At C2E2, RH Graphic shared an inside look at four exciting new graphic novels coming soon for kids and teens on C2E2’s panel “Awesome New Kids and Teens Comics from Random House Graphic.” The panel debuted Witchlight from Jessi Zabarsky, Stepping Stones from Lucy Knisley, Once Upon a Space-Time! from Jeffrey Brown, and Doodleville from Chad Sell.
Comics for kids and teens continue to be the fastest growing area of publishing–providing stories that are both entertaining and engaging, while also placing an emphasis on visual literacy. This amazing creative medium will only continue to build in popularity as RH Graphic continues to roll out with new titles every month.
Jessi Zabarsky- WITCHLIGHT (available April 14)
Love — loss — witches — this YA fantasy graphic novel has it all! This thoughtful, emotional story will entrance you with its moving story and organic artwork.
Lelek is a witch. That’s all Sanja knows when she meets Lelek in the marketplace. But Lelek is hiding something — and as her life begins to intersect with Sanja’s, all that she’s kept to herself starts to come to light.
Secrets, friendship, and magic all come together as Lelek gets closer and closer to uncovering the truth about her past. . . .Witchlight is a wonderful adventure filled with friendship, family, falling in love, and dealing with the hardest bits of your past all along the way.
Lucy Knisley- STEPPING STONES (available May 5)
Jen is used to not getting what she wants. So suddenly moving the country and getting new stepsisters shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.
As if learning new chores on Peapod Farm wasn’t hard enough, having to deal with perfect-at-everything Andy might be the last straw for Jen. Besides cleaning the chicken coop, trying to keep up with the customers at the local farmers’ market, and missing her old life, Jen has to deal with her own insecurities about this new family . . . and where she fits in.
New York Times bestselling author Lucy Knisley brings to life a story inspired from her own childhood in an amazing journey navigating her parents’ divorce and of unlikely friends, sisters, and home.
Jeffrey Brown- ONCE UPON A SPACE-TIME! (available June 2)
Jide and Petra are just two normal kids until they are selected to leave Earth and join their new alien classmates on an intergalactic research mission to Mars. Too bad Petra has no idea how she ended up in the program, seeing as the closest she wants to get to space is being a sci-fi writer. Jide, on the other hand, is the brains of the mission, but his helicopter parents make it clear he hasn’t left their gravitational pull behind quite yet.
What is meant to be an intra-species bonding experience soon turns to hijinx as the kids discover The Potato orbiting around their new space classroom and accidentally launch a mission of their own without any adult commanders around to supervise–or help!
From New York Times bestselling author Jeffery Brown comes an out-of-this-world adventure perfect for the astronaut-in-training in your life.
Chad Sell- CARDBOARD KINGDOM/ DOODLEVILLE (available June 9)
An inventive new story from Cardboard Kingdom creator Chad Sell about a group of young artists who must work together when one of their own creations becomes a monster.
Drew is just a regular artist. But there’s nothing ordinary about her art. Her doodles are mischievous . . . and rarely do they stay in Doodleville, the world she’s created in her sketchbook. Instead, Drew’s doodles prefer to explore the world outside. But after an inspiring class trip to the Art Institute of Chicago–where the doodles cause a bit too much trouble–Drew decides it’s time to take her artistic talents to the next level.
Enter the Leviathan–Levi, for short. He’s bigger and better than anything Drew has ever created before. He’s a monster, but a friendly one. That is, until Levi begins to wreak havoc on Drew’s other doodles–and on the heroes her classmates have dreamt up.
Levi won’t be easily tamed, and it seems there is a link between the monster’s bad behavior and Drew’s feelings. With the help of her loyal art club friends, will she be able to save Doodleville–and Levi–before it’s too late?
To go along with an environment free of toxicity and full of heartfelt enthusiasm to go with the water stations, pronoun stickers, and the best press lounge in my five years of covering conventions, Flame Con also had nuanced panels on a variety of comics and pop culture topics with panelists, who represented a broad spectrum of voices and experiences. I attended three panels at the con: “Fan Activists Assemble!” about practical ways members of fandom can effect sociopolitical change, “Fangirl… But then Make It Fashion” an entertaining, yet wide ranging panel about the larger cultural context of character designs and costumes, and “Telling All Ages Queer Stories” about LGBTQ representation in all ages comics.
