Geeks Out Q&A with Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg of The PLAIN Janes

With a new edition of The PLAIN Janes available now, Geeks OUT’s Michele Kirichanskaya had the opportunity to interview the creative team of Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg about the original release, what makes this new expanded hardcover edition so special, and more!

It’s been over two decades since the original PLAIN Janes graphic novel debuted. What was the impetus for bringing it back in a new hardcover edition, along with the triquel, Janes Attack Back?

Rugg: The original PLAIN Janes books were planned as a larger story. The PLAIN Janes was published by DC Comics as part of their young adult imprint, Minx. But Minx was cancelled after two years, before Cecil and I had a chance to tell the whole PLAIN Janes story. Eventually, the rights to The PLAIN Janes reverted to us. When this happened, we realized we had a chance to finally finish the story that we started with The PLAIN Janes! Little, Brown liked The PLAIN Janes and our idea to finish the story so we all decided to do it in one epic hardcover!  

Cecil Castellucci

Castellucci: Echoing exactly what Jim says. Also, it felt like when The PLAIN Janes came out, the infrastructure for kids comics wasn’t really there. We were really eager to have it come out when it could actually be supported by bookstores and libraries who now have such great curated sections. It was hard to be a little bit ahead of the curve with the book. 

Throughout the books, art fulfills a number of roles in the stories of the Janes, acting as a source of healing recreation for the Janes and as rebellious protest against homogenization and terror, carried itself through the vehicle of comics. What is the importance of art to you? 

Rugg: Art has always been a source of escape, joy, expression, and hope for me. It’s a way to connect with others–something I really enjoyed bonding over with Cecil. Cecil exposed me to a lot of public art, concept art, and other art that informed The PLAIN Janes

For me, art is a way to see and better understand the world through other people’s experience and expression. It was my dream for a better life when I was growing up in a small town and felt alone, like I didn’t belong. And it’s become my livelihood as an adult. Art has given me so much and I hope my art pays that forward with others. And by art, I do mean comics!    

Castellucci: To me art saves, as I write in the book. I think it is what helps us to make sense of our world and what it means to be human. It can soothe, it can inspire, it can incite, it can heal, it can connect. For me, art is everything. And I mean all types of art. I feel so incredibly lucky to be able to tell stories and make art as a profession. 

I think it would be safe to say that the original books touched upon very hard truths, drawing parallels between the attacks on Metro City and events following 9/11. Nearly two decades later, our generation is still navigating a terror-world, touched by gun violence and attacks on human rights around the world. In what ways has the audience changed since the original debut versus today? How do you feel you yourselves have personally changed?

Jim Rugg

Rugg: The relevance of The PLAIN Janes is good and bad. Obviously, you want to tell stories that feel relevant. But in this case, it’s sad because of the parallels that you mention. One of my favorite parts of the Janes is how Cecil was able to show the Janes’ art in so many ways–first as underground fun (almost like punk rock), then community-based and public, and finally as activism. I think that reflects how the audience has changed. People are so active and engaged today. Personally, I think I’m more aware of the challenges that we face today and the role that art and stories can play in this ongoing conversation.  

Castellucci: I agree with Jim. I wanted to tell a story about how art saves us in times of trauma.  How it can make sense of a world gone mad. I strongly believe that it does that. It actually pains me that the book is still relevant, if not more so. But I also hope that it helps people of all ages to remember that even when it feels like nothing can be done, something can be made. And that art helps us to navigate big complex feelings and helps us to have a common language with which to be able to affect change for good. 

Which of the Janes is most modeled after yourself? If you could create a fifth Jane what would she/he/they be like?

Rugg: Probably Jane Beckles since she’s into art. If I could create a fifth Jane, she would be a skateboarder!  

Castellucci: I think they are all different facets of me! But I think probably Main Jane as well because she’s the instigator, and as a writer I instigate. A fifth Jane, huh, I actually think of Payne who arrives in book three to be that fifth Jane!  But a sixth Jane would be Jane that had wanderlust. A world traveler Jane. 

Where do you see the Janes in the future? What would they be doing?

Rugg: Main Jane is an international artist, documentary filmmaker, and works with people to make art (young and old). Brain Jane is a physicist and robotics engineer. Theater Jane is a writer and director (stage and video). Polly Jane is a coach, teacher, and ultra-runner. 

Castellucci: Ha ha. I think Main Jane is a fabulous contemporary artist. Brain Jane works for NASA and builds rovers that explore other worlds. Theater Jane is a director. Polly Jane is a dancer!  

If the characters of your books could interact with other characters from any fictional universe, which one and who would they be?

Rugg: They would interact with Jason from Friday the 13th and they would figure out a way to defeat him and save Camp Crystal Lake.

Castellucci: They would be in the Magicians and be the magicians who have art magic.   

 The discussion of mental health plays a major part in the book, from Jane’s and Jane’s mother’s experiences with PTSD and anxiety. In what ways do you think art can help with mental health, or just coping as Theater Jane would say the “crudeness of reality”? (Paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”)

Rugg: Art can help mental health in a lot of ways, and art therapy has been used with people suffering from PTSD. Some art making is very meditative which can be a good thing for anxiety and the “crudeness of reality.” Art is a way to connect with others which can be a very healthy thing–interacting, connecting, sharing.  

