Interview with Cartoonist Melanie Gillman

Melanie Gillman is a cartoonist and illustrator who specializes in LGBTQ books for kids and teens. They are the creator of the Stonewall Honor Award–winning graphic novel As the Crow Flies and Stage Dreams. In addition to their graphic novel work, they teach in the comics MFA program at California College of the Arts.

I had the opportunity to interview Melanie, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m a cartoonist who specializes in queer spec fic and colored pencil art!

What can you tell us about your latest book, Other Ever Afters: New Queer Fairy Tales? What inspired the collection?

A lot of the stories in Other Ever Afters originated as 24-hour comics! I’ve been participating in 24-hour comic day every year since 2016. I started drawing romantic queer fairy tale comics every year in part because I love the genre (and if you’re drawing comics for yourself, there’s no reason not to be as self-indulgent as possible about it), and in part, because fairy tales are short! It’s a good storytelling format for something you want to be able to get done in a weekend.

What drew you to storytelling, particularly to the comics medium? Were there any favorite writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

I’ve always been an avid reader and writer, but I didn’t really fall in love with comics until college when I started stumbling across webcomics. In my early years, I was reading a lot of webcomics by people like Der-Shing Helmer, E.K. Weaver, Kate Beaton, and Lucy Knisley (who are all still active today and doing great work) – as well as any graphic novels I could scrounge up at my local library, which at the time was not a lot!

How would you describe your creative process?

It’s an everyday process for me!  I have set hours every day where I’m writing and drawing.  It might not sound very romantic, but I’m a strong believer in schedules and habit-building – it’s the best way to make steady progress on your creative work.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing/drawing? What are some of the most challenging?

I love the colored pencil process! (And you really have to love colored pencils to work with them at all, they’re slow and labor-intensive as hell.) Coloring is the stage where I can turn on audiobooks and really get into the zone for hours – it’s hard work, but it’s also meditative and relaxing in a way.

Scripting is often the most challenging part of the process for me – but only because I have a serious perfectionist streak as a storyteller, so it’s easy to get worked up second-guessing even really tiny decisions along the way. When you know you’ve gotten something right though, it’s a high like nothing else.

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative/artistic influences and sources of inspiration?

Outside of comics, I tend to read a lot of history and biology nonfiction, and that definitely worms its way into my comics in a lot of ways, even if most of it stays below the surface. I also will never ever pass up opportunities to visit weird niche local museums and historical sites and have gained a lot of valuable insight from that over the years, too. I think it’s a good thing for storytellers to be curious about the world around them, and to be lifelong students in whatever fields naturally appeal to them. Learning is the compost that good stories grow from – it’s never a wasted effort.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

I rarely get asked about acting in comics, but it’s one of my favorite aspects of the medium!  Comics have a lot of overlap with theater – you can think of every graphic novel as being a one-man show in a way, with the cartoonist performing every role. If you want to get better at this part of the craft, besides the obvious stuff (practice!), as silly as it sounds, I genuinely think it helps to listen to a lot of musicals and sing along. It’s a way to train your brain to mimic professional actors’ expressions and body language in a ton of wildly different roles, and to feel those movements in your own body. Also, as a bonus, this is something you can do while drawing your comics, so you’re sort of doubling up on your practice there.

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I’ve gotten majorly into foraging as a pandemic hobby – if you ever want someone who can talk your ear off about eating acorns or wild mushrooms or the various tasty weeds that grow in people’s yards, I’m your guy. On any given day, if I’m not drawing comics, I’m probably neck-deep in a bramble somewhere, filling up a container with blackberries.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

Most of my forthcoming books haven’t been announced yet, sadly! But I can say I’m working on a lot of horror lately, which has been a ton of fun.

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring graphic novelists, whether illustrators and/or writers?

For writers: practice drawing your scripts. Comics is a visual medium, and there are very important lessons about comics storytelling you won’t learn without drawing.  Even if all you can draw is stick figures, do that! You’ll become a much better comics storyteller and a much better collaborator the more you do this.

For artists: you already know a lot about writing, even if you don’t think you do. There are a lot of people out there who seem to have this funny idea that comic artists are not also writers, but those people are wrong. I don’t think you can teach yourself how to draw comics without also learning a whole lot about how to write them. Approach this industry with the confidence that you are a visual storyteller with a full grasp of the medium, not a partial grasp.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

We’re incredibly lucky to be living in a time where we’ve got a wealth of queer comics out in the world to read, with more being published every year! If you enjoyed Other Ever Afters and want to read more fairy tale comics with a queer perspective, two books I would strongly recommend are The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen and The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang.

Interview with Artist Deb JJ Lee

Deb JJ Lee is a Korean American artist currently living in Brooklyn, NY. They have appeared in the New Yorker, Washington Post, NPR, Google, Radiolab, PBS, and more. Books they have illustrated include The Invisible Boy by Alyssa Hollingsworth (Roaring Brook Press, 2020) and The Other Side of Tomorrow by Tina Cho (HarperCollins, 2024). They enjoy reality tv, sparkling water, and pretending to be an extrovert.

I had the opportunity to interview Deb, which you can read below.

What can you tell us about your upcoming graphic novel, graphic novel memoir, In Limbo? What inspired you to write this story?

On the surface, IN LIMBO is about the intersection of Korean-American diaspora and mental illness, and difficult maternal relationships. But deeper down, it’s about the trials of asking for and granting forgiveness to and from those you have hurt, including yourself. 

The roots of IN LIMBO started in 2018 in the form of a weekend project—a four-page comic about trans-generational language barriers that made its way around Twitter when Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast retweeted it! My agent Ed and I were working on a picture book pitch at the time when he suggested the idea of a graphic novel, which I never thought I’d be capable of doing. That four-page comic was my longest sequential work, so a 350-page graphic novel was unheard of.

But I knew I have always wanted to make a story like this, even back when I was in the 5th grade. I was so miserable even as a 10-year-old since so much has already happened in my life that I wanted to write something to let it all out, but I’m glad I waited. Then you had those draw-my-life videos on Youtube in 2012, 2013? I must have been around 16 or 17 around then. I didn’t partake even I wanted to so badly, but again, I’m glad I waited. But at the end of the day, I wanted to make this book for me—a letter, a therapy session for myself. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, specifically comics? What drew you to the medium?

Though I didn’t think I could make comics into a career until I literally started the pitch of IN LIMBO, I think there were instances throughout my life where I should have known it would happen. I remember making tiny little comics (early zines?) when I was very little, maybe around 7 or 8. I would fold a piece of computer paper into a book, write little fanfiction and draw fanart along with it and put them on display on my windowsill. I suppose that was my first solo tabling experience? But I think I stopped because my brother found them and told my friends, haha. But then afterwards I’d sneak into the comics section of Barnes and Noble when my parents weren’t looking and inhale as much material as I could. Though that, unfortunately, stopped at around 12 for a reason I cannot recall.

Growing up, were there any books/media that inspired you as a creative and/or that you felt personally reflected in? Is there anything like that now?

Continuing on from the previous question, I wasn’t allowed to read manga or any comic medium as a kid, so I had to find loopholes (sitting in the comics section of Barnes and Noble, reading Death Note or Fruits Basket on my iPhone 3GS before bed). But in 2007 I did convince my parents to buy me a copy of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which is half prose, half illustrations, probably one of the first mediums that made me want to be serious about drawing well. I remember doing little studies of certain pages because Selznick was *the* artist I wanted to be back then! And even though Hugo Cabret isn’t a comic, I think the medium comes close.

However, there were no books that I knew of that I felt personally related to in the 2000s, the early 2010s. Obviously there a good deal now—I know I would have loved Almost American Girl by Robin Ha. Though Robin’s takes a different tone, the parallels on paper are quite similar to my own life—Korean in Alabama, art as solace, difficult familial relationships. 

