Q & A with Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Faith Schaffer

by 24britishtvMay 10, 2024, midnight 26
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Female samurai with cell phones and wi-fi turn feudal Japan upside down in Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s YA graphic novel The Worst Ronin, illustrated by animator Faith Schaffer, who is making her publishing debut. Sixteen-year-old Chihiro is seeking the assistance of a ronin as she embarks on a military mission in her father’s stead. When she meets her hero—19-year-old ronin Tatsuo—during a brawl, Chihiro recruits her on her quest. But grumpy Tatsuo dislikes Chihiro’s sheltered nature, putting the two at odds as they set off on their journey. Tokuda-Hall and Schaffer spoke with PW about what each of them brought to the table during their collaboration, and their mutual love of badass girls with swords.

Where did the story for The Worst Ronin originate?

Maggie Tokuda-Hall: I saw a white guy talking about how, in order to research his book about Japanese things, he watched a bunch of anime and ate Pocky sticks. And I was like, “Why do I feel like an imposter talking about my own heritage when this man is out here like this?” It set me free to do whatever I wanted.

Did you always imagine The Worst Ronin as a graphic novel?

Tokuda-Hall: I think any story that involves hand-to-hand combat is best served in graphic novel form, and Faith has a great sense of blocking, so action scenes were always fun. And with the Swordtember thing [a month-long drawing challenge centering swords] that she had been doing, it felt like all the credentials were there.

Faith Schaffer: A friend who worked in publishing asked me if I was interested in pitching something back in February 2020, and then again later that year, and I was like, “I can’t write anything.” Then I was approached to test for The Worst Ronin. I love designing swords and women in armor, so when this script came across my desk, I was like, “I really want to work on this.”

How has your debut experience been so far?

Schaffer: It’s been interesting because I’m the kind of person who, when I see work that I’ve done, I cringe. But it’s fun to see a story come together from start to finish over many pages. I love working in series because I get to see how things progress over time. It has been nerve-wracking, though, reaching out to people and being like, “Hey, you want to check out my book?”

And Maggie, this is your second graphic novel. How did working with Faith on The Worst Ronin differ from your collaboration with Lisa Sterle on Squad?

Tokuda-Hall: Squad took place where I went to high school, so there were a lot of beats in it where I was like, “That’s the quad. That’s the underpass where we would shoulder tap to get someone to buy us booze.” Everything in Squad was the embodiment of something that I knew existed made manifest by Lisa. But with The Worst Ronin, it was a completely imagined place. People didn’t have cell phones in feudal Japan, and we weren’t trying for historical accuracy, so it was cool to see something I had only imagined become this lived-in world.

Why did you combine cell phones and wi-fi with a feudal Japan setting?

Schaffer: It reminded me of Naruto because nothing around those characters is based on real history. They’re doing ninja stuff in, like, the middle of the woods, but suddenly it cuts to them watching surveillance footage, and you go along with it because it’s cool.

Tokuda-Hall: When I’m being serious about it, I say that I wrote The Worst Ronin for the Japanese American gaze. We exist in this world that’s influenced by our heritage, but we don’t have a relationship to Japan the same way our grandparents do. I’m Yonsei [fourth-generation Japanese], so Japan is a foreign thing to me in a lot of ways. Creating a world that acknowledges the reality that I live in—which is one with surveillance and cell phones and a constant awareness of what the public opinion is—in this other place that I’m told is important, but that I don’t have a real understanding of, was a fun exercise. What would it look like if I represented my own heritage? Cell phones in feudal Japan.

Can you describe your collaborative process?

Schaffer: There was a lot of good direction about what Maggie wanted, and I was also allowed to go nuts with that. The coolest and most important note was how Maggie described color, and how the characters’ outfits could be more vibrant—Chihiro especially. Not only did that help set it apart from a realistic feudal Japan story, but it also helped me when I was laying out the book, so that I could make sure the characters were always standing out from the background. Maggie checked in at each interim stage of the process.

Tokuda-Hall: Kind of unofficially, most of the time. For a lot of publishing houses, when authors and illustrators are paired together, they separate us like church and state, which I totally understand—with all the personalities that exist in the creative world, I could see why that’s a good protective measure to default to. But it’s my great pleasure to work with illustrators, and I’m always so excited that they’re willing to work with me. When I want to check in, it isn’t a surveillance thing so much as it’s me wanting to see drawings because I’m impatient. It’s always cool to peek under the rug and see how the sausage is made—not to mix my metaphors—because it always happens mysteriously away from me.

