Health and Inclusivity: Embracing the New in SCHOOL FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL GIRLS

Adjustment is basically a synonym for adolescence. In Jeremy Whitley, Jamie Noguchi, Shannon Lilly, and Wilson Ramos Jr.’s School for Extraterrestrial Girls, Tara has to make some adjustments that neither she nor we would ever expect. In a matter of moments, Tara finds out she isn’t human, like at all, the people who raised her were not her parents, and that the world, or really the universe, are so much more vast than she ever expected.

Navigating new experiences and new faces, in every meaning of that phrase, poses a new challenge for her, leading her to realize that weird exists in every contexts and it’s truly what you make of it. For this installment of Health and Inclusivity, we had the chance to speak with Whitley and Noguchi about the comic and probe for their unique perspective in bringing Tara’s story to life.

[Feature author commentaries in italics as you scroll.]

Allen Thomas: What was your experience creating this comic?

Jamie Noguchi: Girl on Fire represents a lot of firsts for me. This was my first time working with Jeremy, first time working with a book publisher, first time doing a long form comic all in one go. It was very exciting when we got the call that the book had found a home at Papercutz and we got the go ahead to start work. But because this was my first big book with a publisher, I had a lot of self doubt.

Jeremy’s probably used to the pressures of working for publishers like Marvel by now, but this was all new to me. So I put a lot of expectations on myself attempting to meet incredibly optimistic deadlines that I kinda put on myself. Fortunately, our editors were very understanding and helped talk me off a few ledges here and there. And now that we’ve gone through it once, hopefully I can calm down for book 2 and on.

Jeremy Whitley: Man, it was a long and unusual one, I think. It was a really rough idea I had floating around in my head for a while about doing a boarding school for aliens. The idea was originally much more immigration driven, but the more I mulled it over the more it felt like it needed to be personal and specific to our girls.  It felt like we needed to think on a personal drama level and how that translates into the big picture rather than starting from the big picture and working backwards.

Jamie and I had been friends for a little while at that point and got to know each other better over a few convention hangouts and I knew I wanted to do something with him.  I think I threw him a couple of pitches I was working on and this is the one that stood out to him, so we slowly started working on putting together a pitch.

At one point, we had another editor really invested in it whose company wanted us to make a lot of changes to the idea. That wasn’t going to fly for me, we went back and forth a long time and I started to worry that we’d never see this story out there. So eventually we kept shopping. My agent got in touch with Papercutz about it and they were super excited about the book and the message and the art and they were excited about reaching the audience it was aimed for (which, surprisingly, not all comics companies are).

Since then, it’s been great working with Jamie and the gang at Papercutz to bring this thing to life. After so long just trying to get it out there, it feels like suddenly Jamie is drawing volume 2 and I’m working on writing volume 3.

[From the fine aspects of execution to the broader narratives within the comic, there’s a lot of work that goes into creating a world that addresses the nuances of growing up. School for Extraterrestrial Girls starts with a relatively simple note: Tara’s life is regimented and structured. This structure does not mitigate issues at school, but it provides a specific framework that informs how he approaches her new surroundings once her world changes.

Being able to keep up with these aspects of a story is a large task. Not only must creators work on the technical aspects of their process, but also pay attention to the characters, the world, and how they show up. Many of the topics within SFETG are presented in a neat package while addressing very serious issues we all face.

Watching the characters, especially Tara, navigate these issues brought its own challenges: many characters have some painfully real reactions to various interactions, throwing me back into how complicated it could be to just grow up at all, let alone with a specific body, experience, or feelings. What I love about this comic is that it offers an opportunity to experience very real, and sometimes painful, things while also giving credence to their reality and how we can handle them.]

AT: There are themes of isolation, both through ostracism or force from caregivers, genocide, identity, change, and adjustment. Why was it important for you to include those themes and how did you envision young readers may engage with them?

JN: I think it’s important for young people to feel seen. When young people say they feel isolated or all alone, I think it’s important that we listen to them and try to understand. I think we all go through those feelings and maybe adults are just better at forcing those feelings of alienation way down into dark places which is SUPER healthy. But I think we need to talk more openly about these feelings, especially in the middle of a pandemic which has forced us all to self-isolate to keep everyone safe. WEAR A DAMN MASK!

Sorry. Somehow, the themes of isolation seem more relevant than ever during these times we live in. I think young people do an amazing job of connecting with each other through so many various means and I hope we can show through the book that even if they feel alone, they can be alone together and cheesy as that may sound.

