At C2E2, I had the pleasure of chatting with writer Ivy Noelle Weir (Princeless) and artist Steenz (Elements) about some of themes and characters in their debut graphic novel, Archival Quality, which was recently released by Oni Press.
The book follows the life, work, and relationships of Cel, the new archivist at the macabre Logan Museum, which is a medical archive that used to be a sanatorium and is run by the little too young to be a curator Abayomi and a mysterious board of directors. It’s part ghost story, part exploration of mental health issue and full of empathy, spookiness, and humor.
Graphic Policy: I’m going to start out with a big picture question. What are some of the strengths of the comics medium in telling a story about mental health like Archival Quality?
Ivy Noelle Weir: I’m just a writer, a lowly writer, and I don’t draw. Part of the strength of this project was the collaboration between Steenz and I because I was able to tell a story that I wanted to, and maybe prose would have fallen short in some of the emotional factors.
Because Steenz is so good at rendering human expression, I feel like [her art] gave [the story] more weight. There are moments where I’m able to have no dialogue happen in my script that Steenz is able to evoke a really strong reaction by the way she draws the characters. In prose, you get bogged down by description, and you’re prescribing more for people. You can’t just show something. Film works too for discussing this kind of thing.
Steenz: When you think about mental health in general, I feel like if you’re reading [about] it, it doesn’t humanize it as much versus if you actually see it and how it is on people’s faces. Putting a face to something you’re unfamiliar with makes it a lot easier to understand. Being able to draw that out for somebody is a little better than reading. Not that prose sucks… That’s not what I’m saying [laughs]
GP: One thing that I loved about Archival Quality were that the characters, not the Gothic mystery story were at the forefront. Why did you guys decide to focus on the characters instead of twist-y plot things?
INW: I’ve always written like that. And I think it’s because people are interesting. When I was in high school, I was in this short fiction writing workshop. This shows the lasting effect a teacher can have on your life, and a teacher said to me, “You write empathy and pathos really well. It’s your strength. You should play to that.”
And I’m like, “Alright.” I’m gonna do that for the rest of my life, I guess. I thought that was the way to tell it. And when you’re writing about something as personal as mental health, it does not look the same on everyone. Everyone’s experience of anxiety and depression is different. Having the story focus on a very three dimensional character makes it more personal, and not like you’re prescribing one way of thinking or being to everyone.
S: Also, I feel like characterization is as much of a setting as plot is. You can have something that’s super plot heavy, and the characters can be super flat, but it could also still resound with you as much. So, I think they have equal weight. You can play with what works best for the project.
GP: Steenz, I love your art style. How do you balance the adorableness of your art with telling a story with weighty topics like lobotomies and mental health? Especially the flashbacks.
S: I don’t think about it. I don’t let any kind of genre stop me from drawing the way I want to draw. When I’m reading Ivy’s stuff, I let color play into the mood because I can draw things as bright or exciting or super action-y like it was a sports anime or something.
But I can also do something that’s a little more somber or morose. It just has to do with color because the style of characters I draw never changes at all.
GP: How did you develop that style? It’s very distinct.
S: When I talk to people about style development, I always tell them that it’s not something that you do intentionally. Your muscle memory will create something for you. If you’re looking at a lot of Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon) and only Chris Sanders, your work is going to start to look like his. But it won’t look like his because you’re not him, it’s going to look like a “you” version of Chris Sanders.
So, the more kinds of styles that you look into and practice and see what you’re interested in, the more it’s going to combine and create this amalgamation of style mixed in with your own personal attachment to it. That will create your style for you.
GP: Ivy, I know you have a background as a librarian. Did any personal experiences you had as a librarian have an influence on Archival Quality at all? Any crazy stories?
INW: I was a public librarian for the majority of my career so not as many because the scariest thing that happened to me was somebody returning a book soaked in Axe body spray. Or white ladies driving up in a Porsche demanding that I give back their 25 cent late fee. People saying, “My taxes pay your salary” and all that.
I did my undergrad studies in art history, and then I focused on the ethics of medical photography for my undergrad thesis. During that time, I did an internship at a medical history archive like the one in our book. That was very different from what I portrayed in the book. The book version was a pure fantasy, and I think that if an actual archivist read it that they might be like, “Hmm…”
Whereas the one I worked at was very concerned with ethics and proper procedure. I wish I had a cool, creepy story about when I worked in the medical archive, but it was like having an office job. An office job where I cataloged mummified arms.
GP: So, no handling physical body parts?
INW: I handled some physical stuff. I handled a few things that were bound in human skin. It was mostly documents, but weird documents that were like, “To cure this thing, inject turpentine into the bowels at a full moon.” And I thought about what people were going to think about modern medicine in 100 years.
GP: That’s crazy. You could get hundreds of stories from that. So, Abayomi, when I started reading the book was a straight-laced managerial type, and I assumed he might become the bad guy, but he ended up be my most favorite character in the whole book. How did you build his arc and especially his chemistry with Cel?
INW: I love manga. Aba is every cold manga boyfriend, who turns out to be soft. He comes directly from me growing up and reading shojo manga. I feel like that is characterization you see more in that than in Western comics.
S: That’s basically what my inspiration for [Abayomi] was when I drew him because Ivy didn’t give me any descriptions for what anyone looked like. Basically, here is the character and their characterization, here is the story arc they go through, and here is a little of their work background. That’s it.
