YOUTH GROUP creators Jordan Morris & Bowen McCurdy on the ’90s and organized religion


Being a teenager is weird enough without having to contend with supernatural powers or youth group singalongs to Ace of Base songs. In their new graphic novel from First Second, Youth Group, writer Jordan Morris and artist Bowen McCurdy dive back into the ’90s for a story about friendship, faith, and demon-slaying.

Youth Group follows Kay Radford, whose agreement with her mom to attend youth group so she can apply for college in New York City is tested when she discovers just how weird Stone Mission’s youth group actually is. There are temptation charts and religious covers of pop songs and the overall vibe doesn’t match Kay’s at all.

Then she accidentally stumbles upon youth group leaders Meg and Cortland exorcising a demon and joins their top-secret war against truly dangerous beings that are possessing people all over town. Kay also discovers she has a unique superpower that could help turn the tide for this ongoing and escalating war: She’s what’s known as a “Blight,” a human who can’t be possessed. Unfortunately, that makes her a target for more nefarious acts by the demon horde…

Ahead of the book’s publication, Morris and McCurdy sat down with The Beat on Zoom to talk about their creative process, Youth Group character playlists, walking the line between religious commentary and adventure story, and the importance of good editors.

Youth Group cover art
(First Second)

The Beat: How did y’all conceive of the idea for Youth Group and how has the story evolved since?

Jordan Morris: I had always wanted to write about youth groups. I was in one during my teen years and always thought they were just very funny, very weird, very emotionally loaded places. You’re a teen, but you’re learning about religion and you’re having a lot of romantic feelings, and then you’re being made to feel guilty about those romantic feelings. It’s a stew of stuff, but I never saw it portrayed well in media. If you saw a youth group or young religious people, it was always like—a little broad, a little punchliney, and I really like those kinds of jokes and I think those can be really funny, but I never felt like anybody got it.

Then I saw a viral video of some kids doing an exorcism at a Starbucks. I was like, “Oh, I guess people still do exorcisms and they do them on a Starbucks patio, apparently.” That put that idea in my head: “Oh, what if these goofballs I grew up with had to fight demons and do exorcisms in addition to singing parody songs and making temptation charts and stuff like that?”

That was the germ of the idea, and I pitched it to Calista Brill over at First Second, our great editor, who liked the idea and gave us the great suggestion to set it in the ’90s, which was really fun. Then the time came to bring an artist on the project and Calista sent over Bowen’s materials, and I was like, “We don’t need to search anymore. If you can get Bowen McCurdy, please get Bowen McCurdy to do it.” I just loved Bowen’s style so much and felt like it was perfect for the book. Once Bowen came on, I started writing the rest of the script and really wanted to tailor the rest of the story to Bowen’s style and use what I knew of Bowen’s work to kind of inform what else would happen in the story, and then Bowen’s part of it started. 

Beyond nostalgia, what does the ’90s evoke for both of you? I felt it when I read the book, but I couldn’t exactly put my finger on why.

Bowen McCurdy: I’m so glad that you said that because Jordan can tell you we’ve struggled a lot to get the ’90s aspect in there. I was born in 1996, so I don’t have any memories of the ’90s and Jordan was a big guide for me on how this works aesthetically, especially since there’s a renaissance in ’90s fashion and aesthetics right now. Trying to make it look ’90s, but not contemporary was definitely a challenge, but I think we hit it. It was a lot to do with patterns, colors, specific items and trends that were going on during that era.

Morris: Something we did early on—this was Bowen’s idea—they asked for a playlist for every character, which I thought was a really brilliant way to get the creative process started. We have our main character, Kay, who’s a little gothy, a little spooky. I made a playlist with Nine Inch Nails and Tool and that segment of ’90s alt rock. And then there’s Meg, who is a little peppy, a little more of a joiner, probably listened to a lot more pop music. So we did Spice Girls, Hanson, and all that good stuff. And then Cortland, who’s a little bit more of a stoner, a little bit more of a bro—his playlist was like three 311, Sublime…

I forgot about 311.

