One might say that writer Vita Ayala and artist Lisa Sterle were drawn together by Fate. The result is a beautiful, poetic, and soulful journey of Submerged, where the main character, Elysia (Ellie) Puente, plunges into the unknown to save her estranged brother following his desperate call for help. Taking shape from the ominous eve of Hurricane Sandy and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Submerged takes readers into the depths of what the bonds of family truly mean. Described as a queer, brown retelling of the myth, volume one collects the four-part series that began in July 2018.
Ayala and Sterle both took a moment to answer some questions for WWAC about the story and its influences.
What elements about the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice inspired you to retell this story? What other stories inspired Submerged?
Ayala: I have loved mythology since I was a kid, and telling stories since I can remember. When I was in high school, I had a class where the teacher analyzed myth structure and juxtaposed it against modern stories. He explained tropes (in story and character) and basically blew 15-year-old Vita’s mind. Since then, I have looked for the common threads and forms in stories, and gotta tell you, always there.
When I was thinking about the story in Submerged, the descent into the Underworld story seemed obvious to me, because of the themes I wanted to play with. The aspect of tragedy and longing from the Orpheus and Eurydice story also fit so well. Of course, Submerged departs from the strict structure of that myth, but the central elements really tied together the threads of metaphor and theme I was playing with.
Submerged is an homage to a lot of the kind of horror that I (and Lisa, because we definitely bonded deep over it) love. The Silent Hill games and Jacob’s Ladder were a huge influence. There’s a little Parasite Eve (game) and Lovecraft (mostly Mountains of Madness) in there. Beasts Of The Southern Wild (not a horror movie, but an Odyssey-like story) also influenced this a lot for me, as did the work of Shirley Jackson and Jeff Lemire, and a little dash of Shakespeare.
Sterle: The utilization of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as the inspiration was definitely all Vita. They’d formed that before I came on board, but it was definitely a huge selling point for me. I wasn’t as familiar with that particular myth until I started on Submerged, but I’m glad I was introduced to it. It’s a beautifully tragic story, and I think the spots where it shines through in Submerged are so perfect. There’s this one particular part near the end of the story where … man, I was almost crying when I read the script.
You’ve both expressed an interest in Greco-Roman mythology. What is it about these myths that interest you?
Ayala: If I am being completely honest, my interest with Greek mythology started with Hercules and Xena when I was a kid, haha. I was a TV kid first and foremost, but I followed up interests on the screen with deep dives at the library and Barnes & Noble. The epic challenges and dramatic, almost pure characters of Greco-Roman myths (in that they seem to embody one or two traits to the extreme) appealed to my mind as a child. I love the almost exaggerated forms of the story, how outlandish they are. I love stories about heroes and tricksters, and clever people. As I grew older, the more complex metaphors and lessons to the stories made them new and interesting again.
Sterle: I read a ton as a kid, and I remember checking out this one book from the library that was just a collection of a bunch of different myths and stories about Zeus and Hera and all shenanigans of all the other gods and was instantly hooked. Those myths can be both playful and tragic, and I think as a child the idea of casually having interactions with a god was entrancing. I loved them in much the same way I loved fantasy books as well, as this intermingling of reality and magic. And I still love these stories for many of the same reasons, but also for the fantastical element that they can bring to an otherwise straightforward story. Instead of an inner monologue of your character’s struggles, now you have these physical embodiments of virtues, of vices, of guilts that guide or hinder your character. I love the idea of taking the inner workings of a mind and manifesting them physically, as symbols, characters or actual obstacles.
Are there other mythologies that spark your interest and might inspire more unique stories like Submerged?
Ayala: I am absolutely in love with Egyptian mythology, and with the Yoruba traditions. I am extremely interested in how the stories of a culture change as new people come and mix their stories (including the Greco-Roman myths). Honestly, I have been aching to do something centered around the stories that came from Puerto Rico, about how the Taino stories changed as the African stories came. To me, the most interesting thing now about mythology is how mutable it is.
Sterle: I always had a soft spot for Irish and Scottish mythology, with selkies and faeries, but I think that particular inspiration is pretty well-worn territory by now. That’s a great question and has me thinking I definitely need to do some reading on unfamiliar mythologies. There are so many great stories out there!
Vita, you’ve explained that the entrance to the other world that appears in Submerged was based on your experience on the eve of Hurricane Sandy. Have you revisited the subway entrance that spooked you at that time? Does it still hold the same effect now that life has returned to the city?
