For Expanse star, role of Roci engineer ‘feels like a dream’

This month, I had the honor of interviewing not one, but two glorious science-fiction goddesses from groundbreaking TV series The Expanse.

This week, we’re hearing from my favorite member of the crew of the Rocinante, Dominique Tipper, who plays chief engineer/executive officer Naomi Nagata.

(MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!)

Dominique was gracious enough to find a moment, during filming of the series’ fourth season in Toronto, to sit down at her computer and answer some questions about what it’s like to be a part of a show that’s making remarkable strides when it comes to roles for women, diversity, and representation.

(Read last week’s interview with Cara Gee, who plays Naomi’s Season 3 BFF, Camina Drummer, here.)

The actor does an eloquent job of summing up what’s so memorable about Naomi, a tech genius and conflicted Belter who shares rich, complex relationships with each of her Rocinante crewmates, whether it’s a sisterly bond with Wes Chatham’s Amos or an often tense romantic connection to James Holden (Steven Strait). 

Refreshingly though, Naomi’s journey isn’t dependent on her male counterparts. The character is courageous, strong, thoughtful, a voice of reason, and always acts according to her convictions, even when that comes at a great cost.

Season 3 was an exciting one for the mohawk-rocking badass as she grappled with the consequences of betraying her crewmates and made a dramatic return to her Belter roots on Tycho Station. We can’t wait to see what’s in store for her in Season 4.

Below, Dominique gives us a hint at what that may entail and also talks with infectious enthusiasm about her Expanse experience and a lot of other fun stuff, like the show’s cancellation and thrilling last-minute resurrection, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, her directorial aspirations, and what other franchises she’d like to be a part of. (Pssst, Marvel, hire her already!)

You play Naomi Nagata on TV series The Expanse. Naomi is an inspiring character and, if I may say so, you are a glorious sci-fi goddess. What’s your favorite thing about playing this rich, complex character?

Thank you. I would say my favourite thing about playing Naomi is exactly that. She is such a rich and complex character. She constantly surprises, disappoints and inspires me. She is flawed and brilliant and so real. I also love seeing where the lines blur between us. It’s always quite the journey.

Are you in Toronto now for the filming of Season 4? What’s it like to be back after the emotional roller coaster of the show’s cancellation and resurrection by Amazon?

Yes, we are baaaaccckkk. It has been the most bizarre and challenging year for all of us, and I just think we’re all happy that we get to continue telling the story. We all love this show so much and the tone of our workplace is that it’s always been about making the show the best it can be. No egos, just that. And so being a part of that kind of environment is rare and enriching … AND SEASON 4 IS SO GOOD!

The cast and crew seems like a tight-knit bunch. Is that fun to be part of?

I love them all dearly. I can’t even tell you how lucky I am that I get to make this show with such a wonderful bunch of people! Were always having fun, which is so important as it’s such a hard and complex show to make.

The Expanse is groundbreaking in terms of representation of women and people of color. What’s it like being part of such a strong female cast and working with Shohreh Aghdashloo, Cara Gee, and Frankie Adams?

Being part of this cast feels correct. Representation is so, so important and to be on a show that is part of the change, on so many levels, just feels right to me. We all want to see media that represents the world around us, aesthetically and emotionally. The thing I love is that we don’t just cast a bunch of people from different, varied backgrounds and give them stereotypical, race specific arcs. Everyone has agency and emotional complexity and is integral to the storyline. None of the men have completely masculine qualities and none of the women have completely feminine qualities.

The casting surprises me all the time! People are often never how I imagine them. There is a dedicated effort to casting against what you may first lean towards. Against the obvious or at least what we have been conditioned to imagine as the obvious. For me that is the real key to changing things. That’s the real world I see around me and that’s what I want to see more of! So to not just be watching it and be a part of it is incredible.

The diversity of the show is one of its strengths. I read that as a child, you only had a “handful” of women who looked like you in media to look up to. How does that inform your experience of working on this series?

It feels like a dream. I was sent a picture of a young mixed race girl dressed up as Naomi at New York Comic Con, and I cried my eyes out. You know, representation isn’t just about skin colour. It is also about the quality of the part.

So to be playing a mixed race woman that isn’t a device for telling a story about colourism, that isn’t a highly sexualized, diluted version of a black woman, that isn’t a “look down her nose at her sisters” type of character, that isn’t the “angry black woman,” that isn’t an idiot, that isn’t confused about who she is, and not only is she not any of those things but she goes way, way, way beyond any of that in terms of her complexity, is such a revelation.

The world that Daniel and Ty created (being in the future) has allowed for us to play characters that aren’t stereotypically race specific and it’s beautiful.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck wrote The Expanse novels under the pen name James S. A. Corey. They also serve as writers and producers of the show.)

Things seem to be changing a bit for the better in the film and television industries when it comes to representation. As a woman of color, what further progress would you like to see?

It is getting better at last, but there is always much more work to do. I think there are many, many levels to further progress and I don’t know exactly what the whole solution is, but I do try to take responsibility for what I can do. I have my own specific set of privileges, and I challenge them. We have to ask ourselves and our privilege if we are doing all we can to help things change. It’s uncomfortable, but change always is.

We have to think beyond our comfortable, beyond our usual, beyond what we think we know, and I try to do that as often as possible. If I see regression happening on my set, I point it out and help it to change. I don’t turn a blind eye and sit comfortably within my privilege, and this is something we can all work towards and I think it will ultimately inform the bigger picture.

Season 3 was a big one for Naomi’s arc. She’s always been very true to herself and done what she thinks is right. This past season saw her return to and re-embrace her Belter roots, which was great. What was it like to explore this side of the character?

Season 3 held some of my favourite moments for Naomi. I think it was nice to see a well-rounded Belter perspective as we hadn’t really seen that on the show yet, and I loved that Naomi was the vessel for that. I think with being mixed race, her Season 3 arc had elements to it that echoed to my own journey with my identity, and I loved that in the end she just done what was right for her and, still, she just is who she is and she is unapologetic about it.

You rocked a pretty amazing Belter accent. Was that a challenge?

Haha, thanks! That was so much fun. To be honest, the Belter accent is not too far removed from my own accent so it’s not that hard for me.

You also got to work closely with Cara Gee, who plays Drummer. I feel like intricate, devoted female friendships like this can be a rarity on TV. What are your thoughts?

Ahhhh, firstly, Cara Gee is an incredible woman and I love working with her. I LOVE Naomi and Drummer’s relationship. It’s one of my favourite things on the show. Again, these are the kind of relationships I am used to having with the women in my life. They are always at the core of my being and they are the relationships that get me through everything and I feel like Naomi and Drummer’s relationship is one of the few I’ve seen on screen that looks and feels like what I know to be true and its awweeessoommmee.

Naomi is chief engineer and executive officer of the Rocinante. A strong woman in science and tech is quite revolutionary for sci-fi. Have you heard feedback from female fans about what this means to them?

I have heard feedback from women and men, actually, that love Naomi and the representation of having a saviour engineer on our show. I’m just happy to be bringing this woman to life. The levels of representation she embodies is more than I could have imagined.

What’s your general interaction with fans been like? Expanse fans rallied to save the show in a way that seems completely opposite to some of the “toxic fandoms” we’re hearing a lot about lately.

Expanse fans are the actual best. I’ve had a lot of interaction with our fans on Twitter since we started and we’ve always had such a fantastic time live tweeting and whatnot. Again, I think I’ve been spoilt with the lack of assholes it seems.

You and others from the cast recently appeared at Dragon Con. What was that experience like?

Dragon Con is crazy and it was amazing. It was so awesome meeting our fans face to face and hearing them share their stories of how important the show is for them, especially after nearly getting cancelled! It was nice to say thank you for their unwavering support. The panels we done were awesome too. All round awesomeness basically.

You started acting at age 3. What are some of your earliest memories of that?

I actually didn’t start acting at 3. I was always doing performing arts since that age, but I really didn’t start acting properly until about 7 years ago.

When and how did you know you wanted to pursue acting as a career?

It was on the set of my first film, Fast Girls, in 2011. I had gotten the chance to audition for the film through the producer Damian Jones as I had met him about 5 years before at the Eurovision Song Contest, and once I got to see those ladies work, that was it for me.

I had one line in the film but I was with the girls all the time in different scenes and I got to do all the training for the running scenes with Lashana and Lorraine for 10 weeks and so it meant I could watch a lot of what was happening and their processes and it was just wonderful. So Lashana Lynch, Lily James, Lenora Crichlow, Lorraine Burroughs, and Damian Jones are pretty much why I’m acting now!

You recently directed your first music video. That’s exciting! Tell me more about that.

Ah, it was aweessoomme. This is my second time directing something. My first foray into it was making a trailer in the style of a short film for Ann Akin’s play “Trying to Find Me.” That was awesome, and the short film/trailer, which is also called “Trying To Find Me” has been the official selection for four film festivals to date.

I have a love for music videos and have been wanting to make one for a while so I just managed to squeeze it in before leaving to shoot. It’s for an artist called Smoothvee, for his song called “Egos.” I’m currently editing it so it will be out soon!

Is directing something you’d like to do more of?

Absolutely. I’ve been working on an idea for a short film I want to direct and I’m also working on a script for my first feature that I want to star in and direct.

You’re also a singer. I love your music name, Miss Tipper. Is there anything in the works for Miss Tipper right now?

I don’t pursue singing anymore, to be honest. I know it’s still all over the Internet but I stopped pursuing that a while ago. I’d love to do it in a film at some point, but that’s probably as far as that will go now.

Are you personally into any geeky fandoms?

I’m a big Game of Thrones fan! Hehe.

Were you a sci-fi fan before you were cast in The Expanse?

I can’t say I was. I still wouldn’t say I’m a sci-fi fan. I love it, and I really love the world and being a part of it, but I can’t say I’m a hardcore fan.

I read that you recently started reading comics. What prompted you to dive into that?

I love me a graphic novel. I can’t really remember why I started reading them but I LOVE Saga. I’ve actually fell behind on reading them for the past year but I do really enjoy them.

You starred in the zombie movie The Girl With All the Gifts. I thought that was a really underrated film. Tell me about that experience.

Ah, that film was such a joy to shoot. It was nice to do something British as I always find myself in American productions because of the way opportunities work for people of colour, but it was so nice to do something at home. Everyone was great to work with and I made some lifelong friends as a result of that job. I agree with you about it being underrated. I loved the concept so much and I thought Colm (McCarthy) done such a wicked job of bringing the story to screen.

What’s your survival strategy for when the zombie apocalypse hits?

I’m hoping that NEVER happens but I guess it would be firstly to not panic, and then grab a weapon and some water and food, lol.

I have to ask you about your appearance in the film version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. You played an Auror. Omg! Was it like to be a wizard in the Harry Potter franchise?

I mean, I was such a small part in that film that it didn’t really feel like a big deal. But it was cool watching all the brilliant actors at work on that film and the sets were AMAZING!

I know you probably can’t say much at this point, but any hints about what’s in store for Naomi in Season 4?

OMG. Naomi has quite a lot going on in this season, as always. She goes on a very different type of journey in this season that we haven’t seen her go through before. All I will say is, it’s a little different from the book (if you’ve read it) in a really cool way.

Just for fun, is there another sci-fi or geeky franchise you’d love to be a part of?

I would LOVE to be a part of the Black Panther universe (I mean who wouldn’t). I also LOVE the Deadpool films so that would be a cool one to be a part of too.

Photos: Courtesy of Dominique Tipper, Syfy.com, Warner Bros. 

From the 13th Doctor to Black Panther’s Shuri, these geeky costumes put a spell on you

Halloween is two weeks away, geek girls. Have you sorted out what you’re going to wear yet?

Whether you’re searching for that perfect ensemble, totally stuck, or seeking inspiration, don’t panic. There’s still time to order something awesome or, if you’re feeling ambitious and creative, put an outfit together yourself.

To help, we’ve assembled a list of killer costume ideas based on the latest trends in pop culture and fandoms.

But first … ladies, this is what some major retailers think you should be stepping out in this Halloween:

What Mandalorian mischief is this? A sexy Boba Fett costume? We’d rather be swallowed by the Sarlacc than be caught dead in this monstrosity …

… Or this “sexy” goldfish costume. What even is this?

… Or the “Riveting Rosie.” No, I am not making this up. You can actually buy this from Target. Rosie’s rolling in her grave.

Seriously, though, you don’t have to go to the Halloween party or take your kid trick or treating dressed as a sexy water-dwelling pet or a tarted-up mockery of an American history icon.

If you really want to get your geek on this All Hallow’s Eve — and keep your dignity intact — read on for some wicked dress-up ideas.

The 13th Doctor of BBC’s beloved Doctor Who series recently made her American television debut. Even before that, however, she was shattering glass ceilings and making fashion statements. Star Jodie Whittaker’s wardrobe has caused quite a stir. It’s sure to be many a geek girl’s go-to costume this year.

Fortunately, Her Universe has already done the work of putting this timey-wimey ensemble together for you. You can find No. 13’s signature rainbow T-shirt, trench coat, and high-waist pants here.

A certain trio of witchy sisters were on our list last year, but we had to resurrect them because the 1993 Disney movie Hocus Pocus has been getting a whole lot of love in 2018 with fresh merchandising campaigns, film screenings, and rumors of a sequel. Whether you go as Winifred, Sarah, or Mary Sanderson, you’re sure to cast the right spell.

Another spooky 1993 Disney classic is enjoying an outpouring of fan appreciation as it celebrates its 25th anniversary. The Nightmare Before Christmas continues to enchant moviegoers with its macabre charm.

This Jack Skellington Blazer and Sally Sweater Dress make the perfect pairing for a couple’s costume. Let’s be real, ladies. You know you could rock either or both of these looks.

Our collective pop cultural imagination continues to be captivated by superheroes, which means we’re going to be seeing many, many spandex bodysuits, capes, masks, and generally badass comic book-inspired get-ups again this Halloween.

If you’re still riding the girl-power high of the Captain Marvel trailer, you may want to suit up as Carol Danvers, the first Marvel superheroine to get her very own movie.

Or keep it casual with this stunning jacket modeled on Princess Sparklefist’s dramatic red, blue, and gold look.

If we were running a popularity contest for superheroes, Wakandan tech genius/princess Shuri would win, hands-down. We’re going to be seeing a lot of little — and not-so-little — Shuris strutting their stuff come Halloween night.

He snapped his fingers and dusted half our favorite residents of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for some reason fans are weirdly into Thanos, the purple, mass-murdering villain of Avengers: Infinity War. Thanos may be a dude, but we’d like to see some Lady Thanoses don the Infinity Gauntlet and bask in its ultimate power, too.

Ryan Reynolds may be the star of Deadpool 2, but Zazie Beetz practically stole the movie out from under the Merc with the Mouth, as lady luck herself. If you’re looking to buy a Domino costume, sadly, there’s not much out there that’s affordable.

Why not embrace a challenge and put her black-leathered-up look together yourself? (Bonus points if you go as the Domino, pictured below, of Marvel’s recent comic book run penned by Gail Simone.)

Everybody’s favorite family of supers returned to the big screen this year in Incredibles 2. Elastigirl, Mr. Incredible, Violet, Dash, Jack-Jack … any member of the clan would make for excellent, spandex-clad costuming options. Personally, we’d go with irresistible fashion maven Edna Mode. Don’t make us beg, dahling.

Jack Rowand/The CW

If you’re more of a DC girl than Marvel or Disney, The CW’s Arrowverse is a good place to start when looking for superheroic costume inspiration. We’re partial to Black Canary .

Try as you might, it’s probably pointless to fight that insatiable urge you’re feeling to dress up as one of Disney’s countless adored characters. After all, it’s Walt’s world and we’re just living in it.

With Mary Poppins Returns headed to theaters in December, starring Emily Blunt, looking practically perfect in every way, it’s the perfect time to don this perennial costume favorite. You could go classic or put together you’re own ensemble inspired by Blunt’s smart new update.

For no-fuss princess looks that mean you won’t have to stumble over a mountain of petticoats all night, look no further than Her Universe’s new Destination Disney Collection and its adorable takes on Jasmine, Rapunzel, Tiana, Ariel, Mulan, and Moana.

Maybe forget princesses, though. Disney villains, like Malificent and Ursula, are the folks who are really having a moment.

And it wouldn’t be Halloween without Star Wars, but if you’re looking for an alternative to the typical generic Jedi, Darth Vader, and Kylo Ren duds, here are two more playful options:

This Lando Calrissian cape may be designed for men, but there’s no reason the ladies can’t rock the smooth-talking smuggler’s fabulous style.

We’re also loving this understated but amazing Clone Wars Ahsoka Tano Dress. The matching scarf appears to be sold out, which is too bad because it’s the perfect finishing touch.

If you’re a gamer, you’ll want to slip into the skin of one of your favorite digital avatars.

There’s always Fortnite’s oh-so-pink Cuddle Team Leader or Mercy from Overwatch.

If Fallout’s your game of choice, a Vault Suit’s a safe bet, while fans of the new Shadow of the Tomb Raider can easily assemble their own ensemble from the versatile pieces in Her Universe’s tie-in fashion collection.

If you’re creating a costume based on your favorite fandom, you might want to check out Elhoffer Design. The online geek fashion business specializes in well-crafted pieces you can mix and match to recreate pop culture-inspired looks, from Star Wars, to Game of Thrones, to Marvel, to Harry Potter, and more.

Elhoffer’s Magical Midi Wrap Dress, pictured above, comes in several colors and is the perfect jumping-off point for whipping up characters from princesses to wizards and beyond. Check out the website for more ideas.

Another great source for crafting your own costume — especially a Harry Potter-themed outfit or witchy dress-up — is the Magically Made for Couture for Every Body line from Pinup Girl Clothing. The skirts, capelets, and dresses could have been made for a moonlit night at Hogwarts.

Show off your Halloween style! Send us photos of yourself in your geeky Halloween costume and we might post them on social media. Email pics to lavendervroman@gmail.com. 

Photos: Target, Amazon, Her Universe, Spirit Halloween, skycostume.com, Marvel, Disney, halloweencostumes.com, Party City, Elhoffer Design, Pinup Girl Clothing.

Expanse fans rejoice for more of badass Belter Cara Gee

The Season 3 finale of the underrated, refreshingly diverse Syfy series The Expanse hadn’t even aired when news broke that the show had been cancelled. In a thrilling twist, Expanse fans rallied to save their beloved series and it was picked up by Amazon for a fourth installment.

(SPOILER ALERT: You might want to watch Season 3 before you read this.)

Among the many reasons to rejoice over the return of The Expanse is that we’ll get to see more of Camina Drummer, the tough, loyal, awesomely angry Belter captain played by Cara Gee. 

When Cara made her debut in Season 2 of The Expanse, Drummer was the ruthless, resourceful righthand woman to Tycho Station COO Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman). Tattooed, fierce, enigmatic, and rocking the signature Belter Creole dialect, she stole many a scene.

By the show’s third season, Drummer had been promoted to captain of the Behemoth, become besties with Rocinante executive officer Naomi (Dominique Tipper), and was locked in an epic battle of wills with David Strathairn’s Klaes Ashford.

By season’s end, she’d proved herself the baddest Belter of them all, surviving yet another gruesome near-death experience, gritting it out, despite a broken spine, and strapping on a mech suit to save the day. 

As the cast of The Expanse reunited in Canada to begin production on Season 4, I was lucky enough to talk with Cara about what it’s like to portray such a powerful woman in the world of science fiction. Beltalowda, listen up!

You play Camina Drummer on the TV series The Expanse. Drummer is an amazing character and your portrayal of her is so badass. What’s your favorite thing about playing her?

Thank you! There are many things I love about playing Drummer. It is an intense physical and intellectual challenge. The scripts are so full and complex. Getting to the core of what is really going on in each scene and then distilling that into playable action takes a lot of careful thought. It’s a creative dream team and everyone is on board to rehearse on our own time, thank god.

That’s a huge part of why the show works so well. We are all extremely invested. And then of course there is the physical challenge of pretending to be in zero-g, with a fictional dialect and a broken back, hanging from a wire 30 feet in the air. It’s intensely challenging and I love it.

 Do you remember your first impressions of Drummer when you read for the part?

I was already a huge fan of the show, so I was excited to audition with the Belter accent. I listened to Jared Harris’ monologue a million times to prepare. I wanted to share my version of a powerful Belter woman and express how driven and strategic she would have to be to achieve the position she holds.

You watched the first season of The Expanse and were a fan of the show before you were cast. What was it like going from being a fan to being in it?

I had to come in a day early to geek out over the sets so I wouldn’t be doing that in front of anyone on my first day of shooting. It’s a dream.

You were nominated for best actress at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards for your role in the series Empire of Dirt. Tell me about your experience on that show, which featured women pretty prominently.

You’ve done your research! Thank you! Empire of Dirt was my first film role ever and it was an incredible experience. Jennifer Podemski produced the film and starred as my mother and she was also nominated for a CSA! She is a brilliant producer and was uncompromising in her vision for that film. She is an inspiration to me. Everyone should check out her new show, Future History, on APTN.

The Expanse is a show that really knows what to do with strong women, including your character, Dominique Tipper’s Naomi, Shohreh Aghdashloo’s Avasarala, and Frankie Adams’ Bobbie. What’s it like to be part of that?

I mean, it’s a dream to know these women. And it is fabulous to be playing in a world where women of colour are in positions of power.

From left, Cara Gee, David Strathairn, and Dominique Tipper in a scene from Season 3 of The Expanse.

One of the highlights of Season 3 was the complex but devoted friendship between Naomi and Camina. I feel like that sort of female camaraderie can be a rarity in television. What are your thoughts?

I am so pleased with how their relationship is unfolding. It is indeed rare to see a relationship between two women on TV that doesn’t revolve around a man. I appreciate that their camaraderie is complicated and that they have completely different ideologies. They each have a distinct perspective on the best way for the Belt to move forward as the nature of the Universe shifts. Personally, I can see where they are both coming from and it’s satisfying to examine that grey area.

You got to deliver an amazing Braveheart-style monologue to rouse the Belters to fight in Season 3. Can you tell me about shooting that scene? 

I was thrilled when I got the script with this speech in it. It’s such an exciting moment in the season —WE’RE GOING THROUGH THE RING!!!!!!! And the words our dear writers came up with were perfect to motivate a group of people about to experience something brand new to the Universe. It’s a dream to get to play something with those kind of stakes.

And our background performers were incredible. They were so on board with the scene and helped me achieve that level of urgency. We shot it so many times, but honestly I could have done it a million more. I left set that day vibrating with excitement.

 The Expanse is also an extremely diverse series in terms of representation. Is it exciting to be a part of that?

Honestly, it just feels necessary. It is exhausting to me that all shows aren’t this diverse. There’s no good reason to have a production be all white, yet so many are. A really great resource that explores this is Dylan Marron’s Every Single Word project.

Cara Gee and David Strathairn, who plays Belter Commander Klaes Ashford, in Season 3 of The Expanse.

Were you a fan of sci-fi before you were cast in The Expanse? If so, what sort of things were you, or are you, into?

Yes! One of my first favourite books when I was growing up was Brave New World and I devoured all of John Wyndham’s novels. Two of my favourite films are 2001 and Ex Machina. It’s exciting to wonder about the things we don’t know yet.

The Expanse was cancelled in May before Season 3 even ended but, in an incredibly exciting twist, the show was picked up by Amazon after fans waged a campaign to save it. Can you describe the roller coaster of emotions you were experiencing during this time?

Well, one night I sat down for dinner at a science conference (Science of the Expanse Panel at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference). When I sat down, I didn’t have a job. By the time dinner was through, I had my dream job back. It’s still totally surreal!

Has production begun on Season 4? If so, what’s the atmosphere been like on the set?

Yes! It’s been so nice to see everyone again. We’re all extremely excited and grateful to be back.

I know you probably can’t talk about it, but can you give us any hints about what’s in store for Drummer?

She’s fierce. She’s got a new jumpsuit.

Obviously, you’ve had a very positive experience with fans, which is the much nicer flipside of the toxic fandom we’re hearing discussed so much right now. How do you feel about the fans of your show?

Oh, man. I love our fans. We’re lucky.

What are some of the more memorable interactions you’ve had with them?

It was so lovely to meet the people who came out to that fateful science conference. It was amazing to celebrate together when the announcement came. I was honoured to be given the responsibility of bringing the Save The Expanse banner back to set. (P.S. Hi guys!!)

I heard you are obsessed with Beyonce. (Who isn’t, right?) I want to hear more about this!

Obvs. She is a force. Seeing her live was one of the most incredible performances ever. She fills an entire stadium with her presence.

Just for fun, is there another sci-fi franchise you’d love to be a part of?

My actual dream is to be a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. So I’ll just use this opportunity to put that out there.

The Expanse photos: http://www.syfy.com.

Health coach, educator empowers geek girls to bond and tackle fitness goals

When confronted with the tasks of going to the gym regularly, eating right, or setting fitness goals, most of us aren’t exactly enthusiastic.

But imagine if you were guided in your quest by an experienced health coach and trainer who could talk comics, geek fashion, Doctor Who, and the MCU, provide fun opportunities to bond with other geek girls, cultivate an atmosphere of belonging and inclusiveness, and maybe throw in a little pole dancing, all while helping you focus on changing your lifestyle and supporting your mental health.

Believe it or not, this unapologetically nerdy fitness superhero does exist. She’s New York City’s Robyn Warren, founder of wellness community Geek Girl Strong, which offers a variety of individual and group programs tailored for women who love fandoms, with an emphasis on empowerment, self-care, and mental health.

After growing up straddling the line between the stereotypes of “the athlete” and “the nerd” — she was into cheerleading, video gaming, and watching Pokemon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer — Robyn forged a career teaching health and physical education in the New York public school system.

She eventually decided to broaden her mission with Geek Girl Strong, using the program to spread a message of feminism, empowerment, and the importance of representation while promoting healthy lifestyle habits and choices.

Whether cosplaying, leading a #concrunch at New York Comic Con, collaborating with geek fashion company Jordandene, modeling for RockLove Jewelry’s Black Panther collection, or appearing on the cover of The Sartorial Geek magazine, Robyn has become something of a legend in the geek community. 

You can learn more about Geek Girl Strong here, and follow Robyn on Instagram and Twitter

You’re a health educator, certified health coach, trainer, and founder of the wellness community Geek Girl Strong, which caters to women who are into fandoms. This sounds like the best idea ever. What was your inspiration for catering to this demographic?

It was first my former students during my time as a Physical Education teacher. I saw that many of my female students were uncomfortable with the idea of physical activity, for many reasons. We ended up having a lot of conversations about how I was into reading comic books, watching anime, and lifting weights.

Around this time, I began attending Geek Girl Brunch events and had a lot of Brunchettes asking if I also trained adults and telling me that if I was their PE teacher they might have actually enjoyed it!

There’s a stereotype that geeks are just sitting around in their parents’ basement playing video games, watching Netflix, reading comic books, writing fanfic, and eating Flaming Hot Cheetos. Basically, the preconception is that they’re not interested in physical activity at all. From your experience, what’s your take on this?

I’d say that the stereotype comes from someone where I’m not really sure if the chicken or the egg came first.

I believe that learning styles can have a huge influence on what subjects we enjoy during childhood. I am a kinesthetic learner, meaning that I best (not only) learn during hands-on activities. It makes sense to me that PE would end up being my favorite subject.

Then there is encouragement and support. If someone cannot remember having successful experiences with physical activity, they are less likely to enjoy or continue it.

The current state of physical education in the U.S. is rough. There are many conversations on the lack of respect for teachers here. Well, for PE teachers it is even worse. They many times get the least amount of respect in the field of education and receive very little support if any at all.

When I was a PE teacher in the NYC public school system, the student to teacher ratio was (and still is) 50: 1. 50 kids and one adult. How could that adult even truly attempt to give each one of those students a positive experience? Many times less skilled or inclined students will begin to be overlooked.

I could go on, but let’s just say that I have a lot of feelings on the topic and think it is a vicious cycle that I never personally experienced but I was also affected by it as I didn’t fit into either the “jock” or “nerd” box neatly.

What did you learn during your time teaching health and physical education in the New York public school system? Do you incorporate that into what you do now?

In addition to everything aforementioned, I learned to work a room. If you can win over a room of 50 pre-teen and teenagers, you can win over ALMOST anyone.

Tell me your geek origin story. How did you discover this part of your identity?

As a kid, I really loved watching Pokemon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, playing video games, including The Sims, Mario Kart, and Crash Bandicoot … but I didn’t really know that being a geek was actually a thing. I thought it was solely a TV and move trope. As I got older and began expressing all my interests, no matter who I was around or with, the title grew on me.

On your blog, you say that “no one should have to choose between being the athlete and the nerd.” You revealed that as a teen you refused to make this choice but it was “at times far from easy.” Would you talk more about that experience and how it shaped you?

Well, in addition to what I just said, I guess it was just loving being a cheerleader but also running home to watch cartoons, staying inside to play The Sims … and not really talking about it to my really close friends. Some of the other kids at school knew but I was picking and choosing who I shared which experiences and interests with. Not exactly out of fear or ridicule, but I was definitely living a double and maybe even triple life at times, haha.

One of the Geek Girl Strong slogans is, “Ready to save yourself princess?,” which I love. Your program isn’t just about physical health, it’s about mental health, self-care, and empowerment. Why is this focus important to you?

I’ve struggled with my mental health for most of my life and have experienced firsthand that nothing else matters as much as taking care of yourself mentally. I believe it is the foundation for everything else. For me, it just so happens that physical activity is a “treatment” of sorts for my mental illness. It’s not unusual by any means but I am really happy I figured it out sooner than later!

Do you find that geeky women have specific challenges or obstacles they face when it comes to health and fitness?

Many times, it is the fact that they feel like a misfit, which, until recently with “geek” not being such a dirty word, was usually true.

Also, I find more and more that a lot of folks who enjoy fictional worlds, enjoye them for a reason. Whether that was due to escaping those around them or maybe even just losing themselves in it. A lot geeky women I know also never felt completely at home even in the geek sphere.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed a lot, along with shows like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things … but sometimes when I leave my bubble I realize how little has actually changed. Especially in the health and fitness field. It can be very elitist and scare folks away. Especially those with the kinds of experiences I mentioned before.

Do you find that geeky women are motivated by different things than non-geeks, or is it pretty much the same?

I would say it is pretty much the same. We are ALL geeky about something. Even sports fans are nerds about their favorite team.

Tell me about some of the different programs and services you offer and how they are tailored specifically to geek girls. 

Sometimes when I list these out I feel like, WHOA, there’s a lot here, Robyn, but I think it makes sense for who I am and who belongs to our community.

There’s health coaching, which confuses people as it is not a well-known profession yet (like personal training or pole dancing, which I also do/teach). I help people with not only physical activity but also changing their lifestyle.

I believe that health has too many facets to limit it to just “you have to exercise.” So with health coaching, we also have 30-minute talk sessions where we speak about a person’s goals and how they can get there in terms of physical activity, eating habits, and taking care of their mental health.

We also have the Power Program, which is a semi-private health coaching group of up to 5 women, femmes, and nonbinary folks.

Then there’s Fangirl Health Club, which meets just about every month and always has a geeky theme, such as “Infinity War,” where the workout included a game of “Thanos in the Middle” where attendants have to keep different colored balls away from the person in the middle (think Monkey in the Middle).

Anything and everything can be made geeky but I also think the difference is in having a trainer/coach that can relate to different interests and get references. Like instead of trying to simply teach hammer curls with dumbbells, relating it to Thor and his arms!

Programs like Fangirl Health Club are about bonding time with other geek girls, as well as meeting physical, mental, and nutritional health goals. Do you think geeky women are hungry for this kind of personal connection?

Most definitely. It is pretty wild now that I can see that many of the people in this community come to events as a way to see friends. The workout, etc., is just a plus! For all the reasons I’ve mentioned before, connecting with other folks who seem to just get “it,” can be more important than anything else we do together.

Your programs are very inclusive and you’ve intentionally created a health coaching community that targets “people who do not fit into any one box.” Why is that important to you?

Well, I think humans try too hard to fit everything into boxes and life just doesn’t actually work that way. Humans are just a complex as life is. I think it only makes sense to take that into consideration when working with people on areas of their life that can be really sensitive and go into every interaction open to taking people for exactly who they are.

The geek community hasn’t always done well when it comes to encouraging body positivity. Do you think that’s changing and, in your opinion, what else needs to change in this area?

UGH. No, it’s not changing, yet. I feel those pressures, too. Not only because the fitness field can be brutal to trainers but also because cosplaying can too. I do a #concrunch before New York Comic Con every year. I usually have more defined muscles around that time of year, but a big reason is because it is what makes me feel good.

A lot of people don’t know that I was a very small kid and I want to take up as much space as possible with my muscles to go against what many girls are taught while growing up.

It can be tough to see a lot of cosplay make the rounds, being it is a classically attractive person wearing. Meanwhile, someone who is plus-sized and has cosplay that is just as good does not receive the same amount of attention. It makes me really angry and makes no sense to me personally.

I think it changes if we all keep cosplaying and supporting one another. Then kids will grow up seeing all sorts of body types in all kinds of cosplay and know that they can do it too. I’m a really big believer in the idea that representation matters.

You mentioned that you also teach pole dancing. How did you learn it and come to teach it and also is it as scary as it sounds?

Haha, pole dancing can be scary. It’s a part of what I love about it. I started doing it just out of curiosity and someone telling me that there was a studio near me. That was about 5 years ago now. I kept doing it because of how difficult it is. I practice less than I used to but it still means a lot to me in terms of working out, self-expression, and self-esteem.

You were featured on the back cover of the comic Bitch Planet. Tell me all about that!

That was all such a whirlwind! My friend Chavon and I tried to get a group together but were the only ones to cosplay it, then we had our friend Pamela take our picture. The picture somehow got in front of Kelly Sue (DeConnick) on Twitter and we were contacted for permission to use the image!

That’s crazy, especially since you’re an avid comic book reader. When and how were you introduced to comics?

I tried to get into comic as a kid but it didn’t really stick. Just a few pickups here and there. Then when I was in a college, my boyfriend at the time introduced me to more Marvel titles and I was hooked ever since. Deep diving into all sorts of titles and graphic novels like Watchmen, Sin City, V for Vendetta, and comics like The Walking Dead, 100 Bullets … good times.

As a first generation American whose mother is from Jamaica, it seems to me that you’re doing a lot in your life to advance representation for people of color. What are your thoughts about this?

I just want to make sure that kids never have to grow up searching for representation where it isn’t, like my friends and I had to. A character doesn’t always have to look like you for you to see yourself in them but the fact that characters that look like me and my family were and still are hard to find means that kids who look like us don’t get to see what is possible. If you never see it, you don’t know you can be it.

You’re a pretty hardcore video gamer. (Your gamer tag is Stormy Riot.) How were you introduced to gaming?

I grew up around them. My dad had gaming systems from when I was an infant! There’s a picture somewhere of my first X-mas where my mom is holding me, and my dad is holding my mom while also holding an Atari gun to my head. So I guess I had no choice.

Your personal fandoms include Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and Marvel. So … what’s your Hogwarts house?

I’m a Gryffindor.

Who’s your Doctor?

Easy, 10.

Any thoughts on the upcoming new season of Doctor Who, starring Jodie Whittaker?

I’m really excited! David was the best ever, Matt was cute, Peter really grew on me and I’ll miss him. I’ve got a good feeling about Jodie. I think she is going to catch the most flack out of any Doctor ever but I think I’m going to love it.

Who are your absolute favorite Marvel characters?

Storm, Misty Knight, Wolverine.

You have a tattoo of Storm from X-Men, in her “Punk Storm” incarnation, somewhere on your body. That sounds amazing. Tell me more about this, please. 

She lives on the inside of my arm. I got her instead of another tattoo I was thinking of and I’m really glad that I did. Storm is a native New Yorker (like me), a black woman who has faced a lot of adversity, which I believe was best shown when she lost her powers. That tattoo is my nod to woman empowerment.

What are some of your future goals and dreams for Geek Girl Strong?

I would love to be able to do more workshops. I am looking into working with schools and workplaces to bring Geek Girl Strong to everyone.

If readers want to join the Geek Girl Strong community, how would they go about it?

There are a few ways.

One is to work with me in person with you live in the NYC area.

Another is to work with me online privately, or join our online challenges, like the Annual 1up Challenge that happens at the beginning of each year and/or the #GGSSelfCareChallenge, which will be happening again in August 2019.

There are also options to buy Geek Girl Strong-themed merch and workout videos over at GeekGirlStrong.com.

 

Recent comic book convert launches Femme Power site as invaluable resource for women

Whether you’re a woman who’s only recently found an entry point into the world of comics, a longtime comic book enthusiast looking for a thoughtful, diverse, empowering community of like-minded female fans, or fall somewhere in between, Femme Power Comix is an invaluable resource for discovering what you want to read next.

The website and its accompanying Instagram account offer an invigorating dose of feminism and girl power to rookie and veteran readers alike, serving up recommendations, news, and the latest weekly woman-centered releases while celebrating diversity within the industry.

The Femme Power Comix slogan is “fictional femmes and real life feminists fighting for love and justice for all, which you have to admit is pretty inspiring.

You’d never guess from the voluminous amount of knowledge, insight, and comic book savvy on display that Femme Power Comix creator Miranda Nordell is a relative newbie to the genre.

Miranda was drawn to comics after the Netflix series Jessica Jones helped her confront her PTSD. Soon, flawed comic book heroines, including She-Hulk and Batwoman, became something of a fictional support group to her. While searching for a forum in which she could express her newfound passion and find solidarity and similar perspectives to her own, she realized such a thing didn’t exist. So she decided to create it.

After she and her husband moved to a new apartment in San Francisco and discovered they were in walking distance of the local comic book shop, the store became Miranda’s “happy place.”

Let’s join her there, at least in spirit, as she shares her thoughts about the empowering potential of comics, her special connection to Batwoman, why teen heroes are her favorite, Comicsgate, Squirrel Girl and empathy, and why “adult discoverers” might be more open to change.

Subscribe to Femme Power Comix here and follow on Instagram here.

You’re the creator of the website Femme Power Comix, which celebrates diverse, woman-centered stories in comics and culture. It’s a great resource for both new and established comic book readers who are looking for recommendations and news. How did you get the idea for this project?

When I started getting really in to comics, I quickly read through many of the characters I knew from pop culture (Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, etc.) and would search the web for recommendations. I wanted to find pages with people like me who loved comics like I did; I wanted to be affirmed that I wasn’t alone. And I would read comic books news sites and reviews and swim in an online sea of male reviewers who looked at comics through a male perspective.

It took some deep searching to find even one or two other focused forums dedicated to women and comic books, and they generally had dozens of contributors and thusly dozens of voices and required ongoing work to hope I came across one that felt reflective of mine. Many of the social media platforms had pages focused on one particular character, the work of one artist, etc.

I wanted to read about upcoming feminist comics, I wanted to hear other people’s takes on how comics were intersecting with current events, politics and social justice, I wanted to find a place that felt approachable and user-friendly for someone new to the world of fandoms, like me. After about a year of feeling like I couldn’t find this place, I decided to try creating it myself!

Why did you decide to focus specifically on feminist stories and women in comics and pop culture?

This one was a bit of a stumper for me because I can’t remember thinking about any other options. Many fields (let’s be honest, much of society) are designed by and filled with men. Comics in particular appears to be heavily male dominated. It’s one thing for spaces to simply have the interest of more men, and another to outwardly prevent women from being successful. Comics has had many controversies to this effect, most recently Comicsgate.

Being a woman and connecting with female characters and female creatives in the field through comic books has been hugely empowering for me. I want other folks to know comics that same way, not by things like Comicsgate. It felt important to have a page showcasing the kickass things women are doing and hopefully have other women and femme folks feel a connection as well.

Tell me a little about the kind of work, research, and creativity that goes into running femmepowercomix.com and its social media accounts. 

Femme Power Comix still feels largely in its infancy, having started two months ago on Instagram and the website a few weeks later. Many of the posts reflect things I’m currently reading or excited to read, watch, attend, etc. I spend much of my day enmeshed in or thinking about comic books, so it often feels more like a friend sharing recommendations.

I hope it feels that way at least a little bit to folks who interact with the page. I feel like I’m just starting to get a better handle on how to plan and curate content! Some of our things, like our #SquirrelGirlSunday posts, were discovered accidentally! I love Squirrel Girl and went to share a post on a Sunday and voila! A new hashtag was found and we have made it a mini recurring series ever since.

You began getting into comic books in earnest about two years ago. This is fascinating to me because I have a similar story. You mentioned that you became interested in the medium after you were diagnosed with PTSD. What about that experience drew you to comics?

The first season of Jessica Jones really felt life changing. She’s obviously brilliant but also spends much of her time drunk and belligerent. At the point when I was watching it, I didn’t have any particular diagnosis but it was following a traumatic event and I was skipping work, ignoring messages from my friends and family, and basically drinking myself to sleep every night. It was a good “oh shit” moment to see how that could play out long term, years of pushing people away and drinking away any small sums of money you make.

I hadn’t yet been diagnosed with PTSD, but I related to the things she was experiencing, like the triggers and sudden bouts of panic. I felt like that could maybe describe me too. Once I was able to engage in care and discover I did in fact have that diagnosis, it was amazing to realize what role Jessica Jones had played in getting me in to care.

I started to read her comic books, and just discovered what felt like a support group. One that helped me be reflective but didn’t pressure me to share my own story or judge me for what else was going on in my life. I started searching for other characters with similar stories, and quickly started reading She-Hulk. In Mariko Tamaki’s brilliant recent take on the character, She-Hulk was able to explore her PTSD.

There’s a scene where she’s having a panic attack and recalls a nurse telling her to watch cooking videos to help her move her focus on to something more innocuous. In Jessica Jones, she would recite the names of the streets she grew up on to help herself feel present and in control. Now I had this amazing network of women sharing tips for me, ones I found worked for me too. I never expected to discover this medium in a way that allowed me to recognize and find my voice.

Why do you think women have a need for flawed, but strong heroes to relate to and admire?

Women deserve to have characters that reflect them and that give them hope. After I was diagnosed with PTSD, I needed to not feel broken. Reading characters that were experiencing some of the same things and could quite literally save the day was hugely empowering for me. It was an important reminder that it could be a part of me without inhibiting what I could be or contribute. Men have had these types of characters for generations, often with dozens to choose from. Women deserve the same.

You said that you have felt “empowered” through comic books and want others to feel the same way. In what way can comic books empower women?

I think this really goes back to seeing strong and flawed heroes. Knowing that life can be complicated and overwhelming and you can still save the day. Saving the day is relative for everyone. Maybe that day your save was getting all your tasks done at work, or managing to make a delicious dinner and help your kiddos with their homework. You get to define what saving the day is and remember that experiencing a trauma can make it more challenging, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.

As comics diversify, I also think it’s hugely empowering to see more stories and voices reflected. I love that Kamala Khan is Ms. Marvel, a young Pakistani American living in New Jersey. Our heroes come from homes and families and communities that look just like ours. We should always believe there is a hero inside us too.

Do you feel there was anything that hindered you from enjoying comics earlier in life, or was it just something that wasn’t on your radar? 

My older brother read comics when I was younger, and I remember going with him once or twice to our town’s singular comic shop. The “girl” section was small, and the only comic I remember reading was Betty and Veronica. I have a different appreciation for the characters as an adult, but in the early ‘90s, all I remember was the love triangle bickering, and it didn’t much appeal to me.

I rarely throughout my life had comics in my sphere of influence. I remember a few folks who were passionately devoted to the early MCU, but the characters were basically all white men and it felt like that’s the audience they were hoping for so I never gave it much thought.

Tell me about some of the baby steps you took at the beginning of your journey into the world of comics. Where did you buy your books? What titles did you read? Who helped you find what you wanted to read? 

In May 2016, we moved in to a new apartment in San Francisco, which upon exploring our new neighborhood we discovered we were located two blocks from a comic book store. We popped in just for fun after I had developed a recent obsession with the first season of Netflix’s Jessica Jones. The shelves were lined with the predictable comic greats like Batman, Iron Man, etc., but also dozens and dozens of things I had never heard of.

I asked the guy behind the desk what he could recommend starring “strong women” and he pointed me towards the first trade paperback of Paper Girls. My husband was pointed towards the first trade paperback of Saga, and between those two we were quickly hooked.

You’ve said comic book stores are your “happy place.” What do you love about them?

The simplest answer is that they are filled with comics, and I would happily spend days sitting and reading and connecting with literary friends. I also truly believe that comics are magic, and being in a place that brings together a group of people who firmly believe in and experience that magic can’t be anything but magical!

You mentioned that you find it “interesting to talk with folks who have been lifetime readers vs. adult discoverers.” You said, “It often feels like the appreciation is just as deep but the way we interact with the medium or the things we’re looking for may be different.” Would you elaborate on that?

I think this could likely be said about many mediums, but it often feels like for lifetime readers there is a sense of ownership. To me, it feels more like a security blanket vs. a good friend. The lifetime reader has a heap of memories from a formative time entangled in the lives of these characters. When the stories are updated or changed, folks often express feeling a violation of those memories.

For new readers, we are able to appreciate the story in this time. We can admire the characters and feel connected to them but maybe not take it as personally if the character evolves or changes. Just like a friend telling us about a huge change in their life, we can be skeptical but hopefully ultimately supportive.

For someone who only recently got serious about comics, you certainly seem to have a voluminous knowledge. How did you become such an authority on the subject?

Reading, reading, reading! Once I started reading comics, I found I couldn’t stop. The number and diversity of stories means I can just keep bouncing from one story to the next without getting bored or burned out. I’ve also spent a lot of time asking questions from other comic book readers I respect.

Your favorite Marvel characters include Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, Moon Girl, Squirrel Girl, She-Hulk and Hellcat. What’s special to you about these heroes?

It’s pretty easy to notice many of these are teen heroes. I have always been passionate about adolescent development, working in the field for the last ten years. Developing powers and feeling challenged to be connected to something larger than yourself is such a great, if not particularly subtle, metaphor for adolescence that the two types of stories meld so perfectly together. I also think teen stories often get to be more “fun.”

Adult stories often require the hero to face their trauma, hero responsibilities and “normal” adult tasks. Teen heroes get to spend some time on silly hijinks. Adult hero stories tend to be more focused on good vs. evil, where younger heroes, Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl for example, tend to look at themselves vs. a problem, which may mean teaming up with the “villain.” Squirrel Girl in particular often leads with empathy in a way that sets an amazing example for readers.

Your DC favorites include Batwoman, Batgirl, Supergirl, and Wonder Woman. Why do these superheroines stand out to you?

Being both queer and Jewish, I have to admit I connect with Batwoman the most. Perhaps oddly my first exposure to Batwoman was through DC Bombshells, where there is a very strong storyline following Batwoman’s Judaism during World War II. I felt deeply connected to her own struggle in defining her faith through a trying time.

Batgirl and Supergirl are also teen heroes and reflect a lot of the same sentiments I shared above.

Are you excited that an increasing number of these heroines are being featured in film and television?

Absolutely! Comic books are unfortunately not as accessible a medium, and television and film allows for a lower barrier to entry for audiences to discover and fall in love with these characters. My only disappointment is that these do not seem to translate into an increased demand for the comic books in which these characters star.

What are your thoughts on the new Captain Marvel movie?

I am exceptionally excited for the new Captain Marvel movie! Not only is Carol Danvers an amazing character that has long deserved her own film, but this represents so much to so many people. The recent Captain Marvel comics were written by amazing women and some of the most vocal, feminist talent in the comic biz, and to elevate those voices is a great sign.6

This is also the first film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to star a female hero. The MCU has millions of fans around the world and this says to them that women’s stories matter. I wish it didn’t need to be said, but that’s where we are and I thankful they are saying it.

What about the potential Batwoman series starring Ruby Rose?

I think this expresses a similar notion. More female heroes in television and film are important and tell people that their stories are worthy. The fact that Batwoman is also Jewish and a lesbian is that much more of an elevation. We live in a world that politically tells all three of those marginalized groups (women, Jews, and queer folks) that they are less than. Every opportunity to push against that is important.

You work in HIV Prevention. Do your pop cultural interests at all intersect with or inform your career, or vice versa?

Now that I’m more familiar with the nerd zeitgeist and comic book nomenclature I hear my patients and people out in the world mention things and it creates instant connections. Getting to forget about the world and spend a few minutes talking about my favorite comics with patients is an enormously helpful way to build rapport. It also reminds me of the powerful history of using zines for health promotion. We have been able to get folks in the community involved to make things like zines about needle exchanges. It’s important for the work we do to be enmeshed in the community.

One of your other passions is geek fashion. How did you become interested in that? What do you enjoy about it?

I have always loved fashion. Since at least first grade, I can remember picking out my own clothes for school and finding that to be my most natural form of self-expression and creativity. As I started to get more into fandoms, I wanted ways to connect with other fans without necessarily just wearing a graphic tee. It’s been great to explore things like Disneybounding, casual cosplay, and fashions from places like Her Universe, that allow me to balance my high femme sense of fashion with nerdtastic fandoms.

If I’m not mistaken, you’ve even done some modeling! Tell me about that.

Wow! That’s true! I really try to support local, small businesses, and I’m lucky that there are many in the Bay Area. A new clothing company called And Comfort happened to find me on Instagram, and we started chatting and I really loved their fashions and goals. They shared that they liked my esthetic and asked if I would be interested in fit testing their new styles. This then morphed into modeling!

The photos were just released in mid-September and it is very funny to see myself this way. Many times in my life I have been explicitly told or made to feel like I did not have ownership over my own body nor did I deserve to take up the space I do, so posing in a clothing campaign certainly felt surreal.

When it comes to fandoms, you’re also into animation, including Bob’s Burgers, Gravity Falls, and Steven Universe. What do you enjoy about those series?

Animation is an awesome media all its own to reflect the “real” world in a more fun and fantastical way. Steven Universe is shockingly astute for a children’s show! Both Bob’s Burgers and Steven Universe incorporate music, which adds another level of creativity. Ultimately all three of these programs have amazing female characters. The Crystal Gems, Mabel Pine, and Tina and Louise Belcher are all characters that break stereotypes, that are creative and quirky and strong and smart and are important additions to the world of beloved animated characters.

Do you collect anything? 

Clothing and comics are high on my list! I’ve started to collect things that reflect my favorite characters, so I now have several figurines and fan art pieces of Batgirl, Batwoman, BoJack Horseman, She-Hulk and Lisa Simpson.

One of the aims of Femme Power Comix is to celebrate diversity. Do you think the industry is headed in the right direction when it comes to diversity?

I think parts of the community are. It amazes me that people fight against this diversity and get upset about existing stories updating to better reflect our world, or new stories being added. The reality is for so long non-white, male, heterosexual voices were the only ones showcased and an enormous collection of folks were made to feel as other (not even speaking to how ironic that is considering that is the consistent theme of comics). One of our goals is to consistently showcase these voices and make sure they’re not drowned out.

Do you have any opinions about Comicsgate and some of the other recent backlashes against diversity?

Every time I hear Comicsgate, I have to try not to roll my eyes too hard. The sad reality is that the comic book industry cannot continue to survive gatekeeping. The world is changing and comics need to adapt. If the goal is to provide stories that reflect the reader, to give hope to anyone that they too have a hero inside them, then they need to reflect the diverse population that is reading them. They need to open the door to new readers so that the industry can grow, feature new and diverse talent, and continue that system.

What are your ultimate hopes or dreams for the future of Femme Power Comix?

I want to create a respected space where people go for recommendations and opinions. Ultimately, I hope to expand and grow enough to create a space that reflects the importance of women and diverse stories in the comic industry and related culture.

 

Banned Books Week: What happens when someone comes for your comics, Neil Gaiman, and Harry Potter?

Whenever I hear the phrase “banned books,” I think of Harry Potter.

When I worked as a reporter at a local newspaper, we frequently printed stories about a school board’s periodic attempts to pull J.K. Rowling’s series off library shelves, I suppose because they thought the books would lure unsuspecting students into the practice of witchcraft.

(This line of thinking is something I’ve never understood, and if you ever do figure out how to make the spells of the wizarding world work in the real world, please let me know. I’d mostly like to use them to do dishes and laundry.)

I guess when it comes to books being banished from institutions such as libraries and schools, Harry Potter comes to my mind because the series is one of the most beloved in all of fandom. The wizarding world is so popular among geek folk, virtually everyone can tell you their Hogwarts house, along with firm opinions about which books they love and which movies they don’t.

If naysayers can constantly threaten to erase these seven books, among the best-selling and most adored works of fiction of all time, what other stories could they loudly — or, more often it seems, quietly — relegate to the ash heap of ideas that make some people uncomfortable?

What’s even more disturbing is that Harry Potter is just a drop in the bucket when you consider the long history of banned and challenged books.

The American Library Association defines a challenge to a book as “an attempt to remove or restrict materials based upon the objections of a person or group.” Banning is considered “the removal of those materials.”

Fortunately, there are several organizations standing as a line of defense against this practice, which threatens First Amendment rights, freedom of expression, access to information and ideas and, potentially, the development of empathy and a love of reading in young people.

A coalition of 14 of these groups sponsors the annual Banned Books Week, which was founded in 1982 after what coordinator Betsy Gomez describes as a “sudden surge” in challenges to volumes in schools, bookstores, and libraries.

The annual event celebrates “ideas and the freedom to express and share those ideas,” Gomez said. This year’s installment kicked off yesterday and will continue through Saturday, Sept. 29, with the theme “Banning Books Silences Stories.”

The week unites librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, readers, and creators for activities across the country, online, and in the United Kingdom, including letter writing campaigns, webinars, livestreams, “read outs,” seminars, performances, and talks, Gomez said.

As Banned Books Week Coordinator, Gomez designs and edits a handbook that gives users tools to celebrate the week and “stand up to censorship.” She also helps write articles, monitor social media, and maintain the Banned Books Week website, an excellent resource for anyone who wants to get involved.

“Books are vessels for ideas, and sometimes people are uncomfortable with or don’t agree with those ideas, so they challenge others’ access to them,” Gomez said.

Any type of reading material, from plays to religious texts, can be targeted with challenges and bans, she added.

“Books are challenged over sexual content, profanity, age appropriateness, violence, religious viewpoint, LGBTQ content, political bias, drug and alcohol use, suicide, and much more.”

Gomez said the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom “tracks hundreds of challenges and bans each year, and the actual number is probably much larger because censorship is underreported. Most libraries and schools have challenge policies, and most challenges fail. But challenges that happen in a vacuum — when people and free speech advocates don’t find out about them — more often result in a ban.”

While certain classics, like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” are known for being routinely challenged or banned, geeks who are wondering how censorship might affect them need look no further than the lists of “most challenged” works, recent and past, compiled by the ALA.

The lists include comic books, graphic novels, and a compelling number of tomes geeks hold dear, including “Saga,” the works of Neil Gaiman, “Bone,” the aforementioned Harry Potter books, “His Dark Materials,” “The Giver,” “Brave New World,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” and the Goosebumps series.

The ALA’s list of Top 10 Challenged Books of 2017 includes the acclaimed graphic novel “Drama,” along with YA novel turned Netflix show “Thirteen Reasons Why,” and Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” as well as oft-challenged works “The Kite Runner” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Comic books and graphic novels are actually challenged frequently enough that there exists an organization devoted to defending these works and their creators from the threat of censorship. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund maintains a presence at many comic and fan conventions, so you may have run across their booth at one of these events.

CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein began volunteering with the nonprofit organization in 2000 and now oversees its legal, educational, administrative, and fundraising work. The group’s board of directors includes creators, retailers, publishers, educators, and executives in the comics industry.

“Comics are a powerful, vitally important form of expression, and everyone needs to have the right to access them along with other kinds of expressive content,” Brownstein said.

“Consider how you would feel if someone were to make the decision that something you had an interest in should be banned. Wouldn’t it feel like a violation to be told you weren’t equipped to make that decision for yourself or for your children?”

According to the CBLDF’s website, censorship of comic books can be traced back to the 1940s, when panels were often viewed as a corrupting influence on young people and were burned even as American GIs returned from a war where they witnessed similar behavior by the Nazis.

In the 1950s, the Senate Judiciary Committee investigated comics’ supposed contribution to juvenile delinquency, which led to the infamous era of self-censoring via the Comics Code Authority. Since then, there have been waves of criminal cases involving comic store clerks and retailers. Most recently, manga has become the increasing target of legal controversy.

“These days we see that materials regarding LGBTQ+ issues are getting challenged most frequently, followed by work addressing sexuality more generally,” Brownstein said.

“And let me be clear, we’re talking about mainstream, often award-winning material.”

He cited as recent examples Raina Telgemeier’s “Drama,” which features a gay character and a same-sex kiss “in the context of a middle school theater production”; Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s “This One Summer,” which describes adolescent talk of sexuality and drug use “with a degree of realness”; and Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” a coming-of-age narrative depicting homosexuality “with a degree of reality.”

Just last week, the CBLDF provided support to a library in Maine, which was targeted, ironically, because of its Banned Books Week display. The display “contained LGBTQ content, which local pastors claimed was detrimental to children and promoted a political agenda,” Brownstein said.

“This stuff happens with alarming frequency.”

When the CBLDF learns of such cases, the organization responds by providing “guidance and counseling behind the scenes, often connecting the affected librarian or teacher with resources to help defend the challenge,” Brownstein said.

The group also provides letters of support “privately and publicly,” sometimes in partnership with coalitions such as the Kids’ Right to Read Project.

“We also create a great deal of preventative resources, including discussion guides, case studies, and presentations to help people better understand the value of graphic novels, the importance of intellectual freedom, and how to protect them both,” Brownstein said.

Elementary school librarian Fawn Kemble recently found herself in need of support from the CBLDF after a colleague voiced concerns about the content of “The Dragonslayer,” the fourth volume of the graphic novel series “Bone.”

“It’s a comic book series by Jeff Smith, an adventure tale that is excellent as a bridge book for students who need low-mid level books of high interest,” Kemble said.

An aid at the school objected to a section of the book depicting a character drinking beer, smoking, and gambling in a pub. She felt the content was inappropriate for elementary school readers.

Kemble said she remembers reading “Bone” with her younger brother and considers it “an important piece” of her childhood.

“I tried to explain to (the aid) the context of the stories, how this character is not glorified nor romanticized, and how valuable this series is for the kids to read, but she wouldn’t budge.”

The aid turned the book in to the school’s vice principal and Kemble requested a meeting with the administrator. While preparing her defense of the graphic novel, she reached out to the CBLDF via Twitter.

She said the group promptly responded, asking for the details of the case, “explaining how they had written letters of support for ‘Bone’ in the past and had created resources regarding its use.”

The group offered to provide her with a letter of support or engage in a phone conversation to provide any needed context. Armed with resources from the group’s website, her knowledge of the books, and other research, Kemble brought her case to the vice principal, who heard her out and promised to respond.

“The next day, the book was back in my box,” Kemble said. The vice principal “stopped by later to thank me for our conversation, saying she appreciated my passion and knowledge. She said she respected my thoughts and agreed the book should stay in circulation in our library.

“I was very happy with the way this particular situation worked out. The resources sent to me by the CBLDF, as well as the case study they had posted on their site, helped me go into my meeting calm, confident, and prepared. Situations like these don’t always work out well.”

For librarians and English teachers, dealing with challenges to books that parents, students, or administrators deem inappropriate or offensive is just part of the job.

Veteran high school English teacher Candice Kelsey can rattle off a list of examples, from the time several parents of 6th graders in her class at a West Hollywood school “united in protest” of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” to conservative Christian families who expressed discomfort with “Catcher in the Rye,” to having to cut “Their Eyes Were Watching God” from her curriculum because of sexual content.

“The first novel I ever taught was ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in 1998,” she said. “And I was told after we finished it that I would not be teaching it ever again.”

Kelsey has taught at public, Christian, and Jewish schools and said there are typically no policies or procedures in place for such situations.

“I just was advised by my department chair or, when I was the department chair, I had to negotiate the situation myself.”

During her first five years of teaching, Kelsey said she would fight to keep the challenged books in her curriculum, but she hasn’t been as “proactive” in recent years.

“My goals have morphed more into ensuring little to no conflict with parents and administrators in order to be fully engaged with my students,” she said. “My students come before my book choices.”

Still, Kelsey feels limited in her ability to do her job by such instances of censorship.

“As an English teacher who values freedom of creative expression above all, I feel quite hemmed in at times,” she said.

She deals with this by finding “creative ways to bypass the administrators and teach similar voices and stories that are not in their radar as much.”

Kelsey said she thinks most challenges are sparked by “fear.” Administrators may fear controversy, angry phone calls and meetings, or driving potential donors away. Parents may fear their children growing and maturing, or being exposed to “bad” religious theology.

Kemble said she tries to give the parents or colleagues in these situations the benefit of the doubt.

“Even though I passionately love books and believe the children should have access to many of those which are commonly banned, I try to start by reminding myself that the parent or staff member is just trying to protect their child or student. They mean well, so I always listen to their concerns with respect.”

When it comes to reasons why people attempt to ban literary works, Gomez’s assessment is similar to Kemble’s.

“Books are usually challenged with the best of intentions, often motivated by a desire to protect young readers from ‘inappropriate’ content,” she said. “But these people are ultimately trying to take away other readers’ power to decide what books are right for themselves or their children.”

Brownstein agreed that people who challenge works they find offensive often think they’re protecting their children and others.

“People generally don’t think of their calls to remove something as censorship. But it is. … The best solution to these problems is open-mindedness and dialogue. Consider why someone else may value what you don’t and let them make up their own mind. And if you don’t like it, nobody is making you do so! There’s a universe of great material in the library for everybody!”

Aside from infringing on the First Amendment rights of creators and taking away individual readers’ right to choose what they feel is appropriate for them, banning of books can pose other dangers, especially for young people, according to educators like Kemble and Kelsey.

Kemble said evidence suggests that unnecessarily censoring what children read can discourage them from developing healthy reading habits.

“As a child who always read above my grade level, I appreciated my parents allowing me to read a wide range of books in which I was interested. They rarely said no, and that was only in cases where they knew a book would traumatize me. My voracious appetite for reading was never squashed.

“Then I became an educator and saw first-hand the results of children who had been told what books they could and could not read,” to the point that reading became “merely a chore.”

Kemble said she has researched data concerning the affects of challenges and bans.

“I was surprised to see how severely limiting a child’s choice of reading material correlates to them never reading again once out of school.”

Kemble said she is also concerned that censorship can contribute to a lack of empathy in young readers.

“Long-form fiction, in particular, has been shown to increase empathy in children in a way that direct teaching cannot.”

“Think about which stories are banned, say, in the past decade,” Kelsey agreed.

“Usually, they’re the ones with diverse content that stretches out awareness and consciousness — a vital element in producing empathy. The only people who can ban are those with power, really, so it’s typically the powerless whose stories are deemed inappropriate.”

Kelsey’s thesis is supported by trends in literary censorship.

“Literature that includes or addresses diverse audiences — for example, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, those with different religious views — tends to be attacked more frequently,” Gomez said.

So not only can censorship lead to a lack of empathy for the marginalized, it can also become a form of oppression of those same people groups.

“What bothers me most is this: What oppressive message are we sending our young readers, thinkers, and writers about their own creative self-expression when we condition them to fear someone else’s?,” Kelsey said.

“It’s debilitating on such a soul-deep level, I believe. I aim to teach my students to appreciate the power, beauty, pain, ambiguity, and catharsis of writing and reading and using one’s voice. How can I then say, ‘But not this book?’”

If you’re interested in learning more about Banned Books Week or supporting sponsor organizations, here are some ideas:

Visit the Banned Books Week website here to learn more about the issues, find resources, and discover scheduled activities.

Donate or volunteer for one of the sponsors of Banned Books Week, or sign up for their blogs and email lists. You can find them here

Learn more about the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and find resources here

Follow @cbldf on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, and share the word about what they’re doing.

Volunteer, sign up for a membership, or donate to CBLDF.

 

Artwork Courtesy of the American Library Association.

Photos: Barnes & Noble, Hulu, Amazon. 

Blogger, cosplay photographer turns fangirling into fun career (and family time)

If you’re part of the online geek community, chances are you’ve come across the work of Monica Duarte.

Whether it’s her exuberant professional cosplay photos,  her posts on geek fashion, Doctor Who, cosplay, and other fun topics for Temple of Geek, or one of her stints as a podcast host, Monica has become as ubiquitous on the geek scene as everyone’s favorite Marvel or Star Wars characters.

This blogger, photographer, cosplayer, geek fashion expert, and creative director of celebrated pop culture website Temple of Geek describes herself as a “professional geek,” and she’s not joking.

A visit to WonderCon in 2013 with her family sparked a passion for all things related to fandom. Armed with a desire to share that enthusiasm with others, self-taught photo skills, and a voluminous knowledge of geek events, she eventually spun her freelance coverage of these happenings into a gig with Temple of Geek.

With her camera and a notebook full of ideas in hand, Monica produces a dizzying amount of geek content. She recently covered the Her Universe fashion show and her photos have appeared in geek magazines. She and her family can be found rocking Whovian outfits of her partner Nathaniel’s design at conventions all over Southern California and beyond.

Thankfully she wasn’t too busy to chat with me about her supportive geek family, why there’s plenty of room for more women cosplay photographers, why representation matters, how her childhood experiences shaped her passion for geek fashion, and that time she lost her “professional cool” while photographing 13th Doctor Jodie Whittaker.

You describe yourself as a “professional geek,” which seems pretty accurate considering everything you do. Tell me a little bit about how geeking out became your profession.

It really started with just being a big fan. Wanting to be at all the geeky events in my area. Making connections with people in the industry and a huge desire to share my passion with others. I love sharing.

You’re the creative director of the website Temple of Geek. What does that entail?

I work alongside Danniel Slade, the founder of Temple Of Geek. We work together to come up with content and a schedule for the site. I help recruit writers, photographers, and other talent. I also handle some of the social media and branding for our site.

When and how did you become involved with this pop cultural phenomenon?

I love that you call it a pop cultural phenomenon. That just made my year. I got involved with Temple of Geek just over a year ago. I had interacted with them on social media for years prior to that. I started by covering a few geeky events for them in Los Angeles. But I just really fell in love with the atmosphere.

Danniel and the creative director at the time, Dave Hisaka, were insanely supportive of my ideas. Anytime I suggested anything, they would respond with, “How can we help?” I eventually joined the Temple of Geek Podcast team, started covering geek fashion, and got really involved in the everyday behind the scenes stuff for the site.

When you’re in an environment that nurtures, supports and encourages you, it’s easy to get carried away with your passions. And that is what I did. I got carried away, started working hard.

Could you give us a sense of what a typical day of work looks like for you?

Typical work day starts with checking in with our team. Doing what I can to help them move along with their projects. I work on my projects, which usually include reaching out to geeky fashion vendors. Scheduling photo shoots. I check the stats for the site and our different social media platforms and work with Danniel to build those numbers up. I also schedule and organize event coverage for our Southern California Team. Every once in a while, I get to host a podcast episode. Those are always a lot of fun!

Tell me your geek origin story. How did you first discover this side of yourself?

My earliest geek memories are from about 30 years ago. I was a young kid and I remember seeing Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 and Ninja Turtles in 1990 in theaters. I think that is when it all started. At the time, I had older cousins who collected comic books. I remember sitting in their bedroom reading all of their Wolverine and X-men comic books. Everything was one geeky blur after that. My dad was a big geek himself. He took my brothers and me to a lot of geeky movies.

You’re also a convention and cosplay photographer, which I’m excited about because I’ve never interviewed one before. What’s your photography background?

None. I have none. Not any kind of a formal background at least. I took some photography classes in high school and in college (over 20 years ago). Back then digital cameras weren’t really a thing. We were learning how to develop film in a dark room. Most of what I learned in class is not really relevant anymore.

I just really love taking photos. I have always been the type to document everything with photos. Almost everything I have learned about photography has come from other photographer friends and from YouTube videos. YouTube has been an essential tool in my learning.

Monica dressed as a Slytherin Dalek.

How did you come to specialize in cosplay, cons, and other geeky events?

It all started with WonderCon 2013. WonderCon is a convention that goes on every year around Easter in Southern California. It was my very first convention. I went with my family (my partner and our two children). The minute we walked onto the convention floor, we knew we were home.

Going to that convention was the beginning of my journey. I was so inspired by everything that I saw. So fascinated by the cosplay, the exhibitors, and the guests. I just started snapping photos on my cell phone of all the cosplayers I saw. That is how it started. I started posting those photos on my Instagram page and started my first blog.

My family and I started to hit all the conventions that we could. Luckily, in California there is no shortage of geeky events. I took more and more photos. Met cosplayers, cosplayed, and eventually upgraded from cell phone photos to a DSLR camera. I created an Instagram page just to showcase cosplayers.

Cosplay exposed me to other geeky events outside of conventions. I felt like there was this huge geek world out here that I had never know before. I thought that there might be others, who like me, may want to know about these events too. On an old blog of mine I started a calendar listing of all the geeky events in and around Southern California. Because of that calendar, Michelle Jensen of Nerd Out App contacted me and hired me to add geeky events to her app for the entire country.

Working for Nerd Out put me in contact with people from all aspects of the geek community. I eventually started to do some freelance photography for different websites. Recently, I had some of my photos published in Doctor Who Magazine and SFX Magazine.

What are some of the more memorable conventions or events you’ve photographed?

Thanks to the kindness of the team at Her Universe, I was allowed to be one of the press photographers at the Her Universe Fashion Show at San Diego Comic-Con this year. It is by far the most memorable event I have been allowed to photograph. I am a giant Doctor Who fan. This year the big surprise at the fashion show was that they had the new 13th Doctor walk the runway.

I just about lost all my professional cool when I saw the 13th Doctor. Getting to photograph Jodie Whittaker was a dream come true. I was fan girling and screaming as I focused in on her through the lens. I was so shook from the event that my hands were shaking. That’s just the level of fangirl I am for Doctor Who. It was perfect. What an honor it is to have the Doctor herself in my camera lens.

Do there tend to be many women doing this type of photography?

There are not a lot. There is a huge opportunity for more female cosplay photographers. In the Southern California area I can only name two consistent female photographers ( https://www.instagram.com/katiebe_photography/ and https://www.instagram.com/conwomanphotography/) other than myself. There might be more out there. But whenever I look out over the landscape of a convention floor or at cosplay meetups, I rarely see any female photographers. The need is great and I encourage female photographers to come and join us!

What’s the secret to taking a really great cosplay photo?

I think taking great cosplay photos starts with appreciating the cosplayer and all the work they put into their costume. Paying tribute to the detail they put into their costumes. Not trying too hard to re-create movie or television scenes. Just having fun with it. And you want to watch for framing and for posture. Those are the main things I try to remember.

You are also a cosplayer. How’d you get into that?

WonderCon 2013. My family and I thought it would be fun to wear our Doctor Who-themed Halloween costumes to the convention. We didn’t even know cosplay was a thing. We fell in love with all the different cosplays that were out there. It started as something we could do together as a family and it still is.

What are some of your favorite cosplays that you’ve done so far?

Almost all my cosplay is Doctor Who related. I have done so many Doctor Who cosplays that I have lost count. I am guessing it’s upward of 20 Doctor Who cosplays. It is a little easier to do Doctor Who cosplay because they wear modern styles on the television series. Finding the screen-accurate cosplays for Doctor Who can sometimes be as easy as walking into an Urban Outfitters.

But I have three cosplays that really stand out for me as my favorites. My all-time favorite would probably have to be my Linda from Bob’s Burgers. It was comfortable and fun. Linda is my spirit animal. I have been compared to her so often and I love it.

The second is my River Song costume from Doctor Who. It is from the Christmas Episode called “The Husbands of River Song.” The first time I saw the v-neck black and gold dress on actress Alex Kingston, I died. I said, “I want it.” A few weeks later, the dress showed up at my door. A surprise gift from my significant other. It is the most beautiful piece of clothing I own.

Last but certainly not least, I love my Doctor Who/Harry Potter mashup cosplay. My friends and I each dressed up as a Dalek from Doctor Who. We each designed our Dalek cosplay in the style of a Hogwarts House. I was Slytherin.

Monica in her River Song cosplay. Below, Alex Kingston as River Song.

Do you tend to put together your own outfits?

I rely a lot on my significant other, Nathaniel, for my cosplay. He is a master of hunting down Doctor Who cosplay and building cosplays for our family. He enjoys it. I enjoy his work. So he handles the cosplay building and I handle the cosplay photography.

Why does cosplay appeal to you?

IT IS FUN! Halloween was always my favorite holiday. I lived for Halloween and dressing up. Cosplay is a way to extend that all year long. It’s something my children enjoy. It’s just fun!

Monica and Dee Sorto, aka the ConMadres.

You’re also one half of The ConMadres, aka Convention Moms. Tell me about the other half of this dynamic vlogging duo and how you came up with the idea for this. 

Through cosplay and conventions I met a really great woman named Dee Sorto. We met at a cosplay event. We started to talk and it turned out we were neighbors. She lives walking distance from my house. We both love going to conventions (Con) and we are both moms (Madres).

At the time, we were both stay-at-home moms. We would meet up on Monday mornings after dropping off our kids at school and we would discuss the latest episodes of Game of Thrones and Doctor Who. We could talk for hours and hours about all kinds of geek stuff. We both had so much in common and cosplay was a big part of both our lives.

We decided to start vlogging about our mommy and geeky adventures. We made a few DIY videos with our kids for fun. We really were just trying to reach out and share our experiences with other moms. We hope to build a community where geek moms can find one another, help one another,and inspire each other.

The family that waits in line for Hall H together, stays together.

Your family is really involved in your geek life. Tell me about some of your shared and individual pop culture interests. 

Doctor Who really is the glue that binds us. Our biggest shared interest is Doctor Who. Cosplaying and conventions is where we have met so many friends and built so many relationships. My kids are growing up alongside other cosplay kids and it is pretty great. We hang out in line for Hall H together and we cosplay together. We watch geeky programming and movies together. Geek is part of our everyday lives.

My kids accompany me to cosplay and fashion shoots sometimes. My oldest teaches me about what the latest trends in gaming and memes are. When my children were younger, it was more about costumes and playing dress up. But as my kids are getting older, conventions have been more about learning what goes on in the industry.

My oldest son is really into video games and movies. This year at San Diego Comic-Con, he had no desire to cosplay. He was more interested in all the gaming panels and movie panels. I hope that one day his passion for gaming and the experiences of going to convention will lead him into a career path that will make him happy. But if it doesn’t, I hope it provides for some really unique and special family memories.

For Nate and I, geek is our date night. It is our bond. He is also far more into gaming and anime than I will ever be. He has introduced me to the world of Star Trek and Voltron. He is supportive of my crazy geeky endeavors and I am supportive of his.

Why is including your family in this part of your life important to you?

Family is everything. They come first. Always. I truly believe that I am able to indulge in all my geek because they allow me to be myself. I don’t have to hide my crazy from them. They love my geekiness. It is something that would not be as fun or fulfilling if I wasn’t sharing it with them.

Monica and her family, at left, ready for the Avengers movie in 2012, and at the theater for Avengers: Infinity War in 2018.

Let’s talk about some of your fandoms. You are clearly very, very obsessed with Doctor Who. What was your introduction to the series?

It started about six or seven years ago. My brother and Nathaniel would sit around and binge-watch it. Eventually, my son joined them. I was baffled as to what was so appealing about a British TV show with horrible special effects. It looked really cheesy.

Then one day I sat down and watched one episode. That is all it took. I watched Matt Smith’s first episode as the Doctor and I was hooked! I binge-watched Matt Smith’s run. Went back and caught up on the 9th and 10th Doctor. I was hooked.

Who’s your Doctor?

Is it too soon to say 13? I really don’t know. I have a special place in my heart for the 11th Doctor because he was my first Doctor. But all the Doctors have been so amazing. I can’t pick. But if I had to, out of loyalty I would say the 11th Doctor.

Monica’s family with Jodie Whittaker at San Diego Comic-Con.

You’re a big fan of new Doctor Jodie Whittaker. Did you get to see her this summer at San Diego Comic-Con?

YES! I was at the Doctor Who panel in Hall H. I briefly said hello to her at the BBC America Booth. Nate and the kids got to have their photo taken with her. She was so kind and sweet to my kids. And as I mentioned earlier, I had the pleasure of photographing her at the Her Universe Fashion Show.

Do you have big plans for the season debut in October?

Yes! We will most likely host a watching party. I made a party guide for Temple Of Geek. It is basically ideas on how to throw a Doctor Who themed party.

What do you think of some of the initial negative reactions to Whittaker’s casting?

I am saddened by it. Initially, I too was skeptical of the idea of a female Doctor. The rumors had been floating around for a bit. I had romanticized the idea of the Doctor. And I didn’t know if I would be happy with a female Doctor.

Well, I was wrong. I am more than happy! The moment the reveal happened, I was on board. I didn’t know how desperately I needed a girl Doctor. I was way more excited about Jodie than I could have imagined. I remember thinking, wow, I can be the Doctor now. Not a gender-bent Doctor Who cosplayer. I can be her!

I understand fans being scared that their favorite TV show is now ruined. I understand that there is some negativity with every regeneration. I am just disappointed in the amount of hate and trolling that has come with it. Especially from fans of a TV show that preaches kindness, empathy, and civility. I hope it changes when they see her in action!

Monica in a group Harry Potter/Dalek cosplay.

What are some of your other major fandoms?

So many! Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones are the big ones. I also love the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Netflix shows. I try to keep up with the DC television shows on the CW. But it is hard to stay consistent. This is why the human race does not advance faster. Too much good programming on TV.

As a woman, is there anything in the world of fandoms or geek culture you’d like to see change?

As a woman, as a mother, as a Mexican American, I would like to see more strong female characters and more characters of color in the world of geek. I want to see it in movies, in television, and in comics. My sons have grown up in a world where Hermione Granger, Pepper Potts, Black Widow, Wonder Woman, a female Doctor Who, and an all-female Ghostbusters cast is normal. At least to them it is. To them a female CEO of Stark Industries or a female superhero is normal. I want more of that.

But I would also like them to see that women of color can be superheroes as well. I would like to see Miles Morales’ Spiderman, Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel, or America Chavez’s Miss America on the big screen. Seeing Pixar’s Coco in theaters last year was so important for us. To see our culture beautifully translated without stereotypes or lame taco jokes was so refreshing. For my sons and for me to see Diego Luna in a lead role in a Star Wars movie, with his Mexican accent, was amazing.

Representation matters. Hearing a movie hero speak with the same accent that your grandfather has or that your father has is so important. I want that for every culture. For every sexual orientation. For people of all abilities. It feels amazing. I want more of that. I want that to be normal in the world my children and grandchildren grow up in.

Monica in a Star Wars sweater by Mustardbrand.

 You also have a passion for geek fashion and cover that subject a lot for Temple of Geek. What do you love about this particular niche of the fashion industry?

I love that it exists! Geek fashion helps me feel empowered. I love that there are so many forms of geek fashion out there. From the high-end geek couture that you see at fashion shows to the more casual everyday wear, I love it all.

I am so happy to be able to wear geek fashion that isn’t just a graphic tee. Don’t get me wrong, I have a large assortment of graphic tees in my wardrobe. But I am a huge geek and I want to wear my fandoms with me at all time. And sometimes a graphic tee isn’t appropriate for certain situations. I struggled with this a lot growing up. I wanted to wear modern trendy styles but I wanted them to have some geek flair. That just wasn’t an option when I was younger.

Growing up I was labeled a “tomboy” because I loved Batman, Ghostbusters, and Wolverine. I wanted to wear my Batman shirt all the time. I believed I was a tomboy because I liked something that only boys seemed to like. I believed it because even though I enjoyed trendy clothing, I wasn’t as in love with it as much as I was my comic book shirts.

In retrospect, I know that wasn’t an accurate description of who I was. I just liked superheroes and I just happened to be a girl. At that time superhero themed clothing wasn’t available to girls. I was teased, not in a mean way, about wanting to wear comic book character clothing. In an effort to fit in, I suppressed my inclinations to wear my fandoms.

At that time and in my world it was considered very dorky. I was never treated badly over it. People just didn’t seem to understand my obsession. But now I am so excited about the fact that there are people out there making clothing for fangirls like me. Styles that are in line with modern trends. Styles with geek flair. ACTUAL FASHION.

I am pretty sure that there are a lot of women out there that experienced the same. But unlike me, not everyone has the opportunity to go to comic book conventions and find these geeky brands. Not everyone has a place in their area where geek clothing is readily available. Temple Of Geek offers me the chance to tell the world about the amazing geek fashion that is out there. It allows me to help spread the word about brands that cater to fans like me. My goal is to show that geek fashion can be a part of your everyday fashion. That it is something that can go beyond the convention floor.

What brands and styles do you most like to wear?

You will most often find me wearing a top from Jordandene or an outfit from Her Universe. Those have been the two brands that I tend to spend the most on. But two other brands that really stand out for me right now are Hero Within and Elhoffer Design. There is something about their trendy and subtle styles that really hits home for me.

Overall and in general, you create and produce a dizzying amount of geeky content. What’s your secret to doing it all?

I try to do only the things that I am passionate about. I tried writing and covering events for genres that I wasn’t a huge fan of and I got tired of it quickly. I had no motivation to write. I had no ideas about how to showcase what I wasn’t truly in love with. I am just a fangirl. I fangirl hard.

When I am writing about something that I love, it is all so easy. I get ideas, I get passionate. I even have a 5 subject notebook by my desk or in my purse (my purses are huge) that I write in constantly. I can’t always execute all the ideas I have, but I write them down in case someday I can. I try to stick to a few things that I can be consistent with. Sometimes I start projects and they don’t always work out. But that’s ok. I tell myself that maybe right now is not the time for that. I move on to the next project and maybe later on I can return to those projects when I am better at what I am doing.

You’ve already accomplished so much, personally and professionally. Is there anything still left on your geek bucket list?

I really just want to grow as a person, as a photographer, and as a professional in general. There is so much to learn. The geek world is huge and vast. I want to share more stories, showcase new artist, visit more conventions. I hope to one day be producing videos that are more than just vlogs. But I still have a lot to learn. I have a lot of goals and they all revolve around getting better at what I do and sharing more geeky fun stuff.

 

Geeks, we have a problem (and that problem is us)

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Geeks, we have a problem.

When a group of male Star Wars podcasters incite their listeners to harass a woman employed by Lucasfilm because of a few words emblazoned on a coffee mug, we know we have a problem.

When actor Ahmed Best, who played the character of Jar Jar Binks, tells us he almost committed suicide because of the hatred directed toward him, we know we have a problem.

When fans petition to fire directors, writers, producers, and studio heads who made a movie they didn’t care for or said something on Twitter they didn’t like, we know we have a problem.

When women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and disabled fans proclaim daily on Twitter that they feel disenfranchised, unrepresented, unwelcome, and attacked, we know we have a problem.

When disgruntlement over diversity and the march of forward progress in an industry turns into a toxic movement like Comicsgate, we know we have a problem.

One might argue that these incidents are amplified, or blown out of proportion by social media, where the loudest voices are often the most noxious. Still, the fact remains. We have a problem, and it’s time we started thinking about what we can do to solve it.

I’m not naïve enough to think we’re going to change the minds of the worst and repeat offenders. The Comicsgaters, the Fanboy Tears guys, the trolls, these people (and some of them are probably bots) appear to be totally lacking in empathy. It’s obvious they aren’t going to listen to reason or pleas for kindness and respect.

So I’ve decided instead to preach to myself and the rest of us who really do want to get along. All we can do, for lack of a less cheesy way of putting it, is be the change we want to see in the geek world.

