The webcomic creator is never far from their audience. Be it through social media, public email addresses, Discord servers, or simply the comments section beneath a page, there is a rapport and a conversation that is developed that is unique to the medium. We’re continuing those conversations here, albeit a little more formally, by interviewing webcomics creators to pick their brains about craft, storytelling, and their personal experiences with the medium.
In our first interview of the new year, we got talking to Blue Delliquanti, creator of the Prism award winning webcomic “O Human Star”, one of Multiversity’s Best of 2018, as well as the graphic novel “Meal,” co-written with food critic Soleil Ho (Edible Manhattan, Bitch.)
To start us off, give us the elevator pitch for “O Human Star.”
Blue Delliquanti: Oh, okay. Well, that’s easy. “O Human Star” is about an inventor named Alastair Sterling who wakes up one morning to discover that he is now in a robot body and has been dead for 16 years. So, the comic follows him trying to get his life back together by seeking out Brendan, who is his former work partner as well as down-low lover, as well as getting acquainted with the young android who started as a copy of Al’s brain and memories but is now living as a teenage girl.
Tell us a bit of your experiences with webcomics prior to starting “O Human Star.”
BD: I genuinely don’t have many. “O Human Star” was one of my first web comic projects ever with the exception of maybe a few single page, two-page experiments. Prior to that, I’d only really had experience doing things, like, my senior project in college was a graphic novella, that sort of thing. But “O Human Star” was basically what I was always advised not to do, which was to not make my first big project be a giant 400-500-page opus.
But it’s worked out okay so far.
You’ve done a lot of varied work, from short-stories for anthologies like “The Sleep of Reason” to your webcomic to your brand new Graphic Novel “Meal.” What’s different in your process for these different modes? Do you approach the story creation in ways you wouldn’t have were it a different format?
BD: As I had started working on “O Human Star,” I was concurrently getting started on short stories for Iron Circus’ various anthologies, I’m pretty sure that started around 2012 as well. I worked for a handful of other things including a couple of volumes of “Smut Peddler,” “The Sleep of Reason,” which is horror, “New World,” which is a science fiction anthology, a few other things.
I basically became a fairly reliable artist that they could call on if they needed, say, a pinch hitter if one of the artists for an anthology had to drop out. They basically knew they could rely on me to finish stuff in a timely manner, so that got me a lot of work on small projects while I was working on this big webcomic project in the meantime.
Additionally, I started working with two journalists for short comics on The Nib that recently got collected into a non-fiction collection called “The Stand,” which is published by Dead Reckoning Press, just this year. Ultimately, my next big comic project ended up being “Meal,” which is a graphic novel that got published by Iron Circus Comics this year as well.
Do you work digitally, physically or a combination of both? What about your preferred format do you find works best for you?
BD: I mostly work digitally in Photoshop CS5. Normally, I’ll start out by outlining and doing thumbnails physically like in a sketchbook but I’ll scan those in and then I will accompany those sketchbook thumbnails with a script that basically serves as a translation key to past me’s rough thumbnail scribbles so I can remember exactly what I was trying to convey.
Plus, I’ve also found that if I write out all of the descriptions of what’s going on in each panel, it is a good way for me to be more deliberate about what exactly is happening on each page, as if I have to write it out to justify it to another person even though it’s only me working on “O Human Star.”Continued below
I will drag thumbnail page images into each Photoshop file and then from there I’ll do penciling, inking, coloring, all of the finished work into Photoshop.
What have you found to be the most challenging part of the creation process? Is it the idea generation, the scripting or is it a function of the art, the lettering or the coloring?
BD: I made some choices early on in “O Human Star”‘s development process that were clearly smart at the time, although I guess I didn’t really recognize it as such. O Human Star is a limited color palette where basically I have a color swatch file where I know what everybody’s hair color, skin color, things like that; there’s only maybe a dozen color swatches to choose from, which was probably a very smart choice for someone who was relatively inexperienced with color work at the time, because it allowed me to focus on value which is something that I understand little better now as being really helpful to the experience before you go whole hog on full color work.
I feel like my color work is better now for having a lot of time to learn how value works in a certain color. So, that’s something that worked out for my art, I guess.
