An Interview with Feifei Ruan, Illustrator and Visual Storyteller

As I said in my interview with Thy Bui, I will be highlighting the works of designers and illustrators who create book covers. Today I bring you an interview with Feifei Ruan, the artist who illustrated the covers of Descendant of the Crane and A Thousand Beginnings and Endings.

Etinosa Uwadiae: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Feifei Ruan: I’m a freelance illustrator based in New York City. I was born and raised in China. I came to the U.S. to study visual storytelling at the School of Visual Arts in 2013. My works can be seen on book covers, magazines, websites, merchandise, and murals. My style ranges from eastern classic to science fiction and fantasy.

EU: How did you become an illustrator and visual storyteller?

FR: I started making illustrations for Chinese magazines when I was studying graphic design in college. After graduating, I worked as an intern in a design firm. It took me a year to figure out what my real passion was. Then I applied to the MFA Visual Narrative program at School of Visual Arts (SVA) which eventually led me to the current freelance life in New York.

Cover of Descendant of the crane by Joan He

EU: You designed the cover of Descendant of the Crane by Joan He. Can you tell us what inspired you to create such beautiful art and the creative process behind it?

FR: Thank you. When I design book covers, I always try to find the most symbolic elements or scenes from the book. For Descendant of the Crane, I was attracted to the relationship between the father (King/Crane) and the daughter (Princess). I wanted to show the intense/mysterious atmosphere between them, just like the main storyline of the book.

Illustration and full cover art of Descendant of the Crane

Illustration and Final cover art of Descendant of the Crane

EU: You also designed the cover of A Thousand Beginnings and Endings by Ellen Oh, can you tell us about your creative process behind it as well?

FR: A Thousand Beginnings and Endings is an anthology of 15 stories which cover several topics and genres such as war, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, religions, etc. Since they are all very different, it wasn’t easy to make that one cover to represent all. So I put these “doors” in the space as black holes.  The story elements from different times and places all “come out” to interact with each other.

Cover of A Thousand Beginnings and Endings

EU: You’ve illustrated several comics including Welcome to Chinatown, Sashimi, Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Giants #4. What is your inspiration for them and what do you want readers to get from them?

FR: Welcome to Chinatown was my school assignment at SVA. It’s an absurd story that based on my own feelings about Chinatown. Sashimi is a graphic novel and picture book hybrid. It’s a horror story inspired by some of my recurring dreams. The Storyteller: Giants is a retelling story commissioned by the Jim Henson company which is based on several stories from the One Thousand and One Nights. These three books are all different but similar in some way—they all comes from certain cultures (Chinese/Japanese/Arabian). I think it is the “culture” that I want to share with the readers.

Book cover of Chinatown and The Storyteller

EU: What’s your advice to new artists out there who would like to start a career in illustration?

FR: Be patient, be open-minded, and be smart. Drawing requires lots of time and practice. Keep trying and don’t be afraid to make mistakes when you’re learning. Always keep an open mind and think from different angles. Lastly—don’t be shy to share your works with the world, and learn from the feedback!

EU: Who are your favourite illustrators?

FR: There are so many. Tomer Hanuka and James Jean are the two illustrators that inspired me to become an illustrator in the first place. Their drawings are full of stories and emotions. I think that good artwork can always give you new feelings every time you look at them. That’s what they are.

Feifei Ruan is a Chinese Illustrator and Visual Storyteller based in New York. You can find more of her works on her website and connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

Fantasy is Female: The Importance of Feminism in YA Fantasy

There have always been women in fantasy. They’ve come a long way from their origins as the bikini-clad damsel clutching the leg of the hero, the sacred prostitute sold into the life by her desperate parents, the cold assassin with a singular talent raised among men, or the powerful sorceress who must decide between her power and the love of a good man.

Our progress has been slow and is more evident in some sub-genres than others; because urban fantasy and many paranormal romances are set in worlds similar to our own, it’s a simpler, though never easy, task to modernize our fictional sisters. Voices like those of Nnedi Okorafor have brought us Akata Witches and Zoraida Córdova Brooklyn Brujas.

