by Jarrod Jones. When life puts up walls around you, you have two options: hang a picture or plan your escape.
Haley and her brother Max have come up against walls almost their entire lives. Their dad? Out of the picture. Mom? Sick, for a long, long time, until she… wasn’t anymore. Left in the care of relatives who genuinely couldn’t give a damn about them, Haley and Max found themselves tossed into the special needs boarding school, Wayfair Academy, with zero fanfare or farewell. Just two deaf kids left to fend for themselves in this big, bad world.
But Haley and Max, no strangers to walls and other such constrictive metaphors, find friendships and opportunities that send them powering through these structures that would otherwise confine them. Haley and Max are making life work for them for a dang change. All it takes is a lockpick and bit of patience.
See, Haley and Max have discovered that they’re both really good at stealing things. And they have a crew of pals who are just as proficient at it. Uh-oh.
Needless to say, Pantomime—a new comic series from Mad Cave Studios illustrated by David Stoll, colored by Dearbhla Kelly, and lettered by Justin Birch—is more than your typical Christopher Sebela joint. It’s filled to the rafters with mirth and misdemeanor—make that “fun” and “felony”, considering how quickly the situation for our brother/sister team escalates. I ask Sebela, the writer and co-creator of such deliriously-good delinquency as Crowded and Heartthrob, about the recurring theme of crime and its various punishments that seem to keep popping up in his career.
“[Crime] was part of Mad Cave’s initial idea, which felt like it was in my wheelhouse and probably why they approached me about it, if I had to guess,” he says. “A lot of this book, for me, was about finding out the boundaries of your world and figuring out how to get around them… [Our] kids keep pushing and that’s what leads us to the crime element of our book, for sure.”
With the release of Pantomime #1 in the rearview and the second issue set to drop in December, DoomRocket spoke with Christopher Sebela about his Mad Cave Studios debut, implementing American Sign Language (ASL) onto the comics page with sensitivity reader Jamie Vander Clute, and his own personal ventures into larceny.
1. Representation is a big part of ‘Pantomime’, but at its core this is a book about escalation, how chasing the rush of doing something wrong can lead us down strange and dangerous paths. Considering your work on ‘Crowded’ and ‘Heartthrob’, was the criminal element always a part of your plan for ‘Pantomime’, or was it a part of Mad Cave’s initial pitch to you?
Christopher Sebela: That was part of Mad Cave’s initial idea, which felt like it was in my wheelhouse and probably why they approached me about it, if I had to guess. And a lot of this book, for me, was about finding out the boundaries of your world and figuring out how to get around them. Max and Haley start out at home, stuck in this awful situation, and it feels like nothing will ever change or get better—then they get to Wayfair Academy and the world has unfolded into this huge thing, but it’s also full of rules and restrictions. So our kids keep pushing and that’s what leads us to the crime element of our book, for sure.
2. Mad Cave has really leveled up in the past couple years. What has your working relationship with them been like so far? They reached out to you to work on ‘Pantomime’; what was it about this studio that compelled you to jump into their wagon?
I think because they were brand new to me. I think the comics world can always do with more publishers trying new things and telling new stories, so I’m super excited to support that stuff in general as a reader, but as a writer it felt a bit flattering they wanted me to be part of that. The other reason is our editor, Chris Sanchez, reached out to me and sent me the initial idea and I while there was stuff in there I liked a lot, there was also stuff I wasn’t crazy about. So I replied asking if they would be up for me stripping it down and making it my own thing and he was completely onboard with that. For me, to write stuff that isn’t something I came up with is hard because a lot of time you have all this canon and rules you need to stick to and a group of people who have to approve what you want to do. Mad Cave wasn’t interested in sticking to some hard line, they approached me and other creators because they wanted us to do what we do on our creator-owned stuff with their books, and getting that kind of freedom is really valuable. So I jumped right in.
3. I suppose I’ll just get this incredibly personal question out of the way: Have you ever purloined anything? Did you get away with it, and if so, did you end up regretting it? You, of course, are not under oath and do not have to answer this question.
Oh yeah. I’ve stolen stuff. And I got away with it every time. Except twice as a kid in grade school, I got caught shoplifting. But I talked my way out of them calling my mom and they let me leave with a promise I wouldn’t come back. Some of my thefts I maybe regret? I’m mostly a crimes of opportunity kind of thief and the stuff I have stolen has been pretty small-time stuff. Plus it’s been forever since I’ve stolen stuff, so I don’t think about it much. But I totally get why people steal. It’s way easier and cheaper.
4. I really love how you write siblings, Christopher. Haley and Max have such a great relationship—they snipe at each other, but it’s clear if anybody messed with them, there’d be a rumble. Their closeness reminds me of the twin characters, Olivia and Dylan, from your Black Crown book ‘House Amok’—for different reasons, obviously. What is it about the sibling dichotomy that you seem to respond to in your writing?
Probably because I’m a textbook only child, there’s a lot I don’t understand about siblings except from people I know and a lot of my writing is, for me, about understanding stuff I don’t really understand, if that makes sense. But as an only child, having siblings always seemed like a dream situation growing up, until I met more people with siblings and got to witness how that closeness also breeds contempt. I think it’s a super fascinating dynamic and there’s really no other relationship like that one, so getting to put myself in the heads of siblings, I like to imagine the best and worst of it all and mix it up in a way that feels like it gets close to what actual siblings go through. But honestly, it’s all a big educated guess.
