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.

 

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.

 

Plus model promotes geek glamour, body positivity

I met Danielle Zavala when I visited Hot Topic to write a post about fit and size issues in geek fashion. Danielle was on the job as a fit model and she spoke with refreshing honesty and openness about some of her struggles with body image and shopping for clothes as a woman who wears plus fashion. She also radiated sheer optimism and joy, the kind of positive feelings she aims to encourage in other women through her career as a plus model.

This approach to work and life is apparent in whatever Danielle does, whether booking photo shoots, walking the runway in the Le Geek So Chic Fashion Show, designing an inclusive line of Harry Potter-themed clothing, or indulging her geek side with cosplay, Riverdale, Overwatch, and visits to the Wizarding World.

Danielle’s modeling career began in 2011 when she participated in a model search hosted by Torrid. After booking a gig modeling pinup styles, she built her portfolio, won a division title in the Miss Plus America Pageant, and was featured in Latina Magazine. She models for many companies, but Hot Topic is an especially good fit. (She admits the abundance of geek merchandise can be hard on her pocketbook.)

While there’s a general lack of visibility of plus models in the fashion industry, Danielle has set out to do what she can to change that, giving feedback during fit sessions about what women who wear plus might want and need, and spreading a message of self-confidence and body positivity wherever she can.

Read on for Danielle’s thoughts on geek fashion, what she’d like to see change within the industry, and why Puerto Rico needs its own superhero movie. (Seriously, Hollywood, let’s greenlight this!)

You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

If you’d like to book Danielle or set up a meeting, contact Penny Middlemiss, MPM Models, Mspenny@mpmmodels.com.

You’re a plus model and a self-described “nerdy girl” and, if I may say so, you’ve achieved the perfect blend of glamour and geekiness. Is that a rare thing in the modeling industry?

Thank you, Lavender. I think that you’d be surprised to learn that a lot of models in the industry have a geeky or nerdy side to them. The models I tend to gravitate towards have a goofy side and I think that’s why we find so much joy in our careers because we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Society places a lot of pressure on models to always be perfect and as a plus model the amount of judgement and criticism we receive can be damaging. I find comfort in my goofiness because it helps let some of the criticism slide off my back.

An image from Danielle’s first booked photo shoot in 2011.

Tell me about how you got your start in modeling.

I started modeling back in 2011 after being encouraged to compete in the “Torrid House of Dreams” model search. Although I didn’t win the competition, I found myself to be bit by the modeling bug. I was hired for my first gig for a small pinup clothing line and instantly fell in love with it. I then began reaching out to other companies who advertised plus clothing options but didn’t show them on plus models and began building my portfolio.

My first big break was after I competed and won my division title at the Miss Plus America Pageant. I was featured in the August 2011 issue of Plus Model Magazine as a new and up-and-coming model. This led to being cast in Full Figured Fashion Week and featured in Latina Magazine.

Is plus modeling different at all from other types of modeling?

Technically, plus modeling is the same as other formats of modeling. However, I personally feel that plus models also serve as body positivity activists when they sign on to model. I believe there’s a certain level of responsibility we have as plus models to be ambassadors of body positivity and should use our platforms to encourage our followers to love themselves for who they are regardless of their size.

I’ve been told there aren’t a lot of plus models in the fashion industry. Is that true? If so, what’s it like to be one of the few?

When I began modeling back in 2011, plus models had been working for years prior, but I had never been exposed to them. There was a major lack of visibility for plus models, but they have been thriving and pushing the envelope for years. Once I joined the industry I was so honored to have met models that were not only phenomenally gorgeous, but they were incredible advocates for the community. I have always felt blessed to do what I love and be able to work hard to encourage other plus individuals to love themselves.

You’re a fit model for Hot Topic. With your geeky inclinations, that seems like the perfect gig for you.

Working as a fit model for Hot Topic has been surreal. I remember when I first got called for a casting two years ago and when I walked up the steps into headquarters I was just blown away. The Hot Topic at the Brea Mall was one of my all-time favorite stores when it opened back in the early 2000s. I loved all the pop culture items I could get there over the years as the company grew and to have the opportunity to work for such an amazing brand that makes product that I get so excited about is truly special. It’s not so great for my bank account … haha … but there’s a wonderful feeling of satisfaction when I see something I helped fit at my local Hot Topic.

What’s a typical day at work like for you?

A typical work day for me starts off with an hour drive to my client for a fit session. Fit sessions usually consist of trying on woven tops, knit tops, active wear, dresses, outwear, swimwear, bottoms and denim. I usually see two to three clients a day for anywhere between one hour to three hours, depending on the client and the number of samples received. Occasionally, I have done eight-hour fit days if there are special meetings with buyers or vendors, but most days are around 6 hours of work.

Do you model for other companies as well?

I’m fortunate to work with JustFab, Fabletics, Lucky Brand, and Democracy as well. In the past, I have worked with Torrid and Seven Jeans for their Melissa McCarthy clothing line.

When I visited Hot Topic headquarters for a post I wrote about geek fashion and size issues, you were very open about your own issues with size and fit. Tell me about some of your experiences with this.

One of the most important aspects of my job is my ability to provide feedback to designers, buyers, and the technical team. Sizing and fit issues are something that everyone struggles with from brand to brand because of the inconsistencies that often occur.

Prior to being a fit model, I would find myself incredibly frustrated when shopping for clothing because I’d be a size 14 in one brand and then a 20 in another. This would aggravate me, as it does most individuals, especially plus women, because it made me feel as if I was the problem. Thankfully, I have come to see that the issue was with the clothing companies because they all use their own size charts and these differences will be reflected in the actual sizing.

One of my biggest frustrations to this day is with companies who vanity size their clothing. Vanity sizing is the practice of assigning smaller sizes to articles of manufactured clothing than is really the case, to encourage sales.

I find that companies that do this create consumer confusion and that often attributes to body image issues because they tell a consumer they are a size 14 when they might actually be an 18. By doing this they inadvertently damage the self-conscious consumer who may already be struggling with their body because of criticism from society or even bullies.

Does your awareness of the frustrations experienced by plus women and, honestly, women in general affect your approach to your work at all?

It absolutely affects my approach to my work. Models are often told they are just hangers meant to show off the clothing and not necessarily to voice their opinions. In my line of work, my feedback is crucial to keeping clients. I try to find a good balance of helpful yet honest comments to provide to designers and the technical teams instead of just saying that everything looks great and feels amazing.

Some designers are so focused on ensuring that the plus-size garment looks just like the Missy or Junior sample and there are situations in which this doesn’t work. For example, something with a super high neckline and boxy shape may look cute on a size 2 or 6, but when graded to a plus-size 16 or 18, the garment is now unflattering.

As a fit model, I’m incredibly comfortable with my body and exposing my arms but I always make a conscious effort to consider those plus-size individuals still struggling with their own body image. When providing feedback to companies, I’ll include comments like, “I think the sleeves on this are too short and might make a consumer who isn’t a fan of her arms feel self-conscious.”

Also, if every garment is super uptight in appearance, I’ll request things like lowering the neckline or opening the neck so that there’s more skin visible. Occasionally, I’ll include that feedback so that the designers know that plus fashion should also be cute and sexy, too.

Do you consider yourself an ambassador or a role model?

That is such a tough question to answer because I feel like the title of role model or body positive ambassador is tossed around so much nowadays. I’d like to hope, like anyone else, that what I do in life will impact someone else’s life in a positive way. I don’t consider myself a role model, but I do know that I have a moral obligation as a member of the plus model community to do my very best to support other community members as they fight for representation and equality in the fashion industry.

I have always aspired to be a woman of influence and to one day do or say something that would make 16-year-old me proud. I wish that as a teenager I had plus-size role models that I could look up to when I was feeling depressed or being bullied. When I’m in a fit or at a shoot, I think of those times and remind myself that somewhere out there a girl is feeling that same way and it’s up to me and the other members of the community to tell her that she is loved and valued.

What changes would you personally like to see in the geek fashion industry and in the fashion industry in general?

While I’m happy to see that the geek fashion industry is starting to expand their sizing, I’d like to see more plus models represented in their photoshoots. Elhoffer Design does a great job of being size inclusive with her line and it is incredibly inspiring. It’s one of the reasons why I will often refer my friends to her site.

One of the things we chatted about when we first met at Hot Topic was the lack of larger models used in photoshoots for some geek brands. It’s hard to know that awesome plus fashion companies like Hot Topic use a size 18 fit model but when photoshoots take place most of the models in plus size outfits are on the smaller side making it sometimes harder for larger consumers to see themselves represented.

Representation in the fashion industry in general is so very important and while I’ve seen so much progress in my seven years in the industry I still see how much more work is left to be done. Slogans like “Drop the plus” have been passed around in plus marketing and I feel that they are detrimental to the community as a whole.

I don’t want to be called a “model” because I’m proud to be a size 18 PLUS model and it’s why I often tag my photos #proudtobeplus. By removing the plus, it takes away a part of who I am as an individual and implies that there is something wrong with being plus. I struggle with that at a size 18 and can only imagine how much more of a struggle it is for, let’s say, a size 24 or 32 who sees little to no models used in their size range.