But high fantasy. Oh, high fantasy.

Yes. There are some high fantasy stories with well-developed female characters who have complete story arcs and independent vectors and don’t ultimately trade everything they’ve fought for and built for the heart of a knight or a rogue or a djinn or…you get the idea.

While at Emerald City Comic Con, I had the opportunity to speak with Alexandra Christo (To Kill a Kingdom) and Tricia Levenseller (Warrior of the Wild, Daughter of the Pirate King) about their particular mission to inject feminism into their female-led YA fantasy and why they think it’s so important to do so.

S.W. Sondheimer: Both of you have major plot points that revolve around conflict between the female protagonist and her mother. They resolve in very different ways. Why was it important to include that conflict in each story?

Alexandra Christo: This is where my mother, who is the most lovely person in the world, always tells me, “You know, people always ask me if the sea queen is based off me…” I think in a lot of books, the villain is quite far removed from the protagonist and so there’s that sort of line between them. I feel it’s really interesting to explore that sort of villainous relationship between two characters that are supposed to traditionally love and care for each other, and show that’s not what all families follow…that’s not the way it always goes. You don’t have to love someone just because they’re your family. You’re not required to put up with a bunch of monsters just because you’re related to someone. It’s interesting to explore those families and see where that antagonistic relationship comes from. It’s also the idea of Lira…she begins the book ruthless, willing to do whatever it takes to get her kingdom, and once she becomes human, she starts to explore whether she was always that monster or whether that was drilled into her and she can change who she is, and I think that’s an interesting thing to explore.

Tricia Levenseller: I think that in YA novels, it’s so hard to get the parents out of the novel, how do you get the parents out of the way? And I think one way to do that is to make the parents the villains. I grew up with fabulous parents who I love and adore, but I have a friend who had horrible parents and it wasn’t their experience. I wanted to have my fantasy novel reflect real life events and how some relationships look. Obviously (in real life) her mother did not lie and send her out to a monster-filled wilderness like happens in Warrior, but there are these interesting parallels to these relationships that exist in the real world and I like to reflect those and the complexities of them in fantasy worlds. It gives us a fresh way to look at them.

AC: And it shows us that even if you have bad relationships in your families, you can still come out the other side. It doesn’t make you a lesser person.

SWS: Why is showing the process of character development so important, especially in YA? Lira and Rosmera change because they want to. In many fantasy novels, the woman changes for love. In To Kill and Kingdom and in Warrior of the Wild, Lira and Rosmera change because they want to, and love comes later and separately. Why is that important for girls especially, but boys as well, to see?

TL: I think it’s incredibly important for feminist fantasy that girls are reading about girls who are doing things because they want to and not for a man. We live in modern times and this is something we need to be talking about, especially to our teen readers who are growing up and learning from the books they read…

AC: I think Lira’s character actually came about because, in fantasy, in usual fairytales, women didn’t have agency; they just waited around to be rescued. It was their story but they didn’t do anything in their own story. They relied on other people. In the Little Mermaid (which inspired To Kill a Kingdom), in the end, she sacrifices herself completely for this guy who doesn’t even love her. I wanted to show a women who went out for what she wanted, who was ambitious, and who didn’t apologize for it. So often strong women in fantasy are seen as bossy or bitchy. Her character arc isn’t forgetting her goal…it’s about finding a new way…learning and adapting…not being stagnant. She doesn’t have to fit into a mold, she can do things her own way. It goes back to getting the parents out of the book. Once she’s away from that abusive and destructive relationship, she begins to discover who she actually is…you don’t need to be who people are telling you to be or who people expect you to be. You can be who you want to be and forge your own way. Fantasy is a really unique way of getting that message across without it being a flashing neon sign.

SWS: I don’t want to give away the ending, but it wasn’t what I expected…I was thrilled.

AC: I didn’t want it to be a traditional “they get married and walk into the sunset.” I wanted it to be “Lira and Elian still have their own plans for the future. They can still have those plans and do those plans. They don’t have to choose between X and Y, they can have both. Women can have everything.”

