Mysteries of the Arcana: An Interview With J. Gray

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One of the most attractive things about webcomics is that there are no walls, no glass ceilings, no One True Right Way to do anything. No one kind of story that’s better to tell than another. No Old Guard demographics gatekeepers telling you you’ll sink your readership if you write about that. Anyone can write about what they want, and it’ll easily attract readers who want to read it. In webcomics, groups who are underrepresented in the mainstream can and do find stories that represent them.

Mysteries of the Arcana, which just successfully finished the Kickstarter for its fifth chapter, is one such webcomic. Written by J. Gray with art by Keith W., it is a supernatural fantasy series that features several of the groups who never really get a serious chance on paper. Both protagonists are women. Theresa, the human, is Latina, and trying to handle not only finding out that there are other worlds out there, but what it means to her personally.  All this while trying to work through a religious crisis of conscience over friendship and sexuality.  Chrys, her foil, is from another world, and apparently unabashedly omnisexual. The series follows their adventures as they get to know each other after a chance encounter.

J. Gray is passionate about what he does, and about webcomics in general. We were lucky enough to get him to slow down from tweeting and his #webcomictruth and #webcomicboost hashtags to talk to us about his story, his passion for webcomics, and what the intersection of the two mean to him personally.

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Thanks for taking the time to meet with us and talk about your webcomic, Mysteries of the Arcana.

JG: Thank you for taking an interest in both Mysteries of the Arcana and myself.

It’s our pleasure. It’s great to see a comic out there that is not afraid to tackle diversity representation for both WoC and LGBT. Are you getting a lot of positive feedback from your readers on that aspect?

mota-catchphraseJG: Very few people mention, or even seem to notice, that Theresa is Latina. Most of my readers seem to enjoy Chrys and Theresa as a couple. The phrase “lesbian elf kisses” is the webcomic’s catchphrase among the readership, if anything is.

Yes, I’ve seen that term. Theresa coined it and the fans ran with it, great! It’s the name of one of your Kickstarter incentives too, as I recall. Nail polish.

JG: I’m very lucky compared to a lot of webcomickers who tackle LGBT subjects. I’ve yet to get a single negative email or comment based on having a homosexual relationship in my comic. A lot of webcomickers have gotten hate comments and even death threats.

I’m not sure how diverse Mysteries of the Arcana is, by the way, racially. Of the four regular “human” characters–Theresa, Circe, Kludge, and Melody–only two are people of color. Theresa is Latina, and Circe appears to be Asian. I could do a better job there, I think.

And considering that Theresa is one of your two primary characters, and Circe appears to be the wise mentor type, I’d say that’s a lot more representation than PoC are used to getting in webcomics. There are scant few that have PoC in the forefront like that. That we can all do better is a given, but you’re aware of it, so you know that you can adjust the PoC population as the story grows and expands.
It is great to hear that you’ve got readers who are progressive enough to accept the story for what it is without bringing bias and negativity into it. Was that a concern for you when you first set out to tell your story, or did you just have the story ready to go and let the chips fall where they may?

JG: I wasn’t at all concerned. Mysteries of the Arcana isn’t the first comic featuring LGBT themes. In fact, when I first began it comics like Yu+Me=Dream and Kaos Komix, The Wotch, and El Goonish Shive were all very popular. I knew I would find a receptive audience. My only real concern was that I, as a male writer, take the subject seriously and write it well–that Chrys and Theresa be real characters and their relationship read as real and not a male sexual fantasy.

Absolutely vital to treat the characters and their relationship with respect, agreed. For writers who’d like to follow in the same footsteps, what kind of advice would you offer on writing both PoC and LGBT relationships without falling into the trap of it being a fantasy?

JG: The advice I offer writers on writing characters who are persons of color or LGBT is pretty simple, honestly. It is the same advice I would offer writers who want to write a scientist, or a baker, or a soldier. Do your research. There are so many amazing books out there that can give you insight into what it is like to be black or gay or transgender. And in this day and age? When there’s the internet and so many ways of communication? It is so easy to reach out and say “Hey, I’m writing this character who is African-American. Could you help? I’d like to make sure she accurately reflects the experience of being a black woman in America and doesn’t fall into tropes.”