Castellucci: I think it goes back to being able to express things when you lose the ability to articulate that fear or dread or anxiety. Sometimes making art leads you to the next step of being able to cope. 

Who are some of your personal artistic and literary influences? Did any directly inspire or influence The PLAIN Janes?

Rugg: A lot of my influences come from comics. Dan Clowes’ Ghost World is a big influence and it featured two high school girls as protagonists. Love and Rockets, specifically Jaime Hernandez’s Hoppers’ characters from the early days, when they were young punks.  

Castellucci: Yeah, for the Janes, I’d say exactly the same as Jim. Ghost World and Love and Rockets.  

Any future plans for The PLAIN Janes or other independent projects?

Castellucci: Well I always hope that someone will make The PLAIN Janes into a tv show or a film.  Right now I’m working on Batgirl over at DC. 

Finally, since this is an LGBTQ+ website, are there any LGBTQ+ authors and/or books that have inspired you and your own work? Can you recommend any titles or authors for other readers?

Castellucci: Sure! Tons! I’m a big fan of David Levithan’s books; Two Boys Kissing was a favorite. I loved Malinda Lo’s Cinderella retelling Ash. Mariko Tamaki is always great; I love This One Summer


Bios:

Cecil Castellucci is the author of books and graphic novels for young adults including Boy Proof, The Plain Janes, Soupy Leaves Home, The Year of the Beasts, Tin Star, Don’t Cosplay With My Heart, and the Eisner nominated Odd Duck. In 2015 she co-authored Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure.  She is currently writing Shade, The Changing Girl, an ongoing comic on Gerard Way’s Young Animal imprint at DC Comics. Her short stories and short comics have been published in Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Womanthology, Star Trek: Waypoint and Vertigo SFX: Slam! She is the Children’s Correspondence Coordinator for The Rumpus, a two-time Macdowell Fellow, and the founding YA Editor at the LA Review of Books. She lives in Los Angeles.

Jim Rugg is a comic book artist, bookmaker, illustrator, and designer. His books include Street Angel, The Plain Janes, Afrodisiac, Notebook Drawings, Rambo 3.5, and Supermag. He is a recipient of both the Eisner and Ignatz Awards and he teaches visual storytelling at the School of Visual Arts and the Animation Workshop in Denmark. He lives and draws in Pittsburgh.

Interview: Mason Deaver

A non-binary author with a love for baking and gardening, Mason Deaver (They/Them) is the best-selling author of their debut book, I Wish You All the Best. One of the first YA books featuring a non-binary protagonist written by a non-binary author, I Wish You All the Best tells the story of Ben De Backer who comes out their parents, and deals with the consequences of that decision, as well as falling in love for the first time. Geeks OUT recently had the pleasure of siting down with Mason Deaver to talk about their new book as well as their writing process.

How and when did you come to realize that you wanted to be a writer?

It’s a story that I think a lot of authors have. You know whenever you’re younger, you write a lot of books. You take drawings and stories that you type up and you staple them, and like that’s your book. But I really got serious about it after I read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. That was a book that sort of I guess kicked me into high gear about wanting to tell my own story and have something similar to that, that people could react to in the same way I reacted to Simon Vs. and Becky’s other books and other queer books that were out there.

How did I Wish You All the Best first come to conception? What were some of the original sparks?

Well, I guess you already answered that.

(Chuckles.) Well, there’s a few more things. Obviously Simon Vs., but then just wanting there to be more out there for trans teenagers. Like there was… I wouldn’t even say shortage, there were just no trans or non-binary books out there. The only one I would say I would even read at that time was If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. So I saw this sort-of gap and I wanted to fill it because, you know, I can’t imagine what a book like this would have done for me when I was a teenager and confused. And so, there’s no way for me to go back in time and hand a book to myself, but if I can do that for someone who was like me, someone who struggling with things and trying to figure things out, then that is like what I wanted to do.

How would you describe your writing process?

For I Wish You All the Best, very chaotic, because I did not plan anything out. That first draft was a 120,000 words of just a hot mess I never want to see again. Thankfully I had people who helped me along the way. Friends, critique partners, and eventually my agent and editors who helped me trim it down and clean it up. And it’s very much different from the things that I had to write after. A lot of the time a book two is a contract obligation, so you have to plan things out so that you can actually sell it. And so book two, I had to plot from beginning to end, and it’s changed a lot, but the basics are still there. And then you know, I’ve had other ideas where I just want to see what happens, just plan this out. And of course I’m writing something else now, but it’s just out there in the wind and I don’t know what I’m doing, and it’s working for now. That might change. (Laughs.)

What has the journey been like since your debut as a YA author?

Oh, it’s been very interesting. A lot of things have changed. I’ve talked with friends who are in similar situations. You know, whenever you debut it’s almost like a wall has to go up, sort of in a way to protect yourself. There are mean people out there on the interest who want to send you random emails talking about how they want to kill you, and it’s not fun.

