The great San Francisco Quake has caused devastation. Two children discover a hidden city. One child has lost his home; another seeks belonging. Fairies run cartels and police gangs. An Unseelie king wishes for war and devastation. Fairies and humans have to fight for their freedom.
The City on the Other Side boasts of adventure, magic, and the wonder of everyday places. Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson collaborate to create a new, yet familiar world. They decided to talk about their work, out this month!
THE CITY ON THE OTHER SIDE is a subversive tale; it has POC leads who choose to go on a magical journey, with fairy crime bosses, historical disasters, and an ongoing war. Was it a conscious decision to subvert fantasy cliches, such as a Chosen One who must obey the Call to Action?
MS: Is it wrong to say I just wanted to be accurate? I knew I wanted to write about San Francisco, and Isabel’s story arc was set very early on, but I didn’t settle on what race she should be until I learned that there were a lot of wealthy Hispanic families in San Francisco at that time (though they often liked to insist their ancestry was purely from European Spain and not Mexico. Hence, Isabel’s mom being obsessed with Europe). As a writer, I get annoyed that so many people still like to think women and minorities didn’t exist in the past.
So making Isabel Hispanic seemed like a good way to give a nod to reality and build a uniquely “American” feeling fairy tale. Benjie being Filipino was an acknowledgement that San Francisco had more immigrants than just Chinese and to point out how people tend to lump all immigrants together no matter where they’re from. It also helped me explain in my mind why when his parents died he had less of a community to support him. In terms of a Chosen One who disobeys a Call to Action: Chosen Ones are boring and I don’t like writing anyone who doesn’t want to be involved in the story. Every kid should feel like they can be a hero if they try.
RR: I can’t speak for Maighread, but I think we were puling more from Miyazaki than Disney, if that makes sense? The influence of polytheistic cultures and world mythology beyond just things that get reduced to the simplicity of Campbellian “Hero’s Journey” narratives can definitely be seen in this story and it was less specifically to subvert/address tropes and more to write something from the ground up that came from slightly different places than a lot of fantasy does. Isabel is a hero because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time and stepped up to do the right thing—something any of us can do without being “chosen!”
What has been the most exciting part about making this story together? How is working alone on a project different from working as a team?
MS: Most of my writing is collaborative in some way, but Robin has been an especially good collaborator. I threw a lot of reference images at her at the start of this, but I loved seeing how she blended all these different stylistic elements into one cohesive world. Our letterer, Warren Montgomery, also did an amazing job, and we wouldn’t be here without our editors, Robyn and Calista. Comics is a team sport and everyone did their best to make this an amazing book!
RR: It was so exciting to read this script for the first time, which we’d discussed a lot together but was still full of Mairghread’s own flair that I couldn’t always predict! I love working on my own stories, but working on a team means you get a whole style of thinking and execution that isn’t native to your own brain and that’s exciting even if it can be a challenge to keep up with sometimes. Working with our editors, letterer, and art director—really the whole team—helped me grow and change just as our heroes did.
Button is the best! What inspired Button?
MS: Who doesn’t love an anthropomorphic mushroom sidekick? I always loved the crazy grandparent you see in fairytales who is completely onboard with the crazy adventure (“Let the boy go out and fight dragons! He’ll only maybe die!”). So Button is kind of an expression of that. But since so much of Isabel’s story is about being ignored or forgotten, I felt it was important that she had someone who was just totally in her corner. Plus, Robin’s design is adorable.
RR: Button is the best, I adore fungi and whenever I take a hike through the forest or even just the neighborhood, I’m always on the lookout for cool mushrooms. I seem to remember that when I read the character description Mairghread provided, I went “oh, sassy mushroom Yoda,” and just executed it. I drew a bunch of variations but we picked the first one I drew!
The Unseelie are shown to be surprising antagonists, if brutal in their methods. How important was characterization?
