When did you first realize you could tell stories through words and images? What drew you to the graphic novel art form?
I think I internalized the combination of words and images at a very young age, from children’s picture books, which remain one of my favorite forms of media. I started reading graphic novels (specifically, Japanese manga) when I was in junior high, when they started to trickle onto my local library’s shelves. I love both writing and drawing, so graphics novels seemed like the perfect merger of my two loves.
Your book, Genderqueer, features one of the first discussions of asexuality I’ve seen in comics. If you feel comfortable, can you expand on your relationship to your asexual identity and what the process was like in depicting it?
Asexuality can be very hard to define or explain to people who haven’t spent time thinking about it, since it’s the lack of something, rather than the presence of something. I’m actually aromantic as well, which I think is maybe an even more important factor in how my life has developed. I received so much passive messaging from basically every single book and movie that eventually I would both fall in love with someone and also want to have sex with them. Though I did get crushes as a teen, I never had any desire to act on them. I think I kind of just kept waiting, thinking, well, is this romantic urge going to just hit me out of the blue at some point like I’ve been taught to expect? But it never did. By age 30 I felt confident saying “okay, enough time has passed that I think I can firmly say that romantic partnership is just something I don’t care about at all, and sex is interesting only at the level of curiosity.” I tried to depict this partly through trial and error experiences that helped me fumble towards greater clarity.
Within the course of your graphic novel, you discuss how your identity has changed and evolved over the years, showcasing the beautiful and often frustrating reality of gender/sexuality identity exploration. Can you expand on that?
I spent a lot of time not knowing what I was, not having a label for how I felt. I can’t tell you how many countless pages of journal entries I wrote asking, “Am I gay, am I bi, am I a lesbian, am I a boy, am I a girl, am I neither, am I half and half” etc. This questioning took up a huge amount of my mental space, and I definitely wanted to hold the readers in that period of uncertainty, in that undefined grey area.
In Genderqueer, pop culture plays a very big role, whether being mentioned within the form of comics/manga, figure skating, fantasy literature, etc. How as queer individuals do we respond and relate to the pop culture around us in terms of conceiving and understanding our own identities?
As a young queer person who only knew two or three out queer adults, and was uninterested in dating and sex, consuming queer media was my main form of exploration and discovery of queer identities. I think lots of young queer feel this need to research who we are, especially if we don’t see any role modes in our family or community. Many of the queer books I read as a teen remain my very favorites to this day because of how intensely intimate and emotional it felt to read them.
What’s a question no one has asked you yet or that you wish was asked more?
I wish more people asked me, “Should I write my own memoir?” so I could tell them yes!
What are some of your favorite elements of comics/graphic novel medium? What craft elements/techniques stand out to you the most?
One element I love is called a non-adjacent sequence. It’s a series of panels or even pages which are repeated, with a new twist, two or more times in a book. The idea is that the reader will either consciously notice this call back and flip back in the book to find the first example, or else be unconsciously influenced by the repetition and better understand that the two scenes are linked. In “Gender Queer” I used the same panel layout for pages 125 and 219. I also repeated the same plant motif on pages 66, 67 and 191.
Aside from Melanie Gilman, the queer/ non-binary mentor stated within your book, who are some of your other creative/artistic influences?
I am influenced by a lot of other cartoonists, especially ones who draw from their own lives: Mari Naomi, Lucy Knisley, Lucy Bellwood, Erika Moen, Raina Telgemeier, Alison Bechdel, Dylan Edwards, Ajuan Mance, Thi Bui, Sarah Mirk and Shing Yin Khor immediately come to mind. The comics journalism website The Nib has also impacted me a lot- I am both a reader of and a contributor to their site, and their latest anthology “Be Gay, Do Comics.” Many of my very first nonfiction comics were published by The Nib and I benefited greatly from working with their all-star editorial team.
As a creative person, what advice would you give to other aspiring artists/writers?
Go forth! Be recklessly honest, be gentle, be bold, be strong, be soft. If you tell your own darkest secrets with a spirit of compassion towards your younger self, you will help readers heal their own wounds.
What are some things you wish to say to your trans/non-binary readers?
I love you, and we are family.
Are there any projects you are working on at the moment and are at liberty to speak about?
