I had the opportunity to interview Victoria, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Thank you! I’m Victoria Grace Elliott, a comic artist living in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of Yummy: A History of Desserts and its follow-up, Yummy: A History of Tasty Experiments! And hopefully many other comics down the line.
How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to the medium?
I’ve always been a storyteller at heart, and I’ve always loved drawing. There’s a lot of ways that can manifest, but comics felt like the most natural conclusion to me since I was pretty young. I gravitated toward any comics I could find, even if they weren’t really in my age range, like a lot of the manga that came out in the 80s and 90s, haha.
How would you describe your creative background/ artistic education? And how did you develop your gorgeous style?!
My family is very into art and movies and writing and music, so that was really the backbone of my education! As an art teacher, my mom had all kinds of art materials, and she was big into the crafting that was popular in the 90s. I feel like between her painting, crafts, and decorating, I picked up a lot about color in particular. And as a movie buff family, I was watching all kinds of stuff, which, like the manga, may have been a little over my head, but inspired me nonetheless.
Since my family was such a rich environment for it, this all really encouraged me to take my art seriously, even if just as a hobby. I went to college for Linguistics at the University of Texas, but eventually I found my way into the Radio-TV-Film department, where I learned a lot about media analysis and saw even more kinds of movies and television. Soon after, I joined the comics staff at our student newspaper, The Daily Texan, where a lot of other people from all kinds of departments–art, English, you name it–wanted to hone in on their comics skills. This is really where my comics education flourished. I feel as though our styles of art and storytelling all bounced off each other and our influences.
So yeah, it’s always been a lot of self-teaching and community-teaching for me! It’s hard to describe since it’s such an organic process, but it’s like: Oh, this person is drawing this way, I want my art to look like theirs. At other times, it’s the opposite: I want my art to be distinct from theirs in this way. As time goes on, you naturally come into your own style.
Where did the inspiration for your latest book, Yummy: A History of Desserts come from?
Truthfully, the inspiration came from Gina who started the Random House Graphic imprint herself! I was interested in pitching to RHG, but had so many ideas I didn’t know where to start. In a huge stroke of luck, my agent, Steven Salpeter, had a meeting with her and picked her brain about the kinds of work she’d be interested to see, the key one being a comic about food history!
As I mentioned before, I studied at UT, and I wrote a lot of research papers. As time went on, it had kind of evolved into writing essays about comics and comics as essays. In other words, I felt so prepared for this! I loved synthesizing stuff like that, testing the limits of what a comic could be. After some workshopping, I came up with the pitch for A History of Desserts, featuring three narrator food sprites and a chapter format!
What would you say are some of your favorite desserts (and are any featured in Yummy)?
Of the desserts featured in Yummy, I love mochi ice cream, egg tarts and drop cookies! Those are some of my all-time favorites! I also really love custard-filled sweets, mousse, and light yellow cake with fresh fruit and whipped cream. Sadly, those didn’t make the cut, but they’re truly my go-tos.
As an artist, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?
I have always been inspired by my peers, online and in person, and the many artists I find there. For comics, I’d say my biggest influences have been from manga. For Yummy specifically, I’ve pulled from the manga artists of CLAMP and the cute illustrations from Summikko Gurashi and Sanrio. But I’ve also pulled a lot of humor from peers like ggdg, Zack Morrison, and a bit of style from Choo!
What are some of your favorite parts of the illustration/ creative writing process? What do you feel are some of the most challenging or frustrating?
My favorite parts and hardest parts kind of go together, honestly! I’d say the most challenging part of Yummy was the visual research, both in tracking it down and adapting it to the cute style of the book. However, that’s also the most fun part, too! It takes a lot of time to find, say, a glass dish that will look good in the book from possibly the right time and region for a certain historical cake. But it’s fun to adapt it to my style. Sometimes I have to re-research dishware or patterns or photos, change them from before, draw and redraw. But in the end, it’s always worth it. It adds so much character drawing from real history and objects.
As a queer creative who has previously worked on other queer projects, such as your webcomic, balderdash! or, a tale of two witches, may I ask what creating queer representation means to you personally?
I feel a lot of nebulous ways about what queer representation means to me these days, honestly! I think when I was younger, like in my balderdash! days, I needed so much more labeled representation as I figured myself out and started exploring those sides of myself as a young adult. As an older person who has more fully embraced the nuances of my sexuality and gender, I feel as though I can see it everywhere, like I’m cheating the system to get the most out of it for myself, haha. I think it’s always very important to have the people behind the works be the ones whose representation matters most–queer authors making whatever work they want to– but I also think there’s a wonderful power in empathic readings, where you can maybe see parts of yourself in something that maybe was never meant for you. As a queer creative, that can be converted into soil for your own stories and projects, or even just love for yourself and who you are.
Approaching work like that, I think it’s a lot easier to pick up on, say, the genderqueer vibes some of the sprites of Yummy give off, or some cute flirting I’ve drawn in. That’s all very purposeful, but also very subtle on my part, and I think my presence as the author should speak enough as it is.
As of now, are you currently working on any ideas or projects that you are at liberty to speak about?
Right now, I’m finishing up Yummy: A History of Tasty Experiments! This is a follow-up book that focuses on a lot more unusual food, from cheese to soda to packaged foods! I wanted to explore our relationship to really, really old foods like pickles and cheese to much younger foods, like SPAM and boxed macaroni and cheese. How did these foods become common? And how did we make them before?
What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives?
Make work for yourself first and foremost. Even if it’s an assignment, or even if it’s a commission, find a way to make it satisfying and fun for yourself. There will be times when that’s really, really hard, but I think that’s a key way of tending to your creativity. And take breaks! Long ones! Sleep a lot!
Finally, what LGBTQ books/comics (or comics in general) would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
For other LBGTQ comics around the same age range as Yummy, I’d recommend a few incredible works from Random House Graphic: Reimena Yee’s Séance Tea Party, Trung Le Ngyuen’s The Magic Fish, and Jessi Zabarsky’s Witchlight. They’ve all got upcoming books as well. I know Yee’s next work is My Aunt is a Monster, which looks wonderful, and Zabarsky’s Coming Backis coming out later in January!
Trung Le Capecchi-Nguyen (Trung Le Nguyen, professionally) is a Vietnamese-American comic book artist and writer from Minnesota. He was born in a refugee camp somewhere in the Philippine province of Palawan.
Trung’s first original graphic novel, The Magic Fish, was published on October 13th, 2020 through Random House Graphic, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It won two Harvey Awards. Trung has also contributed work for DC Comics, Oni Press, Boom! Studios, and Image Comics.
He currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and raises three very spoiled hens. He is fond of fairy tales, kids’ cartoons, and rom-coms of all stripes.
I had the opportunity to interview Trung, which you can read below.
First of all, what first drew you to storytelling? At what point did you realize you wanted to tell your own stories?
I consider my relationship to storytelling-on-purpose somewhat new. I think everybody figures out the ways they best like to express themselves in their daily lives, and being a career creative person formalizes that a little bit. The Magic Fish is the first work of fiction I’ve ever really done, so I’m still sussing out my relationship to storytelling, honestly.
How would you describe your crafting style? How do you go about creating on a continual basis while balancing day-to-day life or stresses?
My work style is so chaotic, in part because of its newness and in part because I’m a very scattered sort of person. My work-life balance is largely fine by luck because I have a loving support network behind me, and my collaborators are smart, experienced people who remind me to take days off and give myself more room to recover. I was an overcommitted, high-achieving kid who grew up into an overworked and frequently burned-out adult, and I’m still figuring out how to live with it and work around it.
As far as the more granular details in making comics, I like regimented segments. I start with an outline, then I write the script, then draw thumbnails, then draw the pages. I had assumed I was a visually oriented person who would prefer to start with the thumbnails and also make the script at the same time. I was shocked to discover that I actually need a script to work from. I like that level of organization, and from there I feel like I waste less time and wrist strain drawing and redrawing concepts.
