Hi Gutter Talk fans! This week, we’re mixing it up a little bit. So, in the last edition I wrote about a comic I’ve been loving – Blade Maidens – written by Zoe Tunnell with art by Valentine M Smith. Today, I bring you an interview I did with them over Zoom late on a Sunday evening. We went long, but it was really fun and fascinating to talk with the two of them about process, their relationship to each other, and which X-Men character made us gay. It was a really great peek at a labor built of so much love, which you can read on every page of the comic.
There’s no Pull List from me this week just as this is already a long interview! But next Gutter Talk, I and the Pull List will return.
Here’s my chat with Zoe Tunnell and Valentine M. Smith.
Niko: Who had the first idea for what ultimately became Blade Maidens?
Valentine: I think it was a mutual decision. It was, okay, if we were going to spend time making comics together what would we want that to be? What genre would we want to make it? And then went from there. We both talked about the fantasy and building off of that and what things we wished existed in that realm that we could play with and make super gay.
Zoe: Just so gay. I remember we made the decision to do our own thing because we were doing those X-Men fan comics, and they’re fun, and I still like them. But we were like we have a good rhythm, we work well together. Do we want to do our own thing?
They’ve come up in two different interviews now, and I’m so angry because I truly wish I knew the artist because I want to credit them. There was some art on Twitter of a princess being saved by a night and being like, “Oh, good sir, thank you.” And the knight takes off the helmet, and it’s a butch lady. And the princess is just like, “Oh, damn.” That made me go like, “Oh, fantasy.”
Valentine: I just like fucking swords.
I feel like this eventually became the template for how we work where we start very vague and then we hone in on what exactly we want to go toward. We figured it was fantasy, and then we figured out it was a princess and mercenary scenario. And then they team up, and it’s opposites attract. And then what if we added werewolves? What if though?
Niko: How did each of you get into comics? Tell me your comic origin story.
Zoe: Mine is weird because it doesn’t track at all to where I’ve ended up. I got into comics when I was a teen. I didn’t have anyone who led me there or a relative who got me. Weirdly, of all the things, it was that really campy, not great Fantastic Four movie.
I was visiting family in New York, and there were ads everywhere, and I was just like, “Maybe I’ll read a comic book about them.” And I bought the first comic of Ultimate Fantastic Four. And then I became an Ultimate Universe baby because I was a teen in the early, mid-2000s. That’s the target audience for the Ultimate Universe.
And then from there, I just started reading comics, and I never ever stopped.
Valentine: My dad was actually a collector. Specifically, he collected Avengers and other DC/Marvel titles. He was always collecting the X-Men. So, I grew up reading a lot of his stuff. When he saw I was interested in it, I was allowed to have those before bed.
Because I wasn’t reading current comics at the time in the 90s — I was reading the comics from the 70s and 80s — so I had missed a lot of the 90s comics still and early 2000s because I was reading the stuff that he had. And then I picked it up on my own later again, but that’s where it started. And much like a lot of people in comics who come and go, that happened to me too where I was in it for a while, then I was out, then I picked one up again, and now I’m really far back in.
Niko: Did you have headcanons where you were headcanoning characters together? Who was your first? What was your entry into headcanoning especially with X-Men because I feel like there’s so much in that?
I just like fucking swords.
Valentine: I feel like I know for me it’s… Oh, man.
Zoe: We have so many. This is literally how we got started.
Zoe: Sage and… Say it.
Niko: Sage and?
Valentine: I will never. I have a lot of different feelings about Sage than most people have about Sage, and I have a lot of thoughts about Sage and Emma in particular. I will admit to that, okay?
Niko: What about the two of them? I need to know more.
Zoe: Oh, Niko, I hope you got three hours cleared out.
Valentine: This is the 3 a.m. rant.
Niko: I do. I got nothing but time. Fill me in.
