Christina “Steenz!” Stewart is an exceptionally broad-genre artist, writer and editor. Her graphic novel with Ivy Noelle Weir, Archival Quality (2018), won the 5th Annual Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics, and she’s now writing and drawing the daily strip comic Heart Of The City, that she took over original artist Mark Tatulli with his full blessing.
Apart from that, she is currently working as an editor in Mad Cave Studios, having experience editing in Lion Forge, and has self-published her minicomics like Receiving Transmissions or Encylopedia Brown and the Case of the Muscle Maker that you can get at her gumroad. You can follow her at @oheysteenz on Twitter and Instagram.
Comic Watch reporter Duna had the pleasure of chatting with her on May 18th for an in-depth interview about diversity in comics, LGBT+ themes from a writer, artist and editor’s perspectives and how cheerful stories keep us going in hard times, and the result is here!
Comic Watch: Hi Steenz! First of all, thank you so much for chatting with us! So, in Heart of The City, your daily project right now, you are touching themes like friendship, success, self-esteem, paranormal stuff, etc. with a very joyful and funny tone. What themes would you like to take on in the future of Heart of the City?
Steenz!: Thank you too! Well, in this strip, I definitely want to talk about friendship when you’re a young person. Middle school is a very hard time for a lot of kids, because you’re kind of growing up and who you were as a child might not be the same person you are when you’re a pre-teen. It’s kind of about change and becoming better people, but I also wanted to talk about gender and sexuality, because that sort of thing does start at this age, if not earlier.
So I definitively want to make sure that I cover those kinds of themes, but I also want it to be kind of a fantasy as well. While she lives in Philadelphia and she’s a growing young girl, she also has a wild imagination, and there are a lot of silly things that happen to her, that we can all kind of understand, even if it isn’t like heavy things. Fun stories about her wanting to have her ears pierced, or hosting her first party; all this kind of stuff, just new things that you do when you turn 11 or 12 years old. I think the things I want to talk about are change and growth.
CW: That sounds like great themes, and also, it’s really hard to find media in that format that explores gender and sexuality for kids.
S: Yeah, it is! I actually find that so many strip comics in the newspaper, they’re always talking about current events. Which is fine, because that’s kind of what strip comics are supposed to be. But sometimes I think that goes a little too far when all they’re talking about is current events, and I do think that we should have this sort of drama to these cartoons.
CW: Yeah it can also get tiring, cause you’re already seeing it out of the window. And you’re like “Oh, more of this”.
S: Yeah exactly! Like sometimes you don’t wanna deal with more of the same. You kind of want an escape, and I’d like to provide that for people.
CW: I have seen you’re introducing new characters as well. How is that process of designing those characters? What are your inspirations in your approach to expanding this universe?
S: So, when I first got the gig for Heart of The City, I was reading through many years of the strip, cause the comic has been going on since 1998, and I noticed even though she lives in a big city in the metro area, all of her friends were white. And I didn’t think that was, y’know, accurate for people who live in the city? Like she’s not even in the suburbs, she’s in-the-city!
So one of the first things I wanted to do was to create a cast of characters that are as diverse as the world around us. That’s where I wanted the realism to come in. She has friends who are black, she has friends who are mixed, she has friends who’re in combined families, where you have stepbrothers, and half-sisters. All that kind of stuff that people deal with in real life, and so I felt like that should be included in the worldbuilding of this new Heart of the City.
When I was designing this new character – Charlotte – I guess I just kind of though “who is somebody I would like to have seen when I was young”. Because when I was young I was reading comic strips as well, but a lot of the characters were either animals, or they were white kids, so I wanted to see more people who looked like me. So I decided to design a character who is a young black girl, who is weird, she’s got these strange idiosyncrasies, and she’s just a fun friend to have. And I want to make sure when young people read Heart of the City, they see that kind of character, so that when they come upon a person of color or someone who looks different than them, they’re not gonna be like “Oh whoa you’re so different”, they’re gonna think back to the books that they read and the media they consume, to understand that they’re just like everyone else.
I feel like that’s what media should do with that power. Heart of the City reaches 60 newspapers all over the world, that means these kinds of stories are gonna reach all kinds of people. So they shouldn’t be just the same kind of stories.
CW: I feel like there isn’t a lot of media for children that do that at all.
S: Yeah, I mean, that kind of reminds me there was this little girl who was making this book all on her own, because she was tired of all the books being about a white boy and his dog, and I’m like, holy cow, there really are a lot of books about that! But there are so many more stories to tell!
And I just hope with the ensemble cast in Heart of The City I’ll be able to tell lots of stories with lots of different kinds of people to show that all kinds of people have adventures.
CW: Now about your minicomic Receiving Transmissions, I really loved the mystery and like slice-of-life mixed with supernatural tone. Is there something fictional or non-fictional that inspired its creation?
S: So, I always wanted to show stories about queer characters that didn’t focus on just them being queer. I wanted to feel more normalized, the idea that you can have these two girls that live with each other and are in a relationship, but the focus of the story isn’t so much their romantic relationship, but their connection on a different level. Bringing in that supernatural element, that mystery, it shows that not all queer stories have to be about the trials of tribulations of being queer, it doesn’t have to be depressing.