I illustrated a YA prose novel called “We Are The Ashes, We Are The Fire” by Joy McCullough which is due out from Penguin Random House in Feb 2021. It’s got some very heavy themes, but also a renaissance-fair obsessed nonbinary teen character who I love very much. I am also developing my next full length graphic novel in collaboration with the nonbinary cartoonist Lucky Srikumar.
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ comics or books you would recommend to the readers of Geeks Out?
Buckle your seatbelt, I have a lot of recommendations. I post 100 book reviews per year on Goodreads, so feel free to follow me on there if you want even more! But here are some comics with trans and nonbinary characters which I really loved: Grease Bats by Archie Bongiovanni (a slice of life comic – nonbinary main character) (author is also nonbinary)
Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy edited by Joamette Gil (anthology of short comics, all with nonbinary authors)
The Avant-Guards by Carly Usdin and Noah Hayes (an ongoing comic series, one nonbinary character, one trans character)
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (a slice of life comic – a nonbinary secondary character)
Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu (fantasy YA comic – a nonbinary main character)
Snapdragon by Kay Leyh (a trans secondary character)
Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman (trans character, nonbinary author)
As The Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman (trans character, nonbinary author)
The Deep and Dark Blue by Niki Smith (trans main character)
O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti (trans secondary, nonbinary author)
Wandering Son by Takako Shimura (a manga series, multiple trans characters)
Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa (a manga series, one trans character)
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden (sci-fi comic – a nonbinary secondary character)
Fence, created by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad, follows the story of sixteen year old Nicholas Cox as he enters into the world of competitive fencing. I had the opportunity to interview C.S. Pacat, Johanna the Mad, as well as Fence: Striking Distanceauthor Sarah Rees Brennan which you can read below.
In your own words, how did the genesis of Fence come to be? How would each of you describe your own path to becoming involved in Fence?
Sarah Rees Brennan: I came in at a later date than the others! I was a fan first: I love C.S. Pacat’s writing so I read the Fence graphic novels and was delighted by all the ingredients (the setting of a fencing team at an elite boarding school, the boy from the wrong side of the tracks versus the Olympic hopeful), and thus naturally became a fan of Johanna’s fabulous artwork. My lovely editor at Little Brown reached out to my agent and expressed interest in me writing a tie-in novel. My first reaction was ‘that’s so great, they must be doing really well! They deserve it.’ I’m always so delighted when wonderful LGBT stories find the audience they deserve. Then I went ‘Wait… me?’
C.S. Pacat: I got really into sports comics in Japan, where I lived for about five years. I love the striving and intense rivalries, the friendships and found families, the way you can take characters to their breaking point. I fenced épée all through high school, and thought it was the perfect sport for that kind of comic: it’s intensely strategic and psychological, a solo combat sport with a rich history. Fencing is also a sport famous for its striking visuals, its silhouettes, and its arresting lines. I had started to see the first queer sports stories begin to appear, like Ngozi Ukazu’s fantastic LGBT hockey comic Check, Please! and the joyously queer-coded Japanese anime Yuri!!! on Ice. I started to wonder, what happens when all these energies come out in a combat sport?
Johanna the Mad: At the time, I had recently read C. S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy and instantly became a huge fan of her writing. Parallel to this, I was also really into sports anime and manga so when I was offered to be part of Fence it was like a dream come true.
As a queer person, would you say you incorporated some of your own experiences into the queer media you create?
CSP: I know that for me, as a queer kid growing up, there were so few queer characters that I remember how I clung to each one, rereading the tiny handful books or manga I could find with queer protagonists over and over again. It was the era where queer stories usually had sad endings, and it made me want to write stories of joyful and exuberant queerness. That’s where my decision to write prejudice free, homo-normative worlds came from. I developed this approach to art where I thought: if the purpose of the art is realism, then of course it’s important to show real-wold prejudices, but if the purpose of the art is escapism, then I want everyone to be able to escape equally.
I write a lot of “found families”, because I grew up in a time where being able to be openly queer meant having to step outside the mainstream, and “find” others like you, with whom you could be yourself. More prosaically, I’m bi, and all my main protagonists end up being bi, and in fact I have to make a Herculean effort not to instinctively write every character as bi. Bobby is probably the closest that I’ve come to writing a character that expresses my gender(queer) identity, at least as I understood it back when I was in high school.
JM: Sure. My work is mostly based on displaying emotions which, the majority of the time, are romantic. There’s something about romance that I enjoy illustrating so I guess it’s a given I’d translate my vision and experiences into what I want to draw.