Oh my goodness (Laughs nervously.)

Yeah, that was a weird morning. But there’s a lot of good things too. Like it’s definitely not been a negative process, and I don’t want to make it seem that way. It’s seeing people online and on Instagram, posting pictures of my book, and reviews talking about how even if they are a cis person how much they still enjoyed it, and if they are trans or non-binary, like how much they saw themselves in the book, and that’s just been, I can’t describe it in any other way but magical. It’s very heartwarming and it makes me feel very good about like what I’ve been able to be

Yeah, you’re actually making a difference with your words.

Yeah, and that’s like what I wanted to do, and I feel accomplished in that now and it makes me feel very proud.

So what are some of the queer YA titles or some of the authors who inspired you?

So Becky Albertallli, who I already talked about her. Definitely Meredith Russo with her books, especially If I Was Your Girl. It was the first time that I saw a trans main character actually get her happy ending and what I felt that she deserved, and the book discussed and talked about her book, but it was never in a way that felt like it was…

Sensationalized. 

Yeah, exactly. It felt like it was coming from a real place, a real author who has gone through these things. And then of course, you have authors like Adam Silvera, who discusses such heavy topics but in such a neat and concise and sometimes messy way that I just adore. If I had to pick three it’s definitely like Becky, Meredith, and Adam.

In the scope of LGBTQ+ literature, how do you think queer YA differentiates itself or distincts itself from other fiction?

I think that, and this is a question that I get a lot and I’m glad that I’m asked it because I’m always feel like we are at the height when it comes to queer YA. You know there’s still a lot of work to do. Queer authors of color and queer disabled authors still don’t seem to have a space and it completely sucks and we still need to fix that, but I also feel like we’ve made a lot of strides in including a lot of people, specially in queer YA. And so, you know, I think what really sets it apart is whenever you look at, say Adult fiction that’s queer, a lot of that has been on tragedy, and it does not end well. But I think in queer YA we’re finally at a place where, you know… of course a queer author deserves to tell a tragic quote, unquote tragic story.

Yeah, like Adam Silvera.

Yeah, like Adam has every right to do that because that is his life and he has lived it, and he has the space to do that. But then on the other side you have people who are telling happier stories, like Becky Albertalli, or I would even say Shaun David Hutchinson. You know, his books are not tragedies, they end happy.

They’re hopeful.

Yeah, that’s exactly it. That’s exactly the world.

They’re realistic, but hopeful.

Realistic, but hopeful, and I think there’s really never been a better time for that.

Yeah, I also say that with new shows like Queer Eye, exposing that queer joy is a revolution in itself. 

Yeah.

Like people need to see that in order to let them know they can survive and thrive in our society.

Yeah, and it’s, you know, so much of, if you go back, older again quote, unquote queer YA which wasn’t really queer, is a lot of it based on tragedy.

Like Annie on My Mind was one of the first joyful ones, actually.

Yeah, and you have books that did have trans characters, but like they died. They were killed off, they were murdered, they died of something.

Luna by Julie Anne Peters was one of the exceptions.

Yup, and it’s just very refreshing that I feel like if you are a queer teenager there’s a lot to choose from nowadays.

There’s more variety.

Yeah. There’s definitely a lot of spaces that we need improvement, and, you know, keep striving for that improvement, but I don’t think we’ve ever been better.

Hypothetically, if any of the characters from I Wish You All the Best were to interact with characters from any other established fictional universe, what characters from which fiction universe would they be?

So this is another fun question that I don’t get very often, so I’m glad you actually asked it. But the popular thing, and I do not know exactly why, I have a hint of why, but not a hundred percent, but people seem to love the idea of Ben and Nathan being with Alex and Henry from Red, White, and Royal Blue. Which I, unfortunately, I do not think is plausible because one side of that is the Prince of England and the First Son of the United States, and my characters are just two teenagers in North Carolina. 

Who knows, they might do a political campaign. 

Yeah (laughs.) Nathan would work on the next one. I do, I am a firm believer that Nathan wakes Ben up at three O’clock in the morning, and while Ben is not happy about being up that early in the morning, they will sit there and they will support Nathan with the t-shirts and the snacks and the custom flags and everything.

Ok, last question. As a debut author what advice would you give to other writers who wish to write themselves?

That it’s going to be hard, and you are definitely going to have to reach into places that may not be comfortable. That you may not feel entirely ok with showing, and that’s ok. There are pieces of the book that I wrote that maybe going back I would not include, but I’m glad that I did, because the book is very honest and I think that that is the most important thing you can be whenever you’re writing a part of yourself into a novel is that you’re honest about the things that you’ve been through, the things that you experienced, the things that you thought, and the things that you know. I really think that honestly is the key. And again, it can be so difficult to be that vulnerable and present yourself in such a way, but in the end it’s worth it because the people you are trying to help that’s what they’re going to appreciate that most.