If you aren’t gay? Get [an editor]who is. It helps keep you in check, and it will give you new ideas to work with.

Your advice sounds good to me; it’s similar to other writers’ thinking on the subject. It seems to boil down to “treat your characters with respect and flesh them out fully to keep them from being caricatures.” The proofreader angle is one I haven’t heard before, but it also sounds like great advice.

JG: I’ve heard male writers talk before about how they don’t write strong women, they write strong characters. That’s all well and good, but I think the truth is, there are things you don’t understand on an instinctual level unless you live them. Most [straight, cis] men won’t understand what it is like to have to evaluate every man you meet as a potential threat. Most white people will never understand what it feels like to have someone cross the street just because you’re walking down the sidewalk. Those are real experiences, and they inform who you are. I might not know them on a gut level, but I can try to learn about them and think about them as I write.

Absolutely. An awareness to and a sensitivity about the experiences other people go through sounds vital to telling the story in a way that will read as authentic rather than contrived.
Many “strong characters” who happen to be women have also been the subject of criticism that just describes them as “men with breasts” whose experiences don’t really speak to being female. Your two main characters are both female, and each has her own equally valid way to do femininity. And there’s no indication that anybody’s way of being is more or less “correct” than anyone else’s.

JG: This is going to sound a bit odd. There is, in the UK, a lesbian separatist movement. I forget what it is called. But they divide women into two “genders”: blonde and brunette. It has nothing to do with hair color, really. But what it boiled down to was “feminine female” and “masculine female”. In other words, the classic ideas of butch and lipstick.

mota-reasontoliveThat was in the back of my mind when I first wrote Chrys and Theresa’s interactions. Theresa was a classic tomboy–athletic, loves guns and cars, raised by a single father. Chrys was a very “girly girl”. She loves shoe shopping. She’s very emotional. Long blonde hair. But I also looked for little ways to subvert that. If you go back and look at the text boxes that represent Theresa’s writing in chapter 1, I specifically picked a very curvy, very “feminine” font for Theresa’s handwriting. She is female, but she’s female on her own terms. Just like Chrys is female on her own terms. She doesn’t wait at home in the castle. She has her own adventures. It just so happens that sometimes her adventures involve shopping.

I did notice that. Theresa’s handwriting seems very open and “girly”. And while Chrys looks girly-girl, it’s obvious that she’s more than able to hold her own in a scrap. And you’ve created two personalities and styles that dovetail nicely together. Over four chapters we’ve seen them meet, grow closer, suffer a setback, and begin tentative steps toward growing together. It’s refreshing to see a comic take its time with the emotional heart of the story rather than rushing right into it.

JG: Thank you. I’ve never hidden that they’re meant to be together. That’s obvious (some might say a little too obvious) in the first few pages. But just meeting and being in love would be boring. There has to be conflict. Growth. Without that, what’s interesting about it? DC comics currently has a policy where characters aren’t allowed to be married. Clark’s not married to Lois. Batwoman won’t be allowed to marry her girlfriend. They think marriage makes characters boring, because it makes them happy. Personally, I think they’re wrong. It isn’t the relationship that makes them boring. It’s how you write the relationship. Develop it properly and every stage, from first kiss to first fight to wedding vows to beyond, can be fascinating.

The same man who wrote Sam Spade, for instance, also created Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man fame. I don’t think anyone will say either Sam Spade (the perpetual loner) or Nick and Nora (the crime solving husband-wife team) are boring.

I’ve seen DC’s policy. Marvel had one like it for a while–that’s what broke up Peter Parker and Mary Jane. I’ve never understood the thinking there. Reed and Sue started out almost as husband and wife, yet nobody has problems telling stories about them. Martha and Jonathan Kent have never been described as boring for being Superman’s happily married parents. So definitely, it’s about wanting to write the facets of the relationship as well as the action pow bam biff stuff that makes the difference between boring and riveting reading. Glad you’ve chosen the more complex route.

JG: Hopefully. I think DC forgets that one of the most successful versions of Superman ever was Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. That would be the one where Lois got top billing, and the whole show revolved around their relationship.

