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Creator Corner: Interview with Artist and Graphic Novelist Rhea Ewing

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Most of my interviews for Creator Corner have highlighted authors, which makes sense given my love of books. But when I was at WisCon in May, I went to the Artist Alley and fell instantly in love. With a painting called “Justified Bodies”:

From the Artist’s Statement: ”Regardless of their original intent, it is not difficult to see that the features that make these figures controversial are features held by real bodies today, which are similarly scrutinized for acceptability and asked to justify themselves: fat bodies, female bodies, and bodies whose sex or gender is seen as ambiguous. What is seen as questionable and what is immediately accepted by our current society shape our interpretations of the past.” I love everything about this piece of art.

When a friend of mine mentioned I might want to interview Rhea Ewing for this series, I was delighted to discover that they were the artist behind painting I had fallen in love with. I was even more delighted when we actually met to talk about their art, being an independent content creator, and their upcoming project Fine: a comic about gender, a graphic novel about, well, gender. We talked for almost 45 minutes, but trust me, you’ll want to hear everything they have to say.

Gretchen: How long have you been pursuing your art and what got you into the visual arts in the first place?

Rhea: This is a little embarrassing, but I first started trying to get better at drawing when I was in fourth or fifth grade because I wanted to be the coolest kid in class, and I could draw wolves better than anybody. So I was that kid. Then I realized, “drawing is pretty fun, let’s keep doing it.”

Over time, I got to this point in my art where I had a lot of passion for what you could do with all different kinds of art and storytelling. And that you could make connections between all of these different ideas and people’s real, lived experiences day to day. I wanted to be able to play with those connections and I still relish in that challenge.

So, in my freshman year of college, I decided to change my major and pursue art full time. Up until that time I had been interested in pursuing a degree in the sciences—explains a lot of my interests in my art, right?

G: With all the options out there for telling stories, especially personal stories like interviews, what made you settle on a graphic novel format for Fine: a comic about gender?

R: The first graphic novel that I read that made me think comics could do some cool stuff was Blankets by Craig Thompson. I was in high school when I read it and realized you could talk about all these complex, internal things and you can make them external and present them in a format other people can understand. Shortly after that I read Persopolis by Marjane Strapati and that was another big influence on my work. Persepolis and works like it made it clear to me how comics could make someone else’s world understandable and relatable to the reader. I have also always liked that with comics you can talk about complex ideas in a relatively concise format. You have the images to support the words and vice versa.

So, I wanted to do a comic to talk about a thing that seems complicated and weird and that I don’t understand, so let’s go with gender. I don’t really know what the hell that is, let’s do it! When I first started the project, I was a senior at UW Madison and figured it was a project I could do over the summer.

G: *snorts with laughter*

R: Yeah, right? I was naïve. I thought I’d interview maybe a dozen or two dozen people, make a little zine about what gender is. When I started doing that, I encountered all of these blocks. There were a lot of things I encountered that were very intriguing. Like, I was talking with transgender folks, cisgender folks, and people who don’t identify with either of those labels; there was a lot that people were giving me that was really fascinating and went beyond comments like “I’m transgender” or “gender is something that I think about a lot.” There were a lot of interesting things people said about how they think about their gender, or ways they would get struggle a little bit with what people expected based on the gender they identified as that didn’t work for them. Again, this was both cisgender and transgender folks saying things like this.

I wanted to talk about the complexities of gender more and I realized there were a lot of perspectives I was missing. The blocks that I mentioned were in getting to those perspectives. There are a lot of, if you want to frame it generously , a lot of unintentional divides in the trans community between transmasculine and transfeminine folks or between white folks and people of color. So as someone who was assigned female at birth, very white, and living in Madison—a city with a lot of unresolved racial disparities and problems—plus, at the time I didn’t have the language to describe myself. That’s part of why I was interested in this whole project. So, I was just like, “what is gender, even?”

But if you’re a trans woman and/or a trans person of color, you see this white, assigned female at birth person coming to you saying “what is gender, even?” that’s really scary! And that’s scary because in the past there have been people approaching those questions apparently in good faith who have used them to do a lot of harm to the trans community, to the most vulnerable among us.

I kept encountering these blocks, so I realized that in order to do justice to this topic, I needed to have a better sense of the demographics of the people I was talking to. I also needed to work a lot harder to reach some of those voices. That’s how you turn a summer-long project into a seven year adventure and a little zine into a graphic novel!

G: What surprised you most in the process of creating Fine: a comic about gender? Has working on it changed your own perspective on gender and if so, how?

R: Oh yeah. There’s a lot that has surprised me. Right from the get go encountering all of the blocks and divisions, or people using terms I didn’t know. Up until that point, I had been that person who considered themselves an ‘LGBTQ ally.’ I grew up in a small town in Kentucky and ‘for some reason’ I was really protective of and wanted to hang out with the queer kids, I didn’t know why! I cared about them really intensely.

And one of the things I had encountered was that sometimes you dip your toe into online spaces or you go into a group where people have a very encoded and advanced language they’re using to talk about all these nuances. I didn’t have any idea, and I felt like I needed to have everything about myself figured out before I could go into those spaces. “This is exactly who I am, here’s my list of labels, let me hang out with you.” On top of that, just being kind of a shy, introverted person, too. That uncertainty of exactly how to define things combined with, like, this fear of rejection. Feeling weird about straight cis people is one thing, but if you go to this space that’s supposed to be safe for you and get the feeling that you’re not ‘gay enough’ or ‘trans enough’—I had a lot of anxiety about that.