Valentine: Well, listen, I feel like I am very drawn to the characters who don’t have certain parts of their stories so fleshed out yet. So, I feel like for Sage, what originally drew me to her was growing up in that specific era of X-Men, she was in the Hellfire Club, and she was Shaw’s assistant, and that’s all she was. And then it turns out she’s been double-agenting everything the whole time and feeding information back to Xavier. She was supposedly originally the first X-Man.
And then [she] got brought in in X-Treme X-Men in 2001, that was when I started collecting as a wee baby, getting one book a month, and it was that book. Picking up there, she’s on the team and everything. So, it’s like we have glimpses and little notes of information of what was going on at the Hellfire Club. But we don’t know everything, and I want to talk about it, I want to explore it. What’s going on? What does she have to do? Who are her friends?
Niko: It’s perfect. I was obsessed with the Hellfire Club when I was a kid because it was like, “Obviously, we know what really goes on here.” It’s like you don’t go to work dressed in a corset for 12 hours if you’re not preparing to have a good time while you’re there.
Zoe: My headcanon is far less headcanon and is just an inch away from textual. It’s Kate Pryde and Illyana Rasputin. I actually have this lovely tattoo drawn by one Valentine M. Smith, and they are actually super important to me personally because they helped me figure out I’m trans.
The year before I came out, I did a big… I was like my biggest blind spot in comics is I haven’t read the Claremont run. I should read the Claremont era, just start at the beginning, and go through. And so, I spent a year doing that, and one of my things going in was whenever people were talking about how Kate is queer, and Kate is with Illyana, I was always that shitty fan who’d be like, “You’re just reading into it. No, she’s with Colossus. Don’t.”
I got to New Mutants and got to the Kate Illyana stuff and went, “Oh, these girls are gay as hell. These girls are so gay.” And went, “Well, shit, I’ve been so adamant about that for years, what else am I wrong about?” And that made me start thinking about, “Okay, what are some things I’ve really stood by that I’m…” And then three to six months later, I was out.
Valentine: You were like, “Damn.”
Niko: Yeah, if you could be wrong about Kate and Colossus, then-
Zoe: Yeah, it turns out I’m wrong about my gender.
Valentine: I don’t know if I’ve ever explicitly said it anywhere before, but it is very true. Jean Grey made me gay.
Niko: I mean it’s like those Magneto Was Right shirts. You just replace that with Jean Grey Made Me Gay. Okay, so to move back into Blade Maidens then. You wanted to move into fantasy. Were you kicking other genres around at first?
Zoe: We pretty much narrowed in on Blade Maidens really quickly.
Niko: Was it just like, “How can we do sword lesbians?”
Valentine: Sort of.
Zoe: I mean, you’re not wrong.
Valentine: I feel like the way that we were thinking of fantasy and the way we wanted to go, especially fantasy romance in that kind of path, it catered to a lot of the kind of story that we really wanted to tell, and that we were interested in. So, it was like we get to have monster of the weeks, we get to have big fight scenes, we get to have character drama, we get to have a slow-burn romance. We can do all this stuff and play with the tropes that are traditional in the genre. And then also pick them apart and do how we want to do them and see what happens.
Zoe: I just finished Rings of Power today. I think that’s a great show. But seeing such a capital H, High fantasy show and being like meanwhile we’re out here during our punk rock… We’ve got Zippo lighters and werewolves in black lace, and just this butch with a buzzcut and a sword.
Having fun, being able to be like, “Yes, we are very clearly a fantasy story.” But we don’t feel beholden to being a very common definition of what fantasy is.
Valentine: When I was doing the visuals for it originally, I was like, I don’t want to feel like I have to stick to the way things are done before. It’s going to take some trial and error, and Zoe and I were both up for that. We’re going to maybe play with a little bit of punk rock and that kind of aesthetic because that’s what I enjoy.
And there’s no reason it can’t be that, and especially if we’re doing it ourselves. There’s no one telling us, “No, it can’t look like this,” or, “It doesn’t fit.” We can just go ahead and do it and see if it works, and isn’t it exciting when it does?
