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N. D. Stevenson

El Templo #89 (agosto 2022)
Por Daniel Renedo y Pablo G. Freire
607 lecturas

While Nimona takes place in a fantasy world (where there are technological and contemporary elements), Lumberjanes makes use of fantastic beasts blended in with our own world. What draws you to this combination? Will you explore this sort of blend in future projects?

Yeah, I think the combination of the past and the future and the present has always been interesting to me. I think a lot of my work is about time, in some way. And I think it’s a topic that really interests me, but I also love the genres of superheroes, sci-fi, fantasy. I’m very intrigued by mixing and matching those elements as well, so I think Nimona has elements of the past, has elements of the future and of the present. And, for me, it feels like it says something about the characters and about the stories to have them, somewhat, unstuck in time.

So… a character like Nimona seems to be a young girl, but then is, actually, much older and much sort of unstuck in time in that way. Her style is more like modern than the other characters’. It’s things like that. I’ve always been very interested in the concept of time, and so that’s something that I try to explore in my work. And Lumberjanes also has elements of that as well: they’re literally unstuck in time, in places. I just find that there’s a lot of interest in that for me.

All the projects you have worked on contain heartwarming and, in a certain way, unconventional friendships. For instance, in Nimona the relationship between a villain and his sidekick is explored and, in the case of Lumberjanes, the reader is shown the one that exists between a group of teenage girls and their instructor. Where do you think the interest for this sort of relationships comes from?

When I was, specially, starting to become a young adult and moving from children’s books to YA books, I think there was a really big focus on romance. And I at the time —partly because I was closeted and I wasn’t out yet— didn’t find myself relating to those romantic plots as much. So, I was always searching for those really compelling relationships that fell outside of romance, but that could still be really intense and kind of strange and complicated and all those other things. Because I find that I’m just very compelled by that: by having an odd couple, or a group with an interesting dynamic; something even that’s almost outside of family or friendship that is almost both or neither or something else.

So, now, of course, I’m a lot more compelled by romance as a part of my stories, and with She-Ra we explored that, for sure. And the work that I’m working on now gets sort of back into those somewhat familial and like that somewhat really intense friendship that at times can almost feel romantic. And I guess I just always was very drawn to that, and so I think that’s why it shows up in a lot of my work.

Talking about character dynamics, another recurrent component in your work is that the stories are usually told from the point of view of the so-called "bad guys”. And you also tend to show morally gray characters that are in opposite sides of the same battle. What do you get from this dynamic?

It comes, I think, from the fact that I grew up very religious, in a very conservative church. So, growing up, I always felt like I was the bad guy. My church sort of believed that that was something which was in you, in one way or another, and which was kind of chosen for you.

I had a lot of issues with that growing up and trying really hard to be a good Christian and also always feeling like there was something wrong inside of me when it came to that. So… I explore that a lot in my work because I’m very interested in the humanity of people who are declared the bad guys. Specially in Nimona, because it’s like: who is the person who is saying that’s the bad guy and why do they need that to be true? And, of course, it ends up being that there’s something else going on, there’s someone else who gets something out of calling him a villain and setting him up as the villain.

I think that is also something that shows up in everything I work on: trying to deconstruct even when the characters are doing the wrong thing; when they are behaving in a villainous way, I still want to know why, and I still want to understand why. Because I always wondered that growing up: seeing people and hearing people say that they were bad, but still being really curious and wondering why. I think that’s just something I was so fascinated with and still am. I’m always trying to get into the heads of people that are labelled the villain.

It is needless to say that your characters tend not to conform with gender roles. This can be seen in Nimona, since she is a shapeshifter, or in the different ways of being a teenage girl, as the pals of Lumberjanes demonstrate. But there are more characters of yours who defy binarism in different ways. Could you elaborate a little bit on this? And what role would you say fantasy plays on it?