SWS: And Elian didn’t have to give up his plans either.

AC: Exactly! He didn’t have to fit into “what it means to be a man,” as well. He could choose his own family.

TL: I get told a lot that my women are “too confident,” and that makes them “unlikable.”

AC: Only women are “unlikable.” Men are “flawed.” Women have to be perfect and fit into the mold.

TL: Now I’m almost taking it as a compliment because if it were a man, they wouldn’t have a problem with it. Now, I’m like, good. If she’s unlikable at the beginning and I can make you like her, my job is done. She’s a full character. I just hope we get past that point.

SWS: In both books, the young women are a force for change. Talk to us about including that and why it’s important for young women to be seeing that, especially right now?

AC: It’s especially important for young people in America and across the world, with all the protests…it’s important to show young people that their voices can change the world, that their actions can make a difference, that they can have a voice and they should use it and they can use it, and they should not be afraid because they’re not alone. I think that’s really important because there’s always the person who starts the protest or starts the act for a specific thing, and if that one person doesn’t come forward, maybe no one else might. If you feel passionately about something and you want to change it and you can change it, it doesn’t matter if adults and men and X person tell you you can’t; you can and you shouldn’t feel confined by society telling you no. Because society gets it wrong a lot. Sometimes, society is fucking stupid and we shouldn’t say, “Oh, my little voice won’t make a difference,” because if we all said that, nothing would get done. I remember—I’m going to get this so wrong—I remember back in the UK when we had our elections, there’s the conservative government and the labour government…and lots of people were saying, “my vote doesn’t matter, why bother voting?” and in Kensington, which is always the most conservative borough of London, Labour actually won by like, two votes, two people. So if everyone said, “Oh, my voice doesn’t matter,” we would have lost that borough to the conservatives. So it’s important to show that every voice matters. If every single person says, “I’m going to stand up,” then you have an army behind you and then you have real change.

TL: I also really wanted to write a male-dominated society, because we are living in one.

AC: You mean the real world.

TL: (laughs) Yes, the real world. And then show how a girl can still make big changes in that kind of society. I would really, really like to see more women getting involved in politics and the sciences and all these fields. I want so many more voices in this male-dominated society, and it was so important to me Warrior have this girl who wasn’t a traditional beauty, who could step up into this traditional male role and embrace her feminine side but be part of a warrior society. Even when she failed, she didn’t give up. Even when she was cast out, she kept at it. I think it’s so important to show there are going to be bumpy roads, you’re not always going to win but if you keep at it, you will make a difference and things will change for the better. Even if it’s not in your lifetime, it will be down the road.

AC: Rosmera goes on to lead that society. Women become the leaders and change those societies.

TL: Also, it wasn’t Rosmera’s typical masculine qualities that came through for her in the end. I think it was her feminine qualities. Her intuitiveness, her ability to feel for the boys that were stuck out in the wilderness with her, to rally them, to inspire them. I feel those are feminine qualities, though my goal is to smash the barrier and let everything just be people qualities in the future—but if we’re talking about them in these terms, I think it’s important to note it’s not always physical brute strength that gets you where you need to be in the end, it’s your wits, you intuitiveness, your compassion.

AC: There are a lot of times in fantasy women are strong because they can murder people with a flick of their wrist, killer assassins. That was one of the reasons in To Kill a Kingdom, I started with Lira so (physically) powerful and then I stripped it all away, so she had to find the mental strength, the emotional strength, the strength of self, and learn from that…to show there are different ways of being strong and none are lesser than the other. They’re all equal.

SWS: What are you reading right now?

AC: I just finished reading WarriorThe Last Magician is the one I’m reading now and also Maggie Stiefvater put one on her IG lately…Something Wicked This Way Comes

TL: I just finished A Curse So Dark and Lonely. It was so good. I still have a book hangover from it. But I can’t say anything about it.

AC: I loved that one! I blurbed it. It’s my favorite ever Beauty and the Beast retelling.

SWS: What’s next for each of you?

