October 08, 2021

Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Lisa Sterle

Let’s be monsters
Interview by
Author Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea) and illustrator Lisa Sterle discuss their first graphic novel collaboration, in which teenage girls are never quite what they seem.
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Squad is the first graphic novel from YA and picture book author Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea), and it features eye-catching illustrations by comics artist Lisa Sterle. It’s the story of Becca, the new girl at Piedmont High School, who is invited to join the most popular clique of girls at school. Then she discovers that they’re not so much a squad as a pack. Of werewolves.

Maggie, tell us a little bit about Becca, the main character of Squad. What ideas were you hoping to explore through her story?

Maggie Tokuda-Hall: Becca is someone who wants to fit in so badly. She’s a try-hard who doesn’t have a natural knack for making friends. She thinks that if, somehow, she just does everything right then maybe, MAYBE she’ll fit in and everything will be OK, and she won’t feel so lonely anymore. And so when she has a group of friends, she’s willing to overlook anything about them: their microaggressions, their casual racism, their cruelty. The fact that they’re straight-up murderers. They’re bound by a sense of having been wronged, and they have been wronged. All of us have been. Rape culture hurts everyone. 

Becca is meant to be a stand-in for the rest of us. It’s so human to want to fit in. It’s so human to want justice. But are power imbalances ever the way to seek justice? Is the death penalty ever right? What does punishment accomplish, really? These are things Becca allows us to ask ourselves, even if she makes decisions we may disagree with.

What challenges did you encounter as you worked on this story?

Tokuda-Hall: The hardest thing was trying to find the right frame to tell this story. Ever since I graduated from the real Piedmont High, I’d been trying to figure out how to write about what I saw and experienced there. I didn’t have the language yet, but now I know it was rape culture. I was furious. Heartbroken. And it took me more than 15 years after graduating to be able to craft the right story in the tone I wanted to address it.

When Fred Rogers defended PBS’ funding before Congress, he read the lyrics of a song he sang to children to help them cope with being mad, and there’s a line from it that I think about a lot: “What do you do / with the mad that you feel / when you feel so mad / you could bite?” Sorting through my own anger was the hardest part of writing Squad, and the hardest part of talking about it.

“These girls aren’t role models, and they aren’t heroes. . . . They’re girls who have been beaten down by a world that will never love them back, no matter how ‘perfect’ they are.”

Maggie Tokuda-Hall

Can you talk about the way that consent is represented in Squad, and what you hope readers take away from it?

Tokuda-Hall: Squad is about rape culture, obviously. And so of course there are terrible boys, exactly who you’d expect. But the girls also have a really unhealthy consent praxis. They think they’re these white knights riding against predators, and yeah, they are, I guess. But they also threaten to kill Becca if she doesn’t join them. Becca is so chuffed to be invited that she doesn’t think about it that way; she was going to say yes, but she couldn’t have said no if she wanted to and lived. The girls enforce horrible body standards that are, in my view, an extension of rape culture, this effort to always keep the female body obedient for the male gaze. They do this without questioning themselves, without seeing the ways they’re enforcers of the very culture they purport to destroy.

These girls aren’t role models, and they aren’t heroes. They’re murderers. They’re also victims. They’re girls who have been beaten down by a world that will never love them back, no matter how “perfect” they are.

Squad is equal parts revenge fantasy and a question of what justice is in our world, which is so deeply entrenched in patriarchy, rape culture, racism and misogyny. Law enforcement doesn’t help with any of these things—in fact, it is very much an extension of them. Revenge feels good, but that isn’t justice, is it? I don’t know what justice is. But I do know that I’m not equipped to dispense it.

Werewolves are usually portrayed as masculine creatures—but not so here. Where did the inspiration for your “squad” of werewolf girls come from?

Tokuda-Hall: I think anything that’s been arbitrarily gendered is begging for subversion. And honestly, who looked at werewolves and periods and didn’t connect the dots? Uterus-havers experiencing something secret and bloody once a month? I couldn’t possibly think of any real life situation that’s analogous to that.

There’s also something inherently camp about werewolves. They’re human/dog crosses. Even if they’re scary, they’re still goofy. I love that about them, how ripe they are for comedy.

“No matter what we do, we’re somehow monstrous. So fine. Let’s be monsters.”

Maggie Tokuda-Hall

What werewolf tropes—or general horror tropes—did you hope to challenge? Did you intentionally preserve any tropes?

