I got completely obsessed with this cartoon mini-series that came out last year, I didn’t discover it until a month or so ago. It’s really beautiful and some of it ties into things i’ve been working on so it was really inspirational too. I worked on this piece for about a day and a half. Look at the large size to see all the details!
Book Three - BRIGHT LIGHTS, DARK NIGHTS, August 2015.
Walter Wilcox has never been in love. That is, until he meets Naomi, and sparks, and clever jokes, fly. But when his cop dad is caught in a racial profiling scandal, Walter and Naomi, who is African American, are called out at school, home, and online. Can their bond (and mutual love of the Foo Fighters) keep them together? With black-and-white illustrations throughout and a heartfelt, humorous voice, Bright Lights, Dark Nights authentically captures just how tough first love can be... and why it's worth fighting for.
So I started a new Tumblr because the old one was full of my Lemons auto-bio stuff and only haphazardly used since then. I’m gonna post some behind the scenes stuff, lots of art, stuff from my old or abandoned projects, it’ll be fun! Check it out here and add me so good things happen:
With just a couple weeks to go until the release of BRIGHT LIGHTS, DARK NIGHTS, I have been home the past week as sick as I’ve ever been, coughing and sneezing and trying to sleep. And watching Steven Universe! I figured I’d use the time to do a nice drawing and color it up and everything as long as i was home. What a great show! Hopefully I don’t forever associate it with illness.
Here’s a review roundup for BRIGHT LIGHTS, DARK NIGHTS, so far! It’s out August 11th, we’re less than a month away!
Kirkus – Starred Review
“The pressure experienced by couples from different ethnic backgrounds is realistically intensified for this sweetly likable pair when Walter’s dad arrests a black teen for burglary and is accused of assaulting him, igniting debate and anger in their neighborhood and at large. Most impressive in this emotionally charged novel is the way each of the characters is fully imagined; they emerge as complex individuals who are shaped by a variety of factors and are not portrayed as simple heroes or villains.”
Voya – Starred Review
“This illustrated novel is timely and realistic. Walter’s voice is funny and true, and the banter between him and Naomi is clever and engaging. The depiction of their budding romance is sweet. The illustrations add an interesting layer to the tale. The racial scandal, white cop against black teen, offers a nuanced depiction of a divisive, current issue. The online community is portrayed perfectly, demonstrating how the knee-jerk reactions of angry, anonymous posters have real-world effects. Walter undergoes real change and growth.”
“Emond raises difficult questions about racism, crime, and civil rights, without promising or providing easy answers. As in Happyface and Winter Town, illustrations share part of the storytelling weight; Emond’s stark b&w imagery, mostly cityscapes and neighborhood scenes, dovetails with Walter’s interest in comic books and noir films, while underscoring his idea of the city as a “mood ring,” reflecting what one brings to it.”
“Emond’s take on a ripped-from-the-headlines story is decidedly understated and deeply rooted in the characters and
the setting. The fictional East Bridge comes to life in Emond’s gorgeous, inky, noir-infused cityscapes, and the richly imagined inhabitants add verisimilitude to the novel.”
School Library Journal
“The story focuses on Walter trying to reconcile reality with the way he has been raised to see the world and Emond handles it authentically, including making it clear that Walter is just starting to understand the bigger issues like his own privilege.”
Also here’s a look at the cover! This is the first cover I designed myself, so happy with how it came out!
And thanks to Faith Erin Hicks, Michael Buckley, and Mariko Tamaki for the kind words we used on the back!
We’re just a few months away from the release of BRIGHT LIGHTS, DARK NIGHTS! The first two reviews are in. Booklist gave a positive review:
“Walter Wilcox has always wanted to blend in, especially since his parents split up and he moved to the city with his police officer father. Then Walter meets a cute, funny, black girl named Naomi, he is surprised to find she actually seems to like him back. Walter’s life, and his and relationship with Naomi, becomes complicated when his dad is accused of racial profiling. Officer Wilcox says he was just doing his job, but Walter knows what he hears around the dinner table and that parts of his dad’s story don’t add up. When the couple’s relationship becomes a hot topic online, it might be too much for them to handle. The story focuses on Walter trying to reconcile reality with the way he has been raised to see the world and Emond handles it authentically, including making it clear that Walter is just starting to understand the bigger issues like his own privilege. While Walter and Naomi are well developed, other characters lack dimension, which is unfortunate, given the book’s focus on perception and stereotypes. The author’s illustrations, interspersed with the text, help set the mood, as do references to today’s social media climate. Though similar in topic to Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down (Holt, 2014), this readalike is more inward-focused, instead of examinging the effects of racial profiling on the greater community.
VERDICT A timely choice that will get teens talking.”
“First love, racism, family strife, and the Internet’s culture of anonymous cruelty are some of the many themes explored in this illustrated novel by Happyface (2010) author Emond.
High school senior Walter, who is white, lives with his dad, a cop whose career has nose-dived in the years since he and Walter’s mom divorced and they moved from a middle-class suburb to a working-class neighborhood in the city. Anxious and endearingly awkward, Walter has done his best to fly under the radar with his peers, until he falls hard for his friend’s sister: smart, witty, harp-playing Naomi, who is black. The pressure experienced by couples from different ethnic backgrounds is realistically intensified for this sweetly likable pair when Walter’s dad arrests a black teen for burglary and is accused of assaulting him, igniting debate and anger in their neighborhood and at large. Most impressive in this emotionally charged novel is the way each of the characters is fully imagined; they emerge as complex individuals who are shaped by a variety of factors and are not portrayed as simple heroes or villains.