That’s where I was coming from going into this. Then, I encounter all these blocks and it’s more complicated than I thought even from my perspective. And the more I talked to folks all over the Midwest, I realized that there wasn’t this single, unified language people were using to talk about gender. It varied a lot by region. There were some communities where butch and femme were really common ways to talk about an aspect of someone’s experience with gender. There were other places where the response to that language was “that doesn’t make sense” or even “why would you even say that?” So it wasn’t just that I was this person who couldn’t figure out how to describe myself, these are words and languages that are shifting and really contextual depending upon how old you are, where you are, race, all sorts of things.

“These Doubts are Overwhelming” by Rhea Ewing

G: There’s cultural upbringing, too; if you’re an immigrant or come from a family of recent immigrants, country of origin, all those cultural and religious layers as well.

R: Right. I’m glad you brought that up because I interviewed a couple of folks who identify as two-spirit, and for them, the cultural aspect of who they were was inseparable from their gender identity.

G: That makes a lot of sense.

R: I learned a lot. A few years into it, I hit a point where I couldn’t even care anymore if someone thought I was using the wrong words for myself because I realized that maybe someone always would. That’s the nature of how diverse our communities are. So, I came out as bisexual and genderqueer? Nonbinary? Agender? I still don’t really have a word that I feel like, “this is the word!” but I have a constellation of words that I can say, “it’s somewhere in that direction.”

It’s also taken me from a point of, “I don’t understand gender and I don’t relate to it at all, why do we even need it,” to “okay, I don’t know what’s going on with my gender, but I clearly have some kind of feeling about it and other people clearly have a firm gender identity and relate to this system in a certain way.” My genders just kind of like dark matter. I can’t see it or detect it through the general background noise of the universe, but the effect that it has on me still affects me a lot. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a gender but that means that I’m thinking about it constantly and have built my career around it.

G: I love that metaphor of dark matter; I haven’t heard it before.

R: Yeah, I’m working with the Arts + Physics project right now that pairs artists, writers, and physicists together with high school students and you all complete a project together by the end of it. Anyway, I have the pleasure of working with physicist Dr. Kim Paladino . Kim studies dark matter so I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Hmmm, there’s a thing that has immense effects that we can’t figure out, you say?

G: We know it’s there, but we don’t really know how to define it, hmmmm.

R: We study it indirectly and then we figure out more and more…Did that answer your question?

G: Yes, absolutely. Moving on, what do you hope that audiences reading Fine: a comic about gender work walk away with?

R: Okay, so. A really common question for creative folks is “who is your audience?” I try to picture several different audience members in my mind when I’m working on the book. One is the queer kid who has or hasn’t figured themselves out yet in rural America, because I was that kid. When I was in high school, I read books, comics, and things like that about queer experiences. I read a lot of the webcomic Liliane Bi-Dyke, and there were times when my parents were reading over my shoulder and asked if I was queer, from a place of wanting to be really supportive. I told them, ‘nah, I don’t know.’ Basically, when I eventually came out, no one was surprised.

Anyway, I think of that experience, of not even having the language to start conceptualizing this and having a community that isn’t large enough or safe enough to talk with people. People who need a way to explore those things—for those people, Fine is an invitation: “It’s okay to look into this stuff, to talk about it. And if you feel weird about it, you’re definitely not alone.”

Then, I think about folks who are in a more similar space to where I am now. Maybe they’ve put some thought into gender. I see this temptation to distill it into a catchy phrase like “gender is between your ears” or to use diagrams with different spectrums of experience. I think that’s so temping for people because you want to be able to explain things concisely. In fact, when I first started the project, I wanted to make a model like that, too. Then, I realized through talking to so many different people that I couldn’t do that. There were so many different experiences and ways to talk about it.

Ideally, for folks who are at this level I want them to see that this is complicated and that’s beautiful. I’m not going to tell someone they’re describing their gender wrong; rather, they’re using a different language than I am. I want the work—it’ll be a big book, it’s looking like 375 pages at this point—to be take that as a whole and a representation of what happens when you try to talk about gender without first establishing shared language. Can you do that? What are the results of that? I want people to ponder on that.

Because another thing is that a lot of my interviewees often used the same words and phrases in contradictory ways. I ask most of the people I interviewed the same sets of questions like, “what is the difference between sex and gender?” Some people say there isn’t one, other people say, “it’s this,” and other people say “weeeeeell, I don’t know.” It’s complicated” Someone could interpret ‘sex’ to mean ‘genitals’ while others interpret it as ‘chromosomes’ while others interpret it as ‘sexual orientation,’ for example.

I want to show that you can have these conversations. You can be open and ask questions about what people mean. For me, that’s a much healthier space to explore ideas in rather than, “oh my gosh, you described yourself as transsexual, how dare you!” But that’s a word some people identify with and has historical weight. Why do we always flip the language around like that? There’s an essay by Julia Serano about the carousal of language around transgender experience that talks about how a term will be accepted for a while and then be seen as a slur. We don’t see that in queer identity labels that are under less scrutiny. ‘Gay’ and ‘lesbian’ for example have specific origins and if you look at the origins, they don’t really capture that entire identity but words can evolve and change.

