Emily Riesbeck is the writer of the trans woman superhero webcomic Blue Valkyrie. I wrote a review as part of National Women’s History Month, which you can read here. After the review, I decided to sit down with Ms. Riesbeck to discuss superheroes, the importance of representation in media, and how her own experience as a trans woman influences her work.
TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of transphobia and sexaul assault.
BH: Please, introduce yourself.
ER: Hello, I’m Emily Riesbeck. I’m the writer of Blue Valkyrie. I currently live in Chicago and have a degree in journalism.
BH: What was the inspiration for Blue Valkyrie? How did you assemble the creative team?
ER: Well, superheroes were my introduction to comics. I grew up watching the cartoons. I really liked Batman and Spider-Man, so I decided to pick up some comics. I didn’t have that many, like 10 (laughs). In high school, I read mostly webcomics, not a lot of print from DC or Marvel. Then a while back, a friend of mine told me about Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl and how she introduced a new character, Alysia Yeoh, a trans woman. I thought that was amazing and started reading. I really liked it, and I was really disappointed how underused she became in the new version because there was a character I could personally relate to. Though, technically, she was a side character. I noticed how transgender characters either don’t appear in comics or are rarely the protagonist, just a sidekick. So, I decided I wanted to make my own comic, my own superhero. And that’s how I came up with Blue Valkyrie.
As far as getting the creative team together, I first met David Mitchell, the artist, on a comic con web forum. He showed off his work, and I really liked it and told him about my idea, and he also really liked it. Our first colorist, Corianne Wells, David knew in art school through a friend of a friend. As for Tina, I really admired her writing on Bitch Media and other places, I follow her on Twitter, and I asked her if she wanted to be part of the comic. She said yes. And that’s pretty much how we got started.
BH: Now, what happened with Corianne Wells? She’s not on there anymore.
ER: We only commissioned her for five pages. It was a stylistic choice. You commented on this, but David has some great line work, and at the time, we thought it would be cool if we kept it black and white to show off. Plus, it’s cool to start off with color then revert to black and white.
BH: Like a manga.
ER: Yeah, like that. So, Corianne left and we didn’t do color anymore. However, we did have color for issue 3. David did it himself and it looks great, but it takes him too much time to do, so we stick to black and white.
BH: Why did you choose to make the series a webcomic? What are the pros and cons of the format?
ER: Well, I was familiar with the format from years of reading. It’s free to publish, you get to market it yourself and keep most of the money you make. Cons would be the scheduling. You have to make your own deadlines and that can be hard. Also, holding a physical copy of a comic has it’s own appeal. You don’t get that with a webcomic. Funny story, I printed out the very first issue and made it a coloring book for my brother’s girlfriend, and she absolutely loves it! We’re looking into doing a print run some time in the far off future, but for now doing Blue Valkyrie as a webcomic works best.
BH: That’s really cool. How would you describe the creative process?
ER: It depends on the day. David and I both have other jobs, so some days the creativity is really going, some days it’s not. When we first started, David and I bounced around ideas. I’d write something then ask him “do you like?” and he did the same thing with his art. This was back when we were still figuring out the story. Now, we more or less know the direction and so we don’t bounce back and forth as much anymore. We’re both confident enough in each other’s work that we don’t need to do it as much anymore.
Which doesn’t mean there still isn’t an editing process. With the first two issues, I wrote the scripts and Tina edited them page-by-page. David got the scripts, added comments, and then started drawing. I edited issue three myself, which was more work but I felt confident enough to do. It’s all on the fly. We’re constantly editing and changing things until the very last minute. I think this all helps the process honestly, and even though I constantly look for ways to improve, I know that it’ll never be perfect. That’s one bit of advice I’ll give. There’s no such thing as perfection, so just do your absolute best, even if you’re never fully satisfied with it.
BH: You bring up a lot of issues involving gender politics, specifically trans people and their difficulties in American society. What about the superhero genre do you think is great for discussing these issues?
