Ladies’ Knights: Barbara Perez and M.J. Barros On Creating A Safe Space For Queer Women In ‘The Order of Belfry’ [Love & Sex Week]
Fighting is often an expression of love. It means defending and protecting and sacrificing for what matters most: your home, your family, your right to love, your right to exist. It means enduring adversity for what matters.
The Order of Belfry is a webcomic about an order of female knights who protect their kingdom and defend what they love — which often happens to be one another. It is through this knight's order that creators Barbara Perez and M.J. Barros create their own space, one that's inclusive and centered on queer relationships, that also fights for love. Webcomic Q&A spoke with Perez and Barros to learn more.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for The Order of Belfry? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
M.J. Barros: The Order of Belfry was born from my dissatisfaction over girls love stories in general. As a bisexual woman, and a reader of comics, I felt that stories that included characters in LGBTQ relationships didn’t reflect my own experiences or visions. I struggled to connect with these stories, so for that reason, I decided to create a story where I could represent love amongst women, in an open, representative, and positive way.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t some great queer comics already published or online, but none where 100% what I was looking for.
I wrote the plot for Belfry in a few days, it was a word vomit of ideas and concepts. Very quickly, I realized I couldn’t do it alone. I would need someone along in this adventure, someone that could not only make sense of the ideas, but that could also feed the vision about love stories and about women trying to find representation. Barbara was the obvious choice for this. Her writing is elegant and emotive, her life experiences are enriching, and the fact that we are both Latina has allowed us to connect very profoundly. The way that the project has grown and evolved from the initial ideas is in great part thanks to her contributions, which fills me with pride and satisfaction.
In regards to influences, there’s quite a few: animes like [Revolutionary Girl] Utena, video games like Fire Emblem, my own experience as a historian (even though I’ve retired from the field), etc. I love drama personally, which in part is why Barbara’s contributions are so important. She helps keep the lively and positive tone that we have in The Order of Belfry.
I also enjoy knight tales, and one of the most important parts of our story is romantic relationships built within them. It’s not a knight/princess one, but instead, it’s among the knights themselves. They are romances between strong women; no one is in distress, but at the same time, every one of them needs rescuing in some way. One of the most important concepts in The Order of Belfry is women loving women, women supporting each other as they face a terrible war together.
CA: What’s it about?
Barbara Perez: The Order of Belfry is a romance story at its core. In the story, we follow the development of a war between the kingdoms of Rosoideae and Cervidae by way of an all-female knight Order. Our cast is comprised of all the members of the Order, as well as a number of the royals and leaders in both kingdoms. The readers experience everything along with Idina Rotvel, Cervidae’s youngest heir.
At the start of the story, the war is entering its fifth year and it will take the readers through the next two years of it during the events that will happen. To catch you up, in the first three years, Idina’s eldest brother was killed, and the story starts off with her second oldest brother being captured. Then Idina finds out her cousin and a bunch of other women have been recruited to a secret knight Order, and that’s where things get interesting.
A lot is happening, to say the least, and that’s just to one of our main characters! Add onto this that Idina’s heart is pining for the knight that saved her life, not to mention the other relationships that are flourishing within the Order. There’s more to decompress, but I’ll avoid spoilers. It’s a lot of cool sword fights and Idina’s adventures in training with the Order that complement the multiple romantic plots that will develop throughout the webcomic.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
BP: Ideally, we’d like The Order of Belfry to be for everyone. However, the nature of the story is probably best fit for readers 16+, due to some of the violent situations depicted, but otherwise it’s a love story for all. Our goal has always been to tell a meaningful story, which welcomes right about any reader.
As M.J. said in the initial question, we are going for representation of girls love stories with The Order of Belfry. So, we have a lot of those. We hope readers can find themselves represented in the many types of relationships we’ll have throughout the story.
CA: What does 'girls love,' as a genre, mean? Is it simply romance between female characters, or is it also meant to evoke other genre trappings?
MJB&BP: For both of us, a lot of our early comic intake was through manga, which is where “girls love” (or yuri) found its way as a genre. Genres always have two sides, though. Obviously we are part of several genres (whether that may be girls love, medieval, etc), but we also strive to go beyond them.
Basically, the story should introduce the audience to the genre, but that genre shouldn't dictate the story. With The Order of Belfry, we could easily say it is simply a story for the sake of romance between female characters, but it’s so much more than that. Even within its categorization as romance, we want to make it more elaborate than that. In order for stories to have meaning, they have to transcend the very formulaic nature of genre.
We want to normalize queer stories; anyone could be the hero/villain/chosen one/etc. As we work towards more diversity, we have to be able to say: "This story and the characters happen to be LGBTQ" instead of "this story happens because a character is LGBTQ.” There’s a lot of ground to cover before we are up to par with the many stories that are told with much more regularity, but we can't wait to see more stories reclaim genres or subject matter that otherwise didn't often include diverse characters and themes.
