Interview with KaiJu

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 Giants slated 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.

You can find some of Sammy’s comics here

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 Swimmer by 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 #Muted by kandismon. 

You can read it here

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.

The Weird and Wonderful World of Digger

If you had asked me what my favorite genres were eight years ago, chances are I would not have put Epic Anthropomorphic Fantasy at the top of the list. It wasn’t until my sister (somewhat relentlessly) insisted that I read the first volume of Ursula Vernon’s Digger that everything changed. It introduced me to strange new world that challenged my every notion of what comics and characters could be. I could go on about its clever use of footnotes, or its beautiful black and white artwork. I could talk about how it inspired me to take on the daunting task of writing my own indie comic. What I will do instead is take a close look at the way it challenged and subverted gender norms and the tropes of the genre.

When your principal cast consists almost entirely of non-humans, the lines with which we typically define gender become blurred. Yes, they’re anthropomorphic and have humanistic attributes, but our notions of human gender don’t line up when it comes to wombats or oracular slugs. What becomes important here is that you find yourselves relating to the character regardless of their gender (if they even have one). Some of us do this naturally, but we’re often going against the grain of what’s expected of us when we do. The world Ursula Vernon creates in Digger is so far removed from that paradigm, that it’s refreshing. You can be yourself here. The old rules need not apply.

Digger is the narrator and titular character. Her name is short for Digger of Unnecessarily Convoluted Tunnels. She is a wombat who likes engineering and is not at all a fan of gods or magic. She is also our steady voice of reason guiding us through a bizarre and irrational world. Her gender is not immediately apparent (in no small part due to her being a wombat) but it’s also not especially relevant. Digger’s androgynous nature ultimately makes her more easy to relate to.

At the center of the story is a matriarchal tribe of hyenas that Digger becomes entangled with. Creating a matriarchal tribe of hunters (which my spell check just tried to change to patriarchal) is no simple task. It’s not just “what applies to males in human society now applies to females here.” Vernon does this meticulously through mythology and ritual (and probably lots of research on spotted hyenas actual matriarchal society). We learn that female hunter in the hyena tribe will typically lose her first born child, and surviving first born children are considered special because of this. They also have a custom of excommunicating shamed members of their tribe. This and much of the hyena lore is revealed through Ed, an excommunicated male hyena that Digger befriends. Eventually Digger also becomes acquainted with the hunter Grim Eyes, who at first wants to eat her before they become reluctant allies. The way Grim Eyes is presented as a bit of a meathead, and is obliviously patronizing to their male guide Herne, leads to some thoroughly enjoyable banter.

Lastly there are the two actual human characters. First we have Murai, a faithful servant of Ganesh and a member of The Veiled. Subverting the typical fantasy quest of a protagonist fulfilling a glorious destiny, Mauri is neither the protagonist nor is her destiny glorious. It’s more like a curse than anything else. Her encounter with a god has left her broken, but her condition resembles the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While she is a true believer and follower of Ganesh, her story becomes one of finding her own voice. There is also leader of the Veiled, Captain Jhalm. In many ways, his place in the story is a perfect example of using toxic masculinity as a villain. While he is not the chief antagonist, his misplaced commitment to serve all of the gods consistently causes harm and creates unnecessary obstacles. This comes to a head when he faces off with hyena clan leader Boneclaw Mother. As he is about to kill one of his own soldiers in order to save a dying god, he’s met with her biting wisdom: “a god that demands the life of a child is not a god worth saving.”

It wasn’t until after I sat down to write this article that I realized how difficult it is to articulate exactly what I love about the gender subversion and obscurities in this story. This is in no small part because it casts a wide net. I didn’t even get to touch on Shadowchild (a genderless feral demon child who asks lots of questions) or Ganesh (the avatar of a male god whose voice I always find myself reading as female). There’s so much detail in every culture encountered in this epic. It’s so densely packed with nuanced characters and blurred gender lines that it’s hard to focus on just one. It isn’t just one character or one central theme, it’s a whole world. But here is the best part: you don’t have to take my word for it. It’s still free to read on the original webcomic site, or you can pick up the new omnibus edition.