Prior to this book, you had already written critically acclaimed stories, including the Lynburn Legacy series. How did you get signed on to writing a novel for Fence? What was the process like writing a story with an already established world and characters? What did it feel like trying to stay faithful to the feel of the original material while providing your own spin?
SRB: I have written quite a few books! And it’s been so great to see the publishing landscape changing to be more inclusive over that time. I’m also a longtime fan of C.S. Pacat’s work. I loved her Captive Prince series, so when I went to live in Australia for six months several years back, I reached out and was like ‘Hey, be my friend.’ (I make friends like a pleasant, garrulous hostage taker.) Thus followed many writing dates in which I continually ate ice-cream while we yelled at each other about narrative tropes, and an adventure on a pirate ship on the Yarra river surrounded by black swans.
As a writer, she’s extremely generous with her time and her story insights. C.S. Pacat has this amazing internal compass for story, a sense for finding the truest path, so when the opportunity offered I knew it would be fun to work with her, and that when we talked through story paths I could trust her to guide me right.
I’ve written work in previously established universes before, most recently for tie-in novels in the universe of Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. A graphic novel is like a TV show in that they’re both visual mediums. I love storytelling in all its forms, so it’s an exciting challenge to think, how could this form work to tell this story? What light can this particular medium shed on this universe? A book has less surface than any other form of entertainment. Books can go into the deep waters, can offer introspection, so you know more of the characters’ pasts and feelings, and that knowledge can illuminate the action in all forms of the story. So to me, writing books in previously established worlds feels like going into the story spaces with a light.
In previous articles, part of the stated inspiration for Fence came from sports-related anime and manga, such as Haikyuu, as well as American comics like Check Please! What would you say are some of your other favorite examples from the genre?
SRB:Hikaru no Go! I loved learning about the game of Go, and the fantastical premise of the ghost pushing a boy to learn a game which he doesn’t care much about… until he meets and becomes fascinated by a prodigy at the game. I love intensity of a rivalry, which has all the joy of enemy interactions but none of the moral dilemmas. You still really really want to beat them, but you don’t usually kill them at the end! (Sometimes you do. Sometimes rivalry goes wrong.) The characters’ connection to, and pride in, their skill at the game of Go/tennis/the magic ninja path/fencing leads them to connect to each other whether in hatred or love, or a mix of the two. And then the connection works in a feedback loop, so the more you care about your rival the more invested you are in the sport, and more the audience cares about the characters, the more invested they are in the outcome of the game.
CSP: My favourite sports manga is Hikaru no Go. It was one of the first sports manga I read that took its sport completely seriously. No one turned into a demon on the field, no one did a supernatural “finishing move”, it was just a young boy playing Go, often in smoke filled rooms with old geezers. Counter-intuitively, that made the sport itself seem more intense and thrilling.
I’d also want to shout out to my all-time favourite anime Utena. Although it’s not a sports anime, it was a huge influence on Fence. Each episode features the characters duelling in an arena swordfight, in a fantastical queer reimagining of the classic shounen level-up structure.
JM: My all-time favorites would be Slam Dunk, Eyeshield 21 and Kuroko no Basket. A special mention would be Yuri on Ice since I love how they managed both the sports theme along with the protagonists’ queer relationship.
While all the characters of Fence are all incredibly lovable, are there any characters you have a preference writing about/ drawing?
SRB: I agree all the characters are lovable, which I can say without shame as I didn’t create them. Seiji was my favourite character to write, actually! I love them all, but there’s a particularly fun challenge in writing the guy for whom so much is internal. There’s a certain archetype of a character who’s a stickler for the rules, and doesn’t evince many emotions, but who clearly has so much going on under a seemingly cold surface. I love the frozen lake with lava beneath sort: the repressed emotion is always going to manifest in interesting ways.
I just started watching, on the recommendations of many people, a Chinese drama called The Untamed, and I spotted a disgruntled elven-appearing gentleman, and was like ‘Ah, here we have that guy again. Love that guy.’ I do think, however, that character is much easier to convey in a visual medium. An actor can give you microexpressions to let you know where they’re at, or Johanna can give us clues through her fabulous art! So I read the graphic novels and read about this fencing prodigy whose life is about his skill, and went, ‘I love Seiji,’ and then thought ‘oh no… I have to write Seiji from inside his head!’ Nobody’s distant, emotionless or formidable in their own mind, and the drive to excel comes from deep caring. Writing Seiji required a lot of thought about how he saw the world, versus how he saw himself. Seiji and his parents have trouble connecting—Seiji and the world have trouble connecting—and the challenge of connecting to him made me love him.