Morris: It’s easy to forget about 311 but they’re still out there, cranking out those funky jams. But that was really fun. Obviously, [these playlists] were YouTube-based and all those videos have such great, weird, funny fashion in them. There’s aesthetic fun with setting [Youth Group] in the ’90s. There’s also some storytelling stuff that I think is a little easier. There are no cell phones. I think we have two-way pagers in the story. You don’t have to worry about, “Is everyone filming everything all the time? Is everyone posting everything all the time?”

I think Calista sensed that this was a little more than just a funny idea. I was telling a more personal story than I usually tell, and I think that kind of helped me use a lot of very personal details in the story because setting it in the ’90s made it closer to my experience. It is weirdly a pretty personal project for me, relative to other stuff that I’ve done.

Youth Group interior art
(First Second)

Obviously, music is a huge component of youth groups, but also the story itself. What role does music play in your individual lives? Does it inspire your work generally?

McCurdy: For me, for sure. I asked Jordan to do that because I also make playlists for all of my projects. No matter how big or small, I tend to listen to them while I work, if I’m stuck. They are a huge source of inspiration for me. They’re just another form of storytelling and expression, and I feel like it helps me get into the headspace of each character and mood of the stories that I’m telling. So music is definitely well ingrained into my work.

Morris: I don’t listen to a ton of music while I work, but I do love to think about what characters listen to. Thinking back, I’m realizing I do like to put jokes in about what characters are listening to and what they think of each other’s music tastes. If you’re trying to describe someone very quickly, you would probably say what kind of music they listen to. It really does say a lot about a person and maybe suggest what subculture they’re a part of. I really like the stuff it does for characters. When I read back something that I’ve written, I can usually tell what I was listening to at the time. It seeps in, but not in super explicit ways. When Bowen asked for those playlists, that was the first time I had ever thought about doing that for characters. But it was really helpful and a genuinely great idea that other creative people should steal.

Is it something you think you’ll carry into future projects?

Morris: Oh, totally. Absolutely. I think it’s a great way to start that communication between writer and artist, for sure.

Can you describe the character design process and how that translated to page and panel?

McCurdy: Jordan has a lot of celebrity lookalikes that he’ll suggest, not even aesthetically, but [based on] vibes. That helped. Sometimes writers will just throw you into the ring with no guidance and it’s a long process, but having something to start from and jump off from was very helpful for me. I can’t recall who the lookalikes were, but I took those starting points and went with them. I did a bunch of preliminary sketches, like 20 to 30 character heads and sent them off to Jordan, and we narrowed them down until we found our casting call. We figured out what we wanted. And then even from there, each character changed as they would act in the comic.

Oftentimes when you’re drawing something, when you start to have characters say things out loud, you’re like, “Oh, actually, I have to change this because it’s not exactly connecting in the way that I had envisioned before.” So little subtle changes here and there made the characters really come to life to the point where it finally hit when I was done drawing them, basically.

Morris: There are many pleasures to creating comics, but getting those first sketches from an artist is a really, really wonderful moment. Very emotional too—this one, especially, because all these characters are just people I grew up with. Meeting the comics versions as a PDF in your inbox is really striking. It’s a very, very emotional moment to meet them like that. Bowen’s characters are so beautiful. They’re just great, and they’re expressive, and you like them immediately. I don’t think anything Bowen sent was off in any way. It was a matter of, “Which one of these do we like best?”

A fun part of this from my end is the stuff you expected, but also the stuff you didn’t expect. There’s an element from a writer’s perspective of wanting the thing to look like it does in your head, but what’s amazing is the stuff that wasn’t in your head. What did this person bring to it? What did this person see that you didn’t see? When a writer is giving notes, sometimes there’s this instinct to micromanage it to where it’s your brain, but some of the fun stuff—the outfit choices, the expressions—were just all Bowen, and that stuff is really terrific.

