Punk Is About Family: Magdalene Visaggio and Eryk Donovan Build A Better Future With ‘Quantum Teens are Go’ [Interview]
Quantum Teens Are Go is Magdalene Visaggio's follow-up to her breakout Black Mask Studios hit Kim & Kim, with Constantine: The Hellblazer artist Eryk Donovan. It's a teen drama, a sci-fi story, an action adventure --- just every cool genre thrown together into an entirely awesome, bright kinetic comic!
With the series premiering next month, ComicsAlliance sat down with Visaggio and Donovan to discuss the past, present, and future of Quantum Teens are Go.
Comics Alliance: Time travel stories seem to be making a comeback recently. What inspired you to write this very different, more punk rock time travel story?
Magdalene Visaggio: It actually didn’t start out as a time travel story. QTAG has a really roundabout origin, starting with me wanting to recreate the magic of The Adventures of Pete & Pete. I loved that show’s unquestioning embrace of absurd fantasy --- a magic bowling ball that brings nothing but discord to the households it touches, a child having a personal superhero, the World Adult Conspiracy, Artie the Strongest Man in the World hosting a dinner party out of his Port-o-Let --- and I wanted to capture it. So my idea was I wanted to do a show about a couple of kids building a working spaceship. Kinda like Explorers, but without the justification.
So. As I worked on the story, originally called I Have Made a Rocket, I hit a basic framework: two kids were in love, a cis guy and a trans girl, and the spaceship was their escape from lives they didn’t want to live. The original incarnation of the story was dull, introspective, and very sad. And I wasn’t happy with it, so I shelved it for a while.
A bit later, I wanted a romance comic to pitch to Rosy Press, and I landed on I Have Made A Rocket. It was, after all, a love story, but it was very weak and didn’t have any momentum. So I sort of built this action story around the basic superstructure I already had. At the time, I had had zero luck with Kim & Kim, and had actually shelved that book entirely, and I wanted a book that had both that same punk energy and a trans girl hitting people with something that wasn’t a weapon. See? Because I didn’t think Kim & Kim was ever going to get made.
The time travel stuff kinda came in gradually. I wanted to make their project a little more interesting than a spaceship; I mean, where were they gonna go? So I started thinking about it was a TARDIS, that their big breakthrough was figuring out how to move through non-Euclidean space. That’s still basically the idea. The story really came to lean on the time travel part, but when Sumesh talks about how this thing works, he’s describing something that can move in all directions. I ended up simplifying it a lot because the science-y bits were less important to me than literally everything else. So I threw tachyons in there to muck it up a little.
CA: Tell us a little bit about the world of QTAG. Is it twenty minutes in the future, or an alternate version of our world? Eryk, how did you come up with the look of this world?
MV: The world of QTAG is not identical with our world. About fifteen years before the book’s present day, there was a big expansion in investment in Reed Richards-style super-science, termed the Quantum Bubble. Los Angeles became the epicenter of it, especially in an area called Quantum Valley, and these mad science labs started popping up everywhere. Then the bubble burst, the labs all got foreclosed on, and they were shuttered up.
In the wake of that, a big subculture of hobbyists, DIY enthusiasts, and former engineers called exxies started breaking into these labs and stealing shit so they could dick around with it. That’s about where they are.
Eryk Donovan: When I first read the concept for QTAG, I had a lot of different images and scenes bouncing around in my head. This is a world not too different from our own, but with new and unheard of technologies. The current direction we are taking in design trends is towards hyper-clean lines and curves, minimalism, making our artifacts smaller and more compact. While I always keep this in mind, QTAG draws lots of influence from all these classic 80’s and 90’s TV and film, where technology wasn’t quite as refined as it is now, and still had this powerful mix of digital and analog.