Danielle, around the age of 5, reading comic books with her Dad.

Let’s talk about your inner geek. When did you first discover it?

My inner geek first started showing around 7 years old. My dad owned a bunch of old Super Nintendo machines and we would play them for hours together. I’d also love to watch him as he read his comics from time to time. He had a large collection of Star Wars figurines still in their packages and I remember just staring at them wishing I could open them all.

Thankfully, he taught me about how to take care of my collectibles. I’m lucky to be one of kids who grew up with X-men, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z and other awesome Saturday morning cartoons that furthered my love for all things geek.

Danielle with her sister, fulfilling her dream of being Sailor Moon.

What were some of your first fandoms and how did you express them?

Sailor Moon and X-men are probably the two fandoms I was the most excited about. During recess, I’d always convince my friends to play X-men with me, I was ALWAYS Rogue because I was such a tomboy and I loved that she could kill people with her kiss. Once Sailor Moon was released in the USA I would save up my chore money and buy all the knickknacks I could find to play with. My cousins and I would play Sailor Moon after school with our Moonstick popsicles from the ice cream truck.

One of your major passions is Harry Potter, which you’ve said changed your life and “solidified” your love of reading. Tell me how you discovered the wizarding world and why it means so much to you. 

My love for books started thanks to Belle from Beauty and the Beast. She was my favorite princess and I always wondered what life was like in other places, so I’d read to learn about them. So, when I stumbled across Harry Potter I was instantly transported into a world of magic that seemed so realistic and attainable. I was an only child for seven years so when Harry Potter came out in 1997, I had just turned 10 years old and realized I was almost old enough to get my own letter to Hogwarts.

As a kid, I was always very outgoing but odd because I loved to learn and read and wasn’t worried about boys like some of my other friends. When I first read about Hermione I felt so connected to her, mostly because we both had strong personalities and crazy curly and frizzy hair.

I remember reading “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” prior to the U.S. launch of the re-titled “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” at least three times the summer I received it. I couldn’t put the book down and every time I read it I imagined what Hogwarts was like. Once I realized the books would continue in a series, I was hooked. It was the longest series I had ever followed. I waited in lines the night before they were released and would have the book finished hours after my mom would purchase it.

My love for literature increased exponentially as I grew up with the characters. Even though the novels were about Harry, Ron, and Hermione, I always felt like the fourth member of their group and it’s why I have such fond memories of them.

Harry Potter changed my life because it showed me that even a child can have a difference in the world. It helped me see that just sitting on the sidelines when you see injustices makes you just as bad as the person treating people poorly. I struggled with bullies growing up and found comfort in my books and wishing in my head that I could say a spell to turn my bullies into a toad or a pig.

So you’re a bookworm. What are some of your favorite titles?

Some of my favorite books include what I call my Shakespeare Bible, which is the complete works of Shakespeare book in a beautiful green and gold embellished binding. I also loved “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “The Great Gatsby.”

You’re a proud Ravenclaw. (Many of my best friends are Ravenclaws!) What do you love about being part of that house?

My favorite thing about being a Ravenclaw would take an entire interview to explain so I’ll keep it short … haha. I love how witty, eccentric, and outspoken most Ravenclaws are. Luna Lovegood is such a great example of the perfect Ravenclaw because she keeps you guessing. You can’t tell if she’s an absolute genius or a crazy person and, as we know, there’s a very line between the two. I also love how exciting and challenging getting into the Common Room sounds.

It looks like you’ve spent a fair amount of time playing Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery. Explain yourself.  

As a Harry Potter superfan it felt only natural to download the game. I’ve spent countless hours and a few bucks to truly enjoy the game. The thought of learning and performing spells in a similar capacity to Pokémon Go was exciting. Sadly, my love of the game has dwindled because of those darn energy bars. I’ve hit year 4 and have decided to put the game down until someone can fix that … haha. I have gotten some great laughs at the Hogwarts Mystery memes that floated around for a while.

Have you visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Hollywood?

I have! It was so much fun checking it out during opening week. My love for Wizarding World was so much that I spent my 30th birthday weekend at Wizarding World in Orlando, FL. I went all out for the 4 days I was there and wore my full school uniform while we visited. I even got asked a few times if I worked there.

I felt like I truly was a Ravenclaw student visiting Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. If you’ve ever visited, you know that it’s easy to walk past Diagon Alley if you aren’t paying attention, but the minute I walked through the entrance to the sound of the bricks moving, my eyes filled with tears because it felt like I was home. It was an absolutely magical experience and a huge part of what inspired my Magically Made by Couture for Everybody collection with Pinup Girl Clothing.

How do you like your Butterbeer?

I love my Butterbeer cold. It’s such a nice and refreshing treat for a hot day.

Anyone who follows you on social media knows you’re obsessed with the CW series Riverdale. What do you love about the series?

Riverdale started as a guilty pleasure kind of show and then it just turned into one of my all-time favorites. It gives me old school WB show vibes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Smallville. I think what I love the most about the series is how they modernized such an iconic comic book series and turned on the newer generations to Archie and the Gang. The darker side of the show really gives a nice contrast to the otherwise cheerful original comic.

Who do you ship on that show?

I am a MAJOR Bughead fan! Lili Reinhart and Cole Sprouse are both incredibly talented actors in their own right and on the show their chemistry is just captivating. I’m not going to lie. I totally bawled my eyes out during one of their fights in Season 2. I think I ship them the most because I relate so much to Betty and have my very own Jughead with the occasional Bughead drama.

So you’re into the Archie Comics, too?

Yes. I would read Archie Comics when I was younger and lost touch with Archie and the Gang over the years. I was reintroduced to the comics when the Josie and the Pussycats movie came out as well as the Archie’s Weird Mysteries cartoon in 2002. Archie Comics weren’t something I was always a diehard fan of until Riverdale. My favorite fandoms always tended to gravitate towards sci-fi and magic type fandoms up until Riverdale. That is probably the only realistic fandom I truly follow.

You’ve done some Riverdale cosplay. Tell me about the outfits you’ve put together. 

All of my Riverdale cosplays thus far have been more of a casual cosplay utilizing pieces from either Hot Topic’s Riverdale line or from one of my favorite companies, Pinup Girl Clothing. I did an Archie Comic’s Betty Cooper look with my bestie Victoria Cabot, who is my Veronica Lodge. We styled our outfit using Pinup Girl Clothing pieces, as those are most timeline appropriate.

At San Diego Comic Con this year, I celebrated the new Archie Comics/Batman crossover and wore my version of Betty Cooper as the Black Canary. This outfit was definitely a hit! Every good Betty cosplay comes equipped with the perfect High Pony Tail, which is Betty’s signature hair style. My Southside Serpent Betty Cosplay was even re-shared on the Hot Topic Instagram page and website.

You seem to enjoy cosplay in general. What’s your experience been like as a plus cosplayer?

I’m new to the cosplay scene but have absolutely fallen in love with it. I started out with Disneybounding years ago as I would go to Disneyland frequently and, after deciding to spend more time at comic conventions, have just adored all the cosplayers I’ve had the chance to meet. My favorite part about branching into cosplay is the amount of creativity I see from everyone I meet. I draw a lot of my inspiration from Ivy Doomkitty who is a spectacularly amazing woman, body positivity activist and plus-size cosplayer.

Danielle at the Le Geek So Chic Fashion Show with her best friend, Victoria Cabot.

You’ve walked in the Le Geek So Chic Fashion Show. What was that like?

Stan Lee’s Comikaze (now Los Angeles Comic Con) was the first time I had the opportunity to participate in the Le Geek So Chic Fashion Show and it was an honor. I’ve walked in many runway shows but they were nothing like this. The audience had so much energy and the other models were all shapes, sizes, ethnic backgrounds and genders and I really felt a part of something so unique and special. Not to mention I got to walk for one of my favorite geek designers, Katie Elhoffer of Elhoffer Design. She is so incredibly talented and the fit of her clothing is just top-notch.

You also recently launched a fashion line, Magically Made for Couture for Everybody, in collaboration with Pinup Girl Clothing at San Diego Comic-Con. How did that go?

The launch was a dream come true. It felt surreal that clothing items I had thought of were being sold at one of the largest cons in the world. It was a proud and happy moment. My favorite piece of the collection is my Narcissa dress, which is a ponte dress with mesh cutout and swing skirt, and it was flying off the rack.

What made me the happiest about the dress selling was that all the women who purchased it looked stunning regardless of what size they wore. It was a sexy and flattering dress on all of them and that’s one of the big things I was hoping to accomplish with my collection.

How did the collaboration come about? What was the inspiration for it?

The collaboration came about after Pinup Girl Clothing CEO Laura Byrnes and I chatted about doing something for the PUG nerd fan base. At the time, I was working as her assistant and my nerd pride is always something I chat about, so we started talking and I said I had some ideas. I went to Wizarding World in Orlando and, after being immersed in this world I had only dreamed of, I sat down and just let the ideas flow. The initial sketches I showed Laura was around 9 pieces so there are still several more designs on their way, but these first 3, including the capelet, are the ones I felt every nerd girl needed in her closet first.