We at WWAC and our readers are curious to know what made you build your multiverse around the Tarot? Did the story start out that way, or did the idea develop organically as you began putting words down?

mota-devilJG: That’s a complicated question! The short answer is the concept of a multiverse came first. Originally, long long ago, each individual universe was made up of a mixture of psionic, technological, and magical elements. Literally in percentages. So, for example, the universe of the Terminator movies might be 90 percent technological, 9 percent psionic, and 1 percent magic. As I grew up (literally–the idea began when I was in my teens) I stopped being so fixated on those concepts, and the idea expanded until anything was possible. Which was great, but there was no binding structure. At that point, I’d been interested in the tarot for years. I owned several decks. I have an entire shelf of books on the subject, ranging from the classics to more modern interpretations. In fact, I did a turn as a professional reader at a cafe. I’d developed the idea that each tarot card was a story. What is happening on the card? Why is it happening? What events lead up to it, and what will happen afterwards? And then, one day. Inspiration. If a card could be a story, why couldn’t it be a whole world? And it grew from there. The idea of each card as a universe. People being empowered by the archetypes in the cards. Ways to use tarot terminology as fantasy/science fiction devices and, eventually, an entire creation myth revolving around the major and minor tarot.

I know you’ve described some of the concepts of significant characters in the world. Theresa, for example, is a Key, and she resonates with the Tarot card known as the Devil. She, being a religious type, doesn’t really have the grasp of the idea that the Devil doesn’t mean literal Satan, but that the card is more of a symbol than a direct correlation. Will you be expanding on that more and possibly showing other people with card connections in chapter 5?

JG: Chapter 5 is actually very action oriented. The pace is fast, it takes place over a short period of time and all in one location. Because our current chapter, chapter four, is all about telling the origin myth of the multiverse–literally seeing the creation of the minor and major arcana and how they went from being archetypes/god figures to actually creating reality as we know it–I wanted to do something with a bit more punch. We’ll be introducing a number of new bad guys but not really showing their card abilities. We WILL get to see Mandrake’s card connection and ability, however.

I’m looking forward to that. The response to Mandrake has been very positive. Everybodymota-mandrake loves cyberpunk fairies who speak in pictographs, apparently.

Mandrake’s adorable. A little feisty character who doesn’t let being able to speak only in pictographs stop her from getting her point across. She’s one of the places where the artist and you working closely shows most–that it’s still easy to understand her for the most part. And she’s a great foil to help Chrys rein in her impulsiveness and her tendency to act without thinking so much.

JG: Writing Mandrake is a terror. Having to figure out how to get her point across in ten symbols or less … and trying not to be too clever about it. I don’t want it to be like those old puzzles where you eye represents ‘I’ and Kite minus e is kit.

So it’s forcing you to think outside the box. A challenge!

JG: I do promise, though, that Theresa will be dealing with what it means to be in a universe that’s literally outside of your religious framework. To be connected to something that visually and linguistically represents your very concept of evil … and what it means to be living a life of adventure. Because in real life, when you point a gun and pull the trigger you need to learn to live with the consequences. Eventually she’s going to get an opponent who isn’t a robot or a zombie-analog.

The conflict of Theresa learning to reconcile her religious upbringing with the multiverse she’s seeing now is one of the things I’m most looking forward to. Will we be returning to Theresa’s own world at any point once she’s had some time to get her mind sorted out a bit more comfortably?

JG: Actually, Theresa returned home to her own world between chapter 1 and 2. If you’ll notice, in chapter 1 she dropped her army jacket (which she got from her father) on the floor of the abandoned subway station. In chapter 2, she has the jacket again. The story is called “Narrow” and it involves Theresa going back home and talking to someone very important who will give her a bit of perspective.With a little luck, we’ll be telling that story and adding it as an extra to the digital trade edition of chapter 1.

Ahhh. As a completist, I’ll have to get a copy of the digital trade, and I’m sure other readers will feel the same. Getting back a little to an earlier topic, did your time as a professional Tarot reader influence your writing or your story? And do the symbologies of the Tarot figure into the worlds visually or just as a framework for the multiverse?

