In Acrossing the Miles, the Beat’s intrepid Animal Crossing travel reporter Avery Kaplan will leave her home base on Dharma Island to soar across the Dodo skies and visit comicdom’s finest creators on their respective virtual isles. For the premiere entry, she’s heading to the fabled Atlas Isle.
It was just after midday on Friday, May 22nd, when I visited Atlas Isle, the Animal Crossing island of Christina “Steenz” Stewart.
Steenz is an Eisner and Dwayne McDuffie Award-winning cartoonist whose work includes the ongoing daily newspaper comic strip Heart of the City, as well as the graphic novel Archival Quality with Ivy Noelle Weir.
An experienced editor and a passionate educator, Steenz was generous enough to take time out of her busy schedule and take part in the inaugural entry of Acrossing the Miles.
Arrival on Atlas Isle
Steenz was waiting to meet me near the airport when I arrived. Naturally, I immediately commented on her stylish custom-designed Trubbish top, which is purple (the color associated with Poison, Trubbish’s Pokémon type) and features Trubbish’s Pokédex number (#568) on the back. Steenz told me her husband designed the shirt, describing their home as a “pro-Trubbish zone.”
In addition to her custom-Trubbish top, Steenz was also sporting Comic Shorts in honor of her interview with the Beat. She completed the look with a black beanie and the pink bubblegum bubble accessory. After exchanging identically wrapped gifts with one another, we began the tour of Atlas Isle, which she has divided into three distinct areas: the Midtown District, Stonybrook, and the Terrace.
The Midtown District
We began the tour in the Midtown District.
While the Midtown District included the Atlas Garden, Steenz told me she didn’t really care about flowers, and had just told visitors to plant anything they wanted in order to shore up the number of flowers in order to achieve a five-star island.
By contrast, she is very enthusiastic about crafting the signage on Atlas Isle. “Making these signs is like, one of the best parts of these games for me,” Steenz said. “I love making these!”
Midtown is home to Agnes, Lionel, and Lymon. Lymon is Steenz’s favorite villager, and he lives quite luxuriously, having his own personal high rise at the heart of the Midtown District, where he even has his own outdoor gym area.
Midtown also includes several recreational areas, including a basketball court in front of Lionel’s house and an outdoor barbeque area complete with smoker.
On the stone areas along the shore of Atlas Isle, Steenz plans to set up exhibits about the space program.
“Anything that’s on these rock cliffs are all of the NASA exhibits, so I’m actually going to put up a sign next to them so you can learn something about the exhibit every time you go to one of these,” she explained.
Steenz’s passion for being an educator shines through in a variety of different ways. Since her run on Heart of the City began on April 27th, 2020, she has frequently shared glimpses into the process of creating a daily comic strip.
So this comic was one of my audition pieces for this gig. I actually did about 6 weeks worth of audition comics before I got the job. Here's what my audition rough looked like. (removed the text to not spoil the joke) pic.twitter.com/XNXZOclD7j
— Vitamin Steenz #BLM (@oheysteenz) May 5, 2020
“I like to be really open about how I do the work, and what my process is,” Steenz said. “Whether that’s process videos like I did this morning, or showing the development of character designs, I really like to make sure people can actually see that, because I want people to be able to do it themselves.”
Steenz emphasized how hard it can be for new creators to find the information they’re searching for, and she hopes she can provide some of the answers. “I hope my Twitter can be a place where you can go to for glimpses into how the sausage is made,” she said.
She further explained that her interest in drawing has its origin in seeing the actual creative process: “I’ve got younger siblings, and when Blue’s Clues was at its height was just when my younger siblings were that age, so I would watch with them. And seeing Steve actually draw the clues, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, drawing is so much easier than I was always afraid it was going to be,’” she said. “Once you can see it you can start to believe you can do it as well.”
Just north of Atlas Isle’s barbeque area is Dinocup Park, which pays homage to the boardwalk amusement park on Nickelodeon’s Rocket Power, the 1999 animated series created by Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo. And just outside Dinocup Park is Steenz’s house.
The House of Steenz
Steenz’s house feels warm and welcoming as soon as I’m inside the door.
I asked Steenz whether New Horizons was her first foray into the world of Animal Crossing.
“No, I played New Leaf and I played Pocket Camp,” Steenz answered. “I feel bad about New Leaf because at a certain point in time… New Leaf was only out like maybe two months before Pokémon came out, and I do have a dedication to the Pokémon series, so I quit playing Animal Crossing so I could be a Pokémon Master.”
Steenz told me that she had mixed feelings about leaving her New Leaf town behind to focus on training Pokémon: “On the one hand, it’s for the best, because Pokémon is great. But I kept seeing on Twitter, people would make these comics of Isabelle saying, ‘Don’t worry, I know you’re off on your adventure in the whatever region, I’ll keep the place good in your stead.’ And I’m like, this is so sad. You’re making me feel so bad for not playing this game, but I cannot devote my time to it, because I have to catch all the Pokémon!”
We visited her bathroom, which she said was steadily accumulating furniture, and I admired the spooky handprint that appeared on the window above the tub.
She characterized her kitchen as a work in progress, telling me that she was collecting the Ironwood furniture set but having a hard time figuring out when she could visit her three smug villagers during the times when they were crafting, as her opportunities to play are limited by the demands of her creative responsibilities.
Speaking of which, her Animal Crossing office reflects her busy professional schedule. “It’s kind of a crowded fit office, but I like it like that.”
