Rosemary Valero-O’Connell is everything I thought she’d be the moment I ran up to the 01: First Second booth. I was ten minutes late, sweating and anxious from navigating the crowded maze-like aisles of the San Diego Comic-Con Exhibitor Hall. In contrast, Valero-O’Connell embodied the effortlessly stylish vibes of the book she so lovingly illustrates. All smiles, Valero-O’Connell was clad in the signature Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me light dusty pink with funky lucite confetti earrings.
After making each other’s acquaintances, we set off on a micro-adventure to find a quiet place for me to interview her. The best way, I found out, to break the ice in an interview situation is to duck through copious bodies in a crowd looking for the best corner in a big convention center to sit and talk. After being told no and turned away at our first location, we climbed some stairs and found a private hallway (you needed a special pass to enter) that was the perfect place to sit down and chat.
I immediately dove in and asked Valero-O’Connell how her San Diego Comic-Con was going. Her infectious, excited energy shown through as she talked about how surreal her experience has been since the release of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me. “Oh my God, it has been a little unreal. I don’t know. So much of the experience of this book being out where I’ve had to kind of pinch myself. Like I’m absolutely waiting for like the bucket of pig’s blood, and for someone to like jump out the bushes and be like, just kidding dummy. You don’t get to do this now. I mean it’s been surreal.”
If you have flipped through or even glanced at Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s new book, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me with celebrated writer Mariko Tamaki (Skim, This One Summer), you know that the river of praise for Valero-O’Connell’s art is well deserved. A graduate from Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Valero-O’Connell’s art has been featured in MONDO, and her Short Box comic What is Left was nominated for two Eisner Awards. Her artwork flows from panel to panel, creating a dazzling spectacle of linework that basks in its pink Pantone color palette and marries perfectly with Tamaki’s beautiful story.
“Mariko Tamaki is a dream collaborator,” Rosemary said dreamily. “She actually, at the offset was like, hey, here’s some visual references for how I am picturing Doodle, how I’m picturing Vi, but it’s, it was very like the character designs, the set—just all this stuff morphed a lot. The book was like a living thing until it was printed basically […] It felt really important to really have this book have a grounded sense of place. They’re going to tell you who they are, and you’re going to learn who they are through their actions. But like, you know, the way they dress, the worlds they live in, we’re going to give you sort of these little like bits and pieces of what’s important to them. We wanted this to just feel like you are getting submerged into the world that these people occupy.”
Even back in her high school days, Valero-O’Connell has long been a fan of Tamaki’s work. She remembers fondly having her world rocked when she discovered Skim. “[Skim] flipped that switch in my brain from like, I really like this. To like oh, there is nothing else I would rather do than try to make something that will affect another person the way this thing has affected me, you know?”
Coming off of a recent tour for the graphic novel, Valero-O’Connell reflected on how Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me has affected its readers much like Tamaki’s Skim affected her. “It’s a really personal story, so people’s reactions are really personal […] both me and Mariko, like when they approach us to talk about the book, they get sort of vulnerable, and very in a way that I feel very like grateful that people feel comfortable approaching us with that level of comfort.”
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is a story about Freddy. A girl who is working her way through the throws of first love, but her one major problem is that her girlfriend, Laura Dean, continually breaks up with her. We go with Freddy on this journey of self-discovery, friendship, love, loss, and all the emotions in-between.
Laura Dean is a book focused on a queer romance; Tamaki and Valero-O’Connell are often approached by many people expressing their gratitude of being able to recognize themselves within their comic. “Today, I had someone, This sweet, sweet person came up to me, and they were like, ‘I didn’t realize I was queer until I read this book and now, like, I’m out to myself, and I’m coming to terms with this.’ That’s nuts!”
“There’s compassion and empathy for these young girls that I had seen so infrequently in the other media that I was reading about young girls.”
Young women are at the center of Laura Dean, their friendships, relationships, and lives put on display. Often, when we see, young women/girls depicted in media, it’s usually the trope of good versus bad girl, but Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me does away with that notion altogether. Valero-O’Connell points out how Tamaki’s writing often has compassion towards young women. “One of the things that I loved so much about [Skim] that I feel she does just as eloquently in Laura Dean. There’s compassion and empathy for these young girls that I had seen so infrequently in the other media that I was reading about young girls. I think back to so much of this stuff that I was reading, and it felt very hard to find, a coming of age story about a teenage girl, let alone a queer one, that felt like it wasn’t leering or condescending or like it was coming from the perspective of someone that hadn’t been there.”
