Interview with Leia Weathington, Creator of Bold Riley

It is with great pleasure that I present this interview with Leia Weathington, Portland comics creator and writer (and occasional artist) behind the Bold Riley series, which is entering its second arc via a successful Kickstarter Campaign that is wrapping up in a few days. Ms. Weathington, working with a variety of other artists, has created a fantasy world ripe for exploration, with our guide being Bold Riley, a young woman with royal (but restless) blood. It's great to see the "Uncharted Fantasy World" idea given a new twist by having a protagonist that's not only female, but queer as well.

Distributed by Northwest Press, the first Bold Riley book made me sit up and take notice, and I'm excited to see what Leia will come up with for the second volume. I spoke with her over e-mail about her own career, Bold Riley, and some discussion of diversity in the comics world. Here's what she had to say:

Rob McMonigal: For those unfamiliar with your work, tell readers a little about yourself.

Leia Weathington: My name is Leia and I'm a writer based in Portland, Oregon. My main series is the fantasy adventure epic Bold Riley but my work has also appeared in Smut Peddler (which is porno for ladies) and Anything That Loves an anthology about non binary sexuality (It's not porno at all.) I also have written a few short stories and essays and I run a podcast called A Happy Go Lucky Podcast with a revolving door of guests with the very funny Bobby Roberts.

McMonigal: Who do you consider your creative influences?

Weathington: Jeff Smith and Mike Mignola are the top two people in comics I was looking up to at a young age. Like a lot of women my age I was heavy into manga and anime. Artists like Fumi Yoshinaga and series like Mushishi, Utena and Cowboy Bebop were pretty foundational for how I approach storytelling. Novelists like Garth Nix, Emma Donahue, Catheryyne Valente, Zora Neale Hurston and Clive Barker always hit my story telling sweet spot. Tarsem Singh and Brian Fuller are two directors who use visuals in a way that I find really inspiring.

McMonigal: Tell readers a little bit about Bold Riley and her world.

Weathington: When we first meet Bold Riley she is, for lack of a better way of putting it, a snotty teenager. She's a princess and while that birthright is something she takes seriously she is also wild, restless and a little selfish. Also she has all of the power and privileges that come with being a princess. She has too much drive for exploration to be fully tied to her duties at home. She at least knows herself well enough not to vie for the throne

The Coin is in a sort of golden age of magic, wonder and exploration. There are a lot of areas on the map that haven't been filled in yet and isolated cultures that have sprung up on their own. The part of The Coin Riley is from is basically the civilized world, and the places she explores in Book one are peoples and places she is familiar with even if she hasn't been to them. As the series goes on she gets further from home and can be less reliant on her social status and preconceived notions about how people behave.

McMonigal: How did you come up with the concept for the series?

Weathington: I think i must have been in my early 20's when I conceived of Bold Riley as a character. Initially it was supposed to be sort of a feminist statement but I got older and became a little jaded with feminist theory. Then I rebooted the series because I felt I had a better command of how to tell a story and craft characters.

A page of Bold Riley by Joanna Estep.
McMonigal: Tell us a little bit about the artists involved in this second volume. How did you select them for the series?

Weathington: I met Zack Giallongo on the Modern Tales family of websites when I first started putting Bold Riley on the web. He did a comic called Pishio the Cat that I was just in love with and then later sussed out that he liked my comic as well. We had been making plans to work together so he was one of the first people I tapped when it came time for book 2. I'm a big fan of the way he draws characters. There is such a mischievousness about them.

Jonathon Dalton I met at a Stumptown Comics Fest several years back. Liz Conley (who has been a colorist for Books 1&2) came back to the table we were sharing with this just...AMAZING hand bound codex style comic called Lords of Death and Life that was a story that took place in Mesoamerica. All of his pages were colored with markers, the dude taped every single page together. I basically hopped over my table to go get one because I was afraid he was going to sell out. I think I gave him one of my  minis and a while later he mentioned being interested in drawing one of Riley's adventures. I was all over that offer.

Joanna Estep I've known since I was 14. We spent most of our teen years working on comics in the same room. I love her art, her design sense, her pacing, everything. She has a really unique eye and her style has this sort of delicate yet really solid quality to it. I've always wanted to make comics with her. I don't think I've ever been on the fence about wanting to work on a project with her. The answer to the  question "Would Joanna look good in this story?" is always "Yes.".

McMonigal: How does the collaboration process work between you and the artists on Bold Riley?