Myself having always been a fan of these cyberpunk style worlds, I worked that in and I think it creates a very unique look to the tech design. I guess you could describe it as Brazil and Back to the Future meet Fallout in 2016 California. Since we’re talking about a group of scavenger, amateur, mad scientists who create time portals and laser guns in their basements, the more wires and fitted together pieces the better. All the exxie stuff is homemade, whether it’s Sumeshes’ raygun, or the solar cells on the Odyssey rooftop. Eventually we are going to see what is essentially a flea market where exxies gather to show off their coolest newest gadgets. It’s going to be a really great moment that really shows off the actual scope of how much of this quantum tech is out there.
CA: Nat and Sumesh seem like such a good couple. It's so refreshing to see a teenage couple that are dorky punk scientists who also aren't just lusting over each other. With Kim & Kim, and now QTAG, is it safe to say you're a fan of power duos who don't have fake angst?
MV: Yeah, absolutely. I love one-on-one dynamics. I’m all about bromances and power duos and besties. I think there’s an intensity of love, even platonic love, when you have really solid pairings like that, that is a joy to write. Just two people who are the world to each other. It’s my favorite thing.
And fake angst is the worst. I don’t want to read about nothing but people who are always fighting or struggling with each other. I like you and me against the world s---, where you get people who are unfailingly supportive and loving of each other. Internal drama should arise out of those real relationships, and not be something brought in from the outside because they need to.
Nat and Sumesh, for their part, don’t have a lot of room for drama in their relationship; they’re each other’s port in the storm, the person they cling to because they’re so unhappy in the rest of their lives. And in this book, which really just concerns this very short period of time, they spend the whole of it being set upon by outside forces and acting to preserve themselves. Infighting does them no good.
ED: Definitely. Sure there is some drama between them, but it’s mostly focused on their adventures together. Teen Drama is so often focused on relationships forming or dissolving, but I think it’s refreshing to show two kids who really truly get each other, and aren’t concerned about the external societal pressure telling them who they should or shouldn’t be, or constantly defining the relationship. As Mags said, they don’t really have time to worry about relationship drama, especially when strange interdimensional entities are appearing in your garage.
It also allows for a lot more focus on the family aspect, which is the real core of QTAG. Sometimes our biological family is less of a family than the friends you surround yourself with, the people who aren’t trying to tell you who you’re “supposed” to be, but instead just accept who you are. This family aspect is a big part of what punk is about; just as much as it is a rejection of the social systems in play.
CA: Kim & Kim and QTAG have really awesome character designs that seem to be screaming "cosplay this." How do the two of you approach that aspect of the characters?
ED: Mags had a nice breakdown for me of who each character was, rather than a description of what they looked like; which is always a really smart way to approach designing a character. I pretty much took that and ran with it.
Cosplay was definitely a consideration, so for Nat and Sumesh I wanted to give them something unique that sticks with their character regardless of what they are wearing to school that day. For Nat it’s her piercings and lightning bolt earring, and almost always some leggings or gloves. For Sumesh it’s the hoodie, glasses, and black star pendant. And they all have to have cool hair of course, haha.
I wanted all the characters to feel real, so rather than go with a “costume,” I instead focused on giving them a silhouette that reads regardless of the clothing. When I design a character like Zero or Riley, creating in my mind their personal sense of fashion and function helps inform their look, just as much as their role in the story. Then again, sometimes you just want to have fun and draw a tattoo or robot arms.
CA: One thing it seems you're not afraid of doing is having cis characters be really, really mean to trans characters. In real life, trans girls get misgendered quite a lot, but in comics it seems that even serial killers and monsters bend over backwards to be completely polite to trans characters, which is so unrealistic. Do you feel as a trans creator that's important for you, to get across the reality of being a trans person? Do you ever worry about some of your less awesome readers, perhaps, replicating some of these negative actions?
MV: Honestly, not really. The transphobia Nat encounters has a strong story function: she needed to be unhappy, and I needed to communicate her transness, and these two things happen to dovetail together really well. I’m not doing these comics because I want to communicate something essential about being trans to cis people. My goal insofar as I have one regarding trans representation is to make sure that I show trans people living lives that aren’t dominated by this one facet of their identity.
