In the upcoming middle-grade graphic novel The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith, in order to elude their enemies, twins Hawke and Grayson are forced to assume the guise of Hanna and Grace and seek refuge among the women of the Communion of the Blue.

Ahead of the January 2020 release of the middle grade graphic novel, The Beat chatted with Smith via e-mail to find out more about The Deep & Dark Blue and the inspiration behind it!

The Deep & Dark Blue

AVERY KAPLAN: Is there any special significance behind the title, The Deep & Dark Blue?

NIKI SMITH: Color plays a big role in my book—blue in particular, in the form of a mysterious, magical indigo dye. I found my title in a line from a Lord Byron poem.  

KAPLAN: Do you have a regular creative routine?

SMITH: I do! I try to keep to normal working hours; long hours and no vacations tend to be the norm for a lot of freelancers, but it’s healthier for my body and my mind if I let myself have weekends and evenings off. I know I’m lucky to be able to afford to do that, though. I’m usually at my computer and working by 9 a.m.; what I’m doing depends on where I am on my book—a month or two of scripting, a few months of thumbnails and sketches, then inks, then colors.

Altogether, it can take over a year to finish a graphic novel. More often than not I have some smaller projects that I’m working on simultaneously; contributing to themed anthologies is always fun! Side projects keep me from getting bored or too burnt out working on just one thing (and also help pay the bills in the meantime!). While I worked on my own book, The Deep & Dark Blue, I was also toning Conspiracy of Ravens for Dark Horse and inking Chronin volume 2 for Tor.

KAPLAN: What went into the process of world-building for this story? Were there any particular foundations for the world of The Deep & Dark Blue?

SMITH: Instead of a standard medieval land with castles and royalty, I decided to draw from the Republic of Florence for the world of The Deep & Dark Blue. The twins are nobles, but they live in a city-state run by a council of wealthy families and guilds. Citizens are much more involved in the running of the city, but it makes the coup and betrayal that much more harrowing—Hawke and Grayce don’t know who they can trust in the huge web of political alliances. So, instead, they go into hiding…

The Deep and Dark Blue
Courtesy of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

KAPLAN: What was the process of developing the Communion of the Blue, the order of magical women with whom the twins seek refuge after the royal family is overthrown by a coup?

SMITH: The Communion of Blue is inspired by medieval religious sisterhoods and beguines. Girls from any background can join and pledge to spend their lives following the mother goddess, who wove the world on her loom. The women of the order have the ability to manipulate a magic blue dye, spinning the threads of the world around them. The Communion is self-sufficient and mysterious, living behind tall stone walls in the center of the city, and that only makes Grayce want to be a part of them even more: a sisterhood where no one knows her, where she can finally live as a girl.

Everything about the Communion is centered on fiber arts—spinning thread, weaving, things dismissed as “women’s work” in so many cultures, but it’s the source of their powers. Spindles and weaving were an enormous part of early folklore and religion all over the world, like the Greek myths of the Three Fates, or Sleeping Beauty. I really wanted to develop that into a system of magic—textiles, spinning and weaving, all powered by a mysterious, deep blue dye. The Communion of Blue grew from that.

KAPLAN: Was it important to have the protagonists be twins? 

SMITH: The Deep & Dark Blue was inspired by the books I loved as a kid– stories that played with gender, girls disguising themselves as boys to live the lives they always wanted, as knights and pirates and soldiers! And many of books stories feature twins, the main lead disguising herself as her twin brother to go off and have adventures. I made Hawke and Grayce twins as a nod to those stories: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna.

Drawing Hawke and Grayce as identical twins let me show just how different they are, too. Comics let you linger on body language, and my intention was that you never confuse the two, no matter how similar they look: Hawke is loud and quick to laugh, bold and cocky and ready to fight—but Grayce is quieter, wistful and aching for change. Her posture changes throughout the book as she gains confidence and steps out into the world.

The Deep and Dark Blue
Courtesy of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

KAPLAN: Were there any plot points or character moments that were particularly hard for you to unravel?

SMITH: Hmm… that’s tough to talk about without spoilers! At the heart of the coup is a battle centered around bloodline, inheritance, and the deep blue tapestry that traces their noble family tree. Figuring out how those threads wove together took a while.

KAPLAN: Were there any specific inspirations for The Deep & Dark Blue?

SMITH: I grew up loving books that played with gender and identity—when I was little, finding queer and trans characters in young adult and middle-grade books was nearly impossible (or a sign that a Meaningful Tragic Ending™ was incoming).

With Mulan and Alanna, something about the blurring of gender roles struck a deep chord. And while I still love so many of these stories, they all had one thing in common: despite all the “gender-bending”, the queer undertones, the flirting while in disguise—each story ends with a main character that’s firmly cis and straight. Even as a kid, I knew I wanted something more.

I also never saw the reverse: it was always girls who yearned to live the life of a boy, never the other way around. The life of a girl was dreary and full of tedious hobbies; something to escape. I wanted to write a system of magic with its roots deep in “women’s work”, in fiber arts, spindles and weaving.

All of that led to The Deep and Dark Blue: Two siblings on the run, seeking refuge with a mysterious order of women… but for one twin, it’s not a disguise. It’s the chance for a young trans girl to live as herself for the first time.

The Deep and Dark Blue
Courtesy of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

KAPLAN: Visually, symmetry plays an essential role at many key narrative moments in The Deep & Dark Blue. Was it important for you to include these visually symmetrical moments?

SMITH: I had to think about this! In many cases, I think the symmetry was my subconscious response to drawing a book about twins: they’re identical, but their responses to their adventures are in no way parallel. Drawing on symmetry was a wonderful way to contrast that. While Grayce is empathetic and sensitive, Hawke is a bit more dense, focused only on his own troubles. While Hawke yearns for revenge, Grayce wants nothing more than to stay in the place she now calls home.

The Deep & Dark Blue hits stores on January 7, 2020 and can be preordered now through Smith’s website. Follow Smith on Twitter @niki_smith for updates on her work, which you can also support directly through her Patreon.