Interview: Discovering the creative process behind CASTLE SWIMMER with Wendy Lian Martin

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Set beneath the surface of the ocean, Castle Swimmer by Wendy Lian Martin is a fantasy story about Kappa, “the Beacon” who is referred to by countless prophecies, and Siren, the shark prince whose people have a prophesy dictating that he will kill the Beacon. But when Siren meets Kappa, the pair forges an instant bond… While killing Kappa is unthinkable, how will Siren’s mother react when her son hasn’t fulfilled the prophecy meant to save their people?
The Beat reached out to Martin to find out more about her creative process, the genesis of Castle Swimmer, and why including queer representation is so important to her!
Image from Castle Swimmer by Wendy Lian Martin
Avery Kaplan: Was there a reason that you chose the underwater setting for Castle Swimmer?
Wendy Lian Martin: Well usually I say that I don’t like drawing feet or stairs! I’ve always just liked mermaids and the scenery and all that. I was going for a medieval sort of feel.
Kaplan: There is so much great representation in Castle Swimmer. Was it important for you to include queer characters? Why?
Martin: Yeah, just because… I mean, I’m gay, so it was a given there. It kind of took me a long time to be able to put gay characters into my comics. My first comic, which was like a very early version of Castle Swimmer, I wanted the characters to be gay, but I wasn’t out of the closet yet. In my head they were secretly gay.
The second comic I made, it was more implied that they were gay. It was about two girls and it was called Spread Your Wings. That was gay too, but I feel like if people read it, they could still deny it. It’s more implied than rather blatantly saying it. And so now in Castle Swimmer, it’s just blatant. Blatant gay! It feels really good to put that in there.
Kaplan: And you see it by the end of the third episode!
Martin: I’m like, full in, right away, wanting to be very queer… And then there are still people that deny it, so it’s interesting. The queers have been denied for so long! I feel so bad for everybody because we just can’t accept it.
It’s pretty common in mainstream media, in order to get your representation, you have to really dig in there and look between the lines and kind of create your own story, and that’s kind of all you get, with the big stuff. But I think we’re getting places recently.
Image from Castle Swimmer
Kaplan: I love the way the first episode serves as a prologue. Was there a reason you began with a story from the past rather than “en media res” for Kappa and Siren’s story?
Martin: Well actually, when I first started making the comic before I was with Webtoon, that first episode did not exist. It started off with episode 2, so there was a lot that I didn’t tell everybody at first in that old version. Having an editor helped me realize that I kind of have to introduce his role first and I think it got people attached to that character quicker.
I had wanted to introduce this Beacon as this mysterious figure, so it’s kind of a surprise when he appears because everyone’s talking about this magical being but you don’t really know what he looks like. By adding that first episode, I can still have that surprise, because he’s a child and the surprise comes from seeing what he’s like as an adult. I just like drawing cute stuff, too, so I wanted to draw this cute little baby mermaid!
Kaplan: Many of your characters have interesting names. Do you have any favorites? Were any of the names hard to choose?
Martin: There was a time when I was going to name every main character after a mythical sea creature, so that’s where Kappa and Siren comes from. Then I quickly ran out of mythical sea creatures so it’s just them! And then I just started bullshitting names.
It helped to decide that, if I have a race, like the sharks, all their names would start with “S,” and that makes it easier to pick names, by giving myself limits and boundaries… Otherwise I’d probably have some – I don’t even know what the names would be! I kind of just want to make silly, goofy names that don’t mean a lot.
Kaplan: The world building in Castle Swimmer is amazing. How do you develop the underwater world?
Martin: As with the names, it’s also helpful to make a fantasy world if you also have a theme and limitations. If I just wanted to make a normal fantasy world, I wouldn’t even know where to start! But since its underwater, I can immediately pull from things: this castle could look like a seashell, or I have all these fish, or all these other underwater aspects I can pull from to kind of be creative with.
Of course all the characters are based on a type of fish, so I have something to construct creative ideas around that helps me be creative and stick with the theme.
I have a sketchbook that I just kind of throw some ideas into sometimes. I’ll be inspired by something I see in a video game or some artsy thing and screencap it, put it in my special folder of ideas.
Kaplan: Are there any particular inspirations for Castle Swimmer?
Martin: I always come back to Studio Ghibli movies. I always try to go for that mystical feel that they have – this wholesomeness, I guess. Going for Ghibli is like reaching for the stars! Other than that, Avatar: The Last Airbender is pretty big… the idea of “the Beacon,” I was looking for a different word than “Avatar,” honestly.
And I wanted to touch on the humor and jokes that they have in that kind of story. I like telling jokes! I like to construct my plot around the jokes that I want to tell. Most of the plot is because I wanted to tell jokes! I don’t know if that’s a proper method of storytelling or not – I do have my main plot worked out. I don’t know, the jokes have been important to me. I’m like, “I have to have my jokes!”
Image from Castle Swimmer
Kaplan: What is your creative process like? Do you have a daily routine?
Martin: Yeah, my weekly work process of getting an episode done… and this always gets messed up throughout the week; it does not go as I plan it. Sunday I sketch out the rough thumbnail of the episode and figure out what the episode going to be. Then Monday and Tuesday, I try to get the sketch done. Wednesday and Thursday I get the line art done, and I try to get all the coloring done on Friday so then I can have Saturday off. But that doesn’t always – that rarely happens.
Kaplan: How far forward do you plan the story (or do you plan the story ahead)?
Martin: Well for this first kind of “season” that’s going on with the sharks, I know all the main beats that are going to happen. The big moments and the ending to the season – it’s just filling in those little in-between moments that I don’t have.
Kaplan: Do you ever go to aquariums for inspiration?
Martin: I have been to aquariums, but I live in Iowa, so we don’t have a lot of them. I more have the option to go see cows in the cornfield. So mainly inspiration would be stuff I look up online, movies, that kind of stuff. I’m always really inspired by artsy video games. I don’t know if you’ve seen Abzû, but I was all over that game!
Kaplan: Are there any comics you’re reading right now?
Martin: I’m a big fan of Mage & Demon Queen. Love Advice from The Duke of Hell. Lalin’s Curse is really good. And I’ve got my twitter and indie comics. I like a queer comic called Novae that’s really good, and I’m a big fan of another webcomic called Wilde Life!


You can check out Castle Swimmer for yourself right now on Webtoon! To keep up with Wendy Lian Martin, follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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