G: People are more comfortable with the lack of precision with more widely accepted labels than they are in what they would consider new ones.

R: Exactly. Whereas with identities that are under more scrutiny like being bisexual, gender nonconforming, or transgender, there’s more of a cycle of distancing from words associated with being more marginalized or having violence enacted against them.

G: That’s so fascinating, but we have to move on. You talk on your website about being inspired a lot by nature. Tell us a bit more about how you see nature as a mirror of and challenge to human experiences.

R: So, nature is pretty awesome. There’s a reason why at one point I wanted to devote my life to studying it through science, and I still do, but as a ‘fan scientist,’ the one who can explore a lot of topics.

What I love about nature, much like with things like gender, is that the closer you look at it, the more complicated, lush, diverse, and vibrant it becomes. Take the idea of survival of the fittest for example. For a lot of people, that immediately conjures a certain image of a big touch strong animal versus a feeble animal that can’t get the food in time. But when you actually start looking beyond that stereotype level, you see there are a lot more complexities of social interactions, communication between individuals within species, and also a lot more diversity.

One of the species that I featured in my Seven Strengths series is the bluegill sunfish (they’re actually in the lakes here). They’re a fish species with four genders. Roughgarden’s book Evotion’s Rainbow does a wonderful job talking about how the cultural biases of biologists studying nature in the field can have a severe impact on what they perceive. Roughgarden defines gender as a distinct appearance associated with a set of behaviors. So, the bluegill sunfish has four genders. There’s the big orange males who make a big nest at the bottom of the lake and they guard the nest fiercely, looking for a female to lay their eggs in it by proving they can protect the eggs. They can be really territorial and aggressive. Sometimes they’re so aggressive they’ll attack females who visit them, which makes the females wary. They don’t know if the males are dangerous to approach.

Another type of male is the ‘sneaker male’ who hang out around the edges. They have a different appearance and body structure. They’re whole game is that when a female visits the nest of an orange male, they sneak in, do their thing, and run away before the orange males can catch them. It’s really common in lots of species to have different types of males, and sometimes they switch which role they’re in during their lifetime.

What excited me was the third type of male, which for a long time was classified as a ‘female mimic,’ that he was tricking the orange males. But, the behavior and appearance of these types of males is different enough from the females that Roughgarden proposes that’s the wrong classification for them. These males school with the females for most of the year, then, during mating season, they will court one of the orange males. If the orange male accepts his courtship, they’ll form a partnership with a nest together throughout the breeding season and then they both mate with any females who come to visit. The females don’t stay to take care of the eggs, so the fact that male stays around makes him different. And from the female’s perspective, the fact that the big, tough orange male is chill enough that he has a partner means he’s safer.

It’s also cool because when there’s a partnership like that and a female comes to visit, they all mate together. The smaller male will be in the middle and help coordinate the mating process like, “I like you, I like you, here we go.”

“Love” by Rhea Ewing

So, nature is a lot more complicated than we think and sometimes cultural biases—for example against trans people or a certain vision of gender roles, things like that—can affect our ability to observe the natural world accurately.

It can also work in other ways. There’s a series that I’ve done called the Ancestor series about human evolutionary ancestors and relatives. The thing about paleoanthropology is that when we find fossils and artifacts, the way someone interprets them often ties into what that person believes it means to be human: What do we value? What should we value? How important is it that we be clearly distinguishable from our evolutionary ancestors?

There are also some really scary racists and eugenicists who draw parallels between contemporary modern humans and certain evolutionary species. What’s fascinating is depending on whose DNA they think has what they will completely change whether those parallels are good things or bad things. Anyway, the Ancestor series is all these figures cloaked in leaves and artifacts holding these fossil skulls up as masks. Because we have all these ideas on our own of what we want things to mean; those ideas, hopes, and hang-ups are like using these fossil finds as masks like, “oh look, see, I’m legit.”

G: It goes back to what you were saying at the beginning about visual art being a concise medium, because it took you longer to explain that to me than if I had just looked at the art and absorbed that message.

R: I almost always want to have an artist statement next to my art pieces. On my website I have these long artist statements, and if I do a gallery show I’ll bring them along to hang next to each piece. I want my pieces to work if people don’t have all that background information, but there are pieces where you might not know certain things unless I told you. There’s a species of butterfly that I feature in one of my Ancestor pieces called the large blue arion. As caterpillars, they go and sing to an ant colony and release these pheromones to which the ants reply, “Woah, this is the biggest ant child we’ve ever seen.” The ants then take it into their nest and take care of it. Then the big ant child that is actually a caterpillar eats and pupates. When it emerges, it’s clearly not an ant baby, so it sings a different song and the ants clear the way for it to walk out.

What’s interesting is that the usual MO is that these ants attack anything that’s not a part of their colony on sight. Ants are kind of the worst. There was an ant scientist talking about two ant colonies, same species, with this line in between them stacked high with dead ants. So that’s a tension I like playing in my work, too. I have this drive to see all of these beautiful things in nature, but that’s another bias, right?

Anyway, there are all these surprising connections like that that I think are interesting and I want to showcase those, but it gets tiring to verbally explain to everyone who walks by. I have those artist statements to help.