Jay Edidin and Elana Levin
Fan Activists Assemble! (Saturday)
“Fan Activists Assemble” was hosted by Elana Levin of Graphic Policy Radio, who also trains digital organizes and is a new media mentor and also featured a guest appearance from journalist and podcaster Jay Edidin of Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men fame. Pop culture has always been intertwined with her activism beginning with her love for the X-Men comics, and her current passion is bridging those two worlds via the tool of the Internet. She also talked about how social media and the ability for protests to “trend” has helped the way they are viewed in society unlike in the past when protesters were arrested or beat up by the police, and their narrative was shaped by traditional news media.
As Stephen Duncombe said, “Scratch an activist, and you’re apt to find a fan.” At the beginning of her talk, Elana Levin stated many strengths that fans can bring to the world of activism, including community building, thinking beyond the world we exist in, and practical skills like art, writing, social media posting, and even meme and GIF making. Fans don’t have to reinvent the wheel and form their own organization and can bring their talents and fresh POV to existing organizations from larger ones like GLAAD or the ACLU to smaller, local ones.
Next, Levin brought in Jay Edidin as a case study of fan activism when he confronted Dark Horse Comics for having healthcare that excluded any coverage “…related to gender dysphoria and transition” while claiming to be an LGBTQ friendly company and featuring the Pride flag on their Twitter profile. Edidin used to be an employee of Dark Horse Comics and has been a journalist since 2007. He couldn’t go public for a while because his ex-husband worked for Dark Horse, but seeing the company’s Pride Day tweet led to him confronting the company. With the help of comic book creator, Mariah McCourt, an open letter stating a demand for expanding Dark Horse’s healthcare coverage was drafted and signed by many comics professionals. Dark Horse changed their policy a day before the letter went public.
Elana Levin showed that this action fit an effective four part organizational strategy. There was the goal, which was for Dark Horse Comics to have trans inclusive healthcare, the target was upper management because they have the power to effect change in the company, the “ask” was for comics creators to sign the open letter, and the message was for Dark Horse to basically put their money where their mouth is and support the LGBTQ community through their actions and not just through rainbow logos. Jay Edidin added that using the letter format was important because comics creators are vulnerable on their own.
Later, in the panel, Elana Levin gave examples of how social media and hashtags are able to shape discussions like the conversation around having an Asian American Iron Fist that cast a shadow over Finn Jones’ eventual casting as him in the Marvel Netflix show. Even if this didn’t end in a “win”, it started a conversation, and Marvel later did some race bent casting by having Tessa Thompson play Valkyrie in Thor Ragnarok and Zazie Beetz play Domino in Deadpool 2. Levin also laid out practical rules for hashtags, including keeping them short and simple and only using two per tweet. An example was using #WakandatheVote and #BlackPanther in a tweet about registering voters who were in line for the Black Panther film. She also reiterated the importance of having a specific goal, targeting decision makers, and having a clear ask in online activism using the Harry Potter Alliance’s efforts of having the franchise’s chocolate frogs made with fair trade chocolate and opposing North Carolina’s anti-trans HB2 “bathroom bill”.
The panel concluded with Levin engaging the audience in their own activism brainstorming session with an audience member discussing the need for more asexual representation in pop culture and comics and using FlameCon as a venue to make a case for this. This led to a side discussion about the importance of fun in activism and helping keep people engaged in cause from free pizza and T-shirts to crafting GIFs like one of the Dora Milaje from Black Panther metaphorically confronting ICE.
Little Corvus, Yoshi Yoshitani, Aaron Reese, Terry Blas, Jen Bartel, Irene Koh
“Fangirl… But Then Make It Fashion!” (Saturday)
“Fan Activists Assemble” was immediately followed by the “Fangirl… But Then Make It Fashion” panel, which was moderated by Geeks Out’s Aaron Reese. The panelists were comic book creators Little Corvus (Deja Brew), Yoshi Yoshitani (Jem and the Holograms), Terry Blas (Dead Weight), Irene Koh (The Legend of Korra), and Jen Bartel (America). After breaking the ice with a fun discussion about favorite candies, Reese started out by asking about the difference between cultural inspiration and appropriation in character outfits. Bartel stressed the importance of “cultural and historical context” in fashion while Koh gave the positive example of the Bangladeshi character she introduced in the Legend of Korra comics as well as time periods where there was “cultural exchange” between European and Asian cultures.
A negative example given by Koh was Queen Amidala’s outfits in Star Wars, which she said were inspired by North Asian and Mongolian fashions and demeaned the original culture. Reese added that Padme had dreadlocks in a deleted scene from Revenge of the Sith, which led to the realization that most of the design and fashion choices in Star Wars are cultural appropriation beginning with the “white guys dressed like ninjas” that Terry Blas used to describe the Jedi Knights. Blas said that unlike Star Wars which exoticizes or “others” its Asian influences, Avatar: The Last Airbender respected Asian cultures even though it wasn’t created by Asians and was superhero stories for people who didn’t have superheroes that looked like them.
