Eisner Award-winning author and illustrator Isabel Greenberg takes readers back into the magical medieval world of her acclaimed 2013 graphic, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, with her new book, The One Hundred Nights of Hero. A bold and poignant play on the traditional story of Scheherazade in The Arabian Nights, Greenberg's tale follows Cherry and her quick-witted maid, Hero (a star-crossed couple secretly in love) through their 100-day ploy to distract a diabolical man by regaling him with with stories so compelling that he loses track of time altogether. The story of Cherry and Hero's brave fight against oppressive men who don't believe in women's literacy or rights is artfully entwined with Hero's empowering folk tales, which Greenberg brings to vivid life with her unique and playful line work.
We asked Greenberg a few questions about her fantastical world, female-focused stories, the challenges of working in the comics industry and more.
Describe One Hundred Nights of Hero in one sentence.
Feminist folk tales for a modern age.
This book builds on the magical world you created in your previous graphic. What drew you back in?
I felt there were still stories to be told in Early Earth. I think there probably still are, although I will probably be taking a break and trying a new setting for my next project! I love books that build imaginary worlds; I’ve always been a fan of authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkein and Philip Pullman, and I always wanted to build my own. The difficulty of doing that is you become rather stuck in it! I felt a bit like it was going on even without me writing it!
The One Hundred Nights of Hero is very steeped in fairy tales and myth—what is it about these ancient forms of storytelling that inspires you?
I like the universality of the stories . . . the fact that there is a Cinderella story from virtually every culture. It's amazing to me how many times these stories have been told, and that’s why I like to use them and retell them. It seems very natural to me. The stories are extremely easy to adapt and to place your own characters on top of what is often a trope rather than a well drawn personality, meaning you have a lot of freedom to work within them. And finally, they are about such universal themes; love, jealousy, family etc. Who could not find something in there to relate to?
What do you love most about Hero and Cherry?
I love that they are there for each other. Cherry is more spontaneous, maybe a little spoiled. Hero is cautious, but also the one who spins the tales. They compliment each other, I hope. And I think they have a lot to say to each other!
In this novel, women are punished for reading, storytelling and sassiness. Why was it important for you to focus on strong, intelligent women in these stories?
I find this question interesting as when I wrote this book, I didn’t actually intend to make a statement about "strong intelligent women," I was just writing what I felt. I know lots of strong and intelligent women, and doesn’t seem remarkable to me. The fact that it has been so remarked upon in response to the book, as being something unusual, tells me that these stories do still need to be told. And that there is a need for characters like this. It doesn’t seem exceptional for books to feature "strong intelligent" men.
Have you come across many challenges as a woman, both as a writer and a reader, in this historically male-dominated sector of publishing?
As a reader I’ve been really excited to see that, in the U.K. at least, festivals and cons are full of women and girls, both fans and authors. Most of my favorite comic artists are women! As an author, being typecast as a "female comic artist" can be quite irritating. Obviously it is positive and necessary that spaces are being created for women within a traditionally male-dominated industry, but it can also be patronizing and condescending. Once I was given a rag doll as a prize at a "women in comics" themed event for example! Furthermore, the comics industry is not only traditionally very male, but also very white, and much more is needed to open it up to new voices.
What authors and artists have influenced you the most?
I love comics, and I love artists like Kate Beaton, Grace Wilson, Tillie Walden, Jillian Tamaki, Tove Janson and so many others. Mainly I think I have been most influenced by the novels I read growing up that I still love today; Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkein.
What is the most challenging aspect of working within the graphic novel as a format for storytelling? Most rewarding?
I love to draw, so I get immense pleasure from doing it. However, it can be quite an alarming moment when you finish writing and thumbnailing a 200 page book, think you are finished and then realize you now have to draw the whole thing! I love the writing and drawing equally and get as much enjoyment, in different ways, from both. I think what I find challenging is knowing when to stop using words and let the images speak for themselves. I work in quite a text heavy way anyway, but I love to write, and sometimes that can overtake the drawings!
How do you see the graphic genre and its literary importance evolving in the future?
I would like to see a time when comics and/or graphic novels (however you want to call them—I do not mind!) are not on their own shelf in the corner of bookshops, but are so commonplace and well thought of that they are shelved according to their genre; crime, biography, autobiography, fantasy etc., rather than in one section when they could be vastly different! Comics are not a genre—they are a medium.
Do you have any new projects on the horizon?
Yes! But it's too early to talk about!