Suzana and Owen are a married lesbian couple who love world-building, character-making, and story-telling together. Tripping Over You is their current ongoing webcomic, and their attempt to fold all of those shared interests and passions together. I had the opportunity to talk to them, which you can read below.
Where did the inspiration for Tripping Over You (TOY) and what has made it stick with you for this long? Where did the inspiration for Milo and Liam as characters come from?
Suzana and I have been making original characters to bounce off of each other since we were kids, long before we started dating. We’ve always been interested in writing together, pitching each other ideas for how so-and-so’s relationship would go, making little gift arts for each other of each others’ character— it just sort of snowballed into webcomic-shape after we started dating and moved in together. We keep making pages because (we’re addicted) it continues to be really satisfying to finish just one more page; it feels like giving our characters a couple more seconds of existence with every update.
Both of you are collaborators on this comic as well as wives. How would you say the romantic partnership has reflected/ affected on the artistic partnership and vice versa?
We started dating a couple years after we made Milo and Liam, and then (on a whim) started making a webcomic shortly after we started dating. It’s really hard for me to imagine what our life would look like without the comic being part of it. It’s true that a lot of how our characters relate to each other has flickers of what our actual relationship once felt like, but I think the real takeaway for us goes the opposite direction: making stuff together has improved our ability to communicate with each other.
We’ve basically crafted this perfect excuse to practice expressing to each other what each of our individual goals are, and then to try to figure out how to accomplish as many of those goals as possible without taking away from the other person’s goals. That’s given us a really solid framework to build on when it comes to talking to each other about what we both want out of our personal life together, too.
TOY has been running on a digital platform since 2011. How do you find yourself drawn to web comics and What do you think are some of the benefits of this medium?
Webcomics were some of the first things we ever found as we were first stumbling around the internet as kids back in 2000. Suzana and I used to send each other links to new comics we’d find, or yell at each other to go catch up on an old favorite after they’d posted a particularly exciting update. It’s just so compelling to follow something that’s so indie-made, where the story and art is directly handed off from creator to reader. You get to watch the art and the story improve over time— and you get to see what kinds of stories people make when they’re being really self-indulgent. It’s all really authentic and sincere and fun.
One of the loveliest things about TOY in my opinion is the progression of the main characters’ relationship, seeing how they evolve in their relationship with the world and each other. How did you keep the balance between maturity and light-heartedness when creating this queer narrative?
This means a lot to me, specifically because I feel like I really struggle with this. I’m not sure I always keep this balance in a way that’s masterful, despite it being one of my biggest goals to improve at it as much as I can. I’m one of those people who will enthusiastically explain my joke if no one laughs— even to a chorus of groans and eye-rolling. It’s definitely a forever thing, developing more mindful ways to think about this particular puzzle. I do find that it’s really helpful to read pages out loud to myself, to see if it sounds like what I intended for it to sound like. Getting feedback on what lands (and what doesn’t) is really helpful, too – which is cool, because that’s sort of naturally built into the webcomic format.
Nearing the end of TOY, what sort of stories do you think you might be working on in the future?
We have a sequel to TOY lined up to start at the end of the chapter we’re working on now (with a fun little time skip between them), which we are deliriously excited about lately. We’re also working on launching an adult queer comic with Slipshine this year. We also have some fun (very silly, very meta) plans for some of Liam’s stories once we get into exploring his career in writing.
What advice might you offer for hopeful creatives out there?
Something I remind myself daily, especially when I find myself hitting a wall: you may not feel like you’re good enough yet to work on that dream project you’ve been chewing on, but I promise that’s not a bad thing. You’re allowed (and entitled!) to make whatever you want, even before you become as good at it as you’d like to be. Plus: there’s always going to be someone out there who your stuff means a lot to. As long as you make something you care very much about, some people will sense how much you care, and they’ll care too. Please, please make stuff. I personally want to read more things like that!
