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Luke Healy on Americana

Americana by Luke Healyis a unique book: part travelogue and part memoir it’s a work that effortlessly stitches together multiple narratives across time and place. The main story is more than compelling enough- Luke recounts his 147 day journey across the 2660 mile long Pacific Crest Trail (a staggeringly long hiking path that winds up from America’s desert border with Mexico to Canada’s mountainous one). However this journey is more than just a hike, it is the culmination of a lifelong obsession with the USA that Luke has never quite managed to shake. As he puts it himself:

“I’m driven by my hunger for the American experience. But also by the hope that if I gorge myself on it, I’ll become sick of the taste.”

We sat down with Luke to get a deeper insight into why he took on the PCT, and how the book’s concept has developed since he started planning for the trail.

How did you first hear about the PCT, and how long did it take you to prepare for it?

I first heard about the PCT in 2014, when I saw a trailer for the film adaptation of Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I saw it right before I had to move back to Ireland from the USA. I didn’t want to leave, and was in a huge funk. The first thing I did when I returned to Ireland was buy and read Wild. I was immediately obsessed, and decided that I would hike the PCT in 2016, leaving myself enough time to prepare, since I had never hiked, backpacked, or camped before. All told, I prepped for about 18 months.

This is a massive understatement, but the PCT looks really, really hard. You very honestly document the amount of times during the trip that you almost quit the trail. How do you feel not finishing the PCT would have affected you, if at all?

I don’t think I’d have the same kind of closure that I have now about my relationship with the USA. Every time I’d lived there before, I was forced to leave against my will, and it definitely left me feeling as though I had left things unfulfilled. Although my journey wasn’t without compromise (in the form of a few skipped sections), I feel as though when I walked out of the USA, I’d reached the end of something. Though at the time, all I wanted was to sleep indoors again.

What were the most difficult moments along the trail?

The hardest moment by far, was around mile 340 at Cajon Pass. I’d had a horrible few days, and was suffering from a depressive period. I was so unhappy, and exhausted, and was just plodding along. And I kept running out of water, multiple days in a row; which is obviously very dangerous when you’re isolated and tramping across a blisteringly hot desert. I had a realization, then, that I was engaging in “risky behaviour”, by not taking enough caution with my water supplies. A classic symptom of depression. I decided that if I wasn’t able to take care of myself, I shouldn’t be on the trail, and a few days later I got a ride to L.A. with the intention of quitting for good.

Also, the day I broke my leg along in the mountains was pretty bad. But I just kept taking ibuprofen and hiking on it, so the depression thing was probably worse, haha.

Do you also have any stand out good memories of your time there?

A lot! As hard as the trip was, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Oddly, a moment to really sticks out to me, which actually doesn’t feature in the book because I found it too difficult to communicate, happened right after I’d crossed the state border form California to Oregon, months into the journey. I was in Callaghan’s Lodge, who offered cheap food for hikers –and when you’re hiking the PCT, you are always starving– I was walking through their dining room, and made eye contact with another thruhiker, who was taking the first bite of a huge plate of spaghetti and meatballs. We both started laughing because we both knew how much joy she was getting from that bite, and in that moment we saw how absurd we both were. It felt amazing to be so connected to a complete stranger.

Despite that there seems to be a great deal of community feeling amongst the hikers you met and walked with, a unique kind of hiking culture. Have you kept in touch with any of the people you met along the way?

Yes, I’m still in touch with lots of them, via facebook. But I mostly still talk to the hikers from the group “Mile 55”, who I hiked about 400 miles of trail with. They’re some of the best people I’ve ever met, and I’m extremely grateful to call them my friends. I’m going to be seeing them for the first time since trail in October, and I can’t wait (please attend my US events while I’m there!).

I also have seen Justin and Jenny a few times, the hikers whose wedding I attended on trail. We’ve crossed paths in London, and I am very happy any time I get to see them.

There also seemed to be an impressive amount of support along the way for hikers, people who would offer up their outhouses etc for walkers to sleep in, and leave water caches in the desert near Mexico for them. Do you know anything more about these “trail angels”, or how many of them help maintain the trail?

