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C2E2 2018: Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz talk Archival Quality, the new graphic novel from Oni Press

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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 Qualitywhich 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 ArchivalInterior.jpgGothic 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.

ArchivalArtGP: 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 UghKylelong 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. 

Review: Archival Quality

AQCoverYes, Archival Quality is a ghost story about a young archivist named Cel, who gets haunted by a woman named Celine, who received a lobotomy when the Logan Museum (The setting for the graphic novel.) was a sanatorium in the early 20th century. But it’s also about relationships, mental health, coping with anxiety and depression, and messy human things in general. Ivy Noelle Weir does an excellent job fleshing out her small cast and giving them distinct ways of speaking, passions, life goals, and senses of humor while Steenz turns in some of the most adorable comic book art I have ever laid eyes on.

Steenz is also a gifted storyteller, who knows when to use a beat panel, facial expression, or sound effect to set up a joke or bring on the waterworks. A decent portion of the story happens in fragmented flashbacks to Celine’s life , and she uses a subdued sepia palette to keep the story grounded and not become some melodramatic Gothic potboiler. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of story.) There are plenty of ghosts, skulls, and unexplained occurrences, but Weir takes her time with the mystery side of Archival Quality and gives the characters fairly realistic reactions to the strange phenomena around them. Hooray for common sense moments like when Cel asks her boss, the curator Abayomi, why they are hiring a third full time staff member when barely anyone visits the Logan Museum.

A refreshing thing about Archival Quality is that the characters aren’t stereotypes or even archetypes. For example, Cel’s boyfriend Kyle could easily be written as an ableist villain, but Weir and Steenz give him layers of warmth and caring as he just wants Cel to feel better and find the help she needs. (Seriously, Steenz draws the best hugs.) However, that help might not involve a relationship with him, and Kyle does put hi. Weir and Steenz don’t fall into messy breakup cliches and organically show Cel and Kyle’s relationship break down over time with little things like them not moving in together or Cel not checking in with him via phone or text.

The Logan Museum does have terrible cellphone and Internet service, and Weir and Steenz seed in some ideas about our reliance on technology to connect with each other without turning Archival Quality into some kind of technoparable. The lack of contact with the outside world, the presence of mysterious women with dreams, and phenomena like missing teeth in artifacts turns Logan Museum into a kind of emotional laboratory where feelings like inadequacy, anxiety, and anger are intensified. But it’s also a cool space where Holly, Cel’s immediate superior, can show off her medical know how to solve a mystery, and stories of people with mental health issues can be restored and told and not locked away like their friends and family did to them when they were alive.

The character who I connected with the most and ended up almost stealing the entire IloveAbacomic book during his flashback sequence was Abayomi, a polite withdrawn man, who seems a little too young to be a curator. At the beginning of Archival Quality, he seems a little too terse and impersonal, and Steenz draws him with purposefully stiff body language to go with his professorial glasses and starched suits that leads to a big laugh when he reveals his love for a copyright friendly toaster strudel-type breakfast pastry. But, towards the middle of the comic, Weir and Steenz reveal that he has interacted with Celine and did research on her leading to the disappearance of the old curator, Dr. Weston.

Abayomi must straddle the world of ghosts and world of corporate bureaucracy (The very invisible and ominous “board”.) and put on a face of extreme competency to hide his feelings about Celine and connection to her. This is the connection he shares with Cel, and they bond over their quest and are kind of friends with great chemistry. The turning point is a panel drawn by Steenz of a close-up handshake that is equal parts empathy and a business partnership. She and Weir also face the myth that men and women can’t be platonic friends head on in a scene where Cel impactfully (and hilariously) defuses the rumor that their “research project” is Abayomi trying to be with her romantically. For the record, I do ship them, especially after an epilogue type sequence.

Archival Quality has all the elements from a great comic from  Steenz’s art that has a distinct style and clearly conveys emotion, humor, and suspense to Ivy Noelle Weir taking time to let characters just be and not rushing their development for the sake of a creepy mystery. Plus it shows that it’s sometimes okay to be angry about things, sometimes it’s better to be alone than be in a relationship, and introduces a super rad, competent, and queer medical librarian in Holly, who is totally my professional role model as I work on my MLIS.

Story: Ivy Noelle Weir Art: Steenz
Story: 9.5 Art: 10 Overall: 9.8 Recommendation: Buy

Oni Press provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review.

