Knife Fights and Queer Smooches in Valerie Halla’s ‘Goodbye to Halos’ [Webcomic Q&A]
There's no getting around it: having your father strand you in another universe sucks. And it leaves you wondering, did he really just forget to check the back seat of the car before pulling out of the 7/11 parking lot? Was that last Father's Day tie too gaudy? Does he at least have the courtesy to ditch me in a universe with wi-fi?
If you are going to find yourself starting life anew in an unfamiliar world, there are a few better places to be than the neighborhood of Market Square in Valerie Halla's Goodbye to Halos. It boasts a community full of queer, anthropomorphic people, action-packed bouts of magical girl fisticuffs, and flirting as, basically, currency. ComicsAlliance spoke with Halla about positive queer representation, gay lions, and the value of found family.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for Goodbye to Halos? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Valerie Hallas: With Goodbye to Halos, I wanted to write two things: A story about queer and trans people for queer and trans people, full of love and hope, where folks like me get to be cool and powerful; and a really over-the-top goofy action comic starring super-powered magical girls who can't decide if they want to throw knives at each other or make out.
Queer content is so important to me, but most stories involving queer folks either take the form of non-queer media with incidentally and not meaningfully queer characters (tokens), or stories about queer tragedy and heartache. We're either not allowed to have the spotlight, or when we are, we have to suffer for it. And it's so boring!
So the driving force behind all my work has always been my desire to counter those tragic stories with hope and acceptance and normalcy, and Halos is a continuation of this --- a comic whose characters, motivations and morals are deeply queer, but whose conflict is not. In terms of inspiration, the comic draws a lot from Shounen and Shoujo manga --- I always loved the idea of alternating big silly fight scenes with tender moments and panels framed in flowers.
CA: What’s it about?
VH: Goodbye to Halos is about a girl named Fenic who gets abandoned by her dad in another universe. She gets taken in by a cool buff bunny boy and a cute gay lion, and with a little time, she grows to think of them as her family. Living together with them in the downtrodden queer neighborhood of Market Square, Fenic finds her chance to reinvent her identity. Also, she's magic.
Now, years later, when the ancient portal that sent her here suddenly stirs to life, she's shocked to find that what comes out isn't her dad --- it's a caped triclops demoness from a forgotten realm! She's been searching the multiverse for Fenic --- and did she just call her "Princess?"
Halos is a comic where everyone's queer, starring a gay, trans girl protagonist and her web of beloved friends. She'll go on an adventure across worlds and make out with lots of cool girls while she learns to find balance in her heart and use her powers for good.Or, put another way, it's a comic about friends and relationships and cuddling, with some incidental knife fights.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
VH: I think that Goodbye to Halos should be fun for everyone, but I make no secret of the fact that I write it from a queer perspective for queer people. They're my target audience, and the ones to whom I market and advertise my comic.
I've been calling Goodbye to Halos "young adult and up," and that's about the age range I write for. There's some swearing, innuendo, sexual themes, and non-sexualized nudity, and a fair bit of cartoon violence.
CA: Hearing that you created Goodbye to Halos with a queer audience in mind makes a lot of sense, as it’s a resounding and overt rebuke to all the media tropes you mention. When creating it, did you ever feel a pressure to “water it down” into something more mainstream, or did the freedom of webcomics as a medium negate that impulse?
VH: No, I never felt that pressure... on this project, anyway. It's not my first comic to deal with queer and trans themes --- my previous attempt, Portside Stories, was a more slice-of-life dealie about trans childhood friends! I ended up shelving it, but the biggest thing it taught me was to not compromise on making something as loudly and peculiarly queer as I want.
I was so scared when I put up the first few pages, thinking, "Will anyone even like this? Is it too niche? Is it unmarketable?" But to my complete surprise, people didn't just enjoy it, they were almost... relieved? Happy? Thankful? Almost immediately, what felt like a tiny community bubbled up around the comic. People with shared experiences who had never been able to talk about them, let alone see them represented in a kind and fulfilling way, gathered in blogs, on Twitter, in the comments sections. I realized that in a weird way, my comic wasn't just something that made people happy, but a landmark for them to gather around. It was profound, and humbling, and I go into every new project with that in mind.
So I didn't, and don't, concede an inch when it comes to Goodbye to Halos. I try my hardest to represent in fiction the things I've felt and the world I want to build without stopping to worry about what people will think. And if you're reading this, you should too!
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
VH: Goodbye to Halos was a lot of firsts for me! It's only my second comic to date, the earlier being the discontinued Portside Stories, so I've really been learning a lot as I go along.
For this project, I switched to a lineless art style, and I've been learning a lot about how to streamline that workflow as I go on. Over time, I've incorporated a lot more paint-y elements into the art. I've also made the characters a lot more simplified and cartoony --- which is kind of a natural occurrence when you draw characters hundreds of times!
Also, though nobody knows this, the storyline has undergone a few major changes since I began drawing the comic almost two years ago. To me, though, that's ideal. I deliberately avoid writing down a solid script for most of the comic so that I can always keep brainstorming better and more refined ways for plot points to play out. The exact order and way things go down is often up in the air until shortly before I start drawing a given comic page!
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
VH: I've always wanted to tell stories, and I've always been very visually-oriented in how I want to tell them. And for a creator working alone, I think there's no better medium for that than webcomics.
Webcomics is the beating heart of the comic industry right now, the vanguard of new and weird and personal and heartfelt stories --- for many marginalized creators, it's the first and best place to get their voices heard through their work.
Of course, I didn't know all that when I started. It just seemed like the most convenient way to draw goofy faces in sequence.
CA: What’s your process like?
