Ethan Young is a multi-faceted comic creator who has received critical acclaim across a number of genres and comic storytelling approaches. He started off by pioneering the self-sustaining webcomic format with the semi-autobio comic Tails, has worked on all-ages charitable comics in A Piggy’s Tale, garnered a small avalanche of awards for his historical OGN Nanjing: Burning City, jumped into scrolling format webcomics with Pilgrim Finch, and now has a second volume on the way for his apocalyptic young adult series The Battles of Bridget Lee from Dark Horse. Does hearing that list make you feel tired on Young’s behalf? It’s hard to keep up with someone so dedicated to their craft.
Catching up with Ethan Young at New York Comic Con for a couple of very chatty conversations, fueled by the fact that I’ve been following his career for a number of years and first encountered his work in New York City, we spoke about his all-ages graphic novel series, The Battles of Bridget Lee, and about the comics industry, making a few stops in between to touch on animal care charities and the dark themes often present in YA books.
Since the time of our interview, a second volume of The Battles of Bridget Lee has been announced, The Battles of Bridget Lee Volume 2: The Miracle Child, as well as a new and complete printing of his semi autobio comic Tails, as Life Between Panels: The Complete Tails, both to be published by Dark Horse Comics.
Talking about Bridget Lee, Young said at that time he was only a couple of months away from finishing work on that book and that it would have a May release. Young explained that after completing the first volume of Bridget Lee at Dark Horse, he took a year away from that project to work on a Stela webcomic, Pilgrim Finch. He found it a nice break from the pace of a graphic novel to work in such a different format. It also enabled him to become a little more financially secure in deciding to create more volumes of Bridget Lee. He felt like he could really commit to working on further volumes at that point.
[Some panels from Pilgrim Finch]
It took a little longer than expected to create the second volume, but the end is in sight, which Young is really excited about. To look at a graphic novel and know you created it in only 11 months is very satisfying.
I said that his young son, Elliot, better appreciate all his father’s hard work. I mentioned Elliot because he is something of a star on Instagram in the comics community, and probably beyond, for being one of the most adorable children ever to wear animal ear hats. The fact that Elliot is well known is no exaggeration. He has a remarkable and infectious smile. Young agreed, laughing, and said that despite bias, Elliot is so cute that he’s afraid his son will turn out to be a “terrible human being” because he’s so good looking.
Young feels that Elliot must be “kind, compassionate, and empathetic” and hopes to instill that in his son. I commented that it’s his humor and positivity, as well as his general cuteness, that stand out. Young still spends a lot of time with Elliot, even though he’s getting beyond babyhood, and admitted that it was scary to have a child while living a freelance life as a cartoonist. He and his wife spent a lengthy period planning financially for it, to the point of waiting later to have a child than they otherwise would have, he said.
I commented that I had even been terrified to get dogs because of the unexpected expenses that pop up, and as someone who works in comics, I was aware of needing financial stability to make that step. But recently I had, and I was very happy about it. But these are real concerns if you work in comics—making sure your income is stable before taking on financial responsibilities.
Young is known as a cat person (the tails in Tails), but he also has a soft spot for dogs and has been a dog walker for charitable organizations. He’s also the artist on the charitable comic, with Tod Emko writing, A Piggy’s Tale. He admitted that dogs are very hard to look after due to the emotional support they require, and people often don’t realize the longterm commitment they are in for, he said. I noted that dogs are very “everyday, all the time”, and their moods can be great influences on their humans, as well. The benefits are huge, we agreed, and adoption should be something people consider before buying a pet, due to the vast need to find homes for many animals.
There is a thread that runs through a lot of Ethan Young’s work, of concern for and interest in the welfare of animals. From Tails onwards, it’s been part of his life as a cartoonist. I asked if Young is still an activist. He still makes appearances and supports A Piggy’s Tale, even though they haven’t been able to do a new issue in awhile. He still supports animal charities, and specifically during natural disasters, like hurricanes, that displace animals. In September, he and Emko did a charity signing at a small show where half the proceeds went to the Darwin Animal Hospital, who are the direct beneficiaries of A Piggy’s Tale, but also gave half to animal rescue in Houston.
Young finds that in times of natural disasters, when he’s raising money for animal charities related to that disaster, people ask him, “Well, why do you care about the animals and not the people”. He said that of course he cares about the people, and sometimes it’s the people he’s helping by making sure they are reunited with their pets. Many people end up getting separated from their animal companions during disaster situations, he explained. And they do want their animals back.
Something that really opened Young’s eyes about how people are affected by disasters was a first hand experience of 9/11 in New York City. During that time, his mother was stuck on the 23rd floor of her apartment building without electricity. As someone who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, she couldn’t walk down the many stairs to escape that situation. For two days she had no water or electricity, and had to subside on spoiling food. After two days, the police started letting people back into the building to get their pets, and Young and his brother told the police, “We have to go get our mom”. And the only way to help her was for Young’s brother to put their mother on his back and carry her down 23 flights of stairs. I commented on how shocking that lack of help was, that no emergency services would come to their aid.