Here’s an example: I don’t think I’ve told you about this yet, Bowen, but there’s a moment where two characters are talking to each other at a party, and there’s a little power dynamic going on. IMeg, the main character, is talking to someone she thinks is very cool, and she feels very uncool by comparison. So she’s kind of acting like a nervous wreck. I did not write it with any sexual tension in mind, but how it came out on the page, there’s this flirty energy there and it works beautifully. It’s so much fun. It’s just so great when those little things reveal themselves.

 

Youth Group interior art
(First Second)

What was your goal in exploring different types of youth groups and how they interact?

Morris: From a world-building perspective, we’ve got these evangelical demon fighters. Every church has a young person’s group. Some of them are more involved than others, but I have Jewish friends who did a Jewish version of this. There are Muslim people who have a Muslim version of this. So it would make sense that in this world where the young people do the demon fighting, every group or every church would have young demon fighters. You want to meet these other characters at some point. That seemed like a fun story thread to follow.

Regarding the bigger themes of the book, when I was doing this, something that always bothered me about going to these groups was how judgy and weird they were toward other religions. It always bummed me out. It always was one of the parts of it that I liked the least. Looking at it from the outside, you’re like, “Well, you religious folks all have some stuff in common. There’s a lot that binds these faiths. Why don’t you work together on that stuff instead of fighting each other about this other stuff?” I thought it would be interesting to tell a story about people putting aside those relatively small differences to work together to solve a big supernatural crisis that threatened everyone, regardless of religion or lack thereof.

Did any specific media inspire your approach to the story? Specifically the demons?

McCurdy: Aesthetically, at least, there was a game Jordan clued me into for character design. I forget what it was.

Morris: Along the lines of how I remember what I was listening to when I wrote something, I also remember what video game I was playing. I just sent her a lot of Doom characters. These rebooted Doom games are very fun. I was obviously thinking a lot about Hell beasts and just sent some of my favorites. The [demons in Youth Group] are definitely Bowen’s very cool takes on them. 

Bowen, since you don’t have memories of the ’90s, did you have anchors you could grab onto as you worked on Youth Group?

McCurdy: I could always go back to TV shows that were set in the ’90s. I watched a lot of Friends and Sister, Sister for outfit inspiration, room decoration, et cetera. I did have to go to Jordan a lot for references for specific outfits or things he’d mentioned in the books that I was like, “What the hell is this?” But for the most part, it was like a Google/watch a bunch of TV shows situation, which was not the worst thing in the world. I did struggle because as a ’90s baby, I want to have memories of it, but I was really just remembering the 2000s. Trying to separate those two eras in my mind was a little bit of a struggle. But I think we got there with help from Jordan, of course.

Youth Group interior art
(First Second)

The color story shifts rapidly as Youth Group moves forward, which is a cool way of tracking place and time. Bowen, how do you use color as a storytelling method in your art?

McCurdy: I use color theory a lot in my work. Color is a really important part of my process. I like to use it to differentiate location, like you said, but also tone and mood. The second half of the book becomes a lot more vibrant and clashy because the emotions are at a height, so the saturation goes up along with that, whereas scenes that are calmer where there’s no distress are a lot more muted, and you’ll see more blues. I try to keep color themes related to certain scenes that connect also. It’s something I’ve always done that I think adds another layer of storytelling.

This particular book is outside of my usual palette. I don’t use pinks and purples a lot in my day-to-day work. So it was actually a little bit of a challenge, but I think those two colors fit the story. I had to sort of compromise with myself: “Now this needs pink and purple, so just do it.” I think it worked well, especially since I feel like the ’90s has a lot of pink and purple associated with it. I tried to take colors from that era.

What would you say was your biggest challenge or obstacle to overcome in working on this story?

McCurdy: This is very specific and a little bit of a self-report, but I have a horrible phobia of tentacles.

Morris: I had no idea!

McCurdy: I never said anything! When I first read the script and I got to the point where one of the demons has a bunch of tentacles as his defining characteristic, I was like, “Oh no.” 

Morris: Oh my God, I’m so sorry! If I only would have known.

McCurdy: No, no, no, it’s totally fine. It’s weird because even with this phobia, I feel like I draw a lot of sea-related stuff. Tentacles just sort of crept their way into my work for some reason. It’s certainly not the first time and it won’t be the last, but it just meant that I couldn’t look at any reference photos or anything like that. 

