Anatomy of a Panel: Alex Sanchez Brings YOU BROUGHT ME THE OCEAN

Comics history is intermedial, seeing its evolution as a journey of creative cross-pollinations with stage, photographic, musical, film, animation, radio,  and long and short form prose narrative arts. Along with this history, there have been notable creator cross-overs and bi-directional cross-flows.

From comics to long form narrative fiction we have notables like Stan Lee, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dennis O’Neil, Chris Claremont, and G. Willow Wilson. And, from long form narrative fiction to comics we have notables such as Marjorie Lu , Stephen King, Jonathan Lethem, Margaret Atwood, Duane Swierczynski, and Greg Rucka.

To this latter, famed list we can now add Alex Sanchez, author of DC’s hot-off-press, You Brought Me the Ocean (2020).

Alex brings more than his novel-writing narrative chops to DC’s new line of teen graphic novels. He brings his extraordinary skill at building ethnoracial and queer teen story-worlds to DC’s teen super-hero reboots.

In all his fiction, Alex draws deeply on his own autobiographical experience. Born in Mexico City. Grown in Texas where he also struggled with coming out as gay. Higher educated at Virginia Tech and Old Dominion University.

With his fictional writing skills honed at the Fine Arts Work Center in Massachusetts, he chose to return to his seminal struggles with his sexuality and ethnoracial identity. He began churning out middle-grade and young adult ethnoracial and queer-themed novels, including the award-winning Rainbow Boys (2001), as well as Rainbow High (2003), So Hard to Say (2004), Rainbow Road (2005), Getting It (2006), Bait (2009), and Boyfriends with Girlfriends (2011), among others.

Alex shared his creative process and insights in the creation of Jake Hyde’s coming of age and coming out story as gay and as the Aqualad superhero in the magical and magisterial You Brought Me the Ocean.

Cover art by Julie Maroh

Frederick Luis Aldama:  Alex, I am so, so excited to be talking with you about your latest—the graphic novel You Brought Me the Ocean. It combines all of my loves: YA novels, LGBTQ themes, and comic books!!! Can you share a little bit about your journey first with gay teen fiction and now the move into comic books?

Alex Sanchez:  Being a teenager can be a tough time. For me it was very confusing and scary, in large part because I was sorting out my attraction to guys, not girls. I had bottled all this up inside, until I began to write.

At first, I was scared to put on the page all these conflicts and struggles with my identity. It was scarier still to share this with other people. To make myself vulnerable to rejection. The process was also incredibly empowering. To be able to say, this is who I am and to connect with others and receive positive feedback. Writing fiction is all about emotional honesty. It’s about putting our innermost thoughts and feelings on the page.

FLA:  In 2001 you published Rainbow Boys right at the cusp of teen fiction explosion, both in terms of industry and also creativity.

AS:  Harry Potter had blown open the YA market, not just attracting more young readers but also more adults. Teen fiction was telling powerful, real-life stories. Within this scene, Rainbow Boys was considered groundbreaking. Up until this point, LGBTQ characters that had appeared were loners, who  usually committed suicide or died tragically. No one dies in my novel, instead focusing on and developing the love triangle between three high school senior boys.

FLA:  The way you build complexity of emotions, ethics, and actions into your teen fiction has since created empowered YA queer reading communities. Comic books can also be a space for creating communities of readers—especially those pushed to the edges.  And now you are creating within this storytelling space—an exciting one with DC’s recent launch of its teen graphic fiction series.

AS:  DC wants to reach a broader audience than those who typically read comic books.  They want these graphic novels to focus on real-life teen issues, including sexuality and sexual orientation.  After asking around who might be a good writer to do this, they reached out to me to see if I might be interested in writing a new version of Aqualad, who had identified as gay in previous versions.

I was really excited. Unlike a 32-page comic book, I knew that I could go more in-depth into the emotional experience of the characters with the graphic novel’s 150-200 pages.

I was excited, too, because there just aren’t very many LGBTQ superheroes.  The superhero genre traditionally has worked as a metaphor for LGBTQ readers: growing up queer and having to live with secret identities and double lives because we’re dealing with this real-life super villain that’s homophobia and transphobia.  I was excited to explore Jake Hyde’s coming out with his sexuality and discovering his superpowers.

FLA: In the introduction, you talk about monsters in comics and also how LGBTQ folks and people of color in the US continue to be seen as deviants — as monsters?