No official numbers, but my guess would be hundreds. There are pillars of the community who open up their houses every year, but also the dozens of people any hiker meets at road crossings or trail junctions, with cold cans of soda, or hot fresh food ( a rare luxury on trail). Or just the trail angels who don’t even know that’s what they are, who pick you up hitchhiking, and invite you to shower or sleep at their place.

They keep the trail alive, and they’re some of the most generous, incredible people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. And that’s not even mentioning all of the volunteers who head out and do work on the trail itself, clearing fallen trees, maintaining this massive engineering project that can sometimes look like a simple dirt path, but is unfathomably complicated to maintain over such an enormous distance.

If my walk across America jaded me to certain aspects of US culture, these people, were what reminded me of the other side of that coin.

The amount of detail and small recorded moments that you‘ve captured in Americana is incredible, it almost feels like watching a documentary at times rather than reading a comic. How did you keep a record along the way? Was it all notes, or did you have time to draw occasionally whilst there?

I took no notes, and made no drawings. While hiking, I never intended to write a book about the experience. I just wanted to do something for my own self. When I got home and decided that I did want to put something together, the memories were so visceral that I had no trouble recalling them, I think just because every day was so unusual and unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Three years later, things have definitely faded a little, so for that reason, I’m very glad I took the time to write the most interesting parts down.

Could you also expand a little more about the process of making the book itself? Did you start it immediately after returning from the US? And are there many extra stories from the trail you ended up editing out?

I started working on it pretty much as soon as I got home to Ireland. I sat down and wrote an outline, as well as a detailed draft of the first hundred or so pages before pitching it to Nobrow. Then over the next 18 months I wrote a bunch of rough drafts of the book.

A lot of stuff got cut. It’s hard to condense five months into something digestible. In the end, I mostly cut stuff that felt like it was detouring too much from the momentum of the overall book. Even though the final book has something of a meandering quality, I still wanted everything to seem purposeful, and some stories were just too unrelated to fit in.

One of my favourite little anecdotes that got cut took place in the town of Mt. Shasta, a very hippy spiritualist kind of spot (it has more than ten crystal shops). While I was there, my bankcard got blocked for a suspicious transaction, and I had no way of contacting my bank because I couldn’t pay for an international call. In the end, I had to borrow $20 from another hiker, and look for a payphone and phone card. I searched all over town. In the end, I found a phone card, buried amongst “bigfoot is real” bumper stickers and “UFO Drivers licences” at a gas station. The gas station owner was surprised when I brought it up to check out and said “that’s probably been there since the ‘90s”. It still worked.

As you describe reaching the end of the PCT during Americana’s last few pages you say you “don’t feel changed. Not yet”. Now time has passed, do you feel the trail has changed you?

We’re all changing constantly, I think. Everything we experience, and every choice we make just influences the trajectory of that change. Without hiking the PCT, I wouldn’t be somehow preserved as the person I was before I hiked it. But I certainly wouldn’t be the same person I am now. Everything in my life is different because of hiking the PCT, and I’m very thankful for that.

The book is of course equally as much about your relationship with America as it is about the hike itself. Do you still feel as such a strong pull to it as you once did? 

I don’t. I have many fond memories of my times living in the USA, but I have no desire to live there now. I love my American friends, and any time I can see them is an incredible privilege, but for now, I’ve lost interest in just about everything else the USA has to offer.

And lastly, have you continued hiking as a hobby, or would you take on a similarly large hike again?

I haven’t hiked at all since finishing the PCT, but I’d love to start up again. I spent a lot of this summer in Scotland, and the landscapes here have really reignited my interest in hiking and backpacking. 

If funds ever allow, I’d also love to do another large thruhike. Maybe the Via Francigena, a foot path from Canterbury to Rome. Or the Te Araroa, a trial that runs the length of New Zealand. I have my eye on those.

Luke Healy is an Irish cartoonist currently based in London, England.

Americana (And The Act of Getting Over It.) can be purchased from FlyingEyeBooks.com in the UK, and PenguinRandomHouse.com in the US. It is also available in all best bookstores.