I asked her how helming a daily newspaper strip had affected her daily routine.
“I’m the kind of person that really loves structure and scheduling, so the fact that I have to do seven comics a week definitely keeps me on that track,” Steenz said. “I’m never like, ‘Oh, I’ll do it later. We can wait a little bit.’ It’s like, ‘No, you need to sit down and do the work.’
“The way that I do it, actually, I do two a day so that I’m done with dailies – Monday through Saturday – by Wednesday, and then I do my Sunday on Thursday, so Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are my looser days. By the time I start actually drawing Side Quest, I’m going to be drawing every single day, but it’s nice to be able to have heavy-duty work Monday through Thursday, and then be a little calmer near the weekend.”
Speaking of Side Quest, the upcoming nonfiction graphic novel about the history of table-top RPGs, Steenz says writer Samuel Sattin is currently deep into research for the book.
“He’ll send me some cool link about something and I’m like, ‘This is great, Sam, but I don’t know what this means in the larger scope of it,’ so I’m not going to read this,” said Steenz. “I’ll look at it when you send me the full outline and we can actually talk about how this fits in the narrative.” She laughed and told me he was doing great work. “And eventually, I’ll get to the point where I’m also doing really great work, but until then… Not yet.”
Upstairs is her bedroom, where she has the spooktacular skull flooring, and one of her favorite pieces of furniture, a humidifier.
And in the basement, she has an Occult library and storage for turnips, along with a wheelchair for any visitors who might need to use it.
“Stonybrook is one of the richer neighborhoods,” Steenz said as we arrived at the multi-level suburb. The peaceful and serene neighborhood includes a rock garden and is bordered by the elegant Zen Fence.
Stonybrook is home to Tia, Raymond, Francine, and Molly, who has prominently displayed a bow Steenz gifted her in her very cute home.
North of the houses is Stonybrook Pool. While the setup is elegant, the club is exclusive: “You need to have a Stonybrook membership,” Steenz remarked. “This isn’t just open to any kind of riffraff.”
Above the Stonybrook Pool is a lovely lookout spot. “This is where I like to get my stars whenever I do have a meteor shower,” Steenz revealed.
Near the lookout spot is the beach where Redd docks to sell his wares, which Steenz has marked with a most excellent design. You can post Steenz’s sign on your island using the code below:
The third section of Atlas Isle, the Terrace, is home to Walt and Kevin. After traversing the maze that divides the Terrace from Stonybrook, we arrived at Steenz’s fine art collection.
“I painted these before we got an art museum in the game,” Steenz said. “But I still love doing them because they’re super relaxing.”
In addition to painting fine works of art, Steenz also has painting experience with the theater, a fact I discovered when I asked her whether the recent Heart of the City storyline (which concerns Heart’s middle school performance of “Anastasia”) was inspired by personal experience.
“Yeah, when I was an adolescent I was doing musical theater,” Steenz explained. “But when I went to high school I was a techie. I was in the paint department so I was helping with set building. And I also participated in one of the plays when I was in college, as well. So I do have a background in theater. My family, we love musicals, so I think just have that connection.”
Steenz told me that her perspective as part of the tech crew gave her a good source of inspiration for Heart of the City‘s Charlotte.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m a ‘theater kid,’ I would say that I am tangentially a theater kid by having been a part of the tech crew for such a long period of time. That’s kind of where I’m drawing from with the new character, Charlotte, who works on the lighting for the plays. It’s kind of trying to go back to being a techie and being friends with the actors and what that weirdness was kind of like.”
Elsewhere on Atlas Isle’s Terrace, Steenz has designed a special seating area for her villagers, but their lack of enthusiasm over the setup is something of a sore spot.
“I like this area a lot,” Steenz said. “I just wish they would use it more. Any time any villager comes this way, they sit on the floor! I’m like, you guys, I made you guys actual nice birchwood chairs, and yet! They need to get it together.”
Across the Sea
When I asked her about her favorite memories from Animal Crossing, she told me she had especially enjoyed an egg hunt on her friend Annie’s island.
“She collected a ton of eggs and she hid them all around her island,” Steenz said. “And made this game where we had to find the eggs and the person with the most eggs at the end gets a prize. But, there’s another level to it: you have to have your net available, because if you see someone else and you hit them with the net, they give you all the eggs that they have on their person. You can go back and forth to the beach and drop off your eggs, so when you get hit you’re not losing a whole lot – I mean, there was some strategy! But it was a lot of fun, and I got to like, really give some really cool prizes.”
As is immediately obvious from her Trubbish outfit, Steenz is a fan of the Pokémon series of games, and I asked her whether she’d be playing the upcoming expansion for Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield. However, considering the demanding nature of her schedule, she doesn’t think she’ll be able to find the time.
“I think I’m just going to end up spending my time on Animal Crossing, partly because I really like it, but also because that’s where my friends are.”
Connecting with friends is more important than ever, especially for those in the comics community, since the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic means the 2020 convention season has been cancelled across the United States.
“I live in St. Louis, Missouri, and while I have comics people here in St. Louis, my close comics friends don’t live here,” Steenz said. “I look forward to going to conventions so I can actually hang out and socialize with the people that I care about. I haven’t seen Ivy in what feels like 30 years, so I look forward to going to another convention where I can actually see her again.”
Until then, at least we can all visit each other in Animal Crossing.
Check out Steenz’s website here, and come back next week for another adventure in the Animal Crossing archipelago as Avery visits Wendy Xu‘s island.