JUST ROLL WITH IT – An Interview with VERONICA AGARWAL and LEE DURFEY-LAVOIE
COMIC BOOK YETI: Veronica and Lee, thank you so much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave to discuss Just Roll With It, your wonderful graphic novel from Random House Graphic. Veronica illustrated a script written by Lee. For anyone reading this that hasn’t seen my tweet from when I finished reading it, I loved Just Roll With It. Before I get into more about why, can you tell our readers what it’s about?
LEE DURFEY-LAVOIE: Thank you so much for having us! Just Roll With It is a story about Maggie, a young girl starting middle school. Not only does she have to contend with the usual stresses of middle school (schoolwork, making friends, meeting her parents' expectations, bullies) she is battling mental illness (specifically OCD) and a monster outside her school.
CBY: Do you have a comics origin story? Have you read comics since you were a kid or did you come to comics later, and what made you want to create your own comics?
LDL: I’ve always been the “read every second I can” type of person. Books were a common birthday present for me, and sometime in middle school I discovered comics and I’ve been hooked since. I’ve always had the desire to create (being an author has always been my dream job), and I’ve always wanted to tell stories that helped people.
VERONICA AGARWAL: I’ve been drawing and reading for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I devoured all kinds of books, and I especially loved manga and comics since it was the marriage of the two things I loved the most (stories and drawing).
CBY: What inspired you to tell Maggie’s story?
LDL: Maggie’s story is really the story I would have liked to read as a child. Like Maggie, I’ve been dealing with mental illness since I was a kid, but I didn’t know things like that had a name until high school. So, for me, I wanted Maggie’s story to be a life raft for kids who were struggling—something they could hold onto and say ”this makes me feel better.”
VA: I came up with the concept for Maggie’s story shortly before I was diagnosed with OCD myself. At the time I thought, “well I don’t know enough about OCD to write this story”… and then upon researching it a bit more, I realized OCD can present in so many different ways. I also wanted to tell a story where mental health was at the forefront, but it wasn’t constantly a downer. Sometimes you can be in therapy for a while and you ask yourself why you aren’t “cured” yet. But that's never really the point—it’s all about learning to work alongside your brain to do the things you want to do, rather than forcing your brain into a cookie cutter shape of what you want it to be.
CBY: I appreciate in the Authors’ Notes, Veronica, you talk about your own experience with OCD and the different ways symptoms can present. You say that there was a fear when creating Just Roll With It that you and Lee weren’t showing enough types of symptoms, but that you never could show every possible manifestation of it. For both of you, what was most important for you to show about Maggie’s obsessive-compulsive thinking?
LDL: It was really just that OCD wasn’t the sort of stereotype you see on TV. It can pretty much be as unique as each individual person is, which was part of our struggle—trying to show it in a way where EVERYONE can relate. For me the adage “the personal is universal” helped—you might not do EVERYTHING Maggie does, but you might have a compulsion that’s similar to Maggie’s, or an anxiety, and that can help start healthy conversations.
VA: Thank you!! So for me, after talking to my therapist and realizing that a lot of habits I’ve had my whole life were a product of OCD in one way or another, I really wanted to create an accessible book for kids that would start the conversation about mental health. Sometimes habits are just habits, and sometimes they’re not.
For a long time, I structured my life around my anxieties, not realizing how much it was impacting me daily. I wanted this book to have kids stop and think, “Hey, I do this because this is what I’ve always done, but is it actually keeping me safe? Or do I feel trapped by it?” I think what was most important for me was to show that the dice rolling method wasn’t always harmful, but there are times when you need to be able to step away from it. OCD has a way of leading you into habits and then making it so you can’t function without them. I wanted to show that side of how it actually works as opposed to what it makes you do.
CBY: I think it’s a great thing when I see people today talk about destigmatizing mental health treatment, which I think is especially important for kids. I don’t know though that I’ve seen it dealt with so beautifully and efficiently as it is in this book. Just Roll With It feels deeply personal to me, but also that it was written with the input of a team of child psychologists. But fun child psychologists, if that makes sense?
In addition to bringing your own experiences into Maggie’s story, did you consult with a therapist or other mental health professional about anxiety and OCD and especially how they present in children?
LDL: That is such an honor, hahaha. We tried to do a lot of research on how OCD can show up in kids and yes, did in fact bring it up to both our respective therapists and kind of picked their brains as well. It’s a thrill for me to say my therapist has a copy of JRWI in her office for when she sees children.
VA: Thank you so much!! This is so incredibly kind. Lee did his own research and drew from both of our childhood experiences. Like he said, we talked to both of our therapists to get input on wording, and especially in regards to how they might approach their first session with a child.