Is designing geek fashion something you’d like to do more of?

I’d love to design more geek fashion! As a plus-size girl it was always hard to find cute items of clothes to express my fandoms growing up because stuff that would fit me was usually just in men’s sizes. Now that the design world has opened up to me, I can design pieces that show off my fandom that will fit and make me feel proud of my inner geek.

You also happen to be a serious gamer. When and how did you start playing?

I have always loved video games, thanks mostly to my Dad. The love grew stronger as he and my mom would give me quarters to play in the local arcade during their bowling league nights. I learned around 12 years old, that I was pretty good with a joystick and would hustle the neighborhood boys out of their chore money.

I’ll never forget the first time I won a round of Street Fighter against this bratty 15-year-old and he kept telling his friends it was “beginners’ luck” because “girls don’t know how to play video games,” so I made sure to lose the next round and then bet him $20 I’d beat him in the 3rd round. It was the fastest $20 I ever made and the immense joy I felt at the time was one that boosted my confidence to never let someone else’s perception of me change who I truly was.

Your game of choice is Overwatch. How many hours have you spent playing it?

My current game of choice is Overwatch because I used to be a huge World of Warcraft player. I started playing WOW back during Warcraft 1, which eventually led to me playing WOW with my old Disney coworkers. After life got too busy, I stopped playing video games for a while until I caught a Blizzard Overwatch short in November and decided it was time to start playing again.

Since getting the game in March, I’ve logged in about 150 hours of game time, which is not too shabby given I have a family and a full-time job. I tend to play late at night or on the weekends because it drives me nuts to play with some of the crazy 12-year-olds on there during the late afternoon.

What do you love about it?

Aside from the competitive aspect of the game, my favorite thing about Overwatch is the number of AMAZING female heroines you can choose from to play. Yes, I am the type of woman who picks girl characters to play but that’s because I strongly believe in representation and that if I can master a female character, I feel empowered.

What other fandoms are you into?

-Some of the other fandoms I’m into that I haven’t yet mentioned are Supernatural, Rick and Morty, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Star Wars.

As a proud Puerto Rican, do you have any thoughts about representation, or the lack thereof, when it comes to Latinos in geek culture?

I absolutely wish there was a stronger Latinx presence in geek culture. I have loved the diversity I see in Riverdale with the Lodge family but wish that the representation of the Latinx community wasn’t just thin men and women. I’d personally love to see members of the Latinx community added to Marvel and superhero films because most Latinx are represented in films as criminals in gangs or drug dealers.

Puerto Ricans are especially proud of who we are as a people and, during times like these when the island is still without power in most places, having a Puerto Rican superhero who saves the day could be just the type of hope and encouragement children on the island need.

Black Panther was such a wonderful example of how members of minority groups have been craving to see themselves represented in film and TV roles outside of the awful stereotypes that were placed upon them. I think it’s time that we stop giving these degrading roles to minorities and instead lift them up for the representation they deserve.

Name your five favorite fashion items in your closet right now.

My Hot Topic Southside Serpents Leather Jacket.

My Sailor Venus Headband from Universal Studios Japan Sailor Moon experience.

My Pinup Girl Clothing Jenny Dress in Snow White Print.

My extensive collection of Minnie Mouse Ear Headbands.

My Hogwarts school uniform skirt from Hot Topic.

If your wildest dreams came true, what would your modeling career look like?

My career would include more geek culture clothing designed by me as well as working with top geek media outlets on the importance of body positivity and size inclusivity in comics and geek culture. I would be modeling online for top geek brands like Her Universe, Hot Topic and Torrid.

What’s left on your geek bucket list?

After crossing San Diego Comic-Con off my list this year, my next major bucket list item would be to attend several other popular geek conventions all over the world. I also have a few cosplays I’d like to work on in preparation for those cons, like Faith Herbert of Valiant Entertainment, who is the first plus-size superhero. I’d love to get to visit the set of some of my favorite CW shows, like Riverdale, Supernatural, and Arrow.

The beauty of my bucket list is that it’s a never-ending list of trying new things. Every time I think I’ve crossed something off, several more things takes its place.

The geeky bags you’re looking for are Sent From Mars

Some women lust after handbags by Coach, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, or Chanel.

But if you’re a geek, you’re probably saving your pennies so you can acquire an original Mari Cole.

Mari’s first endeavors into geek fashion design were inspired by her late, beloved brother Ray and his requests for custom pop culture-themed Halloween costumes. A student of San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, she gained experience working for major retailers before deciding she’d rather do her own thing.

She launched an Etsy shop featuring intricate and playful geeky handbags and has since branched out into partnering with manufacturers, as well as offering other products, including leggings and pins. In a playful nod to her name, she titled the business Sent From Mars

Drawing inspiration from fandoms like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Back to the Future, and Super Mario Bros., as well as a love of glitter and sparkle, Mari creates extraordinary high-end statement pieces that offer the fun, nostalgic wish fulfillment geeks crave.

If you’ve been looking for that special accessory that will take your geek style to the next level, your search is over. 

Your accessories and apparel business, Sent From Mars, specializes in custom and limited-edition pop culture-themed handbags, as well as enamel pins, leggings, and stickers. Where do you draw inspiration for your designs?

The majority of my inspiration comes from movies, shows and video games. Especially anything with nostalgia that brings about a good memory or feeling. And sometimes it comes from a resourceful point of view, looking at my supplies and thinking of what I can make with what’s in front of me.

Your creations are imaginative, playful, elaborate, and textured. Can you tell me a little bit about the process that goes into designing a bag?

I have made a LOT of bags now, so my process has gotten pretty streamlined. I have a basic shape I work within and I start each design with a little quick sketch which I transfer to a life-size version where I can see what is actually possible. Then I like to take a look at different fabrics and trims that I can add. I love mixing textures and a variety of fabrics to make unique pieces.

You describe yourself as a “designer, maker, illustrator.” How does the illustrator role apply to what you do?

I would say I am actually an illustrator first since I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. I use that skill in every bag to create the designs and patterns. This year, I’ve added leggings, pins and printed bags, and it’s been really fun to finally do more illustration work and turn them into actual products.

Would it be accurate to say your sewing machine is one of the most valuable tools of your trade?

Definitely, I’d be lost without it!

It’s plain to see you have a love of glitter and sparkle. Where does this come from?

Great question! Honestly, sparkly things just make me happy. They are just fun to look at and I’ve always loved them!

I love the name Sent From Mars. Is it a play on your name? How did you come up with that?

It is! When I started my shop, I knew I didn’t want to have my actual name on my products so the “Mars” in Sent From Mars is a little nod to it but I like that it really sounds like Mars the planet.

Mari’s brother, Ray, in a Rufio costume she designed for him to wear for Halloween.

What’s your geek origin story? Why did you decide to focus on the geek side of fashion?

This one wasn’t so obvious to me and I can only tell when I look back at how things came about. And it really started from making Halloween costumes for my younger brother, Ray. We always watched movies together, and would talk about projects we’d like to create from them. And Halloween was always our favorite time of year. He wanted movie quality costumes and that’s where I came in.

The first one I really put my all into was a Joker costume from The Dark Knight. Then a Rufio costume which I turned into a tutorial on the website Instructables. Those costumes and that tutorial are what led me into making by first “geeky” bag inspired by Han Solo. And what’s funny is, I didn’t know that “geek” was a thing. I was just making something I liked from a movie I loved. (Ray) passed away in 2016 from a brain tumor but he’s still with me every day, inspiring everything I make.

What specifically appeals to you about creating handbags?

I wear a bag every day, and I know I’m not the only one so I like that I can design something fun that gets a lot of use.

What are some of your favorite products that you’ve created so far?

That’s tough since they are all special to me but I love the quirky ones, like my Spunky inspired bag (from Rocko’s Modern Life) and the two Back to the Future-inspired bags.

I read that you studied at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. Tell me more about your fashion background.

Yep! I went to FIDM in San Francisco straight out of high school. While I was there, I felt like I really honed in on what I wanted to do as a career, design.

You got your start in the industry working for a couple of major retailers. What did you learn from that experience?

I live two hours out of San Francisco so I was lucky to be close to design work which isn’t always easy to find if you’re looking for a 9 to 5 job. Those experiences taught me a lot but the big thing I took away was that I wanted to design things for myself and make things I was really truly passionate about.

Why did you decide to strike out on your own?

There really isn’t anything as fulfilling as doing work you’re proud of and passionate about. That really drove me to later start my shop. I saw a lot of people running stores on Etsy and just thought if they could do it, why not me?

Mari with her first batch of manufactured bags for Sent From Mars.

Sent From Mars began as an Etsy shop and you’ve since branched out to partner with manufacturers. Tell me about the evolution of the business.

I started my Etsy shop only selling handmade pieces. I loved what I was able to create but it wasn’t scalable, there are only so many bags I can make on my own in a given month. It had been a dream of mine for several years to get products manufactured, even before I actually started my shop.

