Interview - Rachel Hope Allison

In the Pacific Ocean there's a large mass of garbage drifting away. It's reaching a size that's almost making it unmanageable, but there are folks out there trying to come up with ways to dispose of all the rubbish safely. Rachel Hope Allison is one of those people and her new work I'm Not a Plastic Bag from Archaia (in a partnership with Jeff Corwin Connect) sheds some light on the patch and gives readers a few choices for making an impact.

Allison was gracious enough to do an interview with Omnicomic, where we talk about the book, the patch and potential changes that can be made. The book hits stores in late March and you can check out some interiors after the interview.

Omnicomic: Where did you get the idea for I'm Not a Plastic Bag?

Rachel Hope Allison: I first read about the Pacific Garbage Patch 2007. I remember being just totally amazed that something so big and dangerous had been growing in the ocean for so long and we were only just finding out about it. 

But I didn't start the story itself until 2008. I was working on my MFA at the School of Visual Arts and -- since the idea of the garbage patch had really stuck with me -- I decided I wanted to write a story about it for my thesis. 

I wasn't sure what the story would be at first, but I knew I really didn't want it to feel too preachy or judgmental. Then as I was running in the park one day I remember this image popping into my mind. I wondered what it would be like to see the patch from the ocean floor, what shapes it might make, what they might look like, like cloud-gazing. The idea that the patch became a character in it's own right kind of evolved from there. 

Omnicomic: Did Archaia approach you about publishing it?

Allison: Actually, Archaia and I found each other really randomly. I had only sent the book to a few publishers so far when I went to a friends' wedding. I was chatting with a couple at my table, and after I mentioned that I had done a graphic novel, it came out that the husband, John, had a brother who was a creator himself and published comics. 

That brother ended up being Mark Smylie, Chief Creative Officer of Archaia. I scribbled my URL down on a piece of paper for his brother to pass on, and didn't think I'd ever hear anything more. But a few weeks later, I got an email, I shared a PDF of the project, and it all got rolling from there.  Their whole team has been such a pleasure to work with from day one, I can't say enough good things about them. I got just ridiculously, crazy lucky.

Omnicomic: How did you get connected with Jeff Corwin?

Allison: The credit for that, again, goes to Archaia. I was in the middle of updating the story pages when Archaia let me know that they'd been exploring the possibility of a partnership. I'd always hoped the story might make people want to learn more and get excited about the oceans, and Jeff and the Corwin Connect team have really helped the book be able to do that.

Jeff not only wrote an informative forward, his team also provided section at the end of the book where you can learn what the patch actually is, what species are endangered by it, and give readers easy, practical ways to help conserve the ocean if they're inspired to do so. 

Omnicomic: What can you tell us about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Allison: Well first, it's big. The description I hear most often is that it's about twice the size of Texas. 

Second, while I've been inspired by real details of the garbage patch, my images definitely take artistic liberties. A lot of the trash in the book (bags, rope, plastic utensils) is a part of the patch, but from what I understand, it's more like a cloud than a solid island. 

The patch basically sits in a deep, still area of water in the middle of the Northern Pacific gyre. The currents push trash into the middle of the gyre and the debris gets trapped. A lot of the debris is non-biodegradable, so it just sits there, growing, turning into a kind of trash soup.  So you can't, say, stand on the garbage patch or anything. But it pervades the water in the middle of the Northern Pacific Gyre in a very real way. 

Omnicomic: There's a sense of isolation in I'm Not a Plastic Bag and the patch is personified as lonely. Did you feel the need to create the patch as a sympathetic character?

Allison: Well, first, I think one of my biggest hopes was to create an emotional story around the garbage patch that wasn't all about consumer guilt and preachiness. (I mean we all have responsibility, sure, but beating up the reader and myself wasn't really my agenda!) And as I thought about that, I felt it's a bit more interesting for the patch to be a sympathetic character rather than the baddie you'd expect it to be. 

But aside from that, I was also inspired by the patch itself. It's in this incredibly remote part of the ocean and, because it's such deep and still water, there actually aren't as many species at the surface there as in coastal regions. That, plus the fact that the patch is made of all these things we discard and forget, drove me toward a story about loneliness.

Omnicomic: On the same token, there are panels in the work where the patch uses text from its "collection" to invite others to join it. Do you see the patch as something of a beguiling force, tricking others into contributing to it through pollution?

Allison: I hadn't thought about it that way, though of course the best part is seeing how different people interpret the story for themselves! In my own mind, the patch is a bit more innocent and childlike. Kind of like a Frankenstein's monster. It's dangerous and kind of gross, sure, but it also didn't ask to be born, it's just discovering the world, and it has a universal need for connection.

Omnicomic: Can you elaborate on the art style at all? There are some panels where the ocean looks photographic. 

Allison: A lot of the story is photographic actually. I basically took a ton of photos of trash and clouds and water, and painted and drew over them to get the texture I wanted. Then I built the patch by collage, drew in the face and outlines, and painted and drew the other characters and backgrounds myself. 

That approach certainly let me use a lot of fun textures, but it also gave me a lot of nooks and crannies where I could tuck in some of the little details and smaller pieces of trash that you can follow throughout the book. Telling the story was obviously primary, but I wanted people to be able to enjoy and discover new details on the second or third read as well.

Omnicomic: What do you hope readers take away from your work?

Allison: More than anything, I hope the story gets them excited and interested in learning more about the oceans and nature. I'm the first one to admit that the big environmental challenges we face today can feel really scary. But when you just concentrate on fear, it's not just unpleasant, it's paralyzing. For me, letting your imagination be inspired by all that's weird and beautiful and fascinating in nature is a lot more motivating. That's what I hope comes through.

Omnicomic: What do you want to see happen to the patch? That is, do you have any ideas or suggestions as to how to deal with it?

Allison: I'd love to see us figure out how to clean it up eventually -- but because it's basically a trash soup in the middle of the ocean, it's going to be a tough job (though I know people are working on possible clean-up solutions already). At this point, I think the focus is on making sure the Pacific Garbage patch (and similar patches in other oceans) don't keep growing larger. 

The Corwin Connect team has come up with some great ways to reduce your own footprint on the oceans -- and a lot of it focuses on reducing your amount of non-biodegradable trash (like plastic grocery bags, water bottles, and the like). 

The Ocean Conservancy, a great organization that provided some amazing photos for the book, is also a good place to learn more about how to get involved:

Omnicomic: When will I'm Not a Plastic Bag be available to readers?

Allison: I believe in mid-April -- just in time for Earth Day.

Omnicomic: What conventions do you plan on appearing at this year?

Allison: My schedule isn't set yet, but I'm hoping to attend MoCCA and the New York Comic Con at least.   

Omnicomic: Anything else you want to plug while you have the floor?

Allison: Not as yet, but you can check in to to see what develops, and thanks so much for having me at Omnicomic!