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“I Want to Make a Haven”: An Interview with Niki Smith

There are surprisingly few graphic novels about comics conventions, and the communities and relationships that are formed at shows and around fandom. For this reason alone Niki Smith’s Crossplay would stand out. The book is impressive for a number of reasons. Smith’s sense of composition and page design, the way she uses color – and the fact that the book is erotica. It’s a love letter to fandom, involving a circle of friends who come to the show for a variety of reasons, and have different relationships and ultimately different kinds of sex over the course of the weekend. It’s a story that’s erotic, but even discounting the sexual content, it is a deeply intimate portrait of friendship, of different kinds of relationships, and people rethinking their lives and identities. Smith portrays many genders, many races, many kinds of relationships and does so without fetishizing anything or anyone. It’s a story of twentysomethings in transition, coming into themselves in ways that are poignant and sweet and resonant.

Smith has been making comics for the website Filthy Figments for years including Friends, Eleven Days, and No Questions. Her comics have appeared online and in anthologies including The Nib and Smut Peddler, Oh Joy Sex Toy and Mine! Crossplay is out now from Iron Circus Comics and we spoke via skype about how she works and crafting a queer book that has “drama, but not trauma.” - Alex Dueben

I really liked Crossplay and I’m curious where it started.

Crossplay started as a few different short stories that I did for the website Filthy Figments, which is a collection of erotic comics by women and non-binary artists. It’s a subscription service, due to the nature of the site, which unfortunately means my work has been a bit harder to read than your average webcomic, but I worked for them for about ten years or so, and that’s where Crossplay was originally serialized. I wrote two short comics set in the same world and with some of the same characters, then pitched it to Spike at Iron Circus Comics. She liked the idea and we decided to expand it into a full graphic novel. We agreed to serialize it on Filthy Figments for the year leading up to the Kickstarter.

What were those two stories you initially made for Filthy Figments?

The first was about two best friends flirting with each other in character, using light-hearted role play to hide the fact that they had feelings for one another. The second is much closer to what eventually became the graphic novel, with a threesome between two cosplayers and the girl doing their photoshoot. The same characters show up in Crossplay, but the short story expands on their relationship a bit more.

So it wasn’t that you built the book around those two stories, the book emerged from that world and that idea.

Yeah. I had the whole idea of cosplay and crossplay and figuring out feelings and gender and sexuality and all of that through fandom. That was the starting point.

After you made those two stories and started thinking about the book, what did you want to do differently?

The first two stories were definitely more porn and less plot. [laughs] The final book does have quite a lot of that, too, but the ratio is pretty different-- the short stories skewed toward sex scenes rather than any kind of ongoing complex storyline.

So for the book you wanted less sex/more relationships.

Yeah. With an ensemble cast, I could have all of their various storylines link up and show how different people interact with fandom in different ways.

So this large Altman-esque cast was there from the start?

Yeah.

When you were thinking about it in this way, were you starting with the characters or their relationships or how did you structure the book?

Once Spike expressed interest in putting together a book version of it, I started writing down all the different ideas I had – experiences I’ve had, my friends’ journeys, all the ways fandom and flirting can overlap – and built a story out of that. I used the second short story as my main inspiration: Priya, a photographer, developing a crush on the cosplayer she’s shooting. I used that as my starting point and then overlapped all the other stories with that. Comic and anime conventions are rarely solitary events; friends meet up who may only get to see each other once or twice a year, only at cons. Everyone in the cast is at a different point in their life; some of them are old hat at this, traveling the country to sell their work. Others are still new to the world of conventions and cosplay. But for that weekend, the convention center is full of people who love what they love.

Because there are people who don’t know, maybe we should say, what is crossplay?

Cosplay was originally a Japanese term for “costume play,” when fans dress up as their favorite characters from comics and movies and TV shows. Crossplay is the same thing, but with a gender twist: girls dressing up as their favorite male characters, and every other combination. I’ve had a bunch of friends who saw cosplay as one of their first chances to explore gender. They were able to put on a binder for the first time, because they had the outside excuse of dressing up as a character. It was a way to take a first step, to dress a different way and see how it felt to be addressed by different pronouns for the day.

The book is very much about this dynamic of being able to experiment with gender and roles in this temporary space, even if they’re not all doing this temporarily.

Exactly. You’re surrounded by people who are doing the same thing and they’re all excited and supportive.

I have to say, you did a really good job in the book of capturing a convention and the people who attend shows.

