Interview With The Creators Of Vanquished: Benjamin Smith And Felicia Mars

Felicia and Benjamin

With their new comic, Vanquished, creators Benjamin and Felicia are trying to explore the experience of being transgender and queer in unique ways. It talks about trans issues not in hindsight, but as real-time occurrences in the character’s arc.

The comic has elements of the creators’ own queer and MOGAI’ (Marginalized Orientations, Genders and Intersex) journeys. They hope for young queers to discover the comic and feel seen in the protagonist’s narrative.

Personally, I found Benjamin and Felicia to be some of the funniest people I’ve ever spoken to. Their energy is infectious, and their ability to bounce ideas off each other highlights why they work so well together.

The anecdotes shared during the interview gave me deeper insight into several facets of the comic. Vanquished is a brilliant, funny, absurd (in the best way), and deeply meaningful story. You can purchase a digital copy at Comixology, or a print copy from anywhere in the world.

Q. Hi! Let’s get started— where do you currently work?

Felicia: I live in Seattle, and aside from working on the comics, I am a caricature artist. So, I work for a small company in Seattle and we do caricature work all over Washington state. We also do private events, we have a regular booth set up during December and the spring. Tourists come and I do their caricatures, and that is my day job.

Q. Oh, that’s really cool! And what about you, Ben?

Benjamin: So, I was born in Reading, but I live in San Francisco now. Obviously, writing is the main thing that I do, but I also do a lot of video work. In college, I was a Film major and I did a lot of directing for short films. Now, I do a lot of videography, you know, when I’m not writing.

Q. And how did the comics come to be? Who had the idea, who reached out to whom?

Benjamin: *laughs* The story of how the comic came to be has to do with our friendship itself. Felicia and I have known each other for nearly ten years now. We met in my freshman year at college, [Felicia] was a junior, sophomore, something like that?

Felicia: Something like that, I think I was a junior.

Benjamin: You were twenty-one, I remember, that seemed so old at the time. *laughs* So, I was visiting my sister in San Francisco, and I was in Film School in L.A, and we met. We were just hanging out and chatting, and riffing on ideas and coming up with cool things. I think we came up with a T.V show at one point, but these ideas kind of manifested and formed. Over the course of the years that we’ve known each other, we’ve done a lot of projects together, and eventually those formed into what is now Vanquished, as you read it today. It had a long life-cycle. I remember the original conversation that started it, and then we thought, “why not actually do this?” And then Felicia said, “well, let’s make it a comic.” It progressively became a project that got bigger and bigger and is now Vanquished.

Felicia: Yeah, I always wanted to make comic art, that was my dream. And now I’m doing it! So, I suggested that we make it a comic, and it was just a silly idea that was kind of based on us. We based it on some other friends in our circle, too. We came up with an incredible story. It had a long gestation period. I wasn’t really able to work on it while I was a full-time student, and later on, I was figuring myself out. But almost two years ago from now, I was finally ready to actually start doing the comic. It was originally called ‘Faded Hourglass’, and Ben called me one day and said “Let’s do it, let’s make Faded Hourglass!”

Benjamin: I think there was a lot of personal growth that needed to happen for both of us before making this comic. The original version of the comic is really terrible. Like, the story’s just really dreadful. *laughs* When the idea of Vanquished came up, we thought about doing a really fantasy story where there really aren’t any rules. Part of that was making the comic really unapologetically gay, unapologetically LGBT+. As a creator I would justify having gay characters, but then Felicia said, “well, what if we just did whatever the fuck we wanted?” So, it was Felicia’s idea to bring back Faded Hourglass.

The character of Valorie, originally, wasn’t transgender, she was just a weird, gay boy who sort of goes on a coming-of-age journey.

Felicia: Just to be clear, he wasn’t weird because he was gay. *laughs*

Benjamin: No, he was just a weird character, just so bizarre. *laughs* So, Felicia and I go back and forth on whose idea Vanquished originally was. What makes Vanquished what it is, is Valorie. Her story is central to everything, and without her, everything crumbles. Whenever I’m writing the story, if we stray too far from Valorie’s perspective, it starts to fall apart. She is so essential for the story. Felicia and I both think we came up with the idea to make Valorie transgender. I will say that I gave her the name Valorie. As for who decided she would be transgender, no-one knows.

Felicia: I came up with the name Vanquished, though.

Q. And how did you settle on the title ‘Vanquished’?

Felicia: We were brainstorming names for a title, and I wanted something…punchy. It had to represent the comic and still be open to interpretation. It had to instill a sense of action and excitement. So, I chose ‘Vanquished’ and it just felt right, you know? And once we started fleshing out the story, it made more sense to call it that. In the story, Valorie is a princess, and her kingdom gets vanquished. However, as the story grows, the idea is that she eventually wants to tear down her kingdom and build something new, something more inclusive. The kingdom has an old-world view that being gay is wrong, being transgender is wrong. You have to conform to the conservative view of normalcy. She wants to tear that down.

Benjamin: She becomes the vanquish-er.