In your narratives, language seems to stand as something that can divide people while stories stand for something that connects? Do you agree with that assessment?
If a reader tells me that’s their takeaway and that it feels true to their life, then yes, their assessment is correct. For me, language is a tool. It’s not precisely the thing that divides, though it can certainly feel like that, but the characters figure out a way to identify the gaps in their languages and bridge them in whatever ways they can. Sometimes it’s switching back and forth between two languages, and sometimes it’s speaking a hybrid language specific to their home, as with a lot of immigrant families.
That sort of language use, cobbling things together to build contexts that convey specific ideas, is very organic. By my estimation, the instances where language becomes a divider is when it’s coupled with systemic forces. So when a hybrid-language speaker in the United States is regarded as unintelligent, for example, because they don’t test well or something, there are a lot of interlocking systems at play upholding that unfair assessment. That’s not the fault of language. Language is organic and flexible. It’s not a sedentary, calcified artifact. Language is meant to shift as its users shift. We could have a rudimentary understanding of a language and still go about our day beyond the ken of the formalities of pedantic grammarian navel-gazing. We all do it. We live among and around people who speak different languages.
Storytelling becomes an extension of that language use, so I don’t find it useful to create a binary where language is the divider and storytelling is the connector. The loss of language, the angst of diasporic identities, and the feeling of bereavement of a space and culture, all that can be chalked up to imperialism and war in this instance.
In The Magic Fish, you explore a narrative in which a mother and son, dealing with generational and multicultural gaps, connect through the fairytales they read together. As someone whose often only shared literary references to her own parents were fairy tales, why do you think this medium has such extensive potential?
I think, very simply, fairy tales are frequently some of our earliest experiences with storytelling, and they also happen to be very old. This seems to uniquely position it as almost a narrative control group, and the stories your parents hear and the stories told to you can be a neat little generational bridge. And because they’re oral tradition, because they survive in iterations and retellings, they have this beautiful elastic quality that makes them so accessible. I think that’s why I center them in my storytelling. I love the imperfect ways people recollect fairy tales. Most of us could recount the tale of Cinderella, and the pieces we emphasize and the ways the characters look and sound might all be different, but the fairy tale lends itself to being a vehicle of participation where everyone gets to storytell. “I know this part,” or “I love this part!” or “Wow, I remember that!” It’s a little silly, but it’s a little like that feeling you get at a club when a beloved song comes on and the whole dance floor lip syncs along! It’s that feeling, but small and intimate. I love that.
One of the many things that touched me about Tiến’s struggle with coming-out was that he did not have the language to describe the queerness to his Vietnamese family. As someone who had similar struggles in regards to finding language (Russian in my case) to describe queer identity growing up, what do you feel is the connection between language and identity?
I mentioned before that language is a mutable tool, so I don’t think there’s an essential connection between language and identity. It’s part of the makeup of a culture, so certainly the verbiage we find will have an effect on how we employ language to describe, for instance, queerness. Language can come with baggage over long use, and words can become tarnished and feel barbed. Parts of it can be discarded or it can be reclaimed and rehabilitated into use. Language seems to have a difficult time keeping up with identity, actually. And even when it seems to catch up, it’s only temporary. The culture moves on, and new language needs to be made or old language comes back into fashion. My best guess is just that language is not compatible with essentialism because language is slower than identity. Sometimes it takes a little while for language to wrap itself around something everybody was already living with.
While reading your book, one of the things that stood out to me was how you explored The Little Mermaid as an immigrant narrative in addition to a queer one? As a fairytale created and shaped in such a different century than today, why do you think this story continues to hold so much relevance and so many meanings?
Honestly, I’m sure every reader has their different reasons. I can say that Andersen’s Little Mermaid was a personally resonant story for him in particular. It was written as a literary fairy tale for children by an author who was known in his day, and that’s a meaningful distinction from other stories we popularly think of as fairy tales. Andersen’s stories are different from Perrault’s or the Grimm stories because they don’t pretend they don’t have a point of view. The Grimms collected their stories from all over, but they edited them and increasingly sanitized them as newer editions were published. And certainly, The Little Mermaid had its forebears in Rusalka and Ondine, but Andersen was writing a story from his own heart and from his own point of view, first and foremost. He was not immune from an editorial process, and the story was affixed with this weird epilogue about the little mermaid earning a human soul through endless suffering at the whims of children all over the world. But the heart of the story, the special yearning and the toilsome sacrifices upon which Andersen’s story leans, remains deeply personal, and I think people respond to that.
In The Magic Fish you explore three distinct and beautiful fairytales. Were there any other stories you considered including in your graphic novel? Are there are other fairytales you would still like to explore in your work now?
At one point I wanted to include the Japanese fairy tale of the fisherman and the turtle princess to express that Rip Van Winkle effect that Helen feels when she finally comes back to Vietnam and finds everything unrecognizable. There just wasn’t enough room to do it, ultimately, and I thought three basic fairy tales made for a pleasing number.
Aside from making comics, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?
There’s not too much to tell. I love old sitcoms, and I have them on in the background while I draw. I play a lot of video games, though I get overly competitive and yell at the screen a lot. I really like desserts! I have three very sweet hens named Beatrice, Paulette, and Edwina. I watch all the main Rankin Bass holiday cartoons every year around Christmas.
As a creator, what advice would you give for other creators who are looking to explore identity in their craft?
My main advice for creators, especially creators who come from marginalized backgrounds, is that they should protect themselves from the pressure to get everything right all the time. We all change and grow, and even the stories we tell about ourselves won’t always well represent us in time. I want everyone to be free of the burden of being the sole representation, and that can be accomplished by getting as many diverse voices published as possible. When we know there are others like us in the room, the weight of carrying the entire arc of our stories is lightened. We can be free to tell the narrowly specific, messy, and fun stories of our hearts instead of feeling any special responsibility of edifying an ignorant readership.
Are there any projects you are working on right now and at liberty to speak about?
I am working on my second OGN for Random House Graphic at the moment. I’m very excited about it. It doesn’t have a solid title yet, but I am loving the process of writing it so far. I can’t wait for everyone to meet these new characters!
Finally, what books (both LGBTQ+ and otherwise) would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
I love just about anything by Jeanette Winterson. Her writing is absolutely incredible. I recommend The Daylight Gate and also Lighthousekeeping. MariNaomi’s books are all formative graphic storytelling for me. I read Dragon’s Breath and Turning Japanese back to back before I thought I would ever make graphic novels, and they blew me away. I loved No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant, and Flamer by Mike Curato absolutely gutted me. I’m currently working my way through Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, and the whole thing just makes me giddy with joy. This was the sort of book Teen Me would have loved to bits and carried on into forever. I’m sure there’s more, but those are the ones that spring to mind right away.
Jarrett Melendez grew up on the mean, deer-infested streets of Bucksport, Maine. A longtime fan of food and cooking, Jarrett has spent a lot of his time in kitchens, oftentimes as a paid professional! Jarrett is a regular contributor to Bon Appetit and Food52, and is the author of The Comic Kitchen, a fully illustrated, comic-style cookbook. When not cooking and writing about food, Jarrett usually writes comic books (like this one, Chef’s Kiss!) and has contributed to the Ringo-nominated All We Ever Wanted, Full Bleed, and Murder Hobo: Chaotic Neutral. He is currently writing a graphic memoir for Oni Press. Jarrett lives in Somerville, MA.
Danica Brine is walking sass in a leather jacket, forged in the icy lands of New Brunswick, Canada. From her waking hours to the moment she slumps over asleep at her desk, Danica can be found with a drawing tool in her hands. Her work has been featured on the covers of Wayward, Elephantmen, Exorsisters, and Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor. She’s also contributed artwork to All We Ever Wanted, featured in the New York Times, and The Comic Kitchen. When not working as a comic artist, she illustrates children’s books for a Canadian French-language publisher. Danica lives in Moncton, NB, Canada, with her husband, Nick, and their shiba inu, Taro.
