Future Echoes

The first part of Al Davison and Yen Quach’s Future Echoes — the debut release from BMP’s Liminal Comics imprint — releases today in a digital edition.

We are excited to present this interview by Liminal Comics editor Alisa Kwitney with Future Echoes creators and collaborators Al Davison and Yen Quach, who talk about working together on Future Echoes, the origin of the story’s concept, and their perspectives on contemporary comics and issues of disability and representation.

Alisa Kwitney (AK): Al, when did you first get the idea for this project?

Al Davison (AD): Sept 3rd, 1988. I recently found my original notes and sketches. I was suffering a temporary bout of blindness and increased paralysis, the onset symptoms of M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis). I woke up blind and unable to walk in my third-floor flat. I started to hallucinate as a result of fever and later malnutrition. So the idea came from that situation: What if a disabled man was trapped in a building and couldn’t trust his senses? The notes and sketches were done whilst still blind.

AK: Yen, how did you get involved?

Yen Quach (YQ): I had been working with Al on the pre-press work for Spiral Cage and just around the studio space quite a lot once I graduated from university, so I guess you can say pretty organically, as Al asked if I’d be interested in working with him and Alisa on the Future Echoes project. We had previously collaborated on a mini-Sandman series of illustrations, trading off ‘stages’ of drawing on the same page, so working on Future Echoes feels like a nice step beyond that. It’s fun, and such an honor to be asked aboard this project.

AK: Al, what are the benefits of working with a young newcomer to the comics industry?

AD: I find it hard to think of Yen as a newcomer! Yes, she’s only been working a couple of years, but apart from her talent, which is self-evident, she is extremely well organised, knowledgeable, and hard-working. It’s like working with an old, long-established fellow professional, just without the ‘old’ bit. Oh, and yes, ridiculous amounts of energy. People often wrongly assume Yen is my apprentice. She assists me, yes, but we are an equal partnership and learn from each other. We both enjoy trying out new drawing techniques, new art materials, and like to challenge ourselves and each other.

AK: Yen, what are the benefits of working with an experienced artist and writer?

YQ: I’m picking up a lot of invaluable experience through being able to see how Al works his craft. He doesn’t work from a written script, so I can’t exactly pop the top of his head off and pick his brain (haha!), but I do end up asking questions about why Al has chosen to have [x] words or [y] shot in the panel, and we have a nice conversation about the process. It’s back-and-forth and we’re on equal ground as creators, so it’s pretty relaxed. Well, for me at least! I realise I’m depending on a lot of Al’s experience, which is a privilege.

AK: Al, what do you think about the role of disabled people in comics, books, film, and TV? How has it gotten better over the past three decades? How has it remained the same?

AD: I think there has been definite progress, but sometimes it seems there is one step forward and three steps back. There are still very few prominent disabled characters in comics, or in other media, and most of them have get-out clauses: Charles Xavier can walk when it fits the plot; Oracle, the most important disabled character in mainstream comics, has been cured. Daredevil can see better than a sighted person… Appropriate casting is the biggest issue. American TV was way ahead of Britain in that regard, then they jumped back ten years and cast an able-bodied actor as a wheelchair user in Glee, which seemed to legitimise ‘cripping-up’ again as a valid option. The same is happening in terms of race and LGBT-themed work, with whitewashing on the increase once again in films like Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Exodus and the casting of a cisgender man as a transgender woman in The Danish Girl. On the plus side we have creators like Yen, Gail Simone, and Marjorie Liu, amongst others, creating wonderfully challenging and inclusive work. So I’m an optimist while aware there is still an awful lot of work to do.

AK: Yen, how has your role on the project changed over time?

YQ: The division of work, as much as you can say for a collaboration that mixes our work in traditional and digital space, was pretty clear from the outset. I like to be organised so that what needs to be done is clear, and that has helped to keep things from being confusing.