CW: Yeah, like, we also have ok lives sometimes, not all is constantly a drama.
S: Yeah right? That’s kind of what it goes to what I was saying, that I want to show that all kinds of people have adventures. Like, this queer girl is getting all these mysterious letters, and she has to figure out where they’re coming from.
And that main idea came from this twitter account called @pitchbot, that takes random words, puts them together and kind of sparks your ideas for what to write about, and one of the tweets was “write a letter to a planet”. And I was like what?! And I thought, that could be a really cool story if this planet was actually writing to somebody. And maybe it’s not so much an actual planet, perhaps like a Sailor Scout, for a show that is similar to Sailor Moon, and maybe they’re real, keeping an eye on us, even when we don’t think anyone is within it. And that’s kinda where it came from.
CW: That’s an amazing spark! Another thing I liked a lot about this book is that it’s such a joyful minicomic. It shows a conflict that is interesting but still was very joyful and positive, and that’s really weird in stories with LGBT+ characters.
S: One of the things I want to do is make sure people walk away feeling grown as a person or learn something that’s gonna help us grow. I think no matter what those things are, we should feel happy that they happen and that we went through it. I think that’s where my inspiration comes from when I write any story, what’s a way someone can get through this tough time but come out in the other end feeling good about themselves or good about a relationship. I’m also one of those people that cries when something happy happens to somebody, or with commercials. So I personally just like stories with happy endings. The journey could be where the trouble lies, but, near the end, I think it’s important to remember that things do turn out ok.
Also, being a queer person myself, you always wanna show yourself in these stories. I’m bi, and even though I’m married to a man, that doesn’t erase who I am. And I want to show stories in which queer people can have a joyful ending. There’s so much out there where one dies, they’re not accepted by their family, they’re struggling with who they are… And while those are valid stories to tell, I wanted to make sure we get more than just that.
CW: Archival Quality, your comic with Ivy Noelle Weir, offers an in-depth look at mental health issues and history, and medical ethics. From a personal and mental illness-surviving experience, I really appreciated this comic and I loved that the style wasn’t very heavy, and that it complemented that heavy story with a detective-tone and cartoon-ish cheerful art style.
S: Yeah, I think that’s something that Ivy and I are just perfect for. A lot of her stories do touch on these heavy subjects, and focus on character growth. Meanwhile the kind of stories that I tell always have lightness, humor, cartoonish faces, very tangible life to it.
Combining the two is where Archival Quality really came from. Showing that even though you’re going through it, and having a hard time with any sort of mental illness you’re struggling with, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world around you is just as negative. Things will still make you laugh, people will still want to be around you, you still have to get up and get dressed every day, you can express yourself with your clothing and your hair and your make up, and it’s just like there’s so much more to our lives, that we have to remember to include that to not bring people down.
CW: Touching on the style of these characters, I understand you designed them from personality descriptors from Ivy, but no physical description. How was navigating that design process? And their style, their clothes, what it says about them? I especially loved Holly, and her wide range of style experimentation.
S: Because she didn’t give any description of what these characters look like, I thought this was a really great opportunity for me to make the characters all people of color, whether they are Samoan, mixed-race, a Black American… I brought these people in cause I wanted to show that we too can be part of a story that is scary and touches on mental health, and you don’t have to be white to have said adventure.
Also, I like to design characters based on people that I know, people I see on entertainment, family members, everyone is kind of an amalgamation of people that I know. With Holly, I definitively have the feeling that she’s the kind of person to play with her hairstyle, wear really cool clothes, especially considering she works as a librarian; business casual, but like with color. I took that thing of me and my twin sisters, she has too many hair wigs, and I like to make sure my fashion is interesting, cause I feel like it’s an art.
CW: I think it shows in your design that you think dressing is an art. Cause they change clothes and express themselves through clothes a lot.
S: I mean, what people wear shows who they are, that comes back to me wanting to bring that reality of comics, you wear certain clothes to when you’re home by yourself, you wear certain clothes when you want to impress somebody.
There’s some situation where that’s just a lot of work, like for Heart of the City, cause it’s a daily comic. But in something like a graphic novel, I want to bring that aspect of the characters so they feel recognizable, cause there I have that opportunity to give them so much more.
CW: I’m also forever amazed by the design of the places, the museum itself, the Board room, and also the creative decisions like the change of backgrounds in a page switch. I understand some of that design comes from both of you working as librarians. How were the decisions of placement design?
S: So, for the Logan Museum, I was very inspired when I went to the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia, and took some photos there. That’s the museum where Ivy actually worked when she was an archivist, so this is very much based on her life.
When it came to the design of the Board room, that one Ivy actually had a pretty good description, but I was also trying to give a feeling of… So do you remember the movie Beauty and the Beast, when Belle goes to the library for the first time and there’s just a lot of books? That’s what I wanted to give the feeling for but instead of books, painting and things to fill the space.