If I can add to that, the reason why I love the title ‘Vanquished’ so much is that it looks like the kind of title you’d see printed on a comic. I imagine walking into a comic store and seeing titles like ‘Invincible’, ‘Walking Dead’. ‘Vanquished’ just sounds like such a comic. *mimics* “Oh, did you read the new Vanquished?” Just the word- the name- sounds so much like this is a cool fuckin’ comic. You wanna read Vanquished.

Felicia: I also wanted to bring up that I’m a big fan of alliteration. The name of the comic, the main character and her kingdom, all start from the letter ‘V’. To me, the letter is very gender neutral.

Benjamin: We were on the fence about having a sub-title, and what it should be. We finally settled on “Weird Princess”, with parentheses around “ess”. In the comic, people call her the “weird prince”. For us, it’s almost like we’re trying to reclaim that on the front page. She’s a weird person, she’s a little bit of a wackadoodle. But at the same time, she’s a princess, and you’ve got to respect that. With the parentheses, we wanted to reclaim the correction.

Q. To what extent is the story influenced by your personal experiences?

Benjamin: Felicia and I cross-pollinate a lot – she helps with a lot of the writing, and I work on the art, too. We’re more of a spectrum between writer and artist than a binary. The characters in the story, too, are constructed from both our perspectives. My experience of coming out as gay was overwhelmingly negative. I grew up in a small town, in an Evangelical Christian community. So, I have a folder full of traumatic experiences which I pull from. Nem’s backstory in the comic is very much pulled from that. Nem’s arc is a fantasy version of my story. A lot of times in the story, homophobia is shown as some sort of cartoonish evil. That is somewhat wish-fulfillment, but it also gives a lot more reality to hate. Growing up in an Evangelical community, I realized that people don’t hate you for no reason. The thing about them that’s so frightening is that their belief system is the foundation of their hatred, and it’s ingrained in a really complicated way. It’s a lot more nuanced than the binary “you’re gay, therefore bad”. It’s motivated, it’s inspired, passionate. Moving on to Valorie, I’d say her relationship with her mother, Marium, is very much inspired by my experience of coming out to my mother. Their relationship really changes over time, just as it took my mother time to be okay with my sexuality. Other than that, Valorie is mostly based on Felicia.

Felicia: In the story, Nem falls in love with a boy. He’s sort of a supporting character to Valorie. He’s very much based on Ben’s life experiences and stories. And we had discussions on this when Ben said that Nem is his least favorite character, but he’s the one that Ben most relates to. Now I’m narcissistic, so I love Valorie, who’s based on me. She’s my favorite. Valorie, in the original story, was Felipe. We didn’t really like Felipe, who was also based on me and my deadname. It took me a long time to realize that I’m transgender. I also grew up in a conservative Christian home. I grew up in a place where being transgender was not an option. Being gay was something that I could at least wrap my head around. It took me a long time to figure out that I was not a gay boy, I [am] a transgender woman. That is reflected in how we came up with the story and the concept of Valorie’s character being a transgender heroine. Ben and I really wanted that to be the focus of the story.

And it meant a lot to me, because at the time, when we had started working on Vanquished, I was going through hormone replacement therapy. It was a little traumatic, you know, like it is for everyone who goes through that, and I wanted a character to relate to. So, one of the reasons why I found it easy to work on the story every day was because it was therapy for me. It helped me cope with the changes, with going through puberty again. It’s important to note that there is very little transgender representation in the media, and there is even less positive transgender representation in the media. And there is almost no authentic gender representation in the media. Most, if not all, creators never focus on the actual transition of a character, they always get ahead to what it’s like once the character has already gone through that. I think the reason for that is because it is hard for us to explore. But I felt it was important that Valorie goes through that in the story. It helps me to really relate to it, it gave me an anchor to grab on to.

Benjamin:  In Vanquished, there are no magic bullets. I mean, there literally are magical bullets. But there’s no real magic bullets for small things. I’m a really big believer in the idea that if somebody in real life would have to go through something to get to a point, focus on it. Valorie’s story is very much involved in HRT. It’s very much involved in the finicky process of bureaucracy, dealing with name changes, and that kind of thing. I think it’s very important to focus on that. She doesn’t have a magic potion to transition. She has to go through what a real person has to go through. And even more importantly, her story says that it’s okay, it doesn’t matter what body you have, your identity is what matters. Your gender identity deserves respect. So, when it comes to Valorie, it doesn’t matter if she gets HRT or a magic potion, it doesn’t matter if she gets some kind of magic surgery or something down the road.

Q. It’s very wonderful for a lot of young queers who might be reading the comic, that’s a really relatable journey.

Benjamin: Yeah, that’s what we had in mind. I can get presumptuous in saying our comic can help people. I think that the goal we have is even if one person can read it and get a feeling of “I’m seen”, I think that’s really enough for us. That’s what I would define success as, if just one person can read and go, “Oh, that’s me. I’m in a comic now”. That’s really what we are striving for.