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Nobrow at SPX 2019
Illustration by Tillie Walden

It’s September, and you know what that means… Pumpkin Spice Latte season! And also… Maryland’s very own Small Press Expo 🙌 SPX is now less than two weeks away, and boy have we got a stellar line up for you all this year.

SPX is one of our absolute favorite US shows and joining us this year are the acclaimed author-illustrators of Skip and In Waves, Molly Mendoza and AJ Dungo!  

Nobrow will have a booth at tables W76-78—if you’ve been to SPX before it’s our usual haunt, the same location in the ballroom where we were the last couple of years.

On Saturday at 1:30pm Molly will be on the Blurring the Visual Lines in Fantasy Fiction panel in the White Flint Auditorium, where she’ll be in discussion with fellow Nobrow illustrator Anne Simon (Marx, Freud & Einstein: Heroes of the Mind), along with Yann Kebbi, Rune Ryberg, Ida Rørholm Davidsen, and moderator Alex Hoffman. Molly will also be signing at the Nobrow booth Saturday 3 to 5pm and Sunday 2 to 4pm!

On Sunday AJ is taking part in the Depicting Motion in Sports Comics panel at 4:30pm in the White Oak Room (not to be confused with the White Flint Auditorium… we know it’s confusing), where he’ll be talking sports with José Quintinar, Rob Ullman, and Ellen Lindner, moderated by SPX Executive Director Warren Bernard. AJ will also be signing at the Nobrow booth from 12 to 2pm Saturday and Sunday.

BUT WAIT! That’s not all! On top of our full line of books we’ll be selling at SPX, we’re pleased to be debuting four new titles at the festival this year:

In particular Kai and the Monkey King is a very exclusive opportunity for SPX-goers only, as its general US release date isn’t until the 22nd October 👀

If you’ve never been to Small Press Expo it’s the biggest indie comics festival in the United States, and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. We’ll be road tripping down to the show from our New York office, so keep an eye out on our social media channels for some juicy behind-the-scenes Nobrow content

So, see you in a couple weeks?

SPX takes place September 14thto 15that the Marriott North Bethesda Conference Center in Bethesda, Maryland

For more info check out their website here


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Talking In Waves With AJ Dungo

Released earlier this year to widespread acclaim, In Waves by AJ Dungo is a rare work of non-fiction that is as moving as it is fascinating.  A dual narrative, AJ weaves together a history of the great heroes of surfing with the deeply personal story of his relationship with his late partner Kristen, and her prolonged battle with cancer. 

We sat down and talked to AJ about the years he spent working on In Waves, and to get an insight into his working process.

How did you first decide you wanted to become an illustrator?

When I was in community college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was just taking general courses. The only class I was taking that I really enjoyed was a printmaking class. During this time I stumbled across a book on illustrators that Juxtapoz published. I was just so enamored. I learned that it was a broad genre that covered all of the kinds of images that I really gravitated to.

The artist that really stood out to me from that book was James Jean. I started collecting his books and just fell deeper into this new genre I never knew had a name. His book of Fables covers was a revelation. It was so revelatory to me because he included process shots alongside finished pieces. My mind was blown that these intricate images started as scribbles. I dove deeper into his catalog and saw all the work he had for all kinds of clients. Because of him, I started to read more about illustration as a profession, and that’s when I decided that I wanted to become an illustrator.

In Waves is incredibly visually distinct, with the beautiful limited colour palette and the switch between the browns and oranges of the history of surfing, and the greens and blues of the autobiographical sections. At what point did you decide to format the book this way, both with the colour palettes and merged narratives?

Thank you for the kind words. The merged narrative had been an aspect of the book since it’s inception. It was the prompt that Sam, the CEO of Nobrow, gave me when we started this project together. On a study abroad trip with my school, I presented Nobrow with a project about surfing. When Sam approached me to make a book together, he referenced my surfing project and wanted to make a book about the history of surfing. Eventually he wanted a story with a more personal connection. So I told him about Kristen and how she introduced me to the sport.

That’s when he suggested I try and merge the two; the history of surfing alongside my personal history with surfing. A request that I thought was ridiculous at first because it seemed impossible but one that I’m so grateful for today.

