Geeks OUT LGBTQIA+ Creator Spotlight: Vita Ayala

Hello and welcome back to the Geeks OUT Creator Spotlight. For this edition I had the chance to speak to one of the most sought after and super talented comic writers working in the industry today, Vita Ayala! Vita Ayala is a queer Afro-Puerto Rican, born and bred in New York City, where they grew up dreaming dreams of dancing on far away worlds, fighting monsters on the block, and racing the fish along the bottom of the ocean. Their killer list of work includes THE WILDS (Black Mask Studios), SUBMERGED (Vault), QUARTER KILLER (ComiXology) all creator owned. They’ve also have been tearing up carpet in the mainstream on titles such as SUPERGIRL (DC), XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS (Dynamite), LIVEWIRE (Valiant), NEW MUTANTS and CHILDREN OF THE ATOM (Marvel), among others.

Welcome, Vita!

Chris Allo: We like to do a little educating here on the GeeksOut Creator Spotlight. With that in mind, as a queer non-binary person, how would you define that in a general sense? And what does it mean to Vita personally?

Vita Ayala: I can’t really define what queer non-binary means in a general sense, because those words and the identities “covered” therein are extremely personal. The “general” accepted definition for non-binary is a person who does not fall under the binary gender identities of “man” and “woman” in their societal context. But there is a lot that can be covered under such an umbrella term.

For me, I feel like I am a gender that is not “man” or “woman,” but not agender either. I don’t really have the language yet to full articulate it beyond saying that.

Black Mask Studios

When did your interest in comics begin? What was your first comic book?

I have told those stories a lot, so I won’t go on too much about it, but my first comics were a Wonder Woman comic, an X-Men comic (with Storm and Bishop on the cover – or just Storm, my mind remembers both but also my mind is a labyrinth so who knows), and a Fisher Price-Marvel team up, Arabian Nights (which I still have).

I’ve always loved stories, and have had an active imagination. I was drawn to these books because they featured BIPOC people (and here, I admit that I misidentified Wonder Woman as Puerto Rican for a long time, but in my defenses, there are Reasons), and they were heroes. I would flip through the pages for hours, making up the words (since I couldn’t read at the time).

Who are some of the writers and artists (any kind of artist; they don’t have to be comic artists) whose work inspires you?

I’ll talk about some inspirations that are outside of Western comics – inspirations that have been with me since long before I was trying to become a professional writer.

Octavia Butler is a huge influence on me, as a creator and as a person. Her books saved my life, and rewired my brain.

Basquiat is one of my favorite artists. I grew up in the Lower East Side/Alphabet City in New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and his spirit was still in the concrete and brick, in the streetlights and subways. His work is incredibly powerful, but also, he as a person resonated with me a lot of a teen (and still).

Naoko Takeuchi has shaped my moral center a lot. She taught me what friendship could be, and how to love people for who they are not who you want them to be.

Bruce Lee  – as an actor and creator and martial artist – is a huge inspiration for me. His drive and vision and self discipline are aspirational, holistically. 

Totally!

And I would be lying if I didn’t say that Lewis Carroll and Homer are both foundational figures in terms of my inspiration. Alice in Wonderland/Through he Looking Glass and The Odyssey are two of my favorite stories of all time (though, they are arguably the same story).

How has being a queer non-binary informed your work? What is it about being a queer non-binary writer that you feel gives you a unique and enlightened or challenging perspective that you channel into your work?

Comixology

First, I don’t think that being any particular identity makes you enlightened just by virtue of being it. Enlightenment (if it can even be achieved) is a lifelong pursuit and requires a LOT of work.

Totally right!

This is a question that there are plenty of canned answers for, but the honest truth is that everyone’s perspective is unique and personal, and absolutely informs their point of view. My intersecting identities have shaped both how I am perceived in the world and how I perceive the world, and that in turn is channeled into the world.

I also believe that there is no objective state of being, and no way to creator “objective” work. Everything we do – whether casual or purposeful, art or science or whatever – is informed by our biases and experiences.

Submerged-Vault

What drew you into wanting to work in the comics industry? What was the first comic or graphic novel that made you realize the power and potential of the medium?

I started working at a comic shop when I was 19, partially to justify dropping out of school, and partially to feed my comic and manga habit. I ended up working there on and off for 10 years (with breaks in there to attend college), and my understanding of Western comics as an industry was born and nurtured there.

I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t actually consider entering the industry as a creator until 2012, when I was working at the comic shop with Matthew Rosenberg. He was incredibly supportive, and he (having a lot more knowledge about the professional side) really helped guide me through my first few years/attempts to “break in.”

So great to hear about the support from Matthew. He’s a very talented writer as well.

There were two books that really reshaped my understanding of what comics could be. The first was Gotham Central – I could talk about this series forever – and the second was Strangers In Paradise, which was a book that also saved my life. And when I say certain books saved my life, I mean it literally. I would not be here, alive, if they hadn’t found me when I needed them.