Through social media I’ve been able to connect with a lot of likeminded people and shop owners and was fortunate to have gotten a referral to my first manufacturer that way. I’ve only manufactured a few pieces so far and am still figuring this part out but I’m glad to be on the right path.

What’s been most challenging about running your own business?

For me it has been consistency and planning ahead. When you design for fun you can create as you please but to make it a business you really need clear goals and to look forward at what you’re trying to achieve.

What do you enjoy most about it?

I love the actual design part. Sitting down and planning out new products, getting inspired and creating.

Since your bags are custom-made and limited edition, they’re priced as any good investment piece would be. How would you describe your customer demographic?

When I design pieces, I really start out by making them for myself, so I would say my customer is someone who cares about the details and wants a quality piece.

Mari’s custom Marty McFly dress with Back to the Future-inspired accessories, which she designed to wear to the Geekie Awards.

You’ve made some amazing custom commissions and your bags have been featured at special events and on red carpets. What have been some of the most memorable Sent From Mars product appearances?

Well my most memorable was actually my own when I designed myself a custom Marty McFly dress for the Geekie Awards in 2015. I made a hoverboard clutch and DeLorean earrings to match and it was such a fun outfit to wear!

ThinkGeek mascot Timmy in a Hellboy costume designed by Mari Cole with one of her Hellboy handbags.

You made some costumes for ThinkGeek mascot Timmy that were worn by the little monkey at San Diego Comic-Con. Tell me more about that.

I’ve been a fan of ThinkGeek for years after discovering them one Christmas and getting the absolute best stocking stuffers for my family. I saw that they were recruiting designers to make Timmy costumes and just thought it looked fun, so I applied and was able to make two costumes for him, a Bowser and a Hellboy, two of my favorites.

Many of your products are inspired by Star Wars. What’s your earliest memory of George Lucas’ franchise?

Definitely my brother buying a limited edition set of the original trilogy on VHS at Blockbuster. I remember they came in gold sleeves and that’s the first time I can remember really watching them.

What do you love about the galaxy far, far away?

I really love the characters and the imagery has always inspired me. I also always love a good hero/villain story and this is one of the best!

You also create a lot of Harry Potter-inspired designs. You seem to have a fixation with Hedwig and the Niffler from “Fantastic Beasts.” Do you have a soft spot for magical creatures?

Oh, most definitely! My favorite characters always seem to be creatures, probably since in real life I’m a huge animal lover.

How were you introduced to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world?

I saw the movies when they first came out in theaters and loved them. I’ve always loved magic and the story captivated me.

What’s your Hogwarts house?

Gryffindor! First by choice and then by Pottermore.

Mari visits Platform 9 3/4 with one of her Hedwig bags.

What are some of your other personal fandoms?

Anything Super Mario, specifically Yoshi. Back to the Future and also The 10th Kingdom.

You’ve said that with each of your designs you like to try something new or challenge yourself when it comes to honing your skills. Why is that important to you?

I’m motivated by a challenge. I find that to be the most rewarding.

You’re mom to an adorable little girl. She seems to have inspired a fair amount of personal projects. Can you tell me about some of those?

One was for her actual announcement. I wanted to share the news in a way that related to my shop so I used her ultrasound photo to make a custom bag. It still sits by my desk and was a great way to capture that moment. Her first Halloween costume was also really fun to make. I made her a pink Yoshi complete with a stuffed tail. And right now I’m working on her first birthday outfit which will be a fun custom Yoshi print onesie!

The bag Mari made for her daughter’s birth announcement, using an ultrasound photo.

Geeky bags of all kinds seem to be really in right now. Why do you think consumers have latched onto this trend?

I would say part of the attraction is that a bag is a really fun way to wear something you’re into, and can be the only piece you include in your outfit which makes it really easy to wear and a product you get a lot of use out of.

What are your future plans or dreams for Sent From Mars?

I’d like to offer a full line of clothing and accessories in the future and am working towards releasing collections rather than just one design at a time.

What’s on your to-make bucket list?

Loads of personal projects that I don’t usually have time for, such as custom Halloween decorations for my house! I’ve always wanted to go all out decorating it in a Super Mario castle theme!

What you do you personally look for in a handbag?

It’s been years since I’ve bought a handbag but when I make them I look for inspiration in something that makes me happy, usually something that makes me laugh or has a good memory tied to it.

Love of cartoons, anime, comics shape illustrator’s ‘cute, adventurous’ style

Growing up in the Philippines, illustrator Irene Flores’ artistic inclinations were nourished by a steady diet of awesome Japanese and American cartoons, from Danger Mouse to She-Ra, Speed Racer and Voltron to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

The dual influences of anime and ’90s comic book aesthetics conspired to shape Irene’s signature “cute” and “adventurous” style, which you can thoroughly absorb on her website, www.beanclamchowder.com (there’s a story there).

Irene’s impressive portfolio includes the Fashion Art School series of lively instructional books, work with Marvel comics and BOOM! Studios, a graphic novel published by Tokyopop, illustrations for the serialized novel Dead Endings, and art for the 12-issue run of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: Coronation. 

Irene also puts the fan in fan art with portraits and illustrations inspired by her favorite pop culture properties, from Marvel, to Harry Potter, to Disney, to Game of Thrones, to Star Wars, to Final Fantasy. (Don’t get her started on her passion for FFXV! Seriously, though, it’s inspiring.) My personal favorite is a stunning portrait that captures the fierce poetry in motion of Black Panther’s Okoye. 

You can even take home some of the geeky art and merchandise she’s created, if you visit her Storenvy shop, as well as Redbubble, TeePublic, and Amazon. You’re welcome. 

 

Black Widow fan art by Irene Flores.

You’re an illustrator who has done projects for Marvel, BOOM! Studios, and DC imprint Wildstorm. You also co-author and illustrate a series of really fun art instructional books. When did you first realize you wanted to make art your profession?

It was always the dream when I was a kid. I was maybe 4 or 5 when I first got my hands on some Filipino dime store comics and, a year or two later, found Archie, and a little bit after that discovered Wonder Woman. It was my answer when adults asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But it become more of a reality in my twenties, when I realized that an illustration career could be something I could really pursue.

Did you begin making art at a young age?

Yep! I think most kids tend to doodle anyway. I did the same, drawing random ideas and fan art from shows I watched. My dad influenced the drawing bug more, though. He was a graphic designer and in the mid to late ‘80s, that meant he largely hand drew everything. So we saw his artwork and he always had cool stuff … tech pens, templates, graphic tape and transfers. Tt seemed so neat to use.

You grew up in the Philippines and were “heavily influenced” by both Japanese animation and American comics. Can you tell me about some of your early influences in both these mediums?

Yeah, in between my Filipino shows, we got Danger Mouse, Inspector Gadget, Rainbow Brite (the best), Jem, She-Ra, He-Man, ThunderCats (my jam), Care Bears … damn, I watched a lot of cartoons … Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Voltron, Voltes V, Candy Candy, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

What most appealed to you about these two art forms?

Being a kid, you don’t really have that distinction between Japanese or American animation (I just knew they weren’t Filipino). Most of the shows were in English. Some of the Japanese (and Korean shows) were dubbed in Filipino. I just watched cartoons because that’s what you did as a kid, right? They were colorful and sometimes wacky, but you don’t care about nuance when you’re 6! People had amazing costumes! Flying horses with rainbow manes! Cute bears with caring powers! It was definitely more exciting than live-action shows.

What was it like to be a girl who was into these things?

Hmm, as a kid it didn’t matter. Our town had a few select channels, so all my classmates watched the same shows. You could talk to any of them about the Nickelodeon block that week, and try to do some Street Frogs raps. Or show off your brother’s Molecular (from SilverHawks) figure.

Art from Dead Endings by Irene Flores.

Your portfolio art is listed under two categories on your website. One is “Cute.” The other is “Adventurous.” Those two words are a good description of your style. How did you develop this unique personal style?

It started early. I had comics books drawn by Jim Lee, Brian Bolland, Whilce Portacio … like, that ‘90s comic book superhero aesthetic I tried to emulate. But I also loved a lot of cute stuff, watched a lot of shojo anime and the biggest influence was probably Sailor Moon. The style was already softer compared to American comics, but the characters often went chibi or “SD” (super-deformed). And they looked hella cute.

I feel like I’d always done the cute stuff, but always as an aside. Like, for a little bit of a cute intermission comic, or standalone art. The focus was more of that ‘90s comic art style, until about the late 2000s to 2010s, I think? As I got older and more exposed to new art styles and artists (thanks, dialup internet), I saw “cute” styles used in stories that I didn’t think they’d be used for. So I started developing that style as it’s own unique thing while still working on my “Adventurous” stuff.

As an illustrator, what materials, tools, and equipment do you use most?

I just got a brand new Galaxy Tab A with S pen. Game changer. For the longest time, I was doing analog sketching, inking with brush pen, scanning in and cleanup/colors in Photoshop, using a Wacom Intuos tablet. I’d never really had the “drawing on a tablet screen” experience before.

Damn, I was missing out. I bought the Tab A as a kind of cheap portable sketchbook thing. Ha! It’s basically my brand new workhorse. It’s just a much faster process than starting with analog. There’s deadlines to meet, you know?