Morris: I wanted the book to be critical of organized religion, but not get so bogged down in that criticism to where it hijacked the story. At times, I wondered if the story’s teeth were sharp enough or if the commentary was sound. I still think a lot about it. I think I landed on a version that felt pretty good with a story that is looking critically at this, but not in a way that makes it feel like a screed or a polemic or something like that. If someone had the criticism that this story needs sharper teeth, I would totally hear that criticism and I think it would probably be a pretty good one.

It’s about these characters. I like these characters and I wanted it to be about them. They’re imperfect and they’re flawed and I personally probably disagree with them in some ways, but I wanted it to be about them and their relationship. I love them. I think they’re great. I didn’t want to take the focus off them and the adventure they were having, but I do realize that if you’re doing a story about organized religion, you should probably throw some commentary in there as well. I think we tried to walk that line, and I like the version we landed on a lot.

Youth Group interior art
(First Second)

Youth Group definitely veers into the horror genre, which is great. What kinds of horror do y’all like?

McCurdy: I’m a huge horror fan. I pretty much like all kinds of horror. I tend to horror that pushes its characters to confront personal shit they have to work through. I’m definitely not a gore or gore-porn kind of person, but I also love horror that explores space and location where the location is almost a character itself, which I feel like goes hand-in-hand with churches and places of religion. I watch horror movies every week. It’s a big part of my life.

Morris: I think I also love horror. I was kind of a baby in my younger years and came to horror late, but once I got the ability to sit through it without covering my eyes, I really started to love it. The stuff I love that I was kind of trying to put in [Youth Group] was horror comedy, where the comedy is character-based. I like Scary Movie, which is funny, but it’s about spoofing tropes. The stuff that I really like has characters who are funny in a genuinely horrific horror situation. Shaun of the Dead is one of the greatest movies. The zombie stuff in that is real and it’s really scary, but it’s those relationships you love and that are giving you the laughs. I guess you do get some kind of zombie-spoofed stuff in that, but the stuff you remember is Simon Peg and Nick Frost. I like anything where horror and comedy party, but the horror stuff is taken really seriously.

What do you hope readers take away from Youth Group?

Morris: I am talking about this as a personal story with commentary. I think it’s a funny book and I think it’s a great adventure. And God, the art’s gorgeous. The art is just so gorgeous. I hope it’s a fun bit of comic booking for people that is funny and spooky and you meet some characters you like. I hope that if you do have feelings about organized religion, it can help you think through them in a way.

This is a YA book and I do hope that actual teenagers get their hands on it because I was a teenager who was at a youth group, but felt weird about it. If you’re a teenager, you’re figuring stuff out and you’re figuring yourself out, and you might be doing stuff your parents want that you don’t necessarily want, or you might be doing stuff because it’s socially expected, but you don’t really feel good about it. I think I would’ve liked something like this as a kid who felt a little weird about feeling weird.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

McCurdy: Jordan is such a great writer and I’m very excited for people to be able to meet these characters and get to love them as I did.

Morris: We’ve talked about the team, Bowen and Calista and I, but our day-to-day editor was a great comics writer named Benjamin A. Wilgus. Check out Ben’s stuff. Ben was just such a great part of the team and had so many awesome suggestions and was so helpful with shaping the story. I think that it got to a point where I had a lot of the story worked out, but after that point I didn’t have shit. I had nothing. Ben really helped me get over the finish line with writing. The funniest scene in the book, where a character gets possessed and you see what’s going on in his head while he’s possessed, is totally Ben’s suggestion. Bowen drew it in a really hilarious way. It’s got tentacles in it! But those editors are such an important part of this and they help so much and Ben’s a particularly awesome one, so I wanted to shout him out.


Youth Group will be available everywhere books are sold on Tuesday, July 16. Pre-orders are available now. For more from Jordan Morris, visit his website. For more from Bowen McCurdy, visit her portfolio.

This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and length.

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