AS:  I’m an immigrant from Mexico.  I was five-years-old when we moved to Texas and faced a lot of prejudice against Mexicans.  At the time, I couldn’t understand why they were picking on me for being Mexican. I felt like I was a monster just because of who I was.  As I got older and realized that I was romantically attracted to boys as well as girls, I felt like there was something wrong with me again; that I was a monster.

In You Brought Me the Ocean, Jake struggles with people who consider him monstrous for being gay and for having these strange markings on his body. He’s picked on, bullied, and harassed just because he’s different.

FLA:  Writing a graphic novel was a new creative foray for you. Was there a moment when you hesitated to take the project?

AS:  It was both exciting and scary. Even though I loved to draw as a boy and read my share of comics, I knew nothing about writing graphic novels. DC told me not to worry: That I knew how to tell a story, to focus on the emotional core of the story, and not to worry about doing ton of research about the character. They gave me tremendous freedom make the story my own. To really write the story that I wanted to tell.

They did set some perimeters, including that it needed to be set in the DC universe.  So, when Jake and his best friend, Maria, walk through the desert they see Superman swooshing through sky, setting it in the DC Universe and reminding readers that this is a superhero story.  And, DC did provide me and other authors training in writing for a graphic novel.

FLA:  Alex, so how does writing a graphic novel script differ from writing a novel? 

AS:  To start out, I didn’t realize that they are written in script form; like a movie script except but that also includes breaking the script down into panels. More specifically, I see several key differences from writing a standard prose novel.

One, because of this breaking down into panels aspect you have more control over how it’s going to be seen on the page. You can pace it according to how many panels and where you are on the page.

Two, there’s the importance of the page turn: what’s going to be in that bottom right panel—especially on the right-side page—that’s going to keep the reader turning the pages.  So, as I’m writing the script, I’m thinking about what hook will appear in that bottom right panel that will take the reader to the next page.

Third, the panels should be dynamic—and not just talking heads. In other words, your eye shouldn’t be directed straight to the dialogue or to the captions, they should be directed to the actions, expressions and body language of the characters in the panels. For each panel I would figure out how it could be more dynamic in terms of how the characters might be doing something that would cause the eye to pause.

Ideally, when we’re reading a graphic novel we’re doing so on two levels: the text (dialogue and the captions) and the pictures.  That’s the power of its storytelling.  Otherwise, it may as well just be writing straight prose.

FLA: Can you speak to the collaborative process?

AS: This was really exciting for me. When I write a novel, I have a vague idea of what the character is going to look like. Working with Julie Moroh — known for Blue Is the Warmest Color I was able to then to see how they brought the characters to life. Julie’s artwork is so gorgeous. It’s so exhilarating as a writer to see the characters that I created come to life through the artist’s creation.

FLA: Did you write the script from A-Z then share with Julie?

AS: Working with the editor Sarah Miller, I broke down my original synopsis into chunks of script that we then sent to Julie; Julie created some initial sketches that DC published at the end of the book so you can see what they did there, their process.  And then Julie went to work.

I have so much admiration for Julie because they were cranking out five pages (20-30 panels) a week.  I don’t know how they did it. Julie is such a talent. They’re able to capture an incredible range of emotions with the characters.

FLA:  I’d even go so far as to say that by bringing you and Julie together to create You Brought Me the Ocean is giving an otherwise stagnant DC a jolt of life.  Can you tell us about the story’s setting?

AS:  In previous Aqualad stories, Jackson Hyde (son of Black Manta) lives as far away from the water and Black Manta as possible. He lives in Silver City, New Mexico.  I changed the town name to Truth or Consequences — a very cute town I’d driven through before. The name resonated for me in terms of the story and themes of truth, honesty, and being true to who we are.

FLA:  The landscape and architecture as well as the racial demographic is so diverse and different.

AS:  It’s muted earth tones — the tans and browns and oranges and yellows — and Julie’s watercolors — the blues and turquoise and green — capture this beautifully.  As the story unfolds, Julie’s colors become more vibrant. In the same way that as writer I use all my writer tools to build the conflict and escalate the complications, so too does Julie uses their artist tools to make the story more visually vivid as it unfolds.

FLA:  For the most part, the parents in your storyworld are gentle with the teenagers. So often in coming out stories, the struggle and conflict is built into the relationship between the teen and parent. In fact, Jake’s mom is more worried about him coming into his superpowers than coming out.