So, yeah, transphobia is a thing we have to deal with, but it’s not in there to make any kind of polemical point. It’s in there because it exists, and it made sense for where Nat is in the story: mid-transition, still in high school, still living with her parents, operating as an outsider. It made sense and it served a story function.
CA: In another interview, you talk about how you have to be undeniably explicit with the fact that a character is trans "because that’s how it goes when you write for the cis audience. If it’s not undeniable, someone is going to deny it." QTAG has a similarly undeniable reveal of a character being transgender. How differently do you think you would write these stories if you weren't catering to a cis audience?
MV: Honestly? Like, I only have four issues for Kim & Kim and Quantum Teens Are Go, and being relatively explicit is important when you have limited time. I might have taken more of my time instead of making sure it came in in the first issue, and I’d probably be a lot franker about how being trans is disclosed. I’m also very very mindful of harmful tropes that place into cis preconceptions and prejudices, and I’d really love to relax and not worry that I’m reinforcing an assumed artificiality of gender by showing Nat putting on makeup. I’d probably simply dwell on it in different ways, and be a lot more upfront about body and sex stuff that I avoid when writing for a general audience.
CA: One of the things I like about your characters --- and from what I've seen in interviews and on Twitter, you --- is that... caustic might be a bit too much, but you’re very unapologetic and don't take any bull. For instance, at one point Natalie says, "Don't get on my ass about transition." So first off, thanks, because I feel that. Second, do you think it's important to portray trans characters as being unapologetically who they are, even at the risk of offending well-meaning allies?
MV: It’d be weird if I didn’t, right? Trans is just a kind of person and, like, the whole f---ing reason I include trans people in my work is because I don’t want us to be, like, shunted off to the side or forced to accept cis narratives of who we are. What the hell would be the point of writing trans characters if I didn’t think we should be be portrayed as fully realized human beings? F--- everything else.
CA: Not to put too fine a point on it, but there have not been a lot of well-written trans characters in comics. Who are some of your favorite? Any creators whose handling of trans characters you think is spot-on?
MV: The first one who always comes to mind is Kieron Gillen; I’ve been really impressed with his handling of Cassandra in The Wicked + The Divine. We’ve talked about it at some length, actually, and he really understands what things are and aren’t his to say with her.
Marguerite Bennett is another. She’s been really fierce about going whole-hog on queer representation in her work, and I loooove her idealized Bombshells-verse where people are just unapologetic about being trans and nobody cares.
Obviously I have to credit the entire Lumberjanes team for Jo. Beautiful, subtle (I saw it coming a mile away). I’m really loving Blaze in Kelly Thompson’s (and erstwhile Sophie Campell’s) Jem & the Holograms; for all the flack it got, I thought Blaze’s coming out was really well done. And Koi Boi in Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl deserves credit, although it’s been soooo subtle it’s hard to get a bead on.
Gail Simone is consistently really solid, and she deserves so much credit for Alysia Yeoh. She’s not perfect rep, but she was a fantastic way to start. Porcelain in Secret Six is handled very well.
And, credit where credit is due, Kurtis Wiebe killed it with Braga a couple of years ago.
CA: Are there any big, famous --- read: problematic --- trans characters that you love? For instance, there's been a few pieces written about the reclamation of Buffalo Bill. Anyone you feel that way towards?
MV: I mean – Frank Furter? I’ve never actually seen Silence of the Lambs or Sleepaway Camp or really much of the reaaaaallllly problematic trans depictions in media outside of casual, like, sitcom bulls---. I love Frank. He’s a f---ing badass monster who is probably the most unapologetically queer person in media – but he’s also a crazy alien mad scientist, so I dunno.
CA: Kim & Kim and Quantum Teens Are Go both are bright, colorful sci-fi infused punk stories about rebels. Do you think stories like that are important in today's climate?