Zoe: We had a fun moment just on the most recent page that came out where Mel is lighting a cigarette and Valentine was trying to crack how to have the match and not have it just vanish her. And then she just went, “What if she just has a fucking lighter?”
Valentine: I was like, “Hold on a second.”
Zoe: There’s no reason she can’t have a lighter.
Valentine: This was my exact text. I was like, “I was going to do a match, but a lighter is a simple machine. It is flint, and it is being struck.”
Zoe: And then I immediately went, when was the first lighter? It was like 1100 AD, and I’m like, “Cool, great. Yeah, we’re fine. Go for it.”
Valentine: We know that Mel smokes and has a pipe. I thought it would be funny if she was smoking and digging through the ground with her hands to get her stuff.
Zoe: At the same time.
Valentine: And Zoe went, “This is hilarious and true to character. Why isn’t she smoking in all the panels?” And I was like, “You got me there.”
Zoe: Mel Havensbrook knows how to keep a cigarette in her fucking mouth.
Valentine: That’s how we came up with the “cigarettes are for business and pipe is for pleasure” character distinction on Melody Havensbrook.
Niko: Which, by the way, is also a T-shirt, I feel like.
Zoe: I wrote that down. I had it on one of these notes by my desk.
Niko: It’s interesting that you said, “We’re doing this punk rock version of it.” Because fantasy is this thing that in theory is like an open-ended genre that always feels rigidly tied to certain norms like, “Oh, we’re doing a Tolkien fantasy,” so everything has to be rooted in that world or it’s a D&D pastiche or whatever.
Punk rock is the same thing a lot where it’s like punk rock, especially when I was growing up in the late ’80s and the early ’90s, it’s this anarchistic thing, but also, it’s very rigidly defined by a set of rules. And it’s interesting how hard it is to break out of that. It feels like a conscious decision in this story of, “We are doing fantasy, but we are very clearly writing our own rules.” How much of that did you have to lay out before you started?
Zoe: We did lay out a lot before we got started on The Hunt. We have frequent calls where we’ll either have an order of business like, “Hey, let’s review this script,” go through, punch up some dialogue. Or we have this story we want to work out a plot or figure out what happens.
But other times we’re just like, “Cool, let’s chat shit…” And that’s how we get stuff like the pantheon of Telos. We did have a few rules. I remember really early on, we were like we don’t want this to be dungeons and dragons or Tolkien where it’s like the elves live over here and they don’t like the dwarves. Everyone lives everywhere. It’s not a racially divided culture. This country has a different culture. Everyone’s all over the place. Don’t worry about D&D like “all orcs are barbarians and live in the mountains.” Get out of here, we’re good.
Valentine: Yeah, we made that distinction really early on so that when I could do my group scenes and stuff that I could sprinkle in literally anybody doing anything at any time.
Niko: That’s great. I love that. It feels more divided on social class.
Zoe: Social class is probably the biggest divide we’ve got. One of the biggest things of Rowan’s character is her coming to terms with realizing just how privileged she has been and continues to be.
Valentine: And I think especially when we were establishing places with stuff, and we were establishing cultures, it was based on the place and the temperament of the climate and things like that.
Niko: How important was it to have a trans character in there?
Zoe: Very important.
Valentine: That was from the pitch. When we were coming up with it, we wanted to do fantasy, we wanted to have a trans main character, and we wanted to have a gender-shrug butch lesbian. That was what we were working with, and then everything else we could work on after the fact.
Zoe: Rowan’s story, for me, was super important because we both really wanted to tell a trans character’s story that wasn’t built around trauma or coming out or abuse. There are lots of very powerful important trans stories that do deal in those, but they’re also the overwhelming majority of all trans stories. So, we wanted to have Rowan be like, “Yes, I am trans. Yes, there are certain obstacles I face, but the important part is I am who I am.” That is Rowan’s journey.