G: Are there any other themes or sources of inspiration you incorporate into this network of connections in your art?

R: Two things immediately come to mind. One is that I really like big things that are made up of lots of little things. A big influence of that in my work is the Korean three dimensional and installation artist Do Ho Suh. A lot of his work is lots of figures or, like, a piece of armor made out of army dogtags that were flowing out onto the floor almost like feathers or scales. He did a piece where instead of a pedestal with a statue on top, it was a bunch of smaller statues supporting a pedestal.

That’s a big interest in my work. I do a lot of things where I make these amalgam, almost spirit characters made out of leaves or insects. A part of that is I want to fit all these ideas and interests that I have into one thing.

Another thing that often comes up in my work that people comment on is that I draw a lot of hands. Hands forever remain my most and least favorite thing to draw. They’re very complicated, but they’re also very posable and expressive. The difference between someone gripping a water glass very casually versus white knuckling it a bit can tell you a lot about what that person might be doing or feeling. I use hands in my work to express that there’s a human element, idea, or emotion. But I like doing it through hands because when you draw a face, people get stuck on the question of who the person is, their age, place of origin, how they’re supposed to relate to them, etc. Hands are a more generalized statement of humanity.

Part of what I enjoy about my comics is that it’s the opposite. I’m able to depict a character who represents a real person and I want the audience to be able to relate to them while also seeing all of the things that are unique about them. My comic isn’t a general statement about ‘this is what humanity is like’ because that doesn’t work for all the reasons I mentioned earlier about that project.

“Can I See You” by Rhea Ewing

G: Most people tend to think of queer representation in literal terms—queer characters in narratives, for example—how would you describe your art as a representation of queer identity and experience outside of that very literal conceptualization of it?

R: I’m really excited that you asked me this question. For me and for my identity and the way I experience and think about my gender and sexual orientation, queer is an acceptance of complexity and of other and of something being strange or of doing things in a different way. There’s a really wonderful comic called Queer: A Graphic History, and one of the things it cites is Dory from Finding Nemo and how, because of her memory, she doesn’t experience events in the same time and space that everyone else does. But she’s still able to have all kinds of meaningful connections with other fish. That kind of mindset is what I’m thinking about.

My perspective on nature is that it’s complicated. There’s a lot of different survival strategies and we have a lot of baggage, things we want to be true and our own agendas when we look at it. If your impression of survival of the fittest is ‘winner takes all,’ what does that imply for your politics? All those things are important. Taking a queer lens on them means making room for the abnormal.

G: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced being a queer artist? How can our readers best support original artists like you in pursuing your work?

R: A lot of the challenges I deal with as a queer artist involve wanting myself and my ideas to be understood at least marginally well. There’s a certain pressure for artists as small businesses to market themselves or put themselves out there in a certain way. I’m not always comfortable with that because I don’t want to be misunderstood.

I did an interview a couple years ago and when it came out, they had misgendered me in half of it. But not the other half, so it was kind of strange. I’ve had art curators take my bio and artist statement off of my website and when they change the first person to third person, they used all of the wrong pronouns for that but had kept the right pronouns elsewhere. There’s an extra layer of work for me to do.

I want people to focus on my work and appreciate it for what it is, but that means appreciating me for who I am. At least in a rough sketch kind of way regarding my pronouns and why they’re important to me. I’ve had to get comfortable sending people messages about my pronouns and using them consistently in professional contexts.

Another challenge would be the challenges artists everywhere face. Culturally, societally, we place a lot of value on creativity and the beauty or aesthetics of things, but we don’t place a lot of value on the people who make those things happen. There’s not a lot of funding for the arts. A friend of mine recently lost a gig because she made a bid and all of the other artists except her didn’t budget compensation for their own time into the proposal.

What that leads to is that the most privileged voices get heard the most. If art can only be done on a volunteer or mostly volunteer basis where you’re mostly working for minimum wage or below, then the artists who have the extra resources to support themselves or receive support from family members will be the ones you hear from the most.

A challenge for me is that I recognize I want work like my own to be out there more, especially Fine: a comic about gender, and I want it to be done by those who do not have the same privileges that I have. The fact that I’m able to bring this project to this point has cost 7 years of only being able to work part time, thousands of dollars in travel costs, hiring artists to help do inking and polishing steps. The fact that I was just barely able to pull all of this together is like, yippee for me, I guess. But if we want to see more of this, we need systems of support and structures in place that can support not just funding for the arts in terms of physical supplies but in terms of time and expertise. I actually applied for several grants when I was working on Fine and the consistent message I heard was, “We’re excited about this project, come talk to us when you’re ready to print it because we don’t want to pay for something to be made.”

But that’s more of a challenge with society and the arts in general. I’m very aware of the fact that I can live with my parents is a huge thing. But even the fact that we ask such things of artists means that there are a lot of folks we don’t hear from, and that needs to be fixed.

To combat that, if you’re in a position where you are working with an organization that supports the arts, help change mindsets. Like, “if we want to hear from a more diverse range of people, we need to be able to compensate people for their time, and we need to actively seek out diverse artists.” The people I want to hear from the most are the people with the least extra resources to give.

