Beyond The Panel: An Interview with Christine Smith of The Princess
Today I'm sharing the second part of my interview with the delightful Christine Smith, the very talented artist behind webcomics Eve's Apple and The Princess. Check out the first part here, and then read our conversation about The Princess, flipping the script, and feminism below!
RMJ: The Princess is a spin-off of Eve's Apple, and Lucy is a character in both comics. Do they exist in the same universe?
CS: I'd say so, yes. The Lucy we see in EA is the same as the one in The Princess. The Sarah who was first portrayed in EA is the same as the one in The Princess. I don't want to get very heavy handed with cross-overs, but Lucy is the common thread. And, I've decided, she's be the thread tying into any other comic I do in the future. Kind of like a signature, you know?
RMJ: So besides Lucy and the focus on trans characters, what do EA and The Princess have in common?
CS: Well, obviously a trans theme, and as we said before, they bear the theme of uncomfortable attraction. Also along those lines, they're both about how the way cisgender people's views of themselves and the world are affected by a relationship with a transgender person. Lilith and Chuck worried that the attraction makes them straight or gay. Wendy worrying about whether it makes her a failure as a mother.... these are the central conflicts. And then, the trans characters have to interact with these people, and navigate a world that is being shaped by those unsure or uncomfortable people, and how, despite or because of that, they maintain their own truths of themselves, and refuse to let it die. Sarah's very outgoing and positive about it and helps teach those around her who she is and what it means to be her, which is why trans kids find it inspiring, I suppose. And no matter how beat down Eve gets, once you cross the line of challenging her gender, she will attack.
RMJ: One thing that really defines The Princess in comparison to EA for me is the optimism of the Princess. There are certainly dark moments, but it's a much more colorful strip (literally and figuratively!). Is that just because of its focus on the world of children and not adulthood? Or does it reflect other things about the strip?
CS: It's definitely because they're children. Both because Sarah's young and fresh, but also because I know that trans children read the strip, and I want to give them hope and lend them courage in any way I can. I've heard from a few parents who tell me how the strip makes their grade-school, gender-nonconforming kid feel, for lack of a better word, normalized. There was one little girl who saw my strips on display and read some hard copies I'd given them at the recent Gender Spectrum Family Conference. I'd heard how she read them over and over again, all weekend, and at the end asked her parents to buy her some.... one autographed for her, and other copies to share with her teacher and classmates. I wasn't able to hook up and give that to the parents on the day of the conference, but I mailed them out. The child was beginning for the first time to go to school as a girl. Her mom emailed me that she didn't want to get in the car, and only did when she'd heard that the comics had arrived and she could have them when she went to school. I did her a personalized picture of Sarah rooting her on, and every day it updates, she gets some special time to read it with a favorite classroom aide. So I hear stories like this from parents, and because acutely aware that there are some children to whom The Princess means so much. I want to give it to them. I want to give them all I can through the strip. And in a way, I'm giving the gift to the child I was. I don't know if that makes sense.
RMJ: One thing I love about The Princess is how it makes me think about the children I plan to have, and how I need to treat their identities with respect and teach them to treat others with respect. And I love that I'll be able to have that kind of resource to help my kids, whether they're cis or trans, understand that.
CS: Absolutely. We largely lack stories for our trans children and for our cis children to help them understand. I'm proud to be able to write these stories, because, not to be egotistical, but I think they're needed. I needed them and I didn't have them, so I can make them for the children coming up.
RMJ: I'd like to talk about is how you flip the script in The Princess. One thing that struck me on first read-through was the supportive dad/intolerant mom dynamic, which is usually flipped.
CS: I quite deliberately switched the support dynamic in Sarah's family, yes. When I can spot myself going down a clichéd road, I try to switch it up, so I figured I'd make dad be the more supportive wheres mom's.... not. They both love their child, and mom's love is very fierce and protective. But she believes in protecting her child by insulating her from the world's intolerance, and to her that means to force her child to conform. She reads sort of as a villain, and I have readers who DETEST her, but she certainly loves her child as much as Sarah's father. Her failing is that she doesn't listen to what Sarah needs, and assumes that because she does not understand Sarah, that Sarah much change to fit her understanding. It's difficult, because this is so harmful for a child, and so common, and so often done for the right reasons. Our parents sometimes do the worst thing for the most loving reasons. Sarah's dad, he listens, he compromises, he seeks to understand.... and he knows that there will be conflict and pain and heartbreak, but also believes that Sarah needs to learn to face those on her own terms, not to be protected from them.
RMJ: What are your plans for cartooning in general over the next year or so?
CS: Well, I don't want to jinx it, but I'm getting some help getting a book deal.... knock on wood! I'd love to see The Princess, especially, distributed far and wide. Eve's Apple.... a few months back it occurred to me how that story will end, so I will be building up to that conclusion. When I started it, I thought it would be ongoing, but I'm now seeing it as ending just so. Also, if I free up that time, it would let me start one of a few new projects I have in mind. I'd really like to do a story called "Girl Jesus," wherein I'd explore some mental health themes. I have a few other ideas.
RMJ: How have misogyny and cissexism affected your experience of the webcomic community?
CS: I've been so surprised at the degree to which positive voices have outweighed the negative! Perhaps it's that I'm not outgoing, or going out there and saying "hi" to other people. And also.... and this is a dark confession.... I don't really read other comics a lot. A few weekends a year I'll sit down and read through months of archives, but not day-to-day. And those I do read tend to be at least somewhat feminist, and I see so much of a movement in this new wave of feminists to understand, accept and affirm trans identities. And those others I have come across, where I think "Oh this writer/artist must be a meathead in his basement and will ream me out...." If I ever come in contact with them, they tend to have surprised me by being very respectful. I've had one or two off-color comments, but overall, the webcomic community has been good to me.
RMJ: That's very heartening to hear! Also, I've actually known a couple of the cartoonists I've interviewed who said they are not into webcomics, so you're not alone. Last question: What is the role of feminism in your comics?
CS: Feminism is a part of everything I do. When I was young, I lived among some very strong women who were very supportive of and worked towards the Equal Rights Amendment.... so gender equality and feminist ideals made me who I am and I hope are a part of everything I am. Of course, being of that age, that was the age of Mary Daly's anti-trans theory, and Janice Raymond's book The Transsexual Empire. So while all the positivity of equality permeated me, that flip-side of the second wave of feminism shamed me as a child. I was a kid Sarah's age and being told how transgender was a mockery to women, and was about castrated males trying to co-opt women's space, and so I went into deep, deep denial for many years. A lot of self-destructive impulses came out there, and when I get around to "Girl Jesus" I'll explore those. It wasn't until Stone Butch Blues and Gender Outlaw that I was able to relax, and embrace both feminism and my transgender identity comfortably. So I hope my comics reflect the ideals of a trans inclusive feminism, once that accepts diversity of gender experience, rejects essentialism, and adapts a "person first" attitude..... that we are all people first and foremost, and we should never let descriptors, theory, or anything else obscure that fact.
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