Ships On Ships: Noella Whitney Talks ‘Broadside’ [Webcomic Q&A]
Looking to take some time off? Want to catch some rays in the scintillating sunshine? Fear for your life and desperately need to escape the country as a result? How topical! Consider this travel tip: stow away on a pirate ship. It's a risky choice --- its inhabitants may execute you or sell you to a nearby brothel --- but an afloat ship is better than a sinking one.
ComicsAlliance spoke with cartoonist Noella Whitney about why comics readers should consider Broadside's Black Lion, a ship from the Golden Age of Piracy staffed entirely by buff ladies, as their next vehicle for adventure.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for Broadside? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Noella Whitney: Arriving at my current form of the world and characters took so many pieces that I had to put together, but I’m really happy with how it came out!
Broadside was actually my senior thesis at MICA. Fresh off the heels in mid-2014 of being a fan with many series with strong leading ladies implied or fan-headcanoned of being queer, I knew I wanted to do a fantasy story with confirmed queer kickass women protags (since there’s never enough of them), and it hit me pirates would be a great vehicle for that. I pitched the idea to a few of my friends and fellow seniors-to-be and everyone loved it!
I built the characters the same way I learned to build narratives when designing Humans vs Zombies games in college; taking a base archetype and expanding it with traits that are usually assigned to other types, then figuring out what they want, what they value most, and how achieving their goals will clash with those of the other characters. Narratives driven by character conflicts have always been more interesting to me than good versus evil ones!
The comic is informed by a lot of my own personal experience in martial arts, sabre fencing and scuba diving. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have visited many islands in the Caribbean. It’s really fulfilling to apply things I grew up doing into something career-wise that means a lot to me!
Placing Broadside in the actual Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy was because I wanted to give a more-realistic, less-romanticized portrayal of daily pirate life. As I did some research, I began to realize I had so much diversity and history to draw from (plus, I’m definitely one of those people that loves meta)! However, I also realized that I couldn’t just gloss over the effects of the genocide of the Taino, Arawak, and Carib natives and enslavement of Africans if I wanted to tell a story during the real-world colonial era, as many popular colonial narratives do. It’s always forgotten that so many natives were killed, and I felt this comic would be a great starting point to educate and get people interested in this part of history, which was the foothold upon which our entire Western world was built on.
CA: What’s it about?
NW: Nora stumbles into Guabancex (gwah-bahn-ceh), the goddess of hurricanes, when she accidentally boards a pirate ship in Port Royal, and into the bad graces of fearsome Captain Frei when it’s revealed Frei wants to keep the goddess a secret. Meanwhile, the Spanish Navy is after them, looking to steal back Guabancex’s power for themselves to reinvigorate their conquest of the New World. Nora and Frei must be able to reconcile their differences in time to protect Guabancex from falling into the wrong hands!
If you like adventure, swordfights, fistfights, fantasy, combining classic sea tropes with real-world gods, and healthy romantic relationships between women, then this is the story you’re looking for!
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
NW: Real-world pirates were extremely sexually liberated compared with the rest of society then, which surprisingly lent to many of them openly embracing their queerness and even marrying each other. I fully intend to embrace this hidden legacy, plus all the coarseness pirates carry with them, but to a tasteful extent! I’m really not about violence/gore for the sake of it.
There’s a good number of sexual references and suggestive lines, but there won’t be anything sexually explicit. (That’s gonna be some material for some side comics!) The closest rating I can give that people would easily understand would be PG-13, but a bit higher (PG-15?).
This comic is for queer girls and women who believe in working with the one(s) you love to make the life of you and those around you better. It’s something I’ve only been able to put to words in the past few years, but it’s always been something I’ve believed in, and I want to inspire my readers to do the same.
CA: Did the comic have to undergo any changes from senior thesis to ongoing webcomic?
NW: Nope! I planned to work on this project to extend past graduation. If anything, it’s expanded!
CA: In researching the Golden Age of Piracy, you mention working to study the era in an inclusive manner. How did you go about doing that, and were there any assumptions you had challenged? And are there any resources you'd recommend?
NW: It’s not so much studying it in an inclusive manner, it’s more of confirming that the people of that era were as varied, unique, and sometimes ridiculous as they are today, as humans have always been. Finding resources to confirm this and contradict the whitewashed male power fantasy of nearly all modern pirate narratives wasn’t too hard if you’re good at Google and Amazon-fu. Much of my information for regular pirate history, operations, and context I read in Under the Black Flag. History books nearly always omit or just mention briefly how women fit in, so I bought a supplement book called Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailor’s Wives. Both books are by David Cordingly, and together they gave me a good base understanding to work from of how queer women pirates would fit into this world.
The things that surprised me most weren’t diversity-related at all, but in the technical stuff, how they functioned. Pirates were extremely democratic, voting on captains, superior officers, goals, compensation share amounts, and codes of conduct before the beginning of any voyage. They even had the first form of health insurance in the world! Also in simple ship up-keeping, like careening, keeping live animals below decks for fresh meat and milk, sifting the black powder every day to keep it dry and able to ignite, small details like that.
There’s a third book that I bought for reference and research, An Account of the Antiquities of the Indians by Fray Ramon Pane. Fray was a Spanish Friar left by Columbus to record the lives of the Taino, and the book is actually a translation of the letter he sent to the Spanish king, describing everything he saw and their legends. It’s the only surviving written eyewitness account of the Taino and their mythology, and serves as the base for the “god magic” that we will encounter. I bought the Duke University Press translation, which includes a lot of extremely helpful language structure and culture context footnotes.