Tokuda-Hall: The one werewolf trope that I love is that they’re monsters born out of trauma. Typically, a werewolf doesn’t ask you if they can bite you, at least in most of the stories I know. I’m a person who’s been sexually assaulted, and I know that feeling of monstrous violation leaving me with consequences I was ill-equipped to handle. It made werewolves an apt cipher. I don’t mean to say that everyone who’s been assaulted is made a monster by it, but I do think it can create a craving for revenge. At least, it did for me.

The trope I was most interested in challenging was that, in horror, female monsters only get to be scary if their power comes from sex or age. Making them disgusting bloodthirsty dogs was sort of a middle finger to that. Even when we’re monsters we’re supposed to be hot. If you’re a woman, people are going to judge you and find you wanting. There’s no “right” way to be a woman in our world. You should be smart but not a nerd! You should be hot, but you shouldn’t act like you’re hot! You should look presentable and good all the time, but you shouldn’t try too hard! Be skinny, but not anorexic! Be one of the guys, but don’t fart! It’s impossible. No matter what we do, we’re somehow monstrous. So fine. Let’s be monsters.

From its inception, was Squad always going to be a graphic novel?

Tokuda-Hall: I have wanted to tell some version of Squad for a very long time, but I wasn’t able to crack it until I decided it needed to have werewolves, and it needed to be a graphic novel. As soon as I did, it flowed really easily. It was a complete joy to write, and it was similar to writing a picture book in that you want to leave room for an illustrator to make it their own, too.

Can you give us a little behind-the-scenes glimpse at how Squad was made?

Tokuda-Hall: I wrote the script like I was possessed, then my fantastic agent, Jennifer Laughran, helped make it make sense, and then the marvelous Martha Mihalick at Greenwillow gave it a home. We edited it together and passed it to Lisa, who had a couple of smaller notes that I added in. Lisa and I didn’t get to collaborate much directly, but watching her take this book and make it her own amazing vision has been both humbling and career-affirmingly rad.

Lisa Sterle: I signed on as the illustrator after Maggie already had the pitch and the first draft of the script finished, so I got to read the whole thing pretty immediately. To be honest, I was sold at the first mention of girls turning into werewolves. I love supernatural fantasy, so this was a concept that hooked me in fast. After reading the first chapter of the script, I immediately had such a strong idea of who these girls were, and I hadn’t even really visualized them yet. The dynamics between the squad felt immediately familiar, and I related so much to shy Becca’s desire to fit in and her sense of longing to belong somewhere. I think it’s a familiar narrative to anyone who’s been a teenage girl. The horror aspect of boy-devouring werewolves was icing on the cake.

“I had a whole mood board full of outfit ideas for the squad, because I wanted them to each have their own sense of style and yet feel like they all coordinated.” 

Lisa Sterle

Though the script was completed before I started on the artwork, I did a lot of the directing myself as I formatted it for a graphic novel. I figured out the page breakdowns, panel breakdowns, which scenes needed to be splash pages or needed more breathing room, when to focus on characters or the surroundings and so on. So even though the story was done, I definitely appreciate that I got the opportunity to put my own special stamp on it through the art and the comics medium.

Maggie, what’s different about working on a book with a collaborative partner like an illustrator versus working on a novel where you’re the sole contributor?

Tokuda-Hall: IT WAS THE BEST. It is 100% better than working on your own. Illustrators are perfect magical creatures, and we don’t deserve them. She drew! So many! PICTURES! And they are all amazing! I cannot fathom what it’s like to live in her head and to be able to breathe life into drawings and to make characters come alive. But I can say that I am a huge fan of her work, and I cannot wait for her to achieve the unbearable fame her talent deserves.

Writing a novel is like being trapped in a room with yourself. You may be great company to yourself, but I know that to my own taste, I am not. Working with an illustrator relieves some of that great loneliness that comes with being a writer.

Lisa, you’ve illustrated lots of interesting things, from comics and comic book covers to a tarot deck. How did working on a graphic novel compare?

Sterle: Working on a graphic novel was a new experience for me! It was wonderful to not have to feel rushed by a monthly delivery schedule like in comics, and to really be able to take my time on each step of the process. Sometimes it was challenging to keep the momentum, though! 200-ish pages is a LOT, and at times it can feel like it never ends. I found ways to stay inspired and motivated though, such as inking a couple pages during the pencils stage to switch things up creatively.

