"Coming of Age in Graphic Novels" – New York Comic Con 2017

Molly Ostertag: [unintelligible] which has been going for about six years. [audience 'woo'] Thank you! Molly: We have, we just finished the second verse, second volume and that's coming out in 2018. I also am the illustrator of Shattered Warrior with First Second which came out earlier this year and I'm here and very excited to promote my middle grade graphic novel debut of The Witch Boy, which is coming out on Halloween of this year so I'm excited to talk about that. Audience member: Woo! Nidhi Chanani: I'm Nidhi Chanani, and my debut graphic novel Pashmina just came out a couple days ago, actually with First Second Books and– Video skip to Molly: ..with adult themes, and so I really want to make books for kids who maybe don't fit in, maybe they don't know the word for what they are yet or maybe they do but they sort of would like to see a character that addresses that without it being kind of this really adult, kind of like explicit content. So that's what I'm really excited about doing right now. Ngozi Ukazu: Yeah, it's funny, I look to TV a lot when I think about the type of stories that I want to see in the world. And it's really funny that only within the, kind of 2010, like the last decade you start seeing sitcoms that were written and run by women which I love. I like comedy that is a bit more nuanced in that sense. And then I also look to, like, I mean, I look to shows like Issa Rae's Insecure, which is like– Nidhi: Yes! Ngozi: Yeah! Nidhi: I'm Obsessed. Ngozi: Yes. I am obsessed. OK, we can't turn this into a podcast. [audience laughter] [unintelligible] like a story that is, like you look at shows like Shonda Rhimes' Empire, and I think that we need more stories that are like, five different voices as well. And recently, I've been thinking about a story like, like superhero stories are getting super angsty, and then stories that have queer narratives tend to be for adults and it tends to be that weird tragedy porn; it's just all suffering, no one's ever happy. There is a lot of suffering so I'm like, how, when's the last time there was a queer rom-com that was like funny [snapping sounds] and something that a kid could look forward to. [to audience member] Thanks for snapping. [audience laughter] Stuff like that. Just different voices and genres that haven't been traditionally intersecting. Molly: I think I'm interested too, in how, when you introduce sort of diverse characters or characters who sort of stray from like straight, white, and male, how do the stories change as well and how, is it pure rom-com, is it different, is the romance different than a straight romance and can we explore that and can we be like very proud of that and love that. Nidhi: Not only are the characters different, but their actual narrative and their story arc is different [Molly: Yeah.] So we're not just repeating the same things, just making them– Ngozi: It's like that one episode of Master of None, the Thanksgiving episode, yeah, and it was like, oh my gosh, here's an entire episode of a queer Black woman and it's like funny and fab and weird, and like we just need more of that, so we can have more of the narrative Jorge Aguirre: I feel like I'm aware of, this thought's not completely worked out yet, I was just thinking about it. I wish there was a Betchel Test, [to Ngozi] is that how you say it? [Ngozi: The Bechdel Test] Yeah, for people of color. So, it'd be having a con booked with more than two lead Latinos or people of color and what they talk about is something other than the fact that they are people of color. [audience laughter] So something like that. I think you [to Ngozi] were talking about that, some kind of rom-com mix-up or some mash-up of genres. I want to see more of that. [Ngozi: Yeah] I want to see more and more. I think a lot of that Latino stories that get told are border stories, and some of them are great, and some of them suck. Like there's a lot of Chicano stories and some of them are great, like Love and Rockets, and some of them are ehhh, and I want to see more of a diverse amount of storytelling within Latinos. [Ngozi: Yep.] Nidhi: I think it's interesting too, like a lot of us are talking about our own experiences, and one of the things I notice is not necessarily to get represented as mixed race. I'm raising a mixed race child right now. And she speaks two languages – she's two. [audience laughter] But she seems to like this, and you know, I think about this, making these books as books that I would've liked to read when I was young. But where are those for her? Where are the books for literally a generation of mixed race children who are coming from all different backgrounds, seeking multiple images, and getting multiple cultures represented, and that's another gap in the market that I would love to see addressed. Gina Gagliano: So, you are all not teenagers or kids anymore [panelists chuckling]. You're all writing books for teens or kids and you are not yourself a teenager or kid. And Ngozi was just saying that the experiences of young people today, they are in some way different from the experiences that we all grew up with. How are you writing your story and including those new