I think I’ve had an interesting journey when it comes to exploring gender in my work, because obviously it’s personal for me, but it wasn’t always something that I was very aware of. As a young person, I gravitated mostly towards male characters, and I found them the most interesting. I did have some favorite characters who were female, but it was rarer. And then my older sister asked me why I was always so hard on female characters; why I always said they were annoying, or that I didn’t like them. And when she asked me that —I think I was still a young teenager, so I was probably fourteen or so—, it really stuck with me. So, I started going out of my way to try to find something interesting about characters that I had written off before, said I didn’t like or that weren’t interesting to me. And really looking for what was interesting in female characters and in female narratives. And so that was sort of the start of me starting to really examine my own brain, with how I perceived gender.

And Nimona really came from that. I remember every year, when I dressed up for Halloween, I always dressed as the male character; and that was how I felt comfortable. But I felt I was disappointed in myself that I never dressed as female characters, so when I designed Nimona I was almost thinking of what’s a costume I would want to wear. So that was a lot of what went into her; of her defying gender in her own way and having this punk style.

I never did end up dressing up as her, but that was a lot of my thinking that went into it, and I think I’m always trying to find another angle on that or another way to explore that because I think... as I move through the world, with the gender that I have —that is not one or the other—, I think we’re just at the beginning of what’s possible, and that’s very exciting to me. It’s something that I want to explore not just in my life, but in my work to.

Moving on to nonfiction, both The Fire Never Goes Out and your webcomics are a rather personal testimony of your journey as an artist as well as of your identitary process; of your biggest successes but also of your most vulnerable moments. Do you think important to show this part of the creative process? Was it something intentional or rather a side effect of your need to express yourself?

I just think it comes more from a place of needing to express a feeling than it does from a need to have it necessarily seen by other people. Some of my favorite comics I’ve done have been very... very stream of consciousness, just sort of putting everything I feel down on a piece of paper.

When I first started making comics, I took my first comics class when I was in college. I was really struggling with my mental health at the time, and I was finding it really difficult to tell people how I felt or explain it in a way that made sense. And that was something that made me feel very alone and very scared at the time, because I knew what I was feeling but I couldn’t express it.

And so, when I started making comics, I realized that, when I made comics about how I was feeling, people seemed to understand a little bit better. And that’s really the reason why I’ve done it for so long: not just so that other people understand, sometimes it’s just so that I’ll understand.

I’d just came out to my parents, and I made a comic, and I sent them the comic. And when they read my comics, they seemed to understand a little bit better. The Fire Never Goes Out wasn’t planned as a book, it was just a lot of different things from a lot of different times in my life. It was my publisher’s idea to collect them into a book. There’s a lot of them that you couldn’t tell they’re not planned in any way. Some of them I’ve never even shared online, and they were published in the book. For me I find it a very very helpful tool to understand myself and to explain myself to other people.

These comics were published over a long period of time while all these changes were going on in your life. What effect has the feedback of your audience had in that intimate processes?

I think that I was very aware of the fact that people were going to see their own experiences reflected in the comics.

And I think there’s a stereotype of comics, specially that are shared online, as being more surface level or for the intention of being as relatable as possible to as wide a group of people. Like those are the comics that go really viral or that spread really far. But there are a lot of comics that are really really unique and tell a really unique story, so I don’t think that stereotype is always true. But I really wanted to tell a more specific story. And some of those have still ended up being a lot more relatable to other people than I thought they would. You know I thought it was just me who was feeling that way, and it really helps to not feel so alone when you realize that other people feel the way you do.

I think that’s all I’m trying to do, and, sometimes, I’m trying to explain myself, but I also hope that it does make other people not feel so alone; that talking about it is something that can kind of bring it out into the open and let it evaporate in some ways.

Going back to animation, recent movies, such as Lightyear, have put queer representation in children’s animated movies on the spotlight. Whilst the mainstream cinema is much more conservative to be sold worldwide, it seems that the children’s TV (with series such as She-Ra) has pushed the boundaries much further. Why do you think that is? Are you optimistic in regard to such evolution in the near future?