I’m not going to tell everyone to just lighten up because, hey, Star Wars, and Doctor Who, and comic books, and Marvel, and DC are silly kid’s stuff and don’t really matter. That’s just not true. Fandoms do matter. They matter deeply and that’s why every one of us has probably behaved badly toward another fan at some point in time.

We’re passionate about what we like. We have discovered a huge piece of our identities in these creations and properties, and it’s hard not to get riled up about stories and characters that provide us with so much inspiration, escape, hope, and possibility. We love nothing better than to debate, and discuss, and pontificate out loud about these matters and we don’t always go about it in the most productive, or positive, or empathetic ways.

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This vinyl window decal is available from Etsy shop FandomDecalDesigns.

I confess that I have, in the past and even the present, been guilty of making other fans feel bad about the things they love, of gatekeeping, of entitlement, of failing to lift up geeks who are marginalized. I think many of us have done these things at one time or another, even if it’s not our general modus operandi, which is why we must stop, reflect, and ask, “How we can coexist more peacefully as fellow fans?”

How can we foster more constructive dialogue, instead of responding to others with attacks, trolling, or defensiveness? How can we stop it with the gatekeeping? How can we criticize creators when warranted and still be respectful? How can we lift up the disenfranchised who love the same franchises we do (or even different franchises)?

In short, how can we use our geek powers for good?

Here are a few ideas:

Stop the gatekeeping.

If you’re not familiar with the term “gatekeeping,” Dictionary.com defines it as “the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something.” It may be tough to admit, but most geeks are guilty of this type of behavior. Gatekeeping often manifests itself in subtle, seemingly harmless ways, such as excluding or making a fellow fan feel unwelcome, or demanding proof that they are a “true fan.”

The idea that there are “true fans” and “fake fans” is patently ridiculous. The only qualification you need in order to be a fan – whether you’re into comic books, Star Wars, Doctor Who, My Little Pony, D&D, or GOT – is to really like something.

You don’t have to be able to quote a certain number of lines, have a specific number of items in your collection, win a game of Trivial Pursuit, or spend a certain amount of hours reading, or playing, or watching, to be a fan. You don’t have to cosplay, wear the T-shirt, buy the stuff, talk about it 24/7, profess a prevailing opinion, or do anything at all, in fact, to prove you’re worthy of a fandom. Every fan is a true fan.

Image result for tardis

Like the Tardis, fandom is bigger on the inside. There’s room for everyone. If, for whatever reason, we decided we did want to limit certain fandoms to a small, exclusive group of snobby VIPs, said fandoms would quickly die out. Is that what we want? To kill the fandoms we love? Of course not.

So, let’s not doubt that women, or people of color, or anyone, for that matter, really do read comics, or play video games, or watch Star Trek, or play D&D, as if these acts are the exclusive domain of one type of person (usually white and/or male). It doesn’t make sense, it isn’t fair, and it’s just so limiting and boring.

Lift up fellow geeks who need support.

If we stop the gatekeeping, it will go a long way toward accomplishing the goal above. However, in order to support fans who are on the fringes of geek culture – including people of color, LGBTQ+ fans, women, and disabled fans — we must first acknowledge their very real concerns and feeling of disenfranchisement.

The first step is to listen to these fans. Ask meaningful and thoughtful questions. Hear what they have to say about their experience without arguing or dismissing or denigrating them. Once we’ve done this, we can think about what we might do to stand alongside, promote, lift up, and offer solidarity to these fans. Then we do what we can, and this might look different for each individual.

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I write a blog with the goal of amplifying women’s voices in geek culture, but as a white woman I acknowledge my social bubble is limited, so I’ve decided to push beyond that and actively work to include more diverse voices.

Another person might use their professional platform to support marginalized geeks or create more opportunities for them. Convention panelists might use their clout to insist more diverse speakers be included. Other efforts might be as simple as sending an encouraging message to a cosplayer you admire or supporting a geek creator or business owner by buying from them. The possibilities are endless, and so are the benefits.

Listen to and believe women and victims.

With the rise of the MeToo movement and a groundswell of women coming forward to publicly report harassment and abuse, you’d think society would be rapidly learning and changing, but sadly these events have raised as much nasty backlash as they have awareness.

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Chloe Dykstra

The geek community is not immune to this, as we’ve seen in the case of Chloe Dykstra’s appalling treatment by fans of “The Talking Dead” host Chris Hardwick. Disturbing allegations have been made against men in various industries, from comics to television, and many of their rabid fan bases have either ignored the implications of the accusations or responded with defensive outrage and devastating harassment campaigns.

Observing this behavior, it’s not difficult to surmise why women and other victims of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment are afraid to come forward. We geeks can do better. We can encourage victims by listening to what they have to say and giving them the benefit of the doubt as we calmly wait for facts and evidence to come to light.

This leads to my next two points …

Men, call out misogyny.

Historically, the world of fandom has been a harsh, demoralizing place for women and, unfortunately, progress in this department continues to be slow. Women may now be more visible and enjoy more opportunities within geek culture, but we’re doing so while warily navigating a minefield of sexism and double standards.

On an almost daily basis in geekdom, women are labeled “fake geek girls,” called offensive names and met with death threats for expressing their opinions on social media, targeted for harassment by hostile male fans and their followers, and subjected to creepy behavior while cosplaying.

Don't be a Creeper

Don’t get me wrong, guys. We realize most of you are lovely and supportive and secure in your manhood, but until more of you start calling out the douchebags in your midst, nothing will change. Women will to have to keep dealing with this behavior as best as we can, in the most bad-ass ways we can manage. It’s exhausting, but we like it here and we’re here to stay.

Be willing to reevaluate your heroes when they screw up.

Geeks are famously protective of the men and women who create the fandoms we love. We’re passionate about these people. We feel as if we know them because we’ve become so intimately familiar with their creations. We put these artists on pedestals so high, many of them are destined to topple off them. But we must remember that we don’t know them. Not personally. Not at all, really.

When allegations or facts become known that challenge our perception of our geek heroes, we must be willing to think carefully and critically about what this means. This process of reckoning and reevaluating will not be easy and it will probably look different for everyone.

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Joss Whedon

When I read that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon had potentially abused his position of power to take advantage of young women on his sets, I was disappointed. I resolved to more carefully evaluate his work going forward. I’m still processing how I feel about this information. It will be an ongoing thing for me. I probably won’t ever feel the same about him and I will most definitely listen to and support any women who may come forward with new information about him.

A re-evaluation of your attitude toward a personal hero, such as an artist or filmmaker, may not result in a boycott, but you may choose to think more critically about the work he or she produces. Or you may decide you’re done supporting this person entirely. Whatever you decide, it should come after careful consideration and weighing of options. It makes no sense to blindly defend or continue to worship someone who doesn’t deserve your admiration or support.

Lose the entitlement.

I mentioned that fans tend to be proprietary about their favorite franchises and possessive of the creators who conjured them up. However, we have also been known to turn on our favorite creators with a speed and brutality that boggles the mind.

I bring this up a little sheepishly because I am guilty of this. For most of the years I’ve loved Star Wars, I’ve alternately gushed over and trashed George Lucas. I was not kind to M. Night Shyamalan in the years following “The Happening,” until “Split” put him back in my good graces.

Where did we geeks get the idea that the writers, directors, producers, and artists we revere are beholden to us and must satisfy our every whim, fantasy, longing, and desire, lest they face our wrath?

Sure, it was kinda hilarious when earlier this year a bunch of disgruntled haters of “The Last Jedi” banded together to petition for the removal of director Rian Johnson, then waged a campaign to remake the film shot-by-shot.

When you think about it more deeply, though, it’s sad and more than a little disturbing. If we really wanted the fans to dictate every particular of our favorite franchises, we’d be doing nothing but watch poorly made home movies on YouTube.

Of course, we will sometimes be disappointed or be let down by the creative choices the keepers of our favorite franchises make. There’s nothing wrong with feeling this way, or with discussing, debating, or even criticizing these choices. And, as always, seriously problematic content or behavior should always be called out. It is possible, however, to do all this respectfully, without silly boycotts, trolling, harassing, or acting like big babies.

Think before you post.

One only has to look at recent events involving “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn or “Rick and Morty” creator Dan Harmon to be reminded that ill-advised or reckless posts, comments, or interactions on social media can come back to haunt us in the worst way. It’s too easy to fire off a careless joke or an ill-advised rambling or get caught up in a heated exchange quickly turns nasty.

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James Gunn

In the age of online fandom, it’s crucial that I consider each post or comment before I make it public. I must ask myself:

“Is what I’ve written kind, fair, and worth saying?”

“Is it going to make someone feel bullied or belittled?”

“Will I regret saying this later?”

“Could this be used against me in the future?”

If I’m a careful editor of every statement I make on social media, not only will I avoid getting into trouble, I won’t fall into the category of those who are making online fandoms a toxic place to be.

Celebrate differences.

We are often drawn to other fans when we discover we like the same things. We bond over our shared love of Bob’s Burgers, or Stranger Things, or the novels of Jane Austen. The beauty of fandom, however, is that there are endless worlds to discover and endless means of expressing our enthusiasm for them.

I’ll admit that at least 25% of the reason my marriage works is because my husband and I are both crazy about Star Wars, but he’s into video games in a way I can’t remotely begin to fathom and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t get why I geek out over YA novels. Still, it works.

I was recently struck by the liberating realization that not everyTHING in geek culture has to be for everyONE. And that’s OK.

Geeks obviously enjoy vigorous debate and dialogue over controversial fandom issues. We like to get worked up about stuff and we can do that constructively, without crushing the dreams of people who love Ewoks, and Attack of the Clones, and George Clooney’s Batman.

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Maybe we sometimes feel we have to prove we’re good fans by making other fans feel bad about the things they like. How sad and messed up is that? If there’s something we don’t get or feel drawn to about a particular fandom, we might consider that we could be missing something. Or that this thing wasn’t made for us. It doesn’t necessarily make the thing in question bad.

One of my friends is a horror movie fanatic. Me? Not as much. But I admire her passion and how it makes her happy. It’s a blast watching her dive deep into this genre I don’t always fully appreciate. Many of the people I hang out with also happen to be Doctor Who devotees. I could never get into the series, but there is nothing more fun than listening to them loudly debate the merits of certain episodes and actors.

When we berate and belittle others for the titles, characters, sequels, prequels, and plot points they’re passionate about, we’re being unnecessarily petty and cynical. Let’s celebrate each other for our wildly diverse fandom tastes and fancies. Our geekiness should inspire us to embrace the geekiness in others, even if it looks very different from our own.

It’s futile for fans to reject diversity because the beauty of fandom is found in exactly that. The differences of history, perspective, taste, and opinion that each person brings to the table make the geek experience richer, more vibrant, more valuable, and more fun.

The toxic trolls don’t believe this, but they are so wrong. Let’s prove them wrong.

Vinyl Coexist decal by Etsy shop FandomDecalDesigns.

“Costume is not consent” meme: Aloysius Fox, The Pandora Society. 

Photos: BBC, Anime Expo, IMDb, Yahoo, Lucasfilm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disney artist doodles her way to inspiring others to dream

Ashley Taylor is living the Disney dream and using her formidable artistic talent to inspire others to pursue their dreams.

While working as a cast member at Walt Disney World, Ashley honed her cheery, whimsical style, which has since come to characterize everything from the Disney Parks Blog’s daily Disney Doodle, to numerous pieces of Disney-themed art, to fashion from Her Universe and Disney’s Dress Shop Collection, and even an inspirational book.

Her distinctive work — inspired by such classics as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and legendary artists Eyvind Earle and Mary Blair — can also be found at WonderGround Gallery, BoxLunch, and Hot Topic

I know I’m not the only person who looks forward to seeing what clever mashup or cute flight of nostalgic fancy Ashley will come up with next on the Disney Parks Blog. I also can’t be the only one who has salivated over her gorgeous Dress Shop prints, which perfectly capture the joy of favorite park attractions.

When she’s not busy touring with bestie Ashley Eckstein of Her Universe to promote their beautifully illustrated “It’s Your Universe” book, dreaming up new scenarios for classic characters, or combing the Disney archives for important details, she can be found doing commissions or creating fantastical original artwork for her Etsy shop.

In “Your Universe,” Taylor and Eckstein encourage readers to “dream it and do it,” which is something this artist definitely has gotten the hang of. 

You can enjoy more of Ashley’s artwork and follow her on Instagram here

You’re a Disney artist whose charming work is featured at Disney Parks, WonderGround Gallery, and on products for Her Universe, BoxLunch, and Hot Topic. So basically you are living every geek’s dream. What does that feel like?

It feels unreal at times! I’ll check my email and see messages from various brands and retail stores and I’ll pinch myself at times! It has been a long road to get to this point in my career and I don’t take a second of it for granted! Every Monday morning feels like Christmas morning to me! I’m so incredibly happy to be living my dreams here in California!

Your daily Disney Doodles are featured on the Disney Parks Blog and they are the best thing ever! Can you tell me a little about the process of creating these doodles? Where do you get your ideas?

Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoy them! The Disney Doodles are a collaborative effort between me and the Disney Parks Blog. Every time an idea pops into my head, I write it down. Then towards the end of the month, I’ll send Disney my ideas and they’ll add some of their own and we’ll come up with a game plan for the next month.

I try to add some unique characters every month. I love seeing how the Disney community responds when they see a character they haven’t seen in years. I remember I decided to draw Archimedes from Sword and the Stone and so many people shared amazing childhood memories of that film with me. That’s what it’s all about! Creating a little bit a fun and joy during someone’s day!

As far as drawing the Disney Doodles, I usually create a month’s worth of doodles in a day. (Roughly 8 or 9 doodles.) My schedule is so crazy, I have to be able to draw exceptionally fast.

Many of them are the cutest and cleverest Disney mashups. How do you determine what will make a good mashup?

Truthfully, the characters do all of the work for me. I just pay attention to their storylines, likes, dislikes … etc. And I always try to keep the character’s integrity. For example, I created a Disney Doodle of Princess Tiana dancing at the Country Bear Jamboree. Tiana is from the South and she loves cooking, singing and dancing. So she would enjoy singing and dancing with those Country Bears. I always try to look for attractions that would pique the interest of the characters. It’s a lot of fun!