That was a lot of fun, but also I don’t want to have to draw crowded convention halls ever again. [laughs] No more drawing rooms packed with one hundred different people – all in different costumes. [laughs] It was a lot of fun to capture that. I went to conventions as a teenager and then in my twenties when I was on the other side of the table selling my own comics. I wanted to show both sides of that. There’s a character who has a booth in artists alley and then there are characters who are just there to enjoy fandom and celebrate it with their friends.

You capture a lot of this feeling of a show and as I was thinking about it, there are not many comics about this experience.

Yeah. I think Oni is putting out one with Dylan Meconis about a comics convention. I’m looking forward to reading that.

I love Dylan, and will read anything of hers, but I think that book involves the apocalypse.

A little different from mine. [laughs]

Talk a little about some of the characters and their dynamics.

I wanted to have a diverse cast. That was really important. I wanted a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, and it’s fandom that brings them together. There a character who is currently transitioning. Another is on the verge of it, not sure how to take the next step and not sure how to ask. They help each other along the way and have some honest conversations and some more private encounters. There’s characters looking for run, casual hookups, and then there’s a those who are experiencing their first real crush on their best friend. I wanted to show more mature, long-term relationships and also the butterflies of first love.

You gave Priya a great line, “Touching you makes me dizzy. I don’t want to stop.” That’s the first time.

Yeah, that’s first love. The constant “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I don’t want to stop.”

Then you have a couple like Tommy and Sierra, who the other characters call disgustingly cute, and they’re playing with gender and power.

They’re the token straight couple, I guess. [laughs] But at the same time, not necessarily. From the outside they may look like it, but I think they’re also pretty queer.

They’re straight-ish and flexible. She crossplays.

And Tommy is absolutely attracted to that side of her, in particular.

Then we have the couple of Lee and Samirah, and she’s not a significant character, but Lee is one of the central figures in the book.

Lee and Samirah are in an open poly relationship. Samirah is more of a secondary character, but she’s always there, supporting them.

Their dynamic and relationship is emblematic of one of the things you’re doing in the book which is to show but don’t tell, in a way that I think might confuse some readers.

I did get a few reactions that there are so many characters it’s hard to keep track of pronouns. I think that’s partially a side effect of telling a story in comic form; in prose you know every character’s pronouns, but in comics you only find them out through dialogue or assumption. I’m okay with that, though; Crossplay is all about blurring lines, with characters who don’t really know what labels to use for themselves yet. So some readers might be confused by that, or by Lee and Samirah’s relationship, but I think that’s okay.

You mentioned that you hated the crowd scenes, but besides that, what was most challenging part of making the book?

I think the thing I spent the most time on was gathering feedback. I hired a handful of friends and experienced consultants to work as sensitivity readers on the book, because I wanted to make sure I got the character arcs right, particularly those of the trans and non-binary characters. This is a book that is all about exploring gender identity; I didn’t want to write a story that was all about cis people. But I also know how easy it is to slip up and write something thoughtless or stupid; I hired sensitivity readers to make sure that didn’t happen.

I would imagine that for example, J’s story arc is easy to envision in broad strokes, but very tricky in the details.

Right. For example an easy way of confirming to the reader that J is trans would have been for Lee to say “he’s doing well.” But Lee wouldn’t do that – they wouldn’t walk out and suddenly refer to J with different pronouns, outing him to everyone. That decision and timing is up to J. There were a lot of small things things like that to consider.

One of my sensitivity readers suggested having the cis characters go a little too far when they’re teasing Lee early on about their voice breaking. Show that every ally is going to mess up sometime, and apologizing doesn’t have to be big and dramatic, amplifying the original offense. It can be natural and sincere.

You said that you wrote the book relatively quickly. Did you change much as you were working on it?

Not really! I wrote the full script, had it edited, and then worked in batches. We serialized it on Filthy Figments, so every month about ten finished pages went live on the site. At the end, Spike went over it and we decided to add some extra dialogue and a few more pages here and there to tweak the pacing. I think all of them were to make the sex scenes longer. [laughs]

Do you think serializing Crossplay affected the story?

Not much. Filthy Figments is a webcomic site, but it updates with batches of pages rather than one page a week, so readers were getting 5-10 pages at once. I think it still worked. Though I did realize it’s harder to follow an ensemble cast over the course of a year of serialization versus reading it all at once as a book. Serialized updates make it harder for the reader to remember what each character was last up to.

