The Big Idea: Don Handfield and Joshua Malkin
In today’s Big Idea, authors and filmmakers Don Handfield and Joshua Malkin reveal a simple and possibly universal truth: No matter who you are, or what you do, or how you do it, there’s always room in your life for the power of unicorns. And thus, their graphic novel, Unikorn.
DON HANDFIELD and JOSHUA MALKIN:
Needless to say, neither of us necessarily imagined ourselves writing a book about unicorns. In fact, over the two and a half years it took to steadily, lovingly piece the project together, we found ourselves routinely pausing to ask one another: “Have we lost our minds?”
That surprise is to some extent silly. After all, we’re both lifelong fans of fantasy. Deeply entrenched nerds, all of our literary or film collaborations have revolved around magic in one way or another. (An aside, there is a scene in the book in which Maeve, our protagonist, ventures beneath the school bleachers to find the school nerds, who use the hiding spot as a safe haven to play Dungeons & Dragons. The fact that two of those characters are named Don & Josh is no coincidence…)
As fathers of young girls, we’d become steadily aware how few superhero books there are aimed at them. Each year at Comic-Con, we’d patrol the floor for gifts – finding plenty of Deadpool, Wolverine and Batman stuff for our little boys, but not much for little girls. In many ways, our initial goal was to write a book with a hero specifically for our own daughters. Both of them had loved unicorns, briefly, but grew out of the “phase” surprisingly quickly. “Unicorns are for little kids, dad.”
Why? We wondered. How could we resurrect and re-approach the legend and mythology so that it seemed fresh? How could we leap-frog past resistance to embrace the underlying magic? And that’s how we stumbled upon the first of our “Big Ideas”: what if Unicorns are real… but dwindling, and need to be hidden for their safety and protection?
We read stories of conservationists removing elephant tusks and rhino horns to protect the animals from ivory hunters and were immediately inspired. To have a unicorn hide in plain sight would, of course, require removal of its horn. This would make it blend in – but would also diminish its powers, making it more vulnerable. We dubbed these de-horned animals ‘unikorns’ and found the title for our tale.
Every good story needs a powerful antagonist and we found that inside this central idea. Legends of the power of unicorn horns are numerous and ancient. One regards how their blood can make humans younger and miraculously extend their lives. So our antagonist is a man who has been alive since the 1800s tracking and exploiting the creatures for that very selfish purpose. Our hero unravels the truth – that he will kill the animal to prolong his own life – so she tries to find the animals horn and help it escape. This forms the central conflict of the narrative.
In the middle of this creative journey, both of our families lost beloved grandparents and parents. It was in the midst of trying to help our own kids both comprehend and process this grief in a healthy way that our plot found its purpose. Yes, this would be a book about unicorns but it would be more than that too. It would aspire to help kids and parents communicate about loss more effectively and intimately. The challenge was to do so in a way that was entertaining, not heavy handed, and that didn’t wallow in negative emotions.
Ultimately, we believe story can be a panacea for the chaos life throws at us, a way to approach the incomprehensible. We hope we have created a tale appropriate for all genders and all ages; a story not just about magic but also about the unbreakable and healing power of love.
Read an excerpt (click on the “look” button)