Interview: Nikki Smith

Niki Smith is the writer and illustrator of the fantasy graphic novel, The Deep & Dark Blue, her debut Middle-grade read. Known for her gorgeous illustrations and queer and diverse storytelling, Smith is also the Lambda Literary nominated author of Crossplay, a queer erotic graphic novel. Self-described “Artist, writer, lover of fine comics (and some pretty trashy ones too),” Niki Smith currently resides in Germany with her wife, Kiri.

Where did the inspiration for The Deep & Dark Blue come from? What were some of the some of its artistic influences? (Was Avatar the Last Airbender one of them?)

I’m sure it was! I loved both Avatar: TLA and The Legend of Korra (and though we didn’t get to see Korra and Asami’s relationship play out in the show, the subsequent graphic novels have allowed the world and characters to be so much more openly queer and I couldn’t be happier.) More than a direct influence, though, I think it’s a matter of shared influences– the styles and pacing of Avatar and The Deep & Dark Blue are both inspired by manga and anime, stories about kids and teens saving the day while still dealing with the day to day struggles of being a kid. There’s something about that mix of adventure, sincere friendship and inventive magic that will always appeal to me. Story-wise, The Deep & Dark Blue was inspired by characters like Mulan or Alanna– girls who took new names and disguised themselves as boys to have adventures, to learn to fight and save the day. But in all of those stories, the main character went back to a happily cis, straight life– I wanted more, and I know I wasn’t the only queer kid out there who wanted the same.

The Deep & Dark Blue features one of the first cannon trans protagonists in a book geared towards younger audiences? How do you feel the landscape of kids/ young adult comics is changing in regards to queer representation?

Things have come so far since I was a kid, and it’s wonderful to see. Growing up, it was rare to see an LGBT character that wasn’t a two-dimensional stereotype, and even more rare to have that identity go beyond subtext. We still have a long way to go in many regards– particularly when it comes to diversity– but the graphic novels I’ve seen come out over the last few years give me so much hope. Young adult books like The Prince and the Dressmaker and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me are winning awards and helping pave the way for the next generation of artists. The incredible reception that Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy received was part of what gave me the courage to finally pitch The Deep & Dark Blue— it looked like the world of publishing was ready, and I’m so happy I was right. We’re slowly moving beyond “coming out” stories. Authors like Sarah Searle, Melanie Gillman and Katie O’Neill are all creating wonderful queer graphic novels for kids and teens, where a character’s journey with gender or sexuality is an undeniable aspect, but it’s only one of part of a much richer and more complex story.  

The comic also features one of the first nuanced non-stereotypical depictions of twins I’ve personally seen in general media? Did you take into account the fictional obsession about twins to counteract the stereotypes? How did you develop the twin siblings’ personalities?

I decided early on to make my main characters twins. The two find themselves in a situation they never expected, forced into hiding, living as girls to disguise their identities. Being side by side lets the reader see just how stark a contrast there is between their reactions– Hawke resents having to live in disguise, yearning for revenge, while Grayce blossoms. It’s the first time in her life that she’s been able to live as herself and she doesn’t want to lose it.

Since The Deep & Dark Blue is a graphic novel, the most important thing to me was that readers could tell the twins apart even if they were wearing the same uniform. There are no Parent Trap hijinks or speaking in unison, just two kids who happen to be identical. The two have wildly different personalities, and I wanted their body language to reflect that. Hawke is bold and hot-headed, while his sister Grayce is reserved; she has a lot on her mind and always thinks things through. Body language says so much about a person– a head lifted high in confidence, compared to someone who shyly averts their eyes– and I love drawing that difference. 

As an LGBTQ+ artist and creator, how did you incorporate elements of your own identity or experiences into your comics? 

I think most LGBTQ+ kids can relate to Grayce’s story in some way– a secret you’re not sure you can voice, that fear of feeling like you’re letting someone down, family who have expectations of you that you know you can never fulfill. I wanted to write about the strength it takes to come out, even when your hands are shaking. And I knew I wanted to write about found family, about surrounding yourself with people who love and support you unconditionally. 

Do you have any projects you are working on right now and are at liberty to discuss?

I’m working on a new graphic novel for kids/teens, though this one will be a contemporary story, not fantasy. But still just as queer!

Finally, are there any LGBTQ+ authors and/or books that have inspired you and your own work? Can you recommend any titles or authors for other readers?

I listed some above, but there are so many! For graphic novels, Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son, Yuhki Kamatani’s Our Dreams at Dusk, Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam, Blue Delliquanti’s O Human Star, and Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer. Ashley Herring Blake’s middle grade novels are some of my favorites from the last few years. 

Interview with author L.C. Rosen

A writer for all ages, L.C. Rosen (otherwise known as Lev Rosen) is the author of Young-Adult books Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) as well as the upcoming novel Camp coming out on May 26th that you can pre-order here. Known for their sex positively and deconstruction of toxic masculinity, Rosen’s books are unapologetically queer, as quoted to give “queer kids own voices queer writing. So they can see THEMSELVES, and not their reflection in straight culture’s eyes. Let queer kids see themselves as messy, and making mistakes and HUMAN.” L.C. Rosen lives in New York with his husband and cat.

