In Galaxy: the Prettiest Star by Jadzia Axelrod, Jess Taylor, and lettered by Ariana Maher, an alien princess has been living on Earth disguised as a human boy, but now she is going to find the strength to live as her true self. The YA graphic novel from DC Comics is available now at your local comic shop and/or public library (and features the “Progress” pride flag DC Comics logo designed by Daniel Quasar on the cover).
The Beat caught up with Axelrod and Taylor over Zoom to learn more about the support DC has shown for Galaxy: the Prettiest Star, to discuss telling a trans narrative through a science fiction lens, to learn more about what goes into creating a new alien race, and to discover why it was important to allude to real-life queer icons in the book!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AVERY KAPLAN: What was the genesis of this project?
JADZIA AXELROD: Well, that depends on how far back you want to go, because this is the combination of a lifelong dream ever since I was sitting in my pajamas watching Super Friends on Saturday morning. I’ve loved superheroes and comic books. I’ve always wanted to tell my own stories in those. Dream come true.
On top of that, to also make it extremely trans, extremely queer, another thing that I’ve been wanting to do since I realized those things about myself. That’s one answer. Another is that Michele Wells, who was in charge of DC’s YA line at the time, talked to my agent at the time and said, “Hey, we are looking for writers who are familiar with the DC stable of characters, but who have an unusual point of view.”
I sent them some pitches about characters that they know. Superman, I had Lex Luthor pitch. At the bottom of it all, I put the pitch that would become Galaxy. It was not attached to an existing hero. The idea was something new.
They did not ask for original characters at that time, but they loved the pitch. They wanted to see more, so I gave them a longer pitch, and they loved that. I had to do a ton of backstory because we had to make sure that Galaxy was not like any of the other DC alien superheroes because there’s a lot.
All this stuff does not enter into the book. We hint at it and it was nice to be able to have that knowledge and to be able to be like, “Here’s something I know that happened because I wrote a novel about the history of Cyandii and why they’re different than other Kryptonians, Naltorians, or Tamaraneans.”
Then Sara Miller and I worked on the script together. She had some great ideas on how to help the structure. Then when that was done because DC wanted the script first, Sara brought on Jess and the moment that Sara showed me Jess’ work I said, “Yes, they’re the one, look at that. Gorgeous.”
JESS TAYLOR: The moment that I read the script for Galaxy, I cried several times and yes, I was sold from from the first page. I saw so much of the experiences that I’ve gone through in Taylor that I couldn’t just leave by the wayside.
It made me laugh. It made me cry. I was just like, “This is what I’ve always wanted from a comic.” I knew reading it the first time that it was the book that I wish I’d have had when I was a kid. It was a book that I was scouring shelves for as a child. At the moment that I read it, I knew I had to draw it.
KAPLAN: What was it like working with DC Comics on this graphic novel? Why is it so important that they’re providing a platform for this queer and trans narrative?
AXELROD: With every project I do, especially work for hire stuff, I have a line in the sand where I say, “Everything behind this line is important. The rest of it, you guys can change or cut or whatever, but I have these few scenes, these few points that I do not want to change.” This has been a really effective policy because it means I’m very easy to work with, but also it means I’m happy with the stuff that comes out.
With Galaxy, I said, “I’m not going to change any of the queer stuff. That’s my line.” They didn’t ask me to so I didn’t even have to push back. I don’t think I’ve ever done a project like this where I felt so many people had my back. Beyond just “we want to put this book out,” but also “we want to put this book out and we want people to read it and we want the right people to read it. The people who need it to read it.” That’s been just a really amazing feeling and not one I was expecting going into it. DC has been great.
TAYLOR: They really have. Even when it comes to the artwork, I’m a bit of an outlier when it comes to illustration styles in comics. The idea of even getting a DC book was a pipe dream for me. I’ve had it shut me off from projects before, I’ve had editors try to step in and change things or tell me which stylistic direction I should go in. DC was very hands-off with that.
In fact, Sara was my biggest cheerleader when it came to style, getting things down on the page and letting me have the artistic expression to put in things like the lesbian flag colors throughout the majority of the book or the trans flag colors in certain scenes.
Just the artistic freedom on all of that was amazing. I think that letting me and Jadzia do what we do best has really helped us make this book as unique as I think people are finding it. DC was fantastic to work with.
KAPLAN: What was the inspiration behind including so many allusions to David Bowie? Were there any other illusions that were particularly important for you to include?
