As a person who is genderqueer myself, anytime I discover a creator who works with characters whose genders are fluid or otherwise differently defined from the standard male-female set up, I stand up and take notice. Dylan Edwards was already on my radar from Transposes and being in the excellent Queer anthology, and when Dylan talked to me about his current projects, I immediately gravitated to his new webcomic, Valley of the Silk Sky. It's a sci fi/fantasy world where gender's nothing like how most think of it, it's designed to be appropriate for a YA audience, and it's in early going. That's a terrific trio, and I'll tell you a bit more here.
In its first few chapters, Valley primarily follows the adventures of Razi, a "runner" who gathers ingredients that are used by others but would never put themselves in physical danger to get them. When xe gets mixed up in saving another person's life, the world of running grows more dangerous still, and that's where we're at in the first few chapters.
Over the course of the initial pages, Dylan works extremely hard to create the world, and for those who love worldbuilding, he's even got extensive notes, both at the bottom of each illustrated page and in each break between chapters. The sheer amount of work that's going on in the background is astounding. As a writer myself, I'm not sure I've ever considered something I was working on at such an in-depth level. Little details like "the brighter the clothing, the higher in status you are" or drawing pages based on how the characters see the world add so much to the comic, and make it something you want to read from start to finish-or, in this case, to the most recent page.
Dylan's linework is on par with most creators working in the indie field who do speculative fiction. It's not as sophisticated as what you'd find at, say Image, but it's designed to ensure that we get plenty of vibrant backgrounds, cities that look distinct, and other touches that give us a sense of the alien. This isn't just "characters with no backgrounds talking like they stepped out of Star Wars"--Dylan works very hard within his abilities to ensure that the wildlife, creatures, and even the ways in which the structures are designed don't seem like an Earth-setting repurposed. It feels very fantasy to me, though I know Dylan calls it science fiction, and I'm sure there'll be more elements that tip the scales in that direction.
Regardless, the flora and fauna we've seen so far are really cool, aided by a combination of markers and painting to give them coloring. Dylan isn't afraid to really mix things up, and it's great fun to think of what his inspirations were for each plant or building.
I would also be remiss if I didn't mention that this variety extends to the cast. Dylan makes sure we understand that the human characters in this world are multi-racial and have a wide variety of body types. Again, without being a technical wizard, Dylan ensures that he's using his skills and style to keep things inclusive, all without making a huge deal of it in-story. It's just how this world is, and that's part of why I liked it's so much.
In fact, what's great about Valley is that while Dylan is working hard to ensure that his world feels incredibly alien and different, it still has the core elements we've come to expect from a story like this. There's an everyperson who serves as a point of view, trying to make it in a world where people are happy to take advantage of each other and discriminate. There's class warfare. There's theft. And there's also killer wolf cats. Don't forget the wolf cats. While Dylan is very clear about the importance of a lack of gender, as described here:
...that cultures of the Pocalo Valley don’t have a concept of gender per se, so they don’t have gendered pronouns. Whatever your physical body may be (and they know there are more than two possible configurations), that carries no expectations regarding your social behavior or your abilities....it's never brought up at the expense of the story. It's Dylan's notes that call attention to the differences, not the characters themselves. They're happy in their own skins, and that makes for the best kind of queer-driven stories. Sure, their identity should matter--but if it's ALL that matters, you might as well be back to stories with a prancing queen and a man-hating lesbian. The portrayal may be positive instead of negative, but making queer characters one-note-only is still just as hollow as it ever was.
Dylan will be tabling with Panel Patter's interviewer-extraordinaire, Rob Kirby, and the two will have copies of Queer for you, along with a few other Northwest Press books. In case I don't get a chance to write it up pre-SPX, Rob K will also have What's Your Sign, Girl?, his newest anthology (also featuring Whit Taylor). In addition to these, Dylan will have Transposes, Politically InQueerect, and mini-comics featuring Valley of the Silk Sky.
If you're looking for a creator who can really nail down working with queer characters and also able to, when he wants, make a world that's incredibly complex and still being revealed, look no further than Dylan Edwards at SPX this coming weekend. You'll be glad you did.
Can't make SPX? Dylan's website is here, and the Valley of the Silk Sky webcomic is here.