Behind the Comic

When Heaven Spits You Out is a series which follows the life of Ryan Hanson, a young boy from the dark inner-city of Baltimore who struggles with his brother and mother under the ever-present strain of poverty, their problems made worse by his alcoholic, bigoted and extremely violent father, Simon.

Ryan’s fortunes turn, however, when he is introduced to Janie Hanzlicek at boarding school, a Jewish girl who helps him battle his mental demons, but also shows him a world of luxury and wealth to which he had never understood, giving him the hope that perhaps one day he too may share in the lavish lifestyle of his friend and escape the misery of his impoverished background.

When Heaven Spits You Out is a series that I had long considered, with the first drafts of the story being written way back in June 2016 when I wanted to create a new series that was different to those that had come previously. Unlike my previous ventures, which didn’t seem to have much direction as there wasn’t really a script I followed, WHSYO was created first as a completed narrative which would later become the novelisation of the work.

Before I get too deeply into WHSYO, I feel it would be wise to mention my previous comic series, namely the series Maddie on the Island Hue, its sequel, Maddie in America, and the spin-off Outsiders, and why these series came to an abrupt end in 2019. The Maddie series and Outsiders were one of my first comic ventures in which I put great amounts of effort into their research, design, development and subsequent creation, my earliest comics from when I was a kid in the late 1990s and early 2000s being essentially fanfics of the anime series AstroBoy (a childhood favourite of mine) – these being only one-shot pages or series I never completed because they had no direction.

For the Maddie series and Outsiders, though, I was determined to create something special, but therein lay the problem. As I progressed with the series, especially as we moved into Outsiders, the art style began to evolve from the big-head, big-eyes look of the previous series into one that took on a more realistic appearance, with proportions and body shapes that were more in keeping with regular human anatomy rather than the cartoonish look the series had started with.

Therefore, come Volume 15 of Outsiders, the mixture of the cartoonish Maddie series and my new style was nothing short of jarring, and I truly couldn’t face the prospect of redrawing the series, nor could I continue in this same manner without creating something very strange. At the same time, the stories surrounding the lives of Ebony Larsson and Siobhan Pattinson were starting to get a little out of hand thanks to the lack of direction, with some very over-the-top scenarios being included, such as Ebony being involved in a near plane crash, and Siobhan getting wrapped up in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, during which time she suffers a minor heart attack and left in a worrying state for a while. Things just seemed to be getting a touch silly, thus it seemed the only solution was to stop and try something new.

Perhaps my first venture into realistic looking characters was the short-lived mini-comic I had called Red 348, about a boy who was given a Ferrari but didn’t know what to do with it. Honestly, that was just something to tickle my inner car enthusiast, never meaning to be good, but more a personal indulgence for about 20 pages. It was, however, the premier of my new style, one which would be carried over into WHSYO, which was still being drafted and early concepts considered.

Even then, while the art style of WHSYO has largely settled into a comfortable rhythm, evolution continues to take place as I add more finesse to my drawing style and put in greater amounts of detail, as per the below examples.

At the same time, the art style for the comic in terms of backgrounds I have incrementally improved over time, changing it from a somewhat oversaturated colour to one that includes more shadows and dark corners, while more effort has been placed into details on buildings and vehicles, as per below:

In terms of the story, WHSYO, like my previous works, is created through both a vignette of my own personal anecdotes, but also tales told to me by friends or associates, with characters and situations based on those I knew when I was growing up, or ones that they had told me about. While school dramas have been done many times before, in the case of WHSYO, the desire I had was to create an immersive experience, wherein some of the more over-the-top or outlandish aspects of school dramas are removed in order to keep the general narrative grounded – it’s always been a desire of mine to represent real life in the best way I can.

Therefore, in creating this series, while I have toned down many of the more extreme aspects of Outsiders and the Maddie series, I have felt that implication is better than visualisation in many circumstances, to leave the more racy or explicit aspects of the story up to the imagination of the audience rather than putting it on full show – I feel there’s a bit too much of that these days in media. At the same time, I’m not a fan of forced lessons, morals or agendas when it comes to storytelling, as a story needs to flow naturally without jarring pieces of dialogue or actions that are done simply to drive home a point regardless of how illogical or out of place they appear. If there was a moral to WHSYO, it would be two things; good things come to those who wait, and to treat those around you with respect no matter what their background.

Thematically, the comic is essentially the visual representation of a grunge album from the early 1990s, something akin to Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins, ranging from harsh, unforgiving rock songs like ‘Quiet’ and ‘Cherub Rock’ to represent the grim moments mixed with soft ballads like ‘Disarm’ and ‘Spaceboy’ filled with emotion and inner torment.