JG: When I was reading cards for other people that’s the style I developed. I would look at the card, look at the person and the vibe I was getting from them, and try to tell the story of the card as it related to them. It was how I learned that the cards were storytelling devices. As for the various universes, the symbology isn’t always one to one. For example, we’ve seen the Tower. On the card, you’ve got the tower, often considered the Tower of Babel, being destroyed by lightning while people fall from it. In Mysteries of the Arcana, the Tower arcana (our word for universe) has no actual tower. Instead, I let the symbolism develop the concept of the world. The Tower card represents building something and then failing, often due to hubris or greed. In the Tower arcana, the original residents of that world became obsessed with youth. Addicted to being young. They developed a product that would give them eternal youth. It did! But it also turned them into plastic-covered, catchphrase-spouting yuppie zombies. But, just as something new rises from the ashes of the Tower card, a new life has risen from the ashes of the Tower arcana. The product which created the yuppie zombies also transformed many of the animals of that world into anthropomorphic beings, capable of walking, talking, loving, and living.

In chapter 4 you see that each universe was shaped in the image of its creator so the various arcana reflect the cards on a symbolic level.

What made you decide you wanted to do it as a webcomic first vs. a “traditional” style paper comic?

JG: It was the logical choice. Assuming I could afford to print a paper comic, which I couldn’t at the time, I had no real way to distribute it. Maybe I could get the local comic shop to carry it. Maybe they’d sell an issue or two. Maybe I could try selling it online, but the market would be very limited. So paper just made no sense. Webcomics on the other hand? I had devoured Fans by T. Campbell. It was one of the earliest and, in my mind, one of the most influential webcomics. It proved you could put something out there online and find an audience.

So it wasn’t a question of “if it should be a webcomic.” It being a webcomic was really the only choice.

Makes a lot of sense when you put it that way.

JG: Mind you, these days the choices are a little different. The webcomic field has grown much more crowded since I started (and it was pretty crowded then!) and Amazon and ComiXology have turned publishing on its head.

That’s also true–and webcomics also gives you the freedom to work directly with your artist without so much editorial red tape in the way, I’d imagine. I get the feeling from reading (I did an archive binge to be prepared for our conversation–300+ pages, and I flipped through so quickly!) that you and your artist work closely together.

JG: You’re right. I like to work closely with the artists who illustrate Mysteries of the Arcana. Keith and I often talk over IM as he’s working on a page. He asks questions or tells me his ideas. I give what feedback I can. He shows me progress–his inks, for example, and I might say “make sure you work on this,” and he’s open and receptive. Nine times out of ten he’ll say, “I know. It’ll come out when I add color.”

Of course an interview with you wouldn’t be complete without at least touching on your lively and positive presence on social media. You’ve single-handledly created the #webcomictruth hashtag, encouraging creators to network, share information, and generally keep each other informed of the ups and downs of making a webcomic. What inspired you to take such an active role in building community amongst webcomics creators?

 

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JG: Well, it was … was it late November? That or early December. I can’t remember which. Not that long ago. It was the end of last year, and I was just returning to being online after a year of being pretty much absent. I had burned out as a creator and fled. Finally, after some long distance butt kicking from Keith Wood, I came back and got back into it. The comic and Twitter. After a year away, some things had changed. Like any other social construct, webcomics are often political. There were new power players and new ways of doing things. eBooks and Kickstarter had changed EVERYTHING in my absence. And some friends of mine were saying things, true things, that were getting them some flack.

And I thought to myself, these are things that need to be said. So, I started saying them. That’s what the hashtag means: truth about webcomics. At first I was going for the stuff that was hard to hear. Like, I think one of my early ones was: Look right. Look left. A year from now, those webcomics will be dead. Most webcomics die in their first year.

A lot of people on social media might flinch from the idea of speaking hard-to-hear truths given the tendency for hyperbolic blowback the internet can generate. But from watching the hashtag, it seems a good majority of the response you get is not only positive, but people contributing to expanding the truth you have to share.