If you’re not working for an organization like that, it’s great to support artists directly through purchasing their work, making commissions, and platforms like Patreon.

Another way to support diverse artists would be to makesure that you’re holding everyone to the same standard. Something I see a lot of is that queer artists, artists of color, trans artists, other diverse artists in general are held to a much higher standard than cis white male artists and mainstream media. A big Hollywood blockbuster or a (white) male creative making a vague gesture towards feminism is applauded but something that’s supposed to be a queer or feminist work gets picked apart for every imperfection. We need to celebrate what a work does while recognizing what needs to be done next. The expectation that everything marginalized creators make needs to be perfect and save the world all by itself is toxic. We’re all consumers of media, so watch out for that in yourself Let go of some of those expectations of perfection.

G: As someone who wants to be a published author, I live with that same anxiety all the time.

R: Oh yeah, it has definitely defined my career.

G: Like, am I going to get picked apart for this? I’m trying really hard, and not in a “I’m trying hard, give me cookies” kind of way, in a “I really care about this, it deeply matters to me” way. I want to do the best job that I can, but are people going to recognize that or are they just going to assume that I don’t or didn’t care or just did it for cookies?

R: I have a lot of feelings about that, as that’s something that has been very detrimental to my mental health throughout my creative career. Even now I think about that. If I start experiencing a lot of harassment or get doxxed and my family is at risk, that could come from a few different places. I could see it coming from conservative spaces (maybe pretending to be liberal spaces), but I could see it coming from people on the left who take a very absolutist view of how these things work. It’s sick that I find myself in a position where I have to accept that a certain amount of this backlash is going to unfortunately happen from people that I would like to share community with. It’s hard.

And of course, I hold myself to a very high standard, which is why Fine has taken so long! But at some point I have to recognize that I can’t make a definitive document about what it means to have a gender identity in the midwest United States. I can’t even say this is what it meant within the time period in which I was doing interviews, which is between 2012 and 2016. I can’t even say that! This is just what the 57 people I talked to said about gender. It’s complicated.

The thing is, I don’t want to be immune to criticism, I just want those conversations to be productive. I want people to look at the gaps and missing pieces in my work and be inspired to create and fund projects that do what needs to be done next. When young creatives only see work being torn apart and creators being sent death threats, what are they supposed to think? I know it certainly held me back for a long time.

G: So, what’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?

R: There are a few things I’m working on this summer that I’m excited about. I already mentioned the Arts + Physics project so you can look to see what the students who are involved with that come up with at the Arts + Literature lab later this year.

Otherwise, I’m working with Dr. Stephen Meyers, he’s a geology professor UW Madison. I’m working with him on a short scifi story summarizing key geological ideas and scientific mindsets for his students. It’s called “Grace in Space” and I’m super excited. It’s also kind of funny because this is maybe my dream gig and I’d given up on ever getting it, then I get this email out of the blue saying hey, here you go. I’m also doing a few projects with Dane Arts Mural Arts. The biggest thing I’d done with them before now is the mural on Broadway St. in Monona. So, I’m working on a couple of projects with them that I’m hoping will be near completion by the end of the year.

For Fine, the next step is just cranking out the pages. I did a lot of work editing and having it reviewed by people I trust early on because I knew that I wasn’t prepared to draw 375 pages of graphic novel only to realize I needed to rewrite half of it. So I’m in focused production phase right now. It’s hard because life expenses come up, health stuff related to family, or just things you want to do like have a family. Balancing the finances of that is hard, but I’m very lucky that I have very dedicated fans that have supported me for a long time.

If people are interested in knowing what’s happening with my comic work in particular, Patreon is a great way to keep up with it. Because I’m interested in Fine: a comic about gender being taken as a whole, I haven’t posted many work-in-progress images or things like that publicly. But, Patreon supporters get access to that. Plus, all my patrons are super nice and welcoming. It’s a wonderful community that keeps me afloat when things are hard.

G: Thank you so much for doing this!

R: You’re so welcome!

Visit Rhea’s website to see all of their art plus keep updating on what they’re working on. And if you’d like to support them and their work, especially Fine: a comic about gender, head on over to their Patreon.

As a quick, final note, I’ve been thinking of putting the past audio of my Creator Corner interviews up as a podcast (however crappy as it is at times since I was just using my phone) and starting to add more content with other creators. I would get permission from past and future interviewees of course. If you all would be into that, let me know! Some of these conversations go long because the creators are so damn interesting, and I’d love to give people access to it.


Images Courtesy of Rhea Ewing

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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GenCon Report: IDW Isn’t Just For Comics Anymore

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For years now, IDW has been publishing comics adaptations of some of the biggest media properties of today.

Ross Thompson, IDW Games Marketing Manager

The recent runs of Orphan BlackDirk Gently, and My Little Pony have all been successful in comics stores around the country. One of their original comics, Wynonna Earp, has even been adapted to a successful television show that many writers here at the Fandomentals cry over frequently. But they’ve quietly been making a play on the board games as well, adapting their licenses (and some new ones) into cardboard and plastic.

Previous successes include X-Files: Conspiracy Theory, Rayguns & Rocketships, and even a board game of Atari’s Missile Command game.  I’ve been a fan of IDW Games since they came out with Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena, so I was excited to see what they had on offer this year. Luckily, I had the opportunity to chat with IDW Game & Event Marketing Manager Ross Thompson for the scoop on all of IDW’s newest games and for a glimpse at the near future.