AS:  Whether it be a hero or a villain, I want the reader to be able to connect to all the characters I create.  So even for the bully in this story that isn’t very likable, I wanted to get at his real human feelings — his jealousies and motivations — to make him so the reader can at least understand him. This creates in the reader a cognitive dissonance: I’m not supposed to like this character, but I understand them.  Cut and dry characters don’t reflect the complex range of our motivations. We all have a mix of good and bad in us.

FLA: Jake and Kenny are gay and ethnoracially identified as a matter of fact — as part of everyday life.

AS:  Creating this story as a graphic novel meant that I didn’t have to be commenting on their race and ethnicity. You see it on the page.  What I find so exciting about graphic novels is how diversity and diverse images can simply exist visually on the page.

FLA:  A-listers like Spider-man, Batman, Captain America, Iron Man all wear masks of some sort.  For Jake, the challenge is really to take his mask off, right?

AS:  Jake’s story is the combination of superhero with real life. The real super villain in our lives is transphobia and homophobia, forcing us when growing up to wear the mask of straightness.  For Jake to express himself he has to learn to be true to who he is.

Empowerment is not being forced to deny aspects of ourselves and being able to embrace the totality of who we are as integrated human.  My hope is, that young readers will walk away from Jake’s story knowing that their superpower is being able to embrace all of who they are—and with this empowerment contribute in powerful ways to make the world a better place.

FLA:  Might you unpack page 65 when Jake struggles with his body and dreams of leaving town for the ocean where he can “figure out who I truly am.”

AS:  As I’m writing a page like this, I’m thinking constantly, how can I make this part of the story as visual as possible.  Jake’s going through a dark moment. He needs to make a decision about who he is and where his life is going. He falls back on his bed and stares up at the ceiling.  But having him just staring up at the ceiling is a boring image.

I wanted to make it visually more exciting — and to convey this sense of him wanting to leave and escape his confinement. So, I decided to put a map of the world on his ceiling that he can look at and dream. Julie captured this so beautifully in the first image.

DC told us to can give the artist words that describe what the character is feeling in any given moment. Julie took my words and visually rendered his different emotions through the drawings of his body posture and expression.

The second image shows Jake filled with shame as he looks at his reflection in a mirror. He’s shedding the outer skin, the covering that he’s always wearing in public.  He has the shame, the shame about those markings, so now he’s like uncovering the shame and looking at who he is. This emotion turns to disappointment — a loss of hope — in the following image with him in the chair.

Julie has Jake slumped over.  The final image with him lying on his back conveys his vulnerability. Julie’s black swirls express the confusion and darkness that he’s feeling at that moment. The floating fish is there to keep the story fun — and a reminder that while the story deals with serious issues, it’s also a fun superhero story.

FLA:  How about pages 102-103 when Jake and Kenny first kiss?

AS:  I wanted this sequence to really convey the longing and romance between the two. I gave Julie a description of what’s happening in each panel: who’s looking at who, who’s talking to who, what each of them is feeling. In the very first panel, Jake is unbuttoning his shirt.  In the second panel Kenny is looking up at him from the pool.

With the second page I wanted to convey the sensuality of them holding and touching each other. Here we have Kenny giving Jake a little foot massage.  And one of the things I learned long ago in my writing, whenever you have characters making physical contact, that lights of up something in our brains, because how powerful that is in real life, whether we’re shaking hands or touching someone on the shoulder.

Physical contact gives us that sensory sense that can be stimulating for us as a readers.  In the final panels, Jake and Kenny reach out to one another, touch, then kiss.

FLA:  Your dialogue’s very carefully crafted.  It both feels like teenagers talking to each other, and it intensifies their longing, desire, and love of one another. In a beautifully sensitive moment, Kenny asks permission to touch that usually untouched part of our body– toes and feet.

AS:  Because it is a YA graphic novel, the aim is not only to tell a good story, but at the same time to give a representation for young gay people about how they might approach each other and how to communicate one’s desires. When LGBTQ teen readers of my novels let me know that my characters were their role models, I realized that it’s okay to create positive role models for these young readers to learn how to navigate their lives.

FLA:  The work that you do is incredible, Alex.  I feel very honored to have had this moment with you.

AS:  Well, thank you so much.  I enjoyed it tremendously.

Want more? Check out Professor Latinx’s video chat with Alex Sanchez!

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