An author and illustrator share some inside buzz on their new graphic novel.
Samuel, what was the origin of this story -- and why was it so important to you to write?
The origin of this story goes back to a brainstorming session I had with my editor at Little, Brown. It was about combining something I have been interested and active in for a long while (Tabletop Roleplaying Games, or TTRPG), with an aspect of my person that I deal with on an everyday basis (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD). [Ed. Note: For another ANOVELMIND post on TTRPG and OCD, click here]
Most of what I’d worked on in the past had been pretty genre-heavy, but I found the idea of writing a reality-based story compelling. In the past I’d been asked if I would ever write about OCD, and I weighed against it; mostly because it’s such a personal part of who I am, and OCD as a mental illness can be very un-fun to talk about. So, when my co-creator Rye Hickman and I decided to give this idea a shot, we knew it would have to be a story about friendship and the power of imagination first, and a story about OCD second.
Of course, storytelling never works out according to plan, so we ended up with something more complex than either of us could have anticipated. But I would say that ever since we had a germ of the concept for BUZZING, I thought it was important not just to write, but to get right. If I was going to work on a book about OCD, that book couldn’t shy away from the illness it was depicting. I wanted people with OCD—or any other intrusive thought-related illness—to be able to see themselves in the story, and to do that, we needed to depict it as honestly as possible.
Rye, as an artist, what did you respond to in the text of BUZZING that made you want to work on the project? While I've never played DnD, I spent most of middle and high school playing, building, and moderating Multi User Dungeons, or MUDs. I role-played many characters for various themed MUDs, made virtual friends, built puzzles and experiences for other players, and got to explore the limits of my own creativity and inhabit many different identities -- something that was discouraged in my real life. Isaac's discovery of a sandbox where creativity and experimentation are encouraged, if not instrumental, and the way that helps him build confidence and discover the magic and power that he has within himself, rang incredibly true to me.
Samuel, in writing the text, were there particular phrases or sounds that were important to use, in order to really communicate Isaac’s experience of the world? What a great question! I haven’t thought about this before, but yes, phrasing and sound most definitely are important in BUZZING. Primarily speaking, Isaac’s "thought bees" are designed to interject themselves into both conversations and internal dialogue. So no matter who’s talking in Isaac’s vicinity, the thought bees distort reality by interjecting verbal thoughts and jarring images.
The word balloon placement is very deliberate in this regard, so that the thought bees are both intrusive and, yet, able to reach beyond -- just like intrusive thoughts themselves! While this might not be a black and white answer concerning the importance of specific phrases and sounds, the entire book hinges on the way that the thought bees flow in and out, near each and every panel. Additionally, I thought it was really important to distinguish the sound and tone of actual nature (actual bees) from the perceived insectile monsters that buzz about Isaac’s head.
Rye, your treatment of the bees is really interesting. Can you give us some insight into how you used them in the book and are there any other visual pointers in the story to guide readers? The bees in Buzzing are simplified and cartoony, and almost always present in Isaac's life. I tried to be cognizant of when the intrusive thoughts that the bees whisper to Isaac get in the way of him focusing on the moment, and how, when that happens, they physically block the things that Isaac wants to experience. They also swarm, overwhelming Isaac internally and, in the art, quite physically. There are a couple of moments where Isaac is basically invisible behind the bees- I wanted readersto easily understand the feeling of being completely consumed by your worries, anxieties, and dark thoughts. Being able to use the bees as this kind of direct-translation is truly one of the best things about comics as a medium. The bees do a lot of internal heavy lifting, and require zero explanation to be understood. For something as personal and difficult to express as an intrusive thought, this seems really incredible to me!
Samuel, every person’s experience of the world is unique, what are you hoping readers will take from Isaac’s story in BUZZING and your own story of writing BUZZING? It’s interesting that you phrase the question in such a way, because I would say that what I hope people take away from BUZZING is that, in fact, every person’s experience of the world is unique! We do dedicate the book to the “weird kids.” BUZZING stars a kid who is trying to understand why he doesn’t function in the same way as others.
OCD (which can also differ greatly, depending on the person suffering from it) is an illness that preys on your self-perception in a very specific way, as pertains to other people in your life. It tries to convince you that you are immoral, illegitimate, unlikable, and contaminated. Not just to yourself, but to everyone who perceives you. And as an added bonus, it tries to disguise all those thoughts in a veneer of certitude, so that you actually believe that all the illogical, self-abusive thoughts you’re having are 100% real. Fun stuff, right?
Saying all that, what I hope that non-OCD readers will take from BUZZING is that everyone’s experience is different, and compassion is important. It’s good to practice empathy. To be kind. To include others in your life, even if they’re different from you. Playing TTRPGs, engaging in imaginative play of any kind, is a great way to explore and celebrate those differences. You’ll learn so much about yourself. And for OCD readers, the exact same goes, with one addition: I hope this book makes you feel both seen and heard. You’re not alone out there, and you will be okay. Just like Isaac will be okay.
Rye, what was the most satisfying element of working on this project -- and do you have a favorite image from it? I had a great time designing the fantasy role-playing world that Isaac and his new friends explore! The tavern they start in is called The Porky Swallow, and that made me laugh very hard. You can see the exquisite logo I designed for it on page 61:
I feel like there are a slew of fantasy world staples out there in our visual dictionaries, and it was fun to get to play with them and, more importantly, remix them into something fresh that hopefully stands on its own, rather than as a pastiche. I had a fantastic time with all of that-from the goblinhorde to the tower of Greenmoon itself.
Rye and Sam, thank you so much for sharing with us today -- and thank you for creating your new graphic novel, BUZZING!
Samuel Sattin is the writer of highly acclaimed books, including BUZZING (Little Brown for Young Readers), SIDE QUEST (Harper Collins, 2024), and both THE ESSENTIAL ANIME: GUIDE and A KID'S GUIDE TO ANIME AND MANGA, co-written with Patrick Macias (Running Press, Fall 2023). He adapted the Academy Award Nominated Cartoon Saloon Irish Folklore Trilogy WOLF WALKERS, SONG OF THE SEA and THE SECRET OF KELLS (2020 - 2024) to graphic novel format, has written screenplays for PBS Kids, and previously wrote books such as BEZKAMP, LEGEND, and THE SILENT END. His non-fiction has appeared or been featured in The Nib, NPR, and elsewhere. He graduated with an MFA in Comics from California College of the Arts and a Creative Writing MFA from Mills College, freelances in animation development, and works as a studio writer for Schulz Creative Associates, AKA: Snoopy Central. He currently resides in Northern California. Learn more at SamuelSattin.com.
Rye Hickman (previously published as Jen Hickman) is a visual storyteller and a graduate of the Savannah College of Art & Design’s Sequential Art program. Past work includes LONEL RECEIVER and MOTH & WHISPER. They get really excited about dystopian fiction, good coffee, and drawing hands.
Learn more at RyeHickman.com .