There are no easy answers to the issues at play in this story, and fittingly, there is much that is left open-ended. Readers will be left with plenty on their minds and in their hearts.”
My editor, designer and myself all liked the fire escape cover, but thought there was a charm in the heart-shape cover that was worth exploring. Worst case, it didn’t work out, best case, it had an iconic look to it and could be the best cover yet. So I set off to re-do the art.
The design was good from the start but I wanted to give it more effort since the first time I did it, it was just a for-fun piece to set tone. Decided to bring more detail to Naomi’s face first. Much like with the pair on the other covers, I drew them many times trying to get something good, and it did take a while!
And I again tried a lot of different options for the design, including a traditionally done painting, which was ill-advised.
Eventually we had something we all decided was the best, and that cover is floating around now, although I’ve done some tweaking since, including warming the colors, lighting Naomi a little better, and making the BG inks a dark brown to help push Walter and Naomi forward a bit.
A couple months of work, and we have our cover to BRIGHT LIGHTS, DARK NIGHTS!
So after going through all the various sketches I did in varying stages of completion, my editor and designer and I settled on 3 to fluff out with a little more detail. They were:
Pitch A, Naomi and Walter standing on a rooftop overlooking the city. The dark night above them, the bright lights below.
Pitch B, Walter and Naomi embraced on the fire escape. It has the city vibe I was clearly hooked on while also showcasing the characters. We also toyed with the idea of having cast members in windows of buildings but it was distracting and the windows were too small.
Pitch C, Walter and Naomi under the bright street light by themselves, while the busy world hustles on around them.
Pitch C was knocked out of contention early on while the other two went through a plethora of alterations. One thing I learned doing this was every little tiny thing could be changed and throw off the whole look of the cover. There were so many options, would it look better brighter, more saturated? Should there be more windows, more buildings? How much space should the logo take up? How much space should Walter and Naomi take up? Is that a good pose for them? It became really easy to lose myself in modifications, a little change here, a change there. My editor would ask me for one thing and I’d make 17 adjustments before sending it back. It was easy to get lost.
And there was the logo. I had the image of a hand-scrawled logo early on but I tried a ton of different logos to see if anything else really jumped out or captured the tone of the book better. Even the hand-written logo was done over and over and over to find just the right look.
Here’s the rooftop cover with a variety of logos. I also was thinking it could look like a poster or old pulp novel cover too at some point, hence the frayed edges.
And an example of the kinds of tweaking I would do – should it be cell-shaded coloring? Painted? Warm? Cool? Are the lights bright enough? Too bright?
And then I tried varying color methods, more comic book-style, heavily inked and noirish, etc. Each of the covers went through quite a few different looks.
Of course, ultimately we didn’t go with any of those. I’d included the heart-shape cover in the bonus materials and my editor and designer thought it had a real charm to it. And so I set out to make the final cover, which I’ll write about in my next blog.
So last summer I had the opportunity to design my own book cover, which, despite being an artist myself, is not something I’d done since the Emo Boy Graphic Novels and comics back in the day. I had a very talented designer named Ben Mautner do the covers for HAPPYFACE and WINTER TOWN, and since those were always so well regarded, I was happy to have him do the job. He’d left that position to work on his career in DJing though by the time BRIGHT LIGHTS, DARK NIGHTS was nearing completion, plus I’d changed companies to Roaring Brook at Macmillan, so I requested a shot at doing my own cover.
I always make concept art and “tone pieces” for my books and even just for pitches and ideas to kind of further translate how I expect a project to feel, so with very little stress or analysis put into it, I’d done covers for HAPPYFACE and WINTER TOWN and every other pitch I’ve made, they just never actually got published anywhere. With BRIGHT LIGHTS I’d done tons and tons of art already so I figured it’d be pretty easy to nail. It was not.
So these blog posts are going to show a lot of art and all the work that went into making this cover. It’s an incredibly important part of the book as it’s the very first thing anyone sees, it’s job is to pull people in to pick up the book, read a little of it, research it. There’s a million books sitting there on the shelf so yours needs to scream out “Hey, take a look at me! Forget these 2 guys next to me!” The importance of a good cover design cannot be overstated. The fact that the folks at Roaring Brook let me take a stab at it shows a lot of trust and I didn’t want to let them down, so we worked very closely, analyzing every little detail until we arrived at something everyone was happy with.
I’m going to break this into 3 blogs – the first will show my initial pitches. The second will show my “serious contenders” and all the revisions I did on them. And the third will show the evolution of the final cover.
The very first image I did was actually very close to the final image, I had the idea of Walter and Naomi standing back to back, them against the world, arms linked in a way that their shoulders formed a heart. This was just for me, a tone piece to get excited about the book and show the concept visually.
Another early piece involved the city, which, like the world in Winter Town, I counted as the “third character.” For some reason in my head I always pictured the book as red. Red and purple, really, but I pictured a red book on the shelf, and after the yellow of Happyface and the blue of Winter Town, that seemed like a good fit. This was a very minimalist idea for how the cover could look.
Once I was legit pitching covers, I wanted to have a wealth of options and make sure I explored every idea I could muster.
I was still stuck on this idea of the city being the main part of the cover, and had this idea of a building forming the spine and part of the front and back, so it had a more design-y element to it. The blue cover was still too close to Winter Town, especially with all the white.
Overall I pitched a whole bunch of potential covers before we picked 3 to further refine, which I’ll go over in the next post.