For Asexuality Awareness Week, an interview with the creator of Heartless
Heartless is an action/adventure comic set in early Victorian London. It’s about vampires, self-discovery, more vampires, the struggle against oppression, and very pretty dresses. The entire main cast is LGBTQIA+, with an explicitly asexual protagonist.
Our conversation below is lightly edited for clarity.
How did the idea of Heartless, with an ace protagonist, come about?
One of the reasons that Heartless ended up being the story that turned into a project that's going to take 3+ years of my life was because I thought it was a story that was not just something I wanted to tell, but I thought some other people would enjoy being able to read.
I kind of figured out I was asexual while I was drafting the first few chapters of Heartless. It wasn't the very first cue; I sort of had been thinking about it a little bit. But I was kind of in this place where I was like, "Oh, asexuality is something that exists, but I couldn't be that because that't kind of weird or that would make me broken and I'd be missing out on this big part of life." But then writing a really positive asexual character who's got chunks of me in her — she's certainly not a version of me, but a lot of the characters you write end up being little bits of you — really helped me come to terms with the idea that asexuality was just something I could be.
I never really felt that it was wrong for other people to be asexual. I have quite a few asexual friends. But I still had enough internalized prejudice against the idea that I'd never considered applying the label to myself. So it was very much as I was putting my mind into the head space of this character I was writing. She herself goes through a journey of coming to accept that she's asexual and this is OK — in a more fantastical way with a lot more vampires than I went through. It kind of gave me that space to approach the idea for myself a little bit sideways, which just made it a lot easier to go through that self-introspection to get to that point in your life when you accept yourself that way.
Why did you decide to make the entire cast LGBTQIA+?
The entire cast being LGBTQIA+ was a complete accident. I never set out for it. I kind of came at the story a little bit roundabout through myself. I usually start with characters and then develop a world around them. But for Heartless, I had some ideas for characters, but they ended up changing pretty drastically. And then I developed a lot of parts of the setting, which — spoiler for chapter 4 — involves vampires having a mind control psychic power ability that's directly very related to being able to be sexually appealing to people. There's this kind of joke in my house that vampires are synonymous with sex. So I was developing the rules around how vampires worked and realized I had this cool way to codify that would make for an interesting set of stories because there would be specific things they could or couldn't do. And I was developing a whole culture around that, and that ended up being where the other main characters came from.
Clara was a wonderful happy accident. Because I knew the story I wanted to tell, which was exploring this world, I needed a protagonist figure. And I needed her to be new enough to the setting that she could be kind of explaining things to the reader, so people would be discovering the setting as she was discovering the setting.
I also wanted her special in some way — the kind of "chosen one" — because you need that to get her continuously involved in plot, so she's not just a tag along. I can distinctly remember exactly where I was in the world when it dawned on me that she was asexual — and that was effectively a minor superpower in this universe because it made her immune to this vampire magic.
You don't get that many stories with asexual protagonists, so it solved three problems for me all in one go. And I remember walking the way home absolutely thrilled with myself.
The rest of the characters just kind of ended up falling into place. I knew from my rules to work, there was this evil vampire hierarchy in the background, so I wanted my characters to fall into it in various places. I can't remember exactly when I decided to make everyone whatever orientations they were — again, it just sort of felt like something that was natural for all the characters and what ended up fitting best for the story. I definitely feel like they're all shaped by who they're attracted to, especially given the society they live in; it has shaped their stories. But I also feel like every background I picked for them was the most effective for particular story I want to tell — at least I hope it is.
Do you have any favorite or pet characters?
I love my entire main cast, but in really different ways.
Clara's got a lot of my flaws, and I'd say that in a caring way. She's got a lot in common with a much younger me, and she's sort of the positive portrayal of my younger self that I'd wished I'd had when I was a bit younger. She's got a lot of my flaws, but I still want to bundle her up and protect her.
Elizabeth is in some ways a lot of the person I kind of wish I could be. She's an archetype of character I've written a lot of and I want to see a lot more of in fiction. She's very confident, she's very outgoing, she's massively melodramatic. She's confidently in charge of things and has a lot of people who follow her orders while still also being morally gray and allowed to be a bit morally gray; she's not 100% a good person all the time, but still on the side of angels, so to speak. I just love seeing that kind of character, especially when they're female characters, because I don't see enough of them in fiction.
Daniel's just kind of trying his best, and he's adorable. He started out as the main character of my original first vague ideas of a plot, so I always feel a little bad about him now being such a side character.
Genevieve kind of developed more for the story, but I really like drawing her. She's one of the most visually dynamic characters, I think. She's kind of grown on me slowly as the story's progressed. [I actually have a] freckling guide. It's just this little tiny doodle of her head by my computer. There's, I think, four freckles on her face that are always in the same place, and the rest are just wherever — that's how I keep that consistent.