Creative Uses Of Your Favorites

IDW takes pride in its games, which is clear in the enthusiasm Thompson shows when discussing the games. The staff of IDW Games doesn’t just make games, they play them too, and they put their love as players into the games they make. Whether it’s a hot license or something brand new, the team is dedicated to fun and immersive gaming on the tabletop. Their games help players relive iconic moments from their favorite series. This was shown in the new games debuting at GenCon as well as their newly announced games.

Batman: The Animated Series- Gotham Under Siege

Gotham Under Siege is aimed squarely at my heart as an adaptation of what may be one of the best animated series ever made (and definitely the best adaptation of the Caped Crusader ever). The new game, designed by Richard Launius (Arkham Horror) and Michael Guigliano, is a co-op dice allocation game where 1-5 players take on the role of a member of the Bat-Family: Robin, Batgirl, Commissioner Gordon, the GCPD, Catwoman, and of course Batsy himself. The heroes must combat the villains and thugs who have overrun the streets of Gotham while handling new problems as they arise.

The game takes place across four acts, each of which is inspired by an episode of the first season of the show. Each player must use their character’s special powers to fight the crime that plagues Gotham. But there’s a decision to be made. Do they use their dice to fight the thugs and villains that infest the city, or do they use them to resolve special story cards?

The game features art taken directly from the show, but also supplements them with brand new art inspired by Bruce Timm’s iconic designs. Newly announced at GenCon, Gotham Under Siege will release later this month.

Death Note: Confrontation

While the big focus at GenCon tends to be on the big multiplayer games, with the complex boards and the billion pieces. But there’s room for smaller games too, and Death Note: Confrontation is one such small game. Rather than the 4, 5, or 7 player games on offer at IDW’s booth, Confrontation maxes out at 2. Set at the exact moment where L and Light Yagami a.k.a Kira meet, each player takes on the role of either the quirky detective or the high-minded serial killer. It’s a battle of wits as Light tries to get his kill count up and L races to stop him. The game ends when either L gets enough evidence to find his target, or Kira gets enough victory points.

Death Note: Confrontation was released only last month for players aged 16+. It’s available in stores for $29.99.

Masque of the Red Death

Masque of the Red Death stands out amongst IDW’s newest offering, and not just for its beautifully gothic aesthetics. It also is unlike the other games in that is has no connection to a pre-existing property. Its genesis is unique as well, according to Thompson. The game was dreamt up by veteran designer Adam Wyse (Cypher, Gorilla Marketing) and pitched to IDW semi-informally after a game event. It sounded cool so they ran with it, bringing in artist Gris Grimly to do the art on his first full-length board game.

Masque was in our top 10 most anticipated games and just wrapped up its Kickstarter. I’ll have a full review of this game, with plenty of pictures and rule details, coming very soon to The Fandomentals.

Gaming In A Half Shell

It was hard to tell who was more excited about these TMNT games, myself or my host. Thompson was ebulliant when discussing the newest turtle games, describing how much love and fidelity to the original comics the new games have baked right in.

TMNT Munchkin

The Munchkin brand was everywhere at GenCon, with versions of it popping up seemingly every day. But IDW didn’t want to make just another Munchkin game, Thompson said. They decided to put a lot of work into their own version, with designer John Cohn making this Munchkin a much more story-driven game than we’ve seen previously. You don’t play as a generic mutant or human or monster; instead, you play as Donatello, Raphael, Casey Jones, even Johnson’s favorite Pepperoni, a baby triceratops adopted by Mikey who dreams of being a Ninja Turtle. There are villains to fight like Baxter Stockman (“as it should be”-Thompson) and other little references from across the over 30 years of TMNT history. But the love doesn’t end there. The game also features brand new art from the turtle’s co-creator and original artist Kevin Eastman. TMNT Munchkin releases at the end of the month for 3-6 players and will retail for $29.99

IDW also previewed their newest Turtles game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures, miniatures based game just announced from IDW. The game is based on the Turtles In Time games, with mechanics updated for the board game format. Players can play as characters from across time in a full out miniatures adventure similar to IDW’s Shadows of the Past game.

Coming Attractions

It wasn’t just retail-ready games on display at the IDW booth. They also had games in early development for a passerby to get a sneak peek at.

Dragon Ball: Over 9000

Following the success of their Perfect Cell game, IDW has confirmed that they’ll be following it up with two more games in the DBZ universe. Over 9000 will be the first, a card game centered around deducing your opponent’s power levels while hiding your own. The winner is the first player to get their power level over 9000!

Sonic The Hedgehog: Crash Course

IDW’s newest adaptation of Sonic is, naturally, a racing game. Up to four players race around the board to collect all of the chaos emeralds. The main attraction at GenCon was the beautifully made, full-color figures of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Dr. Eggman. The track builds as the game goes along so you’ll never have the same race twice.

Set to debut in February 2019, Crash Course will be a Gamestop exclusive and retail for $29.95.

Nickelodeon’s Splat Attack!