experiences of children so that they reflect the world that people are living in now or the world that you want the kids to be living in now? Molly: It's a little terrifying because teens are so smart. And they're so much on a different level than I was when I was their age. But I think for me, when I was a kid I really liked books that didn't talk down to me and so I would end up reading a lot of adult fiction because I just didn't like a book that treated me like I was a little d*mb. And so, when I write for kids I just try to not shy away from complicated or big issues and to maybe present them in kind of like a safe way or stories where you can choose to how deep you get into it.. Like you can sort of read it on surface level as an adventure or you can go deeper and really like get into these complicated emotional ideas. But I'm writing for kids like me who are very serious and wanted to be taken seriously, uhm, yeah. Nidhi: I think it's important to be around children. [Ngozi: Yes, seriously.] [audience chuckles] Better not be creepy, like hanging out, you know, but you [unintelligib le] friends with kids. And then I think the other thing that's really important is too, like [to Molly] you said, not talk down to them, to make sure that you're maintaining your voice while you're doing it. Ngozi: I think I had responses to both of what you guys [Nidhi and Molly] said. Being around kids and teens is so important. I remember I was talking to an editor from a place that will not be named and he was like 'we're gonna to do something really fresh, we're gonna start something new here' and I was like, 'oh yeah, so, you want this, you want this, have you read Homestuck?' He was like, 'What's Homestuck?' [audience laughter] I was like, wha-at! Do you need copies? What are you doing? But kind of in that same, I love media that is for kids that doesn't speak down to kids. Because when I was like twelve I was watching Spongebob and I was watching Frasier and I would laugh at [unintelligible]. [audience laughter] It's all the same, honestly all the same. [more laughter] So, it's something where, when I actually write, I actually do not think about, I can't say I'm thinking, 'how is a teen going to respond to this' because I'm lucky enough where I've had parents and their children both like read, like come to my table and read "Check, Please!" like they're reading it together. And I think that, I honestly think that adults when they're writing for teen fiction just treat them like just, I mean there shouldn't be [unintelligible] talked about, that's pretty much the only boundary, you should just treat them like they are adults, that's the way they want to be treated. Jorge: Yeah, I agree, but I think it's like a trap, if you try to think too hard and get in the head of someone who is 30 years, 40 years younger than you, you'll just end up patronizing them. On the other hand, though, I also think there's a time to be set for humility, not being the know-it-all and kind of observing. I have two kids so I tend to watch them a lot. I kind of figured that out– Videos cuts to Gina: …[unintelligible] like panels at your Comic-con, kind of like fit the entire world in a 200 page story. So how do you get the diversity and the resonant fact of the multicultural, multi over all world into a book? Ngozi: I know that in undergrad, something that my screenwriting professor pointed out was, the more specific you get, the more universal you get actually and I, it's a weird thing where, when I'm writing the story about a character of any identity I will do my research if it's not something I identify with and I'll ask my friends, and most of the time I will base it off a specific experience of my friend and I have people saying, 'well, I identify with that and–" Video cuts to Molly:…why would I keep this character white, like why not put something else, and to be like, I don't need to be, this character doesn't need to represent a group of people. The character is who they are in the story, but I can examine biases that I might hold or just, ignorances that I might have. Ngozi: But I feel like you're already putting so much pressure on yourself. It's so hard to feel like, especially on the internet people are like, 'Well, you better get it right, or else!' kind of, you know, [Molly: Yeah.] call out those. Ngozi:[Unintelligible] come to the con. [audience laughter] Nidhi: I think that all creators are gonna get called out for something. You're not going to make everybody happy. Somebody's gonna get angry about some way you're representing somebody or not representing somebody. And I think that that's fine. There's a certain amount that we can learn from that, and from those discussions, and there's a certain amount that you have to ignore. Because you can't satisfy everybody, and you have to focus on the character and what that character's experience is, what their favorite foods are. You know who their best friends are, how many heartbreaks they've had in their lives. Once you know that about your character, your character is not a character anymore. They're a real person and they live with you, they're in the back of your mind as you're writing your pages or drawing them. And that's what