Every once and awhile, a comic (or in this case original graphic novel) drops in and impresses everyone who touches it. This time around, it is I’m Not A Plastic Bag by Rachel Hope Allison. Her “silent” graphic novel about the Pacific Garbage Patch takes on a topic not often found in comics, environmentalism, and she recently took time out of her schedule to discuss how the book came to be, writing and drawing an original graphic novel and how Jeff Corwin became involved with the book.
Rachel Hope Allison: I first found out about the Pacific Garbage Patch by chance in 2007 when a friend forwarded me an article about it. And once I read about it I was like, “You’re kidding me, this is real?” The idea that there was this great blob of trash out in the ocean that we’d only just discovered was just so weird and disturbing that it did really stick with me for a long time. That said, it wasn’t until later when I was trying to develop a story for my MFA thesis that I realized I had a chance to come back to the garbage patch and explore it more deeply.
Once I decided I was going to make a story about it, things started to really get moving when I decided to make the garbage patch a character itself. Up until then, I was toying around with following different birds or animals or individual bits of trash out to the patch — and obviously I do that in the book too — but the patch being it’s own character brought a strangeness and heart that led the story away from just saying “pollution is bad” and towards what I felt was a more interesting, emotional story.
AL: You are the artist and writer of this original graphic novel. Can you discuss your writing/pencilling process? Did the story evolve as you were creating the artwork or did you script fully prior to beginning to draw?
RHA: Well I had the rough outline of the story in my head from the beginning, but you can ask my teachers — I spent the better part of a semester fretting and exploring different ways of tackling the art. After tooling around with different ways of drawing it all by hand, I finally realized that it worked much better when I incorporated collage and drawing. I started with mostly painted backgrounds, then built collage on top of that with pictures of trash, painting over them, scanning them in, then collaging them in Photoshop. I finished each page by adding outlines and the drawings of the animals, characters and trash that I did hand. When I write that out it sounds kind of insane, but I felt like it worked at the time!
Once I established how it would look with a few finished pages, I came back to my rough story idea and loosely sketched and paneled out the rest of the story before I put the rest of the pages together. I pretty much buckled down, didn’t see anyone, and listened to a *lot* of Doctor Who reruns at that stage.
RHA: It was pretty early on actually. As I was reading up on the patch and learning more about it, one of the things that struck me that it was so remote. It’s apparently in this very deep, very still area of ocean, and that quietness and loneliness ended being a huge part of what made the patch so compelling to me.
About the same time I had also just discovered Eric Drooker’s silent graphic novel Blood Song and completely loved it, so I guess I was in the right mindset to go that direction. Looking back, I don’t see how the story could have worked any other way. I think it all really clicked when I thought of using plastic bag slogans as kind of a found language for the patch. It made sense, the patch was basically made up of all our own discarded items, and it was “speaking” in the only language we’d given it. Using that really spare device was just enough to make the narrative work, while preserving that kind of private, introspective feeling that a silent story gives you.
AL: Can you discuss the involvement of Jeff Corwin and Jeff Corwin Connect?
RHA: Well I never would have come up with the idea of a partnership with wildlife expert like Jeff Corwin myself — I was frankly still getting used to the idea that someone other than my mom would read my book. The credit for that collaboration goes to the lovely and brilliant team at Archaia and at Jeff Corwin Connect. As I understand it, both teams had been thinking about the possibilities graphic novels might have for opening up dialogue and interest in nature — and Archaia suggested my story as a possible way to do that. In the end I’ve been super happy with the collaboration. I was able to tell my story the way I had envisioned it, which was more emotional and strange, and hopefully less preachy and centered on consumer guilt. And at the end of the book, Jeff Corwin Connect, Archaia, and eventually the amazing folks at Ocean Conservancy were able to follow up the story with information that people could use to learn more and do something about the real life phenomenon if they chose.
AL: Prior to the foreword it is mentioned that two trees will be planted for every tree used in the production of this book. Can you discuss how that initiative came to be?
RHA: Again, the credit goes to Archaia for this. As a first-time creator, I was nervous about even asking my editor Tay about limiting the plastic used in the production in the book — but from the beginning Archaia was incredibly creative in making sure the book’s production matched the spirit of the story. They not only had the idea of the American Forests® and the Global ReLeaf® arrangement where for each tree that is cut down for the printing of I’m Not a Plastic Bag, two trees will be planted — they also helped envision the cover, which is plain board without a casewrap that utilizes plastic.
AL: Any final words for Comicosity’s readers about I’m Not A Plastic Bag?
RHA: I guess I would just say that, even though this is a story about the environment, I hope that it gives the reader some space from the politics and guilt that people so often assume are part of an environmental book. As a reader myself, that kind of baggage just ends up making me feel paralyzed and depressed, and I feel like there’s so much more hope and wonder in nature than just polarizing talking points. By exploring the patch through a quiet story — I hope readers have room to let their imaginations grapple with this crazy phenomenon, and see that there’s an emotional reality to the impact we have on the world, even when it’s thousands of miles away.