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
MJB: It’s both remained unchanged but also changed drastically. Hahah. It’s impossible for a project to not change over time. Primarily because it is not done until it faces the audience. I think for The Order of Belfry, the feedback from the audience has been fundamental in the growth of the webcomic itself. As well as our development as storytellers.
When I say feedback, it’s not necessarily the criticisms (though those help too), but the amazing way readers have connected to the story and the characters. We are surprised and nourished by their interest in the knights and their relationships, and how they are moved when we reveal new things about their stories and always want to know more.
Though we have kept faithful to the story we set out to tell from day one, I think one of the things that has most changed about the comic is our responsibility as the creators. What started as an idea to satisfy our need for representation has suddenly echoed through hundreds of people that feel the same way. And now it’s not just about Barbara and I, but about showing positive representation of love among women, and creating a safe space for it. A sacred place for anyone that needs refuge, which in a way, is the exact thing the Belfry Castle is for women in the story.
We do our best to hold; with responsibility, and within all our possibilities, the banners for feminism and representation. We can’t do it all, but what we can do, we want to do so with respect, dignity, and love.
CA: M.J., how has your experience as a historian informed your work on the comic?
MJB: Being a historian is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it gives me an ample cultural background from which I can set, design, and create stories. However, it’s also a major headache, since a part of me will always worry about things as detailed as making sure the greatcoats I’m using for reference are from the right century. That can be pretty exhausting.
A good writer friend of mine, who I studied with, always said, “History is my muse.” They were right, as nothing is quite as inspiring, revealing, and motivating as the development of humanity throughout the ages. Fiction is constructed from experiences. One can find so much material in history: to create, to understand ourselves and society. It’s an unlimited source of ideas and concepts.
The “history of ideas” is one of the concepts that most attracts me, and how, through it, we form reality. It’s particularly interesting when we want to understand the roles of women, people of color, and children throughout history. French historians call this “history from below” or “people’s history.” It is a type of historical narrative interested in those without a voice, as it’s not royalty or military who guide the destiny of nations, but the common people who leave traces of their lifestyle; the way they thought, their art, popular music, their romance novels, and their everyday items.
This approach of “history from below” greatly influences, because even though it’s a story with royalty and knights, it is constructed from the perspective of women. We are creating it through this fictitious and stylized epic story; maybe next time it will be told through a more historical fiction approach or a dystopian one. No matter which way I tell it, my love for history has nurtured me to tell stories in which “history isn’t the protagonist” and one that aids in raising the voice of those that have been silenced for a long time.
CA: I appreciate how you overtly label The Order of Belfry, both the in-story knights’ community and the comic itself, as a safe, positive space for the women and their romances. Some people, however, might assume that creating a safe, positive space also means creating one without drama or friction. In the context of your story, one still with violence and pain amidst war, what does creating that kind of space mean?
MJB&BP: It means taking risks. While the Order is working hard to create this space for themselves, they have their fair amount of adversities even beyond the war. They work in secret, neither kingdom is really interested in women being part of the battlefield, so it’s not just about protecting each other but also about instating a change in mentality. They know they are more than capable of fighting and making a difference, and so that’s what they are out there doing. Royal blessings or not.
They are also imperfect characters, they come from different backgrounds and have different motivations. That’s what makes fictional stories feel real, and we are trying to tell the story with palpable context. Good and bad things happen in love (and war --- haha), but they work to persevere no matter what.
Finally, as creators, we think it’s not so much about not having drama or friction, but about presenting it beyond your usual coming out story or beyond your good vs evil plots. If we can help to, even if by just a drop, create a story with complexity and add to narratives outside of stereotypes, then we’ve done a good job. The spaces we create are not just meant as platforms for ourselves, but also for our readers. These spaces allow other voices to find a stage for themselves, that way discussions can continue even beyond initial creation.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
MJB: Comics in general are a unique way to tell stories. That’s a fact. The unique combination of words and images is something no other medium can do. It’s free from the micromanagement of audiovisual productions, a panel can be read in less than 5 seconds or appreciated for three hours and it will still be read nonetheless. It’s also broad enough to allow the reader to immerse themselves in it, filling up their imagination in the ways the work allows. In this way, for me personally, I like to imagine the voices of the characters, the music, the sound effects, etc. Using my imagination to deliver what the panel proposes.
Webcomics are just another format to deliver a comic. They are very useful, because they can be self-managed, and being online, they can reach anyone. Print comics depend a lot on distribution and marketing by a publisher to reach a lot of readers. Webcomics are much simpler, but it’s also more difficult to generate profit from them. Nowadays that’s made a little easier by Patreon, Kickstarter, and other similar platforms. We chose Tapastic as our platform because it’s easy to use, and there’s already a reader base there. It has allowed The Order of Belfry to reach more people and that’s always good.
