Riding the Edge: Cecil Castellucci on Her Graphic Novel “Soupy Leaves Home”




IF YOU EVER wanted to run away from home — if you were young and restless, if controlling parents or a remote hometown locked you down — you will get why the titular heroine of Soupy Leaves Home fled her family to hop train cars as a bona fide hobo in the Depression-era United States. Released in early May, the graphic novel is a delightful paean to liberation by self-determination, a tale of the costs of leaving an old life behind. Celebrated author Cecil Castellucci pens a compelling story about what waits for those willing to step off the edge of the known, and artist Jose Pimienta crafts a sublimely evocative past out of chromatic sepia and shadow. Together, they’ve created a book about seemingly simple characters living largely across the back pages of America — the woods and train yards and societal outskirts peopled by folks who can’t help moving on, living many lives along the way.

Soupy Leaves Home is Castellucci’s latest work in a career of writing sincere, engaging stories for a young audience. After playing in the indie bands Bite and Nerdy Girl, she released her first novel, Boy Proof, in 2005. Her first mainstream graphic novel, The P.L.A.I.N. Janes, came out in 2007 as the first title for DC Comics’s YA imprint, Minx; a sequel, Janes In Love, followed the next year. Since then, Castellucci’s works have weaved between prose and sequential storytelling (a.k.a. comics), with most aimed at young readers. Her 2011 YA novel First Day On Earth stands out as an intimate first-person account of a wounded teenage boy grasping at a surreal opportunity to leave the planet, while The Year of the Beasts (2012) blends words and pictures to explore young love and life-skewing loss. In the months leading up to the much-awaited seventh Star Wars film, Castellucci’s Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure (2015) portrayed the veteran princess-general’s youthful exploits. Fans today know Castellucci as the writer of Shade, The Changing Girl, a series debuting last October in DC’s Young Animals imprint. 

Despite the variety of her work, Castellucci usually tells stories about young people dealt difficult cards, struggling with broken parents and shattered hearts. Where other YA writers might cloak teenage awkwardness in a too-slick wit or unearned wisdom, Castellucci leans into the painful truth of adolescence — that nobody gets things right the first time, or even the second or third. Watching her characters fumble and ache is both pleasurable and painful for readers, who can see their own youthful mistakes echoed on the page.

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DAVID LUMB: Soupy Leaves Home explores a fantastical setting and the romantic idea of leaving an old life — and an old self — behind for whatever lies around the corner. How has the reception been since the book launched?

CECIL CASTELLUCCI: I feel people have read it and they love it, you know? It’s a human story. I just hope people find it. It’s quiet — I always write quiet books.

Why this book? Why this project?

When I came up with the idea for this book, I was going through a really terrible time in my life and was sort of under care. You know, when you’re going through trauma, you sometimes can’t see a way forward. Then a friend posted on Facebook about hobo names — that theirs would be Ramshackle — and I wrote back saying mine would be Soupy. I started thinking after that post about hobos and about how they work outside of real life — not that they aren’t living a real life, but that they’re in the interstices of society. There’s something dreamlike about hitting the open road and becoming a hobo, working a little bit here and a little bit there. So I started revisiting my idea of what hobos were and started watching hobo movies and Googling hobos and learning more about the hobo jungles and hobo signs and about the many children after the Depression who became hobos in order to not burden their family — and it just started from there.

This book helped me find a way forward when I thought there was no way forward. It’s a big book for me. Although what happened to Soupy didn’t happen to me, I think Soupy felt the same way I did. She saw no way forward, and then she became a boy and rode the rails in order to find herself again. I feel like writing this story was a way for me to become a hobo — I mean, for me to be able to disappear for a little while, to find my way back home. It’s pretty heavy.

There’s violence in the book — not just what happened to Soupy, but what can happen out there, whether it’s the bulls [railyard police] chasing the hobos off the trains with truncheons or rail-riding hobos falling underneath the cars. But it doesn’t depress the hobos we meet.

