We ComiConverse With Valentine Barker & Lela Gwen
July 28th, 2015 | by L. K. Roberts
Lydia K. Roberts interviews Valentine Barker & Lela Gwenn on their webcomic Raconteuse, right here on ComiConverse.
Earlier this year at Emerald City Comicon (ECCC), during the hours that I spent wandering the packed aisles of Artist Alley, wishing that I could multiply both the funds in my wallet and the space in my house, I came across somewhat of an anomaly for the event: a section in which several artists of color occupied tables.
After a double-take, I made my way through the crowd to find something even more rare, a display of prints showing an array of strong, adept young women of various ethnicities whose bodies were more Rubenesque than Playboy centerfold. As a longstanding comic book fan, I have become somewhat desensitized to the unrealistic reflections of the female form that permeate most publications, as well as the limited racial and ethnic variety. As a woman of color and a mother of two daughters, though, I always have my eye out for people who strive to do a little better than the norm. Valentine Barker does more than that; in his “Like a Girl” series of prints, he discards the hyper-sexualized, one-note images and focuses, instead, on fun, body-positive versions of femininity that reflect the diversity of the world around us, girls who you’d be lucky to hit, run, play, ride, or dream like. Of course, I bought every one of the prints!
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A few months later, when Valentine announced the news via social media that he had a new webcomic called Raconteuse in the works with writer extraordinaire Lela Gwenn, I reached out to both of them to find out more.
LKR: Who is your intended audience and why should they follow Raconteuse? What should they expect?
LG: Hopefully, it’s for everyone who likes magic and heroism and adventure. I know some folks will be turned off by the fact that all the main characters are female and not white and that the two main characters, Mira and Ayida, are girlfriends. This isn’t for them. Basically, if you hated Fury Road you can skip Raconteuse.
VB: I think people who like fun will like this story. It’s got a lot of strong characters and compelling action — what’s not to like?
LKR: What is the significance of the title?
LG: I like playing with words, so I looked up storyteller in the thesaurus and “raconteur” was there. Raconteuse is the feminine. It’s French, and Ayida (and most of the well-to-do people in our world) is Haitian. So, it makes sense that they would call our magical storytellers Raconteuse.
Like her mother, Sahila, Mira is a Raconteuse with the magical ability to put the person she is telling the story to INTO the tale. But there is a danger in it. If a Raconteuse tells herself a story, it is easy to lose the ability to separate truth from fiction.
When Sahila comes to her with a tale impossible to believe, Mira has to figure out if her mother has fallen victim to fantasy or if something more dangerous is going on.
LKR: In your opinion, people who like _______ will also like Raconteuse.
LG: Lumberjanes? Which sounds a little full of myself because if ALL THE EISNERS! But it’s a girl-focused story with a little magic. So, yeah. That.
VB: Amelia Cole. It’s an action story with strong female leads and some fantasy elements… so… I just copied Lela again, didn’t I?
LKR: How did your collaboration come into being?
LG: I’m pushy?
VB: She’s not wrong.
LG: We met through our mutual friend (and now editor on Raconteuse) Adam P. Knave. Valentine was splitting a table with Adam at ECCC, and Adam invited me to work the table. We spent a weekend sitting next to each other. I loved his work. What I do (like for a living) is to sell things to people so I helped him up his con sales game. Basically, we became BFF’s.
VB: Lela has commented on a lot of my characters, and I’ve kinda wanted her to write me a story with some of them, but when she pitched me Raconteuse I was instantly sold.
LG: Valentine has a TON of character designs just begging to be made stories. This was just a story I’ve had kicking around in my head, and his artwork was a perfect match.
(Valentine noted on Twitter that Lela basically pitched it as “Epic Battles and Kissing.” – Really, what more do you need?)
LKR: Lela, I came across your articles on the blog “Women Write about Comics,” your modeling profile, and the Kickstarter for the Born Dark comic. Your sense of humor is dry and – at times – warped- which I love! Does that come across in Raconteuse?
LG: Yeah, my brain is pretty twisty. The humor in Raconteuse is a lot of subverting expectations and not playing into stereotypes.
(Lela said on Twitter, “We made very specific casting choices with Raconteuse. Brown. Queer. Girls. And then I wrote them as people. Cuz: People.”)
LKR: What can readers expect as far as number of “issues” and the timeline for uploading of new material on the site (http://www.raconteusecomic.com/)?
LG: There will be at least 24 pages, 4 pages to start and then 2 updates a week.
LKR: Will there be a cost for viewing the content?
LG: No. We won’t be charging, but there will be a donation button that will be going straight to Valentine.
VB: She takes good care of me. Artists, pay attention, this is the kind of writer you want to work with!
LKR:Why did you choose to create a webcomic instead of a print one?
LG: Low upfront investment and it gets our work in front of eyeballs at no cost to the reader.
VB: I also think it allows us to experiment and find our rhythm. We’re not locked in to certain page counts and gives us all the freedom we want to explore this world for as long as we want.
LKR: Valentine, when I saw your work at ECCC, we talked a little about your inspiration for getting more seriously into comics and also for the “Like a Girl” Campaign. Can you talk a little bit about that?