Ayala: I take that subway pretty often when I am in Manhattan, because it is a major hub, haha! During the day, it is barely remarkable (I take public transportation almost everyday, and I know I am taking it for granted here), but at night, if I am traveling when it’s quiet … yeah, I get a shiver and take another entrance. It is SILLY, because it is a large entrance. But, late enough at night, or cold enough time a year, and it is BIG but EMPTY … I don’t want to tempt fate!
Do either of you have siblings? How do your relationships with your family compare to the relationship between Ellie and her family?
Ayala: My relationship with my mother is (bumps of adolescence aside) a wonderful one. She is my favorite person on this planet. She was a single mom and did her best for her kids, and I think she succeeded. My biological father was not in the picture. My mom’s best friend—who is my dad in heart if not blood—taught me things that have saved my life. My parent and I don’t always see eye to eye, and there is the normal sort of family angst that comes from situations like ours, but they are the reason I have thrived as a person. I have MANY siblings, and a good chunk of them are brothers. There are a few who, while we are very close now, we went through periods of estrangement or outright hostility. As an older dfab sibling (and an Afro-Latinx dfab person), I was expected to look out for my brothers in a way that made me feel both very responsible for them and invested in their happiness and success, but also resentful. This story was almost an apology and love letter to them. I love my boys—they are all incredible men, who I am very proud of.
Sterle: Yes, coincidentally enough, I have a younger brother! There’s a lot in the flashbacks that rung especially true to me and my childhood experience as the older sister. That whole “you’re older, you should be the mature, responsible one” I think is a common theme that a lot of older siblings grapple with. Much like Ellie, sometimes I embraced it, and I wanted to rebel against like, “Man, let me be a kid too, you know?” Families are all complicated and unique, and there’s this strange process that happens as you get older where you start to see you and understand your parents and who they are beyond just being your parents. Sometimes it’s enlightening, sometimes it’s painful, and I think Ellie’s journey through those feelings really mirrors a lot of what I’ve gone through too. Though definitely in a less dramatic way, haha.
Tell us a bit about your script-to-panels process. How did your process evolve as the issues progressed?
Ayala: Lisa is a phenomenal co-creator. I feel like our period of adjustment was very small, and we were pretty smooth (at least as far as I know, haha) quickly. Lisa just … got me. We have similar horror sensibilities, I think. The first issue was already written when she came on, but as soon as we got to talking, I was trying to figure out how to write the scripts FOR her, if that makes sense. We communicated pretty regularly, and she had ideas I was SUPER pumped to see in the book. Whenever she wanted to try something that wasn’t in a script, or just in general, I was hype for it. She is kind of a genius, and her enthusiasm created a feedback loop for me! By the third issue, I was literally just seeing the story in her art style and trying to get out of the way so she could work her magic.
Sterle: Vita is an absolute blessing as a co-creator! The minute I was approached by Vault to work on this story with them, I knew this was the perfect project for me. Dark fantasy with a horror tinge all serving to tell this mythical story that is at the same time about deeply felt family trauma? Yes! As they said, we clicked pretty instantly, I think, and are inspired by a lot of the things (especially when it comes to horror), so the back and forth was so easy and natural. And at the risk of just repeating what Vita’s said, their enthusiasm for creating this was contagious. It’s a phenomenal feeling when you deliver layouts or inks and your writer is just so on board with your work. Vita’s scripts were always so concise and clear, visualizing as I was reading was always natural and easy, and they’ve got a great talent for directing a page and panel breakdown. To be honest, it really felt like this book just flowed out of me, and Vita’s fantastic writing and understanding of the medium was obviously a HUGE part of that.
Note: spoilers contained in the script sample below:
What’s next for each of you in terms of comics or other creative projects?
Ayala: I have a few work for hire projects going (Livewire from Valiant, Prisoner X, Shuri from Marvel, Magic the Gathering from IDW). I am also working on developing some creator-owned work, which hopefully will be announced sometime soon (so keep an eye out)!
Sterle: My other creator-owned title is about to wrap up, Long Lost from Scout Comics. I’ve also got a graphic novel releasing this spring, Steven Universe: Camp Pining Play. The bulk of my time at the moment is spent working on my tarot, The Modern Witch Tarot deck, which will be out this fall from Liminal 11. And I’ve got a few new titles that I’m hoping to announce soon as well!