Reimagining Fantasy in Robin Kaplan and Nathan Robison’s ‘Ushala at World’s End’ [Webcomic Q&A]
Everyone's got baggage, but Ushala probably has a little more than most. She's the reincarnation of the woman who nearly exterminated her entire tribe many years ago. As a result, she's been exiled from her community (by her own mother!) and now has more physical baggage in the form of a carrion wraith who follows her around, hoping to devour her.
The fantasy genre also has a lot of baggage, and through Ushala at World's End, Robin Kaplan and Nathan Robison hope to upend and overcome that baggage — with matriarchal societies, a ban on sexual violence, and a more considered eye towards marginalized representation in the narrative. Webcomic Q&A caught up with them to find out more.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for Ushala at World's End? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Robin Kaplan and Nathan Robison: Ushala has always been very visual. It began as a bunch of character and creature designs that we liked so much that we created a world for them to inhabit. In these designs, we were intentionally blurring gender lines by bouncing off of familiar elf and fairy tropes to create strong (i.e. muscular) female characters and pretty men for them to rescue and protect.
Eventually, the character designs became real characters and the pile of world-building notes became the setting for an actual story. We had most of the "big arc" figured out fairly early on, but there was a lot of wrestling over questions of format and platform. Like, was it going to be a purely textual novel, an illustrated novel, or a graphic novel? Where and how were we going to host it? etc. But the inherently visual nature of this project kept coming to the fore and demanded that it be a comic. We feel like so much of what's good and interesting about Ushala is in how this world looks and what it feels like to be there.
Both of us are incurable fantasy fans, but we wanted to do something a little different from the quasi-Arthurian, Tolkien-and-Gygax stuff (although we wouldn't be here without it).
We've jokingly referred to Ushala as "ElfQuest meets Red Sonja" but that isn't actually much of a stretch. Robin comes from folklore and world mythology. Nate comes from natural history. Both of us really like 20th Century Barbarians and Dinosaurs pulp fantasy, but there's a lot of things that are in those stories we don't like. We're both queer working people, and we often take exception with how race, class, and sexuality are treated in a lot of fantasy fiction. From the beginning, we set out to create a world that celebrated queerness and femininity, and glorified the common working people over and above their lords and masters.
CA: What’s it about?
RK&NR: A lot of things. It's a story about memory. It's a story about how the weak can unite to topple their oppressors, and how the strong can tip the balance in their favor. It's a story about stories, narrated by a trickster and admitted liar who nevertheless must try and set the record straight. However, at its heart, this comic is about taking responsibility for one's actions. It's set in a world where the dead are reincarnated with their memories intact, but because they grow up again as someone else, with new and different life experiences, they often become very different people from the ones they were in their previous lives.
What if you did something terrible in a past life? Something so terrible that the ramifications were still being felt? And what if only you could put a stop to the ongoing disaster that your past self set in motion? These are the struggles of our titular heroine, who must not merely "atone" for her crimes in some metaphysical or spiritual sense. She must undo the wrongs that only she can right, by virtue of being the person who committed those wrongs in the first place.
CA: Could you introduce the characters and the basic premise of the story?
RK&NR: It's a story that's being told after the fact by Cor, who is attempting to set the record straight on a series of mythic events that have been revised and distorted by the powers that be. Cor herself is a scrappy little baby-butch musician who can't quite rein in her irreverence for authority or her wanderlust.
The people of Cor's world are immortal. When they die, they're reincarnated with their memories intact. The titular Ushala is in fact the reincarnation of a conqueror that all but exterminated Ushala's tribe many years ago. When this fact comes to light, she is exiled. She's given the Carrion's Crown to wear, which is inhabited by a ghoulish wraith that will devour her body when she dies and return the Crown to her people.
Instead, the carrion wraith --- whom Ushala names Kivar --- strikes a bargain with her condemned host. Kivar helps Ushala survive by leading her out of the desert and helping her to defend herself, in exchange for the bodies of the dead she assumes Ushala will leave behind as she fights through this dangerous world. The conflict between Ushala, who wants to do better than her tyrannical past life, and Kivar, who is just hungry, shapes the story.
Along the way, Ushala meets Cor, and the pair become embroiled in a conflict on a scale that neither of them had quite expected. For that legacy of Ushala's past life lives on, and she may be the only one who can stop a new empire from swallowing up the world and changing the very nature of their reincarnation cycle.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
RK&NR: We'd like to think that anyone who likes fantasy could find something to like in Ushala, but we were hoping to make something special for the folks who'd like a story that focuses on queer and female characters in a world where both of those things are the norm. However, there is a lot of casual nudity, strong language, positive sex, and intense violence, so we tag it for mature audiences.
CA: Could you introduce the specific ways you've tried to subvert or avoid the fantasy genre baggage you mentioned earlier?
RK&NR: A big thing we wanted to avoid altogether was reproducing this extreme misogyny that pervades a lot of fantasy fiction. Classical fantasy often depicts a society that is rigidly patriarchal, where women are chattel and are constantly under threat of sexual violence — often above and beyond any historical evidence. Now, some things actually address this as a condition to be struggled against, but we just wanted it gone, full stop. That's part of why our fairies are mildly matriarchal, and while there's plenty of sex and violence in this story, never the twain shall meet.