In regards to the color, I had always known the book would be a limited palette due to the tight deadline. It was the practical choice since I had so little time to work on the book. Sam later insisted I add another color, some sort of spot color. That’s when I decided to use the color as a system of placing the reader in a certain narrative. This choice both fulfilled Sam’s request and added a layer of subtle organization to the storytelling.

How much does the final version of In Waves differ from your initial idea?

Not much. The only thing that I wanted that changed was the beginning of the book. In my mind I knew how the story would start and how the story would end and that was with the chapters “the kiss” and with “bushwick request.” I thought it was a powerful way to drop the reader into the thick of the story without much explanation. But a fantastic editor at Nobrow, Ayoola, suggested swapping the beginning out with the chapter that opens the story now, “last summer.” It made more sense, it brought all the elements of the book to the reader in a subtle way; Kristen, her illness, and our connection to surfing.  In the end, I think it worked out for the best. Thanks Ayoola!

This book is clearly a complete labour of love, was it difficult to work on such personal subject matter so intensely?

When Sam asked me to make a book with him and Nobrow, it had only been 3 or four months since Kristen had passed away. It was very intense. I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think the timing was right. I had just started a full time job, I was doing freelance illustration on the side, and now I had to tell Kristen’s life story and the history of surfing within a few years. It was a Herculean task. Not only was it difficult emotionally but I think logistically it was pretty hard. I would work from 9 to 5 then stay at the office until 10 or 11 pm working on the book. My commute was over an hour long and there were many nights I fell asleep on the ride home. Also every weekend was spent working on the book. I became notorious for cancelling plans and being absent from events because I had to work on this book that meant so much to me. As hard as it was, it was worth it. It was a unique way for me to process my grief, I think the self induced isolation was good. This project allowed me to immortalize my best friend.

All of Kristen’s family and friends have clearly been amazingly supportive about the book’s publication, were they very involved in the making of the book?

Yes, they are incredible and I consider them my own family. Initially, they weren’t involved. I was so secretive about the whole project the entire time I was making it. I never showed anyone anything, it was important to me that everyone read the book in it’s finished state to absorb the story in its entirety, which I think is the only way it makes sense. After submitting a draft to Sam, he thought the chapter where I met Kristen for the first time was too clichè and would benefit from an outsider’s perspective. Which I thought was weird because it was exactly as I recalled. I had wanted to include Kristen’s family in some way and this was the perfect opportunity.

With a voice recorder ready, I interviewed Kristen’s mom, brother, and cousin. It was during the interview of Kristen’s cousin that his wife recounted a story that Kristen had shared with her. It was about how I met Kristen and it was told in a way that I had completely forgotten about. It was much less cliché and much more humiliating haha. I must have buried that one deep in my subconscious. It was so great having their input because it gave the story more depth and dimension. I love that their voices are a part of Kristen’s story because I’m just one aspect of her life. To have them included gives the reader insight into the depth of the love Kristen’s family had for her.

Are there any artists or illustrators who have influenced you and your work the most?

This question is always so hard to answer. There were artists that I had in heavy rotation during the writing of the book. Adrian Tomine, Jillian Tamaki, Craig Thompson, David Mazzucchelli, Connor Willumsen, Sam Alden, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Olivier Schrauwen, Alison Bechdel, Katsuhiro Otomo, Yoshihiro Tatsumi. The author William Finnegan’s book “Barbarian Days” was a huge inspiration, he writes about surfing in such an intimate and transcendent way. 

Are you working on any other long-term projects at the moment, or do you have anything in mind for the future?

Right now I’m just doing freelance illustration and weirdly enough I’m working part time assisting James Jean. In terms of long term projects, I’d love to make another book but I think I need to live a little before I start another one. It’s definitely always in the back of my mind though.

And very importantly, do you still get the chance to surf much?

I try to get out as often as I can. If anyone wants to paddle, hit me up!

AJ is based in Los Angeles, and In Waves is his debut graphic novel.

Copies are available from our site, or in your local best bookshop. American customers can also purchase In Waves from the Penguin Random House site.