AC: I have a new duology launching in October: Into the Crooked Place. It’s about four crooks who deal in magic and they’re murderers. Not very nice people. They discover their criminal leader has a really dangerous and dark plan that crosses the line for them, so these four crooked killers team up to save the world and destroy the leader.

TL: My book that comes out next year is also about murderers. They’re great people to write about.

I mean, I can’t do much better than that as a closing line, so: “murderers. They’re great people to write about.”


James Holzhauer, Jeopardy! Champion and Reading Superstar

“I plan to give some of my winnings to the local branches here in Las Vegas,” says James Holzhauer, who has been on a record-winning Jeopardy! streak this week. He set a single-game record on Wednesday, April 9, by winning an unbelievable $110,914.

The 34-year-old professional gambler from Las Vegas went on record with his game-play strategy, noting that it was utilizing children’s nonfiction books from the library that helped him bone up his knowledge quickly. Holzhauer, a Naperville, Illinois, native, told the local paper that his biggest secret for studying subjects he couldn’t get into was checking the children’s section, because the pictures and fun facts made getting the basics easier.

“When I first got serious about wanting to win on Jeopardy!, I thought I would finally read all those classic works of literature they always ask about. That plan lasted through one scene of Hamlet, before I fell asleep from boredom. Then I remembered how I recognized many classic works of literature—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “The Gift of the Magi,” Cyrano de Bergerac—because they had been adapted into TV shows and kids’ picture books,” he said in an email with Book Riot.

Holzhauer cited Mythology For Teens and Greek Mythology For Teens, both by Zachary Hamby, as two of his favorite books encountered using this strategy. “I ended up buying both and reading them for fun,” he added.

Family has been a huge part of Holzhauer’s strategy as well. He’s made wagers based on loved ones’ birthdates that have not only allowed him to send well-wishes and appreciation for them, but also have helped him walk away with bigger and bigger prizes at the end of the day.

They’ve also been part of his strategy, whether or not they’ve been onto it.

“At my peak I read around ten books a day to study and another ten to my own kid—she’s quite the bookworm,” he said, adding: “My daughter’s current favorite is Harry Potter, which I’ve never read until now. It’s not bad!”

It’s fitting his success and story emerged during National Library Week. As he stated above, he plans to make a donation to his local library system.

“My favorite library memories are playing Oregon Trail and Number Munchers on the Apple II. But doing preparation for Jeopardy! reminded me what an important resource libraries are for our communities.”

Despite what many might presume given his winning streak and his knowledge base—not to mention his studying strategy—Holzhauer wasn’t an especially diligent or invested student growing up. But one teacher stands out in his memory as making a lasting impact on him.

“I would skip reading assignments whenever I could get away with it. I do want to give a shout-out to my junior high math teacher, Suzanne Croco, who did the best she could with a student who clearly wasn’t interested in giving his full effort.”

Jeopardy! isn’t his first run on a television trivia game; he was also a contestant on The Chase. Between the two shows, it seems reasonable to assume that there’s been a question or two that haunted him, whether because he missed it or because he nailed it.

“Nothing haunts me,” he said, “although I did miss a question on The Chase about the development of the human fetus—with my pregnant wife in the audience.”

He couldn’t go on the record about his favorite answer, as that has yet to air.

Holzhauer doesn’t keep a nightstand, but his current bookshelf is anything but empty. “My bookshelf is stuffed to the gills with books on bridge and popular economics.”

As reading has become a bigger part of his life, it’s only natural he’s put some thinking into what authors he’d love to have dinner with and which author he’d want to team up with to form the ultimate trivia partnership.

“I would have dinner with Chuck Klosterman, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Michael Konik, who would all have enough stories to keep me entertained for hours. Chuck Klosterman would be my teammate at trivia, because I can’t imagine him whiffing on a pop culture question.”

And to answer the question on every book lover’s mind: “My favorite book is whatever my daughter picks out for bedtime. No prose can ever match the light in her eyes when she’s lost in a good story.”

Welcome to team book worm, James, and best of luck in the rest of your run. Maybe soon you’ll be publishing as many books as previous mega-champion Ken Jennings.

