Faeries have always been queer. That’s true in both senses of the word: faeries are strange and otherworldly, powerful in a way that we can’t always understand and equally as mischievous, and — like most creatures of fantasy — faeries are also employed as a metaphor for queer identity and sexuality, across a wide range of experiences. For queer cartoonist Ethan M. Aldridge, the creator of the Estranged series from HarperCollins’ graphic novel imprint HarperAlley, these inherent themes in faerie tales jumped out to him as he began writing the books, which follow a changeling and his human counterpart on an unprecedented, high-stakes journey.
Estranged, which hit shelves last year, follows Edmund and the Childe, who were swapped at birth when the fae king and queen stole Edmund to make him their court pet. After a cruel sorceress seizes the throne, the Childe flees to the world above, seeking Edmund’s help. Together, they have to save both worlds — human and faerie — even though neither of them really belongs to either.
Estranged: The Changeling King, which hit shelves in September, again follows Edmund (now Cinder) and the Childe (now Ed), whose roles have changed significantly. Once again, the pair are reunited against a dark force in the World Below, but there’s so much more to their ongoing journey than either of them can predict.
The Beat recently caught up with Ethan M. Aldridge via e-mail to talk about the Estranged books, including why he was drawn to write a changeling narrative, who he would cast to play the characters in an on-screen adaptation, and queer themes in faerie tales.
Samantha Puc: How did you initially conceptualize Estranged, and how has the story changed since then?
Ethan M. Aldridge: At the outset, I simply wanted to write a changeling story. I love old myth and fairytales, and changelings have always fascinated me. I wanted to play out the classic, switched-at-birth narrative, faeries and all, in a modern environment. The core of that intent held throughout the development of the story.
One major change that happened was the focus on the protagonist. In my first draft, Edmund (the faerie changeling) was the lone hero, trying to find his place in the world. This wound up casting the Childe (his human counterpart) as the villain, which felt wrong. So I rewrote it, centering the Childe as the hero. However, this made Edmund the villain, and that felt unfair. Eventually, I hit upon the idea of jumping between their perspectives, giving me a much more nuanced view on an old myth.
Puc: What were some of the themes you wanted to explore in this story? Did you uncover more themes you wanted to delve into as you worked?
Aldridge: I don’t often consider themes when I start a project. Themes and meaning are things that naturally evolve over the course of crafting a story; I found out what I’m trying to say in the act of saying it. The theme began to naturally evolve out of the subject matter and my trying to dig deep into why it resonated with me; the lies we feel we have to tell others and ourselves to keep ourselves safe, and the longing for a family that knows and understands you.
Puc: What drew you to writing a changeling narrative?
Aldridge: Changelings have always fascinated me, the idea that faeries would steal a human baby and replace it with one of their own. The reasons for doing this vary between regions and time periods the stories are told in, but they are all rooted in the same idea: A parent has an uneasy feeling that their child isn’t what they think it is.
It wasn’t until I started writing the Estranged books that I discovered why I was so drawn to the idea: Changelings are a great metaphor for queer children who feel the need to hide their identity. As someone who grew up gay and closeted, there’s a feeling that no one really knows you, even the people that love you. There’s the fear that, if they knew the whole truth, they wouldn’t recognize you as someone they cared about anymore. I started to sense that feeling echoed in old changeling stories, which are inherently stories of family suspicion and rejection. I wanted to play the story out, and perhaps give it a happy ending.
Puc: From where did you draw inspiration? Are there any stories you hope to pay homage to in this work?
Aldridge: There are a lot of places I pull inspiration from! Old fairytales, naturally, along with the work of turn-of-the-century illustrators of those stories like John Bauer and Arthur Rackham. I also wanted to pay homage to the epic fantasies that shaped my childhood and provided me with much-needed escape; the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis (the Edmund in my story is named after Edmund Pevensie, my favorite character), as well as ’80s fantasy epics like Labyrinth and Willow.
Puc: What is it about fantasy, especially in comics, that appeals to you?
Aldridge: Fantasy is such a lush genre, filled with poetic ideas and strange, beautiful worlds. Fantasy allows you to communicate abstract ideas in a way that’s accessible, like the feeling of isolation from keeping a secret. I think fantasy in particular is well suited to comics as a medium. They provide the perfect format to dig deep into the visuals of a world or an idea. You can render magic in a way that allows the reader of the comic to stop and take in what they’re seeing. With comics, you can freeze poetry in time.
Puc: Do you have more stories planned in this world?
Aldridge: While there’s nothing officially on the books right now, I certainly have ideas for more. With the world of Estranged, I created a sandbox to be able to play with all of my favorite fairytale tropes. If the readers want to, there are still more corners of the World Below to explore.
Puc: Do you have favorite moments or scenes in either of the first two Estranged books? Why do those moments stand out?
Aldridge: There’s one moment in particular, in The Changeling King, where Cinder (the faerie changeling, come into his own) finds and rescues Ed, the person he now considers his human brother. They don’t say anything. They simply find each other and embrace each other. It was so satisfying to write and draw, because it was a moment between two boys who had been isolated for so long, and had finally started to build the family they needed with each other and around themselves.
Puc: What do you hope readers take away from these books?
Aldridge: I tried to infuse the stories with themes about finding your family, about looking after your own happiness, and about the importance of finding the people you can trust. Beyond that, I simply hope that people will enjoy my comics about faeries and trolls and dragons.
Puc: If you could cast these characters for a TV or film adaptation, who would you want to play them?
Aldridge: Good question! When I was designing the characters, I actually used Thomas Brodie-Sangster a lot when referencing the look for the two boys. I think I’d be pleasantly surprised by any casting, but off the top of my head, I think Jaeden Martell would be great as Edmund/The Childe, I’d like to see a version of Alexis played by Kiernan Shipka, and I’ve always liked the idea of Whick played by Bella Ramsey.
Puc: Do you listen to music or anything while you work? What does your process look like?
Aldridge: My process, and what I listen to during it, varies depending on the stage. I start by writing a very, very rough outline, then slowly developing that into a full script. I can’t really listen to anything during this stage, so my preferred place is somewhere quiet (the Brooklyn Public Library is a favorite spot). From there, I move on to storyboarding out the whole comic, and once everything is approved by my editor, I move on to making the final comic pages. Everything is done with dip-pen, ink, and watercolor. I tend to work long hours during this stage, just zoning out and enjoying the process of making marks. I listen to a lot of podcasts (historical and fiction podcasts are my favorites) and audiobooks while I work.
Puc: What else are you working on at the moment, if you can say?
Aldridge: I’m currently hard at work on a new fantasy graphic novel, independent from Estranged. I can’t say too much about it right now, but I’ll have some things to share soon!