VB: I’ve always enjoyed world building, and I kind of drift in that direction when I’m making art anyway — I like having illustrations that just feel like they’re all in the same world. Doing comics wound up being sort of a natural extension of that, but what really got me into doing more sequential work was finding bigger and more important stories to tell.
The market is dominated by books that star strong white men, and even when there is a strong female character, they tend to be overly sexualized or parenthetical to the story at large. Even then, when she’s the lead of the book, her sex appeal tends to be at least as important as her being a good character. I definitely think it’s getting better, but I wanted to be a part of that change. I want to create stories that have strong female characters and that focus on them purely as characters.
I have a stubborn refusal to try to find a way to draw men in my worlds, so that helps prevent love stories being shoe-horned in for the sake of a love story. But if there’s going to be a love story it will be a lesbian love story driven by character by default, which I don’t know that there’s enough of these days. I just know too many people who feel under-represented in comics, and I guess I’m trying to create books that they would feel good about.
As for the “Like a Girl” series, I suppose it came from much the same place. I was sitting around somewhere and heard someone say, “You hit like a girl!” Now, while I know what they intended, I don’t know why that’s a notion that still persists. I wanted to find a way to subvert that notion while at the same time celebrating the strength of women everywhere. The women in my life are extremely strong and definitely forces to be reckoned with, which is why I tend to use them as models for my various projects — the girls in my prints are all based on women I know. They inspire me, and I hope that they’ll be able to inspire others as well.
LKR: You are both on various social media outlets. Can you tell a little about the feedback you have gotten in response to the teasers for Raconteuse?
LG: SO MUCH LOVE! And a few of my friends that are queer women of color &/or transwomen who have actually read the script have all been supportive.
VB: I’ve found much the same kind of thing. I don’t know that I’ve ever announced anything on Twitter and have created this much of a stir! It’s humbling and heartwarming! The general reception of the project has been a little overwhelming for me. I figured people would be interested in it, but I didn’t count on so many people being extremely excited by it! And Lela has been kind of enough to give me a world that I get to populate with as many women as I feel like drawing — that’s been pretty great.
LKR: Has feedback through social media or in person ever impacted what you do in your work?
LG: I listen to my friends talk about representation, and I know how important it is. It would be easy to make this a girl-meets-boy story with a lily-white cast and have it be completely “inoffensive” to people I don’t care about. Populating Raconteuse with no white people and very few men was a choice we made together because we aren’t making knee jerk comics. We really are thinking about what this story is and what we want it to do. We aren’t asking for permission. Also, the wonderful group of people I am friends with online (specifically Twitter) have always been very supportive of all of my crazy ideas. I kinda feel sorry for anyone that comes at us for the lack of white dudes. We are a fierce bunch.
VB: I count on my friends to help me be my best. I want to make work that people like, so I try to at least be aware of how my work is received, but beyond that I’m the one that needs to create it and I can’t let too much get in the way.
LKR: How do you hope to use social media to enhance your relationship with fans?
VB: I try to engage with my fans as much as possible. It’s support from these wonderful people that helps me do what I do, and I want to be able to keep doing it for them.
LKR: Do you have any role models in the comic industry or any work by others right now that inspire you or that you particularly enjoy?
LG: Gail Simone and Kelly Sue DeConnick in the abstract. Adam Knave, Paul Allor & Paul Tobin have been in the trenches with me, making me a better writer.
VB: I’d have to say Adam P. Knave, D.J. Kirkbride, Nick Brokenshire, Paul Allor, Paul Tobin, Colleen Coover, and Marissa Louise have all been immeasurably supportive and inspirational for me. They’ve really helped me up my game.
LKR: What advice do you have for others who are hoping to launch their own webcomic?
LG: Just do it. Spend the money to have it properly hosted and all that, but the only thing to it is to do it. Also, if you are a writer, find yourself a super genius art wizard and capture him using incantations and spells from the secret book of Commakkia.
VB: Again, she’s not wrong. These days it’s easy to get your work out into the world, so if you have a story to tell, start telling it. If it’s a collaboration, find someone with similar goals who respects what you do. There might be disagreements over particular points, but if you’re on the same page the decisions will be in service of the project.
While Lela and Valentine do not currently have plans to reproduce the comic in print format, the material is planned out in such a way that it would be possible if there is enough interest in Raconteuse, the first pages of which will be released on the website http://www.raconteusecomic.com on August 13th. Updates will be made on Tuesdays and Thursdays after that!
Later this year, Valentine will be attending both Rose City Comic Con (September 19-20 in Portland, Oregon) and Baltimore Comic-Con (September 25-27) to promote Raconteuse, as well as other work.
While I’ll keep you posted here at ComiConverse with news as it becomes available, you can also find Lela and Valentine on Twitter (@ChalkyHeart and @LGwenn respectively). You can support and can purchase artwork (including coloring book pages!) through https://society6.com/chalkyhearts or https://www.patreon.com/valentinebarker.
Let me know your thoughts about Raconteuse and also other small press projects you’d like to see more of on ComiConverse by dropping me a line @Lyderary.
Until next time, peace!
Lydia K. Roberts is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @Lyderary