I had the pleasure of interviewing both Jarrett and Danica, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?
JM: Well, I’m 36, a Leo, single, and I write comics and for food media. I love cooking, writing, video games, and, of course, comics. I wrote Chef’s Kiss, and I live in Somerville, MA with a collection of Monokuro Boo plush pigs.
DB: Thank you! I’m Danica, the illustrator for Chef’s Kiss. I’m a freelance artist living in New Brunswick, Canada with my partner Nick and shiba inu, Taro. Other than drawing I love long walks in the woods and playing too much Animal Crossing.
Where did the impetus for Chef’s Kiss come from and how did the two of you get paired together for this project?
JM: Danica and I had been friends for about four years when we decided to collaborate on this book. We’d been talking about trying our hands at making comics and sharing a ton of interests, like BL manga and anime, food, beautiful men—all the best things. At the time, you didn’t see a ton of queer romance in western comics, and we wanted to change that.
DB: Jarrett and I have been friends for almost a decade now, and we’ve always wanted to collaborate on something together. Chef’s Kiss came from Jarrett watching me draw cute boys for commissions at conventions and him saying, “hey, I should write a comic and you should draw it”. Chef’s Kiss was the result of a faithful meeting at a Boston Comic Con years back.
How did you get into writing/ illustrating? Were there any books/stories growing up that made you think “I want to do this myself one day”?
JM: I’ve been writing stories since I was a little kid. English was always my strongest subject in school, but it wasn’t something I saw myself doing as a grown up. It wasn’t until I was in college and read Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami that I started considering writing as a career. I think that was the first book that made me cry, and all that raw emotion rekindled my love of writing.
DB: I’ve loved drawing ever since I can remember. My favourite thing of all time as a kid was colouring books! Growing up in a bilingual community, I was exposed to French bandes dessinées (comics) like TinTin, Spirou and Astérix & Obélix as well as French translated manga. I always loved Disney movies too, and thought of pursuing animation. When I finally attended animation college, that’s where I discovered I wanted to draw comics! My partner Nick, who is also a comic illustrator, has also been a strong influence on me getting into drawing comics professionally.
Were there any queer narratives growing up that stuck out to you and/or left an impression?
JM: Gosh, not really. It wasn’t really common to see queer folks in mainstream media when I was little unless it was mired in tragedy, like the film Philadelphia. Apart from that, stuff like Will & Grace and Queer as Folk were probably the first overtly queer pieces of media I was exposed to and, honestly, had the biggest impact in terms of making me realize it was okay to be queer.
DB: As a hetero female, I never thought of seeking out queer narratives in particular. I think being exposed to things like manga, I just love the thought of beautifully drawn male characters? Maybe it all spun from that?
Cooking and writing about cooking can be two very different things. What’s the appeal of both to you and what drew you to them?
JM: I love cooking for loved ones, and I love getting people excited about the things I love so, for me, the two go hand in hand. Writing about cooking gives me the chance to get others excited about cooking, whether it’s a recipe I’ve developed, or a piece of kitchen equipment I particularly love using. When I’m really in a groove in the kitchen, I lose myself in the process. I can hyper fixate on things sometimes, like a particular food craving. This one time I had a huge craving for meatball subs, but none of the spots near me were quite right, so they couldn’t satisfy the craving. So I spent 12 hours making rolls, slow cooking sauce in the oven, and roasting meatballs, then braising them in that sauce to make, for me, the absolute perfect meatball sub. And I’d do it again.
How did you come to find yourself becoming an illustrator and could you describe your artistic background for us?
DB: I’ve always been drawing. In high school, I took a fine arts mail correspondence course and the same time. In my 20’s it took me going to college for animation to figure out I wanted to draw comics, so here I am today in my 30’s doing what I love best! Through the years, I’ve work for several indie publishing companies in the US, Canada and France as well as illustrated children’s books for a small publisher local to me. Chef’s Kiss is my first fully published graphic novel.
I’m very curious to know where the pig character comes from? Was there a real life inspiration for Watson the pig?
JM: I’m just obsessed with pigs! I think they’re super cute. There sort of is a real life inspiration, actually! So, all of the plush pigs in my collection have names, and one of my favorites is named Watson.
DB: Pigs are Jarrett’s favourite animals. Dogs are mine (but I love baby boars too!). We knew we wanted Watson to not be your average pig…I drew him to look like a pig and act a bit like a pet dog. We both wanted to make him win every reader’s heart. I hope we’re successful!
How would you describe your writing/ illustrating process? What are some of your favorite things about writing/ illustrating?
JM: It’s a lot of staring into the middle distance thinking about characters, settings, action and dialogue. Just a lot of daydreaming, almost. Once I have a good framework for a story, it becomes very mechanical: outline, page breakdowns (deciding the key moment for each page, and how many panels it’ll take to get there), then scripting the action, followed by dialogue. My favorite parts are the sitting and staring—it’s very nostalgic, like being a kid trying to cook up the next scenario in your game of pretend—and then the dialogue.
DB: I love being able to tell a story using pictures in harmony with the script. My favourite part of the process has to be inking. Storyboarding and pencilling takes a lot of concentration. Inking is so relaxing, you’re just following your lines and filling in your blacks. I love watching repeats of shows like The Office when I ink.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
JM: Is that full head of salt and pepper, daddylicious hair natural? Why, yes. Yes, it is.
DB: Bagels with butter and cream cheese? Or just cream cheese? The right answer is the first one.
JM: Also, Danica is 100% correct: butter, then cream cheese.
What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives?
JM: Say yes to things, take chances, and don’t wait to try and publish your work, whether its a webcomic, self-publishing, or pitching to publishers. The first thing you create and put out into the world is not going to be your best work, and you can’t be afraid of that.
DB: 1.) Either it’s drawing, writing, creating music..If you love it, do it. 2.) Try not to let the number of followers on social media dictate what is success. I’ve noticed this trend for the last while and it can destroy you as an artist. 3.) Nothing is simply handed over either, you need to put in the mileage.
Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?
JM: Yes! Danica and I are currently developing a post-apocalyptic Mexican fantasy graphic novel, and I just turned in a script for my graphic memoir. I have about six different projects in various stages of development, all coming out over the next few years. Buckle up!
DB: Other than being quite busy with a backlog of commissions, Jarrett and I are starting development this year on a new graphic novel featuring Mexican folklore and adventure!
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ books/comics you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
JM: Commanders in Crisis by Steve Orlando and Davide Tinto is a great superhero book, but I’m also a huge fan of Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu, and Heartstopper by Alice Oseman—both are super wholesome queer romance graphic novel series. I’m also a very big fan of Casey McQuiston’s books—Red, White and Royal Blue made me cry like a gigantic baby, and I loved every second of it. Horror fans should also peep Orlando’s Party and Prey, which he co-wrote with Steve Foxe, with art by Alex Sanchez.
DB: Since I’m always so busy drawing, I rarely get a chance to sit down and read something other than for research…All I know is that there should be more books out there with content catered to the LGBTQ+ community! Especially for younger readers that are looking to identify with characters in those stories 🙂
Nina Moreno was born and raised in Miami until a hurricane sent her family toward the pines of Georgia where she picked up an accent. She’s a proud University of Florida Gator who once had her dream job of shelving books at the library. Inspired by the folklore and stories passed down to her from her Cuban and Colombian family, she now writes about Latinas chasing their dreams, falling in love, and navigating life in the hyphen. Her first novel, Don’t Date Rosa Santos, was a Junior Library Guild Selection, Indie Next Pick for teen readers, and SIBA Okra Pick. Her second YA novel, Our Way Back to Always, was published by LBYR in Fall 2021.
