her story?

A major theme of Swim Team is community. And swimming is most often learned from a teacher. In both ways Miss Etta was very effective for the story. She acted as a conduit to the community and parental figure, when Bree’s father was working all the time. And she was Bree’s weekend swim coach. And handily, for the reader, she conveyed quite a bit of historical knowledge by answering Bree’s questions. Miss Etta was the missing link, the crossroads, for many of the parts of Bree’s life and the story. Also Miss Etta was a fun character to write. She was loving and caring, but also bore disappointments and grudges. Like many of us are and do.

4. Who are some visual artists or illustrators you’ve been inspired by lately?

Interestingly, you caught me at a time when I am most interested in fiction and nonfiction not so much visual art. These days I see most new visual art through Instagram. So I might see an artist and be completely enthralled in their work, but then the algorithm sweeps them away and they don’t stay in my consciousness very long. Even if I follow them, they may never surface in my feed again. But if I go to the museum, what I find there will generally be in my mind much longer. Perhaps the rest of the afternoon or perhaps for years.

5. Would you explore other stories in the same world as Swim Team? If not, would you be able to share a little bit about what you’re working on now?

For now, I don’t have any plans for more Swim Team stories. However saying I never will would be a mistake. Stories have a mind of their own, and if a story with these wonderful characters needs to be written, I’ll serve the story and get it out into the world.

The story that I’m working on now is a very fun one! It’s about summer camp, video games and pre-teen rebellion. I’m very much looking forward to you all reading it. It should be out sometime next year.

For extra content, Johnnie chatted with our managing editor about writing and illustrating for middle grade readers! Be sure to check out the recorded conversation on our YouTube channel!

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