By Sara L. Jewell

NYCC 2021 kicked off early on Thursday morning with a robust simultaneous release of virtual programming. Bestselling author Mariko Tamaki (Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, This One Summer) joined forthcoming Surely Books authors Terry Blas and Claudia Aguirre (Lifetime Passes) and Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer (Flung Out of Space) to discuss and spotlight Abrams ComicArts’ new graphic novel line Surely Books with moderator Charlotte Greenbaum. Announced in 2019 and launching this fall, Surely Books, curated by Tamaki, is driven by an ethos “dedicated to expanding the presence of LGBTQIA creators and content in the comics world.” Lifetime Passes and Flung Out of Space are launch titles for the new line.

After introducing the panelists, Greenbaum asked Tamaki to elaborate on the origin of her idea for Surely. Tamaki, laughing, responded that her girlfriend encouraged her and came up with the initial idea. “I have an ever-expanding love of comics…and there were more comics that I wanted to see published,” Tamaki said. She brought up writer Cord Jefferson and the idea that “Diversity isn’t just one person representing in the room, diversity is a [whole] room of representation.” She elaborated on how problematic it can be to place the burden of representation on the shoulders of a single voice in a writers room “representing the other”, but that if you have “a whole imprint, a whole room that’s dedicated to exploring diversity, really exploring all of the voices and stories that are involved in LGBTQIA comics…there’s so much more that you can explore with that.”

The conversation turned then to the idea for the “twisted and dark premise” of Blas and Aguirre’s Lifetime Passes, which follows a group of teenagers attempting to capitalize off of deaths at a theme park, but then becomes a surprisingly wholesome story about intergenerational understanding. Blas talked about being fascinated by a culture of people “obsessed with theme parks” where he lived in southern California, which prompted him to think about the ways in which a fantasy world like a theme park can sometimes feel more real to someone than the “real world”.

Aguirre, in creating the visual world of the story relied on some of the details that Blas described to her about theme parks which Greenbaum mentioned are more ubiquitous in North America than in Aguirre’s native Mexico. Aguirre described her approach to the story’s riotous color as a counterbalance to some of the colder, darker aspects of the story. She also talked about intentionally emphasizing the class privilege of people who are able to constantly go to theme parks with her visual approach to the characterization.

The focus then shifted to Ellis and Templer’s book, Flung Out of Space, a book described as “both a love letter to the essential lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, and an examination of its notorious author, Patricia Highsmith.” Greenbaum asked Ellis if Highsmith’s background in writing comics was an inspiration for Flung Out of Space. Ellis wryly described how Highsmith actually hated her comics so much that she burned all of them, a detail so implausible that they did not even include it in the graphic novel. However, Ellis said, it’s apparent to her in some of the suspense work that Highsmith is better known for that she once worked in comics.

Ellis and Greenbaum went on to praise Templer’s “incredible” artwork in the book, which is a departure from her more fantastical work on series like Cosmoknights. Templer said it was interesting to explore a more limited and less saturated palette on this book than she has in the past,  and admitted that she found a lot of similarity between fantasy world-building and research-based world building that she worked on to visualize the environments in Flung Out of Space. Both creators also ruminated on the challenge of depicting a real-life historical figure who was both admired and reviled. “This is a big part of queer history, I think,” Templer said, “the complex legacies of difficult people.” Ellis agreed. “I think you have to look at her [Highsmith] as a whole person. I think we owe it to ourselves as members of this queer community to look at the influential people of our past as whole people,” acknowledging the fact that they can be both good and bad. She said she viewed it as hopeful that even people who are “not perfect” can still have a positive influence.

The panel then opened up to allow the panelists to talk about what Greenbaum termed “the queer lens” through which they’re creating. “I feel like anything I write is going to be queer because I am queer, and it’s hard to separate that from the subject matter of what I write,” Blas said. While the protagonist’s story in Lifetime Passes is not necessarily about her being queer, both her queerness and her Mexican identity are integral parts of her that inform her character, he said.

Ellis agreed, adding that she sees both books as existing somewhere between two narrative pigeonholes that queer stories have often historically found themselves trapped in – coming-out stories that are centered around a character’s queerness, or stories where a character’s queerness is merely incidental. “To Terry’s point,” Tamaki agreed, “no queer person is just queer!” She put an emphasis on the importance of expanding what queer stories can be and look like, with less of an emphasis on explaining queerness, and a more intersectional and nuanced approach to identity. “Writing and drawing from personal experience adds a lot of authenticity to it, too,” Templer said, likening it to drawing from a reference.

Blas remarked that for a superhero book where a character may be serialized through multiple iterations, it can be important to make a character’s queerness explicit, but for Lifetime Passes, that kind of specificity wasn’t necessary. Both Tamaki and Templer brought up the ways in which subtleties in both books suggest queerness without needing to have a rainbow flag or a pride parade marching through the center to announce it.

“It feels really good to just exist,” Aguirre said as the panel wound down, “I don’t need to explain myself in any of my books, I’m just showing you what I want you to see in the story…I’m just really happy that I don’t have to explain or try to justify my existence in every single work that I do.”

Lifetime Passes is set to release on November 23rd, 2021, while Flung Out of Space will release February 15th, 2022.

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