It’s in this we have the encounter of the catholic Ryan and the Jewish Janie, two people who have been raised to diametrically oppose one another in terms of faith, but instead have become the best of friends. Indeed the chemistry between the two of them is the classic Romeo and Juliet of rich boy/girl meets poor boy/girl, but rather than constantly drawing attention to their differing social backgrounds and wealth, I preferred instead to focus on their bonding as two kids around the same age and how their faiths intersect. Although I was raised Christian myself, I have long had a fascination with the Judeo-Christian religions and the parallels they both share, seeking to find the similarities between the two rather than the differences.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ryan encounters bigotry, not only from his abusive father, but also from the many people he bumps into along the way. I would like to make clear very quickly that I was not raised in an abusive household, and the relationship between my father and I has always been a strong one. Simon Hanson is not representative of my dad, but is a composite of many people I’ve known through others when it comes to turbulent relationships between themselves and their parents. The same can be said for my mum, who again is not represented by Jinny Hanson – I’m happy to say that both my brother and I were planned, and that my parents were happily married for a long time when they decided to have us.

Again, when it came to the adult figures in Ryan’s life, I wanted to capture how real many of these people can be in terms of their staunch and uncompromising view of the world and other people. While, as the story progresses, it’s revealed in many ways why the likes of Simon Hanson are the way they are, I wanted to draw emphasis not only to their vileness, but also their vulnerability, and how through simple human errors they ended up in the dire situation they are now.

Lastly is the setting, which takes place in 1970s Baltimore during a time when the city’s decline began to truly set in. Although I’ve set series in the northeast United States before, the locations I had focussed on previously were the more affluent or touristy places to which most visitors would be accustomed to. This time, I wanted to capture the absolute opposite, the very bottom of America’s social ladder – the backstreet slums of what was once a great American city. Although the name, When Heaven Spits You Out, may come across as a touch strange in the context of the story, and doesn’t really roll off the tongue in an easy manner, the reality is I chose this name because it doesn’t have reference to Ryan, but instead to his mother, Jinny.

In the story, Jinny was raised the daughter of a suburban family in 1950s America, what was once considered heaven on earth as it led the way in culture and technology, the image of neatly spaced homes, white picket fences, and two cars on every driveway being one the entire world used to aspire to – despite the fact that it was a thin veneer that hid many social, economic, environmental and cultural problems. As Jinny falls from grace after she conceives Ryan through a secret sexual relationship she has with Simon, her way of fighting back against the stringent, highly conservative norms of the 1950s, she forfeits her place in ‘Heaven’ and is spat out, left to roam the world of the working classes – faceless and nameless to the middle class lifestyle she once knew.

As for the 1970s setting, this decade of American history is one I feel is often underrepresented, with most films and media choosing to either depict the swinging sixties or the excessive eighties. There’s a good reason why the 1970s often get a pass when it comes to depiction, the decade wasn’t a particularly happy one thanks to multiple oil crises and a general stagnation of society as money suddenly ran dry. For me, though, the 1970s, aside from representing a simpler time, was also a decade where the last bastions of 1950s stringent conservatism did battle with the madness of the 1960s hippie generation and its preaching of insane liberalism and the drug culture – a showdown of tradition against the anti-establishment. It was a time where people didn’t seem to know where they were going, all while the Cold War and fear of nuclear apocalypse was hanging over them, an era of great uncertainty, but one that people powered through regardless, nurturing the hope of a brighter future.

Again, this comes into play with the chemistry between Janie and Ryan, as both have been raised in highly traditional religious backgrounds, but their friendship is one that breaks such cultural restraints as their peers demand they don’t quit the circle in which they’ve been raised – again, a parallel to the always classic tale of Romeo and Juliet. Of course, while I’m a fervent believer that showing two people either making friends or falling in love is a interesting enough, no story is complete without some kind of adversity, although in this case it’s an adversity which can be understood through the likes of Simon Hanson and Ephraim Hanzlicek, both strong personalities in the lives of Janie and Ryan, but ones on which their entire friendship rises or falls.

Overall, WHSYO is a story I have long waited to create, as I feel it captures all the elements I would like to see in a school drama of this type. It’s about child characters, but isn’t too childish that it becomes saccharine, while the mature moments, while unpleasant at times, aren’t too mature that they become distasteful, and also illustrate that life can be harsh, but, similarly, can also be beautiful, with the moments of bonding between Janie and Ryan there to balance out the darker scenes.