JW: I think one of the few things that’s universal about being a teenager is that at some point every one of us think “nobody is going through what I am right now” and to some extent knowing that everybody is going through that is pretty powerful.  Even if the specifics are different, we all feel isolated, we all feel alone, and the only way to get through that is to keep going and keep reaching out to other people and letting them know they’re not alone.

I think a lot of the misunderstanding we have when people talk about privilege and talk about bias is that no life feels easy while you’re living it. Everybody feels alone and everybody experiences suffering and a lot of this story is about people who are feeling isolated and hurt isolating and hurting others. I hope it will be possible for young readers from a lot of different backgrounds to see how that situation plays out in their own lives.

[Jamie’s point about the necessity of being seen and Jeremy’s discussion of isolation are both reflections of central themes of SFETG. Tara’s experience is a very stark one. She can see what is off about her world, even before she begins to uncover her lineage, even as she recognizes that structure can often be a solace when things feel awry.

Just as she is wandering through her world with increasingly less guidance as she moves forward, often so are we, especially as we are traversing adolescence. We often feel that we aren’t seen, which can be true and often isn’t, and we definitely often feel isolated, a symptom of the limits to our experiences.

These themes weave through the story and show up in critical ways, from feeling isolated after rejection to the power of people seeing and loving you just as you actually and truly are.]

AT: There’s a parallel narrative in the comic. On one hand, there’s the girls’ human experiences, which often come with their own politics, as well as the social interactions of their differing alien cultures. How do you balance these ideas and how do you see them affect the characters?

JN: I think the clashing of cultures is always an interesting way to examine your own biases and beliefs and we get to have a lot of fun throwing a bunch of aliens all together. The best sci-fi holds up a mirror to society and I feel like we do that with our cast. I think Jeremy can better answer this one, really.

JW: I think to me the balancing kinda comes naturally.  I mean, take away the sci-fi elements and a lot of those thoughts are ones we should be having every day, right? How is my background affecting how people see me or how they interpret what I’m saying.

What am I not considering here? Sometimes we just ignore those things and pretend they’re not real and sometimes they’re unavoidable. Making it science fiction just makes it a little easier to step outside of your own experience and try to feel for the characters. My hope is that people really enjoy the story and then have these things to reflect on in a more straightforward fashion in their own lives.

[SFETG brings many important things to question, especially with regards to politics of identity around the girls’ human forms and their alien ones. Different dynamics come into play, in particular for Tara and Misako, based on how the girls show up and it’s important to remember how similar interactions shape our own understanding of ourselves and others.

When we move from one space to another, the politics that inform how we interact with the world and how it interacts with us can shift, leading to the importance of evaluating how we occupy spaces. This comic broaches this topic in a relatively safe way, similar to what Jeremy expresses regarding the questions that may arise when we see these specific story elements. The writing is undoubtedly aided by Jamie’s grasp of the art, allowing us to experience these narrative parallels through another modality.]

AT: A similar parallel narrative manifests through the art. Jamie, how did you develop the visual style for the comic, considering that it looks like you navigate between the poles of assumed structure and defying borders of the imagination?

JN: I feel like I wear my influences on my sleeve so you’ll find a lot of Tokusastsu (Japanese live action special effects shows like Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, and Ultraman) references throughout the book. Tokusatsu has a lot of crazy creature and alien designs which definitely informs my design aesthetic when it comes to the aliens.

I wanted the first chapter to feel very conventional so I kept with a very predictable grid structure and didn’t use too many weird angles until things started going a little crazy for Tara. I also kept the colors pretty muted. I wanted to convey the sense that Tara’s terran life was very samey, almost like her senses were dulled.

From chapter 2 on, I brightened up the colors and played around a lot more with the camera. My grid is still pretty standard, mostly because I don’t want to distract readers with too many gimmick panels.

[Reading SFETG, it’s clear that Jamie’s background lends to a very unique and imaginative world, which is important not just for this story’s theme, but also for its capability to use imagery as a support to the narrative structure and framework of the comic.

One of the things I appreciate about the story is how it is able to emphasize themes of control, safety, and security while also giving enough visually to explore the superficial appearance of these themes and how they actually manifest for the characters. With these things in mind, I had my own ideas about the utility of a story like SFETG, but I also wanted to see what Jamie and Jeremy had to say about its potential connection to psychology and education.]

