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.
We’re doing an extra interview this two-month period what with, well, ya know so get ready to say “Goodbye to Halos” as I chat with its creator, Valerie Halla. I’d describe the comic but you really only need to know two things: it’s gorgeously colored and very gay. Enjoy!
Tell us about your experiences with webcomics prior to starting “Portside Stories” and “Goodbye to Halos.”
Valerie Halla: Portside Stories was my first webcomic. I’ve been a heavy reader of webcomics for as long as I’ve been online, and I often thought about starting one in my teens, but it wasn’t until my 20s that I felt confident enough at drawing and storytelling to actually try. I actually didn’t initially intend on Portside Stories being a webcomic — my first thought was a visual novel — but as I got mired in coding and longform prose-writing I kind of ended up craving something more immediate. And I’ve stuck with it, so I guess it was the right choice!
Oh wow. What was the morphing process like in your head from visual novel to webcomic, if there was one?
VH: Well, at the time, I had zero experience making either, so it’s less that it morphed and more that the unformed mass of it just ended up coming out a different way. Like those play-doh things where you extrude it through holes and it makes a star or a triangle or whatever.
Now that you say it, I can see how “Portside” may have started in that vein. How far out had you thought through “Portside?” Or were you kinda winging it as it changed mediums?
VH: With both “Portside Stories” and “Goodbye to Halos,” they’re kind of both planned out and improvised at the same time. Like, I know exactly how Goodbye to Halos is going to end, as well as all of the major plot points, but I haven’t actually written them down — like, anywhere, ever. I find a certain amount of seat-of-pants-flying necessary to keep things interesting for me, and I think I write better by letting things shift and evolve as I go. It almost never backfires terribly!
As far as the medium of webcomics goes, I think the format is really conducive to that kind of storytelling, though I didn’t know that at the time.
How so? What about the medium allows for that kind of freedom in your eyes?
VH: There’s a certain rhythm to webcomics that you gotta get in tune with! I work in a page format, but pages of a webcomic don’t usually read the same way as pages of a print comicbook. Since you’re putting out pages every few days rather than all at once, you want each one to be satisfying for the readers, which means every page has to have a tiny little complete story arc of its own. I think of it in terms of questions and answers: Each page answers a question from the last page, develops it a little, and then sets up a question to answer next time. I try never to let the last panel of a page be an incomplete thought, ’cause for people reading in real-time, “the next page” could be days away.
Anyway, I just like building big stories out of little thoughts. If I were to try and write the whole story at once, I don’t know that I’d ever get anywhere. This way is much more approachable for me.
Kinda like making something out of a lego bin. You usually know the final product idea but the pieces you use may vary and the building gives rise to new opportunities?
VH: I like that analogy.
Haha, thanks! One thing I’ve noticed, and you’ve made no show of hiding it, is that the same is true of your art style throughout “Goodbye to Halos.” Was that a result of chafing against an older you’s vision of the comic’s look or simply a desire to push yourself into experimenting?Continued below
VH: Oh, I mean, look — this comic has been going for several years and it will surely run for several more; it would be silly if the art never changed. There’s no such thing as “got it in one” with webcomics. If ever a year passes where the last comic I drew looks the same as the first comic I drew you can declare me legally dead. I’m just refining my ideas as I go… I think if I didn’t let myself do that, if I tried to keep it consistent from start to finish, I wouldn’t have learned half the things I’ve learned about making art. That’s kinda just how it is with webcomics, though. Seeing the art evolve is part of the fun, or so people try to reassure me.
I definitely think my art goes through more drastic changes than the typical comic, but I just have a need to try new things!
What are some of the changes you’ve found most helpful, and how? For example, did shifting to a borderless style save you time or changing up the soft/harshness of the coloring give you a greater range of moods to portray?
VH: The borderless thing is by far the biggest breakthrough I’ve had in art. Goodbye to Halos has had a “lineless” style since it began, and basically, what happened there was, you see, the reason why was — I hate inking, so I decided not to? Okay, there’s more to it than that — I’m extremely color-minded in how I come at art, and I find that outlines can kind of get in the way of color perception, because different colors never actually get to touch. Subtle differences in color can get broken up by the noise of outlines, making it hard to play it smooth with visual contrast. I think for most artists that’s actually a plus for inking — it frees you from having to pay super close attention to contrast, because things tend to stand out regardless of how they’re colored. But for me, color comes first.
It is a little faster for me to do it this way than with inks, though not by much. I’ve developed a very idiosyncratic process for this over the years. I actually tried switching back to inks for a few pages recently, thinking it would save time, but I found that it surprisingly did not!
Other than that, most things I’ve done have been so incremental that I wouldn’t frame them as helpful or unhelpful, just refining existing ideas. A lot of the really useful tricks I’ve developed are on the technical side — things people don’t really notice, necessarily. And I’m still experimenting, of course!
Do you primarily work digitally, in coloring and your “pencils”?