How did you craft Tatsuo and Chihiro’s disparate personalities and developing friendship?

Tokuda-Hall: I think all art has an element of self-portraiture to it. I’ve been writing books for a long time, so I can relate to the weariness that Tatsuo has of doing something for a long time, and also being really frustrated about everything that comes with it. Tatsuo has an unwillingness to bend in the face of things that have been frustrating or that have genuinely hurt or traumatized her. It definitely reflects how I’ve felt coming up through publishing. But I also have this deep idealism and belief that stories are so important, that they matter, and that justice is a real thing that human beings could potentially achieve. Chihiro represents the other side of my personality that says, “You’re doing this for a reason. It’s because you love children and you believe in a better future,” and I want people like Chihiro to exist. Extreme idealism vs. extreme pragmaticism is always funny to me. Everything else was up to Faith.

Schaffer: Chihiro was fun to design because I wanted her to feel like a mix of sporty, but also a little spoiled, a little more girlish and frivolous because she’s naive to what she might need on a long journey. To her, it’s just, “Well, this is my favorite outfit, so I’m going to wear it,” and she’s got the immaculate Ariana Grande high ponytail.

I wanted to give Tatsuo and Chihiro physical interactions throughout that showed how their relationship developed, so I started doing this thing where Tatsuo would grab Chihiro’s cheeks to make her shut up. It eventually goes from, “I’m going to kill you if you keep talking,” to being an affectionate, playful thing. I also included Tatsuo doing something very similar to her best friend in a flashback. And then, as Chihiro develops her own confidence, I have her do the same gesture to Tatsuo toward the end of the book.

Tokuda-Hall: That was one of my favorite details. I was like, “This is so accurate for the characters, but not at all what I had imagined.” It’s a testament to how awesome it is to work with illustrators, especially one with a background in animation. Animators just have a knack for gestures that tell an emotional story.

Did you encounter any challenges illustrating The Worst Ronin that you haven’t experienced working in animation?

Schaffer: I’m a background designer, so the things I’m drawing on the daily have to be really informative and precise for other people to work off of. I also only draw the same thing once or twice. When I was working on The Worst Ronin, though, I was like, “I can cheat this corner, I can have this thing in this shot and not the next shot, who cares?” And then I realized, “Oh, I care.” Because now I have to draw it over and over. Another thing is, in animation, I always work in the same dimensions, but for comics, I’m breaking up pages into panels. I looked back at my favorite Sailor Moon manga layouts for reference, and I also laid out the whole book physically first; I thumbnailed it out in two sketchbooks so I could see how it looked by flipping the page to make sure I wasn’t accidentally repeating the same layouts and that it flowed nicely.

Were there any other story elements that were enhanced or added by the art that didn’t exist in the script?

Tokuda-Hall: I wrote The Worst Ronin with the intention of being funny—I was trying my best—but there’s a lot more comedy now. Faith added an almost slapstick edge that was perfect for the tone we were going for. When Tatsuo and Chihiro meet for the first time, Chihiro is being held at knifepoint and the face she’s making is hilarious. Even though it’s a life-or-death situation, her expression is a cue to the reader that they don’t need to be scared. It’s a hard line to walk because even though it’s a story about grief, injustice, and war, it’s also a buddy comedy.

Schaffer: It was fun to push expressions and make them goofy. But I had to make sure I wasn’t being goofy for the scenes that were heavy or full of grief. Color helped a lot; I would switch to more muted palettes and I’d add a lot of blue or dark gradients for scenes that were a little heavier.

What are you working on now?

Tokuda-Hall: Right now, I’m revising the script for the sequel to Squad.

Schaffer: I’m not sure what I’m working on next. The animation industry is a little unstable right now and I don’t think it’s going to right itself anytime soon. I’m just sort of figuring stuff out. I’m going to pitch a children’s book by the end of the year, though, so, fingers crossed.

The Worst Ronin by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, illus. by Faith Schaffer. HarperAlley, $26.99 May 21 ISBN 978-0-358-46493-8; $18.99 paper ISBN 978-0-358-46493-8

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