Courtney Lovett received her BFA in Visual Arts and Animation from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She works in different mediums and artistic disciplines, including illustration, character design, and animation. As a Black American and a native of the DC, Maryland, Virginia area, her work reflects her heritage and upbringing, which adds to today’s cultural shift of creating diverse and relatable stories from perspectives that are often underrepresented or misrepresented in art and media.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?
NM: Thank you! I’m a Florida girl who was born in Miami but moved to a small town outside of Atlanta after Hurricane Andrew. I returned to my home state and attended the University of Florida (go Gators!) where a class about kid lit reminded me how much I used to love reading and got me back to writing.
CL: Thank you, I’m honored. I am from the DMV, born and raised in Maryland, where I currently live. I specialize in illustration and character design, but I am passionate about all things storytelling. I love reading it, watching it, analyzing, and discussing it. Switching off that part of my brain can be difficult, sometimes to the annoyance of my family whenever we’re watching movies and tv (haha). My family is my biggest inspiration for my work and beyond. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the outpouring of love and support from them and the community that raised me. I’m also passionate about kids and education, so when I’m not creating stories, I teach digital art at a local art studio.
Where did the impetus to create Join the Club, Maggie Diaz come from? How did you both come to work with each other on this project?
NM: The initial spark actually came from my editor, the incredibly funny and fellow Florida kid, Shelly Romero. As someone who was working on YA novels, I hadn’t planned to write a middle grade story yet, but Shelly came to me with an idea and my imagination just took off. I love writing about friends, families, and communities and fell in love with writing MG. And when Shelly and the team showed me Courtney’s illustrations, the entire project came alive in this really exciting way. Courtney’s work is amazing and she brought so much to the story and characters. It’s a total dream team.
CL: I was excited to work with Scholastic since their imprint was on so many books of my childhood. When I read Nina’s writing, I fell in love with the project. I saw so much of myself in Maggie and her journey, and she’s so funny! The grounded story combined with the laugh-out-loud scenarios fed into my inspiration. It was also enlightening for me as a Black woman to learn more about Cuban American culture. Representation and diverse stories are important to me, so any project that reflects that, I’m all in.
Do you remember any books or authors/artists growing you that touched you or you felt reflected in your identities in any way?
NM: I loved going to thrift stores with my mom when I was younger and searching the shelves of used books. That’s where I found all of my books as a kid, and so discovering Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban on one of those shelves was a really big deal to me. The title alone was a thrill. I loved reading and tended to secretly imagine some mentioned brunette was Latina like me, but that was the first time I realized a story could be so specific to me and my family’s experience.
CL: Hmm, it’s difficult to say because growing up I wasn’t exposed to many books that reflected my identity as a Black girl. The only one I can think of was the novel The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake I read in fourth grade. It was the first time I read a story that reflected my experience and had characters that behaved and spoke as I did. There weren’t many protagonists that looked like me, but interestingly it wasn’t something I was fully aware of. In the same way I related to Maggie, I latched on to the characters’ personalities and journeys. Judy Blume was one of my favorite authors growing up because her stories had some of the most relatable characters I ever read. The lack of representation wasn’t something I paid attention to until I started comparing it to what I saw on television. I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s watching many sitcoms where Black people were at the center. One of my all-time favorite shows that inspires me to this day is The Proud Family because it combines two things I’m passionate about – animation and representation. I was not seeing that reflected in children’s publishing. Now the landscape has changed and there is a push for representation from all walks of life. I believe both are necessary. Kids should see themselves as heroes of their own stories, but they can also engage with stories where they are not at the center. Everyone gets a seat at the table, where we all can acknowledge our similarities as well as celebrate our differences, where all of us are seen. To me, that is what it means to be inclusive.
What do you think pushed you toward going on the paths you went?
NM: It took me a while to realize that writing and publishing was even a possibility. I loved books, sure, but to become a professional writer? That meant being able to afford going to some fancy college for a hundred degrees or becoming a journalist. It meant having connections or being brilliant and I was not that shiny of a student. But then I rediscovered my love for reading and writing after college. I remembered what it was to be a voracious reader and I had so many story ideas that I knew I had to try. So, I went to the bookstore and bought this huge book about queries and it had all these literary agents listed in it. And then I got to work.
CL: I always knew I wanted art to be my career choice. I didn’t, however, foresee how much the dream would change. At first, I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, then I wanted to be a comic artist, then I wanted to be a cartoonist, an animator, a writer, a teacher. After I earned my degree, I dabbled in freelance, where I tried anything and everything that would land me more work. My current path in publishing started in 2019 when a client I personally knew approached me to illustrate her picture book. I realized through that experience and my time in undergrad that what I was truly passionate about wasn’t simply the art or being an artist. When I think about all the dreams I had, there is but one through line – storytelling. Once the book was self-published nine months later, that same year I signed with my agent and began my career as an illustrator. The amazing irony of where I am now is that publishing allows me opportunities to live in nearly every dream I named earlier. I’m an illustrator, a cartoonist, I create short comics, I dip into writing, and outside all of that I am a teacher. It’s crazy to think about all these pivots when my career has only begun. The path of a creator is beautiful and unpredictable in that way.
Your first book, Don’t Date Rosa Santos, is a lovely YA novel reflecting grief, magical realism, and Cuban identity. Where did the inspiration for this book come from and what was it like writing it?
NM: I wrote Don’t Date Rosa Santos while I was on submission with my first book that never sold. I was feeling burnt out and anxious over whether this whole writing thing was going to work out. Instead of worrying about that book, I started to write something new that was bursting with stuff I loved. I wanted something where a girl like me could live in a cute, seaside town and not have to sacrifice any parts of herself or her culture to be the main character. I love Rosa so much because writing her book reminded me why I love doing this and that there’s always another story around the corner.
As a writer, what would you say are some of the best and hardest parts of your process creating something?
NM: The blank page can be as intimidating as everyone says it is. There’s such a thrill to coming up with a new story and getting lost in daydreams about it, but then you have to somehow get what’s in your head onto the page and when it’s not clicking or working, it can be really tough to keep writing. But that’s why, for me, I love editing and revising so much. It’s the promise of making it better and knowing you’ll be able to step back later and see the bigger picture. If I can just get those first words down, I know that I can fix it in edits and get the story to that place I imagined or somewhere even better.
As an illustrator, what would you say are some of the best and hardest parts of your process creating something?
CL: The most difficult part of the process is the beginning. A blank canvas can be intimidating. How I learned to work through the fear is to get inspired – an engaging book, a fun movie, browsing artwork from my favorite artists, sometimes a walk – and then come back to the blank canvas with a much more relaxed mindset. The best part of creating is to witness an idea evolve into a completely different result from what I initially envisioned in my head. I find, more often than not, allowing myself to play and be fluid in my process lends itself to better results.
Could you describe your artistic background in some detail, like how did you get into art and what your art education was like?
CL: Since I was very young, I was captivated by the cartoons I used to watch with my siblings. Actually, the reason I started drawing in the first place was that my elder sister did it, first. Like any little sister, I wanted to try all the cool things my siblings did (haha). From that point, I couldn’t put down my pencil. I kept drawing and eventually caught the eye of my second grade art teacher. She invited me to enroll in her art program More Than Conquerors (MTC) Art Studios, where I trained over ten years in the foundations of visual art. Once I graduated from that program, I attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County where I earned my BFA in Visual Arts and Animation. I’m so grateful for the solid foundation I received at MTC, which prepared me for any challenge I met in undergrad. I credit my training there for my ability to adapt to different art styles and mediums.
How would you describe your writing/ illustrating process? What are some of your favorite things about writing/ illustrating?
NM: I live for the moments when I’m able to capture a feeling or idea. When the words click together in a satisfying sentence that says exactly what I hoped it would. I’m a pretty big outliner and like to work on story beats when I’m daydreaming the story. It feels a little like detective work figuring out what might happen next and it helps me stay engaged and in love with the idea. I’m at my best when I’m obsessed with something, so I love losing myself to a story idea and finding my way around it. And with those beats and outline I feel more confident when it’s time to finally face the blank page.