As an artist, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

For IN LIMBO in particular, I had Inio Asano, Brian Selznick, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Jillian Tamaki, Mariko Tamaki, and Shaun Tan’s work sitting on my desk. But for art in general, I’m lucky to be in a community full of artist friends who inspire me with literally every piece they make, and to even take the time to blurb the book(!) Other sources of inspiration include Art Deco, Japanese woodblock printmaking, Moebius, and everything maximalist.

For those curious about the process behind a graphic novel, how would you describe the process?

Making a graphic novel gets emotionally taxing, no matter the topic. If a book has, say, 350 pages, with each page having 3-6 panels, that would be up to 2100 drawings. I worked on this book almost every day for three years, pumping out one page a day, and it was exhausting. However, to have it printed and in your hands has to be one of the most rewarding experiences, and a unique one too, especially for us digital artists. And when it’s out, it’s out—the book has a life of its own.

What are some of your favorite parts of the creative process? What do you find to be some of the most frustrating/difficult?

The best parts of the creative process has got to be the beginning and the end—writing the story, thumbnailing it out. The freedom is yours, the book can be everything and anything you want it to be. The possibilities are endless! And the end of the creative process is, well, you’re done, you can pop a bottle of champagne with your friends, and then start the next project.

The most frustrating/difficult parts is everything in the middle. Cutting things out, learning that parts of your story doesn’t land or make any sense. Figuring out what it’s like to work under the timeline you’re given, realizing that it’s unrealistic in this economy, and having to ask your editor for a 2-year extension and holding your breath as you wait for their response.

I made a promise to myself that my future graphic novels will be worked under my own terms of being given as much time as possible—it will be done when it’s done. 

What are some things you would want readers to take away from In Limbo?

As hinted earlier, forgiveness is really hard to earn and grant. You may never accept or want to give it. And that is ok. Our problems will usually never disappear, but we can learn how to tame them as they fade in and out.

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creators?

To find or build your community! To have friends who understand what it’s like to struggle with yourself and the industry despite the level you’re at, and to have people you feel comfortable giving and receiving help from is an unparalleled experience. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to recommend and share each other’s work, to bring each other up. Being a freelance illustrator and/or artist is a lonely practice, so to have people who you genuinely care about vastly improves the experience.

And on a similar note—kindness sometimes goes a longer way than being a good artist. There are plenty of people in the industry who are at the top of the game who have repeatedly been rude or mean to their peers, and word gets around. You don’t have to let your boundaries loose, just be kind!

In terms of skills, don’t be afraid to keep building your basic foundations. It’s always encouraged to break the rules, but you have to be very familiar with what those rules are. For instance, I think I have quite a ways to go in improving lighting and coloring—while I think I can tell what works and what doesn’t, there’s still a lot I am confused by. 

Also, avoid fixating on one artist to take inspiration from! Look back into history. Chances are if you have a visual problem you need solving, it’s been done 182379 times, multiple different ways. Looking into the past also helps you avoid emulating trends and saturated methods of drawing—it will make you stand out as an artist!

And when working on book projects, one of the most important things of the process is to have a good relationship with an editor, preferably one who understands the intense labor of drawing and can give you more time, which you should never feel shy asking more of. You only have one body!

Besides your work as an artist, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

Related to IN LIMBO, I do see myself exhibiting similar patterns of hopelessness but I definitely improved a long way! My problems have never really disappeared, but I like to say that I’ve gotten much better at coping with them. 

And even though I’m a she/her in the book, I’m very much a they/them. The nonbinary bit came in after the book was finished, but I decided to keep it she/her in the book still because that’s who I wanted to be at the time. But a lot of people don’t know the difference, so I’m still misgendered in a lot of notes, unfortunately 🙁

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?

Question: How has writing a memoir make you look at your past differently?

Answer: Wow thanks for asking! Making IN LIMBO was therapy about a parallel universe. I’m much more comfortable talking about my past; writing about it for the public was the best way for me to process it all. The events that happened in the book vs in real life are as similar as I could make them, but the book version is much more palatable for readers. I wish I could have included every aspect (like how there were *three* orchestras I was part of instead of one, two different Korean schools, bullies in the New York art program, and how Quinn and I did meet up in Korea and were on good terms until 2018) in 350 pages, but that would make the story too complicated. The conclusions are the same, but the means to get there are slightly different. But I do worry that as time goes on I will start confusing one memory for one that I fabricated for the book. 

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

I’m working on THE OTHER SIDE OF TOMORROW with Tina Cho over at HarperAlley, which is about kids escaping from North Korea. I should be done coloring it by the end of this year so I think it’s publishing in Fall 2024!

We also just announced MONSTER SEEK, a picture book with Rainie Oet at Astra Books about gender identity.

As for projects that only exist in my head, I do one day want to work on a book that mixes PACHINKO and CLOUD ATLAS. I have no idea how I would be able to accomplish that but that’s part of the challenge, isn’t it?

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

The classics: SKIM by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, SUPERMUTANT MAGIC ACADEMY by Jillian Tamaki, DON’T GO WITHOUT ME by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, MAGIC FISH by Trung Le Nguyen, STRAY by Molly Mendoza, and SPINNING by Tillie Walden.

Interview with Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock

Hope Larson is the author of All Summer Long, which was a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2018 and an Eisner Award Nominee, as well as the recently published sequel, All Together Now. She also adapted and illustrated A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, which spent forty-four weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and for which she won an Eisner Award. She is additionally the author and illustrator of Salamander Dream, Gray Horses, Chiggers, and Mercury, and the author of Compass South and Knife’s Edge, both illustrated by Rebecca Mock.

Rebecca Mock is an illustrator and comics artist. They illustrated the graphic novels Compass South and Knife’s Edge, both written by Hope Larson. Their work has also appeared in various publications, including the New York Times and The New Yorker. They are the co-organizer of the Hana Doki Kira anthology.

I had the opportunity to interview Hope and Rebecca, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

HL: I’ve been a cartoonist for nearly 20 years. I’ve lived in multiple cities and countries, but currently, I reside in my hometown of Asheville, NC, with my husband and our 3-year-old.

RM: I’m an illustrator & comic book artist living in NYC. I’ve made 3 graphic novels with Hope including Compass South & Knife’s Edge, and Salt Magic, all for which she wrote and I drew. Additionally, I’ve worked in games, TV, editorial, and branding.

How did you both get into comics, and what drew you to the medium specifically?

HL: I fell in love with comics when I was 8 and my family moved to France for a year. My dad is a professor and he was on sabbatical, translating a book. I didn’t know any French when we moved over, so my parents bought me French comics to read, to help my language skills. Reading classic series like Tintin and Asterix were how I got into adventure comics like Compass South and Knife’s Edge, too. After comic back to the US I didn’t read comics again for a while–superhero comics were all I could find, and they didn’t appeal–but when I was in high school, I discovered manga, and they completely blew my mind.

As for how I ended up making comics myself, I was always writing and drawing, so it felt like a natural extension of what I’d been doing all my life. Visual storytelling is my jam.

RM: For me it was a combination of Sunday comic strips and Archie comic digests–those books they sold in grocery stores? I read as many of those as I could. Comics were fun to read and re-read, unlike many of the books that I had access to and was required to read for school. From Archies, I migrated to manga, which hit its first US boom in the early aughts, when I was in middle school. It was an emotional time, and again comics filled a void where prose books didn’t–manga in particular was energetic, outlandish, dramatic, racy–and chiefly, very easy to consume. 

I was also always a good drawer, and part of the reason why I stayed so passionate about art throughout my childhood and teen years was a desire to reproduce the cartoons and comics I loved so much. Comics is a medium that invites conversation–it’s easy to pick up some basic tools and start making your own comics. From an early age, I wanted to create stories that would inspire others to make comics too.

As a writer-illustrator team, you’ve worked on a number of comics together, including Compass South and Salt Magic. How did the two of you meet and come to work together?

HL: We were connected by a friend of Rebecca’s on Twitter! And the rest is history.

RM: That’s right. I was a big fan of Hope’s work, so when I heard from my friend that she was looking for an artist for a new book I sent my little portfolio .PDF over. We got started on the pitch for Compass South quickly after that.

