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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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Analysis

Image Comics “DIE” is an Instant Dark Fantasy Masterpiece

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There are so many factors that have come into play when I first heard about Image comics newest release, DIE, that it is hard to pinpoint the real reason it intrigued me so heavily. Who am I kidding, it was all the reasons. Most importantly the staff on it.

For one, it features two of my favorite Image Comics alum. The first being Kieron Gillen, the mastermind that gave us the brilliant comic The Wicked And The Divine,which is one of the best ongoing comics at the moment. On the art work is the incredibly talented Stephanie Hans whose realistic and beautifully shaded and colored panels were also featured in The Wicked And The Divine‘s 1831 one shot as well across other comic distributors such as DC with Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love. The two coming together again like in 1831 is a match that builds this comic up to be really something special.

Image, in the last few years has really been producing some special and important books in the past few years, among them being The Wicked and the Divine, some of the more acclaimed include Saga, Blackbird, Paper Girls,and Infidel, the company takes a proud departure from Superheroes that dominate the comic industry and opt for more fantasy or science fiction stories with adult and political themes.

Lastly, the plot was incredibly unique and original. When it was advertised as Jumanji meets It, I was instantly interested. While not being a player of table top games myself, I can certainly see the crowd this book is trying to reach while also showing the fun about these games with an added horror twist that is sure to be remembered after the first issue.

The story really does follow a similar timeline to the mentioned Stephen King novel since it follows a group of friends during two periods of their lives: as teenagers and as adults. As we are introduced to each member of the group, we notice nothing in particularly strange about their characters, other than a shared love for table top games and science fiction and fantasy themes. The group has gathered together to celebrate the birthday of their friend Dominic by playing an apparently hard to find game called Gormenghast.

We learn a little about each character based on their choice of created characters. Dominic himself creates a diplomat woman that’s apparently a cross between Cleopatra and Machiavelli, the Dictator. Matthew, a magical warrior of empathy, the Grief Knight. Angela, a cyber punk, Neo. Isabelle, an atheist with gods as pets, Godbinder. Chuck, a lazily created every-man. And Sol the dungeon master with D20 die.

As the game begins the comic cuts to two hours later as Sol’s mum comes to check on them and they have disappeared. Fast forward again and it’s two years later and the group suddenly appears on a random road nearly getting hit by a car. Angela is missing her arm and we can’t really make out what happened, they are now only known as the Stafford six a group of teenagers who went missing two years ago. Sol is the only one missing from the group.

The comic again goes in time to 25 years later where we get to see how this tragedy has affected the rest of their lives. Apparently they had all made a promise never to speak about what happened, not even to one another. Sol’s mother even after so many years pesters Dominic about the fate of her son, to which he avoids. Using brilliant dialogue we see just how dark this has made their lives. Dom seems not to keep in touch with all the others except his sister who has gone through a string of divorces. They have made the best of living with their memories but it is all destroyed when Dom receives a package at a bar, a bloodied D20 die.

It’s at this moment that he decides to reunite the group. After so much time, some have changed completely while others not at all…I’m looking at you Chuck. While some have new companions and some less. They decide as a group to finally discuss what happened that night and where they were for two years until the die calls out to them. The Grandmaster threatens the realm and a hero is needed it calls as they are all sucked into the die and land into a desert ruin. It’s apparent that they have all become their characters…why does Chuck look like Varric.

With the end of the issue the group bickers among themselves about being back in the game, something they’ve repressed for nearly half their lives until Sol appears as the new Grandmaster. What I took from his dialogue is that he was trapped by the previous one and during these long years he’s fought a war to survive or escape and eventually defeated him and became the Grandmaster himself. It’s not clear whether he’s sane or not at this point but it points to the latter as he tells his friends that they are not leaving until the game is over.

This first issue was great at establishing its main cast. While I kept most of those details out of this review, the book really fleshes them out individually and gives life to each of their personalities. Anyone who has read The Wicked and the Divine will know just how well Gillen handles diversity among characters as well as conflicting attitudes. They actually feel like a group of friends you might have been a part of in high school. I really loved this book and I can’t wait to see what adventures await us.