MS: Just because we don’t touch on human racism much doesn’t mean we don’t touch on racism at all. It was important to me that the conflict between the Seelie and Unseelie was more complex than “good fairies” vs “bad fairies.” The Unseelie are right to be angry that their community is hurting, but they’re being manipulated by Coscar so that he can gain more power for himself.
The Seelie are right to try and defend themselves, but they were willfully blind to the suffering of their own neighbors. Since this is a fairy tale for kids, I wanted to show that the solution wasn’t to just “beat” the bad guy (though we do beat Coscar because that’s always really satisfying), but that you also need to start talking out and working through the problems underneath.
RR: The background of the Seelie/Unseelie dialectic is so important! It has a kind of balanced approach to the world that isn’t a black and white, good and evil mindset, and so it feels so much more real. They have motivations and goals that make sense and are even sympathetic! The end wouldn’t work if we didn’t see the good in them, despite what they did to try to win the war.
Mairghread, your previous credits include working on Transformers. How is working on an original idea different from working on an intellectual property (IP)?
MS: It’s a bit more nerve-wracking because you don’t have the safety net of people already knowing and liking your characters. But Robin’s designs gave me such a sense of the world that it was a pleasure to be able to write in it.
San Francisco as a city has a unique personality, due to its history and inhabitants. What visual references, in addition to the folklore, did you use when crafting both cities?
MS: There are some great online photo archives of the city, especially right after the Great Quake and during the World’s Fair (which was kind of San Francisco’s “We’re Back!” celebration). We used old maps for Isabel and Benjie’s journey across town and tried to find photo reference for everything from the cars to Isabel’s flashlight. We also tried to pull our fairies from mythology and legends from all around the world. You can also see “fairies” (which we defined as any mythical being that wasn’t a deity) from all over the world in our story just like you can see people from all over the world in modern San Francisco.
RR: Well, remember that our huge challenge was to set something in San Francisco before the Golden Gate bridge existed and still have it read! I walked something close to the route the kids took, and looked at which buildings might have still been around, as well as found what little photo difference there was of the area—actually there’s quite a bit, and well-archived, but not always easy to use. I also grew up 30 minutes away from The City and spent a lot of time in the redwoods as a child, so art nouveau + Bay Area nature = the fairy side of the veil! We actually decided to pull bits of Art Deco design for the Unseelie and Art Nouveau for the Seelie—the more geometric/mineralish look versus the organic, flowy look!
Robin, you’ve mentioned wanting to adapt YA fantasy literature like the Enchanted Forest Chronicles or works by Diana Wynne-Jones, and it sounds like you are my kind of person. Are there other works you’d like to adapt? Might that be on the horizon?
RR: No one has hired me to do my dream Diana Wynne Jones adaptation yet! I would really like to do some horror for kids, maybe Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn? I’m in mourning because my other fave middle grade novel, John Bellairs’s The House With a Clock in Its Walls, is being adapted into a movie by torture-director Eli Roth and no one asked me to make a graphic novel of that in time to make sure the world knows the protagonist is a brave fat kid, I’m so upset! The heroes of kid lit are more diverse in every way than the heroes of kid-oriented tv and movies.
What previous works would you like readers to peruse next?
MS: I just did a fantastic non-fiction graphic novel for kids called “Science Comics: Robots and Drones.” It’s a really cool little story that follows a mechanical bird named Pouli as he learns all about the past, present and future of robotics!
RR: Grown up readers can take a look at my long-running indie comic Ushala at World’s End, which is not for children, but The City on the Other Side is actually my big debut graphic novel! I have a short comic in the 2nd volume of the 1001 Knights Anthology, which was very cool to be a part of.
What upcoming stories and publications can we expect from you?
MS: Nothing that’s been announced in the comics world. An animated movie I wrote for Marvel is coming out this year though called, “Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors.” It’s an awesome action movie starring Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl as two best friends who also happen to fight crime together. I hope you can check it out!
RR: I drew a very funny issue of Princeless that will be out soon, starring the terrible twins! Unfortunately everything else is still a secret, but check back soon, I can’t wait to talk about the graphic novel I’m writing and drawing right now!
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