AXELROD: David Bowie is all through this because Bowie was really important to me as a teenager. When thinking of what’s important to Taylor, I asked, “What was important to me? David Bowie.” I think Bowie was my first exposure to an idea of queerness that was sexy, and not tragic or a joke or something to be afraid of or worried about. It was beautiful, genderqueer, definitely queer with a capital Q.
Not only was that really important to me growing up, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of what I’m trying to do with Galaxy: mimic that in that unapologetic and celebratory way.
The other allusions that are important is all the real people that are talked about in the book: Sally Ride, Walt Whitman, all of them are queer. It fits the theme: there’s queer people everywhere. We don’t think of Ride as a queer pioneer, even though she is a lesbian in space. That was part of the theme was to have these real people who are all around us, who we know, and they are also gay.
TAYLOR: This could be the first time that some of the readers have heard of those people, especially since it is aimed at so much of a younger crowd. It really does give readers names to walk away with, and look into and discover some queer joy to step into.
KAPLAN: This story tells a distinctly trans narrative but through the lens of a science fiction story. Can you tell us a little bit about how science fiction stories about gender have informed both your work and your larger life experience?
AXELROD: There’s a lot of sci-fi stories that try to tell the story of being trans and they fall flat for a lot of reasons. I was very much aware going into this the challenges that were going to happen. At the same time, it’s very appealing. To tell the story in this way was a conscious effort because I could have told a story about a trans girl dealing with discovering who she is. I could have done that, but to do it in this way, meant that it could resonate with people beyond just trans women.
A lot of transmasc people have contacted me saying how much this resonated, and that gives me a lot of joy. We’re not bogged down in the nuances of Taylor’s gender and we don’t have transmasc people saying, “Well, I can’t relate to this. It’s about growing boobs.” I’ve had cis people comment to me about how much it resonated and how much it reminded them of their own personal struggles with their identity and being seen as something other than who they felt they are.
That was definitely something I wanted to do is make that as open a metaphor as possible for people but where all these other stories who have died to do similar things have fallen short, is those characters aren’t actually trans. Is that it’s all the metaphor. What I wanted to do was have something where a character was metaphorically trans and also actually trans and that’s a hard needle to thread.
That was something that was very important to me is to have these characters work in metaphor so that the largest audience people can see it, but also be true to a very small audience that would find the falsehood immediately. We know our own. We know when something is being told about us that we did not have involvement within because we’ve seen that time and time again.
KAPLAN: One aspect of the experience of being a trans woman or a trans girl that I haven’t seen touched on very often (in the few examples of media that feature us) is hypervisibility. Was it important to include this aspect of the trans woman experience in Galaxy: the Prettiest Star?
AXELROD: I transitioned in my 30s, so I was not a trans teenager. I did a lot of research into trans teenagers’ personal narratives, watched a lot of YouTube videos of people talking about their experiences. One thing that came up again and again, is that hypervisibility of shifting from being someone no one noticed, perhaps even because you try to keep from being noticed because you’re uncomfortable in your skin, to being someone that everyone can see and everyone can look at and point at and that that’s extremely difficult.
That was something that was in every single narrative of a trans teenager. It was very important to include that because that is a part of their life. I had less of an experience in that as an adult, but when you’re a teenager, I imagine this is very intense and can feel like… We always feel like everyone’s watching us to begin with, when we’re a teenager, and to actually have that be confirmed is probably mortifying.
KAPLAN: Can you tell us about what went into the character design? What was the process of designing Galaxy’s extraterrestrial form like?
TAYLOR: I’m very much a painterly artist, so I take a book through from pencils all the way through to the final colors on the page. The design and the colors of the design were all carefully picked from the very beginning. I think I’ll touch on Galaxy’s design first, because that was really something that Jadzia and I did hand in hand.
We were on a Zoom call, and just going back and forth of how to get across Taylor’s alienness without alienating people, and to make Taylor read as thoroughly extraterrestrial and unique in the DC universe without stepping into any design oversights.
For instance, when you’ve got a horned creature, it’s very easy to step into something that’s going to have connotations that you definitely don’t want to be associating with the trans community. We’ve had enough of that, thanks. I think we went through, I think I’ve got 62 different horn iterations saved on my computer.
I’ve been thoroughly raised in sci-fi. Alien designs have always been very close to my heart, mainly because so often in sci-fi they’ve been used as narratives for people who are outside the majority of the experience. I really drew on a lot of that to try and build up a believable design for Galaxy.