makes it real, that's what makes it universal actually. Just like you [to Ngozi] said, the more specific you get. Jorge: Like I, just 'cause you talked about saying this, I was reading reports on [unintelligible] only like how, you'll mention Indian words or Indian holidays, and the book doesn't stop to explain it. It's just kind of part of the language of the book. This sort of jumps on what we were talking about on the last topic about not condescending, not patronizing, you just kind of reflect what reality is. [Ngozi: Yep.] You don't stop and say [unintelligible] you always will get just enough, hopefully, that you get the story and it feels like a full world. Nidhi: It's contextual, right. I mean, I give enough context. I work so hard to give them context in Pashmina, where I didn't have to sanitize my work, right. Like, I don't want to have to wash it down. Because washing it down wouldn't [unintelligible]. Jorge: Yeah, like sometimes some of the, we're talking about preschool kids, one of the preschool shows I've worked on in the past, if it's a Spanish word you have to stop and say what the word means. I never really liked that. I always preferred to just, 'the kids will get it or they won't get it.' It's contextual. And if they don't get it, it doesn't ruin the story, they just didn't get that 'Adios!' is goodbye. [audience laughter] So, I like, let them figure it out. Gina: So, a lot of you are writing about sort of fantasy elements, diversity and fantasy at the same time. Is there an added depth in or difficulty in creating a diverse world that's not necessarily our world, that has diverse characters or a diverse setting, where the meaning of the diversity is not necessarily what it is on Earth Two here? [audience laughter] Ngozi: Wait, what do you mean? Like, I'm sorry, I think I zoned out for a second. [audience chuckling] Ngozi: No, I was listening. [audience laughter] Gina: So, it's an intense question. [unintelligible] So, if you're writing a fantasy universe or a universe that's our world but there's also this fantasy element. And there's diversity in that fantasy part of your story, but the diversity doesn't necessarily mean the same thing that it does on Earth here. Ngozi: OK, so when you're not necessarily using the concrete diversity here, how do you– Videos cuts away to Jorge: I mean, to me it's also kind of a fine line between tokenism and having three-dimensional characters, so, like we have some, like one character's in a wheelchair, but that seems very natural, it's a blacksmith who lost a fight with a dragon. So he lost his legs or his arms, and that feels very natural to that world. So, any kind of diversity we're trying to infuse our world with, we try to make it feel like it's a part of that world. Molly: In my book, I enjoy using sort of a metaphor of magic to explore certain queer themes, and it's a book where magic is very gendered, and it's about a boy who wants to do girl magic. And so, it's kind of exploring some ideas, while I think for me I enjoy kind of putting a little bit of a light touch that means that kids who need to identify with that could, and kids who kind of just are there for the adventure story can get that. So, I think you definitely can sort of use the conceit of magic in your story to explore things in a way where it's like maybe a little gentler, or a little less specific or a little bit easier for kids to engage with. Ngozi: I feel like I was a bit facetious before, saying about how my story's about hockey, that of course it's not fantasy. But I think every story and every world that you enter has rules and the only difference between fantasy and sci-fi is saying 'these rules are engaged by science,' or 'these rules are engaged by magic or the supernatural.' And I think when it comes to diversity, or portraying queerness or race or capability and disability, it's really about, it's, all you're doing is critiquing those rules. [to Molly] and it's really interesting that you're talking about how magic is gendered, and then suddenly that becomes a rule to break, and then the diversity comes from how people engage with it. Gina: Thank you all, that's really interesting. So when you're making stories for kids, do you think diversity is particularly important for the age category that you're writing for, in a specific way that it's not important for adults, necessarily? Molly: I think [unintelligible] is important in every story, it's, I think, I don't know, because I've done adult work and a diverse children's book and it's, I don't know, it's something I've thought of across the board for everything I've done and I think for kids, it's, it's what I love about making fiction for kids, is that they are such pure readers and so you really have this chance to shake your idea of what the world is and like, what they can expect, what they can believe in, um, what they can look up to and so it's important in that way but I wouldn't, like, give someone a pass for not thinking about diversity for adults [laughs] [audience noise] Nidhi: I think it's important for all books, however, I think that the increased importance that's placed on childrens' literature is because it introduces people that might not be familiar