Images Courtesy of Image Comics

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Charles Soule’s Run on Daredevil Ends With an Unforgettable Twist

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And so marks the end of a glorious three year run of The Man Without Fear. I’ll always be appreciative of Charles Soule’s run on the series, as it marks a time when I got back into comics after a very long time period of inactivity. I’m talking at least a decade, and since this run on Daredevil was the first Marvel comic I decided to get back into, it will always hold a special place in my heart. The finale cemented its place in my heart as one of the most intelligent and divisive endings to a series that I’ve ever come across.

The entire series itself was full of twists and turns, continuity evolved during the three years of it’s run. Great writing for characters such as the pseudo side kick Blindspot and the court room drama that led to a change in superhero crime fighting all swirled together not just in his arc but in the two before it. For those needing a recap of events: since the commemorative 600th issue of Daredevil we’ve seen Kingpin run for Mayor and win. Of course, this plot is hardly original, the first season of the Netflix series used a similar story. We’ve encountered Matt’s twin Mike who was literally made from Matt’s imagination, and we’ve lived through Matt himself becoming acting Mayor of New York City as the hand lays siege.

Nothing could prepare us for what Soule had planned for his final outing with the red devil, however.

Lets get right into it. The major reason this ending was so divisive was because of how open ended the series was left. The positive outcome for this is that anyone taking up the mantle of writer for this comic has plenty of options to work with. In fact, it has been already announced that the series will start up again after the new year.

The arc in 609 began with Matt Murdock on a hospital gurney being prepped for surgery. Apparently, he had been struck by a truck saving a teen from the same fate. In the next four comics we see him trying to take down Wilson Fisk as Mayor by exposing the election to be a fraud. Of course, Fisk responds by unleashing his new assassin, Vigil, going as far as ordering a hit on his long time confidant, James Wesley, to keep him from spilling secrets.

By the final issue we see an all too perfect ending. Fisk is exposed in court by a team working closely with Matt for a while now. Daredevil himself takes the stand thanks to the law he helped passed as Matt that lets superheroes testify against villains. A handful of other famous heroes also act as witnesses. Happy ending, no? By the end of the comic, Daredevil again encounters Vigil, but this time he is seemingly ready. What neither he nor us see coming is the identity of the villain. As Daredevil pulls of the mask he sees only himself.

At first, we might want to jump to the conclusion that this was his evil twin. But why go through the trouble to save him earlier in the series if he was just going to kill Matt anyway? My mind rushed for explanation when his faced turned from Foggy, to Blindspot, Jack, Elektra, and Stick. The sequence ends back in the same hospital bed as the start of this arc. His sense of true justice heavily obscured and broken by a fight that no matter how many times he wins, will always return. Should he take this “win” and let it end with his life? Has he done enough? Then we are given a few emotional final panels, including a flash of Daredevil’s past costumes and Karen Page. Then a fade to black, signifying…death?

All until the flicker of hope before the end.

Now, several things about this ending ensure that it’s not a clear as one might be led to believe. First, the timeline is murky at best. In issue 609, it is clear to the reader that Matt recovered from his wounds and came back filled with a new sense of duty to take down Fisk. Yet at the end of issue 612, it isn’t clear whether this was actually after the events of the preceding comics. I think the answer lies in whether or not you believe what happened in the last arc actually happened or not. This is the genius Soule pours into this series. He leaves the reader searching for the answer, one he will not provide but instead leave up to the next writer to.

My opinion of events is that none of this happened. The fact that such a random event as getting hit by a truck forced Matt Murdock to literally and spiritually face his own mortality, questioning if what he did for so many was worth it, seems odd. As I mentioned before, he is struggling with the question of what it’s worthwhile to save the city he loves only for the bad guys to return again and again. What has he truly won? Has he ever really won?