CSP: Don’t ask me to choose!
JM: Yes! My favorites are Bobby, Harvard and Nicholas. Can’t have enough of those three. I get so excited whenever they’re in a panel together, it’s ridiculous.
One of my personal favorites from the series, Seiji Katayama, seems to display a number of attributes that could be coded as being on the autistic spectrum, i.e. trouble reading social cues, hyper-focus on specific subjects, etc. Are there any characters from the series that could be said to be neurodiverse?
CSP: One character that will be explicitly neurodiverse is Assistant Coach Lewis. I don’t want to spoil anything from upcoming storylines, but I’m looking forward to her having her moment to shine later in the series.
One of the key defining elements of the series is the intense dynamic between Seiji Katayama and Nicholas Cox. Could you elaborate on their relationship, and the very slow-burn element of their story?
SRB: It is a slow burn, isn’t it! I love that, I hate when a relationship feels rushed. In the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘the suspense is terrible… I hope it will last.’ Seiji has a profound effect on Nicholas from their first fencing match, in which Seiji’s skill and dismissal of Nicholas spark fresh determination in Nicholas, and when they continue as roommates in a school where neither of them ever really thought they would be, Nicholas begins to have an effect back—not just Nicholas’s promise in fencing, but irrepressible Nicholas starts talking about being friends. It’s unstoppable force vs immovable object, so every step has to be earned. In Striking Distance we see Seiji making a concession to Nicholas, and C.S. Pacat and I had several discussions about how much of a concession it might be. It had to be tiny. The progress is incremental, but it is there. The suspense is terrible… and I do hope it will last.
CSP: I’m fascinated by the dynamic of “natural rookie” versus “highly trained pro”, which is a classic staple of sports stories. But I never really liked the way that the rookie always wins out in Western sports stories, either triumphantly beating the pro (like Rocky beating Ivan in Rocky IV) or with a moral victory when the pro realises they live a life of empty of feeling and quits their sport (like Maureen quitting ballet in Center Stage). It just seemed so unfair to the pro who had put in so much more work, dedicating their whole life to their sport! I much prefer the way these archetypes are handled in Japanese sports comics, where the rookie and the pro each have something to learn from the other (like Hikaru and Akira from Hikaru no Go, or Nodame and Chiaki in Nodame Cantabile). I loved the idea of using these opposites as the basis for an intense and developing relationship, where each character completes something in the other.
As for the slow-burn, I always think—well, difficult accomplishments are the best because you have to work to achieve them.
Without any spoilers, how does Striking Distance fit into the timeline of the Fence comic universe? Will any references from the novel make its way into future comics?
CSP: Striking Distance is set right after Fence Rivals, the newly-released fourthvolumegraphic novel. Sarah Rees Brennan has a genius for amazing detail. A lot of her glorious and delightful additions will be carried over to the comics, including Aiden and Harvard’s childhood, and characters like Seiji’s father.
SRB: I know not about future comics, but Striking Distance is set after Volume 4 of Fence, with events from Volume 4 giving their fencing coach a Brilliant Idea. The nature of tie-ins is that they should work both standing alone, and as a piece of a whole, fitting in and illuminating the rest. So the book has to introduce the characters and the world in an endearing way for new readers, but still be something new to (with luck) delight and surprise longtime fans. It’s like writing a sequel, magnified by ten. So far I’ve seen readers of advance copies who weren’t familiar with the universe getting into it, and readers who were familiar seeming pleased, and that’s all and more than I could hope for.
As creators from different parts of the world, what were the challenges in collaborating on these projects together? What were some of the benefits?
SRB: I’m a total night owl, so C.S. Pacat’s and my schedules fit pretty well. We tend to do long video calls, to plot the novels and then to check in at intervals. In between I send her what I’m writing, and sometimes I’ll call her at 9 pm, we’ll talk for ages, and then C.S. Pacat will be like, ‘What time is it where you are!’ and I’ll go, ‘Wow, it’s only four a.m… chill…’ I send C.S. Pacat chunks of the book, so I can send it off and wake up to her comments, and she can wake up to more book! On our latest video call, I was typing up notes about our careless playboy character Aiden’s narrative arc to come, and she was twiddling her fingers to amuse my new kitten so the kitten wouldn’t get all up in my keyboard. The wonders of technology—Irish kitten provided with Australian playtime.