CL: Much like my body of work, my process can be quite eclectic and my style varies from project to project. For Maggie Diaz, specifically, I was heavily inspired by Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Where my approach deviated from Jeff Kinney’s brilliant style was the amount of detail I included in each spot illustration. My goal was to capture the warm setting of Miami in the environments and the richness of the Cuban American culture in the characters’ features, the hair (my personal favorite part), the details in the food, and so much more. That is what I love about illustration – the opportunity to explore settings and cultures outside my everyday experiences.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
NM: I’ve never been asked this! I love getting to talk craft and inspiration. Writing stories so closely linked to my identity is a gift that I don’t take lightly, but sometimes it can feel like I get put into the Latinx box and left there until our heritage month rolls around. But getting interviewed about this book has been really fun because I get to talk so much about comedy and humor now too.
CL: What motivates you to create stories? Kids. Whenever I’m making a decision on any project, young people are always at the forefront of my mind. It was the stories I read and watched as a child that inspired me to become an artist. At the very least, I want to bring joy to young lives. Beyond that, I want to help bring out that same spark in another child and encourage them to use their voice and tell their story no matter who they are and where they come from.
What advice might you have to give to other aspiring writers and creatives?
NM: Remember to stop and fill the creative well with the books, art, and media that inspires you and gets you excited to create. Turning something we love into a job can be tough as the work and all the deadlines hit, so it’s important to rest and hydrate and remember.
CL: Harkening back to my previous answer – allow the dream to change. Have a goal, yes, but do not be so rigid as to limit your options. Explore. Play. Try everything. You never know what skill or insight you will acquire from trying different art forms, or even things unrelated to art. One of my course requirements in undergrad was screenwriting, which I initially had little interest in. It ended up being my favorite class and broadened my interests beyond illustration and animation to writing and directing. You might think because of what I do that my biggest inspirations are other illustrators and cartoonists, when in fact, I am most inspired by performing artists – singers, dancers, actors, musicians, and theater performers. The best advice I can give is to never stop learning and to expose yourself to a wide range of influences.
Are there other projects you are working on and at liberty to discuss?
NM: I am working on something and because this is publishing, of course I’m not able to discuss it yet. Ha! But I’m really excited about it and can’t wait to share!
CL: Yes! I recently signed on to a 4-book deal with Scholastic. It is an early chapter book series Disaster Squad written by educator and STEAM expert Rekha S. Rajan. Each book follows a family that travels the U.S. as first responders to natural disasters. The first book will be released in fall 2023.
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
NM: I love Mark Oshiro’s books so much and their latest is a fantastic middle grade debut called The Insiders that is so full of heart, some magic, and is all about honoring ourselves. And This is Our Rainbow just released and is the first LGBTQA+ anthology for middle graders with a wide range of stories and amazing authors!
CL: Oh, good question. I recently read What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera, and I could not put the book down. It’s beautiful, it’s emotional, and relatable for any young person simply trying to navigate life. I can’t wait to pick up the sequel Here’s To Us.
Eleanor Crewes is a London based illustrator, she graduated from Illustration at UAL in 2016. Her debut graphic novel The Times I Knew I Was Gay was released in April 2018 and has already taken her to exhibit at Toronto Comic Arts Festival and receive review from websites like The Quietus and Broken Frontier. She specialises in graphic storytelling and enjoys mixing autobiography into her projects wherever she can.
I have the opportunity to interview Eleanor, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Hey, thanks for having me! I’m Eleanor Crewes. I live in London with my partner and I draw graphic novels!
How did you find yourself getting into comics? What draws you in about this medium of storytelling?
I was introduced to comics by my Dad, he’d always get me single issues like Mary Jane Loves Spiderman and graphic novels like Courtney Crumrin and The Night Things. I’d enjoy reading them, but mostly I liked copying the characters into my own comic books. It was fun to reimagine the stories from my own perspective. I’d pick characters that I felt represented me and my friends, and draw them in scenarios that were exciting to me—most of the time this was just ripping off the original comic, but it made it feel like it was mine. What I enjoy about making comics hasn’t changed much since then, although all the material I write is now officially my own, not stolen!
Who would you say are some of your artistic influences? Are there any artists or books you look to for inspiration?
When I went to Art School my attention moved completely away from comics for about four years, and I spent most of that time pouring over children’s picture books instead. This now means that my illustration inspirations are a happy muddle, so what I look to depends on the project I have on at the time. That being said, the artists I will always love are Matt Rockefeller, Carson Ellis, Loïc Locatelli-Kournwsky and Isabelle Arsenault.
Your first book, The Times I Knew I Was Gay, is a graphic memoir of your evolution as a gay person, and discovering your queer identity. How did it feel translating your memories onto the page?
The first book that really inspired me to make my own work was Vanessa Davis’ Make Me a Woman. I read this just after coming out and although it didn’t follow the same narrative, I felt comforted reading about Venessa’s sloppy teenage kisses, and connected with her experiences of not feeling totally sure in your own body. The Times I Knew I Was Gay started as tiny drawings I made on scrap that explored me in different scenarios saying “I’m so gay!” Making them gave me a route to consider all the times I maybe could have know that I was gay, and that led me to asking myself: ‘why didn’t you know?’ — and that felt like something I really needed to explore. I really enjoyed making The Times I Knew I Was Gay, especially once I was working with my my editors. I was surprised by how many more memories came up for me, but I’d already had such a warm and kind response to the indie publication (in 2018), that it made me want to give back to the readers who had already supported the story.
Was there anything you wished you had included in the book that you didn’t get a chance to?
When I was working on the first chapter of The Times I Knew I Was Gay I got to draw lots of memories from my early childhood, particularly a section about how my Dad would take me to Camden market to buy cool T-shirt’s from the stands that were run by punks with Mohawks and the biggest platform boots you’d ever see. When I completed the first full re-drafting of The Times I Knew I Was Gay it was over 400 pages and we had to cut at least 100 of those out. I always liked how warm and gentle a lot of those drawings were.
A large part of The Times I Knew I Was Gay includes an experience I’m sure is familiar to many queer people, such as fighting heteronormativty in order to discover and accept one’s queerness. Would you mind expanding on that a bit here?
I think this fight is a big part of my long experience of coming out. As I detail in the book, I tried and tried again to fancy boys and to dress a certain way. I really wanted to want these things, but in the end I couldn’t. It’s funny, because heteronormativity is the pressure that I would have been feeling, but at the time that’s not the word I would have used for that massive struggle. I would have seen it as ‘growing up’ or ‘being a girl’ or ‘teenage angst’. Which is also why heteronormativity is not just a trap or a fight for queer people, but for everyone. Heteronormativity is a vicious system that tries to trap all of us! I just feel lucky that I could keep on fighting.
What are some of your favorite parts of making comics and the creative writing process?
I used to be really averse to colour, but since pushing my visual style I am now a true fan of colouring in! Once I’ve drawn out all of the lines and markers, I put on my audiobook and can colour in for hours, that’s a real happy place.
What advice might you give to those hoping to make comics?
Don’t give yourself too many hard and fast rules. The Times I Knew I Was Gay started out as a zine that I hand stitched and delivered to shops by bike, and the style of the book—no panels, black and white illustrations and very few speech bubbles—has not changed!
Aside from comics, what would you say are some of your other hobbies and interests?
Cooking! I love to cook, my mother’s family are Italian and she’s definitely passed down the food bug to me and my brother.
Can you tell us a bit about your latest book, Lilla the Accidental Witch? You mentioned in the book, that the story is personal, not only for its queer themes, but for being inspired by your family background? Could you discuss your familial connection and your inspiration?
