Suzie Q

Large grey cat with yellow eyes and a grumpy expression. Text reads: “Suzie Q”

Suzy Q is a character I drew for a role-playing game I was sketching out called Cats and Dogs Living Together. She is a sixteen-year-old Scottish Fold whose thick grey fur makes her look even larger than her twenty pounds. After years of indulgence by a previous owner, she has a constant hankering for table scraps. At her age, she can’t jump higher than a barstool anymore, but she can still get up to high speeds when excited. She is very clever, and very impatient with those who aren’t. She enjoys puzzles, mysteries, and not being pestered.

Silly Interview with Naomi Rubin and her brigade of robot, synthetic, and AI characters

Happy woman raising her hand

Self-Portrait by Naomi Rubin

Rachel Swirsky: You lived in Japan for a while, doing things including translation and a television show. What’s the most glamorous story you have?

Naomi Rubin: I guess I tend to compartmentalize glamour as something other people seek and not something that I can experience for myself, but maybe I can reconsider what feels glamorous to me.

There are two experiences that come to mind: The first was when I joined in on a TV-shoot for the French channel “Canal Plus” with my friend and co-producer La Carmina shortly before we started working together formally. La Carmina was hosting a special with a French comedian named Antoine de Caunes that focused on a broad range of Japanese sub-cultures, and included a scene where De Caunes dressed up in a strange outfit for a colorful cyber-scene party in Tokyo. In the show, I was one of three “scene kids” who, along with La Carmina, cajoled De Caunes into becoming part of the party. Having a somewhat rote part of my life (dressing up and going to this party) now treated as urgent and specialized had a certain awe to it. I pushed my outfit further than I would usually, and inhabited a more specifically extroverted version of my personality.

The other time was at Dr. Sketchy’s in Tokyo (Dr. Sketchy’s is a life drawing event that exists in many major cities around the world). I was a translator and organizer for the event at the time, and always revered the art-models, who came primarily from Tokyo’s burlesque community, as paragons of personal style and body-positive showiness. At my last event before leaving Japan, the Sketchy’s crew asked if I would do a short modeling session, and I still feel empowered that I could even reach toward the type of self-assured presentation that the other performers had.

RS: You have an amazing sense of fashion that includes combining patterns and styles that aren’t often paired. How do you think about assembling outfits, and combining patterns?

NR: Why thank you! As a trans woman, I basically started over with all clothing in my mid-twenties. Shortly before this, I had studied abroad in Tokyo and spent a lot of my time with women classmates who were digging deep into Harajuku fashion brands, specifically gothic lolita – both the very cotton candy and brit-punk sides of that spectrum. I would like to say that I took this and combined it with an elegant, modern-utilitarian goth chic that I needed for more day-to-day work, but I’m still working on it. Even though I really love fashion, for me clothing still often feels like something I don’t have enough time for. I’m still working on letting myself take that time.

One thing that I still don’t know how to do is dress for my height. Tall femmes who like shopping – get at me.

RS: Your work combines text and art to create narratives. what about sequential art appeals to you more than working in one medium alone?

NR: I would say I’m a visual artist first, but I don’t think the stories I can tell with just images are enough for me. I want jokes, sweetness, and hurt that characters can convey with dialogue. I like languages and in a fantasy setting, the way characters talk is a big part of the environment for me. Even in compositions themselves, I like to think graphically about the interaction between text and visuals.

RS:You recently gave a lecture on robots and the ways they can be used to express trans narratives. I wrote a story like this in 2005 which I didn’t end up publishing. (At the time, someone noted my story could also be read as a metaphor for body dysmorphia, which I think has an insightful edge, since body dysmorphia is a part of the common trans experience that strongly resonates with my life.) I realize you can’t replicate your entire lecture here, but can you give us a tantalizing precis?