Young explained that the shock of 9/11 and the fallout from it was so “unprecedented” that no one could get the resources they needed at the time. He’s just glad they were able to get their mother out of a very bad situation. He had the same mindset of just not understanding the chaos of the situation when it first happened. He walked down the street toward his residence at the time, with clouds of dust rising, and came to a police blockade. He told the policeman there, “I live in that building”, pointing in the distance. The policeman said, “Young man, I don’t think you understand the seriousness of this situation”. It was beyond Young’s comprehension that he couldn’t go back home, having never experienced anything like this. And for many people, it’s hard to imagine living through a disaster of this kind. That’s why charity outreach is so important.
And actually, that experience of 9/11 had a bigger affect on him as a storyteller, too. He feels that the anxiety the events produced in him have never really left him, or his impression of New York City, and that he has consciously channeled it into his apocalyptic story Bridget Lee.
I commented that his award winning historical graphic novel, Nanjing: Burning City, has a lot of darker themes, but the truly impressive thing is the way humanity stands out against that backdrop. However, in Bridget Lee, things are a little more positive, but it’s not exactly “sunshine, rainbows, and My Little Pony”. There are some significant and heavier issues in the comic.
Young said, “Maybe that’s my audience and who I need to find. People who like things that are a little dark and a little light at the same time”. There was a part of him that knew he was tackling a young adult series and needed to keep that in mind, but he was also aware that this was a story with an apocalyptic setting, and therefore there was a need to “stay true” to the fact that these orphans in the story “are going through some traumatic stuff”, Young said. He’s had people tell him that the story is too dark, and others who tell him that the way he depicts the kids is too “hokey”. He feels that these days there’s a trend toward extreme “niches” in readership where people aren’t willing to try “a little of everything”. They only want things to be “extremely light or extremely dark”, for instance.
[From The Battles of Bridget Lee, Vol. 1]
With Bridget Lee, Young is “trying to meld a lot of different influences”. One of his biggest influences is Anime, which was first created by a group of people who survived an atomic bomb, so their world view is so different than we might be able to imagine.
I commented that plenty of young adult fiction is pretty dark, and parents are always complaining that it’s getting darker. Even Harry Potter was hailed as controversial, originally, and then we had The Hunger Games and all the dark fantasy series.
Young brought up the fact that it had recently been announced that This One Summer had become the most banned young adult book. It’s a story that features two coming of age characters and has “deep, emotional, narrative threads” about transitioning to adulthood. It’s
“not pretty at times” and it’s “very honest”, he said, but that can be upsetting to parents.
There’s a specific issue here, though, about the book being banned, Young feels, and it has to do with the fact that it’s a comic. Comics get scrutinized more heavily, and more criticized, he observed, since plenty of people in America still feel that comics should be light and entertaining, and are mainly there as a gateway to “real books”. That’s an insult to what is a different art form, of course, but many people don’t grasp that.
[From The Battles of Bridget Lee, Vol. 1]
Young’s book Nanjing is, from time to time, taken off library lists, and “challenged” due to its level of violence, as another example. When prose books convey violence in even more explicit terms, often. The visual element and the limiting expectations of what comics should be like makes them more likely to become the focus of controversy.
For that reason, it’s actually really important that we do have a direct market for comics, Young reasoned, and it should be maximized. He said that because of the misconceptions about comics in wider culture, and the fact that many other mediums would “kill” to have their own market, we should really focus on making that effective. It has to start with the retailer, he feels, making sure that customers feel welcome in the shops whether they want to read Superman or whether they want to just read Squirrel Girl or Nimona.
Young personally used to be a big superhero comics reader, but eventually suffered from “event fatigue” as it felt like the same stories were being told again in different ways. He also, like many readers, he reflected, couldn’t afford the broad variant cover programs, lenticular covers, and the like. So, trying different types of comics was a solution for him.
[From The Battles of Bridget Lee, Vol. 1]
The reality is that no publisher can fix all the local problems that are faced by local comic shops, but retailers who believe that “there is a comic for everyone” are more likely to succeed, Young said. Getting retailers involved in local events can help, like partnering with libraries. There is potential in the direct market connecting with communities through local comic shops, but an even greater potential if shops offer readers a variety of material, Young concluded.
Many thanks to Ethan Young for being such a great conversationalist during New York Comic Con! We may well see a Part 2 to this interview, since Ethan Young and I chatted for quite some time!
Life Between Panels: The Complete Tails Omnibus TPB goes on sale April 4, 2018.
The Battles of Bridget Lee Volume 2: The Miracle Child TPB goes on sale May 9, 2018.