Ashley Taylor’s “Cinderella’s Kingdom.”

Clearly, you are just immersed in Disney characters and properties. Do you have a soft spot for any specific personalities, movies, attractions, etc.?

Oh goodness, so many!

Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are the Disney films that made me want to be an artist. The colors, backgrounds and details are absolutely stunning! As I got older, I connected with Tangled and Moana. I love seeing fearless girls follow their passions!

My favorite characters has always been The Blue Fairy from Pinocchio and Princess Jasmine. I love how Jasmine is smart, fierce, and strong-minded while the Blue Fairy is poised, elegant and kind.

And as far as attractions, I will always love The Country Bear Jamboree and It’s a Small World. I love the classics!

You must spend a lot of time researching Disney-related images and details. Can you tell me more about what that research can entail?

I research everything! I am very thorough when I research Disney-related imagery. I have gone to the Disney archives and visited the parks to make sure all of the details are accounted for. I want to remain as accurate as I can while being able to deliver artwork in my unique style.

Do you also collect Disney items?

I collect a Disney ornament every time I do a signing at one of the Disney Parks. And when fans give me artwork, gifts or letters, I laminate them and turn them into ornaments as well. So every Christmas becomes a trip down memory lane.

I’ve read that you discovered your unique personal style as an artist while working as a cast member at Walt Disney World. How did your style evolve during this time and what did you learn?

I always tell people to start drawing what they love, because that’s when you’ll really start to connect with your subject matter as an artist. I love fashion, so being around Disney really piqued my interest as a designer. I started to experiment with various mediums until I found one that suited my style the best. Digital illustration and clean vectors really suited my design taste and style.

Ashley’s “Aurora’s Kingdom.”

I understand that, as a child, you were influenced by Sleeping Beauty. Who and what are some of your other influences?

Yes, I was mesmerized by Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella when I was a kid. So, naturally, Eyvind Earle and Mary Blair were huge influences

I’m always inspired every time I travel. I think traveling and exploring the world becomes an artist’s best resource.

You and Her Universe’s Ashley Eckstein recently released the book “It’s Your Universe.” The Disney-themed illustrations are beautiful and really make the book memorable. Tell me more about your collaboration with Ashley on this project.

When I first read Ashley Eckstein’s manuscript, I knew this project was something I had to be a part of. I knew this book was going to change lives and help so many people visualize their dreams.

The creation of the book was labor of love for both Ashley and me. Being able to provide visuals for Ashley’s inspiring words, lessons, and stories brought me so much joy! As close friends, it was easy for me to understand what her expectations were of me and my artwork.

“It’s Your Universe” aims to teach young women about “dreaming it and doing it.” What’s your advice on this subject?

Don’t shy away from your dreams just because you haven’t seen anyone else accomplish them. Don’t be afraid to be the first. Don’t be afraid to build your own Yellow Brick Road.

You and Ashley recently returned from a book tour. How did that go? What’s your favorite thing about meeting fans?

Our tour was incredible! We were on a plane almost every single day. It was long hours, but incredibly exciting! Meeting fans was my favorite thing about being on tour. I love being able to connect with people and meet aspiring artists. There’s nothing better than watching people’s faces light up when they talked to us about their dreams. I’ll always remember those little moments!

Ashley’s illustration for the “Princess Mantra” written by Ashley Eckstein of Her Universe.

Aside from Disney, what are some of your favorite fandoms? 

I love Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, Sailor Moon, DC, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Jim Henson, and Tim Burton. I’m sure there’s a ton more. I find that there’s something I like about every fandom I’m introduced to.

From your art, I gather you’re into Moulin Rouge, The Greatest Showman, and La La Land, among other things. Do I detect a love of musicals here?

You know, it’s funny, I’m not that big into musicals, but I LOVE the art direction and costumes in those films. All of them are so strikingly beautiful! I do love to sing along with Hugh Jackman, though. How could I not?

You also have a thing for Audrey Hepburn. Why do you admire her?

Audrey Hepburn is so much more than a beautiful actress. She dedicated her life to helping others. She was a humanitarian who dedicated her life to UNICEF. I have always admired her as an actress, style icon, and as a person. I have her photo in my office as a constant reminder to keep giving back to others. It’s wonderful to follow your dreams and your passions, but it’s more important to contribute something to the world.

Ashley’s “Daydreaming in the Tower” piece, on display in her Audrey Hepburn-themed office.

Your art seems to focus on a lot of female characters. Is this intentional?

I know that my artistic style is extremely feminine and delicate. So I try to draw subjects that bring out the best of my abilities. I also love mermaids, circus performers, and ballerinas, so those costumes are so much fun for me to draw.

Prints of your art are available in your Etsy shop, LoveAshleyDesigns. Many of these feature adorable mermaids, centaurs, Nessie, cats, and other magical creatures (I think cats qualify as magical creatures). Where does your fascination for these kinds of characters come from?

I think a lot of artists love drawing fantasy creatures because they are entirely created in our heads. We don’t use references, we just allow our imaginations to have a little fun. When working in the world of retail, I welcome those little breaks to create something light and pretty.

I can’t stop obsessing over the designs you’ve contributed to Disney’s Dress Shop, which include dresses, skirts, and cardigans that are to die for. What do you enjoy about creating art for fashion?

The best part about art for fashion is creating something that people live their lives in. I love seeing my designs become part of someone’s first trip to Disney, engagement session, birthday celebration and so much more.

How do you feel when you see people wearing these outfits?

It’s one of the greatest honors an artist can have. It’s still so surreal every time someone comes up to me in the parks wearing my art. I love seeing people create special memories in my art!

Through this aspect of your work and also your work with Her Universe, you’ve been able to model and wear a lot of amazing geek fashion. What has that experience been like?

Designing and modeling for Her Universe has been a dream come true. Her Universe, like Disney, is a brand I completely believe in. Her Universe allows fangirls from all walks of life to flaunt their world and showcase their fandoms through fashion. It gives a voice to the female fan community and allows fangirls to not only feel accepted, but to be the best versions of themselves. So to be a small part in that community has been incredible!

Ashley’s Star Wars timeline piece, created with Her Universe.

What are some of your future goals as an artist?

I have so many future goals. And a lot of them are coming into fruition! The most important goal is to keep growing and challenging myself as an artist. I’d love to do a worldwide press tour and be able to meet my amazing fans around the world. That would be amazing!

What’s left to do on your Disney bucket list?

I’d love to create artwork for some of the international Disney Parks, like Tokyo Disneyland. That would be amazing! I’d also love to create artwork for one of the Disney resorts or a Disney attraction.

 

Ahsoka scribe E.K. Johnston on her anticipated Padme novel, geek fashion, and ‘glorious’ Enfys Nest

Two of the biggest announcements at this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con came courtesy of the Star Wars universe, and best-selling YA author E.K. Johnston found herself smack in the middle of ecstatic fan reaction to both of them.

One was the revelation that Johnston, or Kate to her friends (and bloggers fortunate enough to make her acquaintance), would be the author of a new book, Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow. The novel, due in March, is set after The Phantom Menace and traces the evolution of Padme Amidala from queen to senator, a prospect that delighted prequel fans who’ve been wanting more of the character.

Meanwhile, Con attendees were processing the considerable feelings triggered by the announcement that the animated Clone Wars series would return to television after an unpopular cancellation in 2014.

While Kate wasn’t directly involved with that series, she does have a special relationship to one of its most beloved characters, Ahsoka Tano, having penned a best-selling Star Wars book about Anakin’s iconic Padawan.

The author’s history with Star Wars stretches back to childhood and memories of listening to an audio version of Return of the Jedi on vinyl. Now, she’s one of the few women who is writing, and thereby shaping, George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away, and doing so by examining the inner lives of iconic women in the franchise.

She’s also the mastermind of a versatile array of award-winning novels steeped in myth, fairy tales, and steampunk, including “The Story of Owen,” “A Thousand Nights,” “Exit, Pursued By a Bear,” and “That Inevitable Victorian Thing.”

I had the pleasure of chatting with Kate about her affinity for the women of Star Wars, her collection of Star Wars merch, her newfound passion for geek fashion, her other intriguing new novel to be released next year, and everyone’s new favorite Star Wars lady, Enfys Nest (OK, so I might have begged her to tackle that subject).

The announcement of your latest project, Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow, made quite a stir at San Diego Comic-Con. What was that experience like?

It was so exciting. Two of my dearest friends were in the audience, and we met because of Padmé, so getting to see their faces when the cover came up on the projector was just incredible. So many fans talked to me after that panel, even if it was just really quickly as we were passing in a hallway, and everyone was so enthusiastic. I couldn’t have asked for a better response.

The novel, about Padme Amidala, will hit shelves in March. You’ve said that Padme played a major role in reigniting your passion for Star Wars after you saw The Phantom Menace at age 14. Considering that, how did you feel when you were asked to write Queen’s Shadow?

I was in Iceland at the time, and so it was quite late at night. I just remember lying on my bed in the hostel with ALL OF THE FEELS and trying to fall asleep because I had to get up early in the morning to go riding.

Tell me about your first Star Wars experience and the evolution of your relationship with George Lucas’ franchise. 

My first solid memory of Star Wars is from when I was about three years old. We had a vinyl of Return of the Jedi, a book on tape sort of thing, and I would listen to it with my brother. I remember Carrie Fisher’s voice and Vader’s breathing apparatus, and it was a straight shot out from there. Since then, I’ve grown with it, in a way. And it’s been marvelous.

I was excited to learn that Queen’s Shadow will focus on Padme’s handmaidens, especially her relationship with Sabe, who was played by Keira Knightley in Phantom Menace. That’s a genius idea. How did you arrive at this approach?

I can’t imagine doing it any other way. The handmaidens are such a key part of Padmé’s story (even though they aren’t really a key part of Anakin’s, which is why we see less of them as the saga unfolds), and I wanted to keep them in the centre of it for my book.

Another major announcement at Comic-Con was the return of The Clone Wars animated series and Ahsoka Tano. What was your reaction to this news?

I was doing a signing, so I couldn’t be at the panel or on Twitter. After that, I had to run to a panel of my own. So there I was, getting ready to talk about fairy tales, and I had five minutes. I watched the trailer and burst into tears as soon as the music started. Then, for the rest of the weekend, the excitement was just so palpable. It was amazing to experience in person, and I cannot wait to see the new episodes.

You’re obviously on intimate terms with Ahsoka, having written the Star Wars: Ahsoka novel. From your experience and the feedback you’ve received from fans, why is she such a significant character for women?

I think it goes beyond women. There’s a whole generation of Star Wars fans who grew up with her front and centre in the Star Wars galaxy, and those people kept the fandom active between the live-action movies. She kept the story moving, and that allowed for more inclusivity in the story we have now.

What’s the most important thing you learned about Ahsoka from writing her?

She’s more adaptable than she thinks.

You have a real affinity and enthusiasm for the women of the Star Wars universe. I read that Leia is your favorite. Why?

I think this goes back to hearing Carrie Fisher’s voice. At least, that’s where it started. But we see her, and she’s this tiny girl in a long white dress, and the first thing she does is shoot bad guys, stand up to Vader, talk back to Tarkin, withstand torture, and help with her own rescue, with the best hair in cinema. Obviously I fell in love.

Who are some of your other favorites? (Please, please, please talk about Enfys Nest!)

I love so many of them! I love Hera’s determination and Iden’s conviction and Beru’s kindness and Paige’s bravery and and and …

But let’s talk about Enfys Nest.

Her reveal is so perfectly executed. She’s built up as this … usual bad guy. A new Boba Fett-style character to counter Evil Haymitch and sell Lego (the Lego is so coooooool). Except she is so much more. And to start with: she’s not a bad guy! She’s the hero. She flips Han Solo, this young girl with her soul on fire and her heart committed to a better galaxy. I love that we got to be so surprised when she took her helmet off. It was glorious. But if Erin Kellyman wants to get involved now that she can, I hope they throw her a serious welcome party at Celebration.

You have quite a collection of female-centric Star Wars merch. When did you begin collecting?

I have a few action figures from The Phantom Menace, but I truly began collecting in 2015 because 1) I had a disposable income, and 2) There were things I wanted to collect.

What are some of the prized items in your collection?

I don’t even know. All of it?

Let’s talk a little about your geek origin story. I read that you discovered fandom in college. How did that happen?

I actually discovered it slightly before that, in high school. I read fanfic for Star Trek: Voyager and X-Men: Evolution (and then erased the browser history on the family computer; those were adventurous times!). But at uni, I had uncontrolled access to the internet, and that was when I started accounts on message boards, ff.net, and LiveJournal. My first major fandom was actually CSI, though I have always dabbled in the Tolkien fandom.

You’re a huge Tolkien fan. How did you discover him and why is his work important to you?

When I was four or so, my father read me (and my younger brother) the entirety of The Hobbit. I read LotR when I was eight (because someone told me they were for grownups). But it’s the movies that really brought me into fandom (probably because movie fandom for Tolkien is way less dusty than book fandom … not the least because movie fandom includes the books, but book fandom doesn’t always include the movies). I learned to write with these books. And I learned to dream.

You also seem to be a fan of geek fashion. Are you addicted to Her Universe like the rest of us?

So much! I used to be absolutely hopeless at clothes (a combination of not being able to afford much new stuff, a lack of available sizes that fit me, and a general disinterest in how I looked), but in the last few years I have learned so much about styles and whatnot, and now I find it actually fun! And Her Universe is really trying to make geek clothes accessible, which I literally cannot appreciate enough.

Along with Queen’s Shadow, we’ll also have the pleasure of reading another new book from you next year. The Afterward is due in February. How would you describe this novel in relation to your other work?

I never really imagined being a writer, but I always thought that if I did write anything, it would be an Eddings-style quest fantasy. It turns out that my attention span isn’t quiiiiiiite that long, so I am writing a story that takes place AFTER an Eddings-style quest fantasy instead. It’s epic, it’s queer, it’s full of women, and I had so much fun writing it. I can’t wait to share it with everyone.