David Daneman and Kao sit down with Andrew Irvin to discuss their recent anthology, The Out Side. It's now available for purchase, so don't miss out on the conversation!
COMIC BOOK YETI: Greetings, David! I wanted to start with an initial congratulations for more than doubling your Kickstarter goal. How is everyone preparing for the publication now that it’s been fully backed?
DAVID DANEMAN: Thank you! The Kickstarter happened in back 2021 and the bigger news is that in 2022, we were able to enlist Andrews-McMeel in helping us get our book out to as many people as possible. All that they asked was that we added ~60 pages to the book, and so we found 11 more artists to share their stories, including NY Times best-seller Dana Simpson and Internet superstar Snailord. Since the question seems to think the Kickstarter was recent, allow me to give you some background info. My name is David, and I run crowdfunding campaigns with the mission of getting digital artists paid by turning them into print artists. Prior to The Out Side, Kao had appeared in three anthologies that I edited (or co-edited in the last case) Art Block, Ships - love & relationship comics, and iMMigratitude - tales of Asian immigration. It was after this book that Kao asked if I would help him put together his own anthology.
This is how The Out Side - trans & nonbinary comics came to be. Kao’s the captain, I was there to handle the campaign and fulfillment, and Min Christensen (also a close collaborator of mine) joined us as editorial consultant. Both Kao and Min are queer, but only Min identifies as nonbinary, and so one of the things they contributed was perspective. Min is also a fabulously talented illustrator and they colored Kao’s linework for our amazing cover.
CBY: This was really illuminating, and I should've read the dates on the campaign page more closely when I was reading up on this project - part of why I love doing interviews, particularly with comic creators, is the insight it provides into people’s thought process and perspective. The intentionality of the storytelling process often invites further questions (why did the writer phrase things that way? What made the artist choose that angle or imagery? etc.) Can you share some highlights in the conversation about putting this anthology together with Kao, Min, and the rest of the editorial/publishing team?
DD: This seems to be a good place to tell the story behind the book. So, Kao is a comic artist who I know from his series Mondo Mango, but he also is known for his series Magical Boy, which is a parody of the genre of manga known as Magical Girl (Sailor Moon is a famous example). While he was working on this series, his readers would occasionally mention their desire to see more real life stories from trans artists and he took this message to heart. After the work we did together on iMMigratitude, he came to me and asked if I would help him organize a similar book, but about the lives of trans & nonbinary artists. Then for good measure, he invited my good friend Min Christensen to join us as editors so that there would be a trans/nonbinary voice present at all editorial meetings.
If you want a story about creative decisions, we can talk about how the cover was designed. I am a big fan of approaching a project like this from the point of view of THEME. I think we all wrote down as many ideas for titles as possible and discussed them. Once the pun of “out side” was chosen, we began to explore imagery relating to queer culture and metamorphosis, which is why the three characters on the cover are exploring the outside, all welcome under the umbrella, and surrounded by caterpillar/butterfly imagery, but also the frog. As we all know, the frog also goes through an amazing physical transformation. Kao did the amazing linework and Min brought their painterly touch to the colors. Truly a great collaboration.
CBY: Ah, I didn't connect that previously, but I'd heard butterfly imagery (but not frogs) has long been an important touchstone for many members of the trans & non-binary community. So you’ve included 32 stories in this anthology, all of which have been completed since 2020, which help elucidate a variety of scenarios depicting solidarity in various forms. What was the selection process for contributions to this anthology, and were there any that you had to turn away because of publication length constraints you’d like to make mention of here (i.e. - honorable mentions our readers might want to check out, too)?
DD: There are 29 artists in the book. Originally it was 16, and we added 2 more as Kickstarter campaign stretch goals (Coco and Lake). Then, for the expanded edition, we added 11 more artists. There really were not any that we turned away, because it was not an open admission. Rather we’d invite artists to join, and most said yes. Kao and I generated most of the names to approach with a keen eye towards POC artists. Kao, as a POC artist himself, wanted to make the book more inclusive of diverse points of view. We don’t brag about it much (because it seems crass) but the expanded edition is majority POC artists, with a healthy diversity of backgrounds represented therein. Honorable mentions: (these are just cool trans/nonbinary artists) Laerte Coutinho - https://twitter.com/LaerteCoutinho1 Pseudonym Jones - https://twitter.com/pseudonymjones Alison Young - https://twitter.com/stewped Mattie Lubchansky - https://twitter.com/Lubchansky Steenz - https://twitter.com/oheysteenz
CBY: Great - thanks for sharing more artists for our readers to check out! Now, part of what caught my eye was this was the first title I’ve seen since I took over as Interviews Editor to come from Andrews McMeel - which remains in my mind first and foremost the home of the vaunted Calvin & Hobbes collections - how did the publishing arrangement for The Out Side come together? Did you shop the anthology to publishers at the concept stage, once fully formed with the stories selected, or was there another path the production process took?
