The Sprite and the Gardener features all the things we love — community, plants, and magical beings flexing their magical powers for the greater good. We sat down with Rii Abrego and Joe Whitt to talk about their new graphic novel from Oni Press!
Rachel: One thing I love about this book is gardening and nurture as an expression of community — as something that is done better when different people utilize their different strengths to make something together that they couldn’t do apart. Why was this concept something you felt was important to explore?
Rii: I’ve always been someone who likes to do things myself. I don’t know what it is – a lot of the time it’s stuff I’m not even good at! But more and more I’m realizing that there are so few things in this world that have to be done alone, and that you can almost always benefit from the individual experiences and expertise of others. It’s something I think we could all stand to internalize more.
Actually, when I was asked to pitch this book and started bouncing ideas off of Joe, I very quickly realized that the stuff we were throwing back and forth was way better than anything I could have come up with on my own. At that point there was no good reason for me to write it by myself!
Joe: Yeah, it’s like Rii said, I think collaborating on writing this book really played a part in the collaborative spirit of the narrative. It’s scary to work together and potentially put your shortcomings on display, but once you do, your partner can punch those up and you end up with something incredible.
Rachel: I love that! Can you tell us a bit about how y’all collaborated on this book? What are one of your favorite instances in the book that were better because of your collaboration?
Rii: It’s hard to come up with specific instances, but Joe really understands fun, and his input made the book a lot more energetic overall. If it were up to me it might have become a little too sweet, and probably a little boring, honestly. The same goes for the characters themselves – I was leaning toward burying everyone in cute, frilly designs, but then he brought in rough sketches for Nettle, Lily, Moss, and Amaranth, and they immediately brought so much life to the group.
Joe: This one is a little bittersweet, because I was very attached to it, but in an early, unwritten draft of the script, there were like way more worm jokes. The worm they found was initially going to be so much more of a character, almost like a mascot. During the climax when everyone’s working together, there was even going to be this like 2-page spread of a bunch of sprites releasing worms unto the earth, and everyone’s cheering.
I was so married to this idea but once I took a step back and discussed it with Rii, we were both able to see that an overabundance of worms might create some tonal dissonance within the narrative.
Rii: Actually, yeah, he was feverishly attached to the worms. We compromised by scaling back to two worm appearances, but make no mistake, there are way more worms just off panel.
Rachel: When Wisteria comes to Sylvan Trace, the sprites in town have all stopped using their powers to maintain the flora around them because of the influence of humans. Wisteria, though, wants to help the young gardener she meets by reclaiming the powers that sprites have long since let go idle. Why was it important to y’all to include this element of reclaimed purpose?
Rii: It partially grew from this idea that a lot of us harbor, that doing something is pointless if someone else is doing it better. Even though the sprites had been maintaining the flora all this time, they felt that they had become redundant once humans planted their own gardens. It isn’t until they see the growth brought about by Wisteria and Elena’s alliance that they realize that, in the grand scheme of things, their participation still brings something wonderful to the table.
Joe: I feel like as a postmodern human I spend a lot of time wishing I could have a more direct relationship with the physical world. I think that’s why stuff like animal crossing and harvest moon is so popular, you can log in, plant some trees and flowers and watch them grow. Anyway, I think it’s like wish fulfillment. I want to be in the dirt with a shovel, a little straw hat, planting stuff.
Rachel: Can y’all tell me a little about the short comic that Rii made that inspired this book, and how the process of working together began?
Rii: The idea for the short comic had actually been buzzing around in my head for years before I put it to paper. As a kid I spent a lot of time in a big overgrown field, and I was always beyond excited to spot any kind of animal – snakes, moles, rabbits, etc – but I also hoped that the reverse was true. I liked to believe that something out there was excited to see me, too. The idea of a fairy secretly watching a gardener was sort of born from that.
Joe: I think we were both baristas when she made it. It got popular on the internet, and then some months later Rii asked me if I wanted to help write a full book based on it. And I said yes, and we sat down at a yogurt bar inside a Barnes and Noble and just got to work!
Rachel: All the plants and flowers in this book are so lovingly portrayed! Do either of y’all garden? What are some of your favorite plants to grow?
Joe: I don’t actively, but when I lived with my parents I would watch my dad garden. Initially I was gonna say I helped him garden but that’s not true. I tried growing carrots once but it went wrong, so I would say carrots, just once I figure out how to grow them.
Rii: While I haven’t had much time for it recently, I used to be super into it. I actually used to help manage the university greenhouse. I like growing all sorts of things, but I think my favorite is probably sundews. They’re super finicky, but they’re like something that would grow on an alien planet. You can feed them fish food!
Rachel: Last question! If you were a sprite, what kind of sprite would you each be? What would be your specialty?
Joe: Maybe some kind of spaghetti squash sprite. I know all the sprites are more flower inspired, but I’m sure there’s some vegetation-based sprites out there too. I would ward off any miscreant birds and rabbits who might try to pilfer the produce. Not in a malicious way though, I’d give them scraps or lead them to some wild berries that they can eat.
Rii: I’d want to be a sprite that gets a comfortable outfit. A lamb’s ear sprite, maybe. Specialty-wise I want to be in charge of the bugs, but mostly I just want to hang out with a dragonfly.
Rachel: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today! Can you tell the people where they can find you online and what you’re working on now?
Rii: My portfolio can be found at riiabrego.com, but I can also be found on twitter as @riibrego. Right now I’m working on “Grace Needs Space!” with Alison Wilgus and Random House, which is a fun middle-grade sci-fi story.
Joe: My portfolio is at jwhittart.wixsite.com/portfolio and in addition to some personal projects I am collaborating with Rii to potentially make something new and exciting!