In the same panels, we are given even more evidence that this was all in his mind. As he contemplates the will to live, he realizes that his end would not be as grand as he thought it would be. In Soule’s own words, “No grand unmasking to Frank Mcgee and the others. No last, tragic night with Elektra. No battle against incredible odds with Daredevil triumphant….No perfectly timed reveal of just the information I needed to bring Kingpin to trial. No outpouring of the support of the city’s heroes. No glorious take down of Wilson Fisk. No final, epic showdown with Vigil. Nothing. Just a man on a table, trying not to die.”

In short all the things that happened in the past few issues came straight from Matt’s mind rather than happening in the real world. Perhaps the fantasy was a coping mechanism, the wish of a dying man to give his final moments purpose. A last, final push to convince himself that fighting this unending battle was worth something and in the end, not being able to.

Whatever you believe happened, truly happened, in these final pages of this long running Daredevil series, two things are clear. One, Charles Soule has ultimately made his mark on the Daredevil history and brought him as low as we’ve seen him since Born Again. Second, no, The Man Without Fear, is not dead and we will see him again very soon…yet can he still truly go by that title any longer?

Images Courtesy of Marvel Comics

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A Look at Shojo and Josei Manga

Annedey

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In a society where a lot a media targeted at women are often disregarded no matter their quality, and media targeted at men are praised no matter their quality, it is sometimes complicated to openly enjoy anything. Sure I enjoy media from all across the spectrum of the ‘gendered division of marketing’, but I won’t bring it up to any stranger. Because I gravitate in circles that tend to be snobbish about media (not that they are very knowing, mind you — I often had to enter a heated debate about how yet another cult genre movie isn’t a movie ‘so bad it’s good’). And ultimately I don’t want to spend my life arguing about cultural pieces that I hold dear with people who have never seen and never will. Hey, I am human; sometimes I just want to get hammered in peace at parties.  

But there is a genre unapologetically marketed for women that I equally unapologetically enjoy. It’s shojo and josei manga. They can be bright pink (I really don’t like pink), have questionable translations for titles…I am here for them. And I won’t hide. It’s true that as a general rule I won’t hide my passion for any manga. But shojo will always have a very special place in my heart. It might be because my first manga series was a magical girl. But still. I really like shojo and josei.

If some of you think that manga aren’t the victim of an agressive gendered marketing just trust me on that. I am right. The minute a mainstream French bookstore will have enough room, manga for women and men will be mercilessly separated. They might be side by side but they won’t share a shelf. You never know what could happen.

Not to say that there aren’t things that irk me the wrong way in shojo and josei manga. The ‘not like other girl’ trope or ‘the average protagonist’ trope get old really fast. But still I wanted to share with you my personal favorites. Thus, if you were tempted to give a try to shojo and josei you will have an idea of where to start. Or if you are already on this band wagon you might discover new titles to enjoy.

Also if you don’t see your favorite series here, don’t panic! Just put it in the comment sections. I like discovering new things too.

Fruit Basket:

Author: Takaya Natsuki

Number of issues and status: 23 – Complete, however a spinoff is on progress.

Genre: Shojo

This is one the most classic choices I could have made. But hey, there is a reason why Fruit Basket is a classic. Spoiler alert: it’s because it’s good. Fruit Basket is the story of Tohru Honda, a young high-schooler who, because of family issues, is currently homeless. She ends up being rescued by the prince of her high-school, Yuki Soma. He welcomes her in his house where he lives with his older cousin, Shirogane Soma. Unfortunately Yuki is attacked by another one of his cousins, Kyo Soma. Tohru tries to separate them. This leads to her discovering that the Somas are cursed. Thirteen individuals in the family, who is actually as big as a clan, are haunted by their Chinese zodiac sign. They transform into their assigned animal when someone of the opposite sex hugs them.

Tohru and the accursed Somas. No I won’t explain why there is fourteen of them.