What were your inspirations for the overall look and feel of the book?

Sterle: I knew going into this project that I wanted to do something bright and colorful, as it was the first comic I’d really fully colored myself. My Modern Witch Tarot was actually a bit of an inspiration, because through those illustrations I really uncovered a palette that spoke to my pop sensibilities. 

Fashion was also a big inspiration. I had a whole mood board full of outfit ideas for the squad, because I wanted them to each have their own sense of style and yet feel like they all coordinated as well. The Chanels from “Scream Queens” were an inspiration, as were Cher Horowitz from Clueless, Lirika Matoshi’s dresses and Cara Delevingne’s style, to name a few others.

I love how you differentiated the girls, even when they’re in their werewolf forms. What techniques did you use to give the werewolves their individual looks?

Sterle: Figuring out the werewolves was one of the first big challenges! I definitely went with a more wolflike approach than humanlike, and that meant that they could have been hard to tell apart from one another. I considered differentiating them with jewelry or some kinds of accessories at one point, but I landed on the surprisingly simple approach of just having their fur color match their hair for the most part. I did have to tweak slightly since two of the girls have black hair, but I think it worked out in the end.

“Lisa is a marvel at creating the emotional world of a character in their body language and on their faces.”

Maggie Tokuda-Hall

Can you talk about how you used color in these illustrations?

Sterle: I love bright colors, especially when paired sparingly with pastels—kind of an ’80s/’90s vibe. I tend to stay away from earth tones, and I feel like that was an easy solution to unifying colors throughout the book. The daytime and school scenes are all very bright and warm, while the nighttime scenes tended to have a cooler, blue-green scheme, which worked out perfectly to really make the red POP when the werewolves and gore show up.

How did you approach illustrating those violent scenes?

Sterle: I’ve always been a fan of horror, so I’ve formed thoughts on what I like and dislike when it comes to gore and violence. I tried not to go too far into the realism, but I do think that in certain scenes it was important to show what these girls were really doing. No sugarcoating here! But I’m not a fan of gore for its own sake, so I tried to make sure I wasn’t going over the top unnecessarily.

Maggie, what are some things you love about what Lisa brought to the book?

Tokuda-Hall: The facial expressions. There would be direction in the script, like “Marley looks annoyed.” But then Lisa would imbue these facial expressions with so much depth and complexity. She’s annoyed, yes, but she’s also disappointed and a little embarrassed now that Lisa is done with her. Lisa is a marvel at creating the emotional world of a character in their body language and on their faces.

It is also worth noting that Lisa is like . . . a cool person. And I am not. And so she was able to lend the aesthetic a coolness that I wanted but in no way could have created on my own. The girls’ fashion is so correct and current. They’d all be dressed the way high schoolers dressed when I was in high school if I’d had to do it myself. Which, needless to say, wouldn’t be right. I’m almost old enough for all my teen fashion to have come back around, but not quite.

Do you have a favorite illustration of Lisa’s from the book?

Tokuda-Hall: All of Lisa’s work is exquisite. But probably the seemingly silliest thing that I really, truly, deeply love is that she added sound effects. I didn’t write any of those. So, for example, when Bart O’Kavanaugh gets eaten, there’s a “SPLORCH” sound effect. Has there ever been a word as onomatopoetic as splorch? Anyway, it lends the book the correct, campy, comic book-y vibe to help cut through the trauma. It’s really important for that reason, I think, because otherwise the book’s tone is a little off. This is a horror comedy. Splorch helps drive that home.

Read our review of ‘Squad.’

What are you most proud of having accomplished in Squad?

Sterle: I brought to life four very unique characters, each with hopes, dreams, insecurities and faults. I think we told a pretty complex story, disguised as a fun supernatural horror teen drama.

Tokuda-Hall: I wrote the first draft of Squad in the summer of 2018, just before Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings were held in the Senate. Like many other people who’ve been sexually assaulted, I was inspired by Christine Blasey Ford’s courage, and I confronted the man who sexually assaulted me. He was a friend from Piedmont. Someone I trusted, someone I’d grown up with. The publication of Squad feels like the end to the time when I felt afraid or victimized or disempowered because of what he did to me. Men like him can’t scare me anymore. I’m the scary thing in the woods now.

And as the goddess and prophet Beyonce Knowles-Carter said, “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”

Photo of Maggie Tokuda-Hall © Red Scott. Photo of Lisa Sterle © Meg Mantia.

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