CSP: Honestly, the hardest thing is the time difference. We have A LOT of dawn and twilight video chats. It might be a cliche to say, but the benefit is the different influences and perspectives.
JM: I guess the biggest challenge for me was the availability of each one of us. Living in different countries also means different time zones so we have to schedule calls, emails take a bit longer to be answered, etc.
What I love about it is the different points of view all of us bring to the table. They come up with the best ideas for the story and image of the characters so I’m always excited to get their notes on my designs.
If the characters of your stories could interact with other characters from any fictional universe, which ones would they be and where would they be from?
SRB: I would like to see Nicholas learn from Westley in The Princess Bride, though Nicholas actually is left-handed! The skill of swordsmanship is such a big thing in the novel of The Princess Bride, even more so than in the book, because we can enter into people’s love and grief so strongly. Inigo Montoya learns the blade because he wants to avenge his beloved father. Our hero Westley learns because he wants to return alive to his beloved lady. It’s another classic example of love for a person, impelling you on to love for a skill. To prepare for writing the Fence novels, as well as reading fencing books and taking fencing lessons and talking to a fabulous fencing coach named Olga Velma, I watched a lot of the old Basil Rathbone movies with famous fencing scenes, and the duel on the Cliffs of Insanity remains a favorite for both skill and intensity of feeling. Maybe the Fence characters and the Princess Bride characters could all teach each other some moves.
CSP: The Ouran High School Host Club.
JM: Oh, I’d love a crossover with Slam Dunk. I think our Fence guys would look amazing in basketball uniforms. Plus, it’d be cute to see the interaction between Kings Row and the Shohoku team.
Are there any projects you are currently working on or project ideas you are currently nursing and are at liberty to speak about?
SRB: I’m always thinkin’. No idea how other people even make toast without considering battle scenes or tortured confessions or love. Currently playing around with ideas for a rom com in which rival actors fall in love, and horror in a town featuring evil bargains and drowned children… plus I very recently finished some more fun in the Fence universe.
CSP: My next project is a YA fantasy called Dark Rise that’s due out next year. It’s set in an alternate London, where the heroes and villains of a long-forgotten war are being reborn, ushering in a dangerous new age of magic. I had wanted to write a queer fantasy series with a vast world and epic stakes for a long time.
Finally, since this is an LGBTQ+ website, are there any LGBTQ+ authors and/or books you can recommend for our readers?
SRB: A recent fave for me is Leah Johnson’s YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN. A fabulous heroine of color competes for the title of prom queen which will help her accomplish her academic goals… but she’s terribly distracted by the cute new girl in town. Zen Cho’s THE TRUE QUEEN has a really unique fantasy world as well as a slow burn, low key, but totally compelling wlw relationship at its heart, along with musings about the twists, turns, and bonds of sisterhood. For fans of swordsmanship and LGBTQ+ romance, a can’t-miss ur-text is Ellen Kushner’s SWORDSPOINT about the master swordsman and a boy of mystery, and the fabulous follow-up about the niece of the mad Duke who learns the blade, THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD.
CSP: Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault which tells the story of Alexander the Great and his love for Hephaestion. This one is a favourite, and Renault has been a huge influence on my own writing.
I just finished All Boys Aren’t Blue by LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson, a memoir describing his experiences growing up Black and queer in America.
Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas—and I’d highly recommend the TV series of the same name. Tsiolkas and I share an ethnic background as Australian w*gs, and I really identify with the way the book and the TV series portrays the experience of being a queer w*g growing up in Australia in the 90s. Plus, it’s a sports story about boys at an elite private school!
Lastly, keep your eyes out for a book that’s coming out next year, She Who Became The Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan. It’s a queer/genderqueer retelling of the rise of China’s first Emperor, and it is phenomenal.
Fence: Striking Distance is available September 29th
Remember that episode of The Twilight Zone where the bombs fall and the world ends, leaving one man and all the books he could ever read? Well whatever you do don’t drop your glasses because it’s true, there really is time now. As a brief aside, I do want to make it clear that things are really hard right now, I know people are suffering, and it isn’t my intention to be crass or flippant when it comes to talking about the coronavirus. I’ve personally been in quarantine for about a month now, and I have a tremendous amount to be grateful for, but this isn’t something any of us have experienced before, and some days are better than others. Everyone is doing what they can, and for a lot of us that just means keeping ourselves inside for the time being. To that end, I’ve curated a list that I hope will include something for everyone, and that might fill your days with more reading and less worrying.