NR: Sure! Robot, synthetic, and AI characters basically give us the opportunity to reevaluate gender from scratch, and question how and why we use gender as we apply it to these characters and, increasingly, real-life inventions and intelligences. Can a robot choose their gender, or is it pre-programmed? How does finding gender work with a character that can completely reformat themself as many times, and as quickly, as they like? In a recent panel at Queers and Comics in New York, Eric Alexander Arroyo and Hunter M also brought up the idea of robot mechs/avatars that can also act as disempowering constraints on the users’ identity, depending on how they might be used in an authoritative setting.

These and many more topics are explored on my talk that you can watch on YouTube!

The most recent panel should be up in video form soon, too.

RS: Your parents are television writers. What would their proposal be for a tv sitcom based on your life? (Alternately or additionally, what’s yours?)

While my parents have done a few writing projects together, I think they would play to their strengths to come up with unique premises:

Mom

There is no doubt that my mom would do a wish-fulfillment story about being a grandma. However I would like to throw two wrenches in the air: I am already a grandma at heart, and my mom flourishes when writing in a very unfamiliar setting, so the pitch I am green-lighting is: Two (Or More?) Grandmas On a Spaceship.

Dad

If my dad had the right consultants on the team, I think he would write an excellent workplace comedy about a Japanese comic company trying to create the next big series, and failing spectacularly in most episodes. Each episode could have a humorous new title that the company is trying to get off the ground. I would be the beleaguered translator who is inexplicably doing like 3 other jobs, and is always told to “make it more funny!” instead of going for accuracy. My catch phrase would be “You’re reading it wrong!”

RS: You sometimes do comics on personal topics, and sometimes on fantastical ones. What do you get out of the different approaches? Are they the same, or different, or both?

NR: They are mostly the same. At first, I thought I was exploring fantasy because I was interested in myth and bending the boundaries of reality to create new types of stories, but I mostly just want to write about self-discovery, gender, and relationships. Rather, I use fantasy to create settings and magic that I either want to exist (or want to draw), but the themes are really similar.

RS: What projects are you working on?

Painted Comic Cover that reads “Moonsprout Station, Story 1 Only Echoes, Naomi Rubin”. There is a covered bus stop, with two people standing on a balcony in the distance.

Cover art for Moonsprout Station

NR: My ongoing queer fantasy series is Moonsprout Station! It’s free to read online, but on Patreon you get access to a weekly art blog with three or more drawings per week, the chance to get a portrait commission, and more!

In addition to some secret comic pitches that I can’t really talk about, I’m also working on a few digital art tools that will be announced more formally soon, and “Rise of the Eagle Princess!” an upcoming feminist JRPG (for PC/Mac and iPad) in the post apocalypse future Mongolian empire, for which I am a background artist and character designer.

Silly Interview with Brooke Bolander, who will teach you the guiding principle “What Would David Bowie Wear”

 

 

This is a headshot of a pale woman against an almost completely black background. She has wavy auburn hair that is swept up and off to the left, round reflective black sunglasses with white frames, and bright red, glossy lipstick. She is wearing a green velvet jacket with a black trim.

Brooke Bolander

Rachel Swirsky: Frankly, your fashion is amazing. I would be happy to listen to you talk about it in whatever way you want. If you’d like some prompting – what’s the basis of your aesthetic? How do you find clothes?

 Brooke Bolander, a white woman, is viewed from the side, against a gradiated grey background. She has auburn hair that is shaved around the sides and the back, but left long on the top. It is wavy, and swept forward over her eyes. She is wearing black glasses, and has a silver hoop cartilage piercing, along with a dangling black bead. She has a thin silver necklace on.

Brooke Bolander

Brooke Bolander: Thank you so much! Man, I don’t know if I have an aesthetic per se so much as I just try to find whatever works for me, and what apparently what mostly works for me is loud, shiny, and more often than not vintage. There was a time when I dressed low-key, because I was trying to more or less blend in with the background. It didn’t work. I have never been good at blending in. I only evolved into my current sense of fashion, for what it’s worth, when I accepted that and started wearing the loudest shit I could find in the store. 

