Interview With Molly Ostertag

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.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell and Mariko Tamaki – a gorgeous graphic novel about high school love and heartbreak.

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Kabi Nagata – a searing, vulnerable graphic memoir about sexuality and mental health.

Header Photo Credit: Noelle Stevenson, 2020

Interview with Peter Wartman and Xanthe Bouma

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.

I had the opportunity to interview to both Peter and Xanthe on their latest project at Scholastic, The Dragon Prince: Through the Moon, which you can read below.

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