What can you tell us about one of your most recent Eisner-award-winning work, Salt Magic Where did the inspiration for this story come from? 

HL: For me, it was one of those stories that shows up like a gift from the muse. I wrote the original outline in one night, which isn’t the norm for me, and although it did change throughout the process of making the book, the core of the book was there from that first night. I was going through a rough time in my personal life, dealing with the aftermath of a divorce and a traumatic failed relationship, struggling with my career, and wondering if I would ever get to have a child or a family. Wondering what I really wanted out of life. I took all of that fear and anguish and reframed it as a fantasy middle-grade story. I have to stress, of course, that this is just the stuff that planted the seed for the story, and the book is its own weird, magical flower. Vonceil is her own person and has her own journey, and so much of that was built by Rebecca through their work.

RM: I think we’d just wrapped up Knife’s Edge when Hope sent me the first outline for Salt Magic, and it definitely had that feel of something magically sprung from a burst of inspiration. It captivated me right away, and I immediately had this clear vision for the artwork–lots of softness, beauty, ornamentation, with plenty of sinister shadows and exciting action. It had all these elements that matched with my own sensibilities–historical detail, unique environments and side characters, and a theme of feminine power. It was different from anything I’d read before, which was so enticing as an illustrator, giving me so much to start from scratch with.

Hope Larson Photo Credit: Lan Bui

Reading the book, I found myself wondering if the main character of Salt Magic was coded as being aspec (i.e. aromantic and/or asexual) due to her lack of interest in romance. Would you say there’s any weight behind this head cannon? 

HL: That’s a totally valid read. I didn’t sit down intending to write a story about an aromantic character, but there’s nothing in the book to suggest that Vonceil has any interest in romance. I’m trying to avoid spoiling the ending completely, but we see this character at the end of her life, and while we don’t learn anything about her experiences between age 12, when we met her, and old age, it’s plausible that she was never partnered with anyone. She cares very deeply about her family, and she longs for adventure, and those are the main things we know about her.

RM: I’m on the ace spectrum, so I likely imbued both Vonciel and her uncle Dell with a bit of that energy. It was part of why I connected strongly with the story–that feeling of observing romance happening for others, and feeling a confusing distance from it. I remember discussing with Hope early on that there’s big queer energy to Vonciel’s fascination with Greda too. The point of her character’s journey is that she wants her future to be her choice, not just following the patterns she sees others follow. We don’t see what she does once the story ends, but we know she led a full life and feels satisfied. So whatever you imagine for her, is as valid as anything else.

Growing up, were there any books/media that inspired you as a creative and/or that you felt yourself personally reflected in?

HL: Madeleine L’Engle’s books, Diana Wynne Jones’s books, Lloyd Alexander’s books. I was a big fantasy kid. For comics, Ranma ½, the adventure comics named about, Ghost World, Blankets. I think I’m flubbing this answer pretty badly, but I have Covid right now, so I’m going to blame it on brain fog.

RM: So much inspired me–I loved stories like Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden, for the heroines who were fiercely independent. I liked historical adventure for its distance from my own average life, and how that distance helped me connect with characters who felt out of place in their own time. I was obsessed with any comics that made me laugh–strips and Archie, as mentioned, and I loved Ranma ½ as well. So much manga–I would read everything in the store, then go online and find scanlations of manga that weren’t published in the US. Comics that had good slapstick or action stuck with me much more than comics that were more dialogue-focused. I watched a lot of cartoons and shows too–weird segway but I have been rewatching MASH, a show I was obsessed with as a teen. It may seem odd, but I guess I identified with those characters who were really goofy and strange, like me.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing/drawing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or difficult?

HL: For writing, I love outlining, and I love editing. The very beginning and the very end. I enjoy the rest, too, but I’m most delighted by the spark of inspiration, when I’m discovering what the story’s about, and the mechanical process of fixing the parts that are broken.  For drawing, I like inking the best.

The most frustrating part of writing is the first draft. Absolute hell! For drawing, it’s when I’m in the middle of the book and it feels like there’s no end in sight.

RM: I love research! There’s a lot about the beginning phase of building a story that I love, but I particularly relish gathering research materials and learning all about every aspect of whatever I’m writing or drawing. That’s probably something borne from drawing so many historical fiction books–there is so much to learn and draw inspiration from!

Every phase of the art is frustrating, with small rewards–thumbnailing each page takes full concentration, but goes fast and can be easily re-done. Sketch and inking and coloring are all endless, especially towards the end when your brain already feels done with the story, but you know there’s plenty of work ahead before you can celebrate.

Rebecca Mock Photo Credit: Kat Mukai

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers/illustrators? Any specific advice for those who only draw or only write comics?

HL: Writers, even non-drawing writers, should attempt some thumbnails or lettered stick-figure comics from their scripts. It really helps you get a sense for what will fit on the page in a way that’s hard to grasp if you don’t try it yourself. I still get this wrong all the time; it’s very hard stuff. Another suggestion is to read a bit about cinematography and try to think in shots, and in three dimensions. If the characters were in a room, how would they move around the space in a scene? I try to give an idea of this when I’m writing scripts, especially scripts for someone else to draw. If it isn’t working the artist can change it, but it’s much easier to go into drawing with even a rough stab at how the scene should play out. And yes, I know, comics and movies aren’t the same, but a lot of the concepts do cross over to an extent.

RM: If you feel more confident drawing than writing, I suggest trying your hand at writing some prose. It can be short scenes, or rambling epics, or fanfiction, or anything that holds your interest. Give yourself a break from thinking about the art, and let yourself have fun with a fresh challenge. If you have a story you want to turn into a comic, but aren’t sure how to start, I suggest choosing a short scene, something that might only take a paragraph to write, and turning that into a comic that’s a few pages long. This way you don’t feel overwhelmed, and you can start practicing the process–thumbnail the scene, sketch & ink & letter, add color, even try printing it as a small booklet and see how it feels to hold a comic you’ve made in your hands. 

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

HL: I’m working on the art for Be That Way, a YA hybrid book that should be out next year from Holiday House. It’s a diary-format book that tells the story of one complicated year in a teenage girl’s life, through prose, illustration, and comics. After that, I’ll be swinging back to self-illustrated comics, but nothing’s been announced yet.

RM: My newest comic, a slightly-adult adventure comedy called Die Horny, is up for preorder at Bulgilhan Press and will debut at Small Press Expo in September! It’s quite different from the books I’ve done with Hope. The title makes it sound more raunchy than it actually is–it’s about a couple of goofy lovebirds on their honeymoon in a humans-and-monsters post-apocalypse kind of world. Beyond that, I’m in the beginning stages of a new graphic novel for kids about a ballet summer camp–a story about being young and creative, and finding friendship in a competitive environment.

Finally, what books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

HL: For middle-grade comics, I really enjoyed Picture Day by Sarah Sax. Currently reading Conversations with Friends and enjoying that, too, although I’m very late to the party on that one. And I haven’t read Jose Pimienta’s Twin Cities yet, but Rebecca and I were on a panel with them at San Diego Comicon and the book looks wonderful.

RM: A recently released GN I loved was Slip by Marika McKoola and Aatmaja Pandya–teen drama and romance with some fantasy. A book that’s coming out soon from First Second that I’m excited about is In Limbo by Deborah Lee–I got a chance to read an advance copy and it blew me away. And I’m obsessed with the werewolf comics that Olivia Stephens is making–Artie and the Wolf Moon, a YA supernatural GN–and she’s self-publishing a series of short stories, also about werewolves–Darlin’ and Her Other Names is the most recent/upcoming one she’s announced.

Interview with Author Jennifer Dugan

Jennifer Dugan is an avid YA and comic writer that strives to create the stories that she wishes she had growing up. Her debut novel Hot Dog Girl was released April 30, 2019 from Penguin/Putnam. She is also the author of Verona Comics and the forthcoming novel Some Girls Do. Her latest book, Coven, a queer, paranormal YA graphic novel was released this past September.