The discussion then turned to the popular video game Overwatch where Yoshi Yoshitani criticized the character Doomfist, whose map and character is supposedly inspired by Nigerian culture, but he is half naked, has tusks, and looks like the creators never did research on actual Nigerian fashion. She said that Hanzo and Symmetra had good designs while Irene Koh poked fun at Hanzo’s obsession with honor. Aaron Reese said that the issue with Overwatch was that the game designers focused on environments instead of character looks.
The next topic was body positivity, and Reese gave a shout out to Rose Quartz and the curviness and softness of characters in Steven Universe as well as the strength of Antiope from the Wonder Woman film and the other athletic “hunter/gatherer” Amazon women. His bad example was Psylocke, and a slide showed an example from both the comics and Olivia Munn playing her in X-Men: Apocalypse. Little Corvus made a good point that the difficulty that the panel had thinking of examples was a big problem in pop culture. Terry Blas used the example of his comic Dead Weight about a murder mystery at a fat campwhere the characters are drawn as fat in different ways that reflects their character instead of just having the same body shape.
Bartel said that she had done covers for the character Faith from Valiant Comics and liked her as a representative of body positivity, but said that she wished she could redesign her costume into something that the superheroine would actually wear. In connection with this, Blas said that some male comic book artists spend hours of research getting a jet engine part right, but don’t consider fashion in their work. This led to a discussion about female superhero body types with Yoshitani saying that there was pressure on female superheroes to be perfect for everyone. Irene Koh said that she wished superhero artists took inspiration from ESPN: The Body Issue, which shows how different kinds of athletes have different body types.
Other topics discussed by the panel, included gender expression and how this was handled better in anime than in Western comics with Little Corvus making an excellent point about how Mulan could be non-binary as she explores different gender presentations in the 1998 Disney film. Another topic was color washing where Reese and Koh strongly criticized writers who described people of color like food. The panel ended on a positive note with Reese, Blas, and Little Corvus talking about how the Runaways from the Hulu TV show and America were good representations of teenage fashion and their clothing choices made them seem like they were real people.
This panel reinforced the idea that careful attention to a character’s heritage even through something like a piece of clothing makes for a richer reading or viewing experience, and it also challenged me to look at media that I have taken for granted for instances of cultural appropriation. Star Wars was a big one.
Steve Fox, Chad Sell, Barbara Perez Marquez, Molly Ostertag, Lilah Sturges, James Tynion IV
“Telling All Ages Queer Stories” (Sunday)
The final panel I attended was on Sunday and was about all ages comics created by LGBTQ creators. The panel was moderated by Paste’s Steve Foxe and featured Chad Sell (Cardboard Kingdom), Barbara Perez Marquez (Cardboard Kingdom), Molly Ostertag (Witch Boy), Lilah Sturges (Lumberjanes: The Infernal Compass), and James Tynion IV (Justice League Dark). Foxe began by asking what kind of LGBTQ characters whether positive or negative the panelists came across when they were young adults.
Tynion said that he mainly read superhero comics growing up where there wasn’t a lot of LGBTQ representation except for homophobic jokes and said he connected to the X-Men as well as webcomics with gay characters when he was in middle school. Sell said that an issue of Superman from the early 1990s scared him into possibly not coming out when two gay men were chased out of town and then rescued by Superman. The point he got from this story is that if he came out as gay, he would be forced to run away. Sturges’ first experience with a trans character in media was The Crying Game, but she said until Lana Wachowski made her 2012 speech that trans characters were portrayed as either pathetic or deceivers. She said that she enjoyed writing Jo as a happy trans kid in Lumberjanes. Perez Marquez talked about how she didn’t grow up with LGBTQ characters, but did connect with queer coded” characters like Spinelli from Recess.
Foxe’s next question was that in writing stories about LGBT youth that the panelists drew on their own childhood or an idealized one. James Tynion said that his science fiction series The Woods about a school being transported to a different planet drew on his own experiences as an out queer high schooler while his series The Backstagers about theater kids was more idealized. Molly Ostertag said that she wasn’t out as a lesbian in high school, and her upcoming queer high school girl romance was a vision of what she wanted as a teenager. However, she didn’t want to talk down to teens or avoid the realities of homophobia. Lilah Sturges said she felt a moment of doubt writing about the happy romance between Mal and Molly in Lumberjanes, but said she was able to write it because Lumberjanes like their relationship is a true utopian vision. Barbara Perez Marquez’s work on Cardboard Kingdom was more true to her life as a young queer Dominican girl while her webcomic Order of the Belfry was pure wish fulfillment about lady knights who kiss.