KAPLAN: Dresses and clothing generally play an important role in Galaxy. Where did you turn for inspiration, and was there an outfit that stands out to you as your favorite?
TAYLOR: Oh, my favorite outfit is the party outfit, hands down. I can’t not love a galactic outfit for a galactic princess. It was, I think, one of the first outfits that I designed for Galaxy outside of some daywear. It was a very big concept on Pinterest at the time was these floaty dresses with the gauze overlays. It was just before the strawberry dress hit it super big. I have three Pinterest boards filled with ideas for Taylor’s entire wardrobe that is based on the reference images that Jadzia was so kind to give me during the script.
AXELROD: The clothes are important to me, so I had many, many references for Jess.
TAYLOR: Yes, and all the references that you’ve sent across were these bright candy floss, very nearly retro designs. I built up a portfolio of ideas that I wanted to reference and things like that and give Taylor a very fancy, this visually distinct wardrobe from everybody else in the comic, and from every other hero that I’d seen from the DC YA line at this point. I wanted her to stand out. She deserves it. As for dresses playing a huge part, yes. The entire scene where Taylor’s trying to find the perfect dress for prom, it’s a very heartwarming scene for me.
When I was a kid, I absolutely adore the makeover scenes in teen movies because I just really wanted somebody to take me out and take me on a makeover trip, make me who I want to be. I love that Jadzia hit on in the script this idea of finding prom dresses from every discernible time, if you will, from each decade of teen movies that were so visually distinct from each other and played into different tropes and everything.
KAPLAN: Are there any comics or any other kinds of stories that were particularly inspirational to you while working on this project?
TAYLOR: When it comes to the artwork, I had a lot of influences. There was a particular kind of acting style that I wanted to shine through in the story. My roots as a child were very much in Manga. My entire childhood was spent locked in a Borders next to the graphic novel section with the TOKYOPOP, and I would just sit in the corner reading whatever Manga I could get my hands on. I feel like I’ve definitely referenced that in the way that there’s a very subtle– I say subtle, it’s not subtle at all. I’m not subtle. I don’t do subtle, but the characters change when they experience very extreme emotions.
They’re quite bouncy, and I feel like that is definitely a reference back to the 2000s Manga that I grew up with, and that I always wanted to see myself in, but never quite could. Where there was this artistic fashion at the time that when characters were angry, or when characters were happy, or when something extreme happened, they would become more cartoonized versions of themselves to better show that. I’ve definitely referenced that several points throughout the book.
Other than that, I really wanted to reference a lot of Bowie’s color palettes from the ’70s. I feel like I turned them up to 11, just because that’s who I am. If I’m not working with a fluorescent, I’m not happy. In the ’70s and the Ziggy Stardust era, there were just so many wonderful outfits and color palettes and scenarios that Bowie had put together in each of his albums that were just an absolute delight to go through and dig through.
Understandably, I’ve also weaved as many pride flags, and that are relevant as I possibly can. Then I think for acting as well, I really wanted to reference The Legend of Zelda games. It’s a bit of more of subtle acting and character design for that, especially considering a lot of Zelda fans view Link as a trans icon at this point. I really wanted to get that, you don’t need voice acting to be able to read what’s happening in the scene, but the dialogue definitely adds absolutely everything to it.
AXELROD: One major influence on this was Fooly Cooly, the anime. When I started writing Galaxy, I remember telling friends, “This is my Fooly Cooly.” That was a huge influence on the book and you can see that with the rural town and space invaders and repressed emotions and everything.
TAYLOR: I was just going to say, Fooly Cooly really reminds me of those liminal spaces where just anything can happen. I feel like Ozma is definitely one of those spaces. You could see a 10-foot alien walking down the street in Ozma and you would not blink an eye. It’s just beautiful. I love it.
KAPLAN: Since Galaxy: the Prettiest Star is now out in the world, you’ve seen many reactions on social media and possibly elsewhere. I’m curious if any reactions so far stand out to you?
AXELROD: So many. My heart is full. Very often they’re saying the same thing, which is that they have never seen themselves in a book this completely before. A teacher sent me a message from a student who said that this is the first time they had been able to identify with the character without sacrificing a part of themselves. That gave me a lot of feelings. Many, many different feelings at once. On the one hand, I’m so overjoyed that they were able to finally see themselves, and then another part of me is so angry that it has taken so long and it had to be this book.