Need a Bisexual, Time Traveling Samurai? Alison Wilgus has a CHRONIN for That

As you are all no doubt aware at this point, it is my quest in life not to avoid comics by the Big Two but to curate a personal catalog in which I don’t depend on them for the majority of my books-with-pictures needs. There are only so many multiverses a girl can follow. And while I enjoy my monthly dose of capes, tights, and cowls, there is so much more out there. So many more stories to tell, so many different stories to tell about so many different things and people. So many different people telling them. One of those books is Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back by Alison Wilgus (Tor, 2019).

Chronin book coverI remember a sample of Chronin landing in my TBR pile back in January when, in the midst of a podcast-a-palooza, I was completely buried under stuff that had to be read by three days ago and, much to my present chagrin, I lost track of it. When the full book followed, however, and I had an opportunity to read the synopsis, I was immediately intrigued and sucked it into my eye-holes in two sittings (I think I had to go to work in between). This first volume of the story is many things: an adventure story, a sci-fi yarn, a romance, a survey of history and social change, a study of entitlement, and a meditation on finding one’s place in the world.

Y’all, it is magical.

I had a chance to talk to Alison about Chronin, some of her other projects, and what she’s reading at Emerald City Comic Con.

S.W. Sondheimer: You write both graphic novels and prose. Does your story dictate the form you choose or do you decide “I’m going to write a graphic novel” and then choose the story to suit the form?

Alison Wilgus: It depends on the context because sometimes I’m doing something for a reason. For instance, “I really feel like I need to be doing more short fiction so I’m going to write a short story,” and sometimes that will go great and sometimes I’ll write it and it won’t sell but I still really like the story. I’ll think, I just did this in the wrong format and I’ll take the guts of it and adapt it into something else. Or you get a little bit into it and then stop and think, “is this thing being served well by this medium? Is the art bringing something to this?” Or in prose, “Am I spending a lot of time describing something that would be visually arresting?” A graphic novel pitch I’m sending out was built around these big set piece moments and I realized, me trying to explain it to you (in words) was like me trying to explain a joke to you, it just wasn’t working.

SWS: Is it an advantage or a disadvantage that you can (and do) draw as well?

AW: When you’re drawing your own books, you can do weird things—especially someone like me who is relatively new in my career. I can draw fun ideas I have, I don’t have to convince someone else to do it. It also means that when I’m writing books for other people to draw, I can make better decisions about how to do it, especially things like page layouts. And I know what things are going to be hard, I know what things are going to be time intensive, and I’m not going to throw those things in there just for the sake of it being fun. When I draw, I always have moments of, “Well, that didn’t work,” or, “I sure did put too much text in that panel.” It makes me more flexible (when working with other artists).

SWS: Tell me where the interest in feudal Japan comes from.

AW: I’m gonna be square with you: I got really into Rurouni Kenshin  when I was in college. I watched the anime because my friends were watching it, and then my friends told me there was a filler season manga and I ended up reading it. I got it into my head to write this tragic, super elaborate fanfic about it. I did all of this research and didn’t end writing the fanfic but was like, “Oh, this is actually a really interesting period of history.” I ended up going backwards in time through the civil war in addition to researching the Meiji Era. It’s so rare, especially in modern history, to have these moments where an entire country changes radically in a couple of decades from the ground up.

SWS: What are some of your favorite nonfiction sources?

AW: There was a weird academic title called Motives in the Meiji Restoration that I read a few times. It’s not the best written book in the world, but I appreciated how it was very interested in the perspectives of normal people. We tend to focus more on these big personalities and feudal lords and samurai because it’s fun and pop culture, but there were also many, many, many normal people who also had opinions about the government and the structure of society, who were in the feudal system and were also participating in this and were going on pilgrimages and farming and having class mobility. I also read a lot of really big survey histories. I have a whole bookshelf.

SWS: It was interesting for me that Mirai feels displaced in both the modern and historical settings while Kuji feels that he has the right to correct history without regards to how it might affect the future. Talk to us a little bit about that dynamic.