Did you know what you wanted from the sex scenes from the start?

I knew that I wanted the sex to reflect the characters. Tommy is really into seeing his girlfriend crossplay and so their scene develops into pegging. J wears a binder and strap-on for the first time, so that scene is entirely about him and discovering his body and being able to feel comfortable and confident in it for the first time. Priya and her best friend are passionate, but they’re also nervous and awkward and giggly, and have no idea what they’re doing. I really wanted the sex to reflect and continue the character arcs.

I’ve been drawing for Filthy Figments for ten years now, though right now I only have time to work as an editor for the site. I think I’ve drawn about six hundred pages for them, so I’ve got quite a bit of smutty comics experience under my belt. [laughs] I felt pretty confident about when to flip between story and sex scenes.

That brings me to one of the other things that will jump out to people, the colors. Just the first page has a number of really interesting choices that we see throughout the book.

How so? The pink?

Just on the first page you have two images sort of overlapping with no panel borders. The top image is pink and white. The smaller image at the bottom of the page is black and white with pink highlights. The black gives the impression of foregrounding.

Throughout the book I used shades of pink for almost all of the backgrounds. It helped keep the focus on the characters while still having a detailed setting for them to exist in. I worked with three different shades of pink and then black, white and gray… I really like working with limited palettes, and I’ve found that warmer colors work better for drawing sex scenes than something like a cool blue. So pink it is!

Also on that first page, the characters are in costume and the first shot is them in the world and the closeup is the photo that Priya is taking of them. The photograph has a different look, which plays into the theme of how the characters may be presenting or appearing differently at the con. In a sense the image sums up the book.

Yeah, it’s about what each character is focusing on, where their eye is drawn. I like using color to montage scenes together like that without panels in an open page.

Could you talk a little about how in a lot of scenes you’re interested in using montage instead of panels to construct a page.

There’s a photoshoot in the first chapter where they’re all in cosplay. I didn’t want it to feel so linear, so there’s a lot of overlapping shots of the characters posing, flirting with each other in costume. Their dialogue runs over it, mingling: Priya tells them to get in this pose or that pose, and others debate fanfic shipping and which character would be a top/ or bottom. Losing panel borders turns it from a linear scene into a montage of an afternoon.

In one page in that scene you have the logo of the fictional show they’re cosplaying.

I wanted that page in particular to look like an anime poster. I came up with a fake logo and everything. I hired Kori Michele to design a fake sports anime team for my characters to dress up as; we went with rowing entirely because it has a position called a “cox”. The logo, ROW, has katakana under it that says “fake anime”. I know taking Japanese to get better at reading manga is shallow, to say the least (particularly now that I live abroad and juggling language is part of my everyday life), but it’s a silly easter egg for everyone who spent their teen years memorizing kana like I did.

Have you been able to step back and especially now that you’re hearing from people about the book, think about how you feel about it after all this time?

I’m really proud of how it turned out. I wanted to make a book about queer friends figuring out who they are and who they love. There’s drama, but not trauma, if that makes sense. There are so many queer stories that focus on struggle and tragedy and I wanted to make a book that celebrates us and shows the found families that we can form. Right now I’m working on a middle grade book that’s just as queer. But no sex in that one. [laughs] It hasn’t been announced so I can’t talk about it too much yet.

Where your bio will read, this is Niki Smith’s first book. [laughs]

[laughs] So far there hasn’t been any talk about pseudonyms. Ideally I won’t have to use one, but I’m aware it may come up. It should be interesting. There are quite a few artists in the Smut Peddler anthologies and on Filthy Figments who have done kids and teen graphic novels, so hopefully it’s becoming more accepted. Acknowledging sex shouldn’t be taboo.

I think it is. I hope it is. There is this long tradition of cartoonists making dirty cartoons, but it was always quiet and sort of underground. You could get away with that a lot more before the internet.

[laughs] The only thing I worry about is that the cover of Crossplay looks pretty safe, so teens may pick it up and then be surprised by what they see. I don’t shy away from drawing any bits in the book.

With the middle grade graphic novel or your other work, is there something you want to do differently or approach your work in a new way?

All the books that I’m working on now or developing pitches for are just as queer. I’d like to focus more on middle grade and young adult books. I want to make books for LGBT kids to stumble upon, books I didn’t have a chance to see when I was a kid, books that show them as the main characters. With politics so ugly, I want to make a haven for everyone who’s been made to feel unsafe or alone. Queer friendship is incredibly important to me.

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