There’s little positive queer representation in the sci-fi and fantasy scene, says Sfé Monster. His new comic anthology, Beyond, gives people what Monster wished he’d had as a young adult.
Sfé R. Monster is a transgendered Halifax-based illustrator and internet-focused cartoonist. Concerned with queer and genderqueer issues and the lack of representation thereof in mainstream media, he partnered with Taneka Stotts to create Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi & Fantasy Comic Anthology. Featuring 18 stories by 26 contributors, Beyond fills some neglected niches with tales about undeniably queer characters. A.V. Club calls Beyond “one the strongest and most readable anthologies available today,” a real accomplishment for the first-time comic curator. In this interview with Atlantic Books Today, Sfé Monster talks about why positive queer representation is so important and why he felt he needed to do something about it.
What was your inspiration for making Beyond?
I come from a webcomic background, which means people who create and post comics they make online, and what I was finding in the making of comics in any sort of media was that there was a huge lack of positive LGBT/queer representation. There’s a lot of stories about the difficulty of coming out, the struggle to find acceptance and transitioning. Those are really important stories and I value them, but I was finding if you wanted to get into escapism or sci-fi and fantasy then there really wasn’t much that reflected LGBT people in a way that I felt comfortable with, or they were being told by non-LGBT people.
I think LGBT people have really incredible voices, so I made a tweet that said, “I think someone should make an anthology of queer, LGBT sci-fi/fantasy stories because I want to be in it!” A bunch of people said, “Why don’t you do it?” So then, I put together the pitch for the Beyond anthology. That’s how I got started. Me making a boastful statement, then people raising to it.
Why do you think there is a lack of positive queer representation in sci-fi and fantasy?
It’s complicated. There’s a lot to be said for the importance of the coming out and the struggle, but part of the struggle with queer media is there is the problem of voyeurism. You can look at it and say, “That’s so sad for that person,” but then you can return to your life as a non-queer person. I think that sort of element is really negative, but it does shine a light when there is talk about the struggles we face. It’s not easy for us. There’s all these issues and biases we face everyday and it’s important to talk about that, there’s a lot of value in it, but I find it can become overwhelmingly heavy. When you live with those biases everyday and then try to go into anything that’s escapism and just see more of the negativity, it can add up. So to create something that’s more positive gives us a more positive reflection of ourselves and something to celebrate rather than constantly commiserating.
A lot of your other works, like your webcomics Eth’s Skin and Kyle and Atticus, focus around issues of gender identity. How has your own experience with gender identity influenced your characters?
It all comes back to when I was young. I’m transgendered so I was trying to find any sort of reflection of myself as a trans kid. When I was 13 I went to the library, and I don’t know how I found the [word] transgender, but I searched for it and the only result that came up was the movie Boys Don’t Cry. That is not a positive first representation. I checked it out and watched it and it was traumatizing. It pushed me and my own acceptance of myself back about 10 years.
When I started creating comics back in 2012, that was when I started thinking I wanted to create work that I would’ve wanted to see when I was a teenager and figuring myself out. I want young-adult audiences who are reading it now to be able to open a book like Beyond up and have an unquestionably safe space. Or like Eth’s Skin or Kyle and Atticus, where they can see positive representations of themselves which are unquestionably accepted, respected and loved. Those are three really important values I want in my work and the work I attach my name to.
Funding for Beyond was successfully crowdsourced from Kickstarter and you had a lot of support from you audience and followers, but how was the response when you actually made the call for stories?
I put together the pitch for Beyond and had an open call for submissions, so anyone who wanted to contribute could tell me about the story they wanted to make and then we’d pick the best. I thought, at best, we’d get maybe 30 responses but for this first anthology we got 240 responses.
One thing I said about Beyond was I wanted explicitly and unquestionably queer stories. There could be no doubt when you’re reading the book that it was about queer people and their identities, relationships and sexualities weren’t up for question. I think that’s a big thing that happens in sci-fi and fantasy, there’s the allegory of being queer. Our identities are used metaphorically, but they’ll never come out and say specifically, “This is a queer person.” So with Beyond, the stories had to be unquestionably queer, but the identities of the authors didn’t. I couldn’t make people prove they were queer. Casting that larger net is how we got so many submissions, I think, although 95 per cent of the contributors are queer-identified.
With 240 submissions to choose from, but only space for 26 stories, how did you decide which ones to go with?
I’m working through the 480 submissions we got for the second Beyond book, so I’ve been thinking about that question a lot while I go through 50 submissions a day. It was the combination of the quality, integrity and genuineness of the author who was working on the story, regardless of their identity. Also, the integrity of the story they were telling. I was looking to see if they were doing something new with the genre of sci-fi/fantasy I haven’t seen elsewhere, or was being taken in a new way.
The first story in the book is Luminosity written by Gabby Reed and drawn by Rachel Dukes. It’s this amazing fusion of sci-fi and fantasy. Originally it was in the reject pile because we had so many submissions, but it was one of those stories that a few days later I thought if we don’t have this in the book, I’m going to regret it forever. It sounds hokey to say I felt it was important, but there were certain stories that just felt and looked right.
Beyond’s second volume has a post-apocalypse/urban fantasy theme. Why did you add this qualifier?
The whole inspiration behind most of the work I do is I want to make the books and comics I wanted to read when I was young. Sci-fi and fantasy was a broad umbrella and now I get to go back and refine it a little bit more. I’m really into stories like The Hunger Games and Mad Max. Those are stories that toe the line of having contextual queer representation but don’t actually go there. I was thinking it would be interesting to reflect the end-of-the-world and urban fantasy aesthetics.
And I didn’t want to just do sci-fi and fantasy again. Post-apocalypse is sci-fi enough and urban fantasy is fantasy enough that I can refine the aperture a little bit more and see what happens when you put slightly more restrictions on people’s creativity.
How long do you plan on doing Beyond Anthologies?
I’d like to keep it going for as long as I can possibly keep it going. I don’t know what the theme for the third one will be. I went to Taneka after watching Mad Max and said we should do post-apocalypse/urban fantasy just super tongue-in-cheek and she said yes. So I already had my win, so the next one might be her call to make.
Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi & Fantasy Comic Anthology is available in digital and print versions at www.beyond-press.com.