AW: They both have this idea of the past and how it’s impacted them as people. You have to care very much about the past to be in this ridiculously prestigious time travel program. People kept asking me, “Who’s giving these college students access to time travel.” Kuji thinks of Mirai as romanticizing it—”You just like this pop culture, inaccurate version of it and that’s disrespectful,”—but she’s like, “Okay, but I know it’s just a manga. This is my outlet. This is my fun thing,” and she’s very aware there’s this remove between the actuality and this fun comic she’s reading, whereas I feel like Kuji is much less self-aware of how much he’s framing things in this very specific kind of way.

SWS: He’s like the “well-actually” dude.

AW: He’s also the “authenticity” guy. You can think because you’re closer to something you’re an authority. On one hand, yes, he was born in Japan, but I think in a way that makes him less self-aware about the ways in which he’s bringing modern perspective and assumptions and priorities to his relationship with history. He is also centering himself in it in a way Mirai is not. She solidly thinks of herself as being an outsider, whereas Kuji…is like the Running Wild guy: “I’m going to go in the woods and eat bears.”

SWS: And the trope in every sci-fi story that deals with time-travel…is you don’t mess with the timeline, and here he comes in and says, “I know better than the rest of you.”

AW: Everyone is the hero of their own story. He is so far up the ass of wanting to be a revolutionary and fight the civil war that he’s lost track of the fact he isn’t from there. He isn’t intentionally changing history, he’s just like, “Oh, this is bad, it would be better if we could do this other thing.” He’s disconnecting a little bit. He’s entitled, but he thinks he’s doing the right thing. In earlier versions of the story, he was the villain. In the finished version, he did some shit. He was a terrible boyfriend, but he’s an okay guy.  There’s some stuff that happens to him in Vol. 2 where some friends were like, “How dare you make me care about Kuji!” I love when friends are mad at me for making them care about stuff.

SWS: I didn’t realize that there was a social caste in Japan that’s similar to the untouchable caste in India. Let’s talk about the irony of Kuji ditching Mirai for what he thinks is a proper Japanese woman who turns out to be of this untouchable caste?

AW: It’s great because he would say he wouldn’t care, but Hatsu—there’s a reason she hasn’t told him. His parents would be horrified.

SWS: You’ve also done some science comics for kids (Flying Machines, Macmillan, 2017). Is your process different when you’re writing for adults vs kids or spec fiction vs nonfiction?

AW: The difference between adults and kids isn’t as big in comics as it is in books, because the context means you don’t have to be quite as aggressive about reading levels. The bigger difference for me is between nonfiction and fiction; I find nonfiction very difficult to write. I find fiction to be a medium of momentum: getting the engine of your story going and the engine will carry you. For nonfiction, that process, for me, never stops. Every single page of Flying Machines and The Mars Challenge, I love these books. They were never easy. There’s never that feeling of, “Today is going to be a five thousand word day,” because you can’t follow your instincts in the same way. It’s like a crossword puzzle in a way. The facts are what they are.

SWS: Chronin Vol. 2 comes out in mid-September. Do you have anything specific planned after that?

AW: I have a book that I’m pitching right now that would be a YA science fiction book that I hope can find a home. I’m working on it with my friend, Paula Kowalski—a genius. It’s a very straight forward day in the life teen story only with catastrophic space weather. I’m trying not to be the biggest cliché in the world, but I’m really trying to make time to work on my novel because I’ve been putting off working on it. Other things keep being bigger priorities. I’m going to try to do some short comics again to get back into the habit of doing that again.

SWS: Do you have any time to read?

AW: Not as much as I like, but I try to make time. I just finished reading the first book in The Queen’s Thief series for my cartoonist’s book club. I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels. I finally read On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden. I really hope it gets the Hugo nom. It’s very readable. I’m really looking forward to reading the next few books in Molly Ostertag’s Witch Boy series. And Cathy Johnson’s The Breakaways, about a group of girls who are very bad at soccer and very bad at being people. They get better at being people, though they don’t get better at soccer. It’s very intersectional and lets these girls be terrible, kind of a mess, lets them be jerks sometimes.

Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back is available now and Chronin Vol. 2: The Sword in Your Hand drops Sept. 10, 2019.

Editor’s Note: This interview was edited down for clarity and length.

The Kids are Alright: Young Heroes Lead in TIDEBREAKER and THE POLARSHIELD PROJECT

A lot of people are under the illusion that comics are for kids.

As an adult reader of comics, I’m here to tell you (again) that isn’t always the case. It is, in fact, frequently not the case. There is a large portion of my pull list and TPBs I try to make sure my kids don’t see and if they do happen to get ahold, well…let’s say they are quickly divested of the aforementioned.

The good news is that DC Zoom and DC Ink—the publisher’s middle grade and young adult imprints, respectively—are here to provide not only kid-and family-friendly content, but stories where young heroes such as Mera, Jonathan Kent, and Damian (excuse me, Ian) Wayne step up to take their places in the pantheon of heroes.

Adults aren’t the only ones who can change the world—real or literary—but we need to be reminded of that sometimes, and kids need to know it’s okay for them to speak up when something needs to be done and to take action themselves (though maybe not of the armored patrol and smoke bomb variety) if those in charge aren’t listening. Authors Danielle Paige and Ridley Pearson tell us a little bit about how they got into the minds of their young heroes in Mera: Tidebreaker (DC Ink) and Super Sons: The Polarshield Project (DC Zoom)

Mera Tidebreaker cover imageS.W. Sondheimer: How did you become involved with DC Ink? With the Mera project specifically?

Danielle Paige: Michele Wells reached out to me and we met for an epic dinner around BookCon almost two years ago. If there’s a such thing as editor insta-love, Michele and I had it. We did a deep dive into our love of the DCU and the then-recent Wonder Woman mega-release, and I walked away feeling thrilled to have met with DC but never really imagining I would get to write for DC, let alone be the launch title for DC Ink. I pitched a couple of ideas a few weeks later. The first one was Aquaman: A Whole New World, which is exactly what it sounds like, Aquaman as The Little Mermaid! Ultimately, we flipped the pitch and decided to tell Mera’s story instead. And I am so glad we did. I am so thrilled to get to tell Mera’s epic story.

SWS: Had you and Stephen (Byrne) worked together previously? How closely did you work while the project was in progress? Did you conference during the book’s creation or did send him the script for him to work on the art? Did you have an input into the layout or character designs?

DP:It’s funny, Stephen lives a continent away and we never met until the day we saw our ARCS. I wrote my script, and he performed the magic trick that only someone with his talent can do—he translated what I thought into something a million times more beautiful than what I had had in my head. And when I asked my editor if I could make Arthur look like a young Jason Momoa, DC complied and Stephen loosely modeled our Arthur off old Baywatch-era pics of Jason! And Stephen indulged me and we dressed Mera in a dress that I sketched first and Stephen made into something so much more.

SWS: How did writing for TV prepare you for writing a graphic novel? How did writing soap operas prepare you for writing an epic of love and royalty and politics like the one in which Arthur and Mera find themselves embroiled? 

DP: I wouldn’t be the writer that I am if it weren’t for my time on Guiding Light. I learned from day one how to write fast, but also how to write fantasy. Guiding Light meant writing for the mob one day, a princess the next, and a ghost the day after that. And sometimes all in the same day…and I had to figure out how to tackle all those kinds of stories and the characters that inhabited them. Making seemingly unbelievable things seem believable is at the core of all great fantasy writing, whether it be on screen or off. Also, soaps taught me so much about writing romance.

In some ways Mera is the purest romance that I’ve written since my soap days. Mera falls for Arthur, aka Aquaman, despite the fact that she has come to kill him. She has to choose between what she believes and what her heart is telling her, all while the fate of her people hangs in the balance. Heady stuff for anyone, but especially for a teenager.

Soaps and graphic novels also have the luxury of the screen and the panels on the page where you can show the audience the longing between two people without saying a single word.