Yeah, I think animation is so interesting because, historically, the people who work in animation are very passionate about those stories. So I had the experience a lot of times of working on a show and, in your head, you are like «I think this character is gay», «I think these characters are in love», and you write that in, or you draw that in, or you put it in in some other ways, because you know that the other gay kids watching it will recognize it, but maybe not necessarily the company that you work for.

And that’s something that, in the last ten years or so, has become something that’s come into the public eye and now the executives at this companies they do know what’s going on when you put in those little hints about a character or about a couple. So, when it came to She-Ra, I just really wanted to pay respect to that. If there was someone who related to a character or found a relationship compelling, I wanted to at least think about it and give it a chance. So that was a lot of how She-Ra was done. And I would see the artists kind of drawing what they are passionate about and it was something where I was like: «oh, that is actually really interesting, I want to pay this off in the show».

In the feedback that we got from Catra and Adora having that romantic ending to their story, I did hear a lot from kids, because there are younger and younger kids who are starting to explore their own gender and sexuality. But even when they are so young that that’s not even personal yet, it helps them understand other kids that might be on a different journey than them, or kids who have two gay parents, or something. I think that it is always something that helps them understand the world a little bit better, understand themselves a little bit better. So, I think that that wave of storytelling... I really hope it continues on, because there’s so many stories still to tell.

The animated adaptation of Nimona started its production with Blue Sky but was cancelled (even though it was nearly finished) when Disney “took over”. However, it was finally retrieved by Netflix, and it is due to be released in 2023. What can we expect from this resulting film?

It’s been quite a ride with this movie. I think it’s been almost seven years that it’s been brewing. I think I sold the rights to the book in 2015, close to the time it came out. And, during that time, there was a lot of uncertainty and there was always something else.

So, you know, Disney bought the studio and then shut it down. And then to see it somehow find a new life, which happens very rarely, especially in animated features —there are a lot of movies that never see the light of day—... I was very grateful for that and really excited about it and I just saw not the first cut as such, but there’s a lot of animation in it though, and it’s really exciting. It’s starting to finally sink in that it’s really happening. I think it’s one of those things where it’s like: «Sure, I guess it’s happening, but what other crazy thing is gonna happen?». So fingers crossed that it doesn’t because at this point though I think, I mean... it’s happening! I’m still trying to accept that.

I was blown away by the screening I saw, I think it’s really gonna take the world by storm. I’m not directing it, but I’ve worked pretty closely with them, and I’m really grateful to Nick and Troy, who are the directors, because they have worked so closely with me and let me be a part of the process in a way that’s definitely not a guarantee when you’re the author of the book because they want it to stand on its own. And sometimes they’re really really different from the book. And so the movie is different, but I think that it has a lot in common with the book too. And so it’s really cool to see these characters that I love so much get a second life and I really hope that everybody loves them in this new life that they’re about to have.

And our last question is: what’s next? What are you working on now and what can we expect from you in the future?

There isn’t a lot that I’m working on that’s been officially announced.

So… I can talk about the Lumberjanes animated series, which is still in development. It’s still in its early stages, and that’s something that will hopefully move forward but we still don’t have the official green light, but that is something that I’ve been working on.

And then I’m writing a prose novel, for the first time, which is very exciting. And it’s a reworking of a book that I wrote when I was fifteen. It was something I revisited over the pandemic and got really invested in it again. Hopefully news of that will be coming pretty soon.

And then I’m also working on a live action feature project with a really cool director, and I’m writing the screenplay for that. So that’s something also that will hopefully be announced pretty soon, because I’m having a great time with that. It’s a really really cool property. So that’s big stuff.

I’m also continuing to put comics online on my Substack, which has been fun, and I have other ideas brewing that are really exciting.

I’m staying busy, for sure, and I’m hoping as soon things free up a little bit more I really want to get back to comics and experiment with the medium of comics a little bit more. I still think it’s my first love when it comes to storytelling mediums. And I think that’s it.

We think that’s it too. That was great, Nate. Thank you very much!

Thank you! Great questions! It was great meeting you both!