One of my favorite things about Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is how queerness and queer relationships are represented. Being gay isn’t sensationalized, and there isn’t some earth-shattering coming out moment that defines the characters and their relationships. It’s all matter-of-fact, and I find that so refreshing to see in media. I asked Rosemary if that particular aspect of the story helped draw (pun intended) her into working on this book.
“Absolutely. 100%. I mean, I would’ve dropped everything to work on any story Mariko wrote. But when I read through the script for this the first time, I was also really floored by how ubiquitous queerness was, not in like a way that felt like it was reductive […] there is no, absolutely one universal experience of being queer like by any means, and for most of the people in the book, it’s a facet of your identity, it’s present. It’s not necessarily something that you’re grappling with, but we do sort of get to peek at different facets.”
But what drew Valero-O’Connell to this aspect of the story was how it reflected her own life’s landscape. “I mean, I’m queer, but I had the privilege of growing up in a sort of, what was at the time a nontraditional family with my mom and two dads, my dad and his husband. So like a lot of the family friends we had were LGBTQ people. A lot of the friends I made in middle school and high school. So like the world for me has always been overwhelmingly queer[..] but for me, reading this script where it was like yeah, no, it’s everybody.”
“Well, I mean, I think comics time is a really malleable thing, which I think is one of the things that makes it such a cool, I dunno, such a rich sort of soil to ding in.”
Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s art has a fluidity to it, that helps move the eye from panel to panel. There are several moments in Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me where she plays with the traditional panel form and creates something exciting to the eye. For example, when Freddy’s friend Doodle takes her to see The Seeker, a fortune-teller who Doodle believes can help her with her Laura problems. Freddy enters The Seeker’s room, and the doorway is shrouded in fabrics. Here Rosemary frames the panel in a way that looks like we are peeking through the tapestries at this mysterious woman in her chair. This small design choice adds mystery, flare, and excitement to the scene, and creates movement and depth on the page. I asked Valero-O’Connell about her approach to paneling and design.
“Well, I mean, I think comics time is a really malleable thing, which I think is one of the things that makes it such a cool, I dunno, such a rich sort of soil to dig in when you’re trying to tell a story. Because you have this amount of control over the way moments happen. […] I like to be as intentional as I possibly can about what are my paneling choices adding or detracting from the reading experience. Like how am I guiding someone to the thing that I am trying to get them to.”
Manga is a significant influence in Valero-O’Connell’s work; you can see it in her use of space. “I grew up reading manga, and I really learned how to speak this language basically through shoujo manga and stuff like that. [Shoujo] is known for having such creative and also functional [panels], like the form and the function are inherently tied.” We fangirled a bit over the shuojo manga NANA, and then I asked her what shoujo title’s informed her art style. “So I actually, I had a moment yesterday, we’re at SDCC, there are art books everywhere, and I am clawing through this thing, and I see this artbook for Please Save My Earth, which is this shoujo series that’s not super well known, but it was like they had every volume at my local library, like every single one. So I gobbled it up like a little pig. I loved it so much. Because before that I was reading Calvin and Hobbs and I’m reading all this other stuff, which I don’t think the influences are as visible in my work (laughs). I responded to the quietness [of Shoujo] that I felt like in Please Save My Earth.”
Shoujo manga’s influence is in full tilt with Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, especially when emotions are high within the story. Instead of filling the page with frantic energy, Rosemary lets Mariko Tamaki’s words carry the feeling and gives the page room to breathe. The visual language takes over, and the reader fills all that space themselves with the weight of the moment.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is not only a coming of age love story but a love letter to Northern California, a place that Tamaki lives and where Valero-O’Connell’s family is from; you can see the love in each setting from Berkeley High School, to the Bowling Alley, and even Freddy’s home. The love and care put into the backgrounds and locations are apparent on every page. Valero-O’Connell’s art helps bring forth the honesty of these character’s lives and the world of being young and in love that Tamaki crafted. “Mariko’s work wasn’t patronizing, and it was incredibly honest about how messy and unpleasant teenagers can be, but it didn’t condemn them for that. […] It’s just like, this is how relationships happen. Sometimes it gets messy. […] These are people that are behaving badly the way people behave badly, and then these are people that are caring for each other, the way people care for each other, and they will always be doing both.”
In the end, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is a story submerged in the realities of being human. With Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s heart-breakingly gorgeous art shepherding the reader through this wonderfully well-crafted journey. If you haven’t picked up Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, get to your nearest local comic shop and buy a copy.