ER: I think what I like about the genre is that superheroes represent a perfect ideal for a person. Like, Superman for example. He’s my favorite. He’s an ideal, perfect embodiment of justice and morality. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t pitfalls though. Heroes are also embodiments of a culture’s ideals, like how Odysseus, Achilles, and all the Greek heroes were shaped by Greek culture. What does Superman represent? Well, he was developed in pre-WW2 America where the ideal person was cis, straight, white, male, American, etc. I would argue even nowadays, despite cultural changes, that is still the American ideal of the perfect person.
BH: Right, not a lot of room for marginalized groups.
ER: Right. Not a lot of representation for marginalized people: queer, POC, disabled. I mean, there’s Daredevil, but some would argue that his powers, which give him a kind of vision, means he’s not really blind. As for trans people, I tend to see more negative representatives than positive. You tend to have characters like Buffalo Bill or Norman Bates, and even though they’re not meant to be actually trans, people associate them with men acting like women. There are steps forward, like with Alysia Yeoh, but there can always be more.
BH: In Blue Valkyrie, you really got into the struggles of trans people. How they are constantly judged in American society. An interesting part of this discrimination, at least for me, is when Chloe monologues about how she hates people thinking that her entire life centers around being trans, how she doesn’t want it to be the only part of her. Do you think that this is pigeon holding?
ER: Let me clarify that being trans is a very important aspect of my life and that of other trans people. It’ll always be significant and it’s going to shape our world. There’s no avoiding that. Our social identities do shape how the world is going to respond to us and how we’re going to respond to it. However, yes people do pigeon hold trans identities, specifically our enemies. They use that part of us to paint us as unnatural when really we’re just people. We have jobs, family and friends, all that. To make us any less than people is dehumanizing.
As for your question about Chloe, yes, she is frustrated. She doesn’t want to be seen only as trans, there’s more to her than that. Those feelings I write from my own experience, when I was struggling with my own gender identity. I don’t want to be seen as solely this one part of me. Again, there’s more. But being trans is important to my life and to Chloe’s. Transgender is a big part of her character and the story as a whole. It’s important for any queer or trans person to see themselves in her, especially young people that might be struggling with their gender/sexual identities. Growing up, I didn’t have heroes I could identify with. Superman is inspirational, but there needs to be queer superheroes for us. So, yeah, Chloe’s trans identity is important.
BH: Probably the most disturbing part of the webcomic is when Chloe’s old friend, Dan, attempts to sexually assault her. Do you believe this was an issue that needed to be addressed?
ER: I’ll be honest and say that’s from personal experience. I was fortunate enough so that it didn’t escalate to violence, but I was still threatened with that kind of violence. I honestly struggled with that scene, not just because of personal experience but because I know that being assaulted/fridged is a pattern of victimization in fiction for trans/queer people. I wanted to do better. I decided I wanted Chloe not to be a victim.
BH: She was able to save herself.
ER: Yes, but I also wanted to talk about it seriously. Like being trans, being a survivor of assault will stay with Chloe. It’ll be part of her, but she won’t let it rule her life. More importantly, she’ll be able to accept it, work through it, and make herself better. The experience doesn’t destroy her. Not everyone will like it, but I just hope they’ll see that I did more with it than just a trope.
BH: So, you pretty much answered this question, but how much of your personal experience do you put in the comic?
ER: A lot (laugh). Chloe is like a perfect cover for myself. She’s like what I would really want to be as a person.
BH: As a trans woman, how do you feel about representation of the trans community in comics and media in general?
ER: It’s abysmal. Like with the previous examples I gave, we’re either freaks, sidekicks, or simply nonexistent. There are trans women in comics: Annie Mok, Mags Vissagio, Isz Janeway, and, most recognizable, Sophie Campbell, but the problem is they don’t have enough money and/or exposure to reach a wider audience.
BH: Do you hope that Blue Valkyrie will play a significant role in representing the trans community?
ER: If I had more time and money, sure (laughs). Actually, I’ll be honest and say that I wouldn’t want to go that far because I don’t consider myself a great role model. Also, more than anything, I want people to read a good story. I don’t want to make Blue Valkyrie the sole force leading the charge for trans representation because that would be unfair to all those creators I told you about who are doing that already. I hope everyone who reads Blue Valkyrie will get something out of it. Not just queer/trans people, but maybe someone who doesn’t really know about our community and learns from it. Mostly though, I want to make a comic my 16 or 18-year-old self would’ve liked (laughs).