DD: I grew up in Kansas City, home of Andrews-McMeel, which I definitely think of as the Calvin & Hobbes people too, but also the Far Side people. I had an interview there in 2005, but nothing came of it. Then in 2017, I organized a big meeting of webcomic artists and got AMP to sponsor it. Several of the attendees had contracts with AMP, such as Sarah Andersen, Alex Norris, Andrew Tsyaston, and Ben Zaehringer to name a few, but this is not how the deal came about. I was on Twitter, and an artist I follow tweeted that an anthology that they had done (the artist is Bex Ollerton & the book is Sensory) had been picked up by AMP. Prior to this, I had never seen AMP do anything like this. Via an old college connection who works at AMP, I was able to get a meeting with Allison Adler, who bought the book. We didn’t approach anybody else.
CBY: It's nice to hear with this book, you ended up knocking it out of the park on the first swing. While I’ve never been particularly inclined to view things in binary terms (only Sith deal in absolutes, I hear), so the topic in The Out Side of being honest with oneself is a broader question of identity, how I nominally present in a hetero-normative marriage as a cisgender male didn’t preclude me from connecting my unique experience (from a certain point of view, one might say) to that of the contributors to this anthology. I think it will resonate with an audience beyond those questioning their gender identity. You’ve gathered so many stories about individuals finding space to find their truth - how would you like to see this book (and other comics and creative work more broadly) help shape society to a place where people can find comfort in their own skin?
KAO : Well, like any power of representation, there is comfort in seeing someone who shares similar experiences as you and who looks like you. It lets you know you are not alone in your looks, ability and struggles. That, it is okay to be yourself. Especially with this book and any other similar books, it will let people know these types of identities and experiences exist. At the time of creating the anthology, there weren’t as many books like this, so I’m excited to see more. We need more diversity to see the beauty in our differences.
DD: To borrow your wording, I also present as a basic cisgender male in a hetero-normative marriage. I don’t think gender and sexuality are as simple as we’ve made it out to be, and so I am glad to see gender being discussed as a spectrum. In my opinion, there may be people who are purely heterosexual and people who are purely homosexual, but the majority of us fall between these two points (and bisexuals are located in the exact middle). And let’s not forget about asexual people! Where do they fall?! The point is, as an ex-ESL teacher, I recognize that “the binary” is a bi-product of language. “The spectrum” comes from mathematics, and we all know which is better at describing reality. Give me 0 - 100 any day over “apples and oranges.”
Last, I’ve brought our book to conventions in the US, UK, and Canada, and I see the same thing at every show. People gravitate to it. They pick it up and smile. They see themselves. This is how I would like our book, and any book for that matter, to influence society. For the better.
CBY: I wholeheartedly agree around embracing the nuance and complexity of reality. I was recently listening to a Frank Sinatra CD I had laying around in my car (because my car is old, but I’m even older, and the songs were from 1958-59), when my son hopped out, he was singing, “hey there, cutes, put on your dancin’ boots” and I realized how odd it was to hear a ten year-old kid using this anachronistic language that would be considered largely sexist, demeaning, or derogatory if used today. I respect people’s preferred pronouns, and I actively try to avoid misgendering people (considering how liberally I use the term, “dude,” for instance). As binaries break down, terminology diversifies; what is a helpful way to approach identity vocabulary from your perspective?
K: I believe when confronted with anything new, all you need to do is hold judgment, be respectful, and be open to listen. Even being in the queer community myself, I find myself making mistakes by accident and needing to learn a new term or two. Then it’s all about course correcting and respecting one's pronouns and identity. It’s hard to know everything, so I believe it’s okay to ask questions without judgment. At the same time, you shouldn’t expect everything to be explained to you.
DD: There is an episode of the Simpsons where John Waters is the guest star. It ends with Homer accepting John who says, “Homer, I won your respect, and all I had to do was save your life. Now, if every gay man could just do the same, you'd be set.” That joke was written 25 years ago (speaking of outdated references), but the point still stands. It is easier to remain intolerant when you have no first-person experience. People scoff at them/they pronouns in their bubble, but once you have a friend or family member who identifies as nonbinary, it ceases to be abstract and it becomes easy. Therefore, I recommend to everyone, go get as many queer friends as you can!
