Rachel Hope Allison Is “Not A Plastic Bag,” But She Writes One For Archaia [Interview]

There’s a pile of garbage as big as Texas floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and it is adorable. Okay, maybe the real life Garbage Patch isn’t that anthropomorphic, but in Rachel Hope Allison’s first graphic novel for publisher Archaia, we get to learn a little about a current environmental disaster in the cutest way possible. We chatted with Allison about the currently on the stands book, why she made the garbage the hero, and if there’s any chance we can get a plush garbage patch:

MTV Geek: What inspired I Am Not a Plastic Bag? It’s pretty clearly there in the book, but I’m curious to hear it from your end of things.

Rachel Hope Allison: The story was inspired by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which more and more people have heard about, but really only started being researched in the last years. I learned about it back in 2007, and basically it’s this area between California and Japan where oceanic currents swirl in a big circle, or gyre. Over the years, those currents have pushed trash from beaches and boats and cities out into that gyre, where the trash gets stuck in the middle and just accumulates.

So yeah, it’s this trash soup out in the middle of the Pacific. While it’s hard to measure because it’s free-floating, some people say it’s as big as Texas — and the problem is that most of the trash is non-biodegradable stuff like plastics, and it’s a big danger to the ecosystem there.

And how it inspired me? Well, beyond it being just, frankly, nuts — I think I was inspired by the fact that it was so remote, but so big, and had been building up out there without us knowing it for years and years. It had an emotional pull to it, in addition to just being morbidly fascinating — and that was really the start of the story for me.

Geek: Why was a graphic novel a good outlet for this sort of project? What makes it ideal – or not?

RHA: First and foremost, I knew I wanted it to be a story, not an essay or report — because that would let me explore the patch in a more human, emotional way, instead of just being another expose of why consumer waste was bad and consumers were guilty. And as an illustrator, I think visual language just made sense to me.

I also remember that about the same time, I had stumbled across this photo essay that really made me think that a visual story about trash might actually be beautiful. It was a photo essay by the blogger Sweet Juniper, and he documented this abandoned Detroit warehouse full of rotting school supplies. And even though the idea of all this waste was just horrifying, some of the images were also gorgeous and really moving.

Geek: What was your artistic process like on this? One aspect that really (no pun intended) jumped out at me was how almost 3-D some of the panels and splashes were, despite the lack of any computer generated art.

RHA: Well I’m going to have to sheepishly out myself, because some of the images ARE computer generated in a way. I did paint the backgrounds, and I did draw the animals and outlines, but the patch itself was built as a Photoshop collage of these photos of trash that I had taken, then painted over and scanned in. After initially exploring drawing everything, even the trash, I eventually found that xeroxed and collaged photos of trash just had a texture you really couldn’t duplicate. Or at least I couldn’t!

Geek: I’m going to jump a bit into spoilers here, but given the focus of the book… Why make the garbage the star?

RHA: Garbage as the star just felt much more interesting to me. I mean, if I had made trash the 100% baddie of my book, I think the story would have ended up feeling like it was just chastising and judging the reader. Like: “Trash, bad. Littering, bad.” And that just didn’t feel like it did justice to how strange and fascinating and haunting this thing really was.

But to make it it’s own character, to give that character some very human emotion, to make it a bit more complicated — I felt like that helped me set aside all the hopelessness and guilt that so often paralyzes me when I read about the environment. It let me just focus on the patch and appreciate it in a more personal way.

Geek: I imagine it would be the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve, but any chance of getting some plush toys out of this book? Because the main character is adorable.

RHA: Ha, I love that idea – sign me up to buy one if they ever got made! Maybe it can be a new version of the Ugly Dolls?

Geek: There’s a tremendous amount of pathos in the book, I thought. There’s some cute stuff, and funny stuff, but I got mostly an overwhelming sense of sadness for the most part… Is that something you were going for, or am I just a depressed nutball?

RHA: Well you *may* be a depressed nutball, but you’ve got company in this creator! I mean, I think it would have been weird to make the story *too* light, since this is an environmental danger after all. But the emotional thing that really got me as I thought about the patch was its loneliness. And to me it became like Frankenstein’s monster — made of all this forgotten stuff, reviled and abandoned by it’s creators, but not understanding why. At the same time though, it really was still just a child who wanted what everyone wants: to connect, to have fun, to make friends.

Geek: That said, the end of the book seems very hopeful, in relation to the whole idea of why you’re doing this… Can you talk about the end a bit?

RHA: Well having some sense of hope was definitely what I wanted, so I’m glad that came across! But yeah, without giving too much away, as I got closer to the end, I thought there was something interesting in flipping the roles we might assume each character would take. Like making the trash the victim in a sense, not the bad guy. And giving the environment some agency itself, some power to fight back. I wanted to find an ending that respected the fact that our impact on the world is complicated — and expressed the idea that perhaps anything we create, be it trash or products or even our relationships, deserves some care and attention.

Geek: What’s the plan with the book? How are you going to get the word out there beyond the comics community? Or is that not your job?

RHA: Well I definitely see it as my responsibility to get the word out as much as I can — I mean, Archaia agreed to publish a book from a first-time creator about a giant trash monster. Hello, I owe them big time! But seriously getting the word out about this story is again an example of how Archaia has been such a great home for the book. As I was finishing the story itself, Archaia began a partnership with Jeff Corwin, the wildlife expert on Animal Planet, and his organization Jeff Corwin Connect. Their mission is to get more people engaged and excited about nature. So when they became involved, they along with Ocean Conservancy, helped add an educational section at the end of the book where people who might be inspired by the story can then do something about it. I think all of our hope is that the story, along with the educational piece, can help bring this to kids, their parents, and their teachers as well as general readers.

Geek: Any final thoughts, or things we didn’t cover? And what else is coming up for you?

RHA: I have lots of little baby ideas for my next story floating around — a 1940’s memoir, an alternative history — but they’re all still in their infancy. I’m actually getting married in June, which is both crazy-making and great. So if I survive that, I’m excited to really get my next projects off the ground later in the year. Here’s hoping!

I’m Not a Plastic Bag is now on comic book stands and in bookstores from Archaia!

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