When you live on the outside of society, there’s a certain violence to it because people don’t understand. Even though they were mostly walking on their own, the hobos had to come together and help each other out. That’s why they have rules, the Hobo Code and ethics. They were run out of town a lot, looked upon as bums. But they weren’t bums. They were really misunderstood. So they had to have a society that allowed them to help each other. They looked for the hobo signs letting people know where you can get food, whose door you could knock on, where you could get a soft touch, a doctor, all those kinds of things. Even though they were on their own, they were still together. It’s like this sort of parallel place, of community and peril.

Why this period? Did you want to write a hobo story and happened on this period, or vice versa?

I think they came together at the same time. During the Depression, a lot of people took to the road. Also, when I was doing my research, I discovered that a lot of children would leave home in order not to be an extra mouth for their parents to feed. So there were a lot of children going on the road and becoming hobos.

The other thing, too, is I wanted Soupy to have to deal with gender issues. She doesn’t want to be a boy, she wants to be a woman who can think and learn. But during the 1930s, a girl just getting her hair bobbed was depicted as crazy horrible — an indication of loose morals — and women had only had the vote for 10 years. At the end [spoiler alert!], Soupy goes to Bennington College, which had only opened in 1932. So it seemed like a good confluence of women’s issues, too. Because a woman at that time really had to fight to be modern, even though in the 1930s people were all, “We’re modern!” And then, of course, there’s a Louise Brooks silent movie about hobos, and there’s Sullivan’s Travels — this was all in this window between the 1920s and ’30s and early ’40s, so it just seemed like the right time.

Did you envision it as a comic at first?

Yeah, I knew from the get-go. The person who wrote that Facebook post was a comic illustrator (not Jose Pimienta), so I thought, “Oh, that’s a comic guy so it’s a comic I’m thinking of.” Also, one of the things I love about writing comics is that you can have silence and pauses. When you’re dealing with trauma and big emotions, words are clunky. You can say, “I’m really sad,” or “This person is devastated,” but it doesn’t land quite as well when you just have a silent image. There’s a reason they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

How did you get matched up with Jose?

The person who had written the Facebook post and I talked about maybe doing the book together, but then he got super busy and had to drop out. But I’d sold the book to Dark Horse and they put me together with Jose. They’d put the call out to their creators looking for someone who could evoke a 1930s style, and somebody suggested Jose. He had done a book with Van Jensen called The Leg that took place in 1935, and so it was just a good match. We could see immediately that he could handle that stuff. I think he did an extraordinary job, and he did the coloring as well — the way it’s slow intention, the way it changes and helps with the story, I think is just beautiful.

You can’t make a comic book without an amazing artist, and Jose is amazing. It was a true pleasure and an honor to work with him. Jose really took care to do due diligence in terms of making sure everything looked historically accurate. I think it just lends so much to the book because it really makes you feel like you’re in the 1930s. The way that he used darkness — the moments of black, black, just blackness, there are some passages of pages that are amazingly dark with deep blues. I feel he did such a great job of pulling you right into that world so you know viscerally what it was like to be there. He captured that idea we all have about traveling across the United States.

One of my favorite panels is the one with the compass rose — the one macro shot in the entire book.

I love that page too. Soupy and Rammy are walking and he’s teaching her about the hobo signs, and they’re all around them. Or that triptych, each is a different color, but the train is moving, and they’re moving through the day or week. I think Jose really played with the idea of scope and time very well.

Also, I think one of the nice things about it not being in black and white yet not being in full color is that it allows you to experience that time period. It feels vintage. If it was full color, somehow the mood or tone or time wouldn’t come across as well. Jose makes it feel vintage, but at the same time he’s using bold colors.

What was your thinking in including the fantastic elements of the story?