VH: My process for the comic is heavily streamlined by this point. I'll start by writing a panel-by-panel script, then draw the panels out on the page and letter in the dialogue --- which I before everything else so that I'll always know exactly how much space text takes up. Then I'll start penciling.
I actually don't do thumbnails or storyboards at all --- I used to, but I found myself just filling them out in so much detail they ended up just being really small fully-penciled pages, and I'd blow them up and paint right on top of them anyway! So now I just skip right to pencils.
Once pencils are done, I start "painting." Since my art is lineless, I don't really have a stage equivalent to inking --- in fact, going lineless was partly a way for me to escape inks, because it was always my least favorite part of the process. I block out characters in crisp solid colors, and paint backgrounds a bit more traditionally. I still do a bit of inking in the form of internal lines inside characters to separate out overlapping areas of the same color and add a bit of texture here and there.
I'm an all-digital girl, so apart from scripting in Notepad, this whole process takes place in Clip Studio Paint from start to finish.
CA: Goodbye to Halos has a really effective color palette. I’m particularly fond of nighttime scenes that contrast blues with almost electric oranges and yellows. What’s your strategy when choosing colors match a scene or locale?
VH: I really subscribe to the idea of "color as metaphor." I'm much less interested in creating true-to-life palettes than I am in using color to evoke particular emotions. Sometimes that means I'll make a panel red if someone's mad, but usually it's more subtle shades of emotion --- even things that might just be particular to me, like the quiet feeling of watching blue-green clouds rolling up to a dawny horizon. But when those subtle colors hit home, it's super worth it.
Color is maybe the most important item in my creative toolbox. It's usually the first thing that comes to mind when planning out a scene. In my head, I see everything in colors, and the form often comes a lot later. That's why I've developed an art style that puts color at the forefront! None of those pesky "lines."
CA: Could you also talk about what goes into your character design? There’s a wide range of body types, facial features, and shades of feminine/masculine presentation in the series’ cast.
VH: Oh, yeah! Listen. I'm gonna be frank. I just make everyone hot. But I make everyone hot in their own way. I try not to lean too much into the idea of traditional beauty --- which isn't to say I make my characters "ugly," but that I challenge myself to make every new character beautiful in different ways, with little regard for what the male gaze finds attractive. As a fat trans woman, making other people feel like their own bodies are beautiful and loved through my art makes me really happy.
Fenic is kinda my favorite example. She's easily the most cartoony of all the characters (partly out of necessity since she's in, like, every panel on every page), but she represents a lot of things about a visibly trans body that are mega important to me. Her blocky chin, spindly hips and rectangular frame are all very much purposeful design.
People consistently consider her the cutest character in the comic, though, and a large part of that is simply the way I present her. How people treat her and even her framing in panels is meant to convey to the reader that she is attractive, because she is, and trans bodies are attractive. Even though she's a goofy bug-eyed cartoon with noodle arms, visual metaphors like the ones you can create in cartoons are key to presenting bodies in a new light --- and showing how much you love them.
I try to challenge something about expected beauty with every character. Everyone looks kinda goofy. Leo is a nerdy glasses geek who wears femme clothing. Louis is a tall buff bunny boy with outrageously gorgeous eyelashes and he definitely wears eyeshadow. Fran is fat and has scary-looking eyes with bushy eyebrows. And I use the gaze of the comic to convey that each one of them is worthy of attraction --- never, ever a joke. Because I deeply, deeply believe that there's so much to love about every person and every body.
Honestly, if I had started Goodbye to Halos now, in 2016, the only thing I'd change is I'd make more characters fat. But maybe a chubby version Fenic would just be too perfect.
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
VH: I couldn't have gotten this comic done any other way. While I think publishers' attitudes towards this kind of content are slowly --- slowly --- shifting, Goodbye to Halos is by nature an all-out subversion of hetero- and cis-normative storytelling conventions. There's so much that I simply couldn't risk giving up --- it's a story without a single non-queer character, full of people loving each other in weird and unique ways, with lots of cuddling, kissing, polyamory... Fenic gets pet a lot... everybody's lowkey horny...
It just wouldn't be the same comic with editorial interference.
CA: As you mention, Goodbye to Halos has an entirely queer cast. What prompted you to have a community born specifically from its members’ shared queerness as opposed to having everyone “just happen” to be queer?
VH: So, if you haven't read the comic, the setting for most of the first 100+ pages is a little run-down urban district called Market Square, within a larger city in a far-flung universe.
I don't think I ever explicitly state this in the comic, but it is heavily implied that the neighborhood is almost like a dumping ground for vulnerable queer and trans youth. It's crumbling and shoddy and overrun with vegetation and quirky kid bandits. But while the living conditions are rough, and the implication of massive institutional oppression on the outside is rougher, the kids living in Market Square stick together. They band together to help each other out, don't think twice about sharing a bed, they form lasting and loving friendships and make out indiscriminately. In a weird bizarro upside-down way, they've created, from the rubble of their oppression, a strong, cohesive shared identity and safe space.
Why would I write it that way? Well, 'cause... that ain't even fiction!! It's a direct metaphor for the very real bubbles of community that queer folks create, share, and fight to expand every day. Being unified by oppression is an awful thing, but the support and love I've found in communities like Market Square --- online or offline --- has changed my life for the better in more ways than I can describe.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
VH: There's lots of comics that have the same bombastic trappings as mine, but if you want more comics with friendly queer sensibilities, some of my favorites are Demon Street by Aliza Layne, a fun and touching story about kids in a beautiful and lethal monster world; Cucumber Quest, a beautiful and charming fantasy comic about kids on a quest to save the world; and Star Trip, a sci-fi space saga about an earthling touring the galaxy with her mysterious and powerful shapeshifter companion.
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.”