Why did you choose Victorian London as the setting?
I studied humanities [at university]. I always say that I spent every single lecture in class drawing. And that really should have been a hint a lot earlier than it was. But it did give me a really great background in the Western history of the world from early antiquity to late last night, which has been really helpful when I'm writing.
I just like Victorian England, not gonna lie. It was a terrible, awful, beautiful time period with a whole lot going on. I've been interested in partly from an academic point of view but also a writer's point of view long before Heartless.
I'd been writing a short story about vampires set in the Victorian times that was dealing with vampires as a metaphor for sex and the repression of time period. And that sort of inspired a few elements of the eventual setting I came up with [for Heartless].
In a lot of ways, [the Victorian setting] magnified a lot of problems we have today — like in terms of the way women were treated, the way minorities were treated, the way people who weren't straight were being treated. Because I'm setting it back in a time period that's a fair while away, I can afford to deal with a lot of those issues in not necessarily black and white terms but certainly broader strokes; very few people are going to argue that the way women were treated back in Victorian times is something we should upkeep today.
So I like the setting for exploring issues of how we're treating people, issues that are personal to me, in a way that is still relevant because we're dealing with the same kind of problems today, but it's also distant in a way that makes it a little more fun for me to approach.
Are some of the conflicts or struggles in Heartless inspired by real life?
I like to borrow the feeling of some struggle sometimes. Things like Clara having to come to terms with herself is obviously something I had to go through as well. But the details of how it happened in my life are massively different than the ways in which she has to go through in her life.
In general, when I'm writing fiction I don't tend to borrow a lot from my own life. I'll borrow personality quirks, or I'll borrow a kind of a feeling, but I like doing writing that's a bit more removed from myself in that kind of way but still about things that are important to me.
Do you know how far the Heartless story will go?
I'd like to write at least 3 books with Clara, all set in same universe and progressing, with chapters 1-6 being the first self-contained story. My plan right now is to get through finishing book one, which works perfectly well from start to finish. And then [I'll] take time aside and work on a script for a second book and figure out exactly what the second book is going to be looking like. I had book one definitely plotted out from start to finish before I put pen to paper.
What has the fan response been like?
I feel like I've got this smallish group of really enthusiastic fans — there's a few online, I take the book to local conventions because I'm also a print artist, and I have a few people who come back to my booth and recognize the story and ask me when I'm putting the next book out.
It's not the kind of fan base where everyone knows it, but I was never expecting it to be that way. I feel like I got the kind of readership I was really hoping for, which is maybe not the world's widest readership but a number of fans who were really enjoying the story because it's cool and exciting and has vampires and dresses and sword fights, but who are also coming back and telling me in private messages or in their tags or their sharing of it that the story means something to them.
What's your process like?
I prefer to have an entire script for just about anything I'm writing. I write a lot of prose as well as comics stuff; I'm much faster writing than I am at turning out pages. I am definitely the kind of writer who prefers to have a pretty strict outline. At the same time, for comic work, because I'm also the artist, the actual wording and precise placement of text or precise length of text tends to get switched around quite a bit when I'm actually putting the page together. I kind of treat what I wrote as my first draft and then I'm editing as I go. I'm usually working on 3-4 pages at once because it's easier for me to do them in batches.
I'll do a reference shot for every outfit that Clara's in, which is a lot of outfits. And I'll do reference shots for the locations if they're particularly complicated. Because I'm working just for myself, [a reference shot] is just usually a very quick poorly done doodle on paper, with whatever elements of the outfit are going to appear most readily. And if it's an outfit that I know is going to be lasting for quite a few panels, I'll usually do a more detailed shot. But if it's something that's only going to be showing up for a couple of pages, it's usually just a very quick pencil drawing. And then I'll open up previous pages while I'm working on future ones — especially the inking process — to make sure I've got the details correct, more or less.
I do my references on paper. I used to do my rough outlines on paper, and then I'd scan it and ink it. I've switched to a completely digital process as of mid-chapter 5, just because I've got a new computer setup, and it's a lot easier for me to do that.
I'm a little worried [using the computer is] making me lazier; I think that's just getting used to it. There's definitely a temptation with the computer stuff to use and abuse the push/pull tools, the warping tools, the resizing tools. On the one hand, I love those dearly because they save me a bundle of time. But on the other hand, it can be tempting to use those enough that I lose — it sounds really pretentious to say the animacy or something — but to lose the life of the drawing that I'm starting with. So it's kind of a balance between sticking to actually using all the art practice I was supposed to have and using the computer tools so it becomes a little bit faster to do a page. I definitely think the computer's a plus. I love my computer, and I will marry my undo button!