When I was little I would spend every summer staying with my family in Italy. Everything about these memories of the four, uninterrupted weeks out in the hills with my Aunt is so idyllic. Most days were spent playing Playstation with my brother and cousin for hours; but it was also magical because of the conversations I’d have with my Aunt. She’d read to me from her childhood book of ghost stories, on long drives she’d tell me about the local ghosts and witches, and out in the fields she’d help me collect wild herbs and flowers that I’d later turn into spells. With all those stories washing around my head, looking out at the vast landscape and traipsing through woodland—the house is so high up you can watch the weather change in the next town over, before it reaches you—I’d say it would be hard not to be inspired. Once I’d written The Times I Knew I Was Gay I knew I wanted to move into fiction, and the pleasure I found in drawing those scenes from my early childhood (the ones that didn’t make it into the finished book), crept over into Lilla the Accidental Witch. When I first pitched the story, I said: “This is the coming out I wish I’d had, when I was small I knew I was different, but I thought that difference was being a witch.”
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
I’d have to say ‘how did you find your drawing style?’ And the answer to that is – by coming out! It’s probably a big cliche, but before I was out of my tightly locked closet I would jump between as many artistic styles as I did fashion trends. I really didn’t know what I liked or how to find it, and I’d go from creating photo realistic portraits (or as good as) to block printing abstract shapes overnight. Once I came out it was like I’d taken the longest, hottest bath of my life and had finally relaxed. That relaxation also affected my drawing, my style became looser and my idea of what I wanted also changed. I stopped being so hard on myself and cultivated what I was actually good at.
Are there any other projects you are currently working on and at liberty to talk about?
At the moment I’m continuing to flex my fantasy muscles, but I’m going right back to what I’ve always loved, and that’s ghost stories. I’m working on a collection of short stories in graphic format. My aim is to combine what I admire about the old masters (M.R. James, Edith Wharton) and combine that visually with my own illustrative style. I’m enjoying making this new work so much.
Finally, what queer comics/books would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Katherine Battersby is a fan girl of comics, ice cream, tea and travel. In her spare time she is the president of the Cranky Club and can be found grumbling about bananas, loud music and exclamation marks. She is also the critically acclaimed author and illustrator of eleven picture books and one chapter book, including Cranky Chicken, Trouble and the popular Squish Rabbit series, which have been published around the world. Her books have been reviewed in The New York Times, have received starred Kirkus reviews and have been shortlisted for numerous awards. She is regularly booked to speak in schools, libraries and at festivals and she is a passionate advocate for literacy and the arts.
I had the opportunity to interview Katherine, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Hi – thanks for hosting me on your gorgeous, queer, colourful blog! I am a fangirl of comic books, ice cream, mischief, tea and travel. I am also the author and illustrator of a whole bunch of quirky picture books, like TROUBLE and PERFECT PIGEONS, and I also now get to make my very own comic books (CRANKY CHICKEN is my first!). I grew up by the beach in Australia and now live by the mountains in Canada. I can be found most days either making books, reading books or sharing books with my three year old (and occasionally even my dog).
How would you describe your latest book, Cranky Chicken? Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
CRANKY CHICKEN is a humorous comic book / graphic novel about a very cranky chicken who accidentally saves the life of a super excitable worm. Worm decides they are going to be BFFs – Best Feathered Friends. The book follows their quirky and unlikely friendship across three mini stories.
As for where the idea came from, well … would you believe I’m scared of chickens? Because all chickens are cranky chickens (I was chased by a lot of chickens in my youth). Then one day, during one of my author school visits, I met this tiny girl who was a huge fan of chickens. She told me, “They’re not scary – they’re hilarious!” I couldn’t stop thinking about her, so I decided to spend some more time drawing chickens. CRANKY CHICKEN is what emerged. It turns out we were both right – chickens are cranky and hilarious.
The story itself is inspired by the mischief my best friend and I used to get up to as kids. She was an extrovert who was an only child, so she was always turning up on my doorstep just like Worm – full of excitement and ready to play. Whereas I was an introvert who was part of a big blended family. I never had any time to myself, so I could be a bit of a cranky chicken. Even now we often laugh at how different and yet similar we are. Chicken and Worm are a lot like that, too.
Reading Cranky Chicken, I loved the relationship between the two different personalities, Chicken and Worm. What was it like writing their relationship together?
Chicken was the first character who turned up in my brain and she burst onto the page with that unwavering unibrow. It was clear right from the beginning that she was going to be spectacularly cranky. But she only truly became alive to me when she met Worm. I always find characters most intriguing when you see them in contrast with someone else. When they have someone to react to and bounce off of. So as soon as the two were together on the page, I got a pretty immediate sense of who they were and how, despite their differences (and possibly because of them) they are perfect for each other. I love mismatched friendship tales – maybe because I feel like all my friendships are slightly mismatched. Maybe that’s what friendship is? With my very closest friends I share deep core principles, but there is always so much about us that is different, too (and often quite opposite!). It’s these differences that allow us to challenge each other and provide alternate perspectives and allows for great conversations. Chicken and Worm are just like this, and they are always learning together. These characters are so vivid to me they almost write themselves. They are such a joy to work with.
What would you say are some of your favorite craft elements to work on?
I do love the craft of writing and illustration. All the little decisions and ideas and skills and thoughts that add up to make the magic that is a book. I love talking about it, learning it, teaching it, practising it. I love it all! I think my favourite might be whatever I feel my current weakness is, because I do love a good challenge. Before writing CRANKY CHICKEN, my weakness was dialogue. As soon as I admitted this to myself, my brain threw me the idea for CRANKY CHICKEN. My brain is cheeky like that – of course it went and threw me a dialogue only concept when I felt that was my weakness. So I studied and learned and challenged myself to be better, and I hope I did Chicken and Worm proud!
Could you describe your illustration background in some detail? Like how you got into art and what your art education was like?
As a kid, I always turned to drawing when I was moved by something. It was my way of trying to make sense of a complex world. I loved art all through school and was always known as ‘the girl who draws’. That said, drawing never came as naturally to me as writing. I felt like I could call myself a writer but I was never quite as confident in my art. So when it came to university and deciding what I was going to do with my life, I was too scared to follow my secret goals as an artist and chose something else.
I studied occupational therapy, having always been drawn to working with people (specifically children), and went on to specialise as a paediatric counsellor. I worked in this field for about ten years and I can see now, looking back, that I was kind of becoming a specialist in the hearts and minds of children (something that is really useful now that I make books for kids!). At some point I realised working as an OT wasn’t fulfilling me in quite the way I’d hoped and I turned back to art in my spare time. A friend pointed out that all the art I was making (and the stories I was writing) was clearly for children’s books, which was news to me. Once this was said out loud it was like a door opened up inside me that I didn’t even know was there and very quickly I realised that this was my calling.
After that I did everything I could to make it a reality. I read everything about becoming a children’s book author / illustrator I could find online, attended workshops, wrote and wrote and wrote and drew until my hand was sore. At some point I realised that I needed some formal education in the arts if I was going to break into illustration professionally. There were no illustration degrees where I was living at the time, but there was a great Arts School and an equivalent to a Graphic Design degree. So I enrolled in that (part time as I continued to work) and basically used my electives to pick and choose and create the degree I was hoping for. I managed to make nearly every one of my assignments into some kind of kids book! My first published children’s book, Squish Rabbit, came from a character I designed for one of those assignments.
For those curious about what goes into making a graphic novel, how would you describe the process?