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Here’s some of our absolute favorites! Some are completed, some are ongoing, and some have adult content:
Kat Leyh is a Chicago-based writer and artist. She’s best known as the current co-writer and cover artist for the Eisner and GLAAD Award–winning series Lumberjanes, and for her critically acclaimed YA graphic novel Snapdragon. She’s also worked as a cover artist, back-up writer, and artist for several BOOM! Studios series. I had the chance to interview Kat which you can read below.
How did you come to find yourself working in comics? What attracted you to the medium in the first place?
I got into comics in sort of a roundabout way because I didn’t even read them until high school.I went to college for illustration because I loved to draw and tell stories. I was also interested in animation and storyboarding, but what got me into drawing comics was the fact that I could tell a complete story on my own.
I started making my own short comics and found that I loved the medium. I got my first paid gigs after posting my comics online.
What were some of the stories you loved as a kid? What kind of stories are you drawn to now?
I was a voracious reader as a kid. I loved stories with supernatural elements and I still do. I remember being really shook by His Dark Materials. I read everything by Lois Duncan (usually stories about girls with ESP and murder) .
My favorite author since high school til now has been Sir Terry Pratchett. And I’m always a sucker for the found family trope.
In your comics you’ve covered superheroes, taxidermist witches, and drunken mermaids. Where do you get your inspiration from?
It’s easy to write about my own interests! I start with that and go from there.
Growing up a fan of action movies and other traditionally misogynist, heteronormative genres left me with an ache to write to fill the void of stories I wish existed.
Much of your work seems to consist of LGBTQ+ media generated for younger audiences. Can you tell us about your motivation for creating queer content for kids and the relevance of it today?
This is a question that I love to dig into.
I think many writers who come from marginalized spaces like to write the stories they wish they had when they were kids. I certainly do. Even now, so many people equate queer stories with sex, because they don’t understand queer adults were once queer kids.
Queer folk are also a unique group in that they don’t get taught their history and culture as they grow, because we’re usually not born into queer families. Many of us find our queer community as adults. Acknowledging that queer youth have unique experiences much less that they EXIST is essential to healthier and happier future generations.
What messages do you want to give to your readers through your stories? What stories or messages do you wish you had gotten from books when you were a young reader yourself?
In your newest book, Thirsty Mermaids, you feature a number of references to mermaid centered pop culture including The Thirteenth Year, Splash, and so forth. What are some of your personal merfolk inspired fiction/narratives?
Who didn’t love Little Mermaid? Some of Glen Keane’s best animation.
I am not especially into mermaids, but they are so familiar a concept that I really wanted to do my own version. The kind of merfolk that I would like to exist.
As a writer and an artist, what advice would you give to creatives who are tackling one or both skills professionally?
I suppose…take inspiration from everywhere. Not just comics.
If you’re just starting out, try completing shorter stories and go from there.
Are there any other projects or story ideas you are currently nursing and would be at liberty to say?
Mmmm… I’m currently thinking a lot about werewolves and bicycles.
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ books or authors you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Molly Ostertag is an Igntaz and Prism Award winning graphic novelist and author of the Witch Boy series from Scholastic. She also writes and designs for TV animation. She lives in Los Angeles with her wife and pets, where her hobbies include cooking, camping, and thinking about hobbits. I had the chance to interview her, which you can read below.
When or how did you first realize you wanted to create and draw cartoons and comics for a living?
I started out wanting to write novels, because I was the kind of kid who read everything I could get my hands on and spent most of my childhood acting out stories I made up. But I loved to draw (like every kid does, honestly) and got enough encouragement that I just never stopped drawing. In high school a friend introduced me to Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN series, and I realized comics didn’t have to be about superheroes – they could be a way to merge my love of storytelling and of drawing. I feel really lucky that I entered the industry during a huge boom in kids’ comics (thanks, Raina Telgemeier and Dav Pilkey!) and that I could make an actual career out of drawing graphic novels!