CA: What’s your process like?
MJB&BP: We work together on the ideas and the dramatic arc for each chapter, and then Barbara writes a final script for it. At that point, the script passes on to M.J., who divides it into scenes (or a set group of moments). We try to make updates in scenes, instead of just one page at a time.
Once that’s all divvied up, she start with layouts, which is probably the harder part of the process. M.J. comes up with how each panel will look, how they will read, considers where the text will fall, etc. Generally, M.J. does all of this on paper and with loose sketches. Once there’s an idea set, she then makes digital layouts, still in sketch form. At that point, we look over together if the angles and panels work, if the narrative reads well, etc.
From there, once we agree it works, M.J. moves on to pencils which makes the pages much more legible but still without much detail. Then comes the inking, which isn’t really inking at all in M.J.’s case, since she prefers to redraw everything for its final form. Tracing bores her, which is why when making final lines M.J. prefers redrawing over the previous lines. For the backgrounds, which need to be consistent and often have very difficult angles (like aerial shots, which we have a lot of!), M.J. uses 3D models she creates using SketchUp.
After all of that is done, then M.J. does flats (which adds the base colors to the page). This can be pretty tedious, especially when we have a lot of characters in a single panel, but luckily her husband always lends M.J. a hand (Thanks, Mario!). Then comes shadowing and rendering for the pages (it adds lighting, effects, textures, etc).
Finally, then come the speech bubbles. We use this stage to do corrections too and add or cut any dialogues if necessary. And then… We are ready to publish!
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
MJB: Yes, absolutely. I also think that’s a good thing. Personally, I would love for a publisher to pick up The Order of Belfry someday, but if/when that time comes, they’ll also need to be conscious of what they are printing. We wouldn’t lessen our efforts towards better representation, as well as more dignity and diversity in the industry. We have the privilege of being fearless, our duty is to speak loud and clear for those that can’t. Always. That’s a big part of me as a creator.
That’s why reader support is so important. I don’t pretend to live off the earnings of The Order of Belfry (though I would love that to happen), I have my own freelance work to pay my bills, but every like, every comment, every fanart, every reblog, are all signals. It tells us we are doing a good job, that our work is reaching someone out there and that they care about it. That feeds our spirits and helps me draw the next page with more enthusiasm in the wee hours of the night.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours? (And how would you describe them?)
MJB: Well, there’s many webcomics I enjoy, but I’ll take this opportunity to showcase some of the other great work by Chilean creators that are being published in English:
Café Amargo by Pía Prado — It’s a beautiful story, very intriguing, and created with a lot of feeling. Domingo Ramirez, the protagonist, is very interesting and has a very captivating personality. On top of that, all the women in the story have something to say. I highly recommend it. Noisome by Tato — The strange love story between a psychiatrist and a mysterious man that becomes their roommate. Not only is the art elegant and dynamic, but the story also has immense depth, as it masterfully explores mental illnesses.
Rosette, the Dragonet & The Lonely Moon both created by Lira Kraunik — Lira tells beautiful stories and has a very pretty art style. In Rosette, they work with Luis Volke and Kactus (two other talented Chilean artists). The story follows Rosette, a dragonet that goes to a human school. It’s a fun and charming story. Lira is the sole creator in the second story, The Lonely Moon. It explores a story of childhood and friendship on a distant planet in the future.
BP: I feel like between us both, we could keep this list going all day, but I’ll highlight some and also do a speed list if that’s allowed: Project Solace by Leisha Riddel — People with new superpowers and the center that takes them in. Science and self-discovery; Broadside by Noella Whitney — Swashbucklin’ lady-pirates taking names and sailing the seas; Fantasma by Stephanie Barros (no relation to M.J.) — A recently deceased wrestler takes on spirits, monsters, etc. so they can’t mess with humanity. Fun and great colors.
Other creators and their work you should check out: Love Debut by Nika (music and romance!), Refugees by ArtsyPabster (immigrant stories and awesome art!), Cosmoknights by Hannah Fisher (robots, space, awesome colors!), Blood Oranges by Radimudio (vampires!), Time Fiddler by Ellis Kim (time travel!), Unconvent by Eszter NT (queer nuns!), and the list could go on! Feel free to reach out if ever you want a recommendation on what to read.
You can keep up with The Order of Belfry on Tapastic or Tumblr and support it on Patreon. You can find M.J. at her website and Twitter. You can find Barbara on her website and Twitter. If you have a webcomic you’d like to suggest for an upcoming Webcomic Q&A, send a tip to jonerikchristianson[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line “Webcomic Q&A.”
ComicsAlliance is celebrating the best of romance and erotica in comics all this week with Love & Sex Week.