with those communities or those cultures and then hopefully includes them in a way that's positive, right, to incorporate those, um, things that are not familiar into in their lives to be more open to them. And to be able to impact kids at that age, and to have them, because they’re so spongey, right, they want to read everything that’s cool, what their friends are reading, and to be able to affect them and then hopefully to impact them in a way that makes them less messed up later [room laugh] that's what I'm trying to say, that’s really important Ngozi: Yeah I think like it’s a literacy in empathy, you learn how to feel as a kid and then you still have to practice that empathy as an adult. So it may be more important when you’re a child. Jorge: Is the question if it’s more important?’ or equally important, or…? Gina: If it’s more important, or, is there something specific that’s ah, like a more specific, like an aspect or is there something that resonates more with kids? Is diversity in kids stories working in a different way than diversity in adult stories? Jorge: Well me personally, I think it’s more important for the kids, in the same way that it’s more important for my kids to eat better than I eat, I’ll be dead in fifteen years [audience laughter] so, you know, my kids will be around for a while. And I find it so hard… maybe I’ll live longer, I did smoke for eleven years, I gave it up. I’d get so angry though when I was trying to find books for my kids, who are now ten and seven, you know, and every latino story was about “Let’s go make tortillas with Abeulita, day of the dead, piñata story, it’s SO annoying. Let me tell a quick story. How many of you ever read ‘Skippyjon Jones’? Ever heard of it? So it’s this picture book, and it’s this picture book that my sister bought for me. And I know why she bought it for me, she was thought ’it has some Spanish in it, the kids will like it,’ that sort of thing. And I read it to my son. It’s about a Siamese cat that wanted to be a chihuahua. And it’s full of mock Spanish, and [mock spanish] and some chimichanga rhymes, and I hated this book [audience laughter], I hated it. And also I felt guilty throwing it away, I felt guilty giving it, so I was like hiding it, my kids kept finding it, and I had to keep reading this book. AND there’s a cd, with the author reading, and the author is not of color. Ngozi: Oh…[claps hands] Jorge: It won the EB White Award, it was a New York Times bestseller, they made a musical out of it, if you want to buy a Skippy-Jon Jones doll you can, feel free, and I’m sure this author’s not a bad person, I’m sure she’s fine, but when I finished reading it I though ‘this is either racist or d*mb’. And I googled ‘racist or d*mb’, and somebody had written something [unintelligable] I think it’s d*mb, probably. Just that that’s what my kids have to read, some cat that wants to be a chihuahua, who uses mock Spanish and talks in cliches? And that’s a bestseller? [frustrated exhalation]. Ngozi: When did this come out?
Jorge: Recently… [trails off] Gina: It think it was like in the past ten years, yeah…
Jorge: So, I’m sorry to those Skippyjon Jones fans that are out there… Gina: Are you seeing that change? Are you seeing things today be different in diverse publishing than they were ten years ago, or when you were a kid? Jorge: For me, absolutely. When I was a kid, there was nothing. Molly: Yeah, my bubble is very influenced by what I like, so I think I see all the good diverse comics that are coming out, so yeah it seems like there’s a big big change happening. I think it just also seems like so many more kids these days are so much more aware of social issues and are like aware of different ways to be and how to be respectful of other kinds of people, like I think it’s really exciting. Ngozi: Yeah I mean I’m coming from the word of web comics, and web comics, they are the place for diversity and to find stories about people dealing with different mental issues, mental health issues, um, and it’s a plethora, like you really like type in, like ok, space ‘mental health’ like ‘gender identity comic’ and it’ll have like twenty comics, it’s fantastic Um, I think it might be harder, I think the next step is kind of cultivating that information, to make sure that the people who, and young readers that need that, can find that information safely. But yeah when I started reading web comics it was all video games, anime, cats talking about stuff, I appreciate that it’s more nuanced now. Nidhi: I think that the industry is changing from the content side, I don’t always think it’s changed on the reader side, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. Nidhi: how many books are created with lead characters who are characters of color, and and then how many of those are made by diverse creators? The numbers are abysmal. And so I think it’s definitely different than when we were growing up, I can go into a bookstore and get a book or two, that I feel comfortable bringing to my house and reading like 500 times because I have a two year old, but you know, I still think there is a lot of room for growth. Gina: With this current state of the world, I feel like we all spend a lot of time talking about