What were some of the first stories that inspired you as an artist growing up and what stories inspire you now or continue to inspire you today?
There were a ton of (mostly young adult) novels that really shaped me as a storyteller – authors like Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, Diane Duane, Susanna Clarke, and Ursula K. Le Guin were huge for me. More recently, I’ve been enjoying Tasmyn Muir, N.K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, Jeff Vandermeer, and Madeline Miller. I’ve also been doing a sort-of embarrassing deep dive into my preteen love of Lord of the Rings, and finding a lot of new inspiration and interest in that classic story (did you know that it’s like, SUPER gay?).
Previously, you had paneled for an event at Flame Con, a queer comic con sponsored by Geeks OUT, on “Telling All-Ages Queer Stories.” Can you talk about your work and personal motivation creating inclusive stories for young queer kids, like Witch Boy?
It’s really important to me! I came out at the ripe old age of 24 (I’m kidding! But it felt old at the time). I grew up in a liberal environment, but the 90s and early 00s were still deeply lacking in gay representation in film and books. Gay men were usually a joke, lesbians existed entirely for the male gaze, and any other identity was barely mentioned. I just didn’t know it was a real option for myself. Each piece of work I make for kids that features queer themes is a way to push back against that – to show young people that there’s a huge world of queerness out there, and to show how exciting and wonderful it is to be yourself. ‘Being yourself’ and ‘listening to your heart’ are very over-used morals in children’s media, but when you put them in the context of queer stories they gain new power.
Relating to such, as a writer for Dana Terrance’s hit show, The Owl House, you had the opportunity to write some pretty major episodes, including “Enchanting Grom Night” and “Wing It like Witches.” What was that experience like, writing canonical LGBTQ+ representation on Disney into existence?
It was very exciting! I had worked for Disney TVA in various capacities and had always tried to push for better queer representation (‘better’ here meaning ‘literally anything’), but this was my first job as a writer. Dana had a vision for these characters and when I expressed how much I love writing romance, she assigned me the Grom Night script. It’s been heartening to see Disney realize that there’s no reason a story featuring a same-sex crush shouldn’t be on their network. That’s thanks to a lot of hard work from people behind the scenes, as well as all the other shows that made strides in this area (Steven Universe, Adventure Time, She-Ra, Korra – we build on what came before).
By the time I was writing the episode, the process went really smoothly. It was a dream to get to tell the story of a nerve-wracking high school crush (in the context of battling an ancient fear demon) and the reaction to that episode and to Wing It Like Witches was awesome.
Your partner, Noelle Stevenson, also a former panelist at Flame Con, is a creative influence in comics in her/his/their own right. How did you two first meet and would you say your creativity as artists sometimes bounce off each other?
The one time we tabled together at Flame Con (2018, I think?) was SO fun, because we initially met at conventions and so they’ll always have a special place in our relationship. We knew each other from cons, and Tumblr, and from both being in art school and making webcomics at the time. It wasn’t until I moved across the country that we started actually dating (after a lot of coming out drama, some of which Noelle wrote about in their gorgeous memoir The Fire Never Goes Out) and now we’re married and very happy!
It’s truly amazing to be with someone so brilliant and creative. I feel like I’m always scrambling to keep up with Noelle’s giant brain (in a good way; I hope the feeling is mutual) and we bounce ideas off each other constantly. There’s some of me in She-Ra, and some of Noelle in the Witch Boy series, but being in constant conversation means that our voices have been able to diverge and grow and be strengthened by one another. Noelle is incredible with characters and humor; I’m good at world building and story structure; and we’ve both learned a lot from each other in the last five years. I feel lucky every day.
Hypothetically speaking, if the characters of your books or you yourself could interact with characters from any other fictional universe, where would they be from?
I talk about this incessantly, but I would LOVE to travel to Middle-Earth and hang out with some hobbits. Hopefully in this scenario I would also be a hobbit, or else the height difference would be a problem when they inevitably invited me over for elevenses, followed by luncheon.
