An Elegy for Amelia Johnson Interview with Andrew Rostan & Dave Valeza
First off, I must apologize to the wonderful Andrew Rostan and Dave Valeza for the delay in posting this interview. This interview was conducted months ago and I am extremely sorry for the delay in publishing it. Life gets in the way far too often of those things we enjoy doing the most. Regardless, the book is available for purchase and this will just serve as a reminder that if you haven’t picked up An Elegy for Amelia Johnson yet, there is never a better time than the present!
You can read some excellent reviews of this book on Geek Girls Network, Guerrilla Geek, and even here on Nerds in Babeland. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to speak with the author, Andrew Rostan, and one of the two illustrators, Dave Valeza, many moons ago about this fabulous book from Archaia Entertainment.
Stephanie Wooten: This book is amazing because you start reading it and you have a certain thing in mind about what it’s going to be. It’s a story about cancer, you expect to be bawling by the end of it, but it’s actually really, in the end it’s pretty uplifting.
Andrew Rostan: That was exactly our intentions…We want to tell something really positive about humanity.
SW: Funny little side note, my roommate and I just saw King’s Speech last night and we were saying that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of stuff out right now that seems to be positive about humanity.
Dave Valeza: I think you see it more in indy books, because I think a lot of mainstream books and things like that, they’re, I guess for lack of a better phrase, they’re trying to sell something else like action or a franchise or something like that. It’s definitely harder to find stories that are just…slice of life, something that is a little more raw, and something, I don’t want to say basic but something that is more fundamental in what it’s trying to express.
AR: I can agree with Dave, there….It’s kind of funny that Dave brought up the whole point about superhero books. When Stephen Christy (Archaia’s Editor-in-Chief), when he and I started working together, one of the rules he kind of laid out for me in the beginning was don’t write a superhero book. Not that superhero books are bad, I get a kick out of them, but I was constantly trying to write something opposite, and I know that Dave’s artwork is as far away from the DC/Marvel/Jack Kirby kind of thing as you can get. We’re very happy with how it turned out.
SW: I know that in the press release it says that this is not auto-biographical at all, correct?
AR: Not at all
SW: Where did the story come from?
AR: This is something I’ve told so many people and will probably tell so many more people about before the year is over, but the truth is Stephen & I got to know each other in college and after graduation we both moved to Los Angeles. He went into comics right away and I started writing. One day I called him up and chatted and he said, “Andrew I want you to write a book.” He always thought I was a good writer. Don’t ask me why. It was kind of tough at the beginning because I kept coming up with notions of what I thought the comic book or graphic novel should be and Stephen had to keep very gently telling me that my original ideas were pretty bad. And then, one day, we’re wrapping up a meeting at this Panera in Santa Monica and I asked him, “Stephen, what kinds of stories do you want to tell?” And he told me that he wanted to tell a story about love and time and as I was walking back to my car, thinking about love and time, death just popped into my head…It’s very hard for me to tell a story that doesn’t have a happy ending…So I find out if I could get a happy ending out of death, it would work. And I thought, what if death could lead to life in the sense…that somebodies’ death kind of helps two people fall in love?
After that, a whole story just kind of started to fall into place. Though, very little of my original draft is similar to the final product and part of that is due to the joy of getting to work with people like Stephen & Dave. Also because things just kept growing the more I realized the potential of what I had to tell, the more the story just opened up, and it was about three months after that when I finished a draft outline that Dave joined.
DV: I was actually called in because Stephen & Andrew had seen my work at a SCAD art anthology (Savannah College of Art & Design). They saw my work in the 2007 (or 2006 whichever) anthology and they were able to contact me through that. And they sent me the outline and it sounded great so I signed on.
SW: So you always wanted to do comic art, then? Or this sort of comic art?
DV: I actually went to SCAD and graduated with a bachelor’s in illustration and I had a minor in sequential art, and I have a lot of friends who were in the comic department and I really enjoyed the classes there. I also really enjoyed the Illustration Department there, they’re both really great departments, but I found when I graduated that I really just wanted to do comics more. It’s a lot of fun, I get to work with ideas a lot more, it just felt more in-depth. I could really, I guess to use a metaphor, I could sink my fingers into the clay deeper and mold things better. It is just really thrilling to work with a story. When they first approached me, I was turning around and was going to go get my Masters in sequential art, but it was definitely a lot all at once. But it is still really cool, I’m really grateful that they asked me to be a part of this. It’s been a heck of a ride I guess.
SW: You guys have been working on this since 2006, correct?
DV: Longer for Andrew. I’ve only been on it since 2007, but yea that sounds about right.