In addition to being the principal artist for Amelia’s segments, I’m also lettering the comic, which has been a nice skill to develop and helping to wrangle all the files. Being able to collaborate remotely thanks to the Internet has been a great resource, too, and has been a good way to make sure that the project can run smoothly. But to get back to the question: I think my role on the project has stayed more or less the same!

AK: Al, you were very outspoken on social media about the problems with the movie (from the novel) Me Before You. Do you feel that this project is a creative response to some of the issues you raised?

AD: Yes, even though it was originally conceived much earlier. There are still very negative views on disability: for example, the Me Before You film, and the book it is based on, epitomise what has become known as the ‘better dead than disabled’ mentality in Hollywood and other media. I wanted to challenge that. I also wanted Yen on board, partly because there is an intersection between my experience as a disabled man and Yen’s experience as a woman and as a person of color, I knew we’d be on the same page. We’ve had many discussions about our various experiences dealing with prejudice and discrimination.

Having also been lucky enough to attend numerous conventions and other events with Yen, travelling together, it has been interesting and upsetting for me to see her facing different but equally difficult challenges than I do as a wheelchair user, and both of us having to deal with ignorant comments and assumptions on a regular basis.

All this has certainly informed the work.

AK: Yen, you have been illustrating the Victorian female protagonist’s story. Even though society has changed a great deal since the 1800s, are there ways you identify with Amelia’s struggle as a woman and an artist?

YQ: It’s absolutely true even now that being female-presenting is more difficult in society. as it is still very patriarchal. Looking at it intersectionally, I’m also a person of color (POC), and that has an additional layer of challenges, though I do have the privilege of being cisgendered and able-bodied. I’m still only a fledgling, but I’m optimistic since social media and the Internet have made it that much easier to get myself out there and connect with others. The future is promising as attitudes shift to become more open and accepting. ♥

AK: Al, a similar question for you: how much do you see of yourself in Harlan?

AD: Well, I see aspects of myself in both Harlan and Amelia. My background is closer to Amelia’s in terms of circumstances, being from a lower-working-class family, as someone who didn’t own a pair of shoes till I was eleven. Though she’s definitely more physically confident than I was at her age. My experiences of being viewed as a desexualised non-physical being who was only considered valid on any level because I had a ‘talent’ is certainly in line with Harlan. Having a ‘talent,’ yet on the one hand being continually told I wasn’t good enough to compete with my able -bodied peers, while on the other hand still being expected to perform like a circus animal to justify my existence, probably resonates with both characters. I mean, I’ve had an art director tell me that he didn’t hire the disabled because they smelled bad. I’ve had one comics editor say he wouldn’t consider any projects featuring disabled characters because he didn’t want to be remembered as the editor who labelled me a ‘disabled creator,’ and another who said he wouldn’t consider me for any superhero books because obviously as a wheelchair user I couldn’t possibly understand how to draw action. When I suggested that would mean no one could draw Superman since no one could fly, he said I shouldn’t be so bitter, and might be better off going into portraiture! So the cliche of working twice as hard, often to get half as far as an able-bodied person, is true to my experience. But the Internet and the increasing affordability of self-publishing is levelling the playing field to a degree. Still a ways to go, though.

Al Davison is a comic creator who has worked extensively for DC/Vertigo on such titles as Vermillion, House of Mystery, The Dreaming, and The Unwritten. He has also drawn Doctor Who comics for IDW, but is probably best known for his graphic memoir The Sprial Cage, which explores his experiences growing up with Spina-Bifida, a condition he was born with and was not expected to survive. He is currently working on the sequel, Muscle Memory: A Survivors Tale, which is being supported via Patreon. Al also has a comic book shop and studio, The Astral Gypsy, in Coventry, U.K., which he runs with his wife, Maggie, often — and always ably — assisted by Yen Quach.