Wow!

Valiant Entertainment

In terms of work-for-hire projects, what kind of stories do you most enjoy writing? What are some of the projects you’ve worked on that particularly satisfied you as a writer?

I like writing a wide range of things, but I think I tend to be most immersed when I am stress testing what makes a character who they are, or I am trying to get to the answer of some sort of question I have a bout a character/set of characters.

It’s hard to single out a particular project that made me feel satisfied, because I get different things out of different projects. I don’t think I would be able to work on a project that I wasn’t invested in, and so I am very satisfied with having worked on things once they are done.

Also, honestly, the gift of collaborating with such incredible creators through these projects is a blessing. Every collaborator I have had has been both an inspiration and a wonder, and even when I am stressed, knowing I have such amazing partners (artists, colorists, letterers, editors) to work with me brings me energy and joy!

Quarter Killer-Comixology Originals

So great to hear you say that, Vita! Comics are a truly a collaborative effort.

Who are some contemporary writers and artists in the comics industry you enjoy most these days? Who inspires you to want to continue to work in the industry?

I am so incredibly lucky to know so many skilled, passionate, wonderful creators. I am most excited, awed, and inspired by my collaborators and peers. 

Again, singling anyone out is hard because that means I am leaving people out, so I’ll just touch on a few I bought recently. 

Trung Lê Capecchi-Nguyễn’s book, The Magic Fish, wrecked me. It’s incredibly beautiful and touching, and I had to sit with it for days afterwards.

Agreed, quite an amazing and empathetic tale.

Leah Williams and David Baldeón’s work on X-Factor has been consistently moving and interesting, a mix of joyful and melancholy. I love that book so much, and I will miss it desperately when it is gone.

Martin Simmonds and James Tynion IV have absolutely smashed the button in my brain that was made for Vertigo comics. That book is really incredible.

I’m a big Vampire the Masquerade fan, and the comic is a gas. I have been loving what Tini and Blake Howard are doing with the backups in that book.

I didn’t know about those! Will check them out!

My wife and I have been on a big 20th Century Boys kick lately, and Naoki Urasawa always energizes my brain!

What lesson or advice would you give to aspiring writers today? What do you wish you knew then that you know now when it comes to being a working creator in today’s industry?

I guess the advice I would give writers is to get into the habit of writing regularly. I don’t mean “you must write everyday” or anything like that, but more, figure out a routine that works in your life, and stick to it. 

You have to hone your craft as much as possible, and you can’t wait for “inspiration to strike you” – keep a journal if you don’t feel like you can write fiction on a schedule or if you feel like you have writer’s block. Writing is a skill that you have to practice at to become more proficient at it.

As for what I wish I had known? I guess I wish I had known to try and get an agent as early as possible, or to hire a lawyer to look over contracts. Having an advocate that is purely on your side is important, and having someone to make sure that your interests are being made priority in legally binding documents invaluable.

As an artist’s agent myself, I whole heartedly agree!

The creators (writers, artists of any kind, designers), we are what brings value to the industry. We should be respected and treated accordingly.

As someone who frequently works in mainstream comics, what do you think the future of LGBTQ representation looks like there?

I have no idea, I haven’t been to the future haha.

I walked into that one…

Marvel Entertainment

If you mean what I would like to see going forward, I want to see more and varied representation. More intersecting identities. More, more, more.

Here’s a lighter question: who is your favorite existing queer character and why?

I have pretty standard answers (Renee Montoya, Xena, Katchoo), but I think that closer to the truth is the queer characters being created and pushed by queer creators.

I’ve expressed the same thing myself. I want authentic queer characters.

I love every queer character I had the honor of helping bring to life. I love every queer character my friends have put their sweat and tears into. All of them. They’re my favorite, because they are labors of love, and they are for us by us. 

If you could put together your own superhero team from any queer characters who are out there, who would be on your team?

It would honestly depend on the story/what the goal was.

Are they investigating something? I have answers for that. Are they adventuring to the center of the Earth to find buried treasure? I have answers for that. Are they repelling space invaders or making magic? I’ve got answers for that too.

Although, I think whatever the goal/team, you should definitely bring John Constantine along.

What are the projects you are most proud of right now?

I can’t say what projects make me most proud, because I feel honored and blessed to have worked on every project I have been involved in.

But I will talk about the books I am currently working on/recently worked on a bit.

I am working on three series right now (New Mutants, Static, Children of the Atom), and have the absolute pleasure of teaming up with folks like Nikolas Draper-Ivey, Chris Cross, Rod Reis, Paco Medina, and David Curiel for art, and Travis Lanham and AndWorld Design for letters.

Some top notch creators! I love Paco, Reis and Chris Cross is amazing! I can’t get enough of his art!