MV: God, probably? I tend to gravitate toward stories centering around marginal experiences and personalities, and I always love the dashing romantic rebel. And I guess both Kim & Kim and QTAG are about rebels in that they’re about people forging their own way. But the main thing I really see them as are stories about self-care: they’re doing the things they need to do to be healthy. They’re trying to, anyway. And that’s always going to manifest as rebellion when the problem is repressive expectations.
I think the real value of my writing these books in the Trumpian era is that they are about people who are not and will not be cowed. That’s the strength I take from them, too; it’s good to get in that headspace.
ED: What Mags said. In this current climate, there is a lot of fear and uncertainty about what will happen next, and telling stories that are both fun and adventurous that can also give someone a voice or identify with a character, when they may feel they haven’t before is really important.
CA: Mags, You recently wrote for the Young Animals imprint of DC. How was that?
MV: Pretty incredible. The pitching process was really straightforward, and Jamie Rich and Molly Mahan are delightful to work with. Jamie in particular has been really supportive, and I was really stunned when he let me resurrect Element Girl, who Neil Gaiman famously killed off almost thirty years ago. I got to do that. I got to write something that has an effect on DC canon. That blew me away.
I really love what Young Animals is up to, because it reminds me a lot of what we’re doing at Black Mask. There’s a similar kinda rock ’n’ roll energy to it, and they’re willing to be weird. I like that. I hope I get to do more with them.
CA: Is there any Big Two character you dream of writing/drawing?
MV: Oh, tons. But if I have to pick juuuust one, I wanna say Mayday Parker. Spider-Girl has been my jam since I was fourteen and I’ve never not been in love with her. If I ever get the chance to pitch Marvel for her, I will honestly, I swear to God, lose my damn mind. I could write odes to what that book has meant to me.
I’d also love to do Daredevil, Kitty Pryde, Nightcrawler, Kate Bishop, Darkhawk (or really any of the New Warriors), America Chavez, Superman/girl/woman/boy, Jubilee. I’d love to take a stab at an original Green Lantern; I’ve got something in the hole for that if I get the chance. Black Canary post-Brenden Fletcher would be a romp. Gotham Academy, definitely.
ED: For my part, I was really lucky to get to do a few issues of Constantine: The Hellblazer last year, and had an absolute blast. I would definitely enjoy drawing him some more. Along with John, I’d love to do something with Swamp Thing, Batman, Wolverine, Starlord/Guardians Of The Galaxy, Venom, and of course Star Wars in general. If there was ever a chance for me to do something with the Sandman series, I totally would, it’s pretty much my all-time favorite.
CA: If Kim & Kim were adapted into a movie, who would be your dream Kim and Kim?
MV: For the longest time, I wanted Jamie Clayton and Freema Agyeman. But you guys convinced me: Hari Nef and Kiersey Clemons.
CA: What's on your pull list?
MV: Amazing Spider-Man, Jonesy, Jem & the Holograms, Hawkeye, Mother Panic, Jessica Jones, Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye, Silver Surfer, Squirrel Girl, Paper Girls, The Wicked + The Divine, Shade the Changing Girl, Doom Patrol, and Ms. Marvel.
ED: It’s been a bit since I don’t have a local shop that's in super easy access for me, but Southern Bastards, The Woods, Black Science, Rumble, and Sex Criminals were constant.
There’s so much good stuff out there I still need to catch up on --- Detective Comics, Doom Patrol, The Goddamned, Sheriff of Babylon, Vision, Power Man and Iron Fist, Saga, to name a few.
CA: Mags, you mentioned an upcoming piece called Sex/Death/Revolution about getting over the idea of who we used to think we had to be. (Am I summarizing that right?) How's that coming? Any updates?
MV: That’s a pretty solid description, all told. Right now I’m neck deep in finishing production on Quantum Teens Are Go and scripting the second volume of Kim & Kim. But as soon as that’s done. And you’ll have updates as soon as possible.
CA: Okay, so I'm just going to go ahead and ask the first question I had when I finished the issue. What happens next?
MV: Oh, lots of things.
ED: It’s a world of infinite possibilities.