JG: And it grew from there. People responded positively to it. Not just webcomic creators but independent writers as well. As I ran out of harsh truths, I started grabbing any idea I could. Things about working with artists, tips about social media, information about panel layout and composition, filmmaking terms that work well in comics. Stuff like that. And people noticed. They gave their own tips, which I rebroadcast, always making sure to credit them. People took my ideas and expanded on them. Occasionally, they disagreed. That’s all fantastic. Dialogue is information. Information helps us all do better. I worry that webcomics are moving to a place where all that matters is becoming the next big thing. That people look around and they see competition, not friends. Information is often kept secret. I look at some webcomics and I have no idea what their numbers are. How they grow. What their plans are. They aren’t sharing that information and that is their decision, of course, but … how do we help the next generation learn if this one doesn’t share? There are a disturbing amount of non-disclosure forms in webcomics these days.

I am, by the way, fully aware that I’m not a realist.

So you’re trying to keep the warmth, friendship and sense of community in webcomics rather than it turning into an everyone-for-themselves bunch of insular people who never talk. Admirable! And there is always room for another idealist in the world, IMO. Is #webcomictruth also one of the ways you’re fighting off burnout for yourself and others?

JG: It helps, a lot. Staying connected. And it isn’t entirely altruistic. Networking is important. You never know when the person who reads a #webcomictruth tag might be able to help me out or get me work down the road.

True. But what goes around comes around, too. So there’s all manner of possible ways that could come back to you, or anyone else participating. That makes it a good foundation to build on for yourself and for a lot of other creative people out there who want to throw their hat in the webcomics ring.
Any other thoughts you want to share with our readers about webcomics, Mysteries of the Arcana in particular, or comics as a storytelling medium?

JG: I like to think I’m helping out. I’m aware I’m also feeding my ego. That’s not a bad thing. Writers and artists need a healthy ego or they crumble. Any webcomicker who wants to talk to me is welcome to follow me on Twitter and send me a message. I follow almost everyone who follows me, assuming they aren’t obviously a spollower. If I can help another webcomicker in some way, I will.

As for final words. Hmm. Good question. Mysteries of the Arcana‘s an amazing comic, in my opinion. We’re nearing the end of chapter four with around three-hundred and fifty pages. Now’s a great time to jump on board, read, and catch up. Also? All writers and artists thrive on feedback. If you’ve read the comic, please drop Keith and I a note about it. Either in our comments section, on twitter, or privately.

We just made goal on our chapter 5 Kickstarter. Keith’s a professional artist, and we also have a pro editor we work with to ensure the best possible comic.

And, now that I think about it? There is one more thing to say that’s probably especially important for your target audience.

By all means, go ahead!

JG: There’s a lot of misogyny in mainstream comics. It shows in the costumes. It shows in the poses. It shows in the actions and words hurled at female cosplayers. There are glimmers of hope, of course. Fearless Defenders, Ms. Marvel, Batwoman, and Princeless are all amazing. But I encourage comic fans, especially female comic fans, to look beyond that. Look at webcomics. At this very moment, I guarantee that somewhere out there is a webcomic that will make you as a woman, as a woman of color, or as a transwoman, joyful at seeing yourself represented and loved. More importantly? If you are a creator who is a woman? Webcomics are an amazing medium. They are hard work, and they can be soul crushing, but there is no more immediate way to get your work out with as few barriers between you and your audience as possible. Every female creator in webcomics is a VICTORY for webcomics. We need you.

A wonderful affirmation, and true. Part of the beauty of webcomics is that they’re not constrained by what the Big Two or even some of the Indie publishers are currently putting out. There’s no limit on storytelling or subject, so there’s quite literally something for everybody. Thanks again for taking the time to join us, J. Mysteries of the Arcana by J. Gray and Keith Wood is located at mysteriesofthearcana.com
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About Author

Jamie Kingston is a Native New Yorker, enduring a transplant to Atlanta. She’s a lifelong comic fan, having started at age 13 and never looked back, developing a decades-spanning collection and the need to call out the creators when she expects better of them. Her devotion extends to television, films, and books as well as the rare cosplay. She sates her need to create in a number of ways including being an active editor on the TV Tropes website, creating art and fan art, and working on her randomly updating autobiographical web comic, Orchid Coloured Glasses. As a woman of color, she considers it important to focus on diversity issues in the media. She received the Harpy Agenda micro-grant in November of 2015 for exceptional comics journalism by a writer of color.

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