Niko: There was a little moment in one of the stories where Rowan loses her hat in a tussle or something like that, and I was just like… I don’t know why I zeroed in on that in my head, but I love that her biggest concern in all of this is something aesthetic that feels like it defines her.
Zoe: Can we talk about the Ser and Rowan hair thing?
Valentine: Absolutely, let’s get into it.
Zoe: Okay, great. So, Ser doesn’t care about her hair at all.
Zoe: Their hair is just their hair. It’ll grow for a while, and then they’ll go, “Okay, cool.” And just get rid of all of it. Rowan is meticulous with her hair because it is such an important part of her presentation, of who she is. Constantly changing colors, constantly… She’s up an hour early in camp combing through her hair because that is something that brings her comfort.
It’s the same with me. For as frizzy and tangled as my hair is, it’s super important to me and they’re both non-cis. They are both gnc folks. For Ser, the aesthetics are more in their muscles, their tattoos, their scars. Just being like, “This is my life. I wear the life I lived.” And for Rowan, it’s very like, “This is the image I feel comfortable being in the world.”
Valentine: Specifically with Ser, I remember talking to you about if we were going to do a butch lesbian character, how I felt that sometimes there wasn’t a lot of butch lesbians with longer hair represented here. I typically skew more that way, but I have longer hair, and I’ve always liked having that, and I thought it would be interesting to have Ser grow their hair out. And then be like, “Okay, I can have it short again, or I can have it long, but I’m still Ser.”
Niko: I’m glad you mentioned the hair thing because that was a note I made. I was reading through it all again last night, and it is something that I noticed because it’s a thing that I feel too with my own. It’s these simple things. That idea of either you’re wearing the life that you have lived, scars and all, or you’re finally able to choose to wear the life that you want, and what does that look like?
I don’t know if I’ve ever explicitly said it anywhere before, but it is very true. Jean Grey made me gay.
Niko: I had written a thing about Saga because I was just like, “I don’t like the character of Petrichor.” So much of Blade Maidens for me was just, “Oh, this is finally like I’m reading a story that I could see myself in, that I also would trust that it’s being told by someone that also understands the same feeling, and it’s so rare.” How many other science fiction/fantasy/whatever books can we even say that about?
Valentine: Yeah, exactly.
Zoe: Yeah, like Jadzia Axelrod and Jess Taylor just had Galaxy: The Prettiest Star come out this year, which having a whole graphic novel written by a trans woman dealing in trans experiences with a queer artist, that made me go, “Oh, that’s a pretty wonderful thing to have happened.”
Niko: So, I’m curious about the writing of the scene where Rowan explains her transness in that way, which is really beautifully done because it’s not overwrought and it doesn’t hit you over the head with it.
The world that they exist in lives in such a way that she can do it the way she did, which is relatively easy. What was that process like for you to write? I don’t know your own coming-out story, but I’m just thinking of getting to process a different kind of thing.
Zoe: It was easy in some ways and hard in others. As I finish a page of script, I send it to Valentine. I don’t wait until the script is done. We go page by page, if something’s really off, Valentine will be like, “Hey, flag this, we might need to work on this.”
Valentine: We co-edit, and we co-pitch lines.
Zoe: I went through a few revisions of that scene, but just because there’s a specific type of moment that I really don’t like in media, which is when the I’m Trans moment hits. Where it’s a very… a character is always like, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m transgender.”
It’s just like no fucking trans person I’ve ever met. The only person I ever did anything like that is when I first came out to my ex, and that was the first person I came out to in person. That’s a very singular experience, that moment in time.
But for someone like Rowan, she’s been living as a trans woman for years. She transitioned when she was younger, and I think it felt very important to have a scene that wasn’t dealing in vagueties. It wasn’t like, “Oh, is she saying she’s trans? I can’t…” but also isn’t going like, “I am trans. Here is my tragic backstory.”