I had the opportunity to interview Jennifer, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you for having me!

I’m an author from Upstate New York and am about to release my fourth young adult novel, Melt With You. I’m also launching first graphic novel this year, Coven—although I have also written and kickstarted indie comics in the past. I share my house with two cats, a dog, and many, many tropical plants.

When did you know you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to young adult fiction?

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I used to create little stories and comics and hand them out for holiday and birthday presents—in hindsight, I should probably apologize to my brother for that. I’m sure he would have rather had a toy or money, even if he was a good sport about it.

I love young adult fiction. I think I’m drawn to it because there are so many big events, and big feelings, that surround that time of your life. It gives writers a lot of latitude to play. I also think that young adult fiction is really trying to open its doors to more diverse story telling. There is a long way to go, that is undeniable, but it wasn’t too far in the past that I was told by someone in the industry that “queer girls don’t sell,” and now my books are just two of many coming out this year.

What can you tell us about your upcoming books, Melt with You and Coven? Where did the inspiration for these stories come from?

Melt With You is a young adult novel coming out May 17. It is a contemporary rom com that follows two ex-best friends, who had a falling out after a one-night hook up. Now, they’re on a road trip in their parents’ romance themed ice cream truck.

It has all my favorite tropes, including second chance romance, forced proximity, not to mention so, so many ice cream puns. I’m not sure exactly when the idea came in my head, but I had been interested in setting a story in an ice cream truck ever since seeing the video for BLACKPINK & Selena Gomez’s song Ice Cream.

Coven is my young adult graphic novel debut coming out September 6. It is a supernatural, queer, coming of age story about witches, although it is very grounded in its contemporary setting. It tells the story of a teen witch named Emsy who has to leave her California surfer girl life behind when her family decides to return to safety of their coven in Upstate NY after the murder of a coven mate. Emsy has to learn to master and even appreciate her powers… and maybe solve the murder while she’s at it.

This one was actually inspired be a little frog I encountered in real life! It was sitting in a pond near my house that was overgrown with moss and dead branches—it was early fall, and it all felt so wonderfully creepy. I sat on the edge of the pond and watched him for a while, soaking up the spookiness, and as I did a whole scene spun out before me in my head. I quickly went home and plotted the rest of the book. That original scene, and little frog, actually made it to the final draft, so everyone will get to “meet” him when they read.

How would you describe your writing process? What are some of your favorite (or most frustrating) parts of writing?

Generally, I wait for a scene to pop into my head—like it did when I was watching the frog that day. From there, I start thinking about the people involved in the scene—who are they, what do they like and dislike, which one is the main character (or two, if I’m writing dual POV.) Once I’ve established my main character, I need to find their favorite song, or a song that I think would really resonate with them. That’s one of the main ways I get to know them before drafting. From there, I build an entire playlist for them and start the work of outlining and drafting.

My favorite part is the very early daydreaming stage, when you’re first creating the characters and thinking about the story. It almost feels like dating. I have no clue at first if the idea will stick around to turn into something real… or if it’s just going to ghost me. Either way, it’s still fun. There’s no pressure or deadlines, it’s one of the few times that a story truly is just yours.

I also really love doing developmental edits. By then, I have a pretty firm grasp of my characters, the bones of the story are all there, and I’m just refining. It feels like I get to write fanfic of my own work, and I can’t get enough.

Did you draw on any specific sources of inspiration while writing, i.e. books, movies, music, etc.? Where do you draw inspiration or creativity in general?

In general, I draw inspiration from the world around me. Something as small as seeing a frog in a pond, if it hits at just the right moment, can lead to a new book sitting on in a bookstore someday. With that in mind, I try to approach the world in a very open way and soak up experiences to use as fuel for my work.

Music plays a huge role in my process, as I previously mentioned, but so do movies and other media. When I’m developing a character, I’m constantly thinking about how they would react to a movie or a song, or how they would be interpreting the world. I get to experience as myself, but also a little bonus bit through the character I’m crafting.

Books though, I read just for me. I’m really big on taking time to “refill the well” and for me that often means binge reading a variety of books and comics. I need books like I need air, and I don’t want to be deliberately and consciously thinking of my own craft as I do.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Finish your draft! I know it seems like common sense, but so many people get hung up on endlessly revising openings and early chapters—or are constantly chasing new ideas—that they don’t ever finish! You learn a lot from finishing a draft, even if you don’t ever decide to do anything with it.  

Besides being a writer, what are some things you would want your readers to know about you?

I’m an absolute dork, and not necessarily in a cool way. In more of a dress your cat in sweaters and daydream about a beautiful plant you absolutely don’t need because you already have over eighty in your home kind of way. (Yes, eighty!)

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?

I like to do book giveaways on my Instagram (@JL_Dugan) and I always have people answer a question for their entry. I recently did a giveaway for advanced reader copies of both Melt With You and Coven. Wanting to combine the themes of each, I asked readers to tell me what type of ice cream their favorite supernatural creature would eat for a treat. The answers were super fun, and I was a little jealous that I’d never been asked that… so I’m delighted to use this space to answer now. My favorite supernatural creature is undoubtedly a werewolf (sorry, witches!) and I feel like they might eat vanilla ice cream with Lucky Charms on top. It’s unclear if werewolves are impacted by chocolate the way dogs and regular wolves are, so I’m thinking they would want to avoid it to be safe. And who wouldn’t love a sugary cereal on top of their ice cream after a long night of chasing bunnies and/or biting people?

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

I have a couple unannounced projects that I am very excited to share more about soon. One of them is a bit different from what people usually expect from me, and I cannot wait to get it out there!

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I recommend people read all of them! They’re all so good and supporting titles that are out now means that publishers will keep buying them. Some of my favorite authors out now are Kalynn Bayron, Isabel Sterling, Julian Winters, Rory Power, and Dahlia Adler. I cannot recommend any and all of their books enough.

Header Photo Credit Amber Hooper

Interview with Graphic Novelist Harmony Becker

Harmony Becker was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is the illustrator of George Takei’s graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy. She currently lives in Mexico City. Their first solo graphic novel, Himawari House, was published in Fall 2021 by First Second.

I had the opportunity to interview Harmony, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Hi! Thank you so much for having me. My name is Harmony Becker, I’m a graphic novelist and artist from Ohio, currently living in Mexico City. I grew up in a multicultural family, which has strongly influenced the direction and themes of my work. I love learning languages, dancing, and music.

How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to the medium?

I started reading comics as a kid, browsing the aisles of the library looking to see myself reflected. There was something so irresistibly charming about the sparkly eyes and round, appealing designs of shoujo manga that got me completely addicted. 

As a cartoonist, you are well-known for your work illustrating They Called Us Enemy, a graphic novel co-created with George Takei. What was it like working on this project, as well as collaborating with such a famous Japanese-American LGBTQ+ icon like Takei?

It was intense! It was my first professional comics job, I didn’t even have a university degree and had just spent the last five or so years waitressing and drawing on the side, and to come from that to suddenly being next to George Takei on stage in front of thousands of people was a very extreme change. 

I wasn’t involved in the script writing process at all, so I didn’t actually interact much with George besides during our feedback sessions when I would show him the progress I had made. That being said, he’s a very passionate and warm person, and I was always impressed by his presence when we did events together in person. 

As a person from a multilingual home, I was touched by the way you played with language in your most recent work, Himawari House. What inspired this project and how did you navigate showcasing all the languages in Himawari House (including dialects, accents, and syntax) when creating dialogue between the characters and between the reader and the page?

I wanted to do a longform comic, and I wanted to start right away without having to do a lot of research beforehand, so I brainstormed about what I knew a lot about and could write about for a long time. I landed on the language learning experience, since that’s something that has greatly influenced my life. 