The rest of the story focuses on the Soma’s curses. I won’t say much more in term of plot because I would enter spoiler territory pretty fast. But I will expand on the themes of the story. Fruit Basket deals with growing up, family, friendship, forgiveness, and love. In order to do so it presents a full cast of characters with different issues doing their best to turn into the best version of themselves. All the characters are endearing and they are diverse enough that you will have no problem having several favorites (hi Yuki, Ayame, Momoji, Saki, Hatori I love you). The series showcases several toxic relationships, not exclusively but notably between parents and children. While the design is very cute the story explores quite heavy subjects. But in the end Takya Natsuki does right by every single one of her characters.

 Yes Fruit Basket is a classic shojo manga and it deserves it.   

Kaichou wa Maid-sama!

Author: Fujiwara Hiro

Number of issues and status: 18, Complete.

Genre: shojo

Kaichou wa Maid-sama! follows Misaki Ayusawa. She is an high-schooler (prepare to hear that a lot) whose father left her family several years ago leaving her to live with her mother and little sister. Because of this Misaki is full of hatred for men. The family is struggling to make ends meet and that’s why Misaki is attending the cheapest high school in town. It’s a recently open-to-girls high school where close to 70% of the students are boys. Misaki is the president of the student committee and is known as the demon president. Indeed, when she isn’t busy excelling at her studies and at sport she is keeping an iron grip on the school discipline to be sure that the girls are having a safe schooling experience. But she has a secret. In order to earn a bit of money to help her family she is working in a maid cafe. Something she absolutely doesn’t want any for her schoolmates to know.

So of course someone discovers it. And this someone is Takumi Usui. The only person who is a better student than her and who often makes girls cry because he rejects their love confession. Misaki is mortified. She manages to convince him to keep it secret but he keeps tagging along because he finds her interesting. From this point the manga follows the adventures of Misaki and Takumi, who are slowly falling in love with each other but it’s complicated. 

You have guessed it Kaichou wa Maid-sama! is a romance manga. It is extremely well executed. The main pair has chemistry and both of the characters are interesting in their own rights. The cast of secondary characters is colorful and attaching. This manga features a lot of positive female relationships. But the themes of the story are also particularly well treated. It is notably about accepting oneself as we are. There is also the a lot about learning to show vulnerability to your loved ones and I really liked it. Also the manga is really funny. Like really.   

I was going to say that I love this two idiots but actually I love all the idiots in this manga.

Yona of the DawnAkatsuki no Yona

Author: Mizuho Kusanagi

Number of issues and status: 27, in progress.

Genre: shojo

Yona of the Dawn is a jewel. It is a high fantasy story set in a Chinese/East Asian inspired world. The title character is Yona, the only daughter of the king of the kingdom of Kouka, a sixteen years old girl. She is living a pretty idle life up until the moment her father is murdered. She is forced to flee the capital in the middle of the night with only her childhood friend and bodyguard, Hak, to keep her safe. Hak is promptly accused of having killed the king and kidnapped Yona so they are both trapped in a never ending flight.

To add insult to the injury, the kingslayer, who now occupies Kouka’s throne, is no other than Soo-Won, Yona’s cousin and crush but also the childhood friend of both Yona and Hak. Yona decides to start a quest to find the four dragons and be able to make Kouka a better place. The four dragons are part of the founding legend of Kouka. They are four warriors blessed with divine powers who have sworn allegiance to Kouka’s first king, king Hiryuu. And, as she meets the current incarnations of the dragons, it appears that Yona is the reincarnation of Hiryuu.

Yona of the Dawn is an epic story that will delight every fantasy lover. One of its best qualities is its characters. They are incredibly attaching and complex. Even Soo-Won isn’t actually the villain of the story and is given excellent justifications. I still have trouble forgiving him though. Apparently I am the human embodiment of Hak on that. I am particularly fond of Yona’s relationship with the dragons. They share a single bonds but every relationship is unique and important.

Also I love Hak and Yona slow burn romance.

There is currently no end in sight for Yona of the Dawn. And that’s great. Please Mizuho Kusanagi, keep blessing us with this wonderful manga.  

Kamisama KissKamisama Hajimemashita

Author: Suzuki Julietta

Number of issues and status: 25, Complete.

