I meet Tracy White shortly before our Sunday morning New York Comic Con panel is set to begin. It’s titled “A Day in the Studio.” White is joined by Dave Roman, Matt Madden, and Jane Yolen. I am moderating. It’s a conversation about process—the tools the artists use to create their art, an attempt to explore their daily lives as creators.
That Yolen, a children’s book author who just released a graphic novel with First Second, recently penned her 300th book was naturally a fact that came up several times, over the course of the conversation.
As White and I sit down to begin a post-panel interview, she expresses an understandable level of amazement at Yolen’s output. After roughly a decade and half working in the world of Webcomics, the cartoonist has released her first graphic novel, How I Made it to Eighteen.
Perhaps fittingly, the story of how the book made it to First Second has a few twist and turns of its own, including the writing and drawing of an entire book that was eventually scrapped when it was clear that it wasn’t quite what her editors wanted in a YA novel.
How long did [How I Made It to Eighteen] take to write?
Well, I wrote another one first. . That took probably like two years. My dad died during it, so it was really… It took a while. Then I did a sample chapter, and the agent took it, and they bought it. I finished writing it—I only write first, I don’t write and draw. We worked on it and were editing it, and then, in the middle of that process, my editor left Penguin.
Luckily, she wanted to take my manuscript with her. She took it with her, but the whole process took five or six months, and in that time, I didn’t want to go on too far with the story, because I wanted to have her feedback and make sure that things were going well, and I didn’t want to start the drawing until she said “okay.”
You’d already had a book that just didn’t go anywhere.
Yeah, because of that and because of the way I work. I really like to have the script in shape, and then I draw. When I work, I really like to have it broken down into words and images, but I really wanted to make sure it worked for her before I started drawing.
Was it a different process when you were serializing stuff online?
Yeah, it was totally different, because I wasn’t’ working with an editor, and I was trying to figure out how to do stuff online, so how can the technology help me?
But the story was totally in place when you were working on both.
Yeah, it was totally in place.
And it didn’t really evolve as you were serializing it?
They’re already done when I start serializing it. The ones that are updating now, a lot of those were from the book that never got published. The ones that are like 80 panels long, those are the chapters from the book. The ones that are like 10, 12 panels long, those are just comics that were made specifically for the Web, just in one shot.
Are the two books—the one that just came out in print and the older one that you’re serializing now—different enough to co-exist?
They’re totally different.
One is autobiographical and the events take place in the past, and How I Made it to Eighteen is totally in the present, from the point of view of someone who is 17, going on 18. It’s not 100 percent true—it’s not even 95 percent true. I wouldn’t put a percentage on it. it’s mostly true, but a lot of things were made up.
I’ve heard you describe your work as m”95 percent true” before. What’s in the other five percent?
What sort of things did you feel the need to change?
I feel like, when something happens to you, and you’re recounting your story to someone, you’re not saying, “and then this happened, and then I tied my shoe.” You kind of condense it to someone, even when you’re telling it to someone verbally.
So it’s more about what didn’t make it than what did make it?
What didn’t make it. But sometimes, because things didn’t make it in there, and I’m trying to have a story that makes sense, I have to create some sort of scenario that helps to bridge the gap that would otherwise happen in the story.
Was it heartbreaking to finish a book and then be told that the editor wanted something different?
Of course when you write and draw something, you say, “this is so amazing, and everyone’s going to love it, and it’s going to be out there.” I was a little bit like, “wait, they didn’t totally love it, as is?” I was really happy that they were interested. I wouldn’t say it was totally heartbreaking, but it definitely wasn’t totally expected.
Are you glad at all, in retrospect? Do you feel like the book that actually came out is that much better because you’ve had the experience of writing another book now?
Yes, yes. Also, I’d never really worked in print before, so that first book was really my first experience thinking about two-page layouts. I’m always thinking about what’s on the screen and would animation or sound or scrolling enhance it? Things like that. But I’ve never had the opportunity to think, “here’s a page, how do I fill it?” That first book really helped me to understand that process, so I was much more able to establish an actual process for the second book.
Thinking about the way that two pages interact completely changes the storytelling.
Yeah. It’s just not something I’d ever had to think about. Online, I’m usually thinking a panel at a time. I’m not usually thinking about the juxtaposition of two panels that are next to each other, let alone two pages. It’s really these moments that are happening onscreen. It was really different.
So the first book was really formatted along the lines of your Web strips.
Yeah, I was still able to do it panel by panel, though I did have to make some changes. Of course, had I originally thought of it as being online, I would have added animation, I would have done things differently, because I really believe that when you’re doing it online, you should take advantage of the digital toolbox. I really didn’t really use that digital toolbox when I serialized it.
Were you an active Webcomics reader when you first started serializing?
When I first started writing it, there weren’t any [laughs]. Well, I wouldn’t say there weren’t any, but there were so few. I think probably Scott McCloud was doing it. There were a few. Nowhere Girl was just happening. But I had already been doing comics for a couple of years, before I knew about any of those.
Were you doing minis?
No. Doing online comics. I had already been doing online comics before I heard about any other online comics.
How did it occur to you to put them there?
Well first, I had read Scott McCloud, because I was in school.
Were you studying art?
I was studying Interactive Telecommunications Program—ITP.
So this was probably quite a revelation, not reading it in the context of an art program.
Yeah. I was reading it in the context of a technology program. This was in 1996, so Netscape 1.0. A bunch of us girls decided to make a Web zine for girls. And it was like, “well, what are you going to do?” And everyone saw me doodle, so they told me make a comic. And I had just read Scott McCloud.
“Anyone can make comics!”
I can make a comic, and I can make it online, and I can think about how to present it online in a unique way that makes sense for the medium. And back then, it was all on modems. I did two-bit comics. It didn’t have color. That’s why I started with black and white.
You were using a tablet early on, as well.
I was using a tablet. I actually remember the very first comic I did I scanned. And then, after that, I used the Wacom tablet.
How did the tablet come into your life?
Because other people were using it at school, so I was like, “well, why would I use paper?” And I don’t have a background or grounding in art. I’ve always doodled, but I didn’t come from art school. I was a history major and a writing minor. I wasn’t losing anything, I was gaining something, because I could do it quickly, and I had layers, and I could move things around, and I could add animation, if I wanted to. I wasn’t bringing a whole print idea to the comics. I was starting out online.