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This fall’s must-read comic is an eerie mashup of Heathers and It Follows

Shade, the Changing Girl is one of the best new comic books of fall.

DC Comics/Young Animal

DC Comics is having a moment.

The company’s recent Rebirth event, which was mildly maligned by some fans for being yet another reboot, has actually galvanized its titles and turned out to be a sales success. Rebirth set in motion several fascinating, thoughtful stories about well-established characters like Wonder Woman, and introduced fresh, new heroes. And many upcoming DC projects are garnering a substantial amount of buzz — just look at the excitement over the new Justice League of America comic, due out in February 2017.

But perhaps DC’s greatest feat of late is proving that it can produce great comics even without the familiar razzle dazzle of the Justice League and the villains we’ve come to know so well.

Recently, the company introduced its Young Animal imprint — a series of titles for more mature readers. “Mature” isn’t meant in a pornographic way; Young Animal focuses on telling stories that are quirkier, more experimental. Think less Superman and more off-beat, like DC’s Vertigo imprint, home to legendary stories like Sandman and Animal Man, or an industry competitor like Image’s stable of unique stories like Bitch Planet and Sex Criminals.

Shade, the Changing Girl is one of DC’s new Young Animal titles, and it’s impressive.

Written by Cecil Castellucci and drawn by artist Marley Zarcone, Shade, the Changing Girl is the story of what happens when a vaguely emu-ish alien named Loma Shade finds herself in a quarter-life crisis of sorts. She’s sick of her boyfriend, her daily routine, and her life, and decides to break out of that rut by stealing an artifact called the “Madness Vest,” which allows Loma to warp reality around her and take human form.

Loma transports herself to Earth and inhabits the body of a comatose high school student named Megan Boyer. Boyer is just a human suit for Loma. But in taking over Megan’s body, Loma’s tasked with living and carrying on as Megan, the meanest, most ruthless girl in school.

Not everyone is happy to see Megan alive and well. Her friends dread it. Her family isn’t enthused. Her boyfriend has moved on to someone new. Megan inhabited the intersection of fear and cruelty in her loved ones lives.

Meanwhile, Loma has no idea what’s happening on her home planet of Meta.

Shade raises a perturbing question: Do you root for the planet-skipping alien who snatched a teenage girl’s body or sympathize with the trauma-inducing bully who terrorized her friends and family? Maybe both. Maybe neither.

The story is sort of like Heathers and all of its dark malevolence, infused with some classic, slightly off-beat DC Comics tradition. The comic is a riff on a character called Rac Shade, from the comic Shade, the Changing Man, a trippy, dimension-skipping being created by the legendary writer-artist Steve Ditko and remixed by Peter Milligan in the ’90s. Loma’s biggest idol is Rac Shade, and she is following in his footsteps while, at the same time, creating her own legacy.

I recently chatted with Castellucci and Zarcone about the comic, their inspirations for the book, teens, Snapchat, and, of course, high school.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alex Abad-Santos

Reading Shade, the Changing Girl made me want to ask you about your high school experience.

Cecil Castellucci

I loved high school. I went to a high school of performing arts, the LaGuardia School in New York City which is, if you ever saw the movie Fame, that's the school I went to, so it was just basically theater in the morning. My personality was very big and I did not know how to wield it yet. I didn't know how to manage it. So there was a lot of crying in corners, sort of horrible moments, but for the most part it was pretty amazing because it was steeped in stories because of the theater stuff.

Marley Zarcone

The first half of my high school time I spent in Catholic school. My father's a cop, my mom was a waitress, so it was this weird, suburban middle-class private school. I didn't do well in private school so I ended up going to public school and just kind of hiding in there — you know, it's easier to hide in a group of thousands of kids. You can kind of just skate by and do your own thing and play video games and draw comics or not draw comics and just read like I used to.

Alex Abad-Santos

I guess I’m trying to figure out whether Megan Boyer, the mean girl in the coma, was based on anyone in your real lives.

Marley Zarcone

Oh, there's plenty of private-school girls who I know who are definitely Megan. That's part of the reason why I didn't want to be noticed. I know because there are girls out there who just hunt and they find a weak spot and they go for it. There are a few of them.

Shade, the Changing Girl.
DC Comics

Cecil Castellucci

I wasn't anybody's primary victim, but I mean I definitely had my brush-in with mean girls. In my senior year I was very, very small, and so I would always get us carded and so my friends dropped me because I was so small. I looked like I was 12 years old.