Genre: Shojo

Kamisama Kiss is an urban fantasy story taking place in modern day Japan. Nanami Momozono is a poor high-schooler who has to endure her father gambling problems and debts. One day to escape his creditors her father disappears which leaves her homeless (what is it with manga and disappearing fathers and homeless teenagers?). While despairing in a public park she saves a man from a dog and he offers her to go stay at his home. Home where he isn’t currently living.

Turns out his home is a shinto shrine and the man was the god of the place. Nanami is now the interim goddess and has inherited the god’s messenger: Tomoe a very grumpy and powerful kitsune. The rest of the story features several arcs centering around different figures of Japanese mythology with an overarching plot. This plot focuses on Tomoe’s mysterious past.

Of course there is a romance between Nanami and Tomoe.

The manga includes gods, yokai, time travel and high school drama. It is a very energetic story whose mystery is very well handled. It features some of my favorite tropes such as villain decay. I love the characters (for a change) and especially the relation between Tomoe and Akura-Ou. You like Japan, you like urban fantasy, there are good chance you will like Kamisama Kiss.

Namaiki Zakari

Author: Mitsubachi Miyuki

Number of issues and status: 14, in progress.

Genre: Shojo

One the two manga on this list that I do not own (yet), Namaiki Zakari is a romance manga taking place while its characters are in high school and at university (yes!). Yuki Machida is an high-schooler who is also the oldest siblings of 6. Because of the role and responsibility she had to take in her family she is used to not being very assertive with her feelings and desires. She still has enrolled herself as the manager of the boys’ basketball team to be closer to the boy she secretly love. But since she has never voiced her feelings the boy ends up going out with another girl.  

For the rest of the club Machida is a responsible cold girl who would never start working for the team for such a futile reason as love. However one of the boy, the very talented and nonchalant Sho Naruse, did notice and starts having an interest in Yuki.

Ah Yuki you needed someone like Naruse to pierce your tsundere armor.

Namaiki Zakari started as a fairly, albeit extremely well executed, traditional shojo manga. However, the story develops and gets more original with every chapter. I absolutely love Yuki as a protagonist. She is a very serious very hard working girl always finding time to help others. However she lacks emotional maturity in part because she has always tried to not be a bother. Having this mix of maturity and lack of emotional maturity is very pleasing. I also really like that Naruse is actually younger than her. It is quite unusual in shojo manga, so is having the story continue after high school. Also the manga corrects some of its early mistake such as having a lack of positive female relationship for Yuki outside of her family. And it works pretty well as a sport manga too.

Angel SanctuaryTenshi Kinryōku

Author: Kaori Yuki

Number of issues and status: 20, Complete.

Genre: Technically it’s a shojo, but really who knows what this mess is?

Trigger warning: while my critique will not touch most of this, Angel Sanctuary features incest, rape, child death/murder etc etc (it’s a shojo am I rigth?!).

Angel Sanctuary is my most problematic fave. It is the love child of an author that I love and it is my favorite series from her and among my favorite manga period but it’s not for everyone.

It follows the story of Setsuna Mudo, an high-schooler (I promise it is the last story where the main protagonist is in high school) who is quite good at finding trouble. One the reasons he keeps looking for trouble is because he is romantically interested in his one year younger sister, Sara, and doesn’t want to have to face that. But he gets entangle in a cosmic conspiracy. An angel wants to bring back the inorganic angel Rosiel whose has been sealed on earth by his twin sister the organic angel Alexiel. In the mean time some evils want to bring back Alexiel, who has led an insurrection against God, and has been condemned to reincarnation for her crimes. As it happens Setsuna is the latest reincarnation of Alexiel.

Setstuna gets entangled so well that he gets Sara killed, after they declared their love for each other, and destroys Tokyo after awaking his powers. The rest of the story is about Setsuna travelling to hell and heaven to bring his sister back while everyone gets entangled in an even more complicated cosmic situation.