Other than that, I got to build what he looked like and his body movements and how he walked and talked. I think what made him so special is that, in manga, there’s always that character, who you’re not sure what they’re about until later on. I think there’s little bits and pieces of [Cel and Abayomi’s] interactions where you can kind of see him melting a little bit. I like that progression.
GP: Like the toaster strudels.
INW: That’s one of my favorite manga tropes. They’re tough, but they have one soft thing they’re into. It was a surprise to us that we spent all this time building Aba as a character, and then, The Good Place came out, and Chidi was him.
S: He’s literally the character we created.
GP: One small-ish thing I liked about Archival Quality was how organic Cel and [her long term boyfriend] Kyle’s breakup was. How did you keep this slow burn breakup grounded in this wild world of skulls and ghosts?
INW: We did a book club Skype where, for the first time, I talked about how I wrote this. The book club we Skyped into were split and said, “50% of us like Kyle, 50% of us hate Kyle.” They asked if he was a good person.
S: It was a tough question.
INW: Yeah, are any of us good people? I think what I said was “Do you like him?” So, I went through a similar breakup in my 20s. I was with my college boyfriend. We had been together for a really long time, and it was that kind of thing where we were growing apart. I think that happens more to people than big, bombastic “I’m gonna throw all your clothes out the window. It’s over! I’m never talking to you again” breakups.
You just start to drift, and the next thing you know, you [realize] you’re on different continents. This is not working. I thought it was a grounding point to Cel’s arc to have that be the first indicator that she’s more aware of herself and her needs. Because prior to the story and the catalyst of her going through this experience, she might not have had the strength to actually break up with him and just have them be together and be unhappy until something bad happened.
S: Another part of it is when it comes to drawing a breakup. When I draw, I use myself as a reference so I basically read and experienced their breakup very personally because I was sitting in that car and feeling like Cel and didn’t know what to do. I was also feeling like Kyle and don’t what to do either.
After drawing that scene, I texted Ivy and said, “I’m kind of emotionally drained right now. I feel like I just went through a breakup.” I had to go through it three times: penciling it, inking it, and coloring it. I kind of put myself into it so that people can also see it and feel it that way.
GP: I really connected to it. This is kind of a publisher question. Why was Oni Press the best company to publish this story?
INW: We originally intended for [Archival Quality] to be a webcomic. I had written this story as a novella, and I wanted to revisit it because it had been years since I’d worked on it. So, I approached Steenz and said, “Do you wanna make a webcomic?”
We thought a webcomic was really low risk because either no one will read it, and we can practice making comics together. Or people will read it, but we’ll have control over the timeline. So, we started banking pages, and Oni had their open submissions period. We were like, “Why not? What’s the worse that can happen?”
S: Because if they didn’t take it, we’d put it online, which is what we intended on doing. We had never intended on pitching this book as something to be printed at all. Until Oni said, “We’re doing submissions”, and we sent it.
INW: It’s funny because we didn’t intend for it to be an OGN. We were picturing it almost as an ongoing comic. Actually, when we came to Oni, and they suggested it as an OGN, I was very thankful for it because it was my first ever comic script. Having that A-to-B, do the thing, whole story helped because if it had been open ended with me never having done comics before, I think it would have been a weaker story.
GP: Have you guys gotten any feedback from librarians or archivists? What have they said about the story?
S: All the time. I’m always surprised about how many librarians and archivists there are out there. I knew there were a lot because we were both librarians, and we’d go to ALA and see how fucking crowded it is. There are plenty of librarians.
We’re kind of like a quiet species so when we’re doing signings, and someone’s like, “Hey, I’m a librarian”. I’m like, “Oh my gosh. Hey, what’s up?” It’s always cool to know there’s librarians and archivists in places that you don’t expect. I did a signing a few weeks ago somewhere around St. Louis, and someone was saying that they work in the botanical gardens as a librarian and an archivist.
I’m thankful to be able to reach out to librarians and archivists and talk about the different stuff that they do. It is a pretty wide job description.
INW: In my day job, I work in publicity for a book publisher and am always like “Don’t read the reviews.” But, if you go on Goodreads, it’s a 50/50 splits with archivists, who are either like “The archivist stuff is dead on” or “No one here has studied archiving.”
S: Are we right? Are we wrong? Which is it?
INW: I have my Master’s degree in it so I hope that I’m at least a little bit right.
GP: Yeah, use that MLS. I have one last question. What would each of your ideal libraries look like if you had unlimited money and unlimited time?
INW: This is my public library, and they’re sufficiently state funded because this is a fantasy. There’s less books and more community space. I’m the worst for that. I’m like that dermatologist, “Librarians hate him”. When I was a librarian, I was always going to ALA and saying, “Knock out your bookshelves. Put in programming space. Let teens be loud in the library.”
I think that having enough space for youth and young families is the ideal.
S: I’ve been to so many different kinds of libraries, and I think the ones that impacted me the most were the ones that let young readers do what they want to when it came to what they read.
I find that some libraries have a hard separation between the kids’ section and everything else. I like the libraries that are a little more seamless so that if a kid was kind of interested in going over to the mystery books, they absolutely can. They don’t have to stay in one place. So, I guess my ideal would be a layout plan that’s welcoming to all types of people and isn’t too rigid in space.
INW: Yeah, ethically, you’re not supposed to divided libraries spatially because it has what the ALA calls a “chilling effect” on circulation. There’s my graduate thesis. I summarized it for you in one second.
GP: No boundaries. I like it.
Find Ivy Noelle Weir on Twitter.
Find Steenz on Twitter.
Buy Archival Quality here.