Alex Abad-Santos

There’s a character in Shade, the Changing Girl named “Tea Cup,” is that you?

Cecil Castellucci

Am I Tea Cup? I identify with Tea Cup, but I identify with Loma [the alien] as well. I'm a small lady, but I don't look like I'm 12 anymore. I think for me I didn't go to a regular high school.

We didn't have gym; we had dance class. Like I said, I studied theater half the day, so for me my fantasies about what high school was like — it's all the regular high school stuff with cheerleaders and gym class and just regular everything. That’s the most interesting thing for me in the world [of this comic,] because it's completely — it's like this completely unknown quantity. I never went to a dance. I don't even know what going to a high school dance is like.

Alex Abad-Santos

The high school experience, and how different it can be from person to person, is obviously a major component of the comic. But what other inspirations have you looked to while working on it?

Cecil Castellucci

When Shelley [Bond] and Gerard [Way] (the editor and creative lead behind the Young Animal imprint) first talked to me about the comic, I immediately thought of The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis, which was made into a David Bowie movie. That was like this vibe that I got, so I would say that was an inspiration.

Marley Zarcone

For modern movies and things like that, It Follows is probably most recent. The kind of vibe from that movie is something I want to be able to translate — the feel of the unease, I love it. I don't know if that translates through.

Alex Abad-Santos

It’s funny that you mention It Follows because I couldn’t put my finger on why it felt so familiar. The way that movie sounds trippy and synth — it feels like if that movie’s soundtrack might also be a soundtrack to your comic book.

This comic book is riffing off Rac Shade from Shade, the Changing Man, a character and comic created by Steve Ditko — a legend who was known for mind-bending, trippy work. How much of Ditko and his work did you try to bring into your work?

Cecil Castellucci

I'm trying to pull in elements from both Ditko and Milligan's run [on the character] so that there are definitely nods and echoes to what came before, but trying to make it very much our own. I think Marley is using that as a stepping stone as well.

Marley Zarcone

Visually, definitely. I pull a lot from both. I just think that definitely shows up in the art. When it comes to character, I guess I want to explore different kinds of narratives and maybe do things a little bit differently. My layouts are kind of my own thing.

Shade, the Changing Girl.
DC Comics

Alex Abad-Santos

The one scene I really loved was the synchronized swimming panel when the girls — Megan’s friends — find out Megan woke up from her coma. It doesn't look like a swimming pool you want to be in. It's kind of eerie.

Marley Zarcone

I think the “Madness” concept is just manifesting and these kids have all been through something traumatic, so I think it should manifest both in the story and visually because the Madness just amplifies all these emotions and desires.

Cecil Castellucci

I came across the idea of it being a synchronized swim team because I thought the patterns they make could lend themselves to the Madness. It's beautiful, and I think Marley knocks that out of the park. I also think there's sort of a tradition in the Milligan run of there being a lot of water elements with the Madness, and so that was something we were really interested in. It just keeps coming up over and over again.

Alex Abad-Santos

Yeah, there is a watery quality throughout the book.

Marley Zarcone

It's just that kind of transition — like you're kind of floating through emotions and you're also floating through their stories and it's through that Madness filter. Water's a really good translator for that, I guess.

Alex Abad-Santos

What should readers be looking forward to in the next few issues? What can we expect from Loma and Shade, the Changing Girl?

Cecil Castellucci

Loma’s in this body now and she has to figure out how to be in this body. She just sort of landed, you know? I don't want to give too much away, but I don't want to say nothing. There's a lot of new things. Right now she has to get her bearings and she has to figure out what this situation is that she's gotten herself into.

Shade, the Changing Girl.
DC Comics

Marley Zarcone

That, and just in general getting used to being in human skin and dealing with humans and the whole process of going through having all this weird power [because she’s an alien], and then dealing with all these [human] emotions flying at you.

Cecil Castellucci

Being wholly unprepared.

Marley Zarcone

Yeah, she's like, "[Going to a different world] would be great. Let me put on this jacket and go away.”

Cecil Castellucci

Yeah, I'll just go away and then all my problems will be gone — as if! The problems are just beginning, Alex, they're just beginning.

Alex Abad-Santos

If you were to give Loma one thing to prepare her for being a teen on earth today, what would it be?

Marley Zarcone

Give her Snapchat. I'd try to explain Snapchat.

Cecil Castellucci

She wouldn't go for that.

Marley Zarcone

I know, I'm just saying — it’s the way into a teenager's soul at the moment, you know?

Shade, the Changing Girl is available online and in comic book stores.