While it may not be about the exact thing the world is going through right now, this 2015 GN about mysteriously parentless children in the small town of Alexandria does touch on several themes which feel more universal than ever at the moment. Isolated, with little knowledge of the outside world, and a sort of vague hope that things will go back to normal eventually, Suburbia’s characters are left to fend for themselves. The mystery of their circumstances, and the lives they build inside their own special society, are all at once nostalgic, heartbreaking, and a little bit enchanting. Be prepared to read it twice, as the last page might just make you want to jump right back to the beginning.
Immediately after watching the premier of Syfy’s Vagrant Queen, based on the Vault Comics series, you’ll want to go back to the sprawling, madcap sci-fi romp that revealed writer and co-creator Magdalene Visaggio as a force to be reckoned with. The setting of Kim & Kim is developed with so much genuine joy, the pages practically giggle with delight. With three volumes ready to read right now, it’s a goofy, fun time that lures you in with badass space queers and eyeliner powered necromancy before blindsiding you with heavy feelings and characters with an immense amount of depth.
Okay, just to get this out of the way, none of Walden’s books are to be missed. I chose this one in particular to be on this list for two reasons. One, it is her most recent published work, and two, I assume you’ve already been told to read On a Sunbeam (which you can read for free on the internet right now if you haven’t, or heck even if you have). Are You Listening is a soft and quiet story, given an amount of room to breathe that is, while not unprecedented in comics, certainly quite uncommon. Emotions hang in the air across its pages, waiting for you to digest them at your own pace. Trauma, family, and sexuality are explored so carefully and thoughtfully, you almost don’t notice the terrifying surrealism building in the background. This is one of those books that will have you flipping back and rereading scenes over and over with each new piece of information you get.
Previously published under the title Science Tales, this non-fiction graphic novel is a great read for any season, but particularly valuable at a time like now, when misinformation is both deliberately and unintentionally spread like, well, a virus. Cunningham unpacks the history behind several scientific topics, and the misinformation surrounding them. Subjects like vaccines and climate change can seem impossible to argue about with those that dismiss them. And even if you agree with the science you may not fully understand it. How to Fake a Moon Landing lays these and many more issues out in a way that is clear, easy to understand, and most importantly, evidence based.
Feeling trapped? Need an escape? Sounds like you might identify somewhat with the plight of Emma, Norman, and all the other kids living in Grace Field House. These children are living a relatively pampered life, never really bothered by the fact they’re not allowed to see or go beyond the grounds of the orphanage. That is until they accidentally learn the true purpose of Grace Field House, to harvest and sell humanely raised meat. Oh, it’s not the same as what you’re feeling, surely. We haven’t been asked to stay indoors for any secret, sinister purpose, regardless of the rants your neighbors keep posting on Nextdoor. But it is very understandable that you might be feeling frustrated at our circumstances. So I offer you, as an outlet for that anger, a story of betrayal and heartache and terror and loss.
When the first issue was released in 2016, much attention was given to the behind-the-scenes, multimedia experience of the book’s tie-in app. And yes, it was very unique and interesting, no doubt, but removed from that completely, Surgeon X is a truly phenomenal, intriguing, and prescient series. London in the grips of fascism and class divide, a promise to “Make Britain Strong Again,” nationwide protests as the wealthy hoard life saving medicine. So yeah, one or two real world parallels there. The main plot of this comic, edited just so you know by Vertigo and Berger Books legend Karen Berger, follows a new kind of masked vigilante, Dr. Rosa Scott. Choosing to turn her back on a cruel and broken healthcare system, Rosa goes underground to perform illegal medical care, saving lives that her hospital and government have deemed unnecessary.
Okay, yes, I hear you. These are starting to hit a bit close to home. So maybe you want something that feels a little less here and now? Sparrowhawk follows Artemesia, illegitimate daughter of an absent navy father. After her classic fairy tale wicked stepmother decides to make her useful to the family by marrying her off, Artemesia finds herself displaced to the kill-or-be-killed world of the fae. Frankly, I wish I had more time to dive into this one specific series. Though its release went a bit under the radar at the time, it was in my humble opinion, right alongside Crowded as one of the best new titles of 2018. A whimsical, Labyrinth-like adventure, memorable characters, elegant victorian dresses, nightmarish creatures, heaps of blood, plus colors and letters that elevate every single panel to a perfect example of comics at their absolute best.
