Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the release of your adventure comic book series, Couri Vine! For those who may be unfamiliar, how would you describe the series’ premise, and what inspired you to tell this story?
Vanessa Shealy: Thank you so much.
Couri Vine is a middle-grade science-fiction graphic novel about an 11-year-old girl named Couri who lives on the moon. While everyone else can breathe Moon City’s artificial atmosphere in this domed city, she was born with a debilitating lung condition that keeps her stuck inside an embarrassing helmet. One day, she turns in some homework that she copied out of a book in her grandfather’s study, and it causes her grandfather to immediately get arrested by Moon Leader Todal, the tyrannical ruler of Moon City. This sends her on a dangerous, action-packed journey to find him, and along the way she uncovers all kinds of dark secrets about life on the moon.
My co-creator Leah Lovise and I set out to tell a story that conveys *girl power* with diverse characters and a whole lot of sci-fi action. We were both really passionate about telling an allegorical tale about living with disability, which has a lot of meaning for both Leah and me. I’m the mom of an 11-year-old son with classic autism, and Leah’s father was wheelchair-bound due to muscular dystrophy. Being so closely and passionately connected to these two people in our lives is really what inspired us to work together on Couri Vine.
BD: What can you share with us about your creative process in working with co-creator Leah Lovise, as well as artist Liz Lathem and colorist Indigo Rael? In addition, what have been some of your creative influences?
VS: Leah and I grew up in Oklahoma City, and we’ve known each other since we were kids, so our long friendship makes collaborating feel natural. Leah has a career in Austin as an illustrator, graphic designer, motion graphic artist, and animator, and I’m in New York City. I had been working as an actor and a playwright, and I’d made a few films - but neither of us had ever worked on a comic book. Our process from the beginning has been highly collaborative. We spent almost a year tossing around ideas and details about the world of the book and the characters, and eventually the story. She’d send me some sketches, and I’d send her long chucks of descriptive text, and we’d talk about all of that. Leah is a good writer, and I was an art minor in college, so we both have a pretty good eye for what the other is doing.
Our work on the book has had to be in fits and starts, over almost five years. When we started, we assumed that we’d have the entire thing done in about a year or so. But we both have day jobs, plus each of us has two kids, so finding time to work on an indie project has taken a lot of time and discipline. We have to sneak in the work whenever we can. Bringing in more help with the art made it possible, and assistance from Indigo Rael on Books 1 & 2, as well as Liz Lathem, Dorothy Shaw, and Julia Zipporah on Book 4, was invaluable.
I think being a theatre practitioner for so many years (both onstage and off) gave me a leg up as a collaborator and made me a person who appreciates the insights and input of everyone. It takes a lot of practice to stop feeling like, “Oh, that just isn’t the way I would have done it,” and instead feel like, “Awesome! That isn’t the way I would’ve done it!”
As far as personal influences… some of my favorite graphic novels are Blankets, Roller Girl, Zita the Space Girl, Only Living Boy, and El Deafo. There are more, but those are the ones I’m thinking about right now. My main writing influences are playwrights like Carol Churchill and Timberlake Wertenbaker. That’s my background – theatre, and I’m never really far from those roots.
BD: As Couri Vine is geared towards middle grade readers, what do you hope that young audiences will take away from your work?
VS: We hope that our young readers and can grasp the importance of loving who you are – the good and the bad. What is your weakness? Where are you most vulnerable? That’s probably what makes you the MOST interesting. That’s probably where you will have the MOST impact. I want them to have that feeling of: I’m here to change the world... I just need to decide how I’m going to do it.
BD: In addition to your work on Couri Vine, you also created a comic short for the Children's Tumor Foundation. What can you tell us about this project and the genesis of your involvement with the organization?
VS: I’m the Director of Communications for the Children’s Tumor Foundation, which is the leading non-profit organization for a rare disease called neurofibromatosis, or NF. I love my job, and I’m very grateful to work for such an incredible organization. The comic short is one of my day-job passion projects; it’s a comic that simply explains neurofibromatosis to young readers. I wrote the script and worked hand in hand with Bottled Lightning to produce it.
We’ve received some great feedback about it and are moving forward in the next year with a series of “explainer” comics about NF and other stories that are more character-driven, featuring people living with NF.
BD: As a multi-hyphenate creator, you are also an accomplished playwright, screenwriter, and actor. How do you feel that your previous work in theatre and film informed your transition into storytelling through sequential art?
VS: The projects that most informed my work on Couri Vine were a pair of sitcom spec scripts -- one for The Office -- and the other for Modern Family. Writing short, focused dialogue was a natural precursor to writing a comic book. Theater and film and comics are actually pretty similar, in that they are visual storytelling medium -- dialogue and action, words and pictures.
BD: Your latest short film, “Naked,” will soon be touring on the festival circuit. What can you share with us about your process of bringing the film to life?
VS: “Naked” was originally a short, one-person play that I wrote and performed for a new play series at Emerging Artists Theater, here in New York City. It was a long monologue about trying to hold on to your artistic ambitions while working full time with a toddler at home.
I wrote it just after my son was diagnosed with autism, and my life had just changed pretty dramatically with his countless therapy sessions, fighting for schools, and trying to overcome the obsessive fear of what the future held for us. The act of writing the piece was kind of, for me, an act of acceptance about my new circumstances.
Years later, I directed the piece with actor Rebecca De Ornelas cast in the role. That was a really positive experience, so Rebecca and I -- along with her filmmaker husband Michael DiBiasio -- developed “Naked” into a short film.
Since the play was envisioned as a monologue, I added a second character for the film. I also created a short, opening sequence, so we could establish the main character. The camera has the ability to tell a story that dialogue alone cannot -- it became an opportunity to let the images do the talking.
BD: As a storyteller, do you find that you gravitate towards a certain medium(s), or does the story itself determine the medium through which it will be told?
VS: When we started collaborating on the project, we envisioned it as a Choose Your Own Adventure app for the iPad. But once we landed on the story that we wanted to tell, we scrapped that idea because we felt the story needed to be told as a graphic novel. So, for Couri Vine, the story determined the medium.
That isn’t always true for me, though. In the past, I’ve gone the other direction. When I began writing “Tea in the Afternoon,” I went at it because I just really wanted to write a play. I noodled around for a long time, threw around a bunch of ideas, and put snippets of dialogue on the page, until I finally landed on a story I wanted to tell.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
VS: I’m working on scripts for more explainer comics for the Children’s Tumor Foundation, and I’m in the planning stages for a bigger sequential art project that will hopefully bring in other rare disease organizations. I think these stories are such a powerful way to explain difficult concepts and shared experiences. I’m also looking at new ways to get Couri Vine and other stories into more classrooms and libraries.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about Couri Vine, "Naked," and your other work?
VS: My websites are VanessaShealy.com and CouriVine.com. Couri Vine is available on platforms like comiXology and Paste Magazine. I’m also on social media at @VanessaShealy everywhere, and I love connecting that way. Thanks so much for having me, Barbra.