This year starts with a two. This should have happened earlier. I’m grateful that I am the one helping it happen and that the stars have aligned because I was very fortunate. I’m so proud of it and I love it. It shouldn’t be the only one. There’s not any other books that are like this from DC Comics. There’s not any other books like this from Marvel Comics, from these large publishers.
I think that’s really important because there’s so many beautiful queer stories being told on the internet and in independent books that are just as good, if not better, than the book that we’re doing. But kids don’t know how to find them. It’s not pushed to them. It’s not in the way that Warner Brothers’ marketing muscle can do, and so they’re not going to see it and they’re not going to find it.
TAYLOR: We’ve been inundated with people who have been live Tweeting getting the book, or reading through it, and so many of the ones I’ve seen say they have had to stop or walk away. We had somebody post a picture of Galaxy next to the pile of tissues that they had at the end of reading it.
Then we’ve had people talking about their experiences of encouraging their children to read it. I think that’s always the one that really gets me in the heart, and the thought that there are kids out there who never have to know what it’s like to not see themselves reflected in media because DC made it possible, Jadzia made it possible, Sara made it possible –
AXELROD: You made it possible.
TAYLOR: I just drew it.
AXELROD: It’s a comic book, Jess. It wouldn’t exist without the art.
TAYLOR: Look I’m not good at that, but just knowing that there were so many people involved in getting this to shelves and into the hands that need it most to be able to carry it forward. I always think that that’s the most important thing in our community, is just that we have the queer rights we have now because the people who came before us set the stage for us to have those rights. Being able to pass that on to younger members of the community (who might not even know that they’re members of the community for several years), it’s incredibly important. And to see that reflected in the messages that we’ve been getting from people… I’ve cried a lot this week. I need to turn off the faucet and stop the emotions. It’s been a lot and it’s been wonderful.
AXELROD: Yes, it’s been really incredible. One thing that was really important to me writing it was that it be unapologetically queer and unapologetically trans and to not have any qualifiers with that. To not present being trans as negative, but also not to present being trans as neutral. To not show it as something that it’s just like being cis because it’s not.
I wanted to show being trans is beautiful. I wanted to show being queer is beautiful and how queer love is transformative. We don’t get to see trans being beautiful. We see beautiful trans people.
We don’t see media so often, even if we have beautiful trans actors playing these roles, being trans is something that is never shown as something that is glorious and I really wanted to do that. That, I think more than anything, is what people are responding to. We were so starved for that, not just representation, but celebration.
TAYLOR: I’ve said before that Galaxy: the Prettiest Star is very shameless story. There is no shame at all attached to it in any measure. The characters are allowed to feel the whole gamut of emotions that they want to feel. Never once are they told that they shouldn’t, or that it’s wrong. It was such a wonderful thing to read the first time I ever read it, and it was such a wonderful thing to illustrate and know that the message behind Galaxy is to just unapologetically be yourself because you shouldn’t be ashamed of any facet of yourself. Even if it is anger, even if it is sadness, even if it is feeling lonely, that those emotions are part of the experience and that it’s okay to feel them and it’s okay to be open and honest about them alongside all of the joy that can also come with them.
AXELROD: Yes. That was the impetus in a very real way because as I said I didn’t transition until my 30s, and part of that was I’ve read old journals of myself when I was a teenager. There was definitely gender questions in there, but the representation of trans people in media was not something that resonated with me because it was all done by cis people. We were always a joke or something tragic or a big narrative trope – which is less now, which is great, but certainly then – was this idea that a trans woman is a failed man.
I had too much success at being a boy to be a girl. Part of that was I was working so hard to be a boy. The struggle was real. I really wanted to create an antidote to that and to help out the eggs who might be reading it and say, “you don’t have to fit in a specific box in order to feel this way.” These are just feelings and again, that’s where the sci-fi metaphor really, I think shines.
KAPLAN: Is there anything else you’d like me to include?
AXELROD: I love the way Jess drew August.
TAYLOR: I love that you gave me a corgi that I could just make do things in panels.
AXELROD: Galaxy is just very me. It’s like I got all the things that I like in it, which are queer people, talking animals, space aliens, sci-fi weirdness, great clothes; it’s all very me. I’m glad that that is also very Jess and that we have worked so well together on this book because it’s so beautiful and gorgeous. I’m so proud of it.
Galaxy: The Prettiest Star is available now at your local bookstore, comic book store, and/or public library.