But first, an update on another of Whitley’s titles: With Free Comic Book Day just around the corner, we asked him about the status of the Princeless franchise and in particular about the Princeless FCBD comic (see “‘Princeless’ Creators Ask Readers Not to Support FCBD Comic”) that he alleges Action Lab was planning to release without his approval. “Action Lab has not agreed to anything and has shown no care or concern about any of its creators or the state of public or retailer opinion about them,” Whitley said. “They continue to hold ours and dozens of other books hostage with no sign of remorse. As for the Free Comic Book Day story, as I understand it, Diamond Comics Distribution did have some concern over distributing a book for Free Comic Book Day while the legality of the publisher doing so was under dispute. I am not certain what the eventual end result of that is, but I do not think the book is coming out.” The link to the comic on the FCBD web page goes to a 404 page.
And now, on to the main event!
School for Extraterrestrial Girls is about a girl named Tara who discovers she’s an alien when she spontaneously combusts in the middle of class one day. She quickly finds out that everything about her life has been a lie and that her parents aren’t her parents at all, but kidnappers. She’s given the choice of either being sent back to her home planet (where she’s never been and knows nobody) or going to The School for Extraterrestrial Girls where she can learn to be a good Earthling.
Naturally, she chooses the second one, but that’s just the beginning. She finds herself living in a small space full of other aliens where she has to adapt to all these new surroundings while also learning who she really is – inside and out.
Did this book start out with the broader idea of a school for alien teens, or did it start with the character of Tara and grow from there?
You know, usually it starts with character for me, but this story was the rare example where the concept came first. I liked the idea of all of these girls who were all going through the most stressful time in their lives being thrown in here together and having to figure it all out at the same time. I mean, it’s basically like high school, but if you ended up rooming with a fairy, an anthropomorphic cat, and Cthulhu.
How did you and Jamie collaborate?
Jamie and I had gotten to know each other pretty well from tabling and hanging out at conventions and we decided we’d love to work on something together. I threw a bunch of half formed concepts I had at him and this was the one that sparked with him.
I think we work together well because we bring two very different but interestingly complementary aesthetics. Jamie has a bright and action packed Tokusatsu inspired aesthetic and I have this really character heavy, comedy and angst riddled sensibility. What you end up getting is giant monster fights where people are having important realizations about their feelings for one another and what’s better than that?
This seems like it could be a comic book. Why did you choose to do it as a graphic novel?
I think the graphic novel market is where our potential fans are. It’s been very difficult to even get traditional comics publishers to think about making a monthly comic about teens for a YA audience. But Papercutz and Mad Cave have been excited about it from day one. They want to tell our story and reach new young audiences. I think if the comics business is going to survive, it’s going to be companies like Mad Cave that keep it going.
You are tackling some serious topics in this book, but you’re also putting in cool stuff like a special school for aliens. How do you find the right balance of heartfelt and gee-whiz, so that your story reads like an action comic but also is grounded in real life?
That’s always something I’ve found to be not only easy for me to figure out, but really important for me to include. I hope kids reading this book (or adults) enjoy the action story and have fun. I really do. But my real passion is telling stories that makes people feel seen and gives others a look into what it’s like to be this other person. I think the more you’re used to seeing different types of people featured in stories and finding new types of people as heroes, the more likely you are to translate that over to how you see people in the real world.
So whether that’s where I started with Princeless and wanting both girls and boys to see a black girl at the center of this fantasy adventure or showing the struggles of a superhero that’s dealing with bipolar disorder or living in a world where the aliens dealing with government deportation are actual aliens, but they look like you and I – it’s important to me that there’s something to be learned while you’re enjoying the adventure. When you think of your characters as real people, I think that comes pretty easily.
What was your favorite part about writing this series?
I actually really enjoyed switching up who is narrating in the second volume. Book 1 is told all from Tara’s perspective, but Book 2 switches back and forth between her and her friend/roommate/crush Misako. It’s easy to look at Misako, who is a fairy, and assume what the inside of her head sounds like, but Misako has actually been through a lot and is much more no-nonsense than Tara. I really enjoyed writing in her voice and especially discussing pieces of the story we’d already seen through Tara’s eyes and how those events looked different through Misako’s.
How are you hoping to promote Volume 2, given that the pandemic interfered with Volume 1?
Well, volume 1 did come out deep in the heart of our initial wave of COVID and that was incredibly difficult. However, we did get a lot of really good reviews and it seems to have been embraced by a lot of folks who did find it. My hope is that with volume 2 coming out, we can push this out to people in the know and excite a lot of people who never saw the first one. As far as I’m concerned, this is a brand new launch. We have two books worth of story to push and – thanks to the merger of Papercutz and Mad Cave – a much larger company to help us spread the word.
You have written a number of comics about compelling heroines: Princeless, The Wasp, School for Extraterrestial Girls. Why have you chosen to write about female characters? What interests you about them?
Man, I have so many different answers to this. It started with wanting to tell stories about characters that my daughters, young black women, can see themselves in. Over the course of writing and selling Princeless, I realized both how much it meant to people who had not seen themselves represented well in comics, but how important it was for young boys to see girls as heroes in stories. In talking to librarians I realized just how few boys read any books or comics with heroes who presented as anything other than male. I genuinely think that has a profound effect on how they treat their female peers, not just as young kids, but for the rest of their lives.
Even if it wasn’t for all that, there are already so many comics about straight 20-30 something white men. I could never write another one again and I would barely make a dent in the overall makeup of comics. Nobody really wants to see the 300th Spider-Man knockoff.
Your upcoming book The Dog Knight features a nonbinary character. What can you tell us about this story?
The Dog Knight is a book I’ve been working on with artist Bre Indigo since before the pandemic and after quite a series of delays, it’s finally coming out in May. The Dog Knight is about Frankie, a young non-binary kid, who rescues a strange dog and is offered the chance to join a group of heroic dogs as the bridge between human and dog kind. Frankie must pass a series of tests to prove they have all of the qualities that dogs value, but meanwhile the forces of chaos that the dogs fight are trying to stop Frankie. It’s a story about finding your place in the world, learning when to fight and when to forgive, and good good dogs.
What are you working on now?
Well, I just finished up a run on Marvel’s digital “Love Unlimited” comic where Gwenpool came out as asexual, which was a huge deal to me. We’re actually deep at work on book 2 of The Dog Knight already. I just turned in my first draft of the script for School for Extraterrestrial Girls Book 3. Beyond that I have several unannounced books coming up in the next year or two that I’m very excited about, including one more at Mad Cave. I can’t wait for you all to see the wonderful things we’re working on!
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