BH: Diversity plays a big role in this comic with Chloe and Alice, both being trans (Alice is a black trans woman), and their friend Isabella, a Hispanic single mother. Do you consider this an important element of your story?
ER: Yes. To me, diversity in important for two reasons: 1) Marginalized people need representation in fiction, to see themselves. I’m a white woman that grew up with relative comfort. I had plenty of white heroes representing me. But there aren’t a lot of minority heroes, or at least they don’t get enough or equal representation. Now, I can never truly know what it’s like to be a black person, but I can have them in my fiction and let minority readers know that they do matter. That’s the thing, representation is a sign that you do matter, that you are visible.
2) It’s just not realistic to have only white people, specifically white straight cis men, as the only characters that populate the world. Life is full of diversity and so should fiction. It’s not perfect, but I do my best. Most of all, I hope people find it authentic. I want everyone to feel authentic, especially Chloe. She’s not just my stand-in (laughs). She’s her own character. If she and the other characters don’t feel authentic, I’m not doing a good job.
BH: Tell me a little bit about Cream City. What was the inspiration for it?
ER: Cream City is an amalgamation of Chicago and Milwaukee. I grew up in Chicago, but I got my degree in journalism in Milwaukee. I was really inspired by the scenery when I was living there. Actually, Cream City is Milwaukee’s nickname. So, I guess I just stole it (laughs).
BH: (Laughs) Hopefully, they won’t ask for royalties.
All right, next question. I found it very interesting how Isabella brings up a legitimate concern about Blue Valkyrie: is she going to be a hero of the people, or a tool for the establishment? After all, CC’s problems aren’t thugs but billionaires thinking they can destroy poor neighborhoods, and a city council that’s okay with it. Common criticisms against the superhero genre include that the heroes maintain the statues quo. Do you think Blue Valkyrie will try to figure out how she can remain a hero of the people?
ER: Definitely. Going back to Batman, I like him, but what does he do to solve crime? Mostly beat up bad guys. That’s fine, but in real life, most crime affects minorities, and that’s due to economic inequality. For example, if someone’s a drug dealer, they’re probably starving and they need to find some way to survive. Street crime comes from need, not greed. How is Batman really helping by punching people out?
Right now, Chloe is apolitical. She understand yet that that there’ll be more to helping Cream City than just saving people from burning buildings, although that’s a step in the right direction.
BH: Her girlfriend Alice advises that she listens to the people more and figure out the hero they need her to be.
ER: Yes, exactly. The more Chloe does that, the more she’ll understand the social inequalities of CC, and the more she’ll gain a sense of personal responsibility.
BH: Why do you think she’s offended by Isabella’s concerns?
ER: Chloe’s stubborn. She really loves being a superhero and hates thinking she’s in the wrong. Also, she’s very much shoot first, ask questions later kind of person. She doesn’t think much about the consequences of her actions. Although she’s a hero, Chloe is doing it because she enjoys it. She loves using her powers, feeling powerful, and the recognition she receives. In that way, she’s kind of selfish. It’s a little hard for her right now to recognize her responsibility, but with Alice’s help and that of other characters, I think she’ll learn.
BH: What plans do you have for the comic?
ER: Big plans. New superheroes and new villains. I also have other creative projects. So much that I can’t talk about.
BH: You want to give me a hint?
BH: Okay, fine. Leave me the dark. What do you hope for in the future of comics?
ER: More readers and more room for me to grow as a creator.
BH: Any advice to creative people?
ER: Hmm, I don’t know if I can do much since I’m still figuring out my own creativity. I guess it would be that I understand it can be tough feeling underappreciated. Blue Valkyrie isn’t nearly as popular as I would like it to be, but I’m still doing it. Do what you can. Don’t beat yourself up if it isn’t as much as you would like it to be.
BH: Any words of encouragement for LGBT+?
ER: I’m a terrible role model, so I don’t have a lot. All I have to say is, thank you for being yourself, whoever you are.
BH: Final question: Joan Jett or Florence Welsh.
ER: Joan Jett. First time I heard her, I knew she was my muse (laughs).
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