Soupy Leaves Home is exactly what it sounds like. A young woman from a tumultuous home decides to take control of her own life and future during Depression-era America. Pearl becomes Soupy, a young man riding the rails. She comes into contact with a host of colorful characters who help her grow and discover the type of life she wants to live.
Deeply researched and thoughtfully presented by the creative team of Cecil Castellucci and Jose Pimienta, Soupy Leaves Home is a wonderful coming-of-age tale exploring the hobo life. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Cecil Castellucci at New York Comic Con 2017.
Read on to find out about the inspiration behind Soupy Leaves Home and its characters, the creativity Jose Pimienta was able to infuse into the graphic novel, and how the late addition of Professor Jack helped to bring the story together!
Can you talk about what inspired Soupy Leaves Home?
About eight years ago I was going through a big life crisis, a big trauma had happened to me and I was in a dark place. I couldn’t really see a way out and somebody posted on Facebook a question asking what would your hobo name would be and I wrote “Soupy.”
And then I started thinking about hobos and I started googling hobos and learning more about hobos. In this dark place that I was in, it seemed like this dream. You could just ride the rails, I could just leave and become a hobo, you know?
Their whole culture – hobo culture – especially during Depression-era America was very fascinating. They were transient workers, they left symbols for each other to help each other out, there was a generosity in their outsider status and that’s how I felt. For me, by looking at what hobos were, it was a way forward when I could see no way forward.
So I just thought about who would Soupy be and what would her story be. So her story is not my story and I did not go and ride the rails, but through her I saw a way out of my own darkness and so that’s where the idea came from.
What kind of research did you do in preparation for this story?
I did a lot of research and actually, at the back of the book, there’s a whole list of books that I read for the research. There’s a great American experience documentary called Riding the Rails that’s about children hobos from the Depression era. Then of course there were a lot of silent movies that had girl hobos and The Journey of Natty Gann, which is a Disney movie about a girl hobo.
So, I watched the fictional stuff, but then I also did a lot of research about what hobos were. There’s actually a hobo museum in Britt, Iowa and I went to the hobo museum and that’s where they have their national hobo convention every year since 1898.
How was that?
I did not go to the hobo convention, but I went to the hobo museum and it was amazing.
Can you talk about what the collaboration process was like and how you handled the more fantastical elements that were put into the story?
There was a different artist at first and you know the way that projects take a long time, so he fell through and Dark Horse found Jose Pimienta. He’s brilliant and he did the coloring for the book as well, so it’s very intentional coloring.
When I write for DC Comics I do full script, for this I did what I call ‘open script.’ I would put action and dialogue on a page but I wouldn’t break it down into panels, which allowed Jose to come up with the ways that he would do that and the ways that he could address the fantastical. I think that really worked very well because he then had this opportunity to do the magical elements, the magical realism, and the dreaming parts without me formally saying, ‘This is what it should look like.’
A lot of it was implied, I’d be like, ‘Maybe it could be something like this.’ But he was just a joy to work with. A lot of the stuff is on the page, I indicate when there’s the fantastical stuff, but then Jose brought it home with his own natural, sequential art pacing instincts.
It was gorgeous, I liked it a lot. It works really well.
It’s beautiful, yeah. I think it really tells the story too. One of the things about Ramshackle – I think Jose did this really, really well – is that Ramshackle is a man who is born at the wrong time. He’s an inventor and a dreamer and he should really be a modern man like our modern man. It’s this interesting juxtaposition because Ramshackle is a modern man out of time and Soupy is a modern woman in that age, in the traditional modern woman sense from the 1930s.
It’s a nice juxtaposition.
Speaking of Soupy, was she always meant to be a girl that was living as a boy on the road? Can you talk about her identity?
One thing that you learned when you research hobos is that it was dangerous on the road and girls very often, pretty much all the time, dressed up as boys because it was just safer to travel in that way.
Girls in the 1930s weren’t really allowed to walk around and travel and be by themselves or unchaperoned, whatever. So one way to be safe and not get kind of any kind of attention was to go in disguise, so that was one of the reasons why she did that. That was a natural thing.
Soupy doesn’t want to be a boy, she just doesn’t want to be herself anymore and becoming a boy helps her to disappear for a while to escape her own self while she’s healing as she goes across America. Which is why it’s very intentional that when she’s riding the rails, she rides as a boy and when she buys a ticket, she comes back as a girl.
Can you talk about where the names of the other characters came from?
Tomcat, I just thought that was a fun name and that would be the kind of name that you get as a hobo because you’re like a Tomcat. Gums McGee, I just thought that some people didn’t have any teeth and I just like saying the word gums.
Professor Jack, I wanted it to be obvious that he was a smart man and that he was a young man. My impression is that he’s going to ride the rails for a while but then he’s going to go to college and become some kind of academic. There’s a reason why he’s called professor. And ramshackle, well it’s like ramshacklin’ along, you know? I liked that idea.
In the story, you explored Soupy’s background before she decided to ride the rails, but you also teased the backgrounds of other characters. Soupy was created before the story, did the rest of the characters also come before their stories or did you work them in?
I knew that Ramshackle was a man out of time. I knew that I wanted him to be an inventor who could see the world differently than everybody else did. So he’d be like, ‘Oh you see this? Well I see this!’ That was always a part of Ramshackle as soon as he came up. I thought about him wanting to be home but also wanting to be away at the same time, how sad he is about the fact that his wife and his family doesn’t understand his desire to keep leaving.
Gums and Tomcat, they came afterwards. I knew Gums was going to do what he did – no spoilers! But Tomcat, I didn’t know that he was going to end up where he did and that he was going to stop riding the rails to be with his daughter. I didn’t know that.
Professor Jack was a later addition to the story. I felt like it was important to have another young person on the road, so he came about a little bit later. I thought that it would be a nice juxtaposition to say that one of the reasons why Soupy wants to go on the road is because she wants to go to college, she wants to be a learner – a person who learns and loves learning. I thought it would be good to have a young man who had that same passion.
Professor Jack was a big part of Soupy’s catalyst for change at the end. He was a later addition? Was there a different ending you were envisioning before you added him?
No, basically everything else was the same. It was just that sometimes you’re writing a story and there’s something missing in order to put the pieces together. There’s a mystery that happens and it was difficult to have her come to the realisation of what had actually happened and what she’d actually seen without somebody else there mirroring it. Professor Jack was the perfect person for that. It didn’t feel right with Tomcat and I felt that it was important that she be separated from Ramshackle.
And then also, I felt like it was important to have a cute boy if that makes any sense, to have her having that first awakening. I don’t know that they’re ever going to get together, but I do think that Jack and her are going to be best friends for life. I liked that idea that you could meet someone who could be so important to you when you’re in this extreme circumstance that really understands you even if you’re in disguise.
He ended up helping to serve a lot of reasons because then he also became this MacGuffin. It didn’t feel right to have Ramshackle be the MacGuffin or Tomcat or some other random hobo. It was better to have it be someone who had more of a parallel story with hers.
Through researching and writing and getting the book ready, did you get any wanderlust?
Yes I did, I took a couple of Amtrak trains! Up the Coast Starlight, up the west coast to Portland and then I did the Southwest Chief up to Chicago, Sunset Limited back down from Chicago to L.A. I wrote a little bit of the book in the train just to get that rocking and rolling of the train. So yes, I mean I already had wanderlust. I love traveling and I love traveling by train. That was a good excuse to do that. I don’t want to ride a freight car, I don’t want to hop a train, but I do want to take a sleeper car across America as many times as I can.