Mark Crilley on My Last Summer with Cass

Some authors have a natural instinct to write about their own lives, telling stories that are heavily inspired by their personal experiences, if not straight up autobiographical. Not me. Looking back at all the books I’ve written, pretty much every last one of them has been entirely imaginary, and in some cases so fantastical as to take place on distant planets where the alien beings conveniently speak English.


All that has changed with my newest graphic novel, My Last Summer with Cass. The idea for the story comes primarily from a real-life friendship I’ve had since high school, one that has endured to this day. Over the years I noticed that my friend John Walter, who eventually became a film director in New York City, had started moving in much more sophisticated circles than I ever had. He was meeting remarkable people from the worlds of film and art, listening to music far more daring than what my timid ears could handle, and reading books that—I gotta be honest—made my reading habits seem pretty low brow by comparison. I became fascinated by the idea that two friends could have such different creative instincts, and as a result end up living markedly different lives.


Now, a sensible person would just sit down and write a memoir about all this. But why do that when you can make things difficult for yourself? I decided to use my friendship with John as a mere jumping off point, fashioning a story with two imaginary characters—Megan and Cass—that could be more than mere stand-ins for the two of us. This allowed me to have the friendship start in early childhood, which I knew would be fun for readers to see. More importantly, it gave me the freedom to imagine a huge conflict developing between the two friends: something far more dramatic and book-worthy than the smooth sailing relationship between John and me.


My life has more or less revolved around drawing ever since I was a child, but I had never written a story about artists before. With this project, I had the chance to create a tale that really focused on what it feels like to be a young artist: to pull back the curtain of an artist’s brain and show readers the strange brew of desires, frustrations, and insecurities that lurks within.


I began to look at the story as an opportunity to examine two sorts of creative people, artistic “types” that I’m sure exist within all sorts of creative endeavors. Some of us are people pleasers: entertainers, really, who are reluctant to disappoint the audience in the slightest way, let alone offend or anger them. Others are less concerned with what the audience thinks, and may even feel that confounding or upsetting a lot of people is proof that you’re doing something right. In Megan, I had the chance to present a certain distillation of the people-pleasing personality. In Cass, I could examine the more rebellious type of artist: someone not only unafraid to ruffle feathers, but seemingly eager to ruffle them as much as possible.


What really interested me was seeing what would happen when these two types of artists crashed into each other and their divergent instincts really made sparks fly. When you read My Last Summer with Cass, you can almost chart a graph of the various points at which Megan and Cass butt heads. It starts with fairly trivial stumbling blocks—like the scene in which Cass pushes Megan into trying the chicken feet at the dim sum restaurant—and gradually escalates. For me, one of the key scenes is when the two of them debate the value of being completely honest at all times. It leads to a moment when Megan says she likes the art of Norman Rockwell, who Cass clearly regards as a supremely dishonest artist. Depending on where your own sympathies lie, you may take Megan’s side in this argument, or Cass’s. My goal wasn’t to present one or the other as the “winner,” but rather to have readers see just how differently two friends could view the same artist; indeed, how differently they could view the matter of honesty itself.


And so it was that I came to write a story that wasn’t exactly autobiographical, but certainly as close to it as I’ve yet attempted. The truth is I turned Megan and Cass into polar opposites in a way that’s pretty far removed from the reality of my history with John Walter. I made Megan into a naïve child of the suburbs who presumably had never spent time in the big city before. As it happened, John was the one who lived in the suburbs back in high school, while I lived within Detroit city limits. I also diverged sharply from the facts of my own life when it came to presenting Megan’s parents. I made her father quite stern and controlling, due entirely to the requirements of the plot I’d come up with. My parents have always been endlessly supportive of me as an artist, cheering me on ever since I was a toddler.


While the story deals with the concerns of artists, in the end it is perhaps more about friendships, and what we must do when they have gone astray. In the final sequences of the story everything hinges on the connection between Megan and Cass, and whether or not it can survive. All of us know what it’s like to see a good friendship go bad. My goal in My Last Summer with Cass was to show the full sweep of a friendship, from childhood up through the college years, and to chart the path that brought it to the edge of destruction. I hope readers are left with a message about the value of fighting to keep such friendships alive, even after they seem damaged beyond repair.