Dear Friends and Deer Friends in Keezy Young’s ‘Yellow Hearts’ [Webcomic Q&A]
At the vanguard of the comics industry, there are no pre-order books, gatekeepers, and there is for sure no Diamond. Instead, there are webcomics. With their greater reader accessibility and opportunities for creator freedom, webcomics have proven themselves a creative phoenix, surging past the alienation and familiarity that often dominates the mainstream industry. Thanks to crowdfunding avenues like Kickstarter and Patreon, it’s now easier than ever for creators to sustain their passion and soar on their own creative wings.
As part of a new series of interviews with webcomic creators, ComicsAlliance talked with artist Keezy Young about her webcomic Yellow Hearts, a story where children consider making a deal with a demon — over cakes.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for Yellow Hearts? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Keezy Young: Yellow Hearts was a really different story when I started it. I usually go into stories with a simple aesthetic cue; for Yellow Hearts, it was yellow leaves in late summer to early fall, bones, and goats. All I knew was that I wanted to draw something with those elements in it, so I wrote up (and even storyboarded) a short comic about a necromancer and her thrall climbing up a mountain.
It wasn't a bad story, and I might even go back to the idea eventually, but while drawing it I realized that I desperately wanted to write characters and a story I could stick with a long time. I thought about all my favorite stories --- Fullmetal Alchemist, the Dragon Age games, and Leverage were top of the list at the time --- and realized a big part of what I love about them is how you get to know the characters and see them grow and change over time. There’s only so much you can do in 60 pages of a comic, or even 100, and I knew that to write the kind of story I wanted to, I’d have to go a lot further.
Basically I’m a force writer. I don’t wait for inspiration or let my characters do their own thing. I had no idea what was going to happen when I put my list of must-haves on paper --- no characters, no setting, no plot. But I knew I had to come up with something that accounted for each of the list items (found family, goats, friendship, yellow leaves, fantasy, queer romance, betrayal, demons, etc.) and hammered at it for a couple of months until I had something that sounded good. It's maybe not a romantic way of writing, but it works for me!
CA: What’s Yellow Hearts about?
KY: Yellow Hearts is about three kids who make an ill-advised (but well-intentioned) deal with a demon in the woods one day. Twenty years later, Levi, Rowan, and Alder meet again to find their past has caught up to them. But a lot changes in twenty years, and they aren’t as innocent as they used to be.
It’s a story about friendship and found family, at its center. Obviously there are demons, witchcraft, magical wishes, and all that --- and they’re important to the plot! But the characters always come first.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
KY: I’d definitely put Yellow Hearts in the YA category, which is to say anyone who enjoys YA stories, not necessarily just teens. It does portray violence, mild sexual content, and swearing, and will touch on complicated issues like suicide, sex work, mental illness, and domestic abuse, but hopefully in a respectful way.
A lot of what I write comes from the question, "what would I have liked to read" when I was a teenager, or last year, or even last month, so I suspect that my audience reflects that --- likely a lot of women, queer folks, people of color, and other marginalized groups that are tired of being ignored by the mainstream (or at least I hope so)! I think my stuff probably especially appeals to queer people who want to see themselves in genre fiction, and especially fantasy. My characters' identities are an integral part of themselves and their relationships, but it's not the focus of the story.
CA: Has your creative approach for the webcomic itself changed since its inception?
KY: Definitely! This is my first true webcomic, though I’ve published other comics online, and the first thing I noticed is that when readers only have one page at a time to go on, they speculate wildly, based on almost no information. It’s fun to read what they’re thinking, though occasionally stressful. They’ll find tension in tiny interactions that I had no intention of being so fraught while drawing. The pacing is really weird, in other words, and going forward I’m much more cognizant of that.
It's also important, I think, to always have something visually exciting on every page --- a page full of talking heads is never a great move, but in webcomics it's even more important since that's all your readers will get for that day or week.
CA: Are there any other ways in which your audience has surprised you — either in response to certain characters, or in responseto the comic generally?
KY: I’ve been really pleasantly surprised at the the audience’s reaction to certain characters! Starting out I was worried they wouldn’t like Rowan, for example. She’s a female character, she’s brusque and not particularly nurturing, and she likes fashion (she wears pink, lace, and makeup). She’s essentially the kind of character I’ve seen maligned by fandom in the past, but none of that has happened so far. I’ll have to see if that stays true after future events in the comic, of course, but in general I’ve had almost entirely positive feedback for Yellow Hearts.
On the other hand, something I probably shouldn’t be surprised by, but am still troubled about, is how ready readers are to gender characters as male if their gender isn’t immediately apparent. That goes for monsters, demons, animals, and also humans who aren’t extremely feminine in presentation. I understand why it happens, and I don’t blame anyone individually, but it’s still frustrating.
CA: One look at your lineup (this piece’s header image) reveals an impressive array of body types and body language. As an artist, how do you expand your ability to render all kinds of bodies and keep from confining yourself to a template?