IDW makes another play for us 90’s kids with a new board game starring all of the best characters from the shows of our childhood. Splat Attack! is a food fight game (sadly without food) designed by Jonathan Ying (Star Wars Imperial Assault, Doom The Board Game). Players take on a team of 4 characters, each with their own special powers, taken from Spongebob Squarepants, Hey Arnold, Invader Zim, Rugrats, Aaah! Real Monsters, Rocko’s Modern Life, Angry Beavers, CatDog, and The Wild Thornberrys. Players strategically throw their food to earn cool points while moving around the board to earn bonuses. But they have to be careful not to get too splatted, as when their splat board gets covered they are out of the game.

According to Thompson, Squidward is DEFINITELY not dabbing

The new game reached nearly all of its stretch goals while on Kickstarter, which doubled the number of playable teams and added new items and goodies to play with. Intended for 2-4 players aged 14+, Splat Attack will hit shelves in November of this year.

IDW still has some tricks up their sleeve as the year goes along, and you can learn about all their game on their website. And make sure to keep an eye out here for reviews and updates on IDW’s hottest games, as well as my upcoming review of Masque of the Red Death.


All images courtesy of IDW Games

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CW Taps Ruby Rose To Don Batwoman’s Red And Black

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The question of casting has been up in the air ever since the CW announced that they were not only featuring Batwoman in this year’s Arrowverse crisis crossover but that she would be getting her own show as well. After weeks of speculation as to who they might cast, the CW has confirmed that Ruby Rose, Australian actress and model, will be taking on the role of Kate Kane for her upcoming television debut.

Rose first made her name as a VJ for MTV Australia after several years of modeling work. Her big break came in the 2014 short film Break Free, which she produced independently and went viral. Her acting credits include Stella in Orange Is The New Black, Wendy the service robot in Dark Matter, Ares in John Wick 2, and most recently as Jaxx Herd in The Meg. She also has released music and is a tireless campaigner for causes like veganism, climate change, and mental health.

Rose shares many characteristics with Kate Kane, including her tattoos and proclivity for short hair. She also reflects the casting call’s search for a lesbian actress to play Batwoman, as Rose is currently one of the most prominent queer actresses in Hollywood.

Rose’s casting as the CW’s first out lesbian hero comes on the heels of the announcement of its first out transgender hero, Nia Nal aka Dreamer, as actress Nicole Maines joins Supergirl’s fourth season. Batwoman will first appear in the big Arrowverse crossover with Supergirl, Flash, and Green Arrow this year and, should it get picked up, will debut in her own show in 2019.


Images courtesy of DC Comics and Lionsgate

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Fantasy Webcomics Worth Reading

Michał

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Greetings, readers of the Fandomentals. In the past, I have… well mostly complained about things, really. But we stick to what we do best, right? I have also introduced you to some things I enjoyed, and this time I would like to talk about some webcomics. Now, there’s no shortage of those, which means I have a reason I present you those three, specifically.

“Order of the Stick”

By Rich Burlew

Ah, “Order of the Stick.” This webcomic has been a journey for me. It might not be an exaggeration to say I wouldn’t be here without it… I certainly wouldn’t talk so much about tabletop gaming. But it hasn’t only been a journey for me. The comic itself has also had a wild ride.

You see, it began as a very simple affair, with one joke per page, and an audience consisting of about a dozen people on its author’s personal forum. But said author, Rich Burlew commonly called “the Giant,” wasn’t going to stop there.

The comic’s original focus was jokes about the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The very first strip makes highly specific references about the 3.5 rules revision, which had just come out back then. Needless to say, those jokes don’t hold up very well today. The edition is still alive and played, but D&D’s mainstream face is the fifth one. This may prove to be a barrier for new readers, together with a very simplistic and crude art style.

If you can muddle through the old dusty jokes, though, you’ll see a story that unfolds from them. In a different sense than usual. Those characters were originally vessels for jokes, without any particular continuity or depth. When Rich Burlew decided to craft a story, he had to build it around these simple origins.

Roy Greenhilt, the team’s leader, was originally just a human fighter who had to wrangle five less-than-stable elements he’d been saddled with. Durkon Thundershield was a dwarven cleric and a (as the comic itself jokes early on) walking band-aid. Elan the bard was just dim-witted comic relief, while Haley Starshine was a greedy, sneaky rogue. Vaarsuvius was the model of an arrogant elven wizard and finally Belkar Bitterleaf the halfling ranger was a vessel for darker jokes due to his deep-seated issues and unbridled aggression.

In time, this rather typical rag-tag band of misfits received individual character arc that resonate on a deeper level and turn them into a more coherent team in different ways. The comic has always been a comedy, and still is, but it’s become more… elaborate in many ways. The writing, the art, the characters. It’s not just entertainment, but a way to make a statement. Fiction matters, as we like to say on this here site, and Rich Burlew knows it well.

Which happens to extend to issues closer to reality as well. The representation of some groups, notably women and LGBT  folks, wasn’t always great. But in recent years Rich Burlew took steps to rectify that, citing that it’s his responsibility as a popular author in a genre that still struggles with the subject.

The two overarching villains of the comic (not that there aren’t many more) underwent a similar process. Xykon was originally just a lich sorcerer the party was out to fight. Now… well, he’s not really that much more. Rich Burlew deliberately didn’t give him significant depth. Instead, he’s just a terrifying unstoppable force. He’s incredibly powerful and has no hesitation about taking what he wants with this power. He’s the kind of villain you cannot reason with, convince, or shake up.