For Taino design, I fortunately live close to my alma mater and was able to look up the handful of books they have in the library that contained photos of Caribbean American carvings and idols.
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
NW: I’ve mostly learned that I need to relax and not be so hard on myself! You’re never gonna get it right on the first pass, so why stress about it? And plan ahead! It becomes easier to pace things out when you are keenly aware of what the readers and characters know and where you want the latter to go next. There were a few small periods when I wrote the dialogue as I was drawing the page, but I found out that causes me a lot of plot anxiety!
This is my first longform comic as well, and I’ve learned so much about how to streamline my process and deliver high-quality pages within the same or smaller amount of time. There’s a huge difference when you compare the first pages to the more recent ones! The largest change has probably been my colors, leaning away from real-color and towards emotional and atmospheric color. I’m still learning though!
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
NW: Webcomics have been creating some of the best narratives I’ve seen online, no joke. It’s amazing the depth that some of these comics have, and the creators post them for free online. These people are super crazy talented and many of them get paid beans for it!!
I currently have a dedicated site on Wordpress, but I’ve begun to crosspost the comic to Tumblr and Tapastic. The dedicated Wordpress site is still the only site you can read the full comic easily on though!
CA: What’s your process like?
NW: I have a dot matrix sketchbook that I jokingly refer to as my “Bible”, since I use it exclusively for all types of planning for this comic. Designing characters, covers, prints, locations, making story notes, jotting down historical information, writing the script, you name it! Everything happens in that book. I only write out dialogue and maybe an action here or there. I take that directly to pencils, let them sit for a day or two, make changes if I find a better way to show something, then go to inks and color. I used to do thumbs, but I found that I would change a lot or scrap the thumb entirely since my eye and storytelling would evolve by the time I was time to make the actual page!
CA: I'm a big fan of how you draw your characters, especially the women. They all have great musculature and distinct body shapes and facial features. Why do those considerations matter to you?
NW: Gonna be honest, I hate it when people do same-face! Even “generic” looking people have some sort of overall base shape or distinct feature to emphasize. If you simply change a hairstyle and eye color and call it a different character, that’s not good design. Body and face types for women are greatly varied! Most aren’t conventionally attractive! Please use base shapes in your designs and features, and find new ways to draw the same thing! I promise what you will come up with will be much more engaging!
As for the musculature, from that same group of inspiring female characters I spoke of earlier, there was one who was portrayed as physically strong, and who I felt a great affinity for because of it. I’ve always been a very physical, active person since I was little, but always tried to feminize myself because I wanted to fit in. That character taught me it was fine to be physically strong, and even to revel in it! Ever since, I began lifting weights and be the strong butch I’ve always secretly wanted to, and draw women in a way that I appreciated and wanted to see myself in again. Plus physically strong female characters are usually treated as an oddity, an exception, but something different occurs when that becomes the norm. Be strong if you want to be strong! And if people try to shut you down, punch them in the face with your beefy arms!
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
NW: Completely! Queer people have harnessed the power of the internet to tell the stories they have always wanted to see themselves in, and sometimes self-publishing is the only way to get your creation out there. Many of the queer webcomics I follow are extremely self-indulgent, and would never pass the eye of an editor who’s looking for marketability without a decent amount of red ink. And the fun thing is, there’s an audience out there who’s looking for what you’re writing about so indulgently! There’s a comic out there for every taste, and we wouldn’t have them without the ability to bypass a publisher.
CA: How much of the story do you have mapped out, and what can you tease for the future?
NW: I know how I want the story to end for sure, and most key moments in between! And I’m not too worried about the gaps. Currently, the girls arrived in Nassau, so get ready to meet some new characters: the extended found family between Frei, Georgiana and Lydia! Also, there’s gonna be a classic pirate barfight, the introduction of sea monsters and mermaids, and a desperate escape back out to sea. Hope you guys are ready for some rough seas!
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
NW: I’ve somehow surrounded myself with a bunch of other amazing queer women artists who all write about ladies going on adventures (sometimes kissing other ladies too, and never tragically either!), and their work inspires me the most!
Irregular, by Cait May and Trevor Bream, is a cute comic about cryptid kids kept in a top-secret government facility being hunted by monster eaters. They really nail down how to write kids!
Unconvent, by Eszter N. Tót, is about lesbian nuns, and I love how true-to-life the relationship development is between the main pair. It reminds me of the first time I really fell in love with a girl!
Mildred Louis’ The Agents of the Realm, a college-age magical girl story, perfectly balances humor and action overtop and darker story about mirror dimensions crossing over.
The Order of Belfry, by Barbara Perez and MJ Barros, is probably the most similar to mine: a clueless main girl who just wants to do good, and a far more skilled, higher ranked woman who has to put up with her. Except, this is in a secret order of (really really gay) lady knights who serve the king!
Hannah Fisher’s Cosmoknights, while still in its beginning stages, is shaping up to be a really great intergalactic sci-fi adventure with queer women all over the foreground!
And finally, while I don’t know her personally, Ariel Ries’ Witchy has always been the biggest inspiration to me, with such tangible, engaging characters overtop a beautiful lush world.
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.”