Preview: Archival Quality

Archival Quality

(W) Ivy Noelle Weir
(A/C/CA) Steenz
Age Rating: Young Adult Audiences
Genre: Drama/Mystery/Suspense
Price: $19.99
Page Count: 280

After losing her job at the library, Celeste Walden starts working at the haunting Logan Museum as an archivist. But the job may not be the second chance she was hoping for, and she finds herself confronting her mental health, her relationships, and before long, her grasp on reality as she begins to dream of a young woman she’s never met, but feels strangely drawn to. Especially after she asks Cel for help… As Cel attempts to learn more about the woman, she begins losing time, misplacing things, passing out—the job is becoming dangerous, but she can’t let go of this mysterious woman. Who is she? Why is she so fixated on Cel? And does Cel have the power to save her when she’s still trying to save herself?

Lion Forge’s Christina “Steenz” Stewart Moves from Social Media & Community Manager to Associate Editor

Lion Forge has announced a transition with valued staffer, Christina “Steenz” Stewart moving from Social Media & Community Manager to Associate Editor.

Steenz had been an admin of the Valkyries and its sister organization Valkyries Valhalla, an elite group of women in comic shops, bookstores, and libraries around the world. Upon joining the St. Louis-based publisher in late 2016, she further established the voice and following of the company, making Lion Forge one of the most vocal and active comic book publishers across social media platforms.

Christina ‘Steenz’ Stewart is also a St. Louis based cartoonist. She has illustrated Archival Quality from Oni Press among other short stories in anthologies such as Elements: Fire and Mine!. Steenz has a history of creating and running comics related programming from her time as a comic shop manager at an Eisner-winning retailer and a comics-focused librarian. She runs Comics University and represents the Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts at local colleges.

Congratulations to Christina “Steenz” Stewart in her newly appointed position at Lion Forge Comics, and the next step in her career in publishing.

Junior Library Guild 2018 Selection ‘Archival Quality’ Coming This March!

Former librarians and members of The Valkyries, Ivy Noelle Weir and Christina “Steenz” Stewart, have joined forces to create their debut Oni Press graphic novel, Archival Quality, which was recently named a Junior Library Guild selection.

After losing her job at the library, Celeste Walden starts working at the haunting Logan Museum as an archivist. But the job may not be the second chance she was hoping for, and she finds herself confronting her mental health, her relationships, and before long, her grasp on reality as she begins to dream of a young woman she’s never met, but feels strangely drawn to. As Cel attempts to learn more about the woman, she begins losing time, misplacing things, passing out—the job is becoming dangerous, but she can’t let go of this mysterious woman. Who is she? Why is she so fixated on Cel? And does Cel have the power to save her when she’s still trying to save herself?

Philadelphia-based writer Ivy Noelle Weir and St. Louis-based illustrator Steenz have collaborated on numerous comics projects together including a short for the series Princeless. Steenz’s artwork has been featured in the critically acclaimed and award-winning anthology Elements: Fire, as well as Ham4Pamphlet, a collaborative illustration project inspired by the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, while Weir has written numerous articles for Women Write About ComicsAmerican Libraries magazine, and NoveList in addition to her fiction writing.

Oni Press Announces Five New Titles for Spring 2018

Oni Press is expanding its line of comics with five new titles to release Spring 2018 including: The Altered History of Willow Sparks by Tara O’Connor, Archival Quality by Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz, Sci-Fu by Yehudi Mercado, Dead Weight: Murder at Camp Bloom by Terry Blas, Molly Muldoon, and Matthew Seely, and My Boyfriend is a Bear by Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris.

The Altered History of Willow Sparks by Tara O’Connor (January 17)

What happens when you can finally get everything you ever wanted? Willow Sparks and her best friend Georgia Pratt are at the bottom of the social ladder at Twin Pines High School, just trying to get through each day relatively unscathed. But when Willow finds a mysterious book that allows her to literally change her life, it feels like her luck is finally turning. As she becomes more and more popular with each entry into the book, her old life, including her friendship with Georgia, seems miles away. Yet as Willow will discover, every action has a reaction, and the future has unusual—even dangerous—ways of protecting itself.