Weathington: First I write the script in a rough form, meaning no pages, no panels. I then pass it on to the artist and ask how much structure they like to work from. I always do page breakdowns but some artists like having the freedom to dictate the panel layout. Then I discuss how I see the visuals looking. I provide reference for things like landscape, costume or just photos I think evoke a certain mood. Then I provide a model sheet for things like Riley's look and accouterments. I like meeting with artists on Skype to have an organic conversation and bounce ideas back and forth.

After that I tend to step back and let the artist have at it. For the most part I don't edit art unless something is glaringly wrong or is a consistency issue.

McMonigal: Northwest Press is your publisher for this series. How did you come to be associated with them?

Weathington: Oh gosh. I don't think I remember exactly when I met Zan Christiansen. It must have been in 2005 or so? I gave him one of my little hand made minis of Bold Riley and we stayed in touch. When I cemented the plan for how to produce Bold Riley, Zan actually came to me and asked if he could publish it. He was looking for more lesbian content at the time and I really liked the way he took care of the content he carried.

A panel of Bold Riley by Jonathan Dalton.
McMonigal: Northwest specializes in bringing material with LGBT characters or concepts into the comics world and raising awareness. What is the impact of having such a publisher in the comics world?

Weathington: It's wonderful. Zan hits the market that I want while producing a fabulous looking book that doesn't exclude it from other readers who may not be in the queer community.

Let's talk about production quality too. Before Northwest Press I was planning on bankrolling the book myself. So that's a little over 200 pages of full color material? Before Kickstarter was on the scene? No. No way. I couldn't have done what I wanted. With NWP though I had the backing to make a really nice looking book with a decent print run.

McMonigal: Similarly, why is it important to create characters like Riley, and do you think that we are starting to see a change, at least in the indie/webcomics world, in terms of seeing more inclusive characters?

Weathington: There are so many different people in the world. Most of the narratives we get presented with are only focused on one small sliver of humanity. And listen, I like a lot of those stories about that sliver, but what it does is create the idea in everyone's mind that the only people capable of going out and doing things are straight, white, male, cis. That's not the way things are in the real world so why does it look like that in media?

There is that question, "does life imitate art or does art imitate life?". I don't think it's an either/or. It's a snake eating it's tail. It's both.

When I was growing up and coming to terms with my sexuality the only narratives I saw queer people in were really fucking bleak. If you fell in love with someone of the same gender you could count on some tasty combo meal of despair. Disownment, loneliness, suicide, savage beatings. Now those things happen to real people but holy shit. There was no escapism or joy in any of those stories.

Bold Riley is what I wanted when I was younger. I wanted a fantasy world with people who looked like me and my friends and loved ones. I wanted to make a place where difficulties could arise but wouldn't have to be tied so much to the real world tragedy many of us experience. I wanted our Conan the Barbarian or Lord of the Rings.

Honestly I think we are starting to see a sea change in media. It's slow and can be one step forward, two steps back but with technology being where it is I think it's opened up more avenues for a larger group of storytellers to put their work out in the world. Webcomics can be a shit show but on the upside, who is gonna tell you "No, I'm sorry you can't make this sci fi story about a black trans woman in exploring the Pegasus Galaxy." You make the work and you put it online. If you get a following then you can possibly be picked up or self publish.

It's not the most satisfactory solution I know, but at the moment it seems to be the only one available. The only other option is giving up which will never be acceptable to me.

McMonigal: And one more in this vein, if you don't mind: Can indie comics create a better, more open world for creators and readers or do we have to keep going after corporate comics to change their ways to achieve this?

Weathington: I think it will have to be. Frankly, the big companies make too much money to have a real stake in change at the moment. Like I said, change is annoyingly slow. My personal feelings on this issue is that if one sandbox is hostile and unwelcoming take your toys and try to build another sandbox.

I have a great deal of admiration and respect for the bloggers, artists and writers who steadily advocate for change in the bigger corporate structure. They are doing  really fantastic work shining a spotlight on the problems in mainstream comics.

I suppose my personal feelings on the issue are that those of us who are locked out of that world for whatever reason should form our own networks, create the best content we are capable of and find as many avenues as possible to target our desired readership. I would like to think that it can only eventually trickle up and bigger, broader change can happen.

Then again that may be me coughing up a bunch of idealistic bullshit but I guess we'll find out.

McMonigal: What's next for you after Bold Riley?

Weathington: More Bold Riley! I've got Book 3 about half way written and my creative team lined up. I've also got a couple projects with Joanna Estep I'm looking for a good home for and I'll be in the Queer Sci Fi anthology BEYOND with Lin Visel as my artist.

McMonigal: Thanks so much for doing this, Leia. You not only write (and draw) some great comics, but you have some really strong thoughts on the larger comics world that very closely match my own. I can't wait to read the series when it comes out!

You can back the Bold Riley Kickstarter here.