I recently got to work with Skylar Patridge, Jose Villarrubia, and Ariana Maher on  on a Question short for DC Pride, which what an incredible team!

Nice! Villarrubia is so gifted and a role model for me!

And of course, my creator owned work and partners hold a special place in my heart. Emily Pearson, Marissa Louise, Jim Campbell, Lisa Sterle, Stella Dia, Rachel Deering, Jamie Jones, and Ryan Ferrier have my unwavering love!

Marvel Entertainment/DC Comics

It’s promo time! Can you tell us about some of the creator-owned projects you’ve worked on that will be coming out in the next year? What’s your next mainstream project that you could talk about? Or not talk about–whatever you’re comfortable with!

As for WFH, mainstream, as I said above, I’m currently working on New Mutants (Marvel), Children of The Atom (Marvel), and Static (DC).

Loving your NEW MUTANTS and can’t wait to read STATIC!!

Not to mention the two stories you have in the Marvel Voices: Pride and DC Pride one shots!!!

I don’t have any creator owned work coming out in the next year, but as I said above, my creator owned work holds a special place in my heart.

Submerged (Vault Comics) is a contemporary queer, Brown retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth that takes place in the New York City subway.

The Wilds (Black Mask Studios) is a post-apocalyptic story that center queer BIPOC leads, in which the end of the world is beautiful.

Quarter Killer (Comixology) is a Black cyberpunk Robin Hood of the ‘hood story set in a near-future New York City that centers a Black non-binary character and their family.

Thank you so much, for your time and for speaking with me! Happy Pride!

Part two with Vita coming soon!


Chris Allo is a freelance editor and artist’s agent. He has been a serious comic geek since his early teens. He breathes, eats and sleeps comics and comic art, and is an X-Men fanatic. Aliens and Star Wars are his second favorite things in all the world. He also loves animals and has a cat named, Mugsy. He has a separate business with his partner, Puppet Punx!, specializing in costumes and puppets.

Review: Disclosure

“Stories hurt, stories heal.”  Those words conveyed the message of last summer’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and they popped into my head when I was thinking about Sam Feder’s documentary Disclosure, which premieres on Netflix on Friday, June 19.  What does this have to do with a documentary about the history of trans representation in film and television?  The stories these media have told about trans people have indeed both hurt and healed the interview subjects, all of whom are transgender (including insightful Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox, also an executive producer on the film.)  Their testimonies demonstrate that representation truly matters. 

Laverne Cox

In one powerful example, writer/actress/producer Jen Richards (Mrs. Fletcher, the 2019 Tales of the City) recalls that when she told a friend she was transgender, she was asked, “Like Buffalo Bill??” because her only frame of reference for trans people was the demented, skin-wearing serial killer from The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Needless to say, the reference was painful for Richards.

I myself learned that it’s impolite to ask trans people about their genitals by reading a piece on Cox years ago, so I can testify to the importance of trans representation in educating the larger world about their issues.  I also didn’t question the validity of the L Word storylines, in which Max transforms into a rageaholic because of testosterone, until I read how inaccurate and misleading those episodes really were.  These early eye openers set me on the path to educating myself more fully about the community and the many issues they face.

Lilly Wachowski

With its broad scope covering the very beginnings of cinema—which we learn featured cross-dressing and genderqueer characters in its earliest days—Disclosure seemingly aims to be a trans version of the acclaimed 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, itself based on the expansive 1981 book by Vito Russo.  Disclosure touches on everything from an old episode of The Jeffersons featuring a trans female character, to the Oscar winning Boys Don’t Cry (1999), to the problematic Max (Daniela Sea) character on The L Word, to the recent triumphs of Sense8 and Pose.  Its subjects testify, again and again, to the significance of these depictions on their lives:  Sense8 co-creator Lilly Wachowski was inspired by Bugs Bunny’s fabulous gender bending; actor/activist Marquise Vilson recalls Reno, a Jerry Springer guest who was the first Black trans masculine person he ever saw in media; and writer and Survivor alum Zeke Smith recalls the pain of revisiting his favorite childhood movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), and realizing that it’s graphically transphobic.  A number of the subjects testify to the devastating and frightening effect watching Boys Don’t Cry had on them, and challenge the “it’s a true story” defense by asking why this is the kind of story Hollywood has told so many times.  Richards was brought to tears by Jed, a father on the docuseries I Am Cait, affirming his transgender child.  “When I saw that father go so much further than I thought was even possible, it hurt, I couldn’t bear it,” she recalls.  “Because then all of a sudden, all those people, who couldn’t accept me, when I knew it was possible to go beyond acceptance—why couldn’t my mom have been like him?  Why couldn’t my friends have been like him?  And seen the value in my experience?”

