Looking for a comic that would speak to her, Sarah DeLaine teamed up with writer Nicholas Aflleje to create a graphic novel for adventurous young women. Image Comics’ graphic novel LITTLE GIRLS explores cross-cultural friendship and uncanny animal encounters. Aflleje’s writing captures a deep sense of magical realism felt by the comic’s young protagonists. Similarly, DeLaine’s dark illustrations capture the excitement and horror of exploring nature after dark.
ComicsVerse had the opportunity to interview DeLaine and Aflleje about their work together on LITTLE GIRLS. Aflleje and DeLaine share their thoughts on creating comics for young women, magical realism, and their experiences in the comics industry.
[Editor’s note: Portions of this interview have been lightly edited for clarity].
ComicsVerse (CV): Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your new work from Image Comics, LITTLE GIRLS. Can you tell our readers what they can expect from the graphic novel?
Sarah DeLaine (SD): At its heart, LITTLE GIRLS is a story about a new friendship between two girls. Readers can also expect some nighttime escapades, supernatural mystery, and a lot of bravery. Also, grass. Lots and lots of grass.
CV: Nicholas Aflleje, LITTLE GIRLS explores the possible outcomes of cross-cultural encounters. Did you set out to write a comic that explored this theme so intensely?
Nicholas Aflleje (NA): I actually didn’t, but it quickly became clear that this would be the case. The book was initially conceived as a response to something Sarah had said around me in passing. I don’t think she was really being serious, but she was just starting to get into comics and said she wished she had a comic script that was made with her in mind. At the time, I was really intrigued by a lot of artists discussing how the creative process can be fueled by restraint and obstruction. So naturally, I found her joke to be inspiring. Once the established concepts start growing into the shape of an actual story, I find that the story itself starts dictating its needs. It’s kind of like how sculptors describe sculpting. My job from there is to facilitate those needs and fill in the gaps.
CV: Although you explore relationships between humans and relationships between animals, the comic maintains a relatively clear boundary between humans and animals, which only the monstrous demon crosses. Is there a way in which your comic examines the role humans play in nonhuman-animal life?
NA: In the story, Kerit, the great matriarch of the hyena, has had enough. She decides to try and upend the current hierarchy of the animal kingdom. Lions win every lion-hyena war and people, by and large, put all other creatures in a subservient position, regardless of intentions. On top of all that, hyenas have gained a horrible unearned reputation, perpetuated by unsubstantiated oral traditions. Kerit is sick of it, and she’s going to do something about it, no matter how hopeless it seems to do so.
CV: Harar, Ethiopia is a very specific location in which to set your story. Readers may know that Harar has a history with hyenas, albeit a more peaceful one than in your graphic novel. As antagonists, monstrous hyenas are particularly unique and effective – usually, it’s werewolves that go after little girls! Can you tell us more about the cultural setting for LITTLE GIRLS? What inspired you about Harar’s hyenas and folklore?
NA: It became obvious early on that Harar had to be where this story took place, especially once Kerit became involved. It is in relatively close proximity to the site of one of the bloodiest lion hyena wars on record, it has a tradition of people feeding the hyenas for the last half millennium, and the old rumor about the Selassie lion was based in Harar. All of this would be of interest to Kerit for different reasons.
CV: Can you tell us more about the young women, Sam and Lielet, who are at the heart of LITTLE GIRLS? You bring them to life so vividly in a way that is both respectful and whimsical. What drove you to focus on them?
NA: I’m really glad you feel that way. An early aim Sarah and I had was that we really wanted to create a genuine and engaging portrayal of two adolescent girls becoming friends. No frenemies, no love triangles, just two people who click almost automatically and become better for it. I got into comics at about the same age as the two protagonists. Sarah, thanks to some preconceived notions from those around her, found her love for comics much later. I have a niece who was a few years younger than Sam and Lielet when I first started writing LITTLE GIRLS and she was showing interest in the medium, but nothing quite captured her imagination yet. We had her fully in mind while making this.
CV: Throughout the comic, there is the suggestion that young people willfully believe in the monster. And that the monster may or may not exist. Overall, the comic delivers a deep sense of magical realism. What role did these ideas play in your world building?
NA: It was innate and I had no choice in the matter. It will probably always be a driving influence for me. From a young age, I have always been a sucker for a good turn. “Everything seemed normal, but then THIS happened!”
SD: I’d add that part of the experience of being young is how isolating it can feel in many ways — the adult world is happening around you, and you may hear something or even know something about it, but you don’t yet feel like it always matters to your own immediate experience. It’s not yet your world when you’re young. So you make this whole other parallel life that your parents can only just guess at! A lot of crazy things can happen in the insulated world of a preteen/teen.
CV: Sarah, you have a bold illustration style that highlights Nicholas’ bold storytelling. I especially love the illustrations of Ethiopia’s animals. Can you tell us a little about your artistic process with this comic?
SD: I researched Harar and the surrounding region, and also the animals. I really wanted to immerse myself in the culture, people, architecture, and the flora and fauna of the place. So the reader might also feel immersed. The animals play such a big part in the whole narrative, and the study for them was pretty fun if you’re the kind that likes to watch nature documentaries! There are lots of predators in this book. So there’s inevitable violence, and I had to figure out how to show those moments of violence and vulnerability not just in people but in animals as well.
CV: The artwork plays with the story’s natural magical realism as well as subtle horror. How was it striking a balance between these elements and the young women’s bubbly personalities?
SD: I’ve had my share of encounters with unexplained or eerie things in my life so far. So I think that influences some of the aesthetic. Where I live in Florida there are plenty of strange things, and it seems like everyone has a story of something they’ve experienced. That’s just what it’s like — walking the dog and seeing something in the underbrush, hearing an eerie sound, or spotting an unidentified creature down the road… You’re just the same regular person you always were, standing there wearing your sneakers or whatever, while seeing something you can’t explain.
NA: That contrast was an important element to Little Girls. It’s meant to frustrate and disturb adults while at the same time relating to the younger readers, the ones who understand the advantages of such flexibility.
CV: LITTLE GIRLS was Nicholas’ first foray into comics. Sarah, you have contributed to the SHOCK Anthology, ROCHE LIMIT, and ENORMOUS. Did you enjoy working together on this graphic novel?
SD: It was amazing! Nicholas wrote this story specifically for me with my art style, strengths, and preferences in mind. So I couldn’t think of a better way to create a first graphic novel. We’ve known each other for years. So the whole collaboration felt pretty natural. I think it’s a good sign when two creators can work on such a long project and then actually talk about working together again afterward.
NA: Making graphic novels can be a rough business but our work relationship and creative rapport made me often forget that.
CV: Would you tell our readers about some of your creative influences, in comics or elsewhere?
SD: My early influences were all outside of comics since I was introduced to comics as an adult. Once I got the bug though, I’d say Moebius, Jeff Smith, Osama Tezuka, Rumiko Takahashi, and Mike Allred.
NA: For LITTLE GIRLS, other than things previously mentioned, I was inspired by stories that allowed time to breathe and were given space to establish a sense of mindfulness. Taiyo Matsumoto’s TEKKONKINKREET was a major one, also BLACKSAD by Canales and Guarnido, and BUDDHA by Tezuka. Movies such as Joe Wright’s HANNA, 3 IRON/EMPT HOUSE, and CHUNGKING EXPRESS should also be mentioned as well as THE ADVENTURES OF PETE AND PETE.
CV: Are there any new projects on the horizon?
NA: Yes, but I have to sell a few artists on them before I can give any details!