For me, the thinking part of storytelling always takes the longest. An idea stays in my head anywhere from six months to several years before I commit anything to paper. This is because it takes that long for an idea to become rich enough to be worth working with – I need to consider it from every angle, watch the characters move and talk and react to each other, consider all the different possibilities and start building the world of the story. Then, eventually, I start making notes and doing some character sketches. Typically I work with the words first, developing the script over time. I let the characters talk to me and flesh out the story bit by bit, letting in unroll in my mind and then on paper. After that I break up the manuscript into pages, figuring out where the page turns will be and how to pace the story across an entire book. Through all this I will also be developing the visual style for the book – playing with how the characters will look, the colour palette and building the visual world. Next comes storyboarding, where I do quick rough sketches of each page, working with the classic comic book panels and challenging myself to come up with fresh perspectives and to match the illustrations to the developing emotions of the narrative. I also have to rough out how the speech will look on the page, fitting it into all the speech bubbles (in CRANKY CHICKEN I use a font I created based on my handwriting). After this I rough out which colours I will use on each page, making sure there’s good variation across the book and that the colours match the mood of each spread. Then comes the final art – doing all the line work and colouring. And then I sleep.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
I LOVE this question. I haven’t had the chance to talk about gender representation in comic books yet, which is something I’m really passionate about. As a young reader I loved comic books and grew up surrounded by ones my parents collected on their travels – Asterix and Obelix, Tin Tin, Footrot Flats (a New Zealand comic) and The Far Side. But at some point in my teens I realised all the comic books I had access to were written and illustrated by men (and featured all male leads). Of course this has changed a lot over time, but it’s still quite a male dominated industry. This only made me want to make my own comic books even more. As soon as I stumbled across Chicken, I knew she’d be my perfect lead – she’s spectacularly cranky and somehow more loveable for it, plus she’s got this admirable confidence that comes from being pretty comfortable with who she. I wanted to put her front and centre in a book that joys in all her cantankerous ways (we so rarely celebrate female grumps in stories, which is another reason I fell in love with Chicken as a character). All that said, I never use gender to shape a character, but rather allow my characters just to be exactly who they are. Chicken identifies as female, Worm is more gender fluid (which is something I can relate to and is how worms actually present in nature) but both play with different gender norms throughout the book – play is something I enjoy a lot in gender expression. Interestingly, because the entire book is in first person speech there’s no pronouns and therefore few gender signifiers in the book, and I’ve found about 90% of reviews automatically assume both characters are male. It’s a shame that male is still our default – not that I blame individuals, this is a long entrenched societal norm. But I’d love to be a small part of the change!
What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creatives?
Well … try not to listen to too much advice! Or at least, figure out what works for you and only listen to that. There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there and it can often steer people wrong. I think the best thing you can do is read lots of great books, watch lots of great films, engage with all the art you’re drawn to, do all the things that bring you joy and then write and write and write (or draw and draw and draw). Play with the ideas that fascinate you, as opposed to the ones you think you should pursue. So there’s my advice, which I also advised you not to listen to, so do with it what you will.
Are there other projects you are working on and at liberty to discuss?
Yes – so much more crankiness! I have just finished proofing all the final illustrations for CRANKY CHICKEN 2 and last week I handed in the final manuscript for book 3 (phew!). While waiting for feedback from my editor I have a little time to work on a couple of picture book manuscripts I have knocking around my mind. One I’m currently storyboarding and the other one I’m still writing (it’s currently with my critique partners for feedback). I also have a newer idea for a middle grade graphic novel which I’m currently collecting ideas for and world building. I always have many stories on the go, all in various stages of development. My brain is very active and needs to be kept busy.
Finally, what books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
I could spend my life just reading graphic novels and comic books and have so many I’ve loved. Here are just a few that are on my desk currently…
Jen Xu and K. Rhodes, also known as KaiJu, are a couple of comic artists working together to create projects close to their hearts. They are SVA graduates and debuted with Chromatic Press in 2014 with The Ring of Saturn. Their next work, Mahou Josei Chimaka, won a DINKy award in March of 2016. Their short comic Inhabitant of Another Planet, was also nominated for a DINKy the following year. The two-headed monster is currently working on their webcomic, Novae, and their middle-grade graphic novel duology HAVEN and the Fallen Giants. I had the chance to interview KaiJu, which you can read below.
What does the title, Novae, mean? What drew you to this word, and did the story evolve from the title or vice versa?
KaiJu: When we were first starting to write Novae, we didn’t have a particular title in mind. We were calling it the very wordy “The Necromancer and the Astronomer’s Apprentice” for the longest time before deciding on Novae.
Novae means a nova within a binary star system. It’s a phenomenon where one star becomes bright due to an explosion of energy taken from another star. We thought it was a fitting title for our story—as it revolves around two characters that become “locked in each other’s orbit”, and bring brightness into each other’s lives.
Your name, KaiJu, is both a play on Japanese mythology and your names, correct? How did KaiJu come to be and how would you describe your collaboration process together?
KaiJu: Yes! Though the word kaiju is more associated with the Japanese film phenomenon nowadays than mythology. The word carries the meaning of strange beasts, sometimes used to describe dinosaurs in the early 1900s. We were trying to combine our names into something coherent and we kept landing on KaiJu. It just seemed like a cute idea. We like to think of ourselves as a two headed creature that creates worlds, instead of destroying them.
As far as how our collaboration process goes. We write the script together. We each take on the persona of different characters in the dialogue. It’s a really fun way to write since we never know how the characters might react to each other during the drafting process. We also each storyboard different pages, and pencil our own set of characters. Kate does backgrounds and color, while Jen inks. We get a lot of help from our assistant color flatters as well. It’s very much a collaborative project from start to finish.
In a field like historical fiction, which has been noted for its absence of people of color (as well as LGBTQ+ characters in an era where queer language hasn’t evolved the way it has today), how did you develop the diversity as seen in Novae? What resources did you consult for historical/cultural accuracy?
KaiJu: We borrowed quite a lot of books from the library when we were first writing the script for Novae, and it’s prequel Inhabitant of Another Planet. A particularly useful title was In the land of the Christians, which is a collection of Arabic travel writings from the 17th century. However, the information on people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals was very limited from what we could gather. We try to be as accurate as we can, but in the end the character’s experience is very reliant on their individual circumstances.
As you mentioned, queer language had not evolved the way it has today, so it’s hard to make a direct linguistic correlation between a persons identity and our modern terminology. But of course, LGBTQ+ folks still existed and felt the same way many individuals do today.
Novae leans towards alternative history, so we don’t intend for it to be a perfectly accurate representation of historical figures or events. Though, we do try to incorporate some historical events in a way that suits the narrative of Novae.
We hope that Novae reflects the diversity that has always been present in history. In truth the lack of diversity in historical fiction is an inaccurate representation limited by narrow perspectives. Though ultimately, the idea of “accuracy” should not limit representation. No one should feel like they have to justify the inclusion of LGBTQ+ and POC characters.
Within the comic, one of the main characters is revealed as mute and shown to communicate nonverbally using a combination of Tactile fingerspelling and sign language. What kind of research do you implement in creating a character with this type of disability in this time period?
Jen: For Sulvain’s character, I looked up articles about non-verbal individuals and how they communicated with their loved ones before established sign language. I found that personalized sign language, writing and fingerspelling were a common way to communicate during the 17th century. For Sulvain’s sign language I watched a lot of Instructional videos on ASL and other world sign languages. Then I mixed and matched to make something representative of Sulvain’s experience. I plan on finding an ASL adviser as Sulvain uses more sign language.
What are some of your favorite elements of webcomics/graphic novel medium? What craft elements/techniques stand out to you the most?
Jen: I love how the visual elements of webcomics/graphic novels convey emotions and freeze moments. It’s different from film and other forms of visual media, that it allows the readers to absorb these moments in their own time. For example, a contemplative scene in a film plays for five seconds— and the scene changes. But with comics, I can choose to dwell on a panel, on a page, or on a scene for as long as I like and really experience the content at my own pace.
I think comics give you the ability to inhibit space and the minds of the characters, allowing emotions to brew.
Kate: I love the drama that can be conveyed in comics. I also love that the nature of the medium, the ability to create without a big budget, allows you to pursue big ideas with a smaller audience. I love to see the unbridled creativity that comes purely from an individual’s brain.