From my own experience, I have been pretty lucky as a trans woman. Well, my parents are dead, first off, so I didn’t have to deal with that shit. But second-
Niko: Exactly the sentence I expected to follow, “I’ve been very lucky”
Valentine: I love it, so you’re like, “I never had to deal with this.”
Zoe: Yeah, I never had to deal with that mess. That would have been a fucking nightmare.
But I’ve run into difficulties. I got fired from a job for reasons that were not explicitly, “We didn’t want a trans lady working the front desk,” but were pretty much that. I deal with a lot of shit on social media like any semi-visible trans person, but also, I’ve had a good support network. I have friends… Some of my family is very supportive. I was able to get top surgery. I’ve been very privileged in my trans journey and telling Rowan’s story where she’s also been very privileged but faced challenges I didn’t.
No one has said, “Hey, Zoe, turn it down a little bit. Stop being so Zoe.” Having a trans character whose story isn’t based around that she’s not allowed to be trans, she’s not allowed to be the type of woman she wants to be, felt like something that hasn’t been done very much and would probably resonate for a lot of people because I know that was a fear I had. I was worried that people would tell me, “No, you can’t… Put those tits away, get out of here.” Shit like that.
So, it was very important to me that we work from an angle that felt very true, but also wasn’t the same, “I was trans and my parents said no and made me wear pants.”
Valentine: Rowan’s like, “Please give me the pants. I just want to go outside in the tree.”
Zoe: Yeah, I just want to go outside and climb a tree. I’ll happily wear pants. Do you know how hard it is to climb a tree in a skirt? It’s fine.
Niko: I thought it was really interesting that she has a name of succession but still chooses her own name. That was such an interesting spot for me.
Zoe: That was a very big choice for both of us. We were like, “We don’t want homophobia and transphobia to be a thing in Telos.” It is not existent in that world, which doesn’t mean that queer people won’t face challenges, but there’s not that institutionalized bigotry.
And so, we were like, “Well, wouldn’t it be fun?” Because if she had a name that wasn’t really a dead name. Lysithea is not a dead name to her. By the way, we don’t know Rowan’s dead name. We’re never going to come up with Rowan’s dead name.
Valentine: We’re never going to know.
Zoe: But Lysithea isn’t a dead name to her because it was given out kindness, it was given out love, it was given out of support. And it wasn’t her, but it’s not a name she associates trauma with. It’s just a name that didn’t fit.
Valentine: Yeah, it’s in one of the supplemental, on one of those pages on there where she talks about having a naming ceremony.
Zoe: Anytime I get to write a Rowan journal entry, I’m happy.
Niko: Those things are so great too. I mean there’s so much world-building going on. It’s impressive.
Valentine: We have a bunch of joint Google Docs, and then I have a giant notebook, and then I have another Google Doc. We jot anything down in there, so we don’t forget it, and … there’s names of months, and then there’s intense character lore back-to-back.
Zoe: No, organization, utter chaos.
Niko: My intro to the story is definitely through Ser and Rowan, and then as soon as Mel entered the story, I was like, “Oh, okay. This is interesting. This is an incredibly fun fascination.”
Valentine: So, before we wrote The Hunt, I did these pinups as an additional step because it’s fun to see these characters and get a feel for them when you’re not inside the story. And then I like werewolves, so I drew a werewolf on Rowan’s, and then an hour later, I was like, “Zoe, what if we made a werewolf? Can we please have a werewolf?”
Zoe: Yeah, Valentine will go like, “Okay, can we have a werewolf?” And I go, “Okay, what’s an angle we can work on a werewolf? Ooh, what if she was a bard?”
Valentine: I immediately signed off on it. I’m like, “We’re doing it.” We had a whole other story, for story two, and that was completely thrown out and started it on Strays. Because that was the other thing too is that when we were working on this, we were originally like, “Okay, this is Ser and Rowan, and we’re following them, and we’re going to see what they get up to, and all that stuff.”
And then immediately, when we got in the werewolf angle and started talking about it from there, it became, “Oh no, this isn’t like a plain duo story. This is a group ensemble that we can have a lot of fun with and introduce more people.”
