Josh Rosen – a chat with Story Planet

Josh, an enormous congratulations on the recent publication of your first graphic novel, The Good Fight, with words authored by Ted Staunton. We all felt incredibly privileged to watch you on this journey and are thrilled to celebrate with you now!

The Good Fight centers on fictional character Sid, who navigates through the pages as a Jewish boy growing up in an immigrant neighbourhood of Toronto’s 1930s, culminating in the historic Christie Pits riots, which became a symbolic victory for Jews and immigrants across Canada.

How was this book dreamt into being? (Feel free to include any information that feels relevant, inspiration, meeting Ted, political happenings today)

Ah, thank you for the kind words! The support I’ve had from being part of the Story Planet community has really meant a lot to me while working on this project.

The origins of the story lies with Ted, who from what I understand had been inspired after reading a book on old pickpocket tricks. And the idea came to him to do a story about kid pickpockets in the 1930s. Which, over time, morphed into this idea to pair that story with this huge moment in Canadian history, the Christie Pits riot. Toronto was a likely place to find a band of kid pickpockets at the time, and the riot was a defining moment of that era, a point where the marginalized communities of the time were forced to confront open and violent prejudice.

Meanwhile Ted and I met at a writing conference, and happened to hit it off. And Ted pitched the idea to me to take his idea and collaborate on turning it into a graphic novel. I should add that Ted is a very engaging storyteller, and the more he described the project I couldn’t help but start imagining some of the visuals I could make for it. So we kept in touch, and kept the conversation going. We started sharing ideas and rough sketches over email, slowly fleshing the initial idea out further and further. 

Then the 2016 American election happened. And there was this cultural shift, even in Canada, where a lot of hate speech and bigotry started being discussed openly in a pretty scary way. And for Ted and I, who had been looking at the news and politics of the 1930s leading up to World War II, the parallels felt very clear. And the project went from being a story that seemed kind of interesting, to a story that really spoke to what we were experiencing today. And a story that felt like it NEEDED to be told. That’s what drove the book forward from then on.

What was your process as an illustrator in putting together such a huge project?

“Huge” definitely felt like the word for it – making a graphic novel is no easy task! And it takes a lot of time and patience. Every artist’s process is a little different, but for me, I always find it easier to approach a project like this into smaller steps. Step one was Ted writing the whole story out as a script. Step two was me taking Ted’s script and breaking it down into pages and “panels” (the smaller drawings that make up a comics page). I then drew out a very rough version of those pages, which I shared with Ted and our editors at Scholastic. We then made some small changes here and there, based on our editors’ notes now that they could see what the visuals might be. After that came step three, where I took my rough pages and drew over them more carefully, creating a much cleaner black and white version of the book. And step four was adding colour to give it that extra “pop,” and to add any extra little details before the end.

So it was a lot of work when you look at it all together! But I would do my best to just focus on the next step in front of me, and not worry about the rest. And that made the process a lot easier to manage. (And ultimately more fun!)

How much input did you and Ted have between each other’s parts, i.e. did you provide any feedback or tweaks on the writing process, did Ted provide feedback on the illustrations?

Yes, we were very much in contact with each other throughout the whole thing! Before Ted even started writing we did a lot of emailing, and had a couple different meet-ups where we talked about the story, the characters, and what our visions for the book were. I know there are a couple of scenes Ted put in the script that were based on some of my thoughts from our early conversations, and I’m very grateful for that. And then there would be times where I would show Ted a sketch of a character, and that would change the way he would write them a bit. Or Ted would tell me an extra detail about a character’s backstory, and I’d try to bring that into the drawings. And then we were pretty actively in touch throughout the drawing process. I often liked to check with Ted that a particular expression I drew fit his vision for a scene, or to make sure I’d gotten clothing or period details right. It made the drawing process feel a bit less lonely too, haha.

What kind of research did you undertake to more accurately portray fashion, architecture, and overall ambiance of Toronto in the 1930s? It’s a drastically different city than today, after all.

Oh yes, very much so. The big difference between a historical project like this and something set in the present day (or even the far future!) is the amount of research required. Ted and I spent a good amount of time looking through photos in the City of Toronto Archives and the Ontario Jewish Archives for reference, and I took a few trips with just me and my sketchbook as well. We looked at a ton of books and photos from the period, to try to make sure we got all the little details right. You can look at the acknowledgements section at the back of the book for a list of some of the books we pulled from. And then I also looked at a lot of old catalogues and fashion magazines! All the photos from the period were in black and white, but the magazines were in colour, so it gave us a better idea of what some of the clothes looked like.

Which parallels, if any, do you see between Sid’s story today and those whose cultural and ethnic identities (including Jewish) are still discriminated against? 

Our hope is that readers will be able to see a lot of parallels. The hate speech leading up to the Christie Pits riot was primarily targeted towards Toronto’s Jewish and Italian populations, but they were far from the only group of people who suffered descrimination at the time. And the same, sadly, remains the case today. When things feel uncertain, people are often quick to jump to an easy answer. And hatred is easy. Blaming people who seem different from you is easy. We keep seeing the same monster pop up over and over, targeting different groups, wearing different clothes. And we have to keep rejecting it. That’s what “The Good Fight” really comes down to. The story is set in the 1930s, but we hope it will have a lot to say for readers today. We’ve fought this monster before. And we have to continue to confront it, and say no, this isn’t the way.

At Story Planet we work with students who may be at the beginning of a lifelong love or career in writing and illustration. What would your advice be for anyone starting to draw, and how to improve and practice the craft?

The first thing I always want to say is keep drawing, keep practicing. The more you do something, the more you work at it, the better you usually get. Then the second piece of advice, which I think should be paired with the first, is to remember to have fun! Drawing is always best when it feels like play. There’s never a “right” or “wrong” way to draw. So find the style of drawing that feels the best for you. And then keep exploring! There’s always something new to learn or try. I think if you can pair those two approaches together, you’ll never go wrong.

What can we expect from you next? Any other projects in the pipeline?

It’s still a little while off, but I do have my next project lined up. It’s another graphic novel project set in a similar time period, about what it’s like to live through a major moment in history. And then after that, I think what I’d enjoy most is to create a graphic novel all on my own, where I both illustrate and write the whole thing. And I have a couple of different ideas on what that book might be. Although we’ll see. I still really enjoy collaborating with other writers. So if another opportunity to work with someone like Ted pops up, there’s a chance I might push my solo project a little further down the line.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. We’re so fortunate to be able to work with you at Story Planet and can’t wait to celebrate The Good Fight even more, and all your future projects!