Q. Were there any artists, design artists, that you drew inspiration from for the comic?

Felicia: So, as far as the art goes, actually draw a lot of inspiration from a lot of different places. It does have a heavy Manga influence. So, a lot of the art is derived from Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Dragonball. I also draw from a lot of Western comic artists as well.

One of my favorite comic artists is Fiona Staples. I drive a lot of influence from Invincible and from Ryan in how I try to simplify the characters, their anatomy and their design, but make it dynamic and strike a tremendous balance. Lastly, I want to give credit to the other artists that I work with on a daily basis, as caricature artists for a company.

My bosses are the leading members of the International Society of Caricature Artists. I draw a lot of influence from them and how they translate the human state and the human form. I spent a lot of time with Kim, one of my coworkers and best friends, figuring out how to draw on jobs together. I taught her things that I knew that I learned from art school and she taught me things she had observed. There’s a lot of influence of Kim’s art in my art.

Q. What inspired the colour theme for the comic? I noticed that the War Room and the Queen’s dress are shades of green, while environments that Valorie perceives as friendly are in shades of pink, purple, or blue.

Felicia: We chose red for Valorie because to me, it symbolizes youth, it symbolizes power, it symbolizes femininity. It’s vibrant and it really fits the character. It fits the character’s energy. The reason why the War Room and her mother in particular is in green is because- and I’ve really got to credit Ben for this one- Ben threw on the green colors for the Mariyam design, she looks good but she directly contrasts with what Valorie is wearing. Green is on the opposite end of the color spectrum. Green also represents a conflict. For instance, how money is green.

Benjamin: I originally wanted to have Mariyam in red and Valorie in green. I wanted to have Mariyam in red because she’s Alfainian, and we wanted to signal to her heritage. When we made the guard red, it looked really passionate and eye-catching.  There’s a reason the British soldiers looked so cool. The color coding of characters is very specific. We choose our colour very specifically for a reason.

Felicia: As our ideas evolved, we learned that the Alfainians are not necessarily the bad guy. I mean, it seems that way at first, but as you read more stories, you find out that their society is a lot more diverse.

Benjamin: I don’t necessarily believe in heroes and villains. I prefer the language “protagonists” and “antagonists”. You have to make sure that every character is coming from a place that makes sense, and that every character has a motivation that’s logical, and every character is relatable. You slowly, but surely open up the gate for nuance. On page one, Valorie is going to get kidnapped by this cool assassin lady. But by the end of the it, you realize there’s a more complex story to it.

Q. [To Benjamin] You’ve mentioned you were a first-time writer. Were there any anxieties when you chose Vanquished as your pilot publication?

Benjamin: None whatsoever.  I would say the reason for that is because I have absolute faith in Vanquished. I’m a first-time published writer. I’ve been writing for years, and I’ve sort of been honing the craft, if you will. When it came to publishing Vanquished, my concern was never, “is this good enough?”

The concern was, will people go for an unknown LGBT team writing about a trans character and gay characters. We don’t apologize for them. It’s very central to our story and very central to our past.

The comic has received a fair amount of transphobia and prejudice in general, on social media, because people are really shitty and they’re really filled with hatred about these things. For a publisher, the mentality is, well, why would I want to do that? Why would I want to risk that when the reward is not necessarily high?

I think, if anything, that was my concern going in. At the same time, as I said, I’m supremely confident in our product and I’m supremely confident in the characters and the board we created. Markosia did pick us up, and they were excellent. They handled working with us the way a publisher should handle it, which is treating our product exactly the same as any other product. Even if every publisher has said no, I would put this online myself. I would publish it online. I would post it on the street, on lamp posts. If I had to go back to your question, I have none. I would, if I were anxious, I feel like there will be a lack of confidence. I have no lack of confidence.

Felicia: I would like to add to that, Ben. I feel just as strongly, but I come from a different perspective on that. I have the perspective that we really don’t have anything to lose by making the story. And the reason I say that is because, well, that was the way that I approached it. When coming up with the story, trying to direct what we want, we could make the story what we want, what we can be more passionate about, because we weren’t expecting anyone to actually pick us up. And we did get a lot of rejections. 

Every time prior to making Vanquished the way that we made it now, we could never actually do it. We could barely get started on it because we were trying to do what was trending, what we thought publishers wanted to see. And this time we said, “no, we don’t really have anything to lose”. We’ve been rejected so many times that we just said, “we will get this out there”. Whether someone wants to publish it or not, we’ll get this out there, we’ll self-publish it, but we really are making this. Or I really am, at least for the art of it. This is the story that I always wanted to tell, Ben’s always wanted to tell. It is very, very personal. It draws a lot from what our experiences are. We just want to be bold. An unapologetically queer-centric story. And the first comments we got on social media after we got published were negative. The overly aggressive comments strengthen that resolve. They just prove that we really reached people with what we’re doing. 

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Srishti Uppal is a nineteen-year-old poet and essayist from New Delhi. Their favourite writers include Alok V. Menon, Richard Silken, and Mary Oliver. Their work can be found in Marias at Sampaguitas, Human/Kind Journal, The Temz Review, among others.
Srishti Uppal

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