If you like complicated and twisted story with characters with more than dubious morality facing cosmic forces and trying to go against cosmic plan get in. Angel Sanctuary tells a story of unconditional love (all the kind of love not just romantic) and where it can leads us. It is also a story about taking responsibility for your actions. It deals with gender issue, predestination etc. I love it, okay? I love the art, that is lavishly beautiful, and I love the characters. Especially the secondary characters such as Belial, Raphael, Michael, Yue, Kurai, Katan, Astaroth, Sevoth-tart etc etc. It struck a chord in my young teenager life and I will always love this manga.   

Boy do I love the art of Angel Sanctuary.

A Bride’s Story:

Author: Kaoru Mori

Number of issues and status: 10, in progress.

Genre: josei

Well Bride’s Story is a beautiful historical manga taking place in central Asia and following mainly women in their daily life. It is interesting, it is beautiful, it is well documented, it is funny, it is touching and there is suspens. If you want to know more about it I direct you toward my longer review of the series.

But check out this other series by Kaoru Mori: Emma. It takes place in the 19th century in England.

Tramps Like UsKimi wa Pet:

Author: Yayoi Ogawa

Number of issues and status: 14, Complete.

Genre: josei

The other manga on the list that I do not own (yet) because I borrowed it from the library and it is not available for sale in France anymore. AGONY!

Tramps Like Us follows Sumire Iwaya, a talented young journalist who isn’t living the best moment of her life. She was transferred to a less prestigious unit of the newspaper for having hit her superior who was a misogynist pig. Her boyfriend also left her for the girl he was two-timing her with because he was intimidated by her career. In addition to all that, Sumire is starting to have trouble combining her public persona of successful business woman who is also a cold beauty and her less traditionally accepted way of life. Indeed she like watching pro-wrestling, smoking, and playing video games. Also she is very unsure of herself, hence the public persona.    

One evening while coming back home she finds a young man, Takeshi Gouda, sleeping in the street. She agrees to have him live in her flat under the condition that he accepts to be her pet and goes by the name Momo. Being her pet is absolutely not kinky. It includes listening to her sharing her day and fears without judging, playing video games with her, and letting her wash his hair from time to time. Takeshi, who apparently has already exchanged sexual favors to stay at women’s places, finds the deal to his advantage and obliges. He becomes Momo.

The rest of the manga follows the development of their relationship but also Sumire quest to learn to love and accept herself. She also reevaluates the values she has adhered to. What she wanted in life, what was acceptable in herself and what wasn’t. Actually Sumire is on her way to become a more happy person by becoming her authentic self. Considering that there are good chances that Sumire at the beginning of the manga is me in ten years (plus the good hair) I am always happy to read the story of how she got happy. Also Takeshi isn’t your typical male character and he learns to assert himself. I love him.  

I wasn’t expecting Tramps like us to be such a sweet manga but it is.

Special mention Ōoku: The Inner Chambers

Author: Fumi Yoshinaga

Number of issues and status: 15, in progress.

Genre: Josei

I haven’t read Ōoku: The Inner Chambers entirely. I have read 5 volumes but I love it. It is alternate history. It takes place in Tokugawa Japan. A strange disease has emerged. It only kills boys and young men. As a result the population of men in Japan is reduced to 1 man for 4 women. Therefore the men are kept inside or sold in prostitution by their family because they have become of great value. The political power is also held by women (the manga explains in great details how this came to happen). The Inner Chambers refers to the personal ‘harem’ full of men of the shogun.

The story explore the political and some personal intrigues brought by the situation. It follows the history of Japan pretty closely but it cleverly twists it. For example the interdiction for foreigners to enter Japan is also a measure to prevent the outside world to discover the situation. While the political intrigue is of the outmost importance the personal drama is high too. By god, Arikoto and Chise are star-crossed lovers and it hurts so much.

Good god stop it I am crying.

Long story short I will keep on reading this manga and I warmly recommend it.

Conclusion:

That’s it with my personal recommendations. I hope some titles caught your attention and that you will enjoy them as I did and still do. Don’t hesitate to comment with your own favorites shojo and josei manga.


 

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