 

Besides the cardinal fashion compass of “What Would Bowie Wear?” (WWDBW), my process is mostly going into vintage clothing stores and rooting around until I find the most ridiculous thing, at which point I will say “this is utterly ridiculous and will never work on anybody, let alone me” and then I try it on and it inevitably works. Last time it was a sequined jumpsuit. You also can’t go wrong with effectively cosplaying concepts of things, ie “today I am going to stealth dress as a tree/dinosaur/book.” 

 

RS: Your Wikipedia page informs me that you spent time in college studying archaeology. How has that influenced your writing? (and/or what’s the weirdest thing you learned which hasn’t made it into common knowledge?)

 

BB: That was actually one of the earliest points at which I started getting the urge to write original fiction. I had dabbled in fanfiction before, but sitting in class studying the Mesolithic in particular–a very interesting period in human development well before we actually started writing stuff down–put questions in my head. Why was this woman buried with a swan’s wing? Why was this one wearing a golden prosthetic eye? History is full of mysteries, and mysteries want to be explained. Sometimes that involves making stuff up. Call it historical fanfic, if you like. 

 

I think the coolest thing we read about in my degree was St. Bees Man. “St Bees Man” was the name given to a knight by the name of Anthony de Lucy who died in 1360. He was buried in a priory in Cumbria. His coffin was sealed in lead, which, combined with the bitumen-soaked shroud his body was wrapped in, created an anaerobic environment that preserved him almost perfectly for the next 600 years. When the University of Leicester exhumed the corpse in 1981 his cheeks were still pink, there was still blood in his body, his irises were intact, and his stomach contents were preserved almost perfectly. 600 years! You can find the photos online if you poke around, and they are amazing, if pretty gruesome. 

 

RS: In another of your short stories that I like, you write about Laika the dog who was sent into space. Laika was the first living being to be launched into Earth orbit. It was onboard the Soviet satellite Sputnik 2 in 1957. It was always understood that Laika would not survive the mission, but her actual fate was misrepresented for decades. (If you’ve seen Bojack Horseman, by the way, the show features intelligent, humanoid animals, and I really liked that, in their universe, the first woman in space was Laika.) What about Laika pulled at you? Are there other stories about the experiences of real, historical animals which have tugged at your imagination?

 

BB: Laika was a sacrifice and the tragedy of that haunts me. The scientists working on the project knew she most likely wouldn’t survive, unlike most of the dogs in the space programme that came later like Strelka and Belka, but her survival was never a primary concern. She was a street dog acquired from the pound because they figured strays would be best equipped to handle the harsh conditions that might result from being shot into space, and she just … got unlucky. She won the anti-jackpot. You get to be the first Earth animal in orbit, but also you die alone! Cool cool. We’re sort of bred dogs to be the perfect victims and this is like the depressing culmination of that layer of our relationship with them. 

 

I seem to be doing a series on historical animal tragedy as a throughline of my career. “Sun Dogs” was the first. Since then, I’ve published The Only Harmless Great Thing (partially about Topsy, the elephant electrocuted at Coney Island in 1903 whose death was recorded & distributed by the Edison Film Company as Electrocuting an Elephant) and No Flight Without The Shatter, which features Benjamin the last surviving thylacine & Martha the last passenger pigeon as lead characters. I guess it’s a trilogy at this point.

 

RS: I’ve only asked you questions about your very early work — because that’s when I was reading all the time! What silly questions should I be asking you about your more recent stories?

 

BB: No question is silly! But if you were inclined and asked me where to acquire my most recent work, I’d point to Apex’s “Do Not Go Quietly” anthology that just came out this very month (I have a Little Match Girl retelling in that one) or to Tor.com (which featured “No Flight Without The Shatter” last year & published The Only Harmless Great Thing, my very first book-shaped object, in January 2018). 

 

RS: What projects are you currently working on?

 

BB: Forever and always my novel, but I’m very much hoping to finally have a draft of that done by the end of 2019. Otherwise I’ve got a short piece coming out with Lightspeed later on in the year, and am currently putting the finishing touches on another story I’ve pitched as “Drive meets Spirited Away.” We’ll see if that one turns out as silly as it sounds.