One of my absolute favorite comic creators happened into comics almost by accident. Cartoonist Brenna Thummler hadn’t really considered reading comics, let alone making comics, until well into her life, 2 but once she started, she took to it about as well as a human possibly could. Thummler’s a natural, someone both gifted at the craft and storytelling, while also being an accidental iconoclast, doing things completely her own way because she didn’t have the built in expectations that come from reading comics for decades before starting the work.
Thummler realized those gifts beautifully this year in Delicates, the sequel to her debut as a cartoonist, Sheets. It’s an absolute wonder of a graphic novel, one that touches on the universality of feeling like an outsider – sometimes even when you’re an insider! – while digging deeper into the lives (or post-lives, in the latter’s case) of series leads Marjorie and Wendell.
Given my love for this Oni/Lion Forge release, I knew I wanted to talk with Thummler about what into the book. But instead of another podcast appearance, Thummler and I put together an art feature interview in which she talks about her processes, continuing to build on this larger story, her continued learning about the comic form, and more, before we break down some pages from Delicates itself to learn about the decision making that went into it.
Delicates is a sequel to Sheets, your phenomenal debut (at least in full) graphic novel. Did you know going into Sheets that there might be more there and that you might want to explore more of Marjorie and Wendell’s story in a sequel? Or is this more of a situation where success begets the potential for a sequel, so you had to find what that would look like for these characters?
Brenna Thummler: Sheets began as an assignment for my college Children’s Book Writing course. I never expected it to be anything more than Sheets of paper collecting dust. When I completed Anne of Green Gables and the new goal was to write my own, I resurrected Sheets and transformed it into a graphic novel manuscript, still somewhat expecting it to be the death of my short-lived career. (The death storyline was very fitting, here, of course.) It was a combination of the book’s success, my deep affection for the characters, and the opportunity to tackle mental health alongside ghosts that motivated me to create a sequel.
You had drawn an Anne of Green Gables graphic novel before, but Sheets was the first time you did everything in a single book before. I imagine that, at least to a degree, you learned a lot during that process, both about how to make comics but also the ways you like to make them and what you like to do in these stories. I know this is a relative term, as graphic novels are sort of always difficult, but did you find that Delicates was at least a bit easier because of what you learned when you made Sheets?
BT: It was easier in that I had already created most of the characters, established the style, and had set the tone for the sequel. But for me, a new graphic novel is an opportunity to produce something much stronger than the previous one. Sheets, like Anne of Green Gables, was a bit of an experiment for me, while Delicates was the application of everything I had learned. So while I had a better understanding of what I was doing, Delicates was actually more difficult to create. I wanted the writing to be more honest and human and I wanted the art to better capture this. It’s strange to think that as I continue to learn, graphic novels will become both harder and easier.
Eliza Duncan, an outsider who, in some ways, was in Marjorie’s position from the first book, is introduced in Delicates, acting as a co-lead of sorts with Marjorie and Wendell. What made Eliza’s inclusion and the dynamic she introduces interesting and fertile ground to you as a storyteller?
BT: Eliza has become the new outsider, but from the earliest stages of writing Delicates, I wanted her to be the polar opposite of Marjorie. There are surface level differences, like the fact that Eliza is obsessed with ghosts and vocal about their presence in the human world. But on a deeper level, she is surprisingly a lot stronger than Marjorie. While Marjorie often wobbles in her sense of self and understanding of friendship, Eliza knows exactly who she is and nothing can sway her. This contrast was critical in telling a complex bullying story. The best word to describe Eliza is “determined,” and we see this not only in her ghost-catching goals, but also in her patience with the fragile darkroom process, and her fight for acceptance. It’s because of this that she becomes both the perfect target and the perfect sympathetic hero, and proves that even the strongest people need help.
Let’s talk about process a little bit before we get into some pages from the book. How do you work, from idea creation to finished book? Is it pretty straightforward, plot, script, layouts, pencils, inks, and then coloring and lettering? Or is it more fluid than that? Beyond that, did that process evolve after taking on the first book and learning more about how you could make a comic?