I knew that I wanted to have every language show up on the page. Reading manga in English I always used to try to translate it back to the original in my head, and I suppose I must have imagined that there are other readers like me who would appreciate having them both side by side like that. There is always a lot that gets lost in translation, and while the English subtitles increase throughout the book as the characters become more fluent, I also wanted to have the option of the readers themselves to potentially have that same experience–to be able to learn the languages in the book and eventually get to the point that they understood what the characters are saying even without the subtitles. 

I got a lot of help with the languages, I think there were maybe up to ten different people who were editing and checking the dialogue. I really owe a lot to those editors and my friends who I roped into helping me! 

As an artist, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

My number one inspiration has always been Studio Ghibli. Beyond the artistic level, I think throughout my life I’ve been very strongly influenced by the philosophy behind their movies–the tension between nature and humans, the ambivalence or total lack of antagonistic characters, that sort of thing. The work that inspired Himawari House the most strongly, however, was definitely Honey and Clover by Umino Chica. It taught me to romanticize my own life and see the humor and beauty in what sometimes seemed to be the most pathetic things about myself. These days I’ve been reading a lot of Igarashi Daisuke–Children of the Sea, Witches, Little Forest. There’s a very grounded spirituality that he explores, this sort of reverence and terror before how much we don’t know. I love that so much. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)? 

I suppose I’ll ask myself: What would you be doing with your life if you weren’t an artist? 

I would love to be some kind of naturalist, to do work with nature or animals. I think it’s the most urgent and necessary type of work, to restore our relationship with the natural world and to work to preserve it. 

Are there any projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I have a couple of comic projects in the works that haven’t been announced yet, but other than that, I’ve been working on the very early stages of a movie script. I’ve also been doing a lot of painting lately. 

What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives?

Pay attention to the world around you, and to yourself. Don’t wait for someone else’s approval to make work, or even your own approval. You learn by making work that you don’t like. Make time to play, to make work without putting a lot of pressure on the result. 

Finally, what books/comics (LGBTQ+ or otherwise) would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Witches by Igarashi Daisuke was my favorite read this year. For people who liked Himawari House, I would recommend Satoko and Nada, it explores similar themes of cross-cultural friendship and discovery. Harukaze no Etranger and Dokyuusei are two really lovely LGBTQ+ comics that I enjoyed.                                             

Interview with Illustrator Keezy Young

Keezy Young (they/she) is a queer comic artist and illustrator from the Pacific Northwest, currently in Seattle, WA. Today, Keezy writes, draws, and designs their own young adult comics. Their stories are cute, eerie, and often dark, but almost always hopeful at their core. Their work is character-focused, and they use action, romance, and mystery to explore LGBTQIA characters and themes, since those are the stories they always looked for growing up, but could rarely find.

I had the opportunity to interview Keezy, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Hi, I’m Keezy! I’m a queer comic artist and writer from the Pacific Northwest who loves telling stories about eerie, creepy stuff in a loving and hopeful way. My first graphic novel was Taproot, originally published in 2017 (and re-released in July 2022!), and I’m currently working on Hello Sunshine, which comes out with Little, Brown in 2025. I also do short comics and artbooks between my big projects!

As a graphic novelist, what drew you to storytelling through comics, and why specifically Fantasy?

I’ve been drawing for my whole life, ever since I was running up and down the stairs and using crayons on the walls. I came to writing a lot later, but I was always having ideas that I couldn’t quite manifest through a single illustration, so when I found picture books and comics, I was immediately drawn (ha!) to them. 

And I always loved fantasy, too. I like being able to explore an idea through a different lens than usual, whether it’s me coming up with the idea or somebody else. It gets me thinking about the world in new ways.

As an artist, one of the comics you are best known for is your comic, Taproot: A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost? Could you tell us what inspired the story? And would you say you have any particular experience or connection with gardening/nature itself?

I grew up in the forest and spent a lot of time with my mom in her garden, so I’ve always felt connected to the world that way. And when I was a kid, I felt ostracized and unloved by the world because I was queer, like my childhood was taken from me in a way, so I wanted to write something for myself in the past–putting those two things together, my happy memories of gardening, and queer love, was really cathartic for me. 

And like most of us, I’ve lost people. One of my very earliest experiences of death was my neighbor, a reclusive older man who I only really saw once. I was maybe 6, and had tripped and dropped my pea seedlings on the way home from the bus stop, was crying with scraped knees, and he came out to help me pick them up and put them back in my cup and make sure I was okay. He was kind and gentle, and that memory will always stick with me, even though it was a small thing. He died of suicide a couple of years later, but I will never forget that day, because it’s had ripple effects throughout my life. So I don’t necessarily want to say I’ve been inspired by death, but both his life and death, and those of all the friends who I’ve lost since then, have been with me for a very long time, and Taproot was partly a way of making peace with those losses. 

What are some of your favorite parts about this story?

I think it’s easy to only want to see life in nature and growing things, but death is just as important, and nothing ever truly ends with death, it just changes. I think Hamal using his necromancy to make things grow could be seen as a good guy thing to do, but it’s still upsetting the balance, because death is a part of life that you can’t deny or get rid of. 

I also really like drawing plants.

As an artist, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

I try to find inspiration from everywhere, but music is a big one for me. I love wandering around listening to music and daydreaming, and it’s where a lot of my ideas come from. Of course, I also gather a lot of inspiration from other people’s creativity, as I think most of us do!

What are some of your favorite elements of writing/drawing? What do you consider some of the most challenging?

One of my favorite elements is when I’m coming up with ideas, losing myself in a different world with different characters, exploring my own feelings and experiences through someone else’s eyes. I also love finally getting to put those ideas on paper and see the things I love come to life so I can share them with others.

My biggest challenge is perfectionism. When I lose sight of what I want and believe in, and start worrying only about what other people want to see, or what other people will think of my work, that’s when things start to get really jammed up. I’ve gotten better at shoving those feelings away over time, but I still struggle with it sometimes!

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)? 

A lot of people ask about my identity as a queer comic creator, and why I tell LGBTQ stories–there’s nothing wrong with this of course, but I would love to be asked about other aspects of my life and storytelling more often! It might be kind of simplistic, but one question I’m surprised I’ve never been asked is “why do you never draw cloudy, rainy days”: the answer is that I grew up in western Washington and we’ve got plenty of those as is haha. 

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creatives?

Imperfect is better than unfinished! (Or alternatively, ‘shitty is better than incomplete!’) The most important thing about your story is not how perfect it is, it’s that your story deserves to be told. Give people a chance to love it, and they will, no matter how amateur or unrefined you think it is. 

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I’m currently working on a new graphic novel called Hello Sunshine (Little, Brown 2025) about a group of teenagers trying to find their missing friend. As time goes on, they realize something strange and supernatural is going on. It’s a story about mental illness and family, both found and blood, and most importantly, love of all kinds. And of course it still has queer characters and plenty of hijinks!

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Trung Le Nguyen’s The Magic Fish is fantastic, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell and Mariko Tamaki is one of my favorites.

Interview with Illustrator Wendy Xu

Wendy Xu is a bestselling, award-nominated Brooklyn-based illustrator and comics artist. She is the creator of the middle grade fantasy graphic novel TIDESONG (2021 from HarperCollins/Quilltree) and co-creator of MOONCAKES, a young adult fantasy graphic novel published in 2019 from Oni Press. Her work has been featured on Catapult, Barnes & Noble Sci-fi/Fantasy Blog, and, among other places. She is currently working on two upcoming graphic novels from HarperCollins. You can find more art on her instagram or on twitter.

I had the opportunity to interview Wendy, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

On a good day I have anywhere between twenty and thirty bees in my head, on a bad day there’s like forty to seventy. That is to say, I’m a comics artist who lives in Brooklyn with my partner and cat. I like to cook when I’m not drawing, but I like to eat marginally more than I like to cook.

How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to this medium?