Find Al on Twitter as @TheAstralGypsy

Yen Quach is an award-winning freelance artist, illustrator, and comic artist who works in both digital and traditional media. Reflecting the world with curiosity and creativity, she began the #draweveryday challenge in 2013 and has not missed a day yet. Yen holds a degree in Illustration & Animation. When not drawing, she moonlights as the Astral Assistant for Al Davison and records her forays into the real world through urban sketching. You will rarely find her without a sketchbook of some form.

Find her at www.yendraws.com and on social media as @YenDraws.

Bird of America

In fourth grade, my Language Arts teacher read us The Trumpet of the Swan, a children’s novel by acclaimed American writer E. B. White.

The story opens when Montana boy Sam Beaver, on vacation in a remote part of Canada, discovers a nesting pair of swans. The boy saves the female swan—the pen—from a fox and becomes a trusted observer of the pair and their cygnets. The pen and cob soon discover that one of their newly hatched swans, Louis, cannot beep or honk. Louis (pronounced LOO-ee, like Louis Armstrong) proves himself a strong swimmer and flyer, but his parents worry that his inability to trumpet will harm his chances when it comes time to find a mate.

When he grows older, Louis’s desire to communicate drives him to seek out Sam Beaver, who brings the swan to school. Louis learns to read and write and thenceforth carries a slate and chalk around his neck. But this does not help him with other (non-writing, non-reading) swans, especially when young Louis falls in love with a pen named Serena.

The cob determines to help his son by stealing a trumpet from a music store in Billings. The debt weighs heavily on the cob, and Louis, with Sam’s help again, finds a job playing Taps and Reveille at Sam’s summer camp. Louis goes on to earn more money—and fame—playing trumpet for the swan boats in Boston, and in a club in Philadelphia.

Gigging proves lonely for Louis, but soon fate and high winds blow Serena into back into Louis’s life. She awakens after her journey to the sound of Louis playing Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer.” White writes, “It was love at long last for Louis; it was love at first sight for Serena.”

Louis wins the girl with his hard-earned skills. And after misadventures with the zookeepers, the swans fly back to Montana, where they give Louis’s father the money and the cob is able to discharge his debt.

White is best known for such children’s classics as Charlotte’s Web (1952) and Stuart Little (1945). But he is also an important figure in American letters; he wrote the essay “Here Is New York,” was the White of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and was a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker. In a lot of ways, White has shaped what American literature is now.

Trumpet is a later work, written in 1970. Key facets of the novel have aged badly.

Trumpet is a later work, written in 1970. Key facets of the novel have aged badly. Louis himself and other characters refer to his disability in ways that are jarring and possibility upsetting to modern readers, and White frames Louis’s condition of “being without a voice” as a problem to be “overcome at last.” Sam Beaver is probably supposed have Native American blood, but the book never says outright that Sam is not white. It mentions several times that he is “like an Indian,” in appearance, in habit, in the way he walks by putting one foot in front of the other. Sam is also imbued with almost magical properties of being able to communicate with birds and animals, and always having solutions for Louis and his family when the need arises.

I suspect that my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Stephenson, had an agenda when she selected The Trumpet of the Swan to read to our class.

Fourth grade was the year that I left my English-language school and entered a French immersion program. Twelve—maybe thirteen—of us primarily Anglophone children went from being educated in one language to being thoroughly confused in another. For the first few weeks, we understood almost nothing that our teachers said to us: We didn’t know when we were being told to stand up. We couldn’t understand when we were asked sit down. Nevertheless, science and math took place in French. For music, we sang along to French records. Monsieur Campbell, who also taught an aerobics class in downtown Winnipeg, was our PE teacher. The only class that wasn’t conducted in French was Language Arts—English. It was such a relief to be able to do little things like read and speak.

Perhaps we did identify with Louis—I’m sure many of us did. But we didn’t come from nothing. Louis’s situation was imperfectly mapped onto ours; it allowed us to identify with the underdog—underbird?—without actually having to truly experience hardship.