CBY: I started playing D&D about 4 years ago, and I have thought about the idea of using a D20 in the real world and what that would look like. Maggie’s use of it seems quirky at first, but as the book progresses and I could tell that Maggie was relying on that D20, it was heartbreaking. What’s your personal experience with RPGs and how did that influence the development, writing, and artwork for Just Roll With It?
LDL: TTRPGS have been such an important part of my life—from exploring systems and rules with my twin, playing with my siblings, enjoying some of the various podcasts out there with friends, to internet groups. TTRPGS have been a source of community and friendship and self discovery and I wanted to reflect that, and all the fun oddities you might see in a group, in Maggie’s life.
VA: For me, TTRPGs were a way to bond with friends who were far away after we all graduated college. The character creation is the most fun for me—our parties are so much more vibrant than groups of characters I ever create myself.
CBY: As Maggie starts 6th grade, she meets Clara and they become friends. Everyone should have a friend like Clara. She is supportive of Maggie in a great way. Actually, Maggie has a great support system, which is so important, I think, for kids to see. As you were populating Maggie’s world with other characters, did you have particular points of view you wanted these characters to express to have included in the book or were some of the characters built out of what Maggie needed?
VA: "Sometimes you can be in therapy for a while and you ask yourself why you aren’t “cured” yet. But that's never really the point—it’s all about learning to work alongside your brain to do the things you want to do, rather than forcing your brain into a cookie cutter shape of what you want it to be."
LDL: What was most important to me is that Maggie’s world was made of characters just like the people in our world: i.e. they have full lives that don’t end just when we stop seeing them. I wanted them to feel natural and honest first and foremost and balanced with the needs Maggie has and how the people in her life can meet, or not, those needs.
VA: I think we definitely wanted to focus on her parents “getting it” right away. A lot of narratives and situations in the real world will feature parents who don’t accept it or don’t know what to say even if they mean well (which Maggie’s parents do as well!), but I wanted the story to end with Maggie getting help, and skip the song and dance where everyone else has to come to terms with it and figure out how they’re going to deal with it. I think for me I wanted the narrative to go that way because I wanted kids to see that these conversations can go well… and while it may not be with your own parents or siblings, you can find people around you who understand.
CBY: Veronica, you have a style that works well for this story. Your characters and colors are friendly and inviting. Did you letter this as well, because the lettering flows nicely and there’s enough background details and fun SFX that the story never feels static. Can you tell me about your journey in art and how you developed your style for Just Roll With It?
VA: Thank you!! I sort of lettered it—I have a font I made from my handwriting back in undergrad that I’ve been using ever since. I’m glad you think that the SFX and backgrounds are engaging enough—I wouldn’t say they’re my strong suit! As for development, I draw in a lot of different styles when I’m drawing for fun, but I had to make sure that the style for this book was something I could keep on model for 300+ pages. For that reason, I picked building blocks I was most comfortable with—cutesy faces, vivid colors, etc.
CBY: Something that I thought was great is the inclusion at the end of “A graphic novel page from Start to Finish!!” I don’t know that I’ve seen that done in quite that way before. How did that come about and how did you decide what to include?
VA: This was super self-indulgent on my part—the behind the scenes tidbits in other books have always been my absolute favorite. I also always loved the little comics and notes written by mangaka in the margins of each chapter. Getting a peek into the artist's personality was always such a treat and always made me feel so much closer to the book, so when our editor told us we had a few pages at the back of the book to fill, I immediately jumped at the chance to do one myself.
CBY: Lee, you wrote this on your phone using Google Docs? I think that’s the entire question. Or maybe, how?
LDL: Haha, this is my absolute favorite question. I think at the beginning of writing I needed a way for my brain to “contain” this story which I knew was going to be the most massive undertaking I’ve been through. It gave me the added benefit of being able to take away bits of it while I was out and about. However there were definitely times that it was a detriment. By the time I got a laptop, the document was too big to open on my phone and it became exponentially easier to work on—JRWI 2 and future projects have been completed on a real laptop.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 comics would you want to make absolutely sure are included.
LDL: Seconds written and illustrated by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Not Drunk Enough (1 and 2) written and illustrated by Tess Stone, and The Chancellor and the Citadel written and illustrated by Maria Capelle Frantz. They’re all beautiful and compelling stories that really exemplify what a graphic novel can do and how unique and wonderful the medium is.
VA: Witch Hat Atelier by Kamome Shirahama, Lady of the Shard by GiGi Digi, and Yotsuba&! by Kiyohiko Azuma!
CBY: What else are you working on that CBY readers can check out?
LDL: We are working on a sequel to JUST ROLL WITH IT and you can follow us on our socials to keep up with that progress.
CBY: Where can you be found online?
LDL: Twitter: @Leedurfey and Instagram is: @the1truelee
VA: Twitter: @anuanew and Instagram: @wisbagram
CBY: Thank you both so much!