VH: All my art is digital from start to finish. I haven’t drawn on paper since I was a teenager!
What do you find works best for you with digital? Or, maybe a better question would be, why’d you settle on digital over paper?
VH: Honestly, I could just say “Ctrl+Z” and leave it at that, but: there’s a lot of things I rely on that I just couldn’t possibly do on paper! My whole coloring process relies on RGB. The color picker is like a part of my body at this point. It’s clear and functional and I don’t have to buy paint.
Haha, CTRL-Z. The great lifesaver.
VH: I said it like a joke, but seriously! You know, digital art is just more friendly to improvisation — being able to undo things, or move things with the select tool… I mean, if you saw me penciling, you’d catch me literally just clicking and dragging characters’ hands around when I decide they need to be a little more to the left. Stuff like that.
Let’s step away from process for a little, though, and talk about “Goodbye to Halos” because it’s such a rich world. And, quick confession, for the longest time I thought it was Hay-los, like a town and not Halo-z, like the plural of the angel thing. Have others made that mistake or am I the lone weirdo?Continued below
VH: It’s not a word you see in plural very often.
And Halos have a very specific meaning in the comic beyond our associations with the term, one which is starting to be more fully explored in chapter two, if I’m not mistaken. Is the association of halos and angels, and by extension what it means to be “angelic,” something you wanted to play with and comment on? Or is it an outgrowth of how you wanted to represent Fenic et al’s powers?
VH: Hmm… what should I say? The nature of magic and halos has yet to be revealed in the comic, and is one of the major questions propping up the story. You’re not wrong to wonder if there’s symbolism afoot — Goodbye to Halos is a comic about symbols, and I don’t say that to be cagey. Whatever associations you might have with those symbols are very much intended.
Also it looks really cool. I mean, flames and golden hair were already taken, so I did what I could.
Fenic’s Halo does make her look really cool. And it’s important for your protagonist to look super rad, especially when she has to go and turn all her enemies into friends. Are there any tropes or archetypes associated with the action/adventure genre that you absolutely adore, even if it is to comment on them, ex: Fenic and the power of friendship? Any you hate and want to work towards responding to/excising?
VH: Fenic is absolutely That Kind of magical girl protagonist. The comic was kind of conceived as a mix of shounen and shoujo manga tropes: Big Fights featuring weird powers and not quite enough respect for the the municipal infrastructure, characters shouting monologues about their ideals as the world crumbles around them… but there’s also pages wreathed in flowers where girls stare longingly into each other’s eyes. It’s like, come on! Let me have both!!
The tropes are all on the table. Like I said, it’s a comic about symbols — I use these things consciously, out of unironic love for the genre, even as I’m trying to subvert some of them. I think the key example is the halos — characters in battle manga attaining some cool new super state is usually presented as a triumph, but there’s a repeated hushed suggestion among characters in Halos that it might be something very different.
And it shows! One of my favorite little exchanges from early on is Fenic’s unabashed admission of being That Kind of protagonist. When you’re creating the characters for “Halos,” what do you look for in the story before they’re introduced? Like, are you making foils for Fenic or Leo? New romantic possibilities/tension? A deliciously complex antagonist like in Tahmonai? Things like that.
VH: In terms of personality, I try to make characters fit their role in the story. Like, obviously if a girl’s gonna fight a magic knife-wielding demon (the word “magic” here modifying “knife” — though the demon is also magic) she’s going to be of a certain mindset regarding the importance of her ideals versus the not-in-several-pieces-ness of her body. Still, I find myself shying away from giving characters totally outlandish personalities. Fenic is kind of a reflection of who I was at age 20 — she’s more worried about that demon’s home life than she is about the knives. And if you wanna write characters with empathy, you gotta write characters who can be empathized with.
The villain, Tahmonai, is an fun example for me — originally intended to be much more cartoonishly evil, I found that I was just incapable of writing them that way, and I came up with their final character design just moments before the first time I had to draw them in the comic. So that’s how you get an evil god-emperor who kind of acts, in private, like someone’s overbearing, set-in-their-ways parent.
Like it wouldn’t work if Fenic was a total jackass.
VH: Oh, it sure wouldn’t. If only you’d seen some of the earlier drafts of the story…
Well now I’m curious but I think early drafts of characters are often left best for bonus what if materials in the back of a bookContinued below
VH: Honestly, Fenic’s relationships with her friends are the emotional core of the story. I could write dialogue between them for hours and hours. There’s times where the comic just becomes slice of life stuff for a bit, and to me it’s just as important as the fights or the mystery… That just doesn’t quite work when the edge is too edgy.
On that, it’s rare to see so many queer relationships — platonic or romantic or otherwise — represented comics. Webcomics, yes, but the larger comics (and media) world no and it sucks that we live in a world where this is true. So, for you, why was it vital for this to be central to the narrative without it being either the central narrative, as many mainstream queer stories are? Basically, I wanna talk about how amazingly queer this comic is.
VH: Well, there’s two answers:
One, I literally do not know how to write anything else. I mean, if these characters weren’t like this, they wouldn’t really be representative of the world I live in!
Two, and this is a big part of what got me into making comics in the first place, is that there aren’t many genre comics with a focus on queer characters. This is much less true now than it was five years ago; I think the webcomics scene is exploding and has been for a while… but when I started, I couldn’t help but notice most of the queer comics that existed were either gag strips or read as kind of “instructional,” like as if they were aimed more at informing a straight / cis audience than at a presumed queer one.
To be clear, I’m not dunking here: I think that stuff is great. But I also thought, wouldn’t it be cool to make the kind of bombastic adventure tale that I love where there’s literally not a single straight person in the cast? I mean, there’s countless examples of the reverse situation!!
I wouldn’t say the queerness isn’t the point of the story necessarily. It depends on the character: As just one example, Fenic’s being trans is tightly wound up with her ideal image of herself as a kind of cool hero-type character.
In that her trans-ness is a necessary precursor to growing into the role of the hero from the scared person she was in the prologue?
VH: Being trans means, axiomatically, that you acknowledge your own ability to self-determine who you are and what that means. In that sense, it’s kind of a gateway to determining lots of things about yourself. It’s one of the most intimate forms of empowerment available to a person.
Do you find that it plays into one of the central themes of “Halos:” finding and building your own path based on who you are, not what others tell you to be?
VH: I would go a step further: that the theme is less about “who you are” than “who you decide to be.”
This actually ties into queerness in a roundabout way; you know, a lot of narratives about being queer focus on this idea of intrinsic being, like with the slogan of “born this way,” and I actually wanted to deliberately push back on that with a few of the characters. Fenic isn’t interested at all in what “way” she was born; who she chooses to be is what gives her power. Of course, it turns out that she’s also the princess of an ancient demon empire by blood; that’s one heck of a way to be born, and maybe her focus on self-determination goes part of the way to explaining what happens after she learns this information. (Hint: it doesn’t end well for the knight who’s come to save the princess.)
Is your push back of that narrative because it’s so prevalent? Because of a disagreement with it? Because you wanted that tension to drive the conflicts in a genre so seeped in imposed identities (like the princess/knight narrative) and heroes embracing or shunning said identities because of who they are, thus introducing a whole new dimension of choice to the conflict? Or is it somewhere in the large grey area between? Or none at all?Continued below
VH: I don’t think there are hard answers about why people are queer in the ways they are. And I think that in a lot of ways, “born this way” is counter-productive to the goal of normalizing queerness: it strikes me like you’re asserting from the outset that of course someone wouldn’t want to be queer. I’d rather say: Being what you want to be rules, end of story!
And yeah, it plays into the idea of roles imposed on characters in a story too. As previously mentioned: Comic about symbols.
To backtrack a little, it’s interesting that you bring up the prevalence of gag and instructional comics, if I understand what you mean by that, because the medium has much of its roots in those two ideas, gag & instruction, as genres. Do you think that had something to do with it? Is it something else, like there was an unspoken worry about creating works that didn’t fit those two molds? Or perhaps those were the comic styles that got the clicks?
VH: Those were — and are — what get clicks. That’s just how it is; you know, non-queer people are much less interested in queer media than queer people are interested in non-queer media. (I assume because they don’t have to be interested.) So if you want to make a number big, you by necessity have to make stuff that’s accessible to cis/straight people. I’m not at all saying that’s why we make those kinds of comics, or that those kinds of comics are less important, only that it’s a big factor in their proliferation.
I knew from the outset that the stuff I wanted to make was going to be a little chewy if you come into it not already familiar with queer and trans feelings and relationships. I write my stuff with a presumed queer audience. As a result, I don’t really have the biggest following, but I’ve found that the audience I do have is very, very invested, and I’m immensely grateful for that.
By the way, I’ve said the word “queer” so many times now that it’s starting to lose all meaning. It’s just like a noise.
Haha, that’s what interviews do sometimes.
One more question on this topic. In terms of the change you identified, however, what do you think has driven it? Are there more queer creators out there thinking similarly to how you were five years ago, in the community, saying, fuck it, I’m making comics I’d want to read for, as you said, a presumed familiar audience?
VH: I think there are a lot of factors that mutually feed into each other. For one, the generation of artists that’s coming up right now is way, way more openly and loudly queer than previous generations. By the same token, there are a lot more people actively looking for queer content. This is all the fruit of decades of fierce activism and familiarization, and it’s really, really, really exciting to see. I’m only in my 20s, but even I remember just a decade ago when the idea of making a living off art like this was a far-flung fantasy. And I think as queer art spills out into popular culture, the effect is only going to increase. Despite everything, it’s a cool time to be alive.
That seems like a good place to lead into the last question. What are three webcomics you would recommend to fans of “Goodbye to Halos?”