Niko: Because of the design of the characters, I’m assuming you workshopped that together. Or was it just like, Valentine, did you just have an idea of, “Oh, this is what I think Ser and Rowan look like”?
Valentine: When we’re talking about these characters and we’re talking about these stories, we talk about how we see them in more vague tones. Okay, we also know everybody’s heights. I feel like that’s the one thing we zero in on.
Zoe: Heights and proclivities in the bedroom. Those are two things we zero in on real quick.
Valentine: And then everything else falls into place after that because we knew that Rowan was going to be taller than Ser. And we knew that Ser was going to be more muscular, and Rowan was going to be a little bit thinner and gain muscle over time as she fights physically more and more. With Mel, we knew that Mel was going to be shorter and slightly older than the two of them to give them a dynamic of, “Oh God, how are these two more together than I am in life.”
Valentine: Well, Eldy. Eldy, we knew was going to be a short king.
Zoe: Yeah, I love him.
Valentine: And we knew he was going to be… I don’t want to say too much about him, but we knew that he has a little bit of a Southern drawl and he’s a very sweet boy. One of his main things is that he’s a monk, but he always wears a vest that shows off his top surgery scars.
We make a list of the things we like and really want to go into the character, and then I just get to have fun after that.
Zoe: Usually, whenever Valentine sends a character design, I’m just like, “Fucking perfect, great, awesome. No notes, it’s great.” We only had one conflict.
Valentine: Say it.
Zoe: It was right at the beginning, the big hat.
Valentine: What was it, Zoe?
Zoe: It was the big hat.
Valentine: It was Rowan’s big hat.
Zoe: You told me when you were designing it, it looked like a sun hat. It looked like-
Valentine: It did not. It never looked like a sun hat.
Zoe: We had our traveling sword-wielding wizard in a sun hat. That was just like, “Absolutely not. No.”
Valentine: I didn’t send a picture though, and then the minute I sent a picture, you were like, “That’s not a sun hat.” And I was like, “No, it wasn’t a sun hat.”
Zoe: You were describing it like a sun hat, and I was terrified.
Valentine: Yeah, I’m bad at it. It’s fine.
Niko: I’m picturing a trans Gandalf in my head now.
Valentine: Trandalf, yeah.
Niko: Which honestly, I’m surprised isn’t a thing.
Zoe: That’s someone’s burlesque routine.
Valentine: Let’s meet her.
Niko: Right now, there’s some weird community theater burlesque Tolkien revisionist thing happening.
Valentine: I want to go to it.
Niko: I want to see that.
Valentine: Yeah. I think the other thing too is that I feel like-
Zoe: J. R. R. Tucking.
Valentine: Zoe, that’s amazing. Fuck. Goddammit.
Niko: That is really good.
Valentine: Fuck, now we’re never going to get back on track.
Niko: Just turn the interview off after that.
Valentine: It’s fine, we’re done. This is it.
Niko: That’s the last line. Yeah, that’s right. We’re out.
Valentine: What I was going to say is that I have a lot of tattoos. I would like to see someone like me in a comic book. I was like, “They’re going to have tattoos.” There was no opposition.
Zoe: Yeah, as someone who wants a million tattoos and just has not been able to financially accommodate that desire.
Valentine: Yeah, and of course, I understand that sometimes people don’t want to put that on the artist like keep track of a million tattoos. I feel like it’s work, but it’s not that much work than it is doing any other detail thing. I feel like I will put in an extra five seconds to get my tattoos right, you know what I mean? It’s like it was a thing that we were going to implement from the beginning, and I really wanted it to be a thing.
Zoe: So, Eldridge, the character who will be joining the ensemble, we revealed him on our Twitter account, but he hasn’t shown up yet. He’s the next character who joins the group after Mel. We were always like … He’s a Monday of the Twin Fists, which means he worships twin goddesses of combat. So, one sleeve is for one goddess, the other sleeve is the other goddess.