Short version, I’m doing all my sketching, lines, and flats on the Samsung Galaxy Tab with S pen (ArtFlow app), and doing cleanup/colors on Photoshop CC, with my tiny, beat-up Wacom Intuos Small, on my equally beat up 2012 Macbook Pro (which needs more RAM).

Your website is www.beanclamchowder.com. That’s an intriguing name. What exactly does that mean?

Sometimes, I think about the origin of that and put my head in my hands and sigh. Time travel with me to 1999, where I was in high school and my friend (who had a Marine Biology class) was given a worksheet with different aquatic species on it. She then proceeded to give her friends nicknames from said worksheet and I was bestowed with “beanclam.” I got off easy (it was way catchier than “bristleworm”). I thought it was funny in a way only high schoolers think is funny. So I started using it as my username in the shiny, new world of internet forums.

I liked it enough (couldn’t think of an alternative) that I used it for my senior project in 2001. I coded (with basic HTML what an innocent time) an art website for myself, “beanclam.tripod.com.” And I started posting my art online. Even back then, I thought that name recognition was important when it came to art but I should NEVER reveal my real name on the internet.

So beanclam kind of stuck … for 17 years. But when I tried to buy a proper domain name, “beanclam.com” was already taken (disappointing, but the landing page is just a giant picture of a beanclam, so appropriate), so I went with the next best thing.

There are currently four books in the “Fashion Art School” series you co-write and illustrate for Impact Books. Titles include “Shojo Fashion Manga Art School” and “Sci-Fi Fashion Art School.” How did the idea for the series come about?

I have to thank Amy Reeder (Rocket Girl, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur) for that, actually. Impact Books had approached her to do a book on fashion and she didn’t have the time due to other projects, so she sent Impact my way. I was very enthusiastic about the idea, since I love creating character outfits anyway. They liked my stuff well enough to offer me the chance. The first book was pretty successful, enough that I got to make a few more.

Do you enjoy teaching budding artists through this series?

I was a bit nervous, since I feel like I’m still learning? Although that feeling will probably never go away, so I wasn’t sure if I was “qualified” to teach anything. But I just went off things I learned and presented it as straightforward as I could.

Have you received feedback from teens and older artists who use these how-to books?

Oh man, that part was (and is) very rewarding. Getting feedback online and in person from people who have used and loved my books is amazing. It’s super flattering to be told that my books were a big influence on their approach to drawing, especially when they seem to be seriously pursuing art.

You illustrated the three-volume graphic novel Mark of the Succubus, published by Tokyopop. As a comic book fan, that must have been exciting.

For sure. It was my first professional, published book and a bit of a trial by fire. As someone who had only done a page-a-week webcomic, Succubus was a full on 168-page graphic novel. It took a year to finish the first novel. It was a lot of very high moments — actually finishing and publishing a book, achieving the comic book artist dream — but there were lows too. The job did not pay well, and i felt burnt out to the point where drawing wasn’t enjoyable. So it was a very important experience for me and I learned a LOT with that first job.

You’ve also illustrated covers, variant covers, and short stories for Adventure Time and The Amazing World of Gumball comics. What was it like working with BOOM! Studios?

I honestly forgot how BOOM! found me. It might’ve been online or perhaps someone saw me tabling at a convention? But I’m glad they did. It’s been great fun working on various things for them. It keeps things interesting for me. I’ve gotten to do Adventure Time and The Gumball covers, and recently I’ve inked for Heavy Vinyl and Labyrinth Coronation. I’m stoked that the editors there know they can rely on me and the variety of style I can do.

Art from Dead Endings by Irene Flores.

Your art is featured in the serialized novel “Dead Endings” in online magazine Sparkler Monthly. Tell me more about this project. 

Man, what a fun book. I love contemporary supernatural stuff in general, plus Jessica (Chavez) injects the story with this dark comedy vibe and I am here for it. Plus I love the characters, and I was very excited to have some input on their design. I draw an illustrated piece for each chapter, usually Jessica or our editors will suggest a few scenes to choose from. The illustrations are black and white and I usually try to have a detective/film noir, shadows and light vibe (it is a supernatural detective story after all), and on occasion use a single color as a highlight in the art for some emphasis.

Can you tell me about your work with Marvel?

It was a while back, one of my earlier jobs as well, that I have mixed feelings about. I was very excited about it, I was living the dream, getting a chance to work with a company I’d been a fan of for so long. The project was a four-issue mini of Cloak and Dagger. I was doing the art and inking. I finished the first issue, but the series was cancelled and Issue 1 was never published. It was pretty disappointing, but I learned that happens sometimes. But it hit me harder at the time since I was fairly new to working in comics.

You also created artwork for a volume of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: Coronation. That’s awesome! Are you a fan of Labyrinth? What was that experience like?

I’m so glad my editors have asked me to stay on for the 12-issue run. My friends and I are all fans of Labyrinth and, watching the movie ages ago, had all decided that we’d rather stay in the Labyrinth with the Goblin King and why was Sara trying to leave?! Working on the book has been fun and I think I’ve finally hit my stride. I’m mostly working on scenes that are familiar to me, the ones from the movie that focus on Bowie — I mean Jareth — and baby Toby. It’s been a really positive experience so far, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the run (we’re working on Issue 7 right now).

Your portfolio includes a lot of fan art and you sell geeky merchandise on Etsy and Storenvy. What do you enjoy about creating fandom-related art and merch?

It’s just so fun and enjoyable, especially sharing fan art with fellow fans. Won’t lie, I know that making fan merch can be pretty lucrative and I … uh … need money to live. The stuff I make is pretty much the stuff I’m a fan of, though. So maybe that’s why it feels ever more rewarding when people purchase things from me? Like, thank you for appreciating my stuff enough that you’ve bought things fromm me, and also you’re a fan of this show?! THANK YOU.

You’ve said you “just like nerdy in general.” When and how did you embrace your inner nerd?

I’ve embraced my inner and outer nerd for years. It’s just that my interests are “nerd” interests. I mean, I feel like sports fans can be gigantic nerds too … dressing up and painting their faces, memorizing stats and player training regimes and … I’m just gonna handwave sociocultural bias … whatever.

I like what I like, and a lot of those things are “nerdy.” RPGs, anime, games, being an indoor kid, not liking sports, etc. These things make me happy, why wouldn’t I embrace that?

Your website features art inspired by Marvel, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Final Fantasy XV, Hetalia: Axis Powers, Disney, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars. One of my favorites is your illustration of Okoye from Black Panther. It’s very powerful. Tell me about your thought process in creating that piece.

Oh, man, that Okoye piece. I was still on a high after watching the movie and walking out of the theater, I immediately knew I wanted to draw THAT image. Okoye, on top of a car, in the red dress, lit by the neon lights in a high-speed chase on the streets of South Korea. The image was really vivid in my head and I finished it in a day. Although I did fiddle with the lighting and edits for another week, but that initial drawing and colors was so fast. I was inspired. I wish all my drawings were that easy to get out.

Many of your character portraits are of strong female characters, like Princess Leia, Black Widow, Wonder Woman, Agent Carter, even Negasonic Teenage Warhead. Do you think geek culture is making progress when it comes to female representation?

Yeah, for sure. It’s not just the characters but the creators and industry as well. And obviously I feel like progress was always being made, albeit slowly and more quietly. The conversation is out there now, due to social media and just the added voices and transparency brought on by the internet. Obviously, nothing is perfect, and there’s always room for more improvement, but progress is happening.

Let’s talk about some of your personal fandoms. You described yourself as “deeply entrenched” in Final Fantasy XV. You said you were surprised by how much you ended up loving it. How so?

When the initial promos came out, I was like, what is this? Some J-pop bros out on a road trip?! I mean, well, it IS. But I do love it anyway, ha! So off the bat, the game is beautiful and I appreciate my visuals. The combat is fun, with some cute perks (battle selfies anyone?), and the story is pretty straightforward, yeah?

The Kingdom of Lucis has been taken over by the empire of Niflheim, the crown city of Insomnia has fallen, and the Prince and his three friends/retainers are on a quest to take it back. But also you can hunt monsters, and race chocobos, and catch frogs, and take photos for a magazine publisher. And do about a million other side quests. And FISH. And learn new recipes.

But we played for MONTHS. And I kinda fell in love with the characters and the tragedy of the story. Yeah, the four main characters are young men in their early 20s. They say dumb stuff, and are kinda dorks, are bad with emotions, some have self-esteem issues and are saddled with duty and dad issues. But they’re trying to do good and the right thing and there’s duty and sacrifice and complicated relationships. And it’s a grand ol’ Shakespearean tragedy in the end.

It’s not perfect. Oh boy, it’s far from that. But I really fell for the characters in a way I hadn’t since FF6 (my next favorite casts are FF12 and FF10).

How many hours would you say you’ve spent playing FFXV?

Real talk. I “played” the game at home with my wife. I have stuff to draw, so I’d sit at my laptop and work in front of the TV while she played. We’ve clocked over 300 hours. I would never get anything drawn if I had the controller in my hands.

Final Fantasy 6 fan art by Irene Flores.