While we’re on the subject of fantasy escapism, let’s take a hard turn into space. Cosmoknights overflows with love and hope and sincerity. A heartwarming tale of a mechanic searching for her runaway princess, with generous helpings of gladiatorial sci-fi sports and super-spy intrigue! Templer’s world bursts with color and wonder, from the cyberpunk alleyways to the grand, romantic architecture of space coliseums. Also worth noting are her big, bold onomatopoeias, like musical, laser light shows sprawled out across the pages. But what is most special about this series is that it centers lesbian characters of all shapes, shades, and sizes, and thoroughly explores the dynamics of many kinds of relations between women, be it friendship, mentoring, or sapphic love.
With racist rhetoric filling up twitter, causing arguments with your family, and dripping from the mouths of public officials, there is a powerful catharsis in reading a story by the writer of American Born Chinese and the artists of Gwenpool, where Superman, icon of icons and the original socialist agitator, just beats the ever living snot out of some cowardly, hooded bigots. Based on the classic radio drama, in which fictional journalist Clark Kent blew actual, real life Klan secrets wide open, this retelling for modern readers of all ages combines classic heroic action with the timeless struggles of American immigrants.
Illustrated by Jon Berg, Melissa Duffy, Vicky Leta, and V. Gagnon
What is it exactly that lands this recent graphic memoir by The Plain Janes and Shade, the Changing Girl writer, Cecil Castellucci on this list? Frankly, just the fact that I will use any excuse to talk about it. Girl On Film’s autobiographical narrative is laid out brilliantly, flashing between several periods of life and growth, and a present day conversation between the author and her father about the fragility of memory. While that sounds like a lot, it’s made very easy to follow by the different artists representing each time frame. An unflinchingly personal story that explores how we form perceptions.
Edited by Matt Miner, Eric Palicki, and Tyler Chin-Tanner
Written and Illustrated by Various
It cannot be overstated how important it is, now more than ever, to see the future as something to look forward to, something that is worth fighting for. That is what motivated the curation of this anthology by A Wave Blue World, which features more than twenty pieces of utopian fiction by dozens of creators, including Nadia Shammas (Corpus), Eliot Rahal (Cult Classic), Liana Kangas (She Said Destroy), Eryk Donovan (Eugenic), and many more. Each of the short stories explores something different. Different people, different futures, different obstacles to overcome, but all deliver some much needed hope.
Illustrated by Emily Pearson, Jessi Jordan, Chris Shehan, Isaac Goodheart, and Phillip Sevy
Colored by Marissa Louise and Stelladia
Lettered by Jim Campbell
I’m sure there is a certain expectation that a list like this will make a zombie apocalypse pitstop. But I have resisted obvious choices like The Walking Dead or I Am A Hero, not because they are bad stories, but because the last thing we need right now is end times, macho, wish fulfilment. So instead I’ll direct your attention to a lonelier apocalypse. One that is held together by the people delivering essential goods, not gun toting, wannabe superheroes. The Wilds reads like Annihilation meets Death Stranding meets our exact current situation, set in an America devastated by plague and broken up into city states. With that in mind, I do not recommend it because I want you to stress yourself out even more over current events, but because it is a gripping tale of survival and queer love in a time of hopelessness that is all but guaranteed to resonate with every single person reading this list. The haunting and surreally beautiful depiction of horror futurism presented in this series makes the world we face today seem, if bleak, survivable.
With the recent passing of Rush drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, it’s a good time for both hardcore fans and those with little or no prior knowledge of the band to connect more deeply with their body of work. A worthwhile look into not only the creative process of world famous rockstars, but of artists in general. Particularly valuable insight comes from direct input by guitarist Alex Lifeson and producer Terry Brown. And if you really want to do a Rush comic deep dive you can follow this one up with the graphic adaptations of concept albums 2112 and Clockwork Angels. Of course, they’re both out of print so you may have to settle for just getting blazed and listening to both albums cover to cover while vividly imagining the scenes for yourself. No wrong answers here folks, please just listen to Rush.