Geeks OUT’s own Michele Kirichanskaya had the privilege to ask Rosen some questions about their previous and upcoming work.

When and how did you first realize you wanted to become an author?

I’ve been writing my entire life.  At my 8th grade “graduation” the teachers gave me a little wizard figure and told me I was a “wizard with words” and was sure to be a writer.  I still have it!  I’ve just always loved stories and making up stories.  I honestly feel like I never had a choice in the matter.  Oh, except lawyer.  Dad really wanted me to be a lawyer (like him).  I think I made the right decision.  

What was the inspiration for Camp?

The real starting inspiration was this desire to do a contemporary queer YA version of a 1960s Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex comedy.  I have no idea where that desire came from (probably watching Down With Love over and over), but once it was in my brain, I fussed around with it until I realized that instead of a battle of the sexes, it could be a battle of the masc/femme.  And these movies always have a playboy pretending to be a romantic to woo a romantic woman, but then they actually become a romantic!  But that alone felt like an unpleasant motivation.  So I mixed up the elements a bit – a romantic pretending to be a butch to win the supposed love of his life felt like a modern queer interpretation of those elements.  But once I started writing it, I realized I needed to sort of get to the heart of Hudson’s masc4masc mentality and if Randy really feels like it’s love if he’s pretending to be different, and it opened itself up to more complexity.  

In 2019, the Met held an exhibition called Camp: Notes on Fashion, inviting a variety of artists and performers to provide their own interpretation on the word. In your book we see multiple meanings of the word. What’s your take on Camp?

Oh man, how much time you got?  First, I think telling people to dress camp is an act of pure sadism.  Being told to do camp means you can’t really do camp, because camp is about expectations and playing with them, so it’s defined by context.  Doing drag on a camp runway isn’t camp.  Doing drag at your grandmother’s funeral is.  So because of the expectations of camp, these poor guests were being told to do a camp version of camp, which involves playing with the idea of camp itself.  I thought Lady Gaga did an ok job of it, but she did that by making it about her performance: the changing of outfits, the parading in front of the cameras.  Celine Dion did it by becoming a camp version of Celine Dion.  She was making fun of her own image, toying with it.  But for the most part, I thought the outfits didn’t suit the nearly-impossible challenge. 

As for the exhibit itself, I wished they’d provided more context.  It felt like they were saying “look, this outfit has a big collar – that’s camp, right?”  But again, it’s about context – show us what this outfit was playing with in the context of when it was created.  As for why it’s the title of my book – it wasn’t originally.  This was a title by committee situation, as often happens with books.  But I like it because it has a lot of meaning – not just the summer camp location – but the idea of the performance of gender.  That butching it up is just as camp as a drag look.  At one point in the book, Randy even puts on a “masc fashion show” for his bunkmates, mixing up his outfits to look butcher as they shout stuff like “she almost passes” and “Ooooh, honey, butch!” – it’s masculinity as a drag show.  That’s why the title works for me.  Everyone is camping up their identity – even if it’s a false one.  

If the characters of your books could interact with any other fictional universe, which universe would it be? Which characters from that universe would you be most interested in seeing your characters interact with?

I’m going back to my inspiration here, and saying Down With Love.  Randy, George and maybe Ashleigh would worship the way Barbara and Vikki dress, enter a room, walk, talk.  It would be hilarious.  I’d love to see that crossover.  

In a previous interview with i-D, you talked a little about the disparity between Own Voices m/m fiction and that which is written by female (often cis-het) authors? Can you expand on this?

I think that own voices m/m work in YA is something that often gets overlooked and is actually really important and vital.  The way I look at it, an author’s first audience is almost always themselves.  When you write about someone who isn’t like you (as a main character), you have to ask yourself why you want to write about them.  And I think when people who aren’t queer write queer men, the answer is often fetishizing or exploitative.  Plenty of m/m writers who aren’t queer men talk openly about how m/m makes more money, so they focus their attention there.  Or how they think m/m romance is hot (the same way straight men would say lesbian porn is hot).  When you’re writing for adults, that doesn’t matter much, because adults usually have a sense of their own sexuality in relation to the outside world, have a sense of their own identity.  But when you’re talking about teenagers, who are still figuring out how the world sees them, if they look for that in a book that was written by someone who wrote about people like the teenager just because it turns them on, or because it makes them money, then that view is going to be in the writing, and it’s how the teenager is going to end up seeing themself.  They’re going to fetishize themselves, or see themselves as an object for straight people to tell stories about, as opposed to someone with their own stories to tell.  Authenticity is important because it tells queer teens about what being queer is really like.  And that’s not to say non-gay men shouldn’t write stories about gay men, but I think it requires a real examination of their motives and a willingness to make someone else the first audience and put their own viewpoints as secondary, which is difficult.  It means doing the work, and talking to queer men about their experiences, and how they see themselves and how the world sees them.  And it means not just writing about gay men because you think it’s fun or hot or whatever.  If you want to do that and keep it in a journal, fine, I won’t kink shame.  But if you’re doing it to be published and read by queer teens, then you’re essentially telling queer teens that they exist for your pleasure or to make money off of.  That’s not cool.  

In both your books, Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts) and Camp, you talk about the prominence of femme shaming of queer men, even within the queer community itself. How is this topic relevant for you as well as relevant for the YA audience?

I think a lot of gay men grew up thinking that being gay meant behaving in a specific way, and if they were like me, they resented that, and so tried to prove we were more than just the vapid stereotypes we saw on TV, and which our peers expected of us.  But the truth is, that’s just straight people telling gay people what being gay is: either you’re a stereotype, or you’re a “real person” – which means you act the way straight people do, defined by the patriarchy and obsolete gender roles.  

In Jack of Hearts, I wanted to show the way straight culture punishes gay men for having the nerve to be both a stereotype and full-fledged human, and I wanted readers to see someone who acted like a “bad gay” but was a complicated and good person.  But with Camp I want to play with the way gay people can internalize that and then become enforcers of the patriarchy ourselves.  I thought a lot about the idea of the “Special Gay.”  That is, gay men who come out, and whose homophobic parents or friends tell them “I don’t like gay people aside from you – you’re special, you don’t act like the rest of them.”  When you’re a teenager and your parents or friends tell you that, you start clinging to that identity because you know the moment you wander from it, you’ll be rejected by the people you depend on.  You internalize it – it becomes the most important thing about you: “I’m gay, but I’m not like those other gays.  I’m special.”  And when you start looking for romance, you know that you need to find someone else who fits those standards too, otherwise this potential partner will be rejected by your loved ones, or worse, they’ll see your choice in partner as a reflection of you and reject you.  So I wanted to play with that idea – that behaving a certain way, for queer teens, is needed to survive.  And in both Camp and Jack, what I’m really talking about is how coming out isn’t the end of a story.  It’s not a happy resolved thing like a lot of books and movies want us to believe.  One you’re out, you still experience homophobia – often even from people who love you, and that shapes the way you see your queerness.  Coming out is just a first step.  Not a happy ending.  

What do you wish to see for the future of YA?

More diversity, of course, especially in terms of authors.  More diversity in terms of where YA takes place.  More queer communities in YA, instead of just one or two queer kids with mostly straight friends.  More sex-positive YA.  More YA that says “there’s no wrong way to be queer.”  

Finally, are there any LGBTQ+ authors and/or books that have inspired you and your own work? Can you recommend any titles or authors for other readers?

Oh man, I have so many recommendations!  I’m going to limit myself to three.  Surrender Your Sons by Adam Sass, which is coming out soon and I had the pleasure of reading early, is this amazing queer adventure novel – essentially imagine queer kids shipped to a conversion camp on the island from Lost fighting to escape.  Julian Winters most recent book, How to Be Remy Cameron, is all about shedding labels, which is a topic dear to my heart.  And I am CRAZY excited for The Fell of Dark by Caleb Roehrig, which I haven’t read yet, but is gay vampires and Roehrig does suspense so well I’m sure it’s going to be a bloodsucking delight.  

Interview: Mackenzi Lee

Mackenzi Lee uses her BA in history and her MFA in writing in increasingly engaging ways: after writing This Monstrous Thing, her Gothic fantasy retelling of Frankenstein, and her New York Times bestseller The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, she published Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World, a gorgeously illustrated collection of short biographies of little-known women from history, based on a series she started on Twitter. Her forthcoming novels include the sequel to The Gentleman Guide to Vice and Virtue, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, Semper Augustus (coming in 2019 from Flatiron/Macmillan), and an untitled novel about Loki being queer (date TBD from Marvel). So naturally, we wanted to learn more about her!

 

Before you became a full-time author, you earned a BA in history and worked as an amateur historian. How did you transition from your academic pursuits to writing fiction?

 

Very easily because my writing was so not suited for academia! I had a professor who told me that my papers read like novels—which was not okay as a history student, but maybe I should consider writing historical fiction. So I was already writing that way. But when I started writing fiction, I also got to make things up! The biggest difficulty with the transition was feeling like I was giving up on my career as a historian. I had been working for so long on that degree and walking away from it felt like a huge gamble. Betting on yourself is hard and scary!

 

Were there any writers in particular who inspired you to make this transition?

 

I loved Shannon Hale’s books when I was a kid, and rereading her books as an adult was what really inspired me to pursue writing.

 

How much does your passion for history—and research—inform your writing?

 

Most of my books start with a historical phenomenon or weird fact or person that I become obsessed with. With This Monstrous Thing, it was Mary Shelley. With Gent’s Guide, it was the Grand Tour. For me, it always starts with history.

 

History (at least Western history) is dominated by straight, able-bodied, cisgender, white, male narratives? How do you challenge this or subvert it in your work?

 

I believe that everywhere in history that we are told white men are doing things, there were also women, minorities, queer people, disabled people, etc. doing the exact same thing… We just don’t talk about those stories. But they’re out there! You have to look for them, but they’re there! I try and subvert this narrative in the best way I can—by putting these characters in my books and giving them plot lines and identities that extend beyond their marginalization.