And then Valentine was like, “Cool, I’m going to go crazy on these sleeves.” I was just like, “Okay, sure.” And when they finally sent me the Eldy designs, I was just like, “If you want to do that to yourself, fine, but holy shit.”
Valentine: But I feel like there’s part of designing tattoos for the body too, especially on Eldridge. There are ways that you can cheat and make it simpler. His sleeves are one full figure.
So, on one arm, it’s waves, and on the other arm, it’s rocky volcanic stuff. So, it’s a scene, but you can be vague about it and still understand what’s going on there because it’s really small in the panel. And in addition, as it wraps on the arms, the way I have it, just knowing how things are supposed to wrap through doing tattoo design and stuff, you can cater that in there and make it look good, so it looks like somebody knew what they were doing when they were doing it, in-universe. I’m playing the tattoo artist in the universe of a made-up land that we made up one night.
Niko: I just appreciate how much it really speaks to how well the two of you have done this world because everybody has a lot of swagger in their own individual ways. Which is like that comes from knowing yourself. So much of this feels like it is a comic about really knowing yourself or figuring yourself out and that confidence in knowing.
Valentine: The way that Ser wears something is not the way that Mel’s going to wear something, is not the thing that Rowan’s going to wear. Because Ser will wear anything that’s functional. Mel woke up naked as a werewolf and needs something to wear, and Rowan won’t touch it because it doesn’t show off her boobs the right way.
Ser is used to making things that they need out of anything they can get their hands on.
Zoe: Before Rowan showed up, Ser was on their own for a while, so having this stability and like, “Oh, there’s another person I can rely on,” is new for her.
Valentine: Yeah, not having to make dinner every night, what is that?
Niko: So much of it feels like they are learning how to rely on somebody else in a totally different way. Building that idea of somebody’s always got your back.
A lot of queer and trans people I know do have to learn to how to trust somebody in that way. Trust that somebody has your back without having to really overtly say it.
This is a thing I’m always curious about with fiction, because everything I write is non. With doing so much work creating these characters and figuring all these aspects of them out.Has that process helped the two of you individually or together figure yourselves out in any new way?
Zoe: I mean yeah, with us, our working relationship is I think a lot of comic co-creators, people who work together-
I’m playing the tattoo artist in the universe of a made-up land that we made up one night.
Zoe: There was a stretch there where we were doing three-hour Zoom calls every other night for a week or two and it’s just… I think it’s helped me for sure. Telling these stories and finding these characters and exploring Rowan’s story.
And how she’s trans and strong and heroic. She’s not heroic because she overcame trans adversity. She’s heroic because she’s a fucking kickass mage with a sword who wants to help people. Telling these stories and seeing there are people out there who want them.
Every single time I see a message talking about how people love Rowan, and seeing Rowan and being like, “I haven’t seen a trans character portrayed like Rowan” …I feel like I could fistfight God after reading one of those, because it’s the most incredible feeling, because that’s exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to put these stories out for people that we wish were there. So, it’s made me a lot more confident in my life across the board in a way that I personally really enjoy.
Valentine: No one character is representative of us, but we both put a lot of small details to varying degrees into each character.
There are things that Zoe has put into Rowan. When Mel came up as a bard and Zoe pitched bard, I immediately signed on, because I had been a musician for a decade. I played several instruments, and this was something that thankfully Zoe let me really run with a lot because it was a part of myself that I hadn’t been allowed to put anywhere.
So, now I have this big creative outlet that’s combining all these things that are unique and combinable in a person into our comic book, which is fucking incredible. There are a lot of weird things too, of hats that I like or whatever that go into these characters. But then there’s the deeper stuff of how we wish this story would resolve or how we wish a relationship was resolved. And what if it worked out, and what if it was nice, and what if they worked through their shit? I feel like we’re both working through a lot of shit too, with different people in different ways.