AT: For context, I teach psychology at a university. If I told you I was using this book for one of my classes, how would you imagine I’d be using it? If you were using this comic as teaching material, how would you fold in the ideas of health and inclusivity?

JN: Unless ethnicity is essential to your story, it takes almost no effort at all to include as wide a variety of people as possible. If you were writing an historical account of a very specific Viking village in 790, then sure, don’t put any Asians in there. But if your setting is not ethno specific, go nuts! Draw everyone! Even though our characters are aliens, we’re telling a very human story. There is no one kind of human so put them all in. And then give them awesome hair and wacky sunglasses and call it day.

JW: Well…I’m obviously not an expert in that particular field, but I would think the things that would echo the most in here when it comes to psychology are the ideas of “othering” folks and creating artificial barriers to explain why what you are is better than what they are.

Tara goes through some interesting mental gymnastics in regard to Summer. She sees Summer as a monster based on the appearance of aliens of her race when Summer is one of the sweetest and most loving people she’ll meet. Instead Tara chooses to view herself as one type of alien and Summer’s people as monsters and has a hard time coming around until one of her own friends begins viewing her as a monster for something she is unable to change.

Heavily related to that is subject of cycles of abuse. All of the central characters in this story have lost things and in many cases they choose to cope by taking it out on others. It’s not until they recognize that that they are able to move beyond it.

I’m sure there’s also something to be said about the idea of having two selves, one an idealized version of who you are and one that’s a more raw and extraordinary version and how different people deal with that differently.

[Jamie’s discussion of ethnicity and culture in a narrative hits home within the realm of social psychology, while Jeremy points to emotions and trauma and how we handle them. Both of these ideas, and more, are certainly at the fore in SFETG, and they are exactly why I appreciate this story. Both Jamie and Jeremy use their talents to touch on some very large themes, and they do so while also lowering the point of entry and access. It’s not hard to identify with Tara or Misako or Summer for various reasons, and that is just a starting point for uncovering how this story can be useful to readers.

In examining the potential uses of the comic in a different realm, it can be important to lean back on what is represented in the story. As readers navigate this comic, they will undoubtedly come away with their own meaning and value. While creators may have their own intention in crafting a story, it’s also important to remember these can both coexist together.]

AT: What would you like readers to get from this comic?

JN: I’m looking forward to everyone meeting our characters. And fan art. I wanna see fan art! I hope they enjoy going to school with them and yell at them and laugh with them.

JW: I first and foremost hope they enjoy it. I hope they read it and have a good time with it. But beyond that I hope they come away feeling a little more understanding for those around them and consider how the people they view as monsters are just people undergoing their own struggles. That fact doesn’t excuse everything, but I think it is the key to better understanding the world around you.

[Stories crafted with deliberation are important. Through Jamie and Jeremy’s words, we see the level of joy and care they put into the story, and their takeaway is an encouragement on many fronts. Recognizing the multitude of ways that we show up in the world, whether we are secretly aliens or not, is one of the major steps in improving the world around us.

We see daily, on the national scale and stage, the significant level of harm that can come from a lack of self-awareness. Whenever we do that, when we do not practice the understanding that Jeremy points to, we run the risk of exacerbating a lot of ills in society that we could also easily avoid. For these reasons, being able to read the experiences of Tara, Misako, and Summer, among their other intergalactic peers, opens us to a new way of examining who we are, where we come from, and what that means, especially when we are in contact with others.

When we don’t check in, when we let our fears or worries drive how we approach people, we can end up making some of the same mistakes Tara did. However, if we also practice her compassion and her ability for recognizing when she is being unkind, we can at least attempt to right wrongs and learn how to avoid doing them again, at least to the best of our ability.

School for Extraterrestrial Girls is an interesting read and ride. Knowing that there is more to come leaves me curious to see how the story will unfold and what the girls will learn about themselves and each other. Until then, let this comic be another example of learning that our past isn’t always what we expect, and we can learn from that, while also recognizing the importance and the value of seeing others for who they are, not for our own expectations of them.]

AT: Anything you’d like to add?

JN: Had fun with book 1. Working on book 2 as we speak and I can’t wait to share the crazy stuff we have planned! Also shout out to my color assistant Shannon Lilly who kept me on deadline and our letter Wilson Ramos Jr. for giving our characters voices. And to Papercutz for believing in our girls and keeping me sane!

JW: This book also has several good dumb cat jokes. I feel that’s important to note.

That’s it. Come for the aliens and cat jokes.

School for Extraterrestrial Girls will be available on August 4th from PaperCutz!


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