Grace Ellis plots out ‘Diana and the Hero’s Journey’

Over her 80-plus-year existence, we’ve seen many pockets of Wonder Woman’s rich and heroic life. And while there’s been some stories in her early days (see Wonder Woman: The Adventures of Young Diana), not nearly enough has been done to explore the part of Diana’s maturity into a proper champion of goodness. Until now, that is. Writer Grace Ellis (Lumberjanes) and artist Penelope Rivera Gaylord (Clark & Lex) have joined forces for Diana and the Hero’s Journey, an all-new graphic novel for middle readers.

Diana and the Hero’s Journey follows the soon-to-be mighty Amazon as a “curious and rambunctious” child. But one day, all her rough-housing and swordplay cause a giant mess around a local retelling of the mythology of Hero, and the young warrior is forced to clean everything up. It’s a thoughtful and poignant exploration of the mighty figure as she learns those vital principles of compassion and community in her way to becoming among DC’s most essential heroes.

Diana and the Hero’s Journey arrives this week (October 10) from DC Comics/Penguin Random House. In the lead up, Ellis was kind enough to answer a few of our questions, including how this book might connect to Lumberjanes, the appeal of this story to various audiences, and young Diana’s mighty sidekick, Phyllis the goat.

Courtesy of DC Comics.

AIPT: What’s the elevator pitch for Diana and the Hero’s Journey?

Gracel Ellis: Ha! OK, I’ll do my best: Kid Wonder Woman is a very confident princess who listens to a bunch of different Amazons tell her an epic story in a bunch of different styles. It’s a fun and energetic and unique book with beautiful art (by Penelope Gaylord), and I’m really pleased with how it came together! I hope people read it!

AIPT: There’s some real shared interests between Wonder Woman and Lumberjanes (i.e., beating up monsters). Did you draw on that book at all for this one?

GE: I don’t think I realized how much this book had in common with Lumberjanes until my partner read the final version and pointed it out to me, actually! I do think that genuinely, people who liked Lumberjanes will also like this book, even though the premises are ultimately very different. They’re similar in tone, and besides, who doesn’t like funny books about beating up monsters?

AIPT: What was it like working with Penelope Rivera Gaylord? What did their art do for you in terms of developing and shaping the story?

GE: Penelope was so fun to work with! Comics writing when someone else is doing the art is so intimate because ultimately, you’re writing for the benefit of one person: the artist. So it’s extra important to work with someone smart and interesting who you get along with, since you’re going to be, you know, locked in a project together for several years. So all that in mind, when I say Penelope is great, I really mean it. She really got the book from the very beginning, and the breadth of styles that she was able to perfectly pull off?? I’m in awe.

Courtesy of DC Comics.

AIPT: Why is Diana’s childhood so compelling to explore as an “era” in her life?

GE: Well, the initial draw for me was wanting to spend time on Themyscira with the Amazons. It’s a lush, fun backdrop to have a society of warrior women and all this mythology, and I care much less about what happens when she leaves, haha. And I hadn’t really seen anyone exploring this particular interpretation of Diana’s childhood before, which surprised me because it seemed obvious! She’s a princess, and she’s the only child on the island! Of course she’s kind of a brat! But that’s what this book is about: how she learned to channel her bossy confidence into the great leadership skills she has as an adult. It’s an origin story that’s not about gaining powers but about becoming a better person.

AIPT: How do you perceive Wonder Woman as a character — do you draw on other stories? And do you feel as if you’re trying to write to who she’ll be as that mighty adult?

GE: I love a good Wonder Woman comic, and the great news is that there are tons of great Wonder Woman comics, not to mention other great media. I’m picturing Diana and the Hero’s Journey as a sort of Wonder Woman 101, so it’s not closely tied to any other version in particular. Who is Diana, at her core? That’s what I wanted to explore here. You don’t have to have a deep knowledge of comics to enjoy it.

Courtesy of DC Comics.

AIPT: What influenced you to use the story of Hero, and its subsequent retelling by the Amazons, as a kind of framework for this book?