CBY: There’s a line in one story, “UNDEFINED” by Zhen, that features the statement, “I want to pick things I like… just because I like them. Not because they belong to this or that category. Why do they always have to come with labels that don’t suit me?” This raises broader questions beyond gendered thinking around identity and social signifiers drawn from appearance. Everything we wear, how we groom ourselves, our physical fitness; they are are all subject to broader social judgment - I think about how quickly punk aesthetics diffused into the norm, and multi-colored undercuts can be found on the heads of people of different genders, nationalities, ethnicities, and socio-economic classes the world over. How have you seen the media landscape change expectations around acceptable personal appearance across society, and how do you think both stylistic heterogeneity and global proliferation may correlate to social acceptability of non-binary gender identities?
K: My immediate thought went to the Korean K-pop culture, how it is socially acceptable for men to wear make-up and is quite popular. I also think about the story with teenage boys turning up to school in skirts to protest the school's sexist dress code. It shows how absurd the rules of not being able to wear shorts in the summer when girls can wear skirts. Or how the colors of blue for boys and pink for girls used to be reversed before the 1940s, where pink used to be considered a masculine color, an equivalent to red but much lighter for boys.
This repeatedly reminds us that clothing and make-up inherently do not have gender, but depending on the fashion and era, we’re constantly changing which genders are allowed to wear it. It is ridiculous if you think about it. By breaking that apart and remembering clothing and make-up are just tools to express oneself, it makes life more interesting and diverse. Sure, certain designs can accentuate femininity or masculinity looks but any gender can rock those looks and still identify as their gender. For example, a woman can wear pants and still be a woman, so a man can wear a dress and still be a man. And a nonbinary person can dress however they want and still be nonbinary. I hope that made sense.
DD: Here’s an excellent cartoon by excellent queer cartoonist Alex Norris
To be honest, I don’t feel qualified to answer a question like this. Yes, the media plays a part in the proliferation of popular opinion, and in my life, I’ve seen acceptance of queer culture grow by leaps and bounds, but we’re also in the midst of a grand pushback against recent advances, and so where I’d like to say “it’s never been easier to be a trans or nonbinary person” it is also a very tough time to be one. CBY: Thanks, both of you, for digging into that rather dense question. This collection of stories definitely provides a fairly wide sample of stories about gender identity. There’s an interesting line on the title page of “Inner Thoughts of Self-Discovery” by Vixtopher, stating “I take the shape that serves me most at any given moment,” and concluding in part with, “Understanding that changing and flowing with the world around me wasn’t just conformity or survival. It’s a strength. It’s a core part of who I am.” Can we examine malleability of identity? In the narrative context, I thought of trickster figures from mythology, and the role of shapeshifting in shamanism, and the fear many people have of not being able to trust their understanding of new experiences or stimuli. In your prior work or conversations, have you encountered other points of reference for unpacking the confusion and fear a certain subset of society responds with when confronted by the unknown? What other work from the canon of gender literature does The Out Side join in building social mechanisms apt at keeping the uncertainty of the ignorant from fomenting into hostility?
K: I don’t think there’s a way to completely avoid hostility from people who are unfamiliar with the topic or may have the wrong idea or are misinformed. That is why I believe we should always practice empathy. For The Out Side, I hope by sharing personal experience directly from people who identify as Trans or nonbinary, it’ll shed some light into their world. That, there’s nothing to be scared of and hopefully open conversations of one's feelings and understanding of the community.
DD: Identity is malleable for many reasons. People exist over time, so of course they change. In addition, you are different in different social settings. You are not the same person at work that you are at home. In truth, all of us are multiple people who are all evolving over time. Identity is a fiction we tell ourselves so that we know what to say at parties and job interviews. I recommended some really good books for the final question. Some other books I could plug here would be: Huda F Are You? By Huda Fahmy Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore Anne Franks’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation by David Polonsky and Ari Folman
CBY: Min E. Christensen’s story, “First Times,” shares a line, “Can I just exist as myself without it being weird?” Without gender identity coming into play, this is a question I find really pertinent living outside the USA as a minority - I know I can’t exist as myself without it being weird in specific ways. I’m sure you experienced a similar sensation living in South Korea, David. The “fish out of water” feeling is also a strong narrative motivator for characters embarking on heroic journeys - how well does it serve as fertile territory for LGBTQ+ story development, and in what ways do creators need to be wary of steering into well-trodden territory and employing possibly over-worn tropes? How can creators avoid relating tales of coming out and breaking free from losing their impact as they increase in prevalence?
DD: Min is so great and also one of the editors of the book. (I know I’ve mentioned this before). You know, I feel like we’re all asked ourselves Min’s question and I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe? Define weird. Maybe no. The point of most of these stories is to accept yourself and therein find happiness.
In regards to your question about losing their impact, in this instance I think we want to live in a world where stories of the difficulties associated with coming-out and growing up queer cease to be novel. Right now, these are stories of overcoming hardship, but the goal must be to make it so future kids don’t face the same troubles. Otherwise, what’s the point?