Tara O’Connor is a New Jersey-based cartoonist. She is the author of Roots, which will be available September 2017 from IDW Publishing’s Top Shelf imprint. This her first graphic novel with Oni Press.

Archival Quality by Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz (March 7)

After losing her job at the library, Celeste Walden starts working at the haunting Logan Museum as an archivist. But the job may not be the second chance she was hoping for, and she finds herself confronting her mental health, her relationships, and before long, her grasp on reality as she begins to dream of a young woman she’s never met, but feels strangely drawn to. Especially after she asks Cel for help…

As Cel attempts to learn more about the woman, she begins losing time, misplacing things, passing out—the job is becoming dangerous, but she can’t let go of this mysterious woman. Who is she? Why is she so fixated on Cel? And does Cel have the power to save her when she’s still trying to save herself?

Philadelphia-based writer Ivy Noelle Weir and St. Louis-based illustrator Steenz have collaborated on numerous comics projects together including a short for the series Princeless. Steenz’s artwork has been featured in the critically acclaimed and award-winning anthology Elements: Fire, as well as Ham4Pamphlet, a collaborative illustration project inspired by the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, while Weir has written numerous articles for Women Write About Comics, American Libraries magazine, and NoveList in addition to her fiction writing. Both Weir and Steenz have worked both as librarians as well as being involved with The Valkyries, an online group for women who work in comic shops around the world. Archival Quality is their first Oni Press graphic novel.

Sci-Fu by Yehudi Mercado (March 14)
Hip-Hop, Sci-Fi, and Kung Fu all hit the turntables for the mash-up mix of the year! Cartoonist/force of nature Yehudi Mercado sets his sights on 1980s Brooklyn and Wax, a young mix-master who scratches the perfect beat and accidentally summons a UFO that transports his family, best friend, and current crush to the robot-dominated planet of Discopia. Now Wax and his crew must master the intergalactic musical martial art of Sci-Fu to fight the power and save Earth. Word to your mother.

Yehudi Mercado, a Los Angeles-based writer and illustrator, has previously worked on other projects such as Guardians of the Galaxy: The Universal Weapon for Marvel/Disney Interactive, and Rocket Salvage and Pantalones, TX, with BOOM! Studios and their Archaia imprint.

My Boyfriend is a Bear by Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris (April 11)

Nora has bad luck with men. When she meets an (actual) bear on a hike in the Los Angeles hills, he turns out to be the best romantic partner she’s ever had! He’s considerate, he’s sweet, he takes care of her. But he’s a bear, and winning over her friends and family is difficult. Not to mention he has to hibernate all winter. Can true love conquer all?

Pamela Ribon is a best-selling novelist, and has written comics such as Rick and Morty™ for Oni Press and her original series Slam! for BOOM! Studios. After over a decade working in television, she became a member of Disney Animation’s StoryTrust, where she worked on Moana and is currently co-writing the upcoming Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2. Cat Farris is the creator of the webcomic The Last Diplomat and the minicomic series Flaccid Badger, has worked for companies such as Amazon and Rovio Entertainment, and illustrated Dark Horse Comics’ Emily and the Strangers.

Dead Weight: Murder at Camp Bloom by Terry Blas, Molly Muldoon, and Matthew Seely (April 25)

Deep in the Oregon wilderness sits Camp Bloom, a weight-loss camp where “overweight” teens can “get in shape.” Jesse would rather be anywhere else, but her parents are forcing her to go. Noah isn’t sure if he wants to be there, but it’s too late to turn back. Tony is heartbroken at the thought of giving up his phone and internet. And Kate… well, she likes the hikes, at least. As far as these four teens are concerned, it’s just another boring summer. Until one night, when Jesse and Noah witness a beloved counselor’s murder. The body’s gone by the next morning, but a blurry photo leads to one clue—the murderer is one of the camp’s staff members!

But which one? As Jesse, Noah, Kate, and Tony investigate, they quickly discover that everyone’s got their secrets… and one of them would kill to keep theirs hidden.

Terry Blas’ work has previously appeared on comic book covers for Bravest Warriors, Regular Show, The Amazing World of Gumball, Adventure Time, Rick and Morty™, and The Legend of Bold Riley. Matthew Seely’s animation has previously appeared on MTV’s Greatest Party Story Ever. Molly Muldoon’s current projects include the forthcoming Cardboard Kingdom from Knopf.