When and how did you first begin gaming? What do you like about it?

We had little handheld games, friends with consoles and there were gaming cafes in the Philippines, so my brother and I got into console games and were later exposed to arcades. We started out playing Tetris, Donkey Kong, Super Mario, Golden Axe, just a lot of side scrollers and puzzle games. And I loved them! The graphics were very low res, but it was kind of like being in a cartoon but able to control the characters which was amazing.

And then in high school, we got a Super Nintendo. And I played Chrono Trigger. And I had feelings. And then my brother told me, “You should play this game, I think you’ll like it.” It was Final Fantasy 6. I uh … I cried a lot. It kind of changed the direction of what I loved in games. I fell in love with the characters, and this expansive narrative, and it gave me so many feels (in a time where the translation was not great and localization was probably not really a thing).

I love a lot of game types, but that started my lifelong love of RPGs and my love/hate (mostly love) relationship with Final Fantasy. Some of my recent faves have been Undertale, Fran Bow, The Last of Us, Fire Emblem series and, god, I love resource management games … Sims, Civilization, Don’t Starve, etc., etc.

You’re also very into Marvel — the comics and the movies. What are some of your favorite titles in the comics and the films?

Oh man … got to whittle it down. The first Avengers film was a game changer and is still one of my faves. Captain America: Winter Soldier is probably my fave Marvel movie. Black Panther, oh my god. Spiderman: Homecoming, yes, please. Also Season 1 of Daredevil and Season 1 of Jessica Jones, a revelation. Those are personal faves.

Books? Sophie Campbell on Jem was aesthetic goals, Ms. Marvel (I love Kamala, bless her fanfic-writing heart.), Young Avengers Volume 2, the entirety of Kid Loki’s story arc (mostly in Journey into Mystery), Hawkeye (Fraction and Aja), and a bit of a flashback, but Generation X.

What are some of your other fandoms?

Recently, Steven Universe, Voltron, Detroit: Become Human, Undertale, Game of Thrones. Oldies but goodies? Avatar: The last Airbender (I will love it forever.), Harry Potter, Star Wars, plenty of old-ass games and anime (Death Note, Hetalia, Bleach, One Piece, Full Metal Alchemist). Why are there so many?!

You seem enthusiastic about the upcoming animated She-Ra series from Netflix. 

Yes! I enjoyed the original version as a kid. But honestly, a lot of those old shows were terrible. But I liked the character designs, and what I mostly remember was loving the idea that He-Man (which I watched first) had a twin sister who also had a “secret” hero identity and was a princess that had a cool sword and a rainbow pegasus (flying horses were very important to me as a child). And I was indifferent when I first heard about the reboot, but learning who the creative team was behind the show, I got more excited (I’ve been a fan of Noelle Stevenson since Nimona.).

The tagline on your website says “Irene Flores … illustrator + karaoke aficionado + caffeine addict. What are some of your go-to karaoke songs?

Oh, damn. “Sweet Child of Mine.” ALWAYS. Disney songs are always great to get other people singing, although the BEST one is “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” And “Time Warp” from Rocky Horror is always a good time.

What’s your caffeine delivery system of choice?

Summer here in California is kicking my ass, so right now, I’m living off Trader Joe’s cold brew.

You exhibit your art and merchandise at conventions. What’s your next scheduled appearance?

I took a bit of a break from cons this year (I was a bit burnt out after four years of steady convention tabling), so my last convention for the year is SacAnime (in Sacramento) at the end of August. But I’m excited to get back into it in 2019. I already know I’ll be at WonderCon 2019, and I’m super excited to do Emerald City Comic Con. I won’t know about other cons until a bit later.

According to your website “About” section, your future goals include “creating another graphic novel and eating a Monte Cristo sandwich.” Can you tell me anything about this future graphic novel?

Oh man, I’ve been wanting to do some personal projects for a while and felt I didn’t have time due to client work. But I’m trying to my fix my schedule to accommodate it. There are a couple of ideas I’m working on with Ashly (my wife and writing partner). We’ve been kicking around ideas, but the forefront is really a cute book featuring birds. We have five parakeets and three cockatiels and I’ve been doing some art and short comics featuring them. But we want to do some longer format stories featuring them on adventures.

How are things going with the Monte Cristo?

My genetics and terrible eating habits have caught up with me and I am pre-diabetic, so that Monte Cristo will have to stay a distant dream.

 

Saber Maidens admin sews her way to a space for women to connect with the Force

This week, we continue to combat the toxic masculinity and divisive rhetoric that’s threatening to make being part of the Star Wars fan community kind of a downer. In the second installment of a two-part interview, we’re featuring another co-founder and co-admin of the Facebook group Saber Maidens.

As we learned last week, Saber Maidens is a support group for women who are into Star Wars, the (light)saber arts, and prop and costume fabrication. The group began as the vision of Pat Yulo and Celeste Joy Greer Walker (who we featured last week) as they sought to create a safe space for female fans wary of being shamed or bullied by fanboys.

In this interview, we meet Pat, who got hooked on sewing after taking classes at her local community college and soon discovered an outlet for the Star Wars passion sparked, interestingly enough, after she made the connection between “Spaceballs” and “A New Hope” as a high school freshman living in the Philippines.

Pat now has eight approved costumes with Rebel Legion — no easy feat! — and troops regularly with the charity group; will be featured in the upcoming docuseries “Looking for Leia”; is admin of My Little Pony-Star Wars mashup group MLP Jedi; and holds a special place in her heart for that purple-haired goddess, Admiral Holdo.

She also throws down the gauntlet to fanboys crying tears over a new era of inclusive Star Wars stories. In her words:

“We’re here to declare that this new female-centric version of Star Wars is here to stay and for every fanboy shedding tears, there are more women behind you not willing to put up with it.”

You’re an admin and co-founder of the Facebook group Saber Maidens. For those who aren’t familiar with the group, what is Saber Maidens about?

Saber Maidens is a support group for women (cis, trans and everything in between) who enjoy dressing up as Force users and wielding lightsabers. People who participate in the group have varying needs met — some are more into the creation of the costumes and are looking for sewing help, others are more into the physical choreography of using a lightsaber. All of them are people looking for a space to talk about Star Wars that does not include the negativity of the current “fanboy” state out there.

What are your duties as admin and co-founder?

I always joke that for any group, my duties as admin is to find relevant memes to post on the group. We moderate conversations and try to engage our members to talk about their current projects.

Tell me about the conversations with co-admin Celeste Joy Greer Walker that led to the founding of the group.

Somewhere buried in the bowels of Facebook Messenger was the beginnings of the conversation that started Saber Maidens. Celeste and I originally envisioned a safe space for female Star Wars fans to discuss their love of the fandom. It differs from other groups because we primarily focused on Jedi and lightsaber choreography, because it was how we met and some of our fueling passions in the fandom. We’re not pilots or princesses or smugglers. We identify with the Force and make that our focus.

Why did you feel women needed a “safe space” in the Star Wars choreography clubs?

For full disclosure, I was always at the periphery of the choreography clubs. My skill, time, and other duties prevented me from exploring and spending more time with the group. So my participation is fleeting at best. What I’ve personally experienced hasn’t been too jarring, but also, that’s because I haven’t been too entrenched in that atmosphere. My one major negative interaction with the choreography club was getting burned by a saber maker who overcharged me for a lightsaber and took two years to deliver.

Saber Maidens members sometimes meet for “crafternoon get-togethers” to work on projects and hang out. Tell me about those meetups.

Gosh, nothing is more fun and unproductive than getting together for a crafternoon! We set goals — like working on arm bands or learning new makeup techniques — and then get distracted by the conversation, food, and fun of the atmosphere. Sometimes we take submission photos together for the various clubs. Each person who attends has a different craft agenda sometimes and each person works on their own project while in the company of others.

What other activities have Saber Maidens participated in as a group?

Some of the members of Saber Maidens have presented at local cons on how to create authentic looking Jedi costuming. The speakers have now been nicknamed “Jedi Master Interfacing” and “Jedi Master Velcro” based on how much time they spend at each session talking about their love for each item. We say Jedi are held together by Velcro, snaps, and the Force.

You were inspired to get into costuming in 2002 after working at a local Renaissance Faire. What appealed to you about this particular craft?

I’ve always been a crafty person and loved making things. When I was younger, it was about painting and embroidery. When I moved to the U.S., I lost a safe space to paint and needed to find an outlet that didn’t make such a big mess. I joined the Renaissance Faire and learned how to sew. Then I got a sewing machine and ended up taking classes at the local community college.

My first teacher was very curious about my questions as no one else in the beginner’s class was asking about working with fur. (I wanted to make a Care Bears costume). He told me to volunteer for Costume Con, and that’s when I saw what the local costuming community was like and I fell in love with the creativity.

A combination of working for Faire and participating in the local costuming community really helped me to come out of my shell. High school me was VERY quiet, shy, and reserved. Now I’m a lot more assertive, goal-oriented, and boisterous.

Pat Yulo in a Winter Fairy costume she fashioned out of her wedding dress.

You took a sewing class at community college and went on to earn a certificate in theater costuming. What’s the most important thing you learned during your studies?