But the problem is because I started this comic when I was 22, seven years ago, and especially because it’s essentially a mystery like a reverse murder mystery in some ways, I have to do a lot of work to play along with the narrative choices I made at the beginning of the comic that if I were to start the comic over again from scratch, I might do a little differently or I might prioritize certain characters differently.
You know, just things that change when a person was working for seven years and wanted to treat a narrative differently or consider things a little more differently. And I think it’s just one of those things where trying to fit in all of this established information or something that you’ve been working on for seven years is difficult even for an experienced writer, which I will say I am.
So, that I think has probably been the toughest thing to do with a serialized comic and something that I realize I actually really appreciated about working on a graphic novel all at once is that I could, you know, if something was dissatisfying to me about the first part of, say, the first 20 pages of the graphic novel, I could just go in and tweak the script without having to worry about those pages having been serialized for five years already been online.
Does that make sense? It’s just sort of, you know, being able to study and tweak the narrative as a whole instead of having to just basically work off past you’s five year old work.
That’s one of the downsides of serialization.
So, one of the questions that I’m sure you’ve probably answered a million times is, where did the title, “O Human Star,” come from?
BD: Oh, actually I haven’t gotten that question in a while. It is a quote from a play by the Czech playwright, Karel Čapek. In the States, it’s usually known as “RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots.” It’s considered one of the first contemporary stories about artificial intelligence, like, it’s from the ’20s. There’s a bunch of translations and It’s not really the best play, you know, it’s a little clunky but it’s so important from the perspective of someone who’s really interested in robots in fiction.
And there are some very pretty passages. There’s a part at the end that talks about how robots will carry on after the demise of humankind and be a reflection of their legacy. That is what that snippet of the line refers to, and that part is quite pretty. I liked it a lot.
But the rest not so much?
BD: Well, I mean there’s some good. . .like the passage itself is pretty good. Let me see if I can pull up the whole thing. Yeah, it’s just like a lot of stories about robots. It’s nothing you haven’t heard before about robots becoming dissatisfied with the lot that the humans give them.Continued below
But it was one of the originals.
BD: It was, yeah.
Do you use those quotes as epigraphs throughout?
BD: Yes. So, the quote itself that “O Human Star” derives from will be the final epigraph to the final chapter, but there are quotes that I find very interesting or that are relevant to the events in each chapter, that serve as a chapter ender for each section. They run the gamut from high-class to low-class. There’s like one chapter that gets its name from a paper by Alan Turing and then another one is a line from a Flaming Lips song. It’s all over the place. I have a lot of interests.
That’s what makes for a well-rounded work. One of your major themes in the comic is identity and the many ways in which we embrace and deny ourselves and embrace and deny others. Can you talk on your approach to conveying that theme through Sulla, Alastair and Brendan now that it’s entered its final third?
BD: Yeah. From the beginning and I think this is something that’s stayed pretty consistent since I worked on it. I’m very interested in some of the ideas about what someone’s identity or, like, what a human identity really is when it’s put through all of these what-if scenarios. Like, if you could live forever, for example, would the view from a thousand years in the future even be recognizable to the you of right now. Or if you were indestructible or if you could change anything about your image or your physical being, would you and what would you change and what does that say about your identity?
These sorts of what-ifs that we tend not to think about very much, in terms of everyday existence, I feel can really be explored in science fiction, and there are also a lot of ideas that cross over with talking about queer identity and queer existence which is very interesting to me, which is just sort of like, you know, if you identify as queer and that can look like a lot of different things, you tend to have a much more mutable conception of what you look like, how you’re perceived, how the you of today differs from the you of 20 or 50 years ago.
I think that’s something that people who are queer are more open to thinking about. Like, I think queerness and sci-fi go together very well, especially the idea of robots and artificial intelligence and cyborgs.
So like with the relationship between Alastair, the main character who wakes up to find out that he has been placed in this new body and basically given a new start after basically not existing for 16 years, and being face to face with this young android who was originally a copy of himself, who had to start over as a child and made these choices of how to establish herself as a teen girl; I think that that is something that is a very interesting idea. And I think that that’s something that science fiction is very well equipped to answer, but it’s something that lots of queer people in the broad expanse of the queer community can think about themselves and the world as it exists today.