And then, some panel design ideas, like to do that thing where you turn the page and she’s in the psychiatric hospital in the past, that just came up to me that I could actually use the turn of page effect and the art, rather than just the narrative, to really show Celeste was literally transported.
CW: And, apart from these, are you working on other creative projects right now?
S: Yes I am! I’ll be working on a book called Side Quest. It’s gonna be a graphic novel history of tabletop role-playing games, with my co-creator Sam Sattin on it, and we’re gonna talk about how tabletop RPGs have changed and grown from their conception to modern games today.
CW: You also work as an editor. I’m especially interested in how you view editing and getting to publish/pitching LGBT+ stories and the kind of challenges one faces.
S: As an editor, I work with people to solidify their stories, including pitches, project management, editing story and art… Right now I work for Mad Cave Studios. In that editorial process, I work with the writer and the artist, making sure that it follows through and scheduling it.
I also work as a writing editor. There are so many writers with really great stories, and the best part of editing for me is I work with the writer, as kind of a team, to get the proper feeling to the reader. I love doing that, and I think that’s really helpful for me as a creator, cause I can look that same way at my stories, and vice versa, cause, as an artist, I’m very conscious of the time needed by artists to get across a certain project. I really think everyone should have their own editor, to have a fresh pair of eyes.
When you pitch a story, for example, a LGBT+ story, I think the first thing you gotta remember is, this is your story. And while you’re trying to get it picked up by a publisher, don’t allow them to change your story so much that it no longer feels like yours. Cause I’ve pitched comics before and I’ve gone through the process of showing it to an editor, and they’re not a hundred percent understanding of what the project is, and just because they might want you to change it, and say “we can give you this book deal if you do this this and this”, and while I think it’s cool to get a book deal, I think it’s more important to stand your ground when it comes to what your story is.
On the other hand, also be open to the idea of just making it more effective. I think a lot of creators are very precious about their work, and that happens, but I also think more writers should understand comics is a team sport, and not everything you put on paper is gonna be perfect the first time you write it. While you need to stick to your guns, you’re also gonna have to listen to other people when they’re giving you good advice.
When it comes to telling LGBT+ stories, I usually just say tell a story that you wish you’d read when you were younger. And tell stories that you know. If you try to write about someone else’s identity, ask why you’re trying to do that, or write about your own identity, your own experiences, cause that’s what people want to read, they want to feel like they can see kind of inside your head. Make sure to write what you know and write what speaks to you.
CW: Now I wanna ask your favorite comics by LGBT+ authors, can be current, things you consider classics..
S: I feel like Mariko Tamaki’s stories, even if they’re heavily fantastical, just feels so real, like they touch a part of people’s lives that not so many people talk about. I really love Laura Deen Keeps Breaking Up With Me and her She-Hulk run. Also her collaboration with her cousin Jillian Tamaki, This One Summer, who’s a story about two pre-teens, an age I feel like there’s very few stories about and interests me a lot.
And Generations, by Flavia Biondi, is about this young man who comes back home after college because he just broke up with his boyfriend, he ends up staying in this house surrounded by these strong women, who help him get an idea of who he is as a person. And the story is about him trying to find out when to come out to his father. And one of the things I love about this book is it does the thing we were talking about earlier, where it doesn’t end sadly. There are things that are sad in the book, but it ends up with family crawling around you and supporting you, which is a thing that you don’t see a lot in stories focusing on queer people.
CW: A fandom question I feel the personal need to ask, I’m like the Biggest Magik Fan Ever and I see you draw her a lot, and her with Kitty! And she’s been a kind of icon for a lot of queer girls online (as well as a mental health icon), like myself, and yet still they won’t make it explicit canon, and I just want to know how you feel with that.
S: Okay, on one hand, I’m really happy that people are seeing that she definitively is queer, even though it’s like a “well-known secret” and it’s not super explicitly said or “canon”. But I do think it would be good for people to actually hear it from Magik herself. And be like “yes, Kitty and I have a relationship”. I feel like we all been wanting that and we all know it’s true.
I also feel like when you’re working with established intellectual property, and it’s a corporation, and it’s a business, and there are certain limitations, and for some time it even was explicitly forbidden. I do feel, in 2020, most of those barriers have been taken down, and they can do more, so we should definitively get that.
CW: And last, thank you very much for the interview! And since we’re doing it for Pride, how do you feel about Pride digitally happening this year?
S: Thank you as well! Well, on one hand, obviously Pride is a protest, part of it is a parade, but it’s also about remembering what we’re fighting for. I think in this time, when it’s not safe to be around a lot of people, it’s totally fine for it to be digital. If anything, it’s a help, cause it shows it to people who would not normally be able to go to Pride.
That’s one of the things I like about things being digital at all, it’s the fact that it is making the world a lot smaller. I live right in the middle of nowhere, in the United States, and… are you currently in Spain?
CW: Yes I’m in Spain as we’re talking!
S: So we’re talking to each other in completely different parts of the world, and talking to each other about some things we both super agree on. I like that part about making things digital, and I look forward to people being able to see they’re not alone, and to feel recognized and connected with other people like them.
Comic Watch Pride: Stories To Grow And Rejoice, An Interview with Steenz!
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