When I was a very small kid, some of my first books were collections of children’s comics. They were all in Chinese, which I couldn’t read, but I enjoyed deducing the story from the images, and I loved trying to draw like the illustrations I saw. When I got a little older, I started reading manga. I was really fortunate to have a great librarian at my town library in high school who loved comics and manga too, and because of her collection developmentI had an amazing stash of books to check out and read while I was there. I believe it was Lynda Barry (whose book, MAKING COMICS, I frequently refer to when planning drawing exercises for my own students– she has worked extensively with kids) who said that to a very young child, words and pictures go naturally together and only when they get older do these two categories become distinct and more rigid. As a child, that distinction was never really made for me, and I am thankful that comics have been with me my whole life. 

As an artist, would you say there are any other artists or comics that have influenced your creative style or inspired you personally?

CLAMP, Rumiko Takahashi, Fuyumi Soryo, and Hayao Miyazaki are some of my earliest and biggest influences.

What are some of your favorite parts about creating a graphic novel?

Conceptually: worldbuilding. It’s fun to play in a universe and figure out the mechanics of it, as well as how the environment contributes to all of the aesthetic sensibilities that exist. Technically: inking, when all of the hard writing and art bits are over with and your only focus is to make it look polished and good.

Your first published graphic novel, Mooncakes, explores queer characters, magic and witchcraft. Where did the idea for this project come from and what was it like working on the comic with your co-creator, Suzanne Walker?

I’ve always wanted to do a love story between a witch and a werewolf– I think the earliest inspiration for that comes from reading Amelia Atwater-Rhodes in the library when I was in middle school, but also a smutty witch/werewolf romance that got passed to me in eighth grade as contraband. A ways out of college, I asked my friend Suzanne if she wanted to do this comic together with me, because she wrote fun fanfictions and I occasionally drew little accompanying art for them, and I thought she could do the part I didn’t like, which is piecing the story together, and I could do the fun (although in comics, way more labor intensive part). All of the creative visual executive decisions were left to me, although Suzanne gave input on things she had direct experience with, like Nova’s hearing aids.

What advice would you have for those who want to make comics? 

Draw your own comic. I don’t care how crappy you are at art, you will never understand pacing or visual storytelling if you don’t sit down to draw. Use stick figures if you have to, but piece together a story panel by panel, visually, and you will learn what comics are about more than sitting down to write a script and then passing it off to someone else to draw. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)? 

“What brushes do you use”; the answer is: too many. I am a digital brush hoarder and I like to experiment with all of them. I feel like I am trying to find the elusive White Whale of Brushes, but that’s never going to happen. I can keep trying though.

Are there any other projects you are currently working on and at liberty to talk about? 

I am currently working on my second solo graphic novel, THE INFINITY PARTICLE, a young adult book about a girl and robot who fall in love. It’s set on Mars in the distant future, and grapples with a lot of thoughts I have about technology and consciousness, and it is also a response to the invasive encroachment of Big Tech into all of our daily lives. My biggest fantasy that I put into this book is that in the distant future there is no Internet, no Web 3.0, and most of all, no tech billionaires or NFTs. I’m also playing around with ideas for a few more projects, including one inspired by the Neolithic in East Asia.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/ authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Estranged by Ethan Aldridge, O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti, Artie and the Wolf Moon by Olivia Stephens, Don’t Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero O’ Connell, On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden, Girl Town by Casey Nowak, Witchy by Ariel Ries, Hotblood! by Toril Orlesky, and K. O’Neill’s upcoming Mothkeeper. I love Casey McQuiston’s wit. If we’re allowed to talk about short stories, Kimberly Wang’s new comic “Of Thunder and Lightning” on their gumroad is some fantastic visual storytelling. The short story “Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall was the most refreshing thing I’d read in sci-fi in a minute, if you can find it online.   

Interview With Cartoonists Whit Taylor & Kazimir Lee

Whit Taylor is an Ignatz Award-winning cartoonist, editor, and writer from New Jersey. She has authored many comics, including the graphic novel Ghost Stories, and is a regular contributor to the Nib.

Kazimir Lee is an animator, cartoonist, and illustrator, who has lived for almost equal amounts of time in Malaysia, the UK, and the US, now residing in Brooklyn, New York.

About the Book Harriet Tubman:Towards Freedom Harriet Tubman did something exceptionally courageous: She escaped slavery. Then she did something impossible: She went back. She underwent some thirteen missions to rescue around seventy enslaved people, using and expanding a network of abolitionists that became known as the Underground Railroad. She spent her life as an activist, speaking out for Black people and women’s suffrage. 

This modern account of her trip to save her brothers is detailed and authentic. Illustrated with care for the historical record, it offers insight into the life and mind of Tubman, displaying her as a woman with an unshakable desire to break the chains of an unjust society. It is a perfect anti-racist narrative for our times and deepens an understanding of just what freedom means to those who must fight for it.

How did you come to find yourself working in comics? What would you say attracted you to the medium in the first place?

Whit: I’ve been a comics reader and drawer since I was little, but didn’t start seriously making comics until my mid/late 20s. I started self-publishing, attending comics shows, and found a community in the indie comics world. In recent years, I’ve also become a freelance comics editor and contributing editor at The Nib.  I’ve always been attracted to the versatility of comics storytelling and enjoy both making my own comics and collaborating with others, such as Kaz. I like to make all sorts of comics: memoir, non-fiction (comics journalism/historical/educational), and some fiction. 

K: I was attracted by the freedom of this medium! I loved working in animation, but it was so time consuming that I found myself becoming too deeply focused on producing marketable, profitable content rather than work that spoke to me. CCS (The Center for Cartoon Studies) really shook up my expectations and pointed me in the right direction. There has always been something deeply DIY about cartooning, and I consider that one of its greatest strengths. Also Batman.

Whit Taylor

Who would you say are some of your favorite artistic influences? 

Whit: It’s hard to narrow it down because there are plenty, but off the top of my head, Lynda Barry and MariNaomi come to mind.

K: Jereme Sorese, Kevin Czap, Blue Delliquanti, Liz Suburbia, Marika and Jillian Tamaki and Joe Sacco are all giants. I would be blessed to be half the artist any of them are.

What advice would you give to other aspiring creators?

Whit: Make the work that’s in line with your values and interests.  Invest in your creative community. Realize that everyone has a different career path and that building it can take time. Don’t be ashamed to have a day job or other source of income…in this industry it’s not the exception, but the norm.

K: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Collaboration is fertile. Find time to experiment. Try your best to learn from your peers. Be accountable to your community, and to yourself.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked?

Whit: What changes in the comics industry would you most like to see? Right now, my top answers would be more publishing opportunities for adult graphic novels (which I think is starting to happen, thankfully), more support for new parents in the industry (as a new mom, making art can be particularly challenging), and some sort of viable path towards a cartoonist/comics industry union.

K: What TV shows are consuming your free time right now and why?

Are there any other projects you are currently working on and at liberty to speak about?

Whit: I’m currently working on The Greater Good, a public health policy/history graphic novel which will be drawn by Joyce Rice and published by First Second in 2023. I have a public health degree, and having worked in health education before moving to comics, this is a dream project. I’m also drawing the fourth issue of my minicomic series Fizzle, published by Radiator Comics. 

K: I’m working on a YA graphic novel for Iron Circus, and it will be the first large work I’ve ever written and drawn on my own! Scary. I’m also producing a comic about healthcare reform in collaboration with James Sturm for CCS- it’s done in the format of an animal-filled children’s picture book (even though it’s for kids and adults alike) and it was a fun departure from my regular style!

Kazimir Lee

In regard to queer media, what LGBTQ+ media would you say you’ve been drawn to in the past, especially that in regards to your own specific experiences and identities?

K: It’s embarrassing since I feel like I’m too old for this, but Steven Universe has been really formative in what I think queer media (especially in the Young Adult side of things) is capable of. Kim Petras and Remy Boydell are always pushing boundaries. There’s this queerpunk band, Shh! Diam that always blows my mind. The poetry of Zefyr Lisowki and the comics by Bisakh Som are a huge inspiration. We’re sort of living in a queer creator golden age, although I wish everyone was paid more.