I think it’s a very good way to talk about identity and identity questions that are talked about very much right now.
And you would say that that’s the aspect of science fiction that most appeals to you and your work?
BD: Yeah, I think something that I find popping up over and over again in works that I really enjoy and works that I really like to do is — what happens to society and what happens to individual lives or families or cultures when something that was considered unthinkable becomes real and feasible.
Like, when you think about massive technological advances or changes in what we think about as a culture as acceptable or even feasible through science or what have you — it’s really interesting to see what happens on a massive cultural scale when these technological changes occur. That’s very, very interesting to me.
I was thinking back on the comic because you said it’s only been 16 years [in universe.] It always feels like longer but, as we see through the flashbacks, it’s not. You’ve charted much of, I don’t want to say the missing time, but the time between Alastair’s death and when he reawakens. . .there’s a question there somewhere.Continued below
BD: I think I get what you’re getting at. Just the idea of being able to chart steadily what exactly changes within the world of “O Human Star” so that it goes between something that we might recognize as a relatively normal parallel to our actual world and maybe a more high tech like high sci-fi world that we see in the primary story. Is that what you mean?
Yeah. And also kind of the parallels of what we’ve gone through in the last 20 or so years in terms of technological change. It’s very believable that this time frame could happen and it was just kind of sinking in because when I was first reading the comic, that hadn’t quite occurred to me and now I’m thinking on it, that adds a whole new dimension to it.
BD: Yeah, like I play pretty fast and loose with the idea of what timeline “O Human Star” occupies because there’s. . .well, first of all, when I started working on it in 2011, 2021 seemed very far away and now it doesn’t quite so much. But I think I’ve kind of like justified myself as I’ve worked on the narrative that this is a world where people put more energy into working on robots than they did on cell phones, so that kind of helps justify the slightly tweaked aspect of the world of O Human Star.
But if you think about it in that way, there are massive changes that we’ve seen. Say, with the cell phone analog, just sort of what exactly has changed in terms of how people spend their time, what you see people doing just out in the world or that kind of thing. There’s all kinds of things like that.
I have a good friend who has been married and, not for a super long time, she’s not that much older than me, but she always jokes about how she met her husband online before that was even remotely acceptable. Something that’s kind of, a lighthearted story, like, that happened within a relatively recent time period, the fact that someone who was not living anywhere close to you, who you never would have met through regular channels, could be like the most important, like, your life partner. And that’s something that was facilitated exclusively through technology. I find that very interesting.
Yeah, that gives a lot to think about. That’s some of the things I love about sci-fi, is how much it allows us to think about the current world by extrapolating out. You’ve done a fantastic job of that in “O Human Star.”
BD: Oh, thank you.
So, I’ve got two more questions. The first is now that you’ve entered the last third of the story, is there anything else, not that you want to tell people, but that you can kind of talk on about concluding the work. On how ever long it takes as well as I guess some of the themes that you want to become more apparent as you approach the end?
BD: I guess now that the end is in sight, I find myself getting much more impatient about getting there because it’s essentially a mystery and there’s a few end-of-story moments that will be pretty instrumental to the structure of the story. There are certain things that I was perfectly content to just stay quiet about and just let people talk it over amongst themselves in the comment threads or whatever, that I find myself getting extremely impatient about with only a couple of years left to go.
I really am looking forward to in a way just getting those things out there and having that appear in the story and have people reach their conclusion about it and be mad about or not. It’s just one of those things where I feel what I have in mind to conclude the story, people will be mad. But I’m also looking forward for that, to know that I’ve completed the thing and to know that I’ve kept people invested in it the whole time. That makes me feel pretty good. I’m glad I’ve stuck it out.
It’s always a bit bittersweet to complete something.Continued below
BD: It is, yeah. It’ll be weird to have a big project this like this behind me. It’ll mean that I’m old.
Maybe not old but. . .
BD: Yeah, not the baby of the web comics community any more.