Techniques that really stand out to me are paneling and framing, and the ability to draw an emotion out of a reader through expressions. I love it when I can immediately feel something just by looking at a few panels.
Are there any other stories (whether already published or upcoming) fans of Novae could check out from you?
KaiJu: Yes! We have the prequel for Novae called Inhabitant of Another Planet as well as some other short stories you can find on the Novae website’s about page.
As far as upcoming work, we have a middle-grade graphic novel called HAVEN and the Fallen Giantsslated to come out with Viking Children’s in 2022. It’s a silk road inspired fantasy adventure with a good mix of fun world building and confronting important social issues.
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
KaiJu: Oh gosh, we read quite a lot of LGBTQ+ comics that are really great but we’ll highlight just a few here.
We really love the energy in Sammy Montoya’s comics. Sammy does a lot of shorter comics and they’re very addicting. They’re great at pulling the reader in right away and making the characters and conflict very engaging.
Cunning Fire by Kaz Rowe is a great example of a LGTBQ+ webcomic that focuses both on character relationships, as well a complex urban fantasy plot. Kaz uses a lot of great cinematic techniques that are really fun to read. You’ll definitely find yourself rooting for the characters.
Castle Swimmerby Wendy Lain Martin has great world building, characters and spot on humor. If you’re not reading it already you have to check it out.
Tiger Tiger by Petra Erika Nordlund is a super creative and intriguing fantasy comic set on the high seas. Every visual detail in Petra’s comic is a delight.
If you’re looking for a really sweet comic with a healthy relationship that also features a partially nonverbal character, you should definitely check out #Mutedby kandismon.
My Broken Mariko by Waka Hirako is a incredibly well done and heartbreaking manga that just came out recently. I’m not sure if this one is considered LGBTQ+ but I think it can certainly be read that way. It’s worth checking out just to marvel at the emotional power of Hirako’s work.
There are many more we would love to talk about but these are the ones we’re currently reading.
Peter Wartman has been drawing monsters, robots, and spaceships since he figured out how to hold a pencil. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he works as a designer by day and a comic artist the rest of the time. Xanthe Bouma is an illustrator based in Southern California. Their work includes picture books, such as Little Sid, fashion illustration, and comics.
First of all, how did you get assigned to work on this comic? How aware were you of the show prior to working on Through the Moon?
PW: I was already a fan of the show! It’s absolutely the kind of story I love, and I hopped on it as soon as it was available on Netflix.
I honestly have no idea how I got the project – I just got an email one day asking if I’d like to work on it. I assume they found me through my work on the Avatar comics or my creator owned work (Over the Wall and Stonebreaker).
XB: One of the senior designers at Scholastic approached me, having known my work. She thought I might be a good match for the book, and since I got really into the show around the season 2 premiere and made a bunch of Dragon Prince fanart, I was, of course, stoked.
You’ve been a writer and an artist for quite a few fandoms before, including Avatar the Last Airbender, What was the process like working on a story with an already established universe? What’s it like balancing keeping consistent with the story’s original voice while including your own elements? Would you describe it as writing professional fan-fiction?
PW: The great thing about starting with an established universe – especially a fantasy universe – is that you can skip all the setup. No need to introduce the characters or magic systems or anything else; the readers will already be familiar with what’s going on, and you can jump right into the story. I was lucky in that Through the Moon touched on a lot of themes I’m already interested in (although I can’t really get into specifics without spoilers), so I didn’t find it too hard to work that in. My biggest goal was just to keep true to the characters – if they feel right everything else should fall into place.
The biggest difference from fan-fiction is that I was working closely with the show runners. It was based on a story outline they provided and we went through a lot of revisions and edits to make sure everything fit. Otherwise, yeah, the experience is probably pretty close.
As an artist who has drawn their own original works and collaborated with other writers and artists on their property, how would you say the artistic process varies? What stays the same?
XB: When I’m working on something alone, it’s a lot of hats to wear and they don’t always fit… so I try to trust my sensibilities while still being self-critical. Collaborators will take some of that load off. They notice and do things I can’t, so what stays the same is having trust, I guess – relinquishing some artistic control and trusting them with their strengths as part of the process. What those strengths are and how other artists, writers and editors play to them is the different part. I get to learn other people’s creative language and hope they’ll be willing to learn mine, which is very different from being in my own head. That and I’m a little neater when I share sketches with other people…!
In terms of The Dragon Prince timeline, Through the Moon, takes place between the end of season 3 and the unreleased season 4. How would you say the events that take place in the graphic novel affect future storylines?
PW: I have no idea! I’m excited to find out.
XB: It seems especially emotionally affecting, particularly for Rayla and Callum. The whole team composition changes going forward in the show now, right? Things can’t really go back to how they were before. I was excited when I finished reading the script because I was like “WHAT does this mean for them next?!”
What were your favorite characters to write/ draw and why?
PW: Rayla is my favorite character in the Dragon Prince – I think her struggles trying to figure out where she belongs / where she comes from resonate the most with me.
That, and she can parkour everywhere, which is neat.
XB: Indulging in the Rayla/Callum interactions, because I’m a sap. Absolute favorite was drawing sad Soren, that was truly fulfilling. Peter wrote such an emotionally complex moment for him!
What drew you to the comics medium? Do you remember the stories that first inspired you as creatives?
PW: I honestly think the biggest thing about comics for me is that its the only visual storytelling medium that you can conceivably do on your own or as part of a small team. I’m also fascinated by some of the weird things in the language of comics – the way time passes in panels on a page, for example, is very strange, and it’s kind of magic that it all works.
The first comic I can think of that really opened my eyes to what was possible in the medium was Hellboy. Otomo’s Akira was also mind-blowing. Neither of those were the first comics I read, but they were what made me fall in love with the medium.
XB: Garfield and CLAMP… which maybe explains everything. Basically, Sunday strips like Calvin and Hobbes got me interested, then discovering shoujo manga, BL, and webcomics kept that going. When I was 9, I read this punk pamphlet about how anyone can make a zine so then I was like “okay… time to self-insert me and my friends in an original Digimon comic and distribute it at school.”
What advice do you have to give for people working on their own projects/ wanting to enter the comic book industry?
PW: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It took me seven years from graduating college until I started making enough money to live off comics full time. What’s more, every path in comics is different, and the industry is always changing, which makes giving advice hard. That said, you can’t go too wrong making work that you love, and I think it’s essential to reach out to your peers and stay connected.
Also: never sign a contract without getting a someone to look over it first.
XB: Comics take long and often don’t pay well, so make the art/stories you earnestly enjoy making for whatever reasons feel right to you and share with the communities you want to speak to. That said, not everything that comes along will be a dream job. That’s fine – even in art, sometimes work is just work. Choose your battles, know your value, read your contracts, take care of yourself!
Are there any projects you are currently working on or project ideas you are currently nursing and are at liberty to speak about?
PW: I’m currently working on drawing more Avatar: The Last Airbender books with Faith Erin Hicks!
XB: I’ve been working on the sci-fi adventure series 5 Worlds for the last six years… and we are about to finish the final book, The Emerald Gate! So that’s a huge conclusion. Can’t report much beyond that, but I can say I’m working on developing my own stories next. Yeehaw!
Finally, what comics/books would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
PW: A comic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is Miyazaki’s Nausicaa (which the film is partially based on). It goes in a lot of cool and weird places that I think fans of the Dragon Prince will enjoy, and it’s only two volumes long.
XB: I revisited SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki recently! The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang is an amazing book. This Is Not Fiction by Nicole Mannino is a fun rom-com that’s free to read online. A favorite contemporary manga: Dungeon Meshi by Ryōko Kui; and, finally, a favorite classic manga: Rose of Versailles by Riyoko Ikeda.
Follow Peter on Twitter @Peter_Wartman, and Instagram @peterwartman
Follow Xanthe on Tumblr @yumbles, Twitter @xoxobouma, and Instagram @xoxoboh
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