Friday, August 13, 2010

Interview with RJ of Riot Nrrd Comics

Image description: RJ of Riot Nrrd's avatar, a cartoon person with spiky hair in a green shirt.

Today, I’m posting the first part of my chat with cartoonist RJ of the webcomic Riot Nrrd, launched in December. I asked to interview them because I was impressed with the comic’s balance of social consciousness, character development, and humor. They were a delight to talk to, and I’m excited to share their awesome comic with my readers.

Riot Nrrd updates on Tuesday and Thursday and can be found at Read more about RJ and the comic here, or find them on twitter and tumblr.

RMJ: So tell us about yourself.

RJ: I grew up in this little New England town with not a lot of diversity and not a lot of stuff to do. ...I doodled on everything. I always liked art but I almost failed out of an art class in high school because I did everything so slowly. I do a lot of things slowly and not technically the correct way. I hold my pens funny and I play the guitar all wrong. Then I got to college, for writing, because I love storytelling. And I started taking women's studies and anthropology classes and my brain exploded. I was already a feminist because Lisa Simpson was a feminist and she was my hero. But by the end of college, I really felt that social justice was my field more so than writing was. And that's where I am right now, just out of college and figuring out what I want to do. I started the comic in December and it's been my only "job" since May. And the universe keeps telling me this is what I should be doing. Though it told me to be a librarian, too, and that hasn't worked out yet.

RMJ: It's hard to find a single branch that you want to extend into a career, especially as a creative person in this economy. What inspired you to do the comic?

RJ: My original idea for making my own comic was the comic that the girls are writing, about the roller derby superheroes. At my old job I was researching female superheroes (I worked with my school's women's center and we did a topic-based newsletter, and the topic of that one was strength), and I had a class about women and healthcare and that's where the idea for an exploitative medical corporation came from. So I started drawing the characters you see in Riot Nrrd #25 in the margins of my notes constantly. But I have nowhere near the technical skill to draw an action-based comic. I didn't want to let go of those characters, so last year I realized a more slice-of-life type comic was something I could handle and developed Wren, Maria, and Sam to be the creators of my original idea.

I read a lot of blogs, social justice blogs and nerd blogs. And the thing that I was always the most excited to read was thoughts about that intersection, about race in sci-fi or queerness in comics. I think Racialicious especially had these posts about comics and other nerd culture stuff that I would just eat up, and I tried to seek out more and was disappointed that there wasn't more about that.

I realized I wasn't the only one at this intersection. All the queer people I know play Magic: The Gathering and watch Buffy. I feel like there's so many of us, not just queers but all sorts of marginalized folks, who are also nerdy and there's not as much out there for us as there should be, and I wanted to create something to fill that hole.

RMJ: What would you say are your goals with this comic? What are you trying to communicate?

RJ: Well, the comic is certainly a space for me to critique and challenge a lot that I see as wrong or lacking within different material, but I didn't want to make a political cartoon, just straight message. I like storytelling. I like characters. I think sometimes I don't integrate as much nerd stuff as other webcomics on the topic, but it's equally important to me to treat these characters well and tell their stories. It's important to me to create webcomics where nobody gets shit on, no matter what your identity or background is, you don't have to worry about being the next punchline.

I'm influenced by Dykes to Watch Out For more than any "nerdy" webcomic like Penny Arcade. I want to create characters that people can see themselves in, which still includes them being geeks. Someone commented once that they liked that my characters don't all agree with each other on everything, and that's something I definitely took from Allison Bechdel. It lets one explore issues in a fuller and more honest way. Wren's a little Mo-like, cynical and says the wrong thing sometimes but is really earnest and human. I put Mo in the background of one of the earliest Riot Nrrds, number 8 I think?

RMJ: I’m so glad you brought up Bechdel - she was on my list of topics to discuss. Your comic really reminded me of how Bechdel strove to be inclusive and represent multiple points of view. She definitely didn't do it perfectly, but she always worked to cover different sites of oppression in an ethical and honest way.What and who are your influences besides Bechdel?

RJ: : I think after her would be Jeph Jacques, who writes Questionable Content. Foremost, my comic is shaped like his. I like the way it reveals itself slowly that way, you're only looking at one panel at a time. And I'm inspired by the way Jeph Jacques is constantly improving, really noticeably so. I remember wondering, 'do I really have the skills to make a webcomic?' And I looked through the QC archives and thought, 'yeah, I can do this. It's ok to start where I am and get better as I go'.

There are other comics and cartoonists that I like. Girls With Slingshots is one I read religiously and is good and constantly getting better on inclusion. But as far as influencing Riot Nrrd, Bechdel and Jacques are the big ones.

RMJ: Apparently we are fairly copacetic in comicing tastes! QC is another favorite of mine. I'm also impressed by how he tends to respond to critique.

RJ: He had a great response when some readers raised some questions about how he was representing polyamory.

Check back on Monday for part two of this interview! Topics will include: humor, meta, Whedon, and Riot Nrrd's future. In the meantime, why don’t you check out my posts on discussion topic Questionable Content:

Disability and Comics: How Questionable Content's Faye and Hannelore normalize disability
Women in Questionable Content: Women-run businesses and Bechdel-passing friendships

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