How much has changed in the web comics community since you’ve started that you’ve noticed, either in terms of the types of stories being told, the format or just the community itself?
BD: That’s a good question. I think there are both positive and negative things that have happened. The negative things I think are just indicative of sort of negative changes in the internet in general, which is that there are fewer. . .things are more centralized. So, for example, lots of people will post web comics on, say, Twitter or Instagram or something like that, which, personally, I feel isn’t a very healthy state of how the internet should be.
Like, when I was starting out, I think there were more people who hosted their own website or cultivated this individual internet domain that isn’t really as viable any more. An entire economic model like Project Wonderful that was sustained on banner ads and bringing traffic between individual sites, that shuttered last year because that’s just not the way the internet works any more. I feel like there are things lost by that mass centralization to a handful of sites.
On the other hand, I feel there has been a mass democratization of comics that has led to a massive growth in the content available and the genres and audiences and readerships represented, and also there are more platforms to allow people to support their favorite creators for their content in ways that don’t necessarily rely on buying a T-shirt or buying a book. You can just support a creator a dollar a month on Patreon, say, or Drip, or whatever will succeed Drip.
I feel like, for the most part, the comics ecosystem is far healthier than it used to be but there are always going to be challenges for the general health of the internet that we’ll have to weather and deal with as a relatively small art community.
Do you find that the centralization on non-comic specific platforms is, not a problem but, is one of those negatives you notice? Like you said, Twitter versus Webtoons, or I guess Tapas, that aren’t just collectives of individual sites.
BD: I guess my fear is that if all of your work is only available on places that aren’t owned by you or where your only real access to other people is through centralized sites who can control what you have access to and what is de-accessible through algorithms or whatever. You see this on YouTube and you see this in all kinds of places. You see this in people who write prose or people who just provide services online in general. You know, that could be a massive problem and that can be a huge hindrance on this natural democratization of art forms like webcomics.
So, I don’t know. I feel like that’s something that as a culture who’s figured out that things that happen online do affect real life because it is real life, I think that’s something that we will have to ultimately figure out what we’re going to do about it in upcoming years.
But I think that web comics can be a good place to figure out alternatives as well.
What three web comics would you recommend for fans of “O Human Star?”
BD: Oh, that’s a really good question. Let me think. What have I been reading recently that I think would be a good jumping off point?
I would say one good one would be “Mare Internum” by Der-shing Helmer. Many folks might know her primarily as the creator of the comic “The Meek,” which is kind of a fantasy exploring comic. “Mare Interim,” the best way I can describe it, is like a psychological drama set in an underground Mars cavern. It’s basically about two astronauts who get stranded underneath the surface of Mars and have to figure out how to stay alive while also dealing with their inner demons. That’s spectacular and I feel like that’s the same kind of melancholiness and hard sci-fi that people who read “O Human Star” might like.Continued below
Additionally, what have I been reading that I really enjoy? “Never Satisfied,” which is by. . .oh, what do they go by on “Never Satisfied?” Taylor Robin is their name. That’s like a fantasy comic but there’s like a really cool cast of queer teens and it’s very character-driven, really good balance of comedic moments and heavier drama. That one’s very good; super good update schedule.
Also. . .let me see. It’s hard. . .you know, I always have this problem when people ask me recommendations for things, I never have good answers. Okay, here’s a good one. This is concluded; You can read all of it in its entirety but it was a big influence on “O Human Star.”
“The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal” by E.K. Weaver is a spectacular slice of life queer comic about two dudes who make a drunken pact to go on a cross-country road trip from California to the East Coast, and it’s just like a really natural well drawn out character piece about how these two become friends and then lovers and it’s so, so, so good.
I haven’t heard of Der-shing’s other comic. That was the one that I was trying to look up.
BD: Yeah, let me spell it for you because it’s like a Latin name. It’s M-A-R-E and then the second word is I-N-T-E-R-N-U-M and it is frankly a crime that more people have not read it because it is just so good.
Oh, this one was Kickstarted recently.
BD: Yes. Yeah, I believe it was Kickstarted earlier this year and I cannot wait to see the physical copy because Der-shing is so good at digital painting it makes me angry. So, I’m really excited to see a collected in print.