5. As I mentioned before, ‘Pantomime’ is about escalation. Because these young folks are quickly adapting to the intricacies of robbery, it’s not long before they begin to draw the wrong kind of attention. What levels of felony are we looking at for Haley and Max and their crew of friends? ‘Ocean’s Eleven’-level stuff (Clooney, not Sinatra)?
The felony levels get pretty dang high as we go. Certainly not on a “robbing casinos” level but very ambitious for a group of kids who are struggling to understand math equations and the symbolism of an e.e. cummings poem as their actual job. But once they dip their toes in, like you say, things escalate and quickly spin out of whatever control they think they had over the situation, so it’s not necessarily what they want to do. They’re kids, though, so they’re imbued with a certain level of fearlessness and they learn to adapt pretty quickly as the game changes and the stakes get higher.
6. I’m very interested in how you, artist David Stoll, and letterer Justin Birch incorporated American Sign Language (ASL) into the story. The word balloons branching from the characters’ hands was a pretty brilliant idea; your team placed the focus of their communication where it’s supposed to be, as opposed to drafting nebulous captions to articulate what was being communicated. I imagine this would require some coordination between you, David, Justin, and the sensitivity reader of this series, Jamie Vander Clute. How did this all come together?
Very little of the credit would go to me. I wrote the initial script while our editor was putting the team together and David is the one who really worked out how ASL would be incorporated into the book in a way that was elegant and didn’t, like, wave its arms and go “hey, look at this!” He does it all super naturally and once Justin was onboard and Jamie was there to consult, the language of the book came together pretty easily. This is very much a group effort. I did my best to contribute my thoughts of what would work, but also tried to stay out of the way if I didn’t.
7. How has it been working with Jamie? How did Jamie help you to better understand deafness and other important communication disorders?
One of the first things I said to our editor before I said yes to this book was that we absolutely needed a sensitivity reader for this book and he agreed with zero hesitation. I know I can’t write a book like this from a place of true understanding, just whatever is my best, most honest guess. So having Jamie onboard to make sure I’m not screwing up is essential. Jamie also looks over David’s signing in the book and makes sure we’re not goofing on that end either. Once I said yes to the book I did a deep dive of homework on the subject and talked with deaf people to get a better understanding of things, with the goal of not doing harm while not treating deaf people delicately or venerating them. I wanted to let them be flawed and complicated and even unlikeable like everyone else walking around in the world.
8. ‘Pantomime’ doesn’t use SFX or other onomatopoeias. Also, the only words we read come from Haley and her friends, communicating via ASL. In effect, the opening heist sequence in this first issue was compelling to read—especially knowing the premise going in. This was, I assume, a conscious decision by you and the ‘Pantomime’ team? How are you writing these heist sequences?
No differently than I’ve written other heists or crimes in other books. Writing a robbery in Heartthrob is not like writing a casino hotel break-in in Crowded is not like writing a heist in Pantomime. They’re all shaped by the characters and the world, first and foremost. So I write crime jobs in this book the same way I always do: with the knowledge of what our characters will and won’t do, what they can and can’t do, and just keep that stuff foremost in my mind. I think with this book, and these characters, there’s a much bigger emphasis on planning the jobs, acting them out beforehand so they won’t need to communicate. By the time they show up, they got all their discussion out of the way in the lead-up. Now they just have to stick to the routine and get out clean and, with a dash of typical kid arrogance, assume if they stick to the routine, nothing will go wrong.
9. I noticed in this opening sequence that Haley and her team move on their target, kinda like a SWAT team, using a tactical hand signal to move through the room. Are you also going to be incorporating militaristic hand-arm signals into Haley’s criminal excursions?
That first sequence was a lot about me figuring out how to write this book and do it in a way that would grab a reader while also leaning into our core concept without holding up a big sign explaining it. It seemed like the most elegant way to do that and using stuff that people understand intrinsically. As we go on, though, a lot changes, so I’ll leave it at that to avoid wandering into spoiler country.
10. I noticed on Twitter that you’re trying out lockpicking as a hobby, which I’m guessing had something to do with your work on ‘Pantomime’. So, how’s that going? How long before you move on to safes?
I suck at it, basically. I can open a few padlocks. I still can’t pick my front door lock, but also I’m kinda paranoid about breaking my front door lock and explaining how I did that to a potential locksmith. But it’s super fascinating learning how locks work and seeing how seemingly impenetrable stuff can be easily defeated. Plus they sell these kits via ads on Instagram, which is just weird to me. Lockpicking always seemed like this arcane art you had to learn from a dude in prison or something and now it’s become this thing that is an easily accessible hobby for anyone to start messing around with. But I can write off my purchase as a research expense and that’s the best part of all.
‘Pantomime’ #1 is available now. Issue #2 drops December 9. You can pre-order it now! (Diamond Code: OCT201470)
Check out this 4-page preview of ‘Pantomime’ #1, courtesy of Mad Cave Studios!
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