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“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me,” written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, is a dreamy coming-of-age story about high school romances, friendships and toxic relationships. Our main character, Frederica Riley (who goes by Freddy), is intoxicated by the ultimate “cool girl,” Laura Dean, who is everything but healthy relationship material.
By normalizing the adolescent queer experience, Tamaki breaks down stereotypes. “The majority of it is not about the process of coming out or struggling with identity, it’s that identity is just there,” Tamaki said when I talked to her and Valero-O’Connell about “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me.”
As the comics art director for The Lily, I had the opportunity to lead our Instagram book club, Lily Lit Club, this month. For each pick, we feature a fiction title written by a woman. As an avid reader of graphic novels and comics, choosing “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me” was an easy decision. I am a visual storyteller and have been drawn to graphic storytelling since childhood. I have vivid memories of poring over the Sunday comics or curling up with my dad’s weathered copies of Archie as a kid. I’ve always made note of the unique ways stories were told through comics.
“Comics have the capacity to marry two different methods of storytelling and to create something that’s greater than the sum of either of their parts,” Valero-O’Connell told me.
Storytelling, no matter what form, is about connection. We’re always searching for ourselves in a story to feel less alone. I find that in graphic novels and want to share my love for this often overlooked genre with you. I encourage everyone to spend some time in this world. Follow Lily Lit Club on Instagram for graphic novel tips, recommendations and excerpts from this interview.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Orr: How did you both get into the world of graphic novels? Did you grow up reading them? Personally, I grew up reading comics but only really discovered graphic novels a couple years ago.
Mariko Tamaki: I actually wasn’t into graphic novels as a younger reader. Most of the graphic novels I was aware of was Archie, which at the time wasn’t very interesting to me. Although, I do read them now and write for Archie as well. So I wasn’t a big graphic novel reader until 2005ish, when my cousin and I first started working on “Skim,” a mini comic.
Rosemary Valero-O’Connell: I had the complete opposite experience. I was in middle school and comics had been my preferred method of storytelling. I read a ton of manga growing up and “Calvin and Hobbes.”
When I got to high school, something clicked in my brain and I was like: “Oh, okay, well comics exist in the world, so it’s probably someone’s job to make these. Maybe that’s something I can do for a living.” I knew then that I wanted to tell stories for a living in some capacity, and I knew that I felt an emotional response to stories told as comics that no other medium had been able to give me.
RO: I read a little bit about how the story of Freddy and Laura Dean came about but I would love to hear about it in your own words.
MT: Well, I had always wanted to do a romance, specifically an LGBTQ romance. I think there’s something about watching two people fall in love and that’s something you want to see as a queer person. The typical romance is: girl meets girl and then they fall in love. I thought it would be interesting to shift the perspective a little bit beyond meeting the girl of your dreams and falling in love. What happens three months later when she’s not exactly the person that you thought she was or maybe you ignored it the entire time? Rosemary did a sample of two or three pages and I just felt like, oh my god, this is it.
RVO: My side of the story is a bit different. I was still in college when I started working on “Laura Dean.” From thumbnails to final edits, I worked on [Laura Dean] just shy of two years. I was a huge, huge, huge fan of [Mariko’s] writing. One of Mariko’s earlier collaborations with Jillian Tamaki on “Skim” was one of the comics that was integral to me deciding that this was what I wanted to dedicate my life to.
I just have this vivid memory of being on my college campus weeping because I was like: “It has to be me. I have to be the person that draws this book.” And I, of course, would have been interested in basically any story that [Mariko] could have written, but when I read the script for this one I was like, “I would do anything to be the person that gets to bring the story into the world.”
MT: I feel like there are things about these characters that definitely shifted as the story went along, because as they became people on the page there were other things about them that just became clearer. I think that is such an incredible part of the process. It’s what makes it such a human thing.
RO: How did you both feel after “Laura Dean” was done and out in the world?
RVO: All of a sudden I can walk into my childhood bookstore and see this thing that I’ve spent so much time with — that was so intimate and so personal — is out in the world. And it’s allowed to be intimate and personal to a bunch of other people. There were moments when that idea felt very scary but I’ve just crossed the threshold where I’m thrilled by the fact that it’s a form of connection that you can have with other people.
RO: Since this is such a visual story, I would love to know more about how the characters were developed.
MT: I like to give very loose character descriptions, although I had a really clear sense of what the main character, Freddy, looked like.
RVO: Mariko gave me some visual references of things she was thinking about when picturing characters. I knew I wanted the characters to feel like people that I knew and like people that existed in my life, in the world and specifically in the Bay Area.
RO: Rosemary, I know you are based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Mariko, you’re based in Oakland, California. How were you able to work on this book together while long distance?
RVO: We were lucky enough to have a couple in-person meet-ups. I got to go out to Berkeley and the Bay Area. We went on a tour to look at architecture and look at locations and take stock of the world that these people live in.
MT: It’s funny, because when you do a tour with an illustrator, they’re always noticing all these things, like Rosemary kept taking pictures of succulents. I was like: “Oh you’re gonna draw that? That’s going to take forever.”
RO: Have you gotten any surprising or memorable responses from readers?
MT: A lot of people have just felt very deeply about “Laura Dean,” which is really incredible. People always ask me if Laura Dean is someone in my life.
RVO: At San Diego Comic-Con, I had two separate people approach me and want to talk about the book. Both of them said that reading this book specifically helped them come to terms with some aspect of their identity as queer people. One of them didn’t previously identify as queer at all. It’s a privilege to have someone approach you and confide that you participated in helping them be more comfortable and more open to a part of themselves. That’s an incredible thing to hear from another human being.
MT: It was important to me that in part of the book there wouldn’t be a lot of resistance from the world that these queer characters live in. There’s no conflict about that. Peripherally, there’s internal and external conflicts, but the majority of it is not about the process of coming out or struggling with identity, it’s that identity is just there.
Rosemary and I talked about the world of the story being important to us, so it was really gratifying to see other people comment on that and say that that was something that they liked about the book. I think you could certainly say something else, like, “it’s not a piece of cake to be queer in every part of the world or every part of North America.” There are still things that are hard about it for different people with different identities and different struggles. But I was glad to see that people seemed to understand our intent, which was to create a story with more queer stories where it doesn’t always have to be about identity per se.
Our story is one story about one group of people in one particular part of the world. I’m glad that we got to add [“Laura Dean”] to the ocean that I hope is one day built of a vast variety of queer stories.
New to graphic novels? Here are a few of my favorite to start with.
“Persepolis,” Written and illustrated by Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi recounts her childhood and life, growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution.
“You & A Bike & A Road,” Written and illustrated by Eleanor Davis. In 2016, Davis biked across the country and documented her journey in real time through this comic journal.
“Y: The Last Man,” Written by Brian K. Vaughan, Illustrated by Pia Guerra and Jose Marzan Jr. This fictional series takes place after a worldwide epidemic takes out every mammal with a Y chromosome. For some reason, one man, Yorick, and his male monkey companion survive.