Leah Williams is busy.
After just one year in the comics industry, this up-and-coming star already has an impressive resumé. In October, Marvel released two X-Men one-shots by Williams: What If? Magik and X-Men: Black – Emma Frost. She also has several short comics, essays, and a self-published novel under her belt.
In 2019, Williams’ name will be on even more comics titles. In addition to her first creator-owned series through Lion Forge, the cyberpunk tech noir r(ender);, Williams is also writing Age of X-Man: The X-Tremists and a Barbarella/Dejah Thoris mini-series for Dynamite Comics.
Like many millennial creators, Williams grew up in online fandom spaces, particularly in communities where she channeled most of her her creative energies into writing fanfiction. At FlameCon 2018, she was asked to speak on “The LGBTQ History of Fanfiction” panel, where she noted that as a comics writer, she basically gets to write fanfiction professionally.
“It feels like I’m getting away with something,” Williams admits. “Sana Amanat confirmed on-stage during the ‘Women of Marvel’ panel for NYCC we were both on that this feeling never goes away, though, so I’ve stopped being self-conscious about admitting that. I absolutely feel like I write fanfiction professionally.”
As a young writer, diving into fanfiction gave Williams most of the skills she uses in her writing now. She says, “Fanfiction is what I refer to as my training yard, a kind of open arena where my writing career really began. It was first blogging on Tumblr and being encouraged to write more that gave me the courage to start really writing fanfiction, but fanfiction feels like where I started sharpening my knives.”
The feedback loop of fandom gave Williams the opportunity to try new writing techniques and modes of storytelling, from point-of-view changes to nonlinear narratives. She says, “It was a transformative experience for me because I was doing something out of love — love for characters and existing properties — and then getting immediate feedback on my actual writing once I posted it. There’s no more discerning critical audience than fans who know these characters just as well as you do and can see exactly where you went wrong. … It helped me understand what works and what doesn’t.”
Williams’ first professional effort, her 2015 self-published novel The Alchemy of Being Fourteen, is the first in a six-book series that initially began as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Game of Thrones crossover fanfiction. Then, after “maybe 3,000 words,” she realized the story was actually shaping up to be her own original book.
She made the transition into comics on Nov. 16, 2017 — two years after The Alchemy of Being Fourteen hit shelves and exactly one year before we chatted for this piece.
“I got an email from Chris Robinson that was like, ‘Do you have any interest in writing comics?'” Williams says, adding that prior to that moment, she really hadn’t thought about it. “I can honestly say no. I never realized that was a remote possibility for me,” she says. “I had been writing X-Men fanfiction for years and opened that email from Chris while I was sitting on my couch in front of my 15 foot long vinyl X-Men poster, something I got while I was working in a comic shop, and I had to take 12 hours to calm down before replying, ‘Yes.’”
As Williams has rocketed her way into the comics industry, she says there are moments that leave her “breathless” when she thinks about how quickly her life has changed: “One thing I’ve been saying about this from the start is that none of it feels real, and with every new opportunity to press forward, that feeling only stands firm. The delight and disbelief.”
Although she has a wealth of unique experiences to pull from — both in her personal and professional lives — Williams says those experiences don’t end up in her writing. Since she “treat[s] online platforms as confessional spaces,” she prefers to go outside herself for inspiration. In addition to sending her down “information rabbit holes” about topics ranging from historic costume and particle physics to scuba divers getting the bends, this also helps Williams write content that she wants to read herself.
“I am my first audience member for everything,” she says. “It has a lot to do with coming from fandom culture and knowing how much I love things, and hoping that I can someday create or contribute something worthy of that kind of love, too.”
Williams says her love for things — like the X-Men character Emma Frost — has helped her connect with other fans more and more as she’s become a recognizable figure in the industry. “People approach me to say how much they love Emma Frost, too. I get recognized more for tweeting about Emma than anything else,” she says. “This is what’s happened every time people have walked up to me at cons and I only want to nurture that, because it is humbling and moving to have an interaction with someone who was a stranger, but within 20 seconds both of us are near tears talking about how much this character means to us, and immediately finding out it’s for exactly the same reason.”
“This is a kind of magic to me and I really treasure it,” Williams continues. “To be known — to be understood — for something that people outside of fandom culture will never really get…it really does move me to tears every single time. It’s something overwhelming and incandescent.”
As a professional comics writer, Williams’ social media presence hasn’t changed much — she still posts memes, calls out problematic character behavior, and gushes about her faves. However, out of respect for fandom spaces born of her own rearing within them, she tries to respect that her presence in fan communities is different now than it was before.
“I want fans to be able to safely discuss their feelings about my work or a character without worrying that they’re being observed or that it will upset me,” she says. “Like, I have big fandom feelings but now [jumping into conversations to argue with other fans] would be like using a wrecking ball where a flyswatter would suffice. It’s completely off-limits, in my mind, for me to ever interlope on the discussions of online communities where I am not being tagged for participation.”
Williams also says she has “a different, more aerial view of online communities now. I’ve been really moved by being able to see the way different fans of a certain character collect around that character, because they’ll individually reach out to me when something I’m writing with their favorite character gets announced. This is not something I would have been able to fully grasp before, and it’s really humbling to see.”
— Leah #XFAQtor Williams (@mymonsterischic) October 29, 2018
As for how she balances all these projects, Williams says she relies on Pinterest boards (“It easily lets me curate reference images for artists”) and playlists (these “help me build up an overall feeling or atmosphere too nebulous for words but what I want to keep honing while I’m writing”), which she curates publicly on Spotify. She says she hunkers down over one project at a time, blocking out several days for each one before pivoting to the next.
This method seems especially helpful for her current projects, which according to her comments, are vastly different in nature and approach. On Age of X-Man, Williams says, “I’m calling the event the ‘coffeeshop AU’ of X-Men events. Like, it’s going to sound really weird at first to the uninitiated, but it just works.”
Meanwhile, the Barbarella/Dejah Thoris mini-series is “quickly becoming one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. It’s just so dang FUN,” Williams says. “And also gay. The flirting between the two women starts immediately and authentically because it’s true to their characters. As a queer woman and a geek, I could immediately see the possibility for an enemies-to-lovers romantic tension with them. Barbarella would take one look at this warrior princess and even despite the sword point held at her throat, she’d still just see Dejah and be like, ‘Well, hello.'”
Last, but not least, Williams says that her first creator-owned series, r(ender);, is “wildly joyful to work on,” especially since the idea has been in her head since she was a teenager. “It’s set on an island, and very gay cyberpunk in a mediterranean setting is really hitting all the marks of content I’ve been desperate for for a long time,” she says. “The fact that I get to see it fully realized with Jasmine Amiri as my editor at Lion Forge and Lenka Simeckova illustrating it is wild to me.”
From the energy Williams exudes on social media, during panels at cons, and in this interview with The Beat, it’s clear that she is just getting started — and she tells The Beat that she “could never be happier doing anything” other than writing.
Barbarella/Dejah Thoris #1 hits shelves on Jan. 9, 2019 (FOC 12/17/18). Age of X-Man: The X-Tremists #1 hits shelves on Feb. 27, 2019. r(ender); launches in April 2019.