And maybe Mrs. Stephenson chose to read The Trumpet of the Swan because it was a bit like how we were living in our first weeks of French immersion. Like Louis, we were unable to construct simple sentences, to make ourselves understood. We were unable to communicate.

But—that wasn’t the full story, was it? The difference was that we had our voices, and our teachers did actually understand English, they just chose not to speak it so that we could learn French. And we could talk to each other in English during recess or when the teacher wasn’t listening. We were not alone.

Perhaps we did identify with Louis—I’m sure many of us did. But we didn’t come from nothing. Louis’s situation was imperfectly mapped onto ours; it allowed us to identify with the underdog—underbird?—without actually having to truly experience hardship. We were in an environment engineered to make us helpless for a time, but which was ultimately about providing us with more tools, another language, more power.

After reading Trumpet, I thought about a passage that poet Patricia Lockwood tweeted about from Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot. Batuman writes:

I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, a Disney movie about a puny, weird looking circus elephant that everyone made fun of. As the story unfolded, I realized to my amazement that the kids in the class, even the bullies… were rooting against Dumbo’s tormentors… But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know?… Everyone thought they were Dumbo.

Lockwood was struck with it because, she notes, at this point in history, everyone thinks they’re the underdog. The current US administration is composed of billionaires who complain of being vilified by media and who tell themselves that they are being attacked by poor people, people of color, the disabled, LGBTQIA, and all combinations thereof.

And I realize that in the story I just recounted about starting French immersion, I elided facts and identities. I wrote as if my class was uniform in our confusion, in being English speakers. We weren’t the same. A couple of kids knew some French. And maybe some of us didn’t care or weren’t listening as avidly to the story about the musical swan. At least one girl in our class was First Nations, and I wonder what the Sam Beaver sections of the story meant to her—if anything. As I reflect on the differences among my classmates, I find that I can’t—shouldn’t—speak for who we might have been and our what our reactions were.

All I know is that I was eager to map myself onto Louis’s narrative.

It is seductive, this story of the underdog, but one key to its appeal is that fact that Louis propels himself upward and onward. It’s part of American mythology to imagine oneself starting off with nothing except maybe some bootstraps and a pair of biceps with which to pull oneself up. I was not even American, and I found myself drawn to it.

Adding to its power is the fact that the writer behind Louis’s story is E. B. White, shaper of American discourse. He writes of Louis’s journey:

Almost anybody can find Philadelphia who tries. Louis simply rose into the air with all his things around his neck, and when he was about a thousand feet high, he followed the railroad tracks to Providence, New London, New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, Cos Cob, Greenwich, Port Chester, Rye, Mamaroneck, New Rochelle, Pelham, Mount Vernon, and the Bronx. When he saw the Empire State Building, he veered off to the right.

In passages like these, we can hear the voice of the author of “Here Is New York.” Louis is following well-worn American paths and White sweeps us along, allowing us to imagine traveling upward with Louis. But we don’t all begin at the same geographic points, and we don’t start out with the same amount of nothing.

But we don’t all begin at the same geographic points, and we don’t start out with the same amount of nothing.

At the end, with all their debts paid off, it would seem that Louis’s dealings with the world of money—and people—are done. Sam’s father asks him if he hears from Louis anymore.

“No,” replied Sam. “He doesn’t write anymore. He ran out of postage stamps and he has no money to buy stamps with.”

That’s not quite the truth.

Louis and Serena return year after year to the old campground, to the swan boats of Boston to play for a day, and to Philadelphia to visit the zoo and Sam, who has become a zookeeper there. At times, they deposit one of their needier cygnets there. Ostensibly, they have no need of money or people—they’re animals. Animals don’t need money. Unless they are not quite animals but stand-ins for something else; unless, as this whole story seems to indicate, they do.

Louis has so much at the end, and he is generous with his time and skills. He can afford it.

top photo: “swan,” flickr / jans canon