As someone who has lived within Malaysia, the UK, and the US, would you say you’ve experienced or seen certain variations in terms of queer culture and expression? If so, would you describe them?

K: I didn’t really get to grow up in Malaysia, but whenever I go back it’s amazing to see queer culture bloom in what can be a really hostile environment. It reminds me of the importance of queer survival, and how that’s tied up with solidarity and accountability. Kuala Lumpur’s scene is smaller and more intimate than New York’s (where I live now.). It’s not as if there’s no drama, but I feel like we have to watch out for each other. It reminds me that we don’t have the privilege to treat others as disposable.

As someone who has illustrated comics about sex positivity, immigration rights, etc., what would you say inspires your inspirations? Has activism through art always been something you’ve been drawn to (no pun intended)? 

K: I am much less of an activist now, since I’m working for my green card. That makes breaking the law much more theoretical, and much less actual. I miss marching, but I feel like I am experiencing activism vicariously through my friends, family and community. Writing about it from the sidelines can be amazing, but also sort of frustrating at times. I call it Anarcho-FOMO.

Do you have any comics/books to recommend for the readers of Geeks OUT?

Whit: These recent reads come to mind: Dog Biscuits by Alex Graham (self-published), Guantanamo Voices by Sarah Mirk (Abrams), and I Never Promised you a Rose Garden by Mannie Murphy (Fantagraphics).

K: This One Summer is a brilliant read. Anything by Tillie Walden or Robyn Brooke Smith, they’re both geniuses. Sacred Heart by Liz Suburbia is one of my fave comics ever, it’s deeply haunting and very “punk”. Jeremy Sorese has a book coming out called ‘The Short While‘, it’s a queer sci-fi thriller, and while I haven’t read it yet, I’m sure it will be brilliant!

Interview with Cartoonist Jarad Greene

Jarad Greene is a cartoonist originally from Lutz, Florida, who now lives in the curious village of White River Junction, Vermont. In addition to his own comics, Jarad works on staff at the Center for Cartoon Studies and has helped color many graphic novels for younger readers. He is the author and illustrator of the graphic novels Scullion: A Dishwasher’s Guide to Mistaken Identity and A-Okay.

I had the opportunity to interview Jarad, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT!. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Sure – thank you for having me! I’m Jarad Greene, a cartoonist living up in the mountains of Vermont. I’ve been working as a cartoonist since I was a teenager, originally doing gag cartoons and comic strips for the newspaper, but currently my focus is on longer form work. I like to make fantasy, adventure, and contemporary autobiographical works for kids and young adults. Moving to New England unlocked a latent athletic affinity, so I’m still getting used to the fact that I now do CrossFit and feel compelled to go running. During the summer I try to spend as much time outside as possible, swimming, hiking, and looking for new ice cream spots. As for winter… that’s a work in progress.

How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to the medium?

I was an avid comics reader as a kid, reading comics in the newspaper and picking up monthly titles whenever I could. I was also an on-again, off-again journal-er and I took a sketchbook with me everywhere, so making comics came pretty intuitively. I created illustrated book reports for Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, and The High King while in middle school and I think those were my first foray into putting words and pictures together with panels and dialogue balloons. I started working on a deadline when I joined my high school newspaper staff as a cartoonist and I haven’t really stopped since.

Your forthcoming book, A-OKAY, is described as a semi-autobiographical middle grade graphic novel centered around an asexual boy. Could you talk about where the impetus for this story came from?

It began as a reaction to my first book, Scullion, a fantasy adventure, and wanting to do something very different from that while I waited on responses to my queries to editors and agents. I ended up writing a comics essay called Memories of a Former Porcelain Doll, which was a memoir comic about my two times going through Accutane treatment, ages 18-25. I had so much built-up energy and feelings about the years I spent trying to clear up my skin, that I felt compelled to write about it to organize my thoughts and get it out of my head. My draft of the comic received a publishing grant from the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) in Boston, where I debuted it as a 32-page mini comic a few months later. People’s response to it was unlike anything I had experienced with my other work. Readers kept circling back to my table to tell me how much it meant to them or how much it helped them understand what someone in their life who had acne went through. I planned to follow the essay up with a part two, but I had subsequently sold Scullion and it was almost 2 years later when I sat down to write again. The full-length memoir version I conceived felt pretty dark and miserable and in talking with my agent, she asked me who the book was for, and who I was hoping to reach. It reminded me of the reaction at MICE and that almost every person who spoke to me related the acne experience to their younger self or a young person in their life. I immediately knew how I could reconceive the story and age it down to a time when most kids experience acne troubles, while also making a less miserable, much happier story, which aligns better with who I am as a person. The asexuality aspect was in the new version from the start, a bit to my own surprise, since it wasn’t something I had ever planned to write about. Middle school is a time when questions of sexuality begin to arise, but back then I didn’t have the words I needed or any representations that could’ve been helpful. I hope A-OKAY can be that rep for a kid who doesn’t even know that they need it.

In addition to exploring asexual and aromantic identities, the book also explores something else that’s often rare in narratives with a male lead, specifically body insecurities. Would you mind talking about this a little in detail?

When I experienced my acne troubles, I didn’t know how to talk about it with other people, even my friends and family. I only wanted my skin to clear up to the way it was previously, but looking back on that time, I can see that a big part of talking about it meant accepting a level of vanity that I didn’t want to be revealed to other people, so I mostly kept my feelings to myself.

I couldn’t have asked my clear-skinned friends about their skincare regime, that would’ve been WAY too embarrassing! As time goes on, I’ve found that most of my friends are dealing with all kinds of insecurities. Maybe it’s getting older, maybe it’s that I went through my acne troubles and came out the other side, but I feel much more comfortable sharing my struggles and feelings with friends and knowing that I’m not alone. That’s one thing I wanted to put into A-Okay, that once Jay opens up, he realizes that his real friends aren’t making fun of him for going on acne medication or wanting to take care of his skin, they just want to know that he’s okay.

As a person who identifies on the Aromantic-Asexual spectrum, would you say you’ve seen any media that you felt you related to or represented by in this way? If not, was A-OKAY a response to that?

Certainly not when I was growing up; I can’t recall a single book I read or was assigned to read with any queer characters. TV was a little better or maybe just more accessible? I first heard a character refer to themselves as ‘asexual’ in the TV show “The Killing,” but that wasn’t until I was 24 years old. It was absolutely a factor in having it represented in A-OKAY. It was the only request I had of my agent when pitching it, that I didn’t want to work with an editor who would ask me to remove it or turn it into a love triangle. She found it an amazing home at HarperAlley. It has been extremely validating to be supported by so many in making this book.

As an artist, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

Oh boy, where do I begin! Obviously with this book I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from my own life. But more broadly, I’m a huge fan of the author-artists: Atelier Sento, Faith Erin Hicks, Hope Larson, Raina Telgemeier, Vera Brosgol, Liniers, Gene Yang, Alexis Deacon, Tove Jansson, and Becky Cloonan to name a handful. There are also SO MANY amazing cartoonists and illustrators on Instagram whose work gives me little jolts of inspiration when they pop up on my feed… but I could be here all day listing them.

Another big source of inspiration for me comes from my free time: hanging out with friends, cooking, baking, going on adventures, visiting my family, wandering around a new store or city, etc. It all fills my well of experiences. If I want to write about the lives of characters, I have to have a life myself.

What’s something you hope readers take away from A-OKAY?

I hope readers can get a better sense of what it’s like to privately struggle with something, and that they may have people in their life going through an issue they don’t know about. And even if it’s something like acne, which isn’t life-threatening and may not seem like a huge deal, they’ll understand that it may feel big to the person experiencing it.

Besides A-OKAY, are you currently working on any projects that you are at liberty to speak about?

I am contracted for a second book with HarperAlley, but as for the title and plot, I am not at liberty to say. I’m very excited about it and can’t wait to shout about it from the rooftops! I post random things from my desk, like paintings and sketchbook doodles on my Instagram, so that may tie people over until then.

What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives?