The discussion shifted to queer content filtering and pushback about LGBTQ content from editors and publishers. Tynion made a good point about how companies realized there was money in queer audiences and said he got some pushback in his superhero books and relatively none in his all ages comics for BOOM! Ostertag said it was easier to “push the envelope” in regards to LGBTQ content in comics versus television where she rarely interacted with the people who pulled the strings. So, it was much easier for her to explore gender roles in Witch Boy where a boy wants to try girl magic and not boy magic and harder to have a same gender couple holding hands in the background of an animated show. Sell and Perez Marquez talked about the “sneaky” representation of Cardboard Kingdom which are stories geared to 9-12 year olds and don’t have labels, but do explore things like same sex attraction and gender nonconformity.
Then, the panel basically transformed into a pure celebration of LGBTQ YA stories. James Tynion talked about how in Backstagers that he began with subtle representation and then had two of his leads, Jory and Hunter, become boyfriends by the end of the series. Lilah Sturges said that she enjoyed writing a pre-teen trans coming of age story in Lumberjanes because it’s not sexual and is a pure statement about what does it mean to have a gender. She also revealed something adorable that will make fans of the series smile when they read her graphic novel. Chad Sell talked about how he chose writers for The Cardboard Kingdom based on their own personal experiences that they could bring to the “neighborhood” of stories.
The panel ended in Q and A where an audience member asked about how the creators as adults captured the voices of today’s young people in their comics. Barbara Perez Marquez made the excellent suggestion of having kids or teens like in a public library’s graphic novel or anime club to beta read their scripts and give notes on what they liked about the scripts.
The Cardboard Kingdom is a graphic novel about kids, creativity, and cardboard! The book follows a variety of children who all live and play in the same neighborhood — throughout the many chapters, you’ll see each child’s story unfold, overlap with other kids’ adventures, and finally converge upon an epic final quest before summer’s end!
The graphic novel is a collaboration between Chad Sell(you’ve probably seen his Drag Race art) and ten writers from all over the country with a strong representation of LGBTQ voices! Chad is joined by contributing writer Katie Schenkelfor a conversation about the book and the importance of LGBTQ comics for all ages.
One of my favorite things about being a comics fan in Chicago is the annual Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, abbreviated whimsically as CAKE. It’s only been going on since 2012 but feels like an institution already, a way for independent creators to gain recognition and for fans to celebrate their favorites and discover new artists. Several of the participants I talked to mentioned that it was difficult to make the cut as a an exhibitor this year, and many talented comics creators were turned down. As it was, each creator only had half a table in the Center on Halsted’s sizable convention room, and so many people attended that it was tough to maneuver. If CAKE wants to continue its mission of celebrating the diversity of emerging talent in the Chicago area and beyond, it might need to seek out a bigger space in the future.
A number of the artists I met at CAKE shared a retro-timeless vibe, with images recalling illustration styles of the past but adopting more modern themes. M. Dean has mastered this balance in her ongoing webcomic, The Girl Who Flew Away, and in luminous short stories. She incorporates both the cartoonish whimsy and the intricacy of mid-20th-century comics but shifts them toward a female perspective, often turning simple coming-of-age stories and family dramas into adventures. She’s especially excited about her latest project, Regents Walk, which follows the lives of 24 kids in a small town in the 1990s, with each chapter focusing on a different character. When I asked M. Dean about her influences, she talked more about music than comics, mentioning The Carpenters and Patti Smith as two favorites. If you can imagine an aesthetic that perfectly marries those two, you understand why M. Dean’s work is so magical and original.
Dean described Z Akhmetova as her “partner in crime.” They’ve been friends since high school, and they share the goal of telling stories about girls and women that aren’t often told in comics. Akhmetova’s art style is very different, though, drawing on the spookier side of mid-century children’s illustration to tell imaginative, grown-up stories. Akhmetova has focused on one-shot graphic stories in the past, but she’s now working on an ongoing webcomic, Gods Can’t Die, about a girl who becomes a god.
Marnie Galloway takes a different approach to exploring creation myths through comics. She told me that she started out as a more traditional artist, making relief prints, before realizing that she was really making sequential art that appealed to comics readers. Her intricate images, full of swirling animal and nature shapes, form a trilogy of fanciful creation myths in In the Sounds and Seas. Galloway says that she’s more influenced by literature than by comics, citing William Blake and “rad lady poets” as her jumping off points, as well as ancient epics like The Iliad and Icelandic Eddas. She’s turned inward for her latest work, “Particle/Wave,” soon to be released by So What? Press.