Fantasy fiction is replete with good kings and generous landlords and selfless knights, who protect the unwashed masses from themselves, while the villains are often motivated by a kind of elemental evil, which is usually inherent to their very being. Evil does as evil is, in other words. We believe the opposite. We believe that evil is as evil does, and we know that historically, the people are oppressed and exploited by their lords and masters more than they are protected by them. It's not like there aren't violent criminals or carnivorous monsters, but in Ushala, the biggest bandits are called landowners, and the most dangerous monsters are the ones that nest in guild halls and senate buildings (though our young heroes are still finding that out).
"Evil" races are probably the number one trope we wanted to avoid and subvert. Robin is Jewish and has read books her whole life where bad guys are coded with anti-Semitism. When you grow up feeling othered, you know how much it is just dangerous propaganda to cast an entire group of people as inherently bad. Not to mention its just lazy writing! All the people in Ushala are actually the same species, no matter how many horns and arms they have, except for the carrion wraiths who, despite being demonic aliens, are perfectly capable of empathy and motivated by a hierarchy of needs and not inherently good or bad.
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
RK&NR: For Nate, there has been a lot of learning how to write for comics — learning how much dialog will actually fit on a page, how many actions in a panel, how to let the story take a breath. But his approach to writing — letting the world-building come up naturally, pulling back to show the size of the world then closing in for emotional moments — has stayed the same.
For Robin, there has been a lot of exploration in the artwork, finding a visual language and style that she finds satisfying and flexible enough to be comfortable with. Visually, that means the comic has tightened up and gotten much inkier, though the colors stay pretty loose.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
RK&NR: Though she always had friends who made webcomics, Robin was an indie artist and illustrator for years before she thought to actually make one herself. Since we were both completely outside the industry, the accessibility of webcomics made them our only practical option for getting the work out there. We picked both big hosting sites (Smack Jeeves, Tumblr) and a dedicated personal site so that we could reach an audience where comics readers were already congregating, and also have an attractive home base.
CA: What’s your process like?
RK&NR: We take long walks every evening to work out plots and discuss character interactions and themes and what we want to do with the next few pages. Nate then writes a script, often fairly detailed with breakdowns for each panel, which Robin then translates into sketches to thumbnail out each page — a step that often involves some script casualties. Robin works completely digitally for Ushala, “penciling” over the thumbnails at full size on a separate layer in Photoshop, then moving to Manga Studio for final inking, before going back to Photoshop for colors.
CA: Ushala features a really distinct and textured parchment-like art style and I'm impressed to hear that it's done completely digitally. Can you talk about how you achieve that effect?
RK&NR: That's the magic of texture overlays! We wanted a sense of both archaic art and early 20th Century illustration (as opposed to slick superhero art). The loose lines and parchment texture overlay is how we made our peace with that.
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
RK&NR: Self-publishing enabled this story to exist, full-stop. Ushala was a hard sell in the beginning — an epic fantasy with no franchise connections and a slow, slow burn of a plot. Doing it ourselves has let us develop the world, characters, and story to our satisfaction instead of rushing things.
We have a lot of elements that might not fit together at first glance: dinosaurs, immortal fairies, matriarchy, reincarnation, metamorphosis, and yet these things are all vitally important parts of the project. Absolutely essential is the political content, and the sexuality of the characters. Those are things we couldn't change without destroying the entire purpose of the work itself. None of these things might be a deal-breaker for a publisher now, but when we were working things out five years ago, we weren't seeing a place for us.
CA: You mention the seemingly disparate threads (dinosaurs, fairies, etc.) of the comic and I'm reminded a bit of Kiva, Ushala's carrion wraith companion. As demons often are, she's at odds with the world around in her both illustration style and personal voice — her emoticon-esque facial expressions in shadow form are a favorite detail of mine. What do you do to keep these varied and seemingly disparate elements and style choices unified within the story?
RK&NR: They should only seem incongruous when listed like that. This world was built from the bottom up, and we tried to make everything organic, as if it really did all develop side-by-side over millions of years — more like a sci-fi planet than fairy-tale-inspired mythos, though we used that as a jumping-off point. The seelie/unseelie dichotomy, for example, bears little resemblance to folklore. This isn't to say that we promise the most unique and original fairies you've ever seen, but that these fairies are specific to this world, and the same goes for the “dinosaurs.”
The big exception here is Kivar, and the race of demons she represents. They are actually alien to this world, so there's an extent to which Kivar --- at least while in her shadow form--shouldn't look like she belongs there. Because in a very real way, she doesn't! Having her break stylistically from the rest of the art is a fun and freeing way to play with that. Robin loves drawing her broader acting.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
RK&NR: For queer lady fantasy adventures (but a more episodic format,) Leia Weathington (et al)'s Legend of Bold Riley. For serious, queer-lady-driven historical fantasy, Natasha Alterici's Heathen. For less serious but super fun single-mom-barbarian hi-jinks, Steve LeCouilliard (et al)'s Una the Blade.
Tristan Tarwater's Shamsee comics, illustrated by Adrian Ricker, have a fantasy world as seen by people from the bottom of society, which I think might appeal to our readers, too, and for subtle world-building with mysteries slowly unfolding, Maia Kobabe's The Thief's Tale would be a great bet too — and not as "mature audiences only."
You can keep up with Ushala at World's End on its website and buy physical copies here. You can find Robin at TheGorgonist on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Instagram. Her other queer collaborative comic, Parallel Lines, can be found here.
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.”