K: I second David's take on this. Despite running into similar stories or repetitive “tropes”, it helps to see it all as it is still happening. I hope there comes a time where“coming out” does not have to be a thing anymore and there would be more stories where it is normal to see a gay character, a nonbinary couple or trans woman being herself without it being “controversial.” As there are still dangers in coming out, I hope creators continue to share their unique experiences, both positive and negative. I also hope it encourages creators who are tired of seeing the same “tropes” of coming out to make something new. If they want to see a more utopian story of queer folks, they should try and make a story like that. There’s a lot of bad and good romance stories of straight people getting their love interest to like them back. Let's have more bad and good stories of queer people being queer.
CBY: Yes, going beyong trope territory into normality is certainly a desirable end point. I’d mentioned the broader cultural diffusion of aesthetic/stylistic markers such as punk haircuts, and I was simultaneously thinking about all the indigenous cultural attire that has steadily been marginalized and eradicated from daily wear. Among other stories, “Going Home” by Matteo Montero-Murillo raises another important topic; intersectionality. Coloniality and cultural conservatism have hampered freedom of indigenous cultures to express their own forms of diversity, and as a species, we’re battling prejudice and factionalism across multiple dimensions at all times. What other cultural perceptions and definitions of gender outside of conservative binaries strengthen the dialogue? Do you have thoughts on helpful ways for marginalized demographics to work as allies, express solidarity. and avoid the sort of internal factionalism and purity testing that ends up diluting messages of broader tolerance and acceptance of individual freedom to expression?
DD: I don’t know enough about indigenous cultures to say anything intelligent on the matter, but yes, it seems like a lot was lost when one idea of “right and wrong” was imposed upon all of us. This book is about the spectrum of gender and the spectrum of sexuality. Western notions of morality are certainly very black & white, which is another way to say ‘binary.’ If you want to suggest we’d all be better off if perhaps a certain empire didn’t conquer most of the globe, you’ll get no argument from me.
When you ask if I have thoughts on ways for “marginalized demographics to work as allies,” I feel like this is an error, as the allies need to work with them. My advice would be what you suggest: Avoid internal factionalism and purity testing. I do my part by boosting marginalized voices and working on projects like this.
K: I’m finding this question really tough to answer other than to continue practicing empathy and love. And to bounce off David again, I agree it’s more about how allies can work with marginalized demographics. Where we continue to give them space to tell their stories. That is why it's so important to hear stories like Matteo Montero-Murillo’s “Going Home.” The more we see and hear diverse stories, the more we can understand each other. By learning to respect each other's cultures and traditions, would we be able to begin to unite for a greater cause of human rights.
CBY: Ah, yes - to clarify a point you raised, David - I meant for marginalized groups to work as allies to each other in the collective struggle for equitable representation. Thank you both for thorough and honest answers to challenging questions. I am curious, given the selection process involved in putting together this anthology, can you relate some of your creative inspirations? What catches your eye and hooks you in when it comes to stories and imagery? Which creators (or titles) represent the gold standard in your estimation across the comics landscape?
DD: There are a number of things that catch my eye with an artist, and I truly enjoy all styles from stick-figure to hyper-realism. In addition, I like black-and-white comics, monochromatic comics, those with a limited palette, and full color vibrant panels and pages. I’m an omnivore. Imagery wise, I’m a sucker for a good visual metaphor. There are a lot of mirrors in our book, and so I’ll draw attention to that lava lamp in Vixtopher’s tale about gender fluidity. There are also lots of good symbolic uses of color in our book; the pieces by Zhen and Sage Coffey come to mind immediately. Just comics-wise, I recommend Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud to anyone hoping to understand comics. True gold standard stuff there.
CBY: A classic of the medium at this stage, I think! So beyond the work you’ve been putting into The Out Side, what other comics (and other media) should our readers make sure they don’t miss? What has been giving you inspiration lately, or perennially?
DD: First and foremost, Genderqueer by Maia Kobabe is the most banned book in America right now, so let’s tell people to check that out. Incidentally, e wrote a review of The Out Side on em personal Goodreads. ← (This sentence uses e/em/eir pronouns, which Maia prefers and I just learned.) While we’re in the neighborhood, I’ll suggest these books as well. Welcome to St Hell: My Trans Teen Misadventure Be Gay, Do Comics - Queer History, Memoire, and Satire
CBY: Kao, David - thanks for making time to stop by the Yeti Cave today! The Out Side definitely prompted a lot of thought on my side, and I appreciate you fielding my rather dense questions so deftly. For any portfolio, publication, and social media links you’d like our readers to check out, please share them below, and we’ll be sure to include them in the interview publication.