The documentary also includes a variety of talk show interviews with trans subjects from the 1980s and 90s (i.e. Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall) to the present (Oprah and Katie Couric—the latter took the time to learn from her mistakes after being called out by Cox on offensive questioning).  The difference between the older and contemporary interviews is telling, as many of the older Q&A’s are preoccupied with the gender the subjects “used to” be and specifically their genitals—although Winfrey and Couric have both been guilty of this line of questioning.  Rivers, however, deserves credit for affirming the identities and dignity of trans folks on her program decades ahead of the curve.

Brian Michael Smith

There are compelling stories about the challenges and frustrations of working in the industry, like Candis Cayne’s irritation at the tone deaf dialogue when she played a murder victim on CSI: New York and Sandra Caldwell’s triumphant coming out in the New York Times after working for decades in the closet. This is a comprehensive and involving look at the subject matter, although I wish it were a little longer (I’m usually all for shorter films, but I’d happily watch a 2 hour or longer cut of this).  There are a couple productions I’d like to have seen just a little more about: Transparent and the ensuing sex scandal with cis lead actor Jeffrey Tambor is touched on just briefly, and although actress/model Jamie Clayton (Sense8), actor Brian Michael Smith, and writer/speaker/artist Leo Cheng all appeared on the L Word reboot Generation Q, which did a considerably better job handling its trans characters than the original, this isn’t actually mentioned.  There are also a number of clips that aren’t identified, particularly at the end of the film.  But these are minor quibbles. Feder and producer Amy Scholder‘s conscious decision to use only transgender voices to discuss the media that’s portrayed their own lives is a strong and important one, and the personal impact adds immeasurably to the film’s weight.  Disclosure is well made, well thought out, and a significant historical record. In light of the ongoing murders of trans women and this past week’s Trump administration rule removing protections for transgender people in health care, its call to recognize transgender humanity is as relevant as ever.

Disclosure premieres on Netflix on Friday, June 19.

Jamie Clayton

Someone Tell JK Rowling to Stop

The weird ‘facts’ JK Rowling has shared has turned into a fairly hilarious meme describing all of the ‘new information’ JK Rowling has bestowed about Harry Potter characters as well as other fandoms. It’s inception has come from the Harry Potter author divulging various tidbits on Twitter and it interviews about characters and plot points that really don’t have anything to do with the story. The intention to expand the Harry Potter universe is interesting in of itself, but telling us that a character is actually part of a minority way after the fact is hollow and irritating.Unfortunately, the stuff that JK Rowling comes up somehow outshines the creativity of Twitter with it’s sheer ridiculousness.


The latest revelation that she decided to share was that Dumbledore and Grindelwald had an ‘intense sexual relationship’.


First of all, no one was asking about that, and no one wanted it. Seriously there was never any time during the books or movies where I sat there wondering about any of the characters’ sex life. It’s not important to the story and at this point doesn’t give us any value at all. This revelation is nowhere as strange as the ‘wizards used to shit themselves before muggles invented toilets’ factoid, but the weird faux-representation she is trying to bestow is hurtful, annoying, and frankly pointless.


Full disclosure, I started reading the Harry Potter books when I was 11, rereading them all multiple times. The book series has it flaws, but I still love it with all of my heart. But as the years have passed the more and more JKR has tried to shove weird ‘inclusive’ things into the series, it’s taking away any joy I used to feel about these books.


People were obviously disappointed that a gay character (which wasn’t revealed in the books at all) would be in a movie with his love interested and there would absolutely zero queer context. It feels like someone dangling representation in front of faces only chastised when we want concrete examples of queer characters in the Harry Potter universe. It seems like she’s trying to be inclusive in ways that are safe to her and the franchising bottom line. JK Rowling and Harry Potter wouldn’t suffer greatly if there was actual canonical representation in Fantastic Beasts, but it probably would have hurt if she explicitly stated Dumbledore’s sexual orientation in the books.


This does NOT mean, however, talking about how two male characters used to bone a lot. It still leaves the representation at zero and overly sexualizes characters that are in books made for children and young adults. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any of that in kids books, but it’s not what we’re asking for and it feels extremely strange to be given that over a decade since the last book was released. Saying Dumbledore and Grindelwald have sex is supposed to make me feel better about there being no out queer characters canonically? What does this solve exactly? Am I supposed to be satiated by this?


It would have been brave of her to include an openly gay character in a popular book series that debuted in 1997. But now it all just feels like I’m reading really bad fanfiction. I’ve read better fanfiction that includes more tasteful and concrete representation. Now I’m left questioning why no one in her circle is telling her to stop tweeting these empty platitudes. I’m wondering why her or anyone else feels like this is a solution to the lack of diverse representation in the books and the movies.


I’m not going to lie, the JK Rowling memes have been more creative than and interesting than Rowling’s revelations. But I would trade them all for actually queer representation in the Harry Potter universe. Queer wizards want to be seen too.