What else are you working on?
This is my only comic project right now. I am a freelance writer and an artist — they're kind of my co-day jobs. I write for tabletop role playing games. I won one year and was a finalist this most recent year in Game Chef. One of the things I'm working on is polishing up that most recent Game Chef thing to turn it something I can post online in a more polished format. I'm doing a little bit of contract work; I'm always drawing things.
I run an etsy shop, which is my most day jobish day job. It's all geeky cards, nerdy prints, and all that kind of fun stuff. It's usually a much more cartoonish, simplified style even than Heartless, so it's good to go back and forth between the two of them; most of my etsy stuff doesn't need backgrounds, which is great.
I just started a YouTube channel — that's my new, exciting project. It's still kind of experimental, so I'm figuring out exactly what works for me, but I'd like to get into a reliable once-a-week posting schedule. I'd like to do art process videos — I've actually recorded an entire page of Heartless from start to finish, but I'm waiting to post it until the page actually goes live (I work usually 1-2 months in advance; I do that because I then occasionally go 1-4 weeks without working on Heartless at all).
What is the progress you've seen in the comics world in terms of inclusivity? And how do you think it can still grow?
I think the prominence of web comic publishing is a huge boon in terms of getting more stories out there. If you're just sitting there and you're thinking to yourself, "I wish there were more stories about X," it becomes feasible — maybe not for absolutely everyone, but certainly for a larger segment of the population — to say, "Well, we need X in the world, so I'm just going to go do it." Unlike a lot of other mediums that combine visual storytelling with textual storytelling (like anything's that filmed, e.g. TV or movies), comics are something you can feasibly do as an entirely one-person show.
So I think that's been a huge benefit in terms of being able to get stories out there that can represent absolutely everyone and can more than just represent them, but represent them in stories they're interested in hearing about. As much as I love having asexual representation, the Archie comic series never appealed to me as a set of stories. I think they're perfectly lovely for other people, but they're not my thing. So one of the great things about web comics is it's not just we have to fit one or two characters into a few stories — if you happen to love Victorian England and asexuality, you could go and look up a comic about it. If you love magical girls and asexuality, you could go find a comic about it. And I think that's been a huge boost.
But at the same time, web comics as a medium still suffer from being very hard to monetize, and I wish that didn't have to be an issue. I know that if I weren't in a reasonably privileged position financially, being able to produce this comic and this story that I love might be impossible for me — because it's 6 hours of my day every week or 4 hours or 8 hours depending on how complicated the pages are. But that's something I'm able to do because I'm able to support myself through other means and because I come from a place where I've got safety nets.
If we really want to get to a point where we can really literally have everyone's story told and widest possible breadth of stories, we're going to have to find a way as an industry to promote stories and allow people to live off the stories they're telling if they are stories we think we have to have in the world. That gets very complicated, and I'm not an economist, so I can't give you a solution. But I definitely see that as something we're going to have to figure out to get the maximum number of stories — especially if a lot of LGBTQ comics are going through self-publishing, like web comics, as opposed to a traditional publishing medium with advances, etc.
Anything you want to add that's central to you as an artist or Heartless as your creative work?
For me, at the end of the day, even though Heartless is a story that deals with some issues that caused me pain, it addresses problems in world. I first and foremost want it to be really fun; I want it to be just as exciting to pick up and read as going to a superhero movie or picking up your favorite schlocky novel (I love schlock).
I certainly don't think that's the the only way to write LGBT comics; I think every story should be told a bajillion different ways because people have a bajillion different tastes. Being who we are and just playing with characters who are like us but in really fun ways and are just exciting and enjoyable to read is something that I hope I'm doing and that I just love to see out there in the world.
If you could say anything to the young girls out there struggling with their identity or how to make a space in the world, what would you say?
There's already a big campaign called It Gets Better, but it really does. I know there are people who really enjoyed their teenage years, but for me it was a time that was pretty difficult, where I was still trying to figure out exactly who I am and what I was going to do with rest of life. And even though things didn't turn out exactly how I thought they were going to turn out, I really quite happy with where I am in life. I feel like if my young me looked at older me, she'd think she was really cool, and I'm really proud to be there. She might be a little confused about a few directions, but she'd still think she's pretty cool.
So if you're young and you're confused and the world seems like it's really big and like you're going to become someone when you've never had a blueprint for exactly how you're supposed to follow along or what your life is supposed to look like tomorrow or when you get older (with regards to orientation and with regards to whatever else is in life), I promise you will figure something out. You can find your own path; you can piece together yourself. And then when you get to the end, you can write a really cool stories about vampires that will help other people find the same path as they need to.