Zoe: Valentine, really watching you go like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to go all out on Mel and write a whole song” and really put effort into her fingering on the guitar and everything, it has been… I’m just sitting here rubbing my little grubby hands together like, “Ooh, yeah, I love seeing all this.”
Valentine: There’s a string of pages that we have coming up that I feel is the best work that I’ve done because I was super invested. Whenever songs show up, that’s me.
Zoe: It’s funny because I remember the original pitch was like, “Oh, she’s going to sing a filthy tavern ballad.” And then you were like, “What if I made it good?” And I was like, “Okay, great. Cool.”
Valentine: I mean it’s the same shit that I would notice in a book, and I read books where music is happening and people are just vaguely drawing chords, but they’re not chords or they’re not anything. The biggest thing for me is when someone is drumming because I was a drummer first and then a guitarist and a bassist.
When they’re not holding the drumsticks right, because you have to hold at a specific point and if somebody hasn’t played or doesn’t know or hasn’t watched, they will put them down at the end, and you’re getting the fulcrum there.
Niko: The amount of work that goes into this is so evident on the page, and it’s just so staggering at the same time. Kudos to both of you.
Valentine: This was our like, if we get one shot to do it, we’re going to do it right.
Zoe: Oh yeah, we’re going to go all out.
Valentine: And we both really just dove in, and then we’re like, “Well, we’re in it together,” and then we held hands.
Zoe: We both have been like, “No matter what happens, if we get other gigs… Blade Maidens will not stop until one of us is like, ‘Okay, I think I’m done.’” I don’t think we’re going to say, “I think I’m done,” maybe ever, but-
Valentine: We’ve got a lot of issues planned.
Zoe: We’ve got a lot.
Valentine: We’ve got a lot of issues and a lot of characters to get to that we’re both really excited about.
Zoe: Yeah, so it’s definitely something we are putting 100% of ourselves into because we want to.Valentine: Yeah, it’s wild and it’s lovely and it’s surreal that other people are really connecting to it because it’s always been that for us, and we hoped that we would get some people into it.
Zoe: Yeah, more people are reading it, more people are talking, and it’s really special to see these… People commenting on Rowan or people begging, saying, “Oh, step on me, Mel.”
Valentine: Rowan’s really personal journey, step on me, Mel. You know what? And they’re both valid.
Zoe: Yeah, they’re both extremely valid. Because especially when we were first starting out, we had a hiatus for a bit because Valentine had stuff that they were working through, and one of our hard rules is our shit comes first. If we have to put a pause on the book for a little bit, that’s fine. There’s never any pressure at all in this from either of us.
Around then, we were putting it out there. Not a lot of people were engaging, but it still felt good to be telling our story. But now that some more people are talking and engaging and seeing it, it’s a truly wonderful feeling.
Valentine: Well, and especially for us in the beginning too, we were figuring out how we were going to make this thing. We were figuring out how we were going to do it weekly. It’s a real learning curve to step into comics and figure out your workflow.
Zoe: And I’m three times the writer I was when we started because I’ve been writing scripts for you. And Valentine is a wonderful artist to write for because Valentine will be like, “Honey, you got to fix this,” or, “Don’t worry about… Yes, it’s a crowded page, but it’ll work. We’ll figure it out.” So, it’s wonderful.
Valentine: We’re really good at editing each other and playing to each other’s strengths and figuring out where we need to improve. And I’m always the person that’s going to add an extra panel.
Niko: You’re learning to have each other’s back same as-
Zoe: Oh, I will throw hands if anyone steps to Valentine.
Valentine: Yeah. Yeah, but I feel like the other thing that people don’t understand too is that it’s very much a process that we are with each other from the beginning until the end. We both have a veto that we can use. We can say something isn’t working and we will hammer through it and work it out. Whether that’s at the script or the layout or the finals, if something is iffy, we can try a couple of things and figure it out.
Gutter Talk is a biweekly series by Niko Stratis that looks at comic books from a queer and trans perspective.