Redcloak is a goblin cleric who started out as, well, a goblin cleric in a red cloak, and Xykon’s head henchman. Since then, he’s grown to be one of the best villains I have ever seen. He’s a monster, make no mistake. He’s been willing to sacrifice everyone except himself in pursuit of his goals. But he was pushed onto that path by the callous actions of those who claimed the moral high ground. His entire story is a challenge thrown into the face of the D&D convention that would treat goblins and other such races as conveniently evil XP fodder.

“Order of the Stick” has a unique history that elevated it from yet another forgettable D&D spoof into something one of a kind. Reading it will be an undertaking, but one worth embarking on.

“Unsounded”

By Ashley Coope

This webcomic is far from your typical fantasy story, even though it might seem this way at first. At first, we simply see a girl with a tail and a man in a hood, traveling through the wilderness. The girl claims to have been sent by her father, a mob boss, to collect dues from her cousin.

If sending your daughter almost alone to collect money from criminals sounds sketchy as it gets… well, you’re not the only one. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The man accompanying her is Duane Adelier, a scribe who once held somewhat loftier titles in other lands. However, his past remains mysterious to us for many chapters.

He is also undead. That in itself isn’t surprising in a fantasy webcomic, but in the world of “Unsounded,” the only other undead we see are zombies—people call “plods”. They’re mindless, used for menial labor, and prone to all-consuming hunger. So why is Duane sentient and capable of speech—in fact, frequently incapable of shutting up for two seconds? That’s a mystery you’ll have to discover on your own as you read.

Duane is also a highly proficient spellwright. Why not wizard, mage, or sorcerer? Well, the world of “Unsounded” has a rather unique take on magic. The physical world is governed and controlled by a skeleton of sorts, called the khert. Spellwrights are people who can “plug” into it and give it commands, much like one would alter a computer program by tapping into its source code.

This gives magic, or pymary as people in Kassalyne call it, unique abilities and limitations. They can’t create or permanently alter anything, because the khert steps in and reinforces reality to its proper state. But, they can take aspects of the world around them, shift them, change them, focus them… it’s a remarkably well thought-out system that emphasizes creativity and intelligence. Which is a monster of a thing to get across in a visual medium, and yet Ashley Coope comes out swinging.

Spellwrights, I should mention, are not people born with any special gift. Anyone can become one, thought it bears all the difficulties that access to higher education always comes with. Ashey Coope isn’t afraid to portray a world with warts and all, where social inequity, political conflicts, and religious zealotry all rear their ugly heads. And pymary affects it as technology would, according to its capabilities and limits and filtered through all the other societal factors.

The world of “Unsounded” looks like your typical European(ish) (pseudo)medieval fantasy, but it’s anything but. Between the pymary, the metaphysics, and all the other factors, it’s something much more modern, but also unique. The metaphysics of the khert, souls, and memories play a significant part in how the story has unfolded so far.

But what does “Unsounded” even mean here? I’ll let Ashley Coope speak for herself:

“Something unsounded hasn’t been plumbed yet. You don’t know how deep it is or what’s at the bottom. It’s an unknown – like Death, like the limits of a man, like God, like eternity.”

Or use the quote from Moby Dick that she used:

“By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!”

Like “Order of the Stick,” “Unsounded” may be a difficult start. Sette is a fairly odious person to everyone around her, and while there are good and altogether too real reasons for it, you may still find it as difficult to put up with her as Duane does. But I encourage you to sound the unsounded all the same.

“Daughter of the Lilies”

By Meg Syverud and Jessica “Yoko” Weaver

Last but not least is a perhaps less notorious comic about a girl with no face and some friends of hers. It starts in media res, with a group of adventurers hunting down some cave elves, who are cannibals, and as such not terribly popular with their neighbors.

Later on, we jump back a little and find out that the girl’s name is Thistle… but that it’s not her first name and for some reason or the other she only picks names of flowers for herself. She then changes them after having to run away. Yeah, let’s just say she hasn’t had an easy life and there are reasons she hides her face.

Fortunately, after some rough spots, her team comes to have her back. Said team consists of Brent, a mostly-human lad with orcish blood, Orrig, the most dad-like orc to ever lead a band of adventurers, and Lydia, a foul-mouthed elven martial artist and archer who’s about as far away from your typical dainty elven maiden as you can get.

The comic’s world looks much like your typical fantasy one, but there are some fairly real and modern elements cropping up here and there, apparently from the world’s ancient past. What does it mean? We don’t know yet, and even if we did, I wouldn’t spoil it for you, would I?

“Daughter of the Lilies” draws us in with excellent art, writing, and characters. One other thing that makes it stand out is its treatment of mental illness and trauma. Thistle is plagued by voices that, while they have a supernatural origin (or do they?), bear a striking resemblance to anxiety, depression, and similar mental health issues.

Without spoiling anything, she has also suffered emotional abuse from someone acting as her guardian. The way she deals with both this and her voices indicates the kind of sensitivity that comes with familiarity. “Daughter of the Lilies” is a webcomic with something to say, and it’s not afraid of saying it.


Images courtesy of Rich Burlew, Ashley Coope, Meg Syverud, and Jessica Weaver

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