Sincerity is the secret ingredient to any good story. Focus on the work that really matters to you, no matter how strange, goofy, personal, or specific the stories you want to tell are. As long as you love it and are excited to tell it, it will reach the people it’s meant to find.

Finally, what LGBTQ books/comics would you recommend to the readers of GeeksOUT?

Oh, there are so many great queer books and comics out there now! I recently devoured three volumes of Heartstopper by Alice Oseman, The Montague Twins by Drew Shannon and Nathan Page, The Contradictions by Sophie Yanow, Alone in Space by Tillie Walden, Flamer by Mike Curato, The Magic Fish by Trung le Nguyen, and Among the Beasts and Briars by Ashley Poston.

Interview With Writer and Editor Stephanie Cooke

Stephanie Cooke is an award-winning writer and editor based out of Toronto. She’s a comic book fan, avid gamer, movie watcher and lover of puns. She is a purveyor of too many projects and thrives in chaos. Her writing work is featured in Mark Millar’s “Millarworld Annual,” “Wayward Sisters,” “The Secret Loves of Geek Girls,” “Toronto Comics Anthology” and more. Her debut graphic novel, “Oh My Gods!” released in January 2021 from HMH Kids, and a sequel will follow in fall 2021. She’s also a crazy cat lady who happens to be terribly allergic to cats. As such, she settles for having just the one cat and takes a lot of allergy medication. I had the opportunity to interview Stephanie, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Sure thing! I’m a writer and editor that primarily works on comics and graphic novels. I’m based out of the Great White North (or sometimes partially south of some folks in the U.S.) in Toronto, Canada. Oh My Gods! is my debut graphic novel with Insha Fitzpatrick, Juliana Moon, and Whitney Cogar. And my second graphic novel ParaNorthern just came out! They’re both middle grade stories that I firmly believe anyone can enjoy.

What inspired you to create comics? Were there any comics or artists you believe who inspired you and/or influenced your style?

I’ve been reading comics for most of my life, so it’s a medium that I’ve always loved and been drawn to. I’ve also written in some capacity or another for as long as I can remember. As to what inspired me to write comics specifically, I’d been podcasting, reviewing comics, writing articles, etc. for entertainment websites, and during a convention I was attending (after having been in the industry already for five to six years), someone asked me why I didn’t write comics. I knew other creators, publishers, the ins and outs, etc. and I didn’t have a good answer for that. Why didn’t I write comics? It changed something in me and pushed me to start. It turned out to be a perfect medium to channel my creativity into and I love it.

I think there are a lot of things that inspire me, not necessarily always comics. Some of the things that I think I aspire to are things I’m just generally a big fan of like Lumberjanes and Nimona. I also love Cucumber Quest by Gigi D.G., The Adventures of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks, and Hark, A Vagrant! by Kate Beaton. Plus, I’m absolutely in awe of everything Raina Telegemeier is doing. And outside comics, I think a lot of animated shows have inspired me, too, like Gravity Falls and Star vs. the Forces of Evil.

I don’t think any one of those directly influenced my style or voice, but rather they helped me figure out the things I wanted to include in creating my own unique voice.

Where did the inspiration for ParaNorthern: And the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calypse come from?

I think it’s a mish-mash of things but definitely one of the big bits of inspiration was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog was a big reason why I wanted to incorporate mischievous rabbits into the story here and have them be part of the overall mayhem. I really loved the idea of something innocent and sweet seeming to be a thing that causes so much damage and destruction! But then more generally, I love supernatural stories and was a big fan of the TGIF programming on ABC when I was growing up. Sabrina the Teenage Witch was something I watched at just the right time of my life to really stick with me and heavily influence my humor and brand.

ParaNorthern: And the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calypse looks perfect for those who are fantasy/Halloween fans of Scary Godmother (Jill Thompson) and Moonstruck (Grace Ellis/ Shae Beagle). Would you say there are any stories that inspired these comics or speak in conversation with it?

ParaNorthern has been in my head for a really long time and it’s definitely influenced by a lot of different things, again not necessarily all comics (despite how much I adore comics). As I mentioned, Monty Python is a big one as well as (probably obviously) a love for Halloween. Sabrina the Teenage Witch has stuck with me over the years, too; both the sitcom show as well as her stories from the Archie digests. I’ve always been really interested in the idea of magic in our own world and then in other supernatural parallel worlds, too. So, I guess in that regard, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, and Tamora Pierce’s epic series are all things that helped influence me too.

A lot of stuff has come out since I originally sold ParaNorthern though, and I think graphic novels like Snapdragon by Kat Leyh and The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner and Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner are all titles that are a few of its wonderful kindred spirits.

What would you say are some of your favorite craft elements to work on?

Creative procrastination. As in working for two minutes and then going on Twitter for 20. Okay, but seriously, I love practicing short stories and testing my boundaries for what I can do and what I enjoy (or don’t enjoy) working on. Short stories are such a fun challenge and flexing those muscles where I play around with different voices, styles, and genres are really rewarding and help to keep me growing as a creator. I especially love a good silent comic where you try to write a story without any dialogue or narration and just provide the best art direction possible to let that tell the story. Someday I want to take that over to a long-form project.

For those curious about the process behind a graphic novel, how would you describe the process? What goes into creating a script and collaborating with an artist to translate that into panels?

It varies from creator to creator, but I think the big thing to always remember is it’s a collaborative medium. It’s really important that you think of your entire team throughout the process and how everyone can shine. For me, I always start with really extensive outlines that break down the story into point form beats. This helps me work out plot holes, further develop characters, and answer questions that will help make the story more satisfying to the reader in the long run. Figuring that out as much as possible in advance of scripting helps to solidify the story in my mind, give me a guideline to work off, and helps narrow down the number of script drafts I’ll ultimately have to do.

I’ve been really into art for most of my life, and I draw for fun and have always been a pretty visual person. For  me, when I do go to the scripting phase, I’m able to really see the page and panel layouts as I write. With middle grade stories, it’s important to keep the panel count low to 4-5 panels per page to help keep the attention span of young readers. You go in with that in mind and how many panels and pages it’ll take you to convey certain beats. The important thing is to make sure you’re not writing multiple actions in one panel. If you’re writing “and” in your panel description, you have to check yourself to make sure it’s not describing something else the characters are doing. 

In a more general way, I try to give as much description as needed without over directing. I want the artist to be able to interpret the page and add their own spin on it or feel that they can change things up to an angle or shot that might be better suited. Typically though, the artist doesn’t see the script until the final draft is done. You just have to do everything in your power to be a good collaborator in advance of that.

What advice would you give to aspiring creatives who would want to create their own comics, whether as artists, writers, or both?

Practice, practice, practice. If you keep putting off starting, you’ll never find the time for it. If you’re a writer who doesn’t draw, you don’t need an artist to practice writing scripts and telling stories. Work on short stories, pitch to anthologies, join a writer’s group to connect with other creators and get inspired (this bit all applies to artists, too!).

It can be a hard industry to break into, but the good news is that these days, you’re not beholden to publishers to find your way in. You can make zines, webcomics, or you can self-publish or crowdfund a project. Don’t wait for someone to discover you; take your creative dreams into your own hands!

Are there any project ideas you have that you are at liberty to discuss?

GOSH, I WISH I COULD TALK ABOUT NEW THINGS! But hopefully soon. That being said, something that is announced is my first YA graphic novel called Pillow Talk with art by Mel Valentine. It’s about an underground pillow fighting league and how a self-conscious young woman finds it, falls in love with it, and uses it to come out of her shell. I’m so proud of it and it’s not out for a little while still (fall 2023) but I really hope people will check it out when it gets here. It’s full of beautiful diverse characters, body types, sexualities, and more! Mel is a master at that, and I can’t wait for people to see their amazing work.

Finally, what queer books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

YES! Okay, here we go: 

THERE ARE SO MANY THAT I LOVE, I could honestly go on forever! But those are a few more recent ones that I thoroughly enjoyed and wholeheartedly recommend.