SWS: What makes Mera a compelling character to write? Why is she compelling as the centerpiece for a young adult graphic novel? What would you like for young adult readers to take away from Tidebreaker?

DP: Mera’s a character torn between what she was raised to know and a new world where she has to make her own choices. And those choices are far from easy. I can’t think of a better metaphor for growing up. She’s figuring out who is she and what her place is in the world, and her heart plays a huge part in making those choices.

Mera is ultimately deciding what it means to be a hero in her own life—about who she is and who she loves. I want readers to know that they are capable of so much more than they ever imagined.

SWS: Are there any books or art you go to when you’re stuck or need writing inspiration? Any books about writing you enjoy? Movies or shows you watch when you need a jump start?

DP: My go-to books for writing are usually screenplay books. I love Syd Field’s The Foundations of Screenwriting and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. To me, screenplay structure helps me with plotting, and that gives me more room and time just to develop my characters.

And I completely believe in having a TV, and for it to be the reward after a day of writing! I am all about escape when it comes to my TV watching. I am so excited about the end of Game Of Thrones. I love the cat-and-mouse of Killing Eve, and I am such a fangirl for Riverdale. And Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol are my new DC faves. Also, The Perfectionists just started and it’s filling that place in my heart where Pretty Little Liars used to be.

SWS: What are you working on now? Any plans for more graphic novels? More projects for DC Ink?

I am just wrapping up my fairy godmother origin story for Bloomsbury. I actually had the idea even before I wrote Dorothy Must Die, so I am so excited to finally bring my fairy godmother to life. And I have a couple of ideas for DC that I hope to do in the future!

SWS: What are you reading now?

DP: Kim Ligget’s The Grace Year. I can’t wait for everyone to read it.

As to Super Sons: The Polarshield Project, Ridley Pearson says:

Super Sons: The Polarshield Project is my first graphic novel. It has been fun learning a new, more visual way to tell a story and to work with a great group of editors and an amazing illustrator (Ile Gonzalez).

DC Entertainment encouraged me to build a new world for the son of Superman and the son of Batmam. I was able to draw on my world building experience writing the Kingdom Keepers, and with Dave Barry, Peter and the Starcatchers. In Super Sons, I move our two heroes, Jon Kent and Ian (ed. note DO NOT CALL HIM DAMIAN) Wayne, out of Metropolis and into a city more like Chicago, in a new nation called Coleumbria. Here, our heroes and the population at large, attempt to survive climate disruption. The Super Sons face an evil force attempting to take control of the world’s climate.

As I started work on Super Sons: The Polarshield Project, I read about another fun fact: top scientists are dreaming up ways to screen the polar ice caps so they don’t melt as fast. It’s like putting an umbrella over the Arctic and Antarctica! In the novels I call it the Polarshield Project.

Pearson says he was actually recruited to write the Batfamily years ago:

At a book signing nearly ten years ago, a man left a business card and told me he wanted to discuss my possible involvement in writing the Batman comic books. I thought it was some sort of joke! While touring the DC offices for the Super Sons books, a man came out of an office and introduced himself as the guy who’d made that offer! I had thought it was too good to be true. Turns out, I should have trusted him!

Pearson’s personal Bat Legacy:

Many years ago, I met Adam West, who played Batman in the 1960s television series. We became friends, as did our wives. When Adam’s kids grew up, he gave me his jungle gym. We assembled it in our backyard and our kids grew up playing on Batman’s jungle gym!

If your kids grow up playing on Batman’s jungle gym, I have to think you have a pretty good handle on writing a comic book about his son. Though, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure how that lovely, campy, kind, chill ’60s version of Bats/Bruce would have handled Damien…or big bro Dick for that matter.

Regardless, if you’re looking for quality kid and teen comics content, look no further. My reluctant reader nine-year-old devoured Super Sons in under an hour and immediately asked me for more, which is proof directly from the target audience.

Mera: Tidebreaker by Danielle Paige and Stephen Byrne (DC Ink) and Super Sons: The Polarshield Project by Ridley Pearson and Ile Gonzalez (DC Zoom) both release on 4/2/19.