activisms, right? Do you feel like you are being activists with the stories you are telling? Do you feel like being an activist is an important identity for a writer or an illustrator today? Jorge: Um, I don’t know if “activist” is the very first word that would come to my mind. I consider myself a storyteller, and you know I want to push diversity as much as I can in my work, and I guess that is my activism, but I consider myself a storyteller. Ngozi: I kind of agree because I feel like activism is selfless and noble and brave, and storytelling is that way and the same, but it’s hard to just claim that mantle because it’s saying a lot about yourself, which is like saying ‘I’m a hero,’ basically, which is hard to do. [room giggles, indiscernible panel comments] Ngozi: I feel like the people who are the most 'active' activists, they use different terms for this stuff, that’s such a loaded term that comes with a lot of responsibility [trails off]. Molly: Yeah, I think a lot about making stories as a force for good and that's sort of where I come from, every time I sit down to write or start a project it’s just like “what does this mean? What is this saying? How can this push toward a vision of the world that I would believe in” and I think as a writer and a creator it’s such a practice of empathy and of learning, of always being open to learning other experiences and seeing every single person around you as a whole person, and so I think the act of creation is really powerful, but, yeah Ngozi: it's hard. Molly: It's hard too, it's scary I think it’s scary, and I think some people bear that responsibility, it weighs a lot heavier on them, and then other people never think about it, I don’t know, it’s interesting. Nidhi: I think the term “activism,” like you were saying, it’s hard to take ownership over it. Nidhi: But I think that art is political, I think that as an artist you have a responsibility to share the things that you believe in as much as you do the work that’s just for fun, one of the things I did when what's-his-face was elected [loud room noise & laughter] was start creating these free coloring pages that were [indiscernible] just a girl who goes on this journey and finds people along her way and they help each other out. They're free coloring pages, I wouldn’t necessarily call it an activist practice or anything but they are things I want to do with my life, to feel that I’m participating and if I can look into my toolbox and say “What can I do? How can I help these conversations happen?” How can help these teachers or nonprofit workers, and people who are on the front lines, that have these pulls of influence, to have these conversations that are really really difficult. So I try to do that work and think about what I think about what I can provide with my toolbox. Because I'm not really going to be super useful by volunteering my time Jorge: So we have two books out so far, it’s the same characters. So “Giants Beware!” is about Claudette who is a young girl warrior who wants to convince her little brother and best friend to go kill a giant. Her best friend is named Marie, and she is a wannabe princess-slash-diplomat and she wants to negotiate the peace between monsters and villagers and there’s a third character named Gaston who’s her little brother, who’s a scaredy-cat, he’s scared to go kill this giant. He wants to be a pastry chef-slash-sword maker. So everybody kind of has their dreams. And it all takes place in this medieval French village. Ngozi: My story is called “Check, Please!” which again is totally free online, at check please comic dot com but it’s going to be in bookstores in the fall of 2018. It’s the story of a former figure skater who joins a college hockey team, and he really likes to bake. His thing, the catch, is that he's very scared of that physical part of hockey which is called checking, you know, you get hit into the boards and turn into a pancake nose. It’s terrible. It’s a story about, I started it on a whim actually, but the story that kind of developed is a story of self acceptance. Bittie is this character, the main character is Eric “Bittie” Bittle, everyone in hockey has nicknames and he’s also very small, see? [laughter] Um, but his thing is the first time he ever comes out to anyone is in college, and he does it in the hyper-masculine environment of hockey, and the story that I wanted to tell, instead of a queer character who you know, um, gets like ostracized or hated, I wanted to tell a story about him going into an environment and changing it, and these characters having no choice but to support him. It’s also a pretty happy story about a kid who kind of makes it in hockey. Nidhi: And it’s awesome Ngozi: Oh thank-you Nidhi: “Pashmina” is about Priyanka Das, who’s an Indian-American girl who finds this magic pashmina shawl that allows her to travel to a fantasy version of India and that encourages her to ask questions and be curious about who she is and where she came from And a lot of the story is about her relationship with her mother, and the history that she has been impacted from, and eventually she ends up going to the real India and it's also about that contrast.

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