As a creator, what are some tips you can give to people regarding how to break into the industries (comic books/animation) you occupy? What advice would you give for those who are struggling with inspiration or figuring out how to keep going?
For me, becoming a good artist is about pursuing the stories and art you love. It’s about honing in on what makes your voice unique, feeding your interests, and learning the craft of how best to communicate your story to others – whether that means studying writing, or story structure, or drawing, or anything other form of art.
Being a good artist with a distinct voice is important to break into these industries, but I always have to note that systemic privilege plays a big, frustrating role. The world of comics and animation are slowly getting better at bringing in underrepresented voices, but there are many issues.
Generally, here are some practices that have helped me most in my career: forming connections with my peers, elevating and celebrating their successes, and sharing information with them. Being vocal about what jobs I want, and being ready to leave when I outgrew them. And finally: consistently making work I’m passionate about and sharing it, even when it isn’t perfect, and even when I have to self-publish and self-distribute.
Are there any projects you are working on at the moment and are at liberty to speak about?
I’m really excited about my upcoming graphic novel, THE GIRL FROM THE SEA (Scholastic, June 2021). Morgan, a 15-year-old lesbian who lives in Nova Scotia, has a plan to stay closeted until she can go to college; that is, until she meets Keltie, a selkie girl from the sea with some secrets of her own. It’s a very personal story – it explores the transformative power of queer love, and the fear of coming out and being known, in a way that’s really close to my heart. From the setting, to the fashion, to the sweet romance scenes, it was an absolute joy to draw and I hope people enjoy it!
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ books or authors you would recommend to the readers of Geeks Out?
Here are some books I’ve loved recently!
Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – an aching retelling of the romance between Patrocles and Achilles.
The Locked Tomb Trilogy by Tasmyn Muir – truly insane, extremely fun books about dirtbag lesbian necromancers in space.
Blue Delliquanti is a comic artist and writer based in Minneapolis. They are the creator of the science fiction comic O Human Star, which ran online from 2012 to 2020 at ohumanstar.com. Blue is also the co-creator of the graphic novel Meal (with Soleil Ho), and their next book Across a Field of Starlight will be published by Random House Graphic in 2022. I got the chance to talk with Blue, which you can read below.
How would you describe the premise of O Human Star to first time readers?
O Human Star is about an inventor named Alastair Sterling who wakes up one morning to discover that he is in a robot body and sixteen years have passed since his untimely death. When he seeks out his former business partner (and lover) for answers, Al has to confront the consequences of a lot of painful memories between them – and he must face a world whose technology had advanced significantly due to innovations he made in life, and is therefore fixated on his legacy and identity.
What were some of the first comics/book/stories that inspired or influenced you as an artist?
I read comics omnivorously as a middle schooler in the early 00s, so that ranged from superhero comics, manga, webcomics, even Jhonen Vasquez’s alt comics. In terms of stuff whose influence you can trace to O Human Star, I think Mike Mignola’s Hellboy was an early case of a comic whose protagonist I found incredibly appealing. Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist was also a huge early influence on my art and the kind of stories I like to tell. But EK Weaver’s The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal was a roadmap for me – as a webcomic, a queer comic, and a comic about love.
Where did the inspiration for this story come from? What references from real-life or fiction have inspired you since its inception?
I like to tell this story because I can still hardly believe it happened, but the basic premise came to me almost fully formed in a dream. I wrote it down in a journal at the time, but the implied characters and conflict intrigued me, and I kept sketching them out until I had an outline for something much bigger. I researched the science behind the story’s technology, but I was really interested in evoking the melancholy tone from “softer” sci fi with similar themes that I love – like Stanisław Lem’s Solaris or Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto.
At previous conventions, including the 2018 panel hosted by Flame Con, Robots and Ro-Butts: How We Learned to Love Robots, you touched upon the connection between robots and LGBTQ+ narratives? Could you expand on this?