I went in for one class and, like an addict, kept going back for more! I loved it and the school was so supportive and thorough. I learned that SEWING IS HARD. It involves pain, some blood, a lot of heartache, and lots of overthinking. I know my math skills improved, as did my engineering mind. Sewing teaches math and patience, which are not really byproducts you think of when it comes to the hobby. Practice, practice, practice.

The Saber Maidens are currently working on Lightsabers for Leia, scheduled for Oct. 21. Tell me about that campaign.

The primary goal of this group build is to submit as many lightsaber-wielding Leia costumes by October 21, 2018, as a way to honor Carrie Fisher and her legacy as Leia. Princess Leia and Carrie Fisher inspired generations of fans and have been role models for many young, aspiring Jedi. When Leia was shown with Force powers in “The Last Jedi,” the moment reverberated through the fandom.

There are a lot of other instances of Leia using her latent Jedi abilities in books and comic books. Seeing Leia use a lightsaber was like seeing a potential fulfilled, and we’d like to bring that to life. For many, it reinforced the strength we knew Leia had. We want to make Leia as visible as possible in costume clubs so she can continue to serve as an icon for courage and hope.

We’ve established there are multiple variations of this version of Leia, such as Force Unleashed Leia, Infinities Jedi Leia, Marvel Jedi Leia, and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye Leia to name a few. There are certainly more instances, but those are not as fully resourced with pictures. There is also a lot of fan art that is near and dear to us. Pick a version and go with it!

We are also doing a fundraiser for the International Bipolar Foundation, which was a cause dear to Carrie’s heart. We are selling patches of our Saber Maidens logo and a special Lightsabers for Leia patch and all proceeds go to IBPF. We will also donate the money on October 21. You can order patches here.

How many people are participating and what kind of costumes are they creating?

A lot of people are working on their costumes, but we currently don’t have an exact number. As with any costumer, there is a lot of laziness and delay until we get close to the deadline. Then we’ll all freak out and finish it in a week or two. Some of us are having a hard time sourcing the appropriate materials or fabrics. We also need to decide if we want to make the costume for fun or to have it approved by either Rebel Legion or Saber Guild.

What sort of efforts are going into preparing for Oct. 21?

We are all doing a lot of research on the costumes and figuring out what is available out there. Because there are multiple instances of her wielding a saber, it’s a matter of choosing which costumes speaks to you the most. And sewing, lots and lots of sewing.

How were you personally affected by the passing of Carrie Fisher?

I remember getting the news of Carrie Fisher’s passing while finishing up breakfast on a cold, post-Christmas morning. I had to sit down and collect my thoughts. I felt like someone I knew personally had passed, and I don’t normally get this feeling for celebrities I had never met. And I was motivated to do SOMETHING. I worked with my friends at the Rebel Legion and we created a vigil for Carrie at the Yoda Fountain in front of Lucasfilm. The next day, we brought candles, pictures, cans of Coke, and a sign that we all wrote on. We sat around, talked, and comforted one another. It was a big blow to our community.

You’re a member of Rebel Legion, a group of Star Wars costuming enthusiasts who give back to the community through charity and volunteering. How did you become involved with that group?

A couple of years ago, I was wandering WonderCon as Kaylee from “Firefly” in a large, pink, fluffy dress. I came across the Rebel Legion booth and thought that if I was going to make a Star Wars costume, it would be good to use it for something meaningful. I never imagined years down the line I’d end up with TOO many Jedi costumes. (There might not be a thing as too many as I’d like to make more!). My first troop with them was for the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco at Lucasfilm. We got to entertain kids and teach them how to use lightsabers before they went into to watch episodes of “Clone Wars.”

You currently have seven approved Jedi costumes and one Admiral Holdo costume. Wow, that is a lot! Tell me more about the different costumes and what it took to create them.

Full disclosure: I didn’t make my first approved costume. It was beyond my skills at the time to make Callista Ming, so I commissioned someone to make it for me. As my sewing skills improved, I made Jocasta Nu and a variety of generic Jedi. I like the idea of generic Jedi because you aren’t beholden to screen accuracy. You can let your imagination run wild a little bit and create colors and a character that could exist in the Star Wars universe.

I have a Jedi made up of gray fabrics that I inherited from a friend. She passed along a collection of gray skirts that had been owned by a friend’s wife who had passed suddenly. I patchworked all the skirts and gray fabrics together and I think the end product looks really polished and sophisticated, and in some way, acknowledges the leftovers of a life missed.

Could you explain what kind of work is involved in getting a costume approved by Rebel Legion? I’ve heard it isn’t easy.  

Things you learn with experience — when making a costume for any of the costume clubs, first check to see if they have a CRL (Costume Reference Library) for that character or type of character. Do research — see what’s out there, what’s been done, what’s been approved before you. Generic Jedi are one of the easiest to sew and give some leeway to creative license. Join online groups like Ladies of the Legions or the group’s forums to ask questions about your costume build.

When it’s done, take clear photos in good lighting and then submit them via a website form. It doesn’t matter how many costumes you’ve submitted — each one is nerve-racking as you wait for your approval letter! Holdo was a tough one for me because I didn’t have time to make it myself. I had to outsource the dress and submitted shortly before the movie came out, so there wasn’t even a CRL yet.

Pat in her Rebel Legion-approved Vice Admiral Holdo costume.

Which of your eight costumes was the most challenging?

Jocasta Nu was a learning curve because it took a while to figure out how to do the embroidery on her tabards. I had a newborn at the time and I’m not even sure how I finished that and a generic Jedi during my months of maternity leave. But I figured it out with some chalk, a twin needle, and a TON of dark brown thread. I must have used up over six spools!

What kind of volunteer work have you done with Rebel Legion?

I’ve been trooping with RL for almost 10 years now. As a working mom and wife, I use trooping as my “spa day.” I’ve trooped at the Ronald McDonald House, Lucasfilm, autism walks, the Great Reno Balloon Race, and Davies Symphony Hall to name a few. I love interacting with the public — especially when I hand a woman or girl a lightsaber to hold for a photo. Their eyes just light up and it’s a reminder that a lightsaber is symbolic of strength and power and, yes, women can have that power too. I’ve also helped to plan some of the parties and get-togethers.

What do you enjoy most about being a part of this group?

Deep down, I feel like all human beings are just looking to be accepted. Being part of a group like Rebel Legion fulfills that needs and provides you with friends in good times and in bad. When one of us are hurt, we rally together to help one another out. In many ways it also acts like an extended family.

You’ve said you have a whole closet full of costumes. Tell me about some of the non-Star Wars looks you’ve created.

My Jedi costumes intermingle with my steampunk stuff. A lot of my steampunk and RenFaire skirts are actually my Jedi skirts. There are fairies in there, too, one for each season. When I got married, I designed my dress to be inexpensive and reusable as a winter fairy costume. So I’ve actually gotten a lot of use out of what’s supposed to be a one-time dress. There’s also some historical stuff, like Regency, Edwardian, Dickens, and Medieval. There’s also a Dolores Umbridge and a Slytherin, and some mashups too.

Pat with the Star Wars-My Little Pony mashup group MLP Jedi.

You manage the Facebook group MLP Jedi, which is a mashup of Star Wars and My Little Pony. I had no idea such a fandom existed. Please give me all the details of how this came to be!

At Celebration Anaheim in 2015, a friend of mine and I sat at a panel about Star Wars mashups. At the time, I had made a vow — NO mashups. Ever. And yet, there we were, sitting and plotting about our mutual love for Star Wars and My Little Pony. We each picked our favorite ponies and thought nothing of it for a couple of months. The following January, I got word that cousins of mine were moving to the Bay Area and they were big Star Wars and MLP fans as well. All of a sudden, we were able to make costumes for the Mane Six. So I worked hard to construct six costumes in three months in time for BABSCon 2016. Since then we’ve just been recruiting other friends willing to join us, including a bunch of little Padawans.

Are a lot of people into this specific mashup?

There are at least 20 of us with this mashup and there is certainly fan art out there that shows there’s a fan base!

I’m having a hard time visualizing what the MLP Jedi “scene” might look like. Can you describe it for me?

I’m not sure if there’s really a scene, but we always attend BABScon, the local My Little Pony con and do a panel for the kid’s club. We sing the MLP Jedi theme song, talk about using the Force, and make lightsabers out of balloons. Last con, one of our new members who does DayBreaker Sith even did a panel about science.

You’re featured in the upcoming docuseries “Looking for Leia,” which focuses on women in the fandom. How did that come about?

Luck and the Force! I was sitting in the airport, killing time because my flight was delayed, when Celeste posted about “Looking for Leia.” I checked out the website and sent them a lengthy, gushy email about how much I love Star Wars and how I interact with my fandom. Turns out Annalise Ophelian, the filmmaker, was local to the San Francisco Bay Area and was interested in my story.

Tell me more about that experience.