I wanted it to be a period piece with elements of magical realism. The magical parts are visualizations of conversations or concepts Ramshackle is trying to teach her. If it was a standard novel, maybe she would describe them, but instead Soupy sees them in the comic. I think this makes the magical realism more tangible for the reader.

I wanted there to be something magical about Ramshackle. Because, when you’re going through trauma, sometimes there’s a person who can just pluck something out of you — they’re like a light that leads you forward and that is kind of a magical thing. I feel like, maybe Ramshackle is just a normal guy, though I do think he has a particular vision of the future. It does work best when you see someone trying to envision a world that doesn’t exist yet, like Ramshackle is doing. He’s an inventor and a dreamer. I think that lends itself really well to visualizing the magical realism. You can see how magical he thinks it all is.

In P.L.A.I.N. Janes, in First Day on Earth, trauma is a central theme: how they pick themselves up, whom they meet along the way that shape them. What’s your attraction to these aftershock stories that examine the widening ripples of trauma?

It’s interesting because I feel like I wrote three books at the same time when I was going through my trauma. It was First Day on Earth, The Year of the Beasts, and Soupy Leaves Home. I feel like those three books spring from the same place. As for The P.L.A.I.N. Janes, I experienced a terrorist attack when I was young, so that sprang from me never really being able to figure out how to work through that. That was before the other thing that happened to me.

But that’s what we do as artists. We take things — particular moments — and we pull out the threads and weave them into a tapestry that we can understand. That’s our job. Not all of my work is about trauma, but those books are. A lot of my work is about art and how art saves.

In the months since the book was released, how have people — especially trauma survivors — approached and appreciated the magical elements of the story?

I did Free Comic Book Day and a guy came up to me who said he works in Watts, a neighborhood here in Los Angeles, where he deals with a lot of troubled youth. He said he was worried that, at the end when Soupy went home, it was going to be a situation of the bad cycle returning, and he was thankful that this book showed someone breaking the cycle and getting out of it. He thought it was helpful. That meant a lot to me, because I do feel that trying to see a way out of a cycle like that is important.

If someone were to read First Day on Earth, Soupy Leaves Home, and The Year of the Beasts, would they get the whole picture of your recovery experience?

I was in an abusive relationship and it was really devastating. I had to go through a lot of therapy and care. And it sucked. It was psychological abuse, which is invisible. That’s a lot more difficult for people to see. Those three books really deal with it. You can see, in First Day on Earth, where Mal has this inner pain he can’t express due to abandonment. He too has a magical person, Hooper, who comes and helps him in a very similar way to Ramshackle. In The Year of the Beasts, you have the protagonist and her sister and the boys they like in the prose chapters, but the alternating graphic novel chapters follow a girl who’s a medusa and who’s trying to hide her snakes after she’s turned her parents to stone. You find out, at the end, that these alternating stories are the before and after of the death of one of the sisters — and the surviving sister feels like nobody knows how to talk to her anymore.

When I was going through this psychological abuse, there were a lot of people who didn’t believe me and also people who didn’t know how to talk to me about what was happening because it’s so frightening when you see someone going through trauma. I felt like a medusa: I felt like everyone was turning to stone. So, yes, I feel like the whole picture is in those books.

How did Soupy change in the eight years since you started writing it?

About five years ago, the character of Professor Jack showed up. I felt like Soupy needed a contemporary and a sort of kindred spirit that she didn’t know was kindred. I liked the idea of her meeting her match — someone respecting the life choices that she made. I don’t know if they’re going to get together or not but I feel they’re going to be friends for the rest of their lives, in a mutually respectful way. And I think that’s really important. I don’t like it when, in YA books, 14- or 15-year-old characters meet their true loves and that’s it, forever. That’s not realistic.

Do you have any plans for a sequel to Soupy?

I think Soupy is off doing her own thing. You can imagine that she’s moving forward. And I am too.

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David Lumb is a New York City–based freelance journalist who writes about tech, culture, and gaming.


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