Alright, I know what you’re thinking. Twenty-some recommendations in and no sex? You’re stuck inside, pent up both figuratively and literally, and you want some smut. Or maybe that’s not your thing, which is totally cool, but I know at least some of you are just skimming this list looking for something tawdry and lurid. Now, it may go without saying, but I’m gonna emphasize that Alfie is very much not for everyone. The series is, like most pornography, pretty graphic. If you are not an adult, or if you are at all uncomfortable with sexual content, do not read it. For the rest of you, a simple google search will direct you to the homepage of this erotic fantasy webcomic. Beyond it’s very, very sexy artwork, Alfie is a surprisingly touching story about repression, shame, and self-exploration. The characters and relationships it explores are complex, and the emotions heartfelt. And with thirteen chapters and nearly nine hundred pages currently available, it should occupy a good chunk of your time.
Okay, so I’m definitely cheating a bit here, as a deck of cards can hardly be considered a comic. But if we allow ourselves to stretch our definitions just a bit, a tarot deck does indeed juxtapose panel-like images in a row to communicate ideas, so every reading one does can be considered their own personal comic strip. And whether you view tarot as a mystic act of reaching out, a practical tool for working through emotions, or just a fun thing to toy around with, you’re unlikely to find a better time to try it out for yourself then your days spent cooped up inside. With these gorgeously illustrated cards, comic artist Lisa Sterle (Submerged, Dead Beats) has reinterpreted classic archetypes to create an assortment of diverse and inclusive images which reflect modern technology, fashion, and society. Sterle has also written extremely thoughtful and thorough descriptions for interpreting each card. If you find yourself interested, or even a bit curious, you’re sure to find this lovingly crafted assortment of art and insight to be engaging, delightful, and perhaps even beneficial to your mental health.
The Okay Witch is a recently released YA graphic novel, written and drawn by Emma Steinkellner, published by Simon and Schuster’s Aladdin imprint. Steinkellner, who previously illustrated the Eisner-nominated Quince series, makes her graphic novel writing debut in this coming-of-age story about Moth Hush, a serially bullied thirteen year old girl from the town of Founder’s Bluff, Massachusetts. It may seem easy to overlook one more young adult comic about witches, but it would be a mistake to compare this book to any of its superficially similar contemporaries. What The Okay Witch truly excels at is showing off the enormous scope of stories and subject matter at home in the coming-of-age fantasy genre.
This book is far from the first piece of fiction rooted in early American witch hunts. A common problem with these stories is that they can sometimes seem to play into the narrative of witch hunts as legitimate criminal trials rather than absurd, state-sanctioned torture by suggesting that real witches were actually involved. This book manages to subvert this issue by calling out the inherent misogyny of these hunts, and exploring as a major theme, the deliberate erasure of history as a way to control marginalized communities and embolden those already in power. Where this intersects with racism heavily influences the entire narrative. Our protagonist, Moth, is a mixed race teenager who has never known her father, and whose mother’s side of the family is an utter mystery. Moth suffers from accusatory, racially tinged questions like, “Where are you from,” despite her family having roots in the very founding of her town. The witches themselves also reflect the problems of white feminism failing to center the voices of women most particularly targeted by patriarchal violence. The leadership of a black woman is questioned by the other witches again and again throughout the story. “Many were already uneasy with her leading them, and fear and doubt were making it worse.” And while LGBTQ themes are not as significantly apparent as themes of race, a declaration of love between two young men in the fifties is delightfully queernormative in a way that reinforces the book’s ideas about erasure and representation.
Beyond the storytelling, the craft of the book is superb. The art is whimsical and joyful, each character’s design is unique, memorable, and instantly recognizable. The colors express a range of moods, and highlight the difference between present day, flashbacks, and other worlds brilliantly. The lettering is especially impressive. While some pages are very dialogue heavy, they read well, never slowing down or distracting from the art. Given that Steinkellner is the only person credited in the book, it seems safe to assume she handled each of these duties, which is an honest-to-goodness triumph. YA graphic novels continue to explode into the market, and with titles like Raina Telgemeier’s Guts and Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls showing up on the American bestseller list for books overall (not comics or kids books mind you, but books), it seems readers can’t get enough. My recommendation is this, you won’t find a better read for the fall season than The Okay Witch. And if you’ve already checked out Witch Boy, or Mooncakes, or Witchy and feel like you can skip this one, I assure you that all these wonderful titles have different things to offer, and this is just one more that definitely deserves your attention.