The film crew came to my house to film me individually in the morning, and in the afternoon we had a round table discussion with a group of women, some of whom had come in from Reno and Texas to be part of it. Sit a group of women down for five hours and they can easily fill all that time talking about Star Wars! They also filmed some footage of the MLP Jedi being a bunch of goofs, ‘cause really, when you’re a candy-colored Jedi, life can be a lot fun. When I went on a trip to the Philippines, I managed to connect with Rebel Legion and 501st ladies there. We even managed to film some footage there, which I hope made it to the final cut!

Why did you want to be part of this amazing project?

Who would pass up an opportunity to talk about Star Wars and how it’s influenced our lives? It was a great opportunity too – I have met so many amazing women in this fandom and have connected with people around the world. My part of Saber Maidens was born out of the desire to have a space for women to connect with their fandom.

Tell me your Star Wars origin story. How did you discover George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away?

A long time ago, in a Philippines far, far away … it was Saturday, Sept. 12, 1992. I was a freshman in high school. My dad had just come back from his weekly trip to the laser disc rental store and came back with our weekend movie. “We’re watching Star Wars,” he said. My dad was a jock through and through, but man, did he love movies and movie trivia.

That afternoon we were transported to a galaxy I had never imagined … until I saw two familiar droids crossing the sand dunes of Tatooine, when I shouted, “Wait, wait, wait ….is this the movie “Spaceballs” is about?!” Up to this point, I had seen “Spaceballs” about 300 times and thought it was the best ever! I had no idea it was actually based on something.

But my life changed that day. In retrospect, it’s weird to think of how a simple movie can change your whole life and perspective but it did — it became the bedrock of my geekdom, which dictated how I interacted with people from then on.

Why do you think this franchise has proved to be such an enduring passion for you?

Why does any mythology endure? I like to imagine that hundreds of years from now Star Wars would be the equivalent of Greek and Roman myths today. The characters and storyline are universally understood, especially in light of the “Hero’s Journey” by Joseph Campbell. And now with the new trilogy we finally get the Heroine’s Journey.

The evolution of the franchise has been exciting to be a part of too. More people are starting to renew their passions and more are joining it. The widening of character-types and arcs are allowing more people to see themselves in the movies as well. I never connected with Princess Leia but Vice Admiral Holdo? Man, there was a woman who was stately and not afraid to be herself.

Does Star Wars manifest itself in your life in other ways besides costuming?

My Star Wars passion has ebbed and flowed over the years, and there were the “dark times” shortly after “Episode I” came out. I was disillusioned with the direction of the franchise. Joining the Rebel Legion really did fan the flames of fandom, and I appreciate the costuming community for it.

I feel like my Star Wars passion is all-pervasive and touches all parts of my life. My husband is a huge geek too, just in a very quiet kind of way. One Christmas, I gave him a picture that said, “I love you more than Star Wars.” He laughed and said, “That’s not true but it’s a nice sentiment.”

There’s a Rose Tico quote on the Saber Maidens page — “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” I found this interesting in light of the fact that the Star Wars fandom seems to have gotten nasty recently with all the “Last Jedi” hate and arguing about the “Solo” movie, petitions to remake the film, and calls for Kathleen Kennedy to be fired. What are your thoughts about that?

That quote really struck a chord with a lot of us. Sadly, it feels like there is a lot of hatred in the Star Wars fandom, and I hate to say it but most of it is coming from men. All of the female-centric circles I’ve been in have been happy with the changes in the franchise, including women of color, ages and various body types. Sadly, these additions have not been well received and the paradigm towards hate grows stronger every day. It makes women want to give up with their fandom, which is one of the reasons I think Saber Maidens and communities like it are important.

But like the old adage goes, you can’t fight fire with fire, you can’t fight hate with hate either. What is it with fragile toxic masculinity that has made it rear its ugly head in many vocal forms lately? We’re here to declare that this new female-centric version of Star Wars is here to stay and for every fanboy shedding tears, there are more women behind you not willing to put up with it.

Pat as Dolores Umbridge.

What are some of your other fandoms?

Oh man, at my heart I am a geek and when I love, it’s deep and thorough. Let’s see, I love Doctor Who, My Little Pony, Firefly, Twin Peaks, and Harry Potter, to name a few. Things that aren’t completely considered geeky but that I treat with full force passion — Broadway musicals and books by L.M. Montgomery, especially “Anne of Green Gables.” My husband and I made our pilgrimage to Prince Edward Island for her.

Let’s close with a few Star Wars questions:

What’s your ultimate favorite film in the franchise?

“A New Hope.” I just love that classic hero’s journey, especially the scene where Luke stares off into the two suns and the music theme swells around him. I don’t know how many times I painted that sunset in high school!

What other movies, franchise entries, or stories from the Star Wars universe are you into?

I used to read the Expanded Universe (now Legends) voraciously. I stopped once they killed off Chewie but have been picking up some of the newer books as well. I LOVE “Leia: Princess of Alderaan” by Claudia Grey because it explains how Leia accesses the Force so beautifully and introduces Holdo, who reminded me of my high school self.

Who’s your favorite character?

Luke Skywalker forever. That farm boy is my jam.

Favorite droid?

R2-KT

Lightsaber color?

Orange. It’s a unique color and stands out in a crowd of blues and greens.

Porgs? Yes or no?

I would trade porgs for crystal foxes! There are a voracious subset of Saber Maidens who are totally team porg. We even have a member who does Daenerys Targaryen but with porgs — she is the Mother of Porgs. Me? I want a Swarovski tie-in with the crystal fox.

If someone wanted to join Saber Maidens, how would they go about it?

Find us on Facebook! We have a page that’s available to the public and a group that’s private. Also, we do meetups in the San Francisco Bay Area because it’s where we started. But if you’re a group of lightsaber-wielding gals and want to meet up in another location, we hope we can help with that too!

If readers would like to get involved with Lightsabers for Leia, what should they do?

Post on our Facebook page or join our private group. If you have questions about the costume build, we hopefully can pool our knowledge to figure it out!

 

 

Toxic masculinity no match for saber-wielding Leia fan

This has been a summer in which the Star Wars fandom seems more divided than ever. The geek community has been forced to confront an alarming amount of toxic masculinity bubbling up from below the surface, whether in the form of “Last Jedi” haters calling for the firing of Kathleen Kennedy or fanboys actually crying over a “Fanboy Tears” mug.

So I’m kinda overjoyed that the next installment of the Geek Goddess interviews is a two-parter, featuring founders and co-admins of the Facebook group Saber Maidens, a refreshingly fierce, optimistic, and inclusive support group for women who are into Star Wars, the (light)saber arts, and prop and costume fabrication.

In Part 1, we meet Celeste Joy Greer Walker, an OG, lifetime Star Wars fan who saw “Episode IV” in 1977 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood with her parents (who sound amazing). The story of how she cried when the movie ended because she wanted to see it again almost had me in tears, as did many moments in this interview. 

Celeste describes Star Wars as her life’s foundation and she’s immersed herself in the galaxy far, far away in inspiring ways. As a child, she began dressing up as Princess Leia, created her own costumes from thrift store finds, and once crafted a lightsaber from her bicycle’s handlebar grip (much to her Dad’s chagrin).

As an adult, she’s a member of saber dueling organization Saber Legion, is involved in several saber dueling clubs and competes in tournaments, makes her own costumes, considers Carrie Fisher a role model, and also embraces Harry Potter and steampunk. 

Celeste serves up an impressive amount of Jedi-like wisdom when it comes to subjects like misogyny within the Star Wars fandom, a certain Rose Tico quote, advice on raising awesome geek children, and all the “Last Jedi” hate. 

(Next week, come back for Part 2, featuring Celeste’s co-founder and co-admin, Pat Yulo.)

Photo: Ruth Miller, Eclectic Eye Fine Art and Photography.

You’re an admin and co-founder of the Facebook group Saber Maidens. For those who aren’t familiar with the group, what is Saber Maidens about?

We have a formal definition on our Facebook page that we spent a lot of time debating about. What it comes down to is Saber Maidens is different things for different people. Some fans come to it for costuming support, some for choreography support, some for lightsaber support.

How did the group come to be founded?

Right now, there’s a lot of machismo in Star Wars fandom. That has not always been the case!  But the most macho of machismo is in Star Wars lightsaber-centric groups. A lot of lightsaber fans come from martial sport and there is traditionally still a lot of separation of the genders.

I made my first lightsaber from an old flashlight, my bicycle handlebar grip, and a copper pipe. I was 10. My dad was annoyed that I disfigured my brand new handlebar grip.

My interest in lightsabers ebbed in 2012 … and I began my journey into the Star Wars lightsaber fandom. Even in San Francisco there was not a lot of room for non-heterosexual males. A lot has changed since 2012.

But when I started I was often the only non-male in the class. I was mistaken for someone’s girlfriend, someone’s mother … my saber comrades found it hard to believe that I was a Star Wars lightsaber mega fan! Some were in such disbelief that a creature like me could exist (cis-female hetero Star Wars lightsaber mega fan) that they ignored me entirely, like I did not exist.

Celeste Joy Greer Walker and Saber Maidens co-founder and co-admin Pat Yulo.

What are your duties as admin and co-founder of Saber Maidens?

I post or repost things that I think would be interesting to other lightsaber enthