Beyond The Panel: An interview with RJ Edwards of Riot Nrrd
If you care about oppression and social justice and you aren't reading Riot Nrrd yet, you are in for a delicious feminist treat. The relatively new webcomic by RJ Edwards chronicles the nerdy adventures of Wren, Maria, and Sam. The tone of the comic is light and humorous, and the strong character-driven plots make for an addictive archive experience, much like Jeph Jacques' Questionable Content or last week's interviewee Danielle Corsetto's Girls With Slingshots. But the humor is tempered by a constant awareness of the kyriarchal forces that seek to oppress the cast of characters through racism, sexism, sizism, ableism, and cissexism.
This is the second time I've had the pleasure of interviewing the delightful RJ—you can check out my two-part 2010 interview with them here and here. After the jump, you can read their thoughts on the present and future of Riot Nrrd.
RMJ: What has changed in the year since you've started Riot Nrrd?
RJ: Well, I've gone through some life changes—including graduating college and moving and getting a job—and all of that has affected how much time I can put into the comic. I switched to two updates a week instead of one back in June, but it's occasionally a struggle to get the updates done on time right now. I'd really like to be able to update three times a week at some point, because I follow comics that only update Tuesday-Thursday and it seems like time moves so slowly. I realized on this schedule it'll be February and they'll still be at this drag dance.
RMJ: Do you have a favorite character to write?
RJ: That's hard. On one hand, webcomics is weird medium to write in (though print comics or other small-installment-based media probably have similar issues), because I'm usually trying to move the plot forward and make a joke in every comic, so sometimes I feel like I'm not distinguishing the cast's voices as much as I should be. But on the other hand, I do think my style is character-driven, so the way they express themselves and interact is integral to the humor and the plot. I don't really think about it in terms of favorites. And I like them all, if I've been on a story line involving one person for a while, I start to miss the others. I totally miss Candice right now.
RMJ: Would you say there's a fan favorite character?
RJ: I've had different people tell me different favorites, but generally I think I've seen the strongest reactions to Sam. And Joss Whedon Puppy. But it's definitely not unanimous. At least one person told me Wren's dad is their favorite, which is great! I love Wren's dad, too.
RMJ: One thing I really admire that must be quite difficult to do is how you find humor in oppressive situations without making them the butt of the joke—as with the "I'm transgender, I'm not Clark Kent" line or Sam's smackdown. How do you balance these two aims within your strip?
RJ: I guess I just try to stay mindful about not using anyone as a punchline, and not using language that alludes to anyone as less-than. I don't see that as a huge effort on my part. My humor develops from having the characters, and having them in a situation, and just letting them talk until they say something that's funny. When I write the strips, they tend to start out very long, and then I edit them back to make them fit and to give them the best comedic delivery I can.
RMJ: What role does social justice play in RN?
RJ: Well, the main cast are all queer, and they're all feminists or womanists, and they all experience marginalization from their world (and their fandoms). So they're playing video games and making comics, but they're also dealing with a kyriarchal culture, because, you know, of course they are. They're also witty and passionate characters, but the social justice stuff usually comes up because it's a fact of their lives and of the media they love.
RMJ: Do you get much pushback from your readers?
RJ: I have read some harsher stuff about my comic here and there, and there's some stuff I can dismiss and some stuff that bugs me. Like, stuff about how my art is bad: totally, I'm with you, my art sucks. Stuff about how my jokes are bad: maybe they are, I don't know, that's subjective. Stuff about how my characters suck is tougher, and stuff about me personally is really tough. But, you know, that happens, and I've never gotten a really bad influx of trolls or anything, and I'm praying it stays that way even if the comic gets more popular.
Criticism though, like the person who pointed out that I used the word "idiotic," I welcome that kind of criticism. If I do or say something that makes a reader uncomfortable, I want to know and remedy that.
RMJ: Sexism is a problem in the comicing industry, but cissexism is too. Have you experienced much erasure/misgendering as a nonbinary trans person?
RJ: Not that I've noticed, but a lot of my fans find me through social-justice-centric spheres, not comics-centric ones. At NEWW I was misgendered a bunch. Ryan North was nice enough (he is SO nice, I think it is a webcomic creator cliche at this point to talk about how nice Ryan North is, but he is SUPER nice) to write a birthday comic for me on the dry-erase Dinosaur Comics board my partner bought me, and he used "she," and I tweeted about it, and he is super sweet and awesome and apologized, but he told me to erase every "s," which would make the comic say "he", which is also not what I am.
And there was this weird moment where I went to the bathroom at NEWW and realized there was no gender-neutral bathroom, which I put into an autobio comic. Because I'm used to going to conferences about queer issues, where there's always that option, so part of me just assumed that it would be like that.
I talked to a fan afterward who's also non-binary and was at NEWW, and we were saying we should have some kind of queer meet-up next year. They also said they talked to Jeph Jacques about gender-neutral pronouns during the pub crawl, and I really wish I could've heard how that went!
RMJ:: What are your ambitions as a cartoonist in 2011?
RJ: Don't let my comic end, haha.
RMJ: Always a good starting point.
RJ: I'm getting a table at ConBust, and the organizer of the con reads my comic, which is super exciting. It's March 25-27 at Smith College. It's a female-centric con and there will likely be a lot of social-justice-mindful folk, and it's not a long travel for me, so it's almost an ideal first con. But beyond that, I'm at a weird place with figuring out how to pay my rent and if I'm going to go to grad school, so, I'd love to say "I want to update 5x a week and get 5,000 hits a day and start living off my comic!" but, that is not my aim at all. It might happen, and that'd be great! But that's not why I'm making Riot Nrrd. And it's only a year old. My ambition for now is to keep making comics, and to keep getting better at making comics.
I think it's worthwhile to just keeping trying, even if your expectations are low, and even if your circumstances won't allow you to sit down and pen a masterpiece—it's OK for my goal right now to be "don't stop making comics" instead of "make the most successful comics ever." Or "don't stop writing," in your case, or "don't stop playing the ukulele," or "don't stop trying to promote the idea that every human being has dignity and worth and deserves respect and autonomy" instead of "be the Audre Lorde of your time," which a lot of Bitch readers can probably relate to! "Don't burn out" and "don't give up" are perfectly good goals.
Thanks to RJ! Check in next week for an interview with Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan of Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell!
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