Panagariya And Stone Get Serious About Spelling In ‘Buzz!’ [Interview]
Anyone who has ever tuned in to the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee finals on ESPN in the spring have gotten a sense of just how hardcore kids can get when arranging letters into words, but imagine if Bees were bigger than football, basketball, soccer and every other pro sporting event combined? Writer Ananth Panagariya and artist Tessa Stone are taking readers to such a pace this December with their original graphic novel, Buzz!, which is due out in December from Oni Press. Readers don't have to worry about skimming the story like a textbook as they immediately meet Webster, a meek soon-to-be high school freshman who finds himself sucked into the seedier side of his world's magical realism-infused spelling scene and must fight to survive through bee after bee on his way to the top. ComicsAlliance reached out to Panagariya for his word on Buzz!. Click through for the full interview.
ComicsAlliance: Buzz! takes place in a world where spelling bees are THE MOST IMPORTANT thing going on, which is an approach that's often seen in things like manga, anime, video games and western sports movies. Were there any specific stories that informed how you capture the mood of a world shaped by 'bee culture?
Ananth Panagariya: Michael Jordan. When I was a kid I called myself a basketball fan… in reality, I was probably a Michael Jordan fan. For a while he WAS pop culture. I’ve always loved the idea that a sport, book, movie, event could reach a level of notoriety that it hits us all at a cultural level.
Growing up I liked movies about sports, so discovering manga brought a windfall of sports stories — some of them skewed more realistically, while others go big and bombastic. I love when elements of realism get pushed into the unreal. I played a lot of NBA Jam as a kid.
Probably the one sports manga that has really stayed with me is Slam Dunk. It changes SO much visually, it’s the story of the characters but also the story of an author who comes into his own over the course of the series. It doesn’t really inform Buzz! in terms of tone, but it’s the story of an underdog and I love underdog stories.
CA: What's the weirdest thing you did while doing research for Buzz!?
AP: Man, it was all weird! Words are such a basic part of our every day life, they’re literally our jobs, and it was weird to realize with absolute certainty that the words in our vocabulary have gone through thousands of years of creation and modification by hundreds of generations of people long dead. Every word out of our mouths has the full weight of thousands of years of human existence behind it. WEIRD.
One of my favorite things to research was tracing the path of a word from its source language into english. The etymology of ‘assassin’ is interesting - look it up!
CA: Buzz! presents spelling bees as a form of combat, in a sense, with lots of magical realism employed to fully convey the drama at hand. It's almost like the spellers are casting incantations. How did the two of you work together to pull those off?
The incantations are actually based on IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) standard. IPA is a system of phonetic notation based on the Latin alphabet and is a standardized representation of oral pronunciation. It’s used by lexicographers, linguists, translators, actors and so on. I realized early on that there’s no sense of suspense if a competitor just repeats a word that the judge said since it’s all right there on the page, so I chose to obscure the spellings using IPA.
As far as words-as-combat, in many cases Tessa took a vague screen direction and ran with it. In some cases, I supplied some suggestions (there’s a scene between Bonnie & Apollo later in the book that was pretty explicitly laid out). Sometimes we ironed things out over chat.
Tessa is an incredible artist and one of the big reasons I wanted to work with her was her use of type in previous projects. Looking at her work really got me thinking about how words themselves could be used as props… she planted the seed of that, and it comes very naturally to her. Tessa’s a dynamo!
CA: Lettering plays a very integral role in this book, with entire scenes relying on it as the main visual component. Do you feel like the book gives the sometimes overlooked art form a bit of a boost?
AP: Yes! But with a caveat:
In many cases, if lettering IS being overlooked on the part of the reader, it’s doing its job. It should be pleasing and legible and enhance the art on the page. Bad lettering is difficult to overlook. Not every story has the right tone to go bananas with type.
Lucky for us, Buzz! did afford us that luxury! Tessa’s sense of type is amazing - she’s completely unafraid of letting type dominate when it must, and it feels well-integrated. I love how she makes SFX live in the three-dimensional space of the comic, and I love how big chunky letters become design elements in her layouts.
Short answer: I do feel Buzz! gives type and lettering a boost, in that it draws attention and makes the reader (and characters!) deal with it in a more active way!
CA: Yellow is the only color that appears in Buzz!, which got me thinking about what it meant to the story and its protagonists. What were your storytelling intentions with yellow?
There isn’t any explicit symbolism in terms of the color yellow - Tessa happens to be a great colorist as well, and she typically uses big bold colors on the page. Buzz! was originally going to be a B&W book, but we were all thinking that one big bold pantone would work really well with her style. Yellow was the first choice since bees are yellow!
I love how that yellow came out, but the way - I was worried it wouldn’t be bright enough, but it’s brighter than the sun. You’ll be blinded.
CA: Have you found your own spelling skills have improved since you started work on the book?
AP: For sure! I think more so, it gave me a greater appreciation for language on the whole.
CA: Are there any plans for a Buzz! sequel?
AP: Tessa and I have talked about it and kicked some ideas around… time will tell! Buzz! has a strong visual hook and I’d love to have some new visual element for Tessa to play for a second go-around.