 

Can you tell us about your upcoming project with Marvel about Loki, a character whose canon pansexuality and gender fluidity has thus far been conspicuously underrepresented?

 

I actually can’t. I’m not allowed to say anything about the book right now! Sorry! But soon…

 

Are there any other works in progress that we can look forward to?

 

I have a book coming out at some point in the future called Semper Augustus, which is set in Holland in the 1600s. I also have two more books with Marvel about other anti-heroes. Stay tuned!

 

Recently there has been news from Variety, that Greg Berlanti, a very successful and openly queer film and television producer optioned your book as a potential project. How do you feel about The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue possibly being adapted into a queer historical television narrative?

 

It’s absolutely wild to me. There are still a lot of hoops to jump through before the show actually arrives on screen, but as someone who has long been frustrated by BBC period dramas with queer characters relegated to tragic subplots, it’s amazing to be part of this incredible movement forward toward more representation.

Interview: Erica Friedman

Erica Friedman is the Founder of Yuricon, a celebration of yuri (lesbian-themed) anime and manga held in New Jersey from 2003 to 2007 that now exists as an online entity,  as well as the founder of ALC Publishing. She describes herself as an LGBTQ and Geek Marketing Consultant, and a proud holder of a Masters degree in Library Science. Last year, Geeks OUT welcomed her as a presenter at Flame Con, and we finally caught up with her to learn more about what she does and why she does it.

 

As the founder of Yuricon, how would you describe the responsibilities of your profession?

 

Yuricon as a community was founded almost 20 years ago on Usenet. We’ve had community spaces on every social platform since then—we had a mailing list that was founded in 2001 that we just closed up last year, MySpace, LiveJournal, now obviously Facebook, and I’m kind of thinking of starting up a Slack, but I’d need to get more admins than just me. I’ve run events in the USA and in Tokyo and traveled to events all over the world.

 

So a lot of what I’ve always done is promote and share and talk with folks wherever they happened to be, online or off. These days I most promote yuri by speaking at conventions (I was at Flame Con last year), school, and organizations.

 

How does yuri distinguish itself from other international queer female-centered comics, like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Color?

 

Yuri is a genre of Japanese media, specifically manga and anime. Our Yuricon definition of yuri is “yuri can describe any anime or manga series (or other derivative media, i.e.: fan fiction, film, etc.) that shows intense emotional connection, romantic love or physical desire between women. Yuri is not a genre confined by the gender or age of the audience, but by the perception of the audience. In short, Yuri is any story with lesbian themes.”

 

What are your current favorite examples of yuri manga (or other media)?

 

Most of my top series aren’t out in English, like Collectors by Nishi Uko or Gunjo by Nakamura Ching. But I recommend Sweet Blue Flowers, by Takako Shimura from Viz Media and Kiss and White Lily for My Dearest Girl by Canno from Yen Press, which are out in English. In fact, I have a whole category of English manga on my blog Okazu and a category for Top Series of each year for folks who want some titles to take a look at.

 

In any fandom, there’s a bias toward male-centered narratives, even within queer fandom. Why do you think this is?

 

Men largely hold the social, political and financial power in all facets of society. They’ve got the purse strings, so obviously they dictate the terms. This is true globally. It’s not really anything to do with straight or gay. When women have equal access to money, they will tell their stories. As we’ve started to see in film. A lot of the editors in Japanese manga are women, but men run the companies.

 

Currently, there are several queer-themed anime events all over the country (because so much of the fandom in the US is queer folk) but relatively little canonically queer anime being produced. How do you think we can bridge this gap?

 

There’s so much more queer-interest anime than ever before. I mean, like amazing amounts. Yuri series Asagao to Kase-san (published in English as Kase-san) and Morning Glories by Seven Seas) is getting an anime OVA theatrical release in Japan, Yuri comedy Love to Lie Angle is out now and is streaming free and legally on Crunchyroll, Yagate Kimi ni Naru (Bloom into You in English from Seven Seas) has just been green-lighted as an anime. That’s three major releases in one year. That’s amazing.

 

But like the previous question, the answer is: money. The presumed market for anime is men. Straight men. Just like the presumed market for movies in the USA is men. It doesn’t matter that women make up a huge portion of the existing market and there’s an untapped market, white men make movies for white men, and do not understand how to react when movies about black people do well. When something like Free! makes a ton of money in Japan, the male-run studios make another Boy’s Love-ish series and then squeeze that stone. They don’t open up a division to make a dozen BL-audience appealing anime.

 

The US audience is not making anime, so we cannot change anything in relationship to this. As fans we can buy what we want to see more of. It lets the companies know what the market wants. That is the only power of influence fandom has.

 

How would you describe the current culture of LGBTQ fandom in the US? Is it different now then it was when Yuricon first originated?