GE: Hero and Leander is a real, tragic Greek myth, but the version in this book only uses it as a jumping off point for a fictional Amazonian myth that hits the classic Joseph Campbell hero’s journey beats. I’m really interested in the idea that the stories we choose to tell and the way we tell them says something about who we are, both individually and culturally, which I’m sure is because I’m also a playwright, and theater is a very iterative medium. And comics is too, in its own way! It’s also totally the result of writing but not drawing comics, the fact that I am lucky enough to think about the way different art styles impact the way a story reads. So it was a fun way to explore the Amazons and their culture, to have them tell a story that’s culturally important to them.

AIPT: Diana has a friend/sidekick in Phyllis the goat. Is she anything like Jumpa, Diana’s friendly kangaroo?

GE: I hope that Phyllis is the breakout star of this book, hahaha. I won’t rest until I can go to the store and buy a Phyllis lunchbox. I had considered including Jumpa in this book, but the rest of the book is actually pretty non-magical and non-super, if not straight-up realistic, so I was worried that having a kangaroo sidekick would be distracting. My editor, Sara Miller, who is so wonderful and wise and a joy to work with, described the choice of a goat as “unexpected,” which is true and a very funny thing to say when the other choice is a kangaroo. Phyllis is the secret ingredient, I can’t explain it.

Courtesy of DC Comics.

AIPT: Are there struggles or challenges of taking someone who’s basically a god and trying to ground them? Does this remove or diminish some of Diana’s “magic?”

GE: Great question. My hope is that it doesn’t diminish Diana but makes her legendary status feel more attainable. My goal with this book and with Lois Lane and the Friendship Challenge, which also features a pretty imperfect kid-version of Lois, is to tell the story of the start of their journey to greatness. What was the moment that led to the legend, the first step down the path to being a hero? Kids are still learning what kind of people they want to be, and if we can show that even Wonder Woman had some growing to do along the way, I hope that’s inspiring in its own right.

AIPT: Can you tease any moments, pages, and/or tidbits from this story? Anything that may be a personal fave for you?

GE: Oh man! It’s hard to pick. Ok ok, this book features several different storytelling styles, including a sea shanty that was super fun to write and a classic epic poem that was super tough to write. I have so much more respect now for poets who can write in that style without pulling all their hair out. But the real winner for me is actually the second storyteller in the book, who basically tells it as a talking dog story. I wasn’t sure what the best art style would be, so I told Penelope to do whatever she wanted as long as it was extremely different from the epic poem art style. And she went full manga. It’s amazing and hilarious and unexpected, except now you’ll know to expect it, but it’s so hilarious that I’m not even spoiling it by telling you about it now, hahaha.

Courtesy of DC Comics.

AIPT: You once described this book as “Princess Bride meets Wonder Woman.” What about that beloved movie speaks to you, and why does it work with Diana so well?

GE: Yes! One of the things I love about the movie version of Princess Bride, apart from every single thing about it, is that the main relationship is in the framing device: the grandpa and the sick kid. The kid is the one with a real character arc. The story of Westley and Buttercup is exciting and funny and has most of the memorable moments, but I like the idea that it’s memorable to the kid because it’s a book his grandpa read him. Which is a more major part of the book version, if I recall. I also love a fictional piece of media, like a story-within-a-story that has a made-up history within the story. Nerd alert.

AIPT: Did you intend or want this book to have crossover appeal, or is it all about speaking to a pretty middle-grade centric readership?

GE: I think that this book has something for everyone, and I genuinely mean that. It’s just a fun book. I would definitely seek it out if I hadn’t written it. Even if DC had asked me to write an adult Wonder Woman book, I’m sure that it would’ve been a variation on this idea. It’s the Wonder Woman book I had inside me, what can I say.

AIPT: If they met, what would Adult Diana say to Kid Diana (or vice versa)?

GE: Kid Diana would absolutely have stars in her eyes if she knew what kind of person she grows up to be, which I think speaks to her strength of character. She knows who she is. I think Adult Diana would probably be proud of the kid she was — self-assurance and a desire to lead are positive traits — but I think she would tell Kid Diana that heroes also need humility and good listening skills. But at the end of the day, every legend has to start somewhere.

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