Landis Blair’s table caught my eye because it featured a book called The Trial: A Choose Your Own Kafka Adventure. Blair, whose work recalls early 20th century engraving and Edward Gorey, wrote Trial as part of an anthology of graphic adaptations of literature. He told me that he needed a gimmick because it’s impossible to distill Kafka’s meandering, unfinished novel into 15 pages, and because there’s something Kafka-esque about Choose Your Own Adventure stories. He advises fans of odd cat stories (and heartbreaking political allegories) begin with The Progressive Problem and its sequel. These and other short graphic stories are available at Landis Blair Illustration.
LGBTQ artists made up a smaller proportion of the exhibitors than I recall from previous years, but I did speak to three creators who focus on queer themes and representation. Megan Rose Gedris, who also tours as burlesque performer Florence of Alabia, Gedris’s comics are cheerfully dirty, depicting edgy sexual subject matter with a playful art style. She says she tries to balance out her “weird porn” with adventure and fantasy – and plenty of lesbian mermaids. When I asked Gedris where people should start when reading her work for the first time, she laughed, because it’s not every artist who thinks their vore porn is their best entry point. However, Gedris noted that Eat Me has a great plot to go with its queasy-sexy subject matter, and that it resonates with readers like nothing else she’s done. That, along with Gedris’s other finished comics and ongoing webcomic Meaty Yogurt, can be found on her website, Rosalarian.
Chad Sell has become an internet sensation as well as a unique fixture of Chicago’s drag community for his stylized portraits of the drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Sell’s drag images, which can be purchased in book form or as poster prints, are both fan art and documentary images of a subculture on the edge of the mainstream. Sell shared with me the unnerving experiences he’s had talking with drag queens whose performances he admires, only to find that they’re starstruck when he draws them and interviews them. He started out with edgier queens like Raja and says he still finds it easiest and most fun to portray stylized performers with avant garde looks. While his drag queen portraits sometimes overshadow his sequential art, Sell is a terrific storyteller as well, and is particularly proud of his new kid-friendly comic, Sorceress Next Door, about a little boy who wants to be a supervillain. His work, along with archive of interviews with Chicago drag queens, is at The Sellout.
Continuing a long tradition of LGBTQ slice-of-life comics is Tony Breed. After eight years developing a cult following for his webcomic, Finn and Charlie Are Hitched, Breed spun off his universe and characters into the ensemble-driven Muddlers Beat. Breed’s depiction of contemporary gay culture is both celebratory and critical, featuring body types and emotional bonds that we don’t see enough of in media representations of gay men. His comics are also bitingly funny. Breed said that his combination of wicked humor and positive representation do come from a desire for change: “People who are satisfied with their lives don’t make comics.” It’s both surprising and refreshing to hear that kind of statement from such a lighthearted creator.
Using comics to draw readers into underrepresented cultures and experiences was a common theme among many of the works at CAKE, and that goal drives two artists who approach that goal from the same angle: food. Sarah Becan’s webcomic, I Think You’re Sauceome, began as a food therapy diary but soon evolved into a celebration of diverse body types, delicious recipes, and Chicago food culture. She said the shift arrived with her realization that “loving food isn’t a fat girl trait.” Becan’s success at drawing food – and the emotions that surround it – has earned her the opportunity to illustrate menus and other commissions for local restaurants throughout Chicago. Her website features a portfolio of images that will be familiar to local foodies, as well as her travelogue, Stockholm Is Sauceome.
Robin Ha started creating her whimsical food comics when she learned to cook, in the hopes of recording the recipes she tried and sharing Korean cuisine with the world. What began on Tumblr is now a published collection, Ban-Chan in 2 Pages, and an acclaimed cookbook, Cook Korean! Ha also creates narrative comics and Tarot card designs, but she’s found real inspiration in melding cookbooks and sequential art. Recently, she’s gone beyond her family’s culture to learn about other cuisines. A trip to Nicaragua, in which she observed and illustrated locals as they cooked, has provided a wealth of material for an upcoming project on Latin American cuisine.
Chicago is lucky to have such a vibrant showcase for independent artists, and CAKE proves that a free, volunteer-run event can draw crowds. Much more than at the large conventions I’ve attended recently, most of the visitors to CAKE were there primarily for the exhibitors, and most were buying comics and prints, not just window shopping. It’s exciting to see such enthusiasm for independent comics and to see CAKE grow from year to year.