 

It’s different of course. One of the things we’ve achieved in these last two decades is the creation of a whole new genre! Twenty years ago, yuri did not exist as a separate genre. It was assumed to be the opposite side of the coin from BL, which it isn’t. BL is a genre that has an assumed homogeneous audience of straight women, where yuri came in different forms, with different tropes from all of the different demographic genres of manga. So BL tropes exist to appeal to one specific audience, and yuri tropes appeal to various audiences varying ways.

 

The fandom has itself changed in age and identity. Younger people are more likely to identify as queer, less likely to have negative feelings about gender and sexuality in media. Anime fandom has mostly been young and open, in my experience, but it’s even more so, now.

 

How much do you believe queer representation in manga and anime is realistic or authentic in its portrayals of women?

 

It entirely depends on the individual story. Even the most ridiculous story can get it right and the most realistic story can get it wrong. Manga by and for women don’t always get it “right” for all women, either. I read a lot of josei (manga by and for adult women) and, for the purposes of the plot, people make idiotic choices all the time.

Interview: Mariko Tamaki

Mariko Tamaki is an artist and writer of mixed Japanese Canadian and Jewish Canadian descent, known for her graphic novels Skim and This One Summer (co-created with her cousin Jillian Tamaki). Recurring themes in her work include becoming, identity, and queerness. Since 2016, she’s been writing for both DC and Marvel  on comics like She-Hulk and Supergirl: Being Super, and her English language translation of the queer coming-of-age story Luisa: Now and Then (by French writer and illustrator Carole Maurel) was released today by Humanoids. This August, she’ll be joining Geeks OUT as a special guest at Flame Con, so we wanted to get to know her a bit better before then!

 

For several years, you’ve collaborated with your cousin, artist Jillian Tamaki, on books like Skim and This One Summer. What is the creative process like for you working with family? Are there any challenges that are unique to working with a familial relation?

 

I imagine pretty much all collaborations have unique elements. There is a part of our connection that is familial, in that we have very similar senses of humor, I think, and some very Tamaki sensibilities.  Mostly I, certainly, have always trusted Jillian to do her thing (which she does exceptionally well) and mostly our publisher has let us do things the way we need to do them, so that’s awesome.

 

Throughout much of your career, queerness has been a prominent (or at least recurring) theme of your work. As a queer woman yourself, how much of your own experiences do you incorporate into your fiction writing?

 

I’m not sure sometimes if I default to a queer experience because I am queer or if it is because I specifically want to see more queer content out there.  I think it’s always a little bit of both.  I try not to overthink it.  I try to write the story I want to write and see how that pans out.  Definitely if I am writing something that feels completely straight, I’ll sew some queerness in there, because queerness is always there. It’s like when you’re writing a cityscape, you need to write in the characters that would be there.  To me, not doing that is more of a choice.

 

My first introduction to your work was Skim, the graphic novel about a young girl named Kimberly Keiko Cameron, set against themes of first love, mental illness, and suicide. What was the creative inspiration behind this work?

 

I just pictured this character one day who had a broken arm because she had tripped over a candleholder that was part of her Wiccan altar.  I was sitting on the bus and I just had that image so clearly I was like, “I bet that’s a book.” Once I started writing it everything sort of just fell into place. I’d always wanted to use my experience in a private all girls school for something, so this seemed like that place to do it.

 

There’s a recurring theme in your stories of characters coming-of-age stories. Why do you gravitated toward this particular narrative?

 

I don’t necessarily mean to write “coming-of-age” stories. I am interested in the mechanics, the experiences, that go into the things we take for granted, like identity, like being a girl or boy or neither, like being smart or funny.  All that stuff.  We are all always becoming the things we are.  That doesn’t stop when you turn 20, but it’s incredibly potent when you’re a teenager.  And potency makes for good stories.  So there you are.

 

What is the most significant way your more personal work differs from your work on comics like She-Hulk?

 

Generally, until I wrote She-Hulk, very few of my characters were green or grey. Also, writing for superhero comics, you’re writing into a world, you’’re writing against the backdrop of a genre, which is sort of always there no matter what you’re writing.  So it affects what you write in a myriad of little ways.  It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge.  I want my mainstream comics work to feel like it’s coming from me, but I also want it to be a part of the larger whole of mainstream comics.

 

Do you have any favorite queer authors or books you can recommend?

 

Right now I’m recommending Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters.  I know Maurice Vellekoop is working on a graphic memoir to that will be published by Pantheon Books.  I have seen bits of it and it is amazing.  I loved Molly Ostertag’s Witch Boy and I’m thoroughly enjoying Moonstuck series by Grace Ellis and Shae Beagle.  I could go on.

 

Do you have any new ideas or projects for us to look forward to?

 

I have a book coming out in 2019 with Rosemary Valero-O’Connell called Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me.  I’m working with Juan Cabal on X-23 for Marvel.  I have a Harley Quinn graphic novel with DC Ink with Steve Pugh called Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass.  My third book with Abrams for our Lumberjanes series with Brooklyn Allen is called The Good Egg and I am so excited for people to read it.  And I’m currently writing a YA murder mystery, but I’m not sure what the title will be yet, so look out for that.