Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, May 4, 2020

Monday, May 4, 2020: YA Maximum Shelf: You Brought Me the Ocean

DC Comics: You Brought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez, illustrated by Julie Maroh

DC Comics: You Brought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez, illustrated by Julie Maroh

DC Comics: You Brought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez, illustrated by Julie Maroh

DC Comics: You Brought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez, illustrated by Julie Maroh

You Brought Me the Ocean

by Alex Sanchez, illus. by Julie Maroh

Lambda Award-winning author Alex Sanchez (Rainbow Boys) and New York Times bestselling illustrator Julie Maroh (Blue Is the Warmest Color) team up for a gorgeously rendered graphic novel that reimagines the origin story of DC's Aqualad. Part coming-out romance, part superpower discovery tale, this exploration of identity from two icons in LGBTQIAP+ literature portrays how loved ones are able to lend each other incredible strength.

High school senior Jake Hyde dreams of the ocean but lives in the New Mexico desert. His mother has forbidden him to go near water since his father drowned. Overprotective to a fault (Jake once "threatened to leave home if she didn't stop asking, 'Did you poop today?' "), she wishes Jake would abandon plans to study oceanography at the University of Miami and apply in-state with his best friend, Maria Mendez. Unlike Jake, Maria never wants to leave home: "Don't you just want to hug the desert?" Secretly, Maria hopes that if Jake stays, they'll (finally) date.

No one knows Jake is gay and crushing on swim team captain Kenny Liu. Openly gay in a "puny fishbowl town," Kenny isn't scared to "make waves" and shuts down bullies who taunt him with yells of "Kill the queer!" Though extroverted and unashamed, Kenny isn't immune to homophobia: "It's hard to grow up different where different means people call you a freak," he laments. Jake, too, wants someone to understand him but fears that "I've hidden myself so much even I'm not sure who I am."

On a long hike, Jake musters his courage and comes out to Kenny, confiding in him about everything--even his strange skin markings that glow in water. "All my life I've felt like there's something wrong with me," he tells Kenny right before a flash flood threatens to drown them both. Jake's instincts take over: he shields Kenny and telepathically diverts the tidal wave. Uncertain what this strange talent means, Jake feels suffocated by his differences. As his mom rebuffs his questions, Jake's lies about college, Kenny and his superpower pile up between him and Maria. Then a fight with Kenny endangers the relationship with the only person Jake believes truly knows him. Mending his fractured friendships will first mean accepting himself. But how can he do that when he's unsure who he is?

You Brought Me the Ocean masterfully conveys the conflicting emotions behind coming out and self-discovery. By pairing Jake's readiness to pursue a romantic relationship with a boy with the manifestation of his hydrokinesis, Sanchez delivers the vital message that there is more to every member of the LGBTQIAP+ community than their sexual identity. Although Jake questions foundational aspects of himself, he knows the answers won't overwrite his personality or change how he jokes with Maria or gives his mom grief. Similarly, Kenny compares his homosexuality to being Chinese--something he can't and wouldn't change--pointing out that his orientation is ingrained in his broader persona, not its only marker.

Throughout, a resonant parallel between gender, sexuality and water takes shape. Jake (perhaps subconsciously) makes this connection when talking with Kenny about the ocean after he comes out: "Water is deep beneath us. A whole fluid world... Bubbling up... And breaking through the surface." He compares quelling that emergence to drowning in a "sea of secrets." It makes sense, then, that he has the innate ability to bend water, when it symbolizes his inseparable Atlantean background and immutable inner self. But this doesn't mean he can't direct his own narrative. With myriad labels to embrace, Jake picks which ones to disclose to whom, exemplifying how a perceived support system and a sense of control can dictate when and how a person shares their story.

Limiting their art palette to oceanic and earth tones, Maroh adds multiple layers to Sanchez's story. By strategically washing out the desert environment, they let the reader experience Jake's worldview: "I'm destined to stay stuck here, treading water in this ocean of sand where nobody understands me." In contrast, pops of blues and greens draw the eye to the details Jake values. For example, Kenny's hair is a bold turquoise--the same color as a stone he gifts Jake. "The color always reminded me of the sea," Kenny explains. "Now it reminds me of you." Maria, intrinsically connected to the place Jake wants to leave yet someone whom Jake cherishes, unites both hues, appearing in muted backdrops brightened by flowering cacti and her mother's red and green enchiladas. Striking facial expressions also elevate Sanchez's words. Maroh plunges to the heart of each character, conveying in only a few strokes the charged underpinnings of every action. Additionally, breathtaking full-page spreads give pivotal scenes their due spotlight, the boundaries of the comic panels falling away in the awe-striking moment Jake first manipulates water.

Swoon-worthy flirting, awkward high-fives and hilarious demonstrations of Jake's ability balance the more somber images of Jake learning the grim truth behind his birth, bigots attacking the three companions and rocky conversations about the future. Jake's refusal to hide--from those who would judge his queerness and from the dangers associated with Atlantis--is an inspiring mentality. Depicting the hard-won confidence of a newly out gay teen superhero, You Brought Me the Ocean adds fresh voices from the LGBTQIAP+ community to the DC Universe. --Samantha Zaboski

DC Comics, $16.99, paperback, 208p., ages 12-up, 9781401290818, June 9, 2020

DC Comics: You Brought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez, illustrated by Julie Maroh

Alex Sanchez and Julie Maroh: A Fresh Look at a Superhero

Alex Sanchez
Julie Maroh

In the graphic novel You Brought Me the Ocean (DC, available June 9), creators Alex Sanchez and Julie Maroh reimagine an origin story for Aqualad. Here, they spoke with Shelf Awareness about their collaboration, writing queerness for a teen audience and the process of re-envisioning the DC hero.

Alex Sanchez has published eight novels, including the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults Rainbow Boys and the Lambda Award-winning So Hard to Say. He has a master's degree in guidance and counseling and worked for many years as a youth and family counselor.

Julie Maroh is a French writer and illustrator of graphic novels. They wrote and illustrated the New York Times bestseller Blue Is the Warmest Color, which has been adapted into an award-winning film.

Can you speak about your collaboration process and how it felt to tell this story together?

Sanchez: In a word, collaborating with Julie felt amaaaaazing! In my experiences writing strictly prose novels, I always only had vague images of what characters looked like, no matter how hard I tried to describe them. To see Julie bring these characters to life with such expressive and dynamic drawings was beyond any picture I could paint with words. 

Maroh: As soon as my editor, Sara Miller, sent me the first draft written by Alex, I was thrilled and impatient to start! In our process, Alex provided the chapters in separated periods of time, and these were moments I adored. It allowed me to see where our characters were going and to keep my own flame of inspiration alive, ready for surprises. It seems, also, that Alex and I had the same kinds of interests and priorities about narratives. For this reason, I never felt as an interchangeable executant. My feelings and suggestions were always taken into account, as much from Alex as from DC.

This graphic novel reimagines Aqualad's origin story. How did you draw inspiration from how Jackson Hyde, Jake's parallel in the DC Universe, is depicted in existing comics?

Sanchez: I researched some of the previous iterations, picked out aspects that particularly resonated for me and built upon them. For example, I loved the idea that Jackson Hyde's mom had taken him to the desert town of Silver City, New Mexico, far away from water to hide him from Black Manta. But since so much of the story focuses on truth, why not switch his hometown to nearby Truth or Consequences, New Mexico? I made shifts like that to add depth and resonance to the story.

Maroh: And this is how I must come out as a total illiterate when it comes to American comic books and superheroes... shame, shame, shame! As you just said, the graphic novel reimagines the original story. And my graphic work is very distant from the existing comics. Given that we created a prequel that takes place in present day, exploring high school life in New Mexico's desert, my research was mostly focused on these atmospheres. Alex had already written a beautiful character, and I did my best to give him justice through features, style, physical attitude... all that would testify what it means to be a lonely teenager in the closet and unaware of his powers today versus 10 or 20 years ago. I hope our story touches new readers like me who are not familiar with superheroes, and that current comic fans enjoy our vision of Aqualad.

Julie, can you talk about the way you played with the palette in this comic as you did in Blue Is the Warmest Color--here, relying on sepia tones for certain images and aqua tones for others?

Maroh: It's a graphic guide. It's useful to distinguish foreground from background, for example, or to direct the reader's attention to a detail. In Blue Is the Warmest Color, I used this technique in the flashbacks to highlight the fact that when we recall a memory of the past, we don't have the full picture anymore. We only remember what left its mark on us, that may be an image, an object, a smell.... Going back in Jake Hyde's past felt like the same kind of experience.

You have a knack for drawing facial expressions. How did you pin these characters' emotions so accurately?

Maroh: Because Alex described the emotions most accurately in the first place, I must say! This is why I feel we were a good team; we share the same narrative tools, and we complement each other very well. One thing I've always loved about graphic literature is that it's a perfect medium for representing what's invisible: emotions, inner monologues and mental noises, sensations.... Therefore, one of my main interests since I was a teenager has been to explore these things. It's common to say that cartoon and comic artists are "internalized" actors. I can spend hours on a face or a gesture until it reaches the sensation I wish to give.

Alex, what do you hope Jake's struggle with coming out both as gay and as super-powered says to teens who haven't disclosed their sexual orientation or gender identity?

Sanchez: At the start of the story, Jake feels ashamed of both his sexual feelings and the markings that signal his superpowers. As he comes to terms with both his sexuality and his superpowers, he comes to realize that what he thought were defects are actually gifts. Similarly, regardless of whether or not teens are in a position to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity, the most important thing is to love and accept themselves for who they are. Hopefully, they'll come to see their sexuality and gender identity not as defects but as gifts.

Kenny's frustrations with his father, especially as he asks, "Did you ever try being gay?" lash against the idea of heterosexuality as the default. How did this message work its way into his story?

Sanchez: One of the joys of writing fiction is to allow characters to take on lives of their own. That includes letting them say things I don't foresee. Kenny came up with that line without forethought on my part. As his question prompts his dad to reconsider his opinions, I hope their father-son interaction will also provoke readers to question their own opinions and ideas around sexuality and gender.

How did it feel to weave in the Superman and Aquaman cameos?

Sanchez: It felt wild! I never imagined one day I'd write a story set in the DC Universe. It's been an awesome ride!

Maroh: It was on my list of "All the unexpected and funny experiences to live before dying," so... CHECK! --Samantha Zaboski

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