AR: I’ve been through actually a really remarkable process….I spent the last 5 months of 2007 working on a really good outline…Then, in ’08 I sat down and started writing a script, page by page, and probably one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten was from Stephen after I turned in my first draft. I’d never written a graphic novel or a comic book before in my life. I’d just looked at a few simple pages of scripts from people like Mark Millar and Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison, and I was like, ok, this is how you do it, and went from there. And Stephen told me, after he’d gotten my first draft, that if he hadn’t known these were first times, that he’d think I had been doing this for years.
I wrote the book, Dave started illustrating it…and I was just ecstatic that somebody this good was drawing to go with my text. Then it was at the tail end of 2008, and it was almost ready to go and Dave took it in to one of his workshops at SCAD, right Dave?
DV: I took it into one of our studio classes at SCAD. In grad school everyone is working on their comic projects and I just have opportunities, you know, I have all my peers here, let’s get some feedback on it. And, they really liked it but they did point out that there were some story speed bumps and things like that so I went back to Stephen & Andrew with their critique and we decided that we had to actually go back a little and do some re-writes just so that everything would flow a lot better. So, it was definitely a little unorthodox.
AR: This was in February of ’09 and my computer had just crashed and I had a friend and roommate, Mike, who let me use his iMac and I spent two weeks, almost, just writing, hours a day, every day I wasn’t at my job, and in that time, I think I completely revised 68-70% of the book and what came out was better than ever. I know I’ve not written anything that well before…I was completely re-writing dialogue, re-ordering scenes, rearranging panels, and it kind of beat me up a little bit. We, all of us knew, that whatever we were doing, it was only going to make the book the best book it could be. So at the end of this, I was slightly creatively drained but getting the first feedback from Stephen made it all worth it.
DV: That final re-write, that’s the book that you read last night and it’s really great. And over the process, I actually had to step back just because it took a little longer and I had to take care of some personal things and that’s when we brought in Kate and Kate was actually in that class that critiqued the rough draft.
AR: I never knew that until now!
DV: You didn’t? Yea, she was right there in the front row, and I dunno if she remembers, it was awhile ago, but I’ve seen her work in person. I’ve been in classes with her, she’s really talented, she’s really amazing and it shows in the work. She’s got a really great style. It’s very fluid, I want to say kinetic but, it’s just really flows really well. It was a really good fit that I think when I had to step back (we were talking about this in another interview) they had asked me how’d you feel about that, because when you’re an artist everything is your baby, but, I took confidence in the fact that I knew who I was handing it off to so I didn’t have to worry about that. For me, I think the biggest thing was just having to step back because you’re on a project for 1-2 years and you really want to see it through but it definitely was on it’s way, and she helped bring it to finish and, we all did, it is just a really great work.
AR: I’ve been Dave’s biggest fan, I have nothing but immense admiration for him, and I was really a little devastated when we had to pick things up here again, but Kate is a genius and a powerhouse. When I started getting her pages in, I had exactly the same reaction I had with Dave. I’m like, this is incredibly beautiful and I’m just so grateful at the way things worked out. I can’t say enough good things about Kate.
SW: It does, it flows nicely. It seems like the ultimate collaboration, everything just works so well together. All of the art, the story. You guys are carrying on an amazing tradition that I feel Archaia is already setting up. This is another really strong, awesome graphic novel coming out from this company. You’ve already seen the review from Newsarama, but I agree that this is definitely one of the books people will be talking about this year.
AR: Thank you!
DV: Thank you, that’s a great compliment. It’s so funny, I told Andrew and Stephen this before, it is so unreal to be giving interviews. I look at these websites, I’ve read them ever since I was a sophomore in college and reading about comics and then there’s your name and it’s just so unreal. It won’t be real until I hold the hardcopy in my hands and, like, oh this is really happening. You’re just working on it for so long and it’s something else. And then, you’re just excited but you’re not, I guess, aware of how things are outside of it, so that’s a really great compliment. Thank you.
AR: I just want to add, I also feel, we both feel very fortunate that Archaia’s publishing it…I think about what Archaia’s responsible for, things like The Killer, Mouse Guard, and Return of the Dapper Men. To be mentioned in the same breath of books like those and the rest of Archaia’s output is just startling.
SW: To the story a little bit, how much of yourselves are put into the characters in both the illustrations and the story? Andrew, you are also a screenwriter, how much of yourself are in these characters?
AR: I just want to clarify one thing, I use to be a screenwriter, not anymore. That was an immense help, but from now on I really want to stick with more graphic novels. But, in terms of how much this book is me personally, the emotional content of the book are things I’ve thought about and dealt with for a long time, but the plot has almost nothing to do with my life and the characters are definitely not. In fact, one of the reasons the book reads so well, is that Stephen made me do one revision where all I did was work on characters and dialogue and make sure that none of them sounded like the other.
SW: That’s not easy to do.
AR: I’ll be honest, some characters were based on people I have known in my life and known very well. I’m not mentioning any names right off the bat. Henry and Julien are based on people I know. Amelia is a combination of several remarkable women I’ve known throughout my life. I took qualities they have and mixed and matched them into one person. And most of the other characters didn’t have specific analogues but once I fully formed Henry and Julian and Amelia’s persona, I just started matching what kind of people they would interact with and bounce off of and this whole world just opened up. In terms of what’s autobiographical for me, it’s mostly the philosophy of the book. It’s the most autobiographical part of it. Questions about love and life and death.
DV: Andrew wrote a really great story and these are really great characters because I definitely, when I was just reading the outline, when I was just starting out, I definitely could identify with what the main characters go through, or like when you look at the characters, especially Henry and Julien, they’re both really accomplished people but they’re still, they’re very insecure, they’re very unsure…I think it’s just something I encountered in school a lot, especially grad school too, you find a lot of people who, they’ve been a lot of places, they’ve done a lot of things, but it’s sort of this question you have in your youth, am I doing enough, or more importantly, am I doing the right things. You wonder and you smack everything against yourself as a person that you can’t even move forward. So, that’s something I can relate to a lot, because I feel like you’re always trying to find out where your place is…That’s definitely a theme of his that I really related with. The other theme that really resonated with me that Andrew has going is that all the people that we meet are so different, they’re so, they’re all coming from different places and they have all these great qualities about them and they’re really endearing people and it really reminds me a lot of my friends and, like with Amelia, all these people, they’re close to her in her heart but they’re not physically close to her. They’re all over the country and that’s sort of like me and my friends. We all graduated and we’re all scattered to the wind and they’re not here but I think about them a lot and I think about what they’ve taught me. And that applies to college when I would think about my family. And that definitely resonates with me, how people affect you and what they leave you with when they’re not there anymore.
SW: You guys hit the nail on the head with regards to these types of characters, especially characters in the art world in general, writers, artists, photography, that whole world.
DV: Andrew planned a lot of good moments, and they’re sprinkled throughout. We’ve all felt alone in a room where you had to leave and go somewhere so that you can get emotion out. We’ve all burned bridges and had regret. Andrew’s got all those moments throughout the book.
AR: During the period when the story came together, both periods actually, I was living in Los Angeles, and all of my closest friends were people who were trying to do things in film or television or theater or internet entertainment and we were all just a whole bunch of young people in our early twenties, really on our own mostly from the other side of the country, and in times like that you’re alone a lot because a lot of creativity is very solitary, but you also know you have each other because you all can relate to what you’re going through. My friends always meant the world to me, but they really meant a lot back then when I was out so far from home for the first time. I was still single, still unsure of what I was going to end up doing and, for a little while, where my next paycheck would be coming from and when. And in situations like that, watching certain people go through your struggles, and also watching them fall in love and break up with people and go through all these trials and losses, there’s no way you can keep that out of your life and I just combined so much, not specific examples of people lives, but things I felt watching life. Things I felt about myself and my relationship to the world. That, if anything made the book as realistic as you say it is, that was it.
SW: So what’s next for both of you?
DV: Right now I’m trying to work on smaller work, like short form comics like a web comic. I don’t have anything concrete. I just want to let my brain breathe for a little while. I feel really grateful and I’m definitely excited to see what’s next. I’m thinking of coming back and finishing school. I guess I’m going to play it by ear.
AR: In the last twelve months, I got my Masters degree, I got to finish working with Dave & Kate and see Amelia finally hit the presses and I’m in a relationship with an extraordinarily talented woman. And all of this has kind of re-‘fired’ my creative energy more than ever. I’m working on a few different projects right now. Stephen and I have been planning a second book from me for Archaia for quite awhile. We’re now in early development on a potential project, which I don’t want to talk about them too much…But also I’m doing a project on my own, I wrote one novel when I was in Los Angeles. It was very bad but I learned enough and I’m giving it another try. I’m working on a book and, basically, it took me about a year and a half to write what I have right now, but this could match Amelia as the best thing I’ve ever written. I don’t know what’s really next. I’m going to San Diego in a few months for Comic Con and I don’t know what’s going to happen there but I feel it is safe to say that you have not heard the last of me.
Thank you again to Andrew and Dave for taking the time out of their busy schedules for the interview and for their patience in waiting for this interview to go up. Go pick up An Elegy for Amelia Johnson. It is another excellent graphic novel from Archaia and worth all of the praise it has received!
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