Absolutely. Queer audiences are attracted to stories about characters who are “othered” all the time, and that definitely extends to science fiction about aliens, monsters and robots. Robot narratives are often about transformation and augmentation – improving ourselves in ways that are often seen as strange by other people.
But I also believe, as we spend a significant amount of our lives developing our identity online, that we often find artifacts of our earlier selves that look very different from how we are now. Accepting that continuum as part of our identity is a universally human experience, but it’s especially impactful as a queer person.
Lucille Villas Santos, who in my opinion one of the best characters of O Human Star, is an accomplished prosthetist as well as a congenital amputee. What kind of research did you do in creating this character, and incorporating disability into sci-fi?
I think of all the technological fields that have advanced in the time I worked on OHS, prosthetics might have changed the most! Much of it comes down to the fact that prosthetic limbs were intricate and important to fine-tune for the user, and therefore very expensive – but technology like 3D printing have made it easier to fabricate and customize parts as needed, especially for children. There’s also been a cultural shift in how users discuss their prostheses and their identity – people will often choose limbs that are vibrant colors or interesting designs instead of one that is the closest to their skin tone and limb shape as they can get. Prostheses can be fashion statements or art pieces. Acceptance of disability can mean an opportunity for augmentation, and that idea informed Lucille’s motivations as a scientist and a person.
Body modification and transformation are strong themes within this story, both in terms of queer/trans narratives and technology. Was that exploration of dissonance/unification between appearance and self always present within the story?
Yes, although I expanded upon it much more as the story developed organically over the years. Al’s struggles with identity and legacy were always at the core of the story, but Lucille’s role developed over time as I realize just what a valuable foil she was in terms of perspective on this subject. Personal transformation – especially of the queer varieties – is tinged with this fear of loss. If you radically change yourself, will you lose your family or community? Your identity you spent years, if not decades, building? The specter of loss is at the center of Al and Brendan’s relationship. At one point in the story, meanwhile, Lucille says, “I can’t lose what I never had,” and I think that reflects a radical shift in how you perceive yourself and how you allow others to perceive you, no matter how you change.
What are some of your favorite elements of comics/graphic novel medium? What craft elements/techniques stand out to you the most?
Pacing. A comic artist has control over the way readers perceive the passage of time in a comic in a way that is really exciting to recognize when an artist does it well. I love experimenting with ways to make a quiet moment seem to stretch for ages, or to make a fight scene seem fast-paced and exciting. I also really enjoy stories that are wordless or dialogue-free, but still communicate loads of information.
What’s a question no one has asked you yet or that you wish was asked?
I always like sharing a weird or interesting fact like I learned while researching something for a comic – maybe it wasn’t useful for the purposes of the comic, but I’m never going to forget it. Once I had to look up what was the safest way to fall into water from a great height, and that’s how I learned that clenching your butt was essential unless you want rushing water to destroy all of your internal organs. Unrelatedly, I also have a new worst fear!
What advice would you give to those who may want to create their own stories or are already in the process?
Make sure you’re making time for hobbies that aren’t art or writing related! Over the last couple years I got into urban foraging and playing mahjong, and they make for immensely satisfying breaks from my daily comics routine. The perspectives you gain from those pastimes or those communities can also keep you from being in the same bubble in terms of creative problem solving.
Are there any projects you are currently working on or project ideas you are currently nursing and are at liberty to speak about?
I’m currently finishing a YA graphic novel for Random House Graphic called Across a Field of Starlight that’s also very sci fi and queer. Keep an eye out for it in 2022!
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Two queer prose books I’ve read recently that I really liked were The Breath of the Sun by Isaac R. Fellman and Small Beauty by Jia Qing Wilson-Yang. Displacement by Kiku Hughes is an absolutely gorgeous graphic novel that came out last year. I’ve also adored Pseudonym Jones’ online comics – she’s got an incredible aesthetic and sense of humor and I look forward to every update in her characters’ lives.
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