Last time we talked I wrote about representation from big publishers. This month, let’s get personal. I write the webcomic Mooncakes. I almost gave up writing comics this year.
My scripts felt clunky and confusing, I didn’t have an artist to co-create with, and any time I had something close to an original idea I just wound up writing it in prose. I had come off of a fairly hellish 2014, and, without really realizing I had done it, I decided that I was not going to devote my time to something that felt like pulling teeth. Life was short, I needed to preserve my mental health. Short stories and novellas felt smoother, more manageable to me, and that’s where I poured most of my energies for the first half of the year.
The second half of the year was entirely Wendy’s fault.
Wendy and I became friends several years ago and had tried our hand at co-creating a comic back in 2012. It never came to fruition, mostly due to the timing of our own independent projects, but I knew that someday we would collaborate together on a project (I just didn’t expect it to be this year!).
In April, Wendy told me that an anthology was opening submissions for short, eight-page comics that focused on queer, paranormal romance. We bounced around a couple of ideas over the course of the month and had our first unofficial meeting about it at the beginning of May. We sat under the trees at Washington Square Park and talked about werewolves and witches and lesbian grandmas. Two long-lost childhood friends, Nova and Tam, came into being, and our story centered around their reunion (as well as a couple of horse-ghost demons). Our idea grew as time passed, and it became pretty clear that the stories we wanted to tell with these characters weren’t going to all fit in an eight-page comic. We vowed that even if we didn’t get accepted into the anthology, we would launch it as our own ongoing webcomic. In October, we made this a reality, and launched Mooncakes the week after NYCC.
The comic that would eventually become Mooncakes went through several iterations before we hammered it out into what it is today, but there were several things that remained constant. Both of the main characters were always going to be Chinese-American, Nova was always going to be bisexual, and Tam was always going to be genderqueer. From the beginning, we were committed to creating a world that was diverse in multiple aspects, where characters with myriad backgrounds and identities could thrive within a modern fantasy world of magic and the supernatural that has always appealed to both of us. But the aspect of representation that I was most attached to—that spoke most deeply to my own experiences—almost didn’t make it into the comic in the first place.
Now, as a disclaimer, I want to make it clear that I think the old adage “write what you know” is limiting at best, bullshit at worst. It’s has provided excuses for a lot of constricted worldviews in fiction over the years. At the same time, it’s impossible to deny just how important it can be as a writer to write a character who shares an aspect of your identity, particularly if it’s a marginalized one. I’ve been writing queer characters since before I figured out I was queer myself, and expressing myself through those characters was a crucial outlet in terms of working out my feelings about my sexuality and coming to terms with how I indentified.
Yet, though I’ve been writing fiction since I was in high school, before this year I had never written a character that shares my disability before. Writing queer characters and characters of color something that I did almost without thinking, but writing a character with a hearing loss was something that never occurred to me, somehow. Even now, I couldn’t really tell you why. Perhaps it’s because my attitude toward my queerness, for example, has always been rather straightforward. My attitude toward my disability—and the spaces available for me to explore it and talk about it with others—is far from it.
Besides, it’s not as if I had many examples to draw from, particularly in comics. In my last column, I spoke about how Hawkeye was the first fictional character I encountered who shared my specific disability, and when it comes to disability representation as a whole, the picture isn’t much better. The statistics are pretty clear-cut—whether it’s Hawkeye getting his hearing restored or Oracle walking again in the New 52, characters with disabilities have historically been erased or “cured” in comics. And if they haven’t, their disability is supplemented by their own superpower. The same radioactive material that caused Daredevil’s blindness also gave him the heightened senses that allow him to defend Hell’s Kitchen, and Charles Xavier’s paralysis is augmented by his telekinesis. There is so very rarely a character who doesn’t have some sort of ability ex machina. With examples like this, it’s little wonder that I never thought to explore my own experiences in fiction. I’ve been conditioned my entire life to keep my disability as invisible as possible—and with a hearing loss, that’s startlingly easy to do—and the examples I saw in fiction only served to reinforce that.
It took until this year to realize both how badly I wanted to change that, and I didn’t have to wait for someone else to change it for me. A couple of days before we submitted our initial pitch for Mooncakes to the anthology, I texted Wendy:
“What if we made Nova hard-of-hearing?”
It seemed such a simple, intuitive thing to suggest, and at the time, I didn’t think at all about how revolutionary it was in my own process, either in terms of my writing and how I relate to my own disability. In hindsight, it’s hilariously obvious. Giving myself the opportunity to write Nova as a hard-of-hearing witch has been freeing and cathartic in a way that I never expected. It’s easier, in many ways, to relay and work through my complicated feelings about my hearing loss within the structure of a fictional narrative than it is to just straight-up talk to someone about it. I can show you what it feels like to talk on the phone with a hearing loss far better than I can tell it to you. And the beauty of the comics medium is that that extends beyond mere words.
Nova’s experiences are mostly drawn from my own, but there are a few deviations, in the hope of making her not a complete mirror of my specific, unique experiences. For one thing, she actually wears her hearing aids (mine haven’t been touched in over a year), and she’s taken advantage of the cool colors that are available to people with hearing aids nowadays. But much of it is autobiographical, including her childhood hatred of her hearing aids and her complete distaste for having to navigate telephones and soft-spoken customers at the bookshop.
Most importantly, however, Nova is hard-of-hearing within a fantasy world that cannot solve everything. Her hearing loss isn’t supplemented by her magic, and her magic can’t cure her hearing loss. She had to learn an incredibly complex form of nonverbal magic so that her spells wouldn’t interfere with the electronics of her hearing aids. Magic isn’t a cure-all for Nova’s disability, and that’s a very deliberate choice. Heroes with disabilities can coexist and thrive alongside the fantastical, and hopefully, that’s something that the readers will take away from this.
In the end, no one would be surprised to learn that Mooncakes is the product of a Chinese-American woman and a hard-of-hearing woman. If you merged me and Wendy together, you would get Nova Huang. But that’s the beauty of it, really. In this webcomic, we’ve been able to create the things that we want to see in fiction but so rarely get. We’ve been able to create our own narrative, and it’s been such a rewarding process.