KY: I really like drawing different body types. Sometimes I look at comics where every character looks basically the same, and I wonder how the artists can stand it, because it must be just terrifically boring? I also find that drawing different body types has given me a much deeper appreciation for human bodies in general --- drawing any character lovingly can do that, I think. A lot of artists tend to draw only one type, and the rest are there for comedy or villainy, and it’s just really limiting.
That said, it is sometimes a struggle to make sure I don’t fall into habitual drawing. One of the things that makes it tough is that reference models tend to come in basically one shape, i.e. fit and young, with some outliers like "fit and slightly older," or "young and marginally less fit than the last one." You have to get inventive with your Google Image searches, and it gets super uncomfortable when you’re looking up, say "nude linebacker," or worse, "skinny teenager in bathing suit." But in general, I think once you get the hang of anatomy it gets easier, and especially if you get a feel for how weight and muscle tends to distribute.
And I’m still working on it, of course! There are things I’m not so good at, and stuff I forget, like leg hair --- it never occurs to me to draw leg hair, for some reason.
CA: Your color palette for Yellow Hearts is an enchanting, striking one. Could you talk about how you go about developing it?
KY: I spend a lot of time on color palettes, but it’s mainly just trying different things until I find something that works. It’s helpful to use reference photos, but only to a degree; when I focus too much on mimicking a refs (or even real life), my colors end up dull and boring, so I try to use it only as a starting point or for when I’m stuck. I might make "mistakes" that way, but I like the end result much better than if it were more realistic.
In a way I think it’s to make up for the fact that in a comic you don’t have smell or sound or the way the air feels to aid your sense of the scene --- it must all be done in color and line, so what the scene "looks like" has to convey a lot more information.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
KY: The main thing that drew me to webcomics originally was the lack of restrictions. As a young marginalized creator who wanted to draw queer stories, the pathway to being professionally published seemed impossible. More recently I’m confident that that isn’t the case! And I definitely hope to work with publishers in the near future. But as a younger artist, seeing how many webcomics were out there by and about queer folks, people of color, and women was what motivated me to try it on my own.
(I also had a lot of doubt about my ability to stick with it, and I knew that a webcomic would be an easy way to find out if comics was really my thing. If I could do this with zero pay, in the hours after I got home from my 9-5 job, and possibly no recognition, I’d know it was something I could pursue.)
As for platforms, I currently use Tumblr, Tapastic, and Patreon. They all have strengths and weaknesses. I haven’t found an ideal platform for my comics yet, and updating in multiple places can be sort of obnoxious, but at this point I’m more interested in audience reach than ease or aesthetic.
CA: What’s your process like?
KY: My process is pretty straight forward. I prefer to script everything before I start storyboarding, though for this project I’ve only scripted book one and not book two or three, since I know life will change and I’ll have better ideas as I go along. I storyboard in large batches of probably 20-60 pages, and then everything else happens on a page-to-page basis, i.e. I'll pencil, ink, color, and letter a single page all in one day. Since I update the comic on Tuesdays and Thursdays, that’s usually when I’ll finish new pages.
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
KY: Definitely. For one thing, Yellow Hearts is exceedingly long --- it’ll probably be somewhere around 800 pages when all three books are done, which is a big commitment for a publisher, especially when I’m a new name.
But more importantly, it’s an unusual cast of characters. Publishing Yellow Hearts as a webcomic means I don’t have to defend my decision to make every one of my characters brown, or include fat characters, or have most of my cast be queer in various ways.
I think it would be hard to sell, for example, a fat, gay, depressed man of color in his late twenties as one of my main trio of characters to a publisher. Even moreso because he isn’t comic relief, and especially because he’s an object of romantic affection. Of course not every pub is the same, and I would love to be proven wrong! But I think the perception is that that particular character would not be very popular among a general audience, and I might've gotten push back from publishers. And understandably --- he's not a character who reads as immediately interesting to, say, teenage girls.
(What I've noticed through publishing online, though, is that I have plenty of readers who are teen girls, and a lot of them love Alder.)
CA: Earlier in this interview you described this comic in visual cues: yellow leaves, bones, and goats. Using the same visual cue format, could you tease what Rowan, Alder, and Levi have each been up to since separating twenty years ago?
KY: Hmm, this one is a bit tough! I’ll give it a go, though.
Alder: training, military, pressure, Dungeons & Dragons, winning medals, pride, failure, cowardice.
Rowan: broken friendship, rage, grief, loss, running away, witchcraft, hiding, loneliness.
Levi: abandonment, lying, hunger, stealing, gold digging, flirting, being used, longing, compromise.
Onaskellis: searching, disappointment, learning, rules, stubborn, upset.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
KY: I honestly need to start keeping a list, because I’m terrible at remembering my favorite comics, but right now I’m really into Mooncakes by Wendy Xu, Heir Presumptive by Caitlin Scannell, Witchy by Ariel Ries, Necropolis by Jake Wyatt, and Agents of the Realm by Mildred Louis. I haven’t read Katie O’Neill’s new webcomic, but her stuff is always good too!
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.”