BT: Oh, my process is incredibly straightforward and logical. I am quite a left-brained person, in fact, and thrive in order and method. Career aptitude tests never encouraged any job in the artistic realm, but here I am. My writing stage consists of long character analyses, detailed plot maps, and a ton of research. And I won’t draw a thing until the entire manuscript is written and edited to a state of near-completion. Not only does this help me maintain sanity, but it gives me a strong, intricately woven story as the foundation for my visuals. It’s similar to how a director would work after receiving a film script. If I were to try a different process, I think I’d have a breakdown.
Let’s start with this page from early in the book. I love the implied motion of this layout, with the first panel and Marjorie barely making it on there being this little thing I absolutely love. It’s a simple layout, but it says a lot despite having seven total words on it. When it comes to laying pages out, what’s your approach to thinking those through? Do you have any personal rules or specific objectives you go into any page with, or is it very much instinctual for you?
BT: It’s a mix of math and instinct. In the manuscript, I write “stage directions” like characters’ expressions and actions, but leave plenty of space for the story to come alive when I begin the art. For example, the scripted version of this page would simply note that Marjorie is riding her bike through the quiet morning of Finster Bay. The math comes in when I try to determine how many pages I’ll need for the scene, where I need page turns, and how to break down the scene into panels to capture the proper layout, timing, and individual compositions. But everything else is pure emotion. I just have to feel the scene, and imagine myself in Marjorie’s place. I do have rules and specific objectives, but those are pretty instinctual, too, I think. With each new book, I learn how to better illustrate a moment, but unfortunately it keeps getting more difficult to explain how I do it.
There’s an omnipresent feeling of what I’m going to call “lovely sadness” in these books. There’s a warmth there, but emotion is pervasive throughout. Little decisions like Marjorie’s placement in the first panel contribute to that. Put her on the flipside or the center or really anywhere else and it just isn’t the same. When you’re dealing with panels like that, something that’s literally just travel and easily could just be an establishing shot, what makes those moments interesting to you for character opportunities?
BT: I think every single panel should express something. When you only have so many frames to capture an entire scene, every frame matters. The first graphic novel I read was This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, and that has been my number one influence as a creator. In their masterpiece, it’s never really about the action taking place. It’s always about what the character is feeling, or what the Tamakis want the audience to feel for the character. Marjorie didn’t necessarily need to be biking, here. (I just like bikes.) It’s all about the fact she’s disappearing, or the fact she’s small and alone in a large, quiet space. It’s an opportunity to illustrate true moments, for in reality, we never simply walk from point A to point B. We skip or we slump or we scurry with a relevant expression on our face. And that’s how I strive to build more realistic characters.
This very much ties into the first question on the previous page, but I love that the third and fourth panels are literally Marjorie looking into the past. When I saw that, my brain basically started firing “YES!” signals. Is the interactivity of panels like those something that really appeals to you? Being able to use sequencing in such a way to deliver implied meaning?
BT: YES. 100%! I’m always thinking about the direction a character (or any object) is facing or traveling. Especially in these quiet moments, it’s important to help guide the reader through, because without dialogue, there’s a lot more room for interpretation. It’s a benefit of graphic novels, of course, that readers must draw their own conclusions and think more critically. But creators must make sure they’re providing enough for the story to make sense, especially when time isn’t linear.
This is a good time to bring up color, as there’s a slightly different approach to the flashback here. Throughout the book, though, there are scenes that have consistent colors that define all kinds of things, whether it’s location or time or season or whatever. It feels like shorthand. Is color a big part of your process when you’re first starting on the book and specific pages? Or is it something that mostly comes in the end?
BT: Color is pretty much my final step, but there’s a lot to consider in this stage. The color palette itself must fit the story’s tone and remain consistent throughout. But as I pull my readers back in time, or into a different space entirely, I have to make these changes clear. The only difference in this flashback scene is the color of the line, but as you can see, that has a big impact! Later on, when Eliza enters the darkroom, you’ll notice the only color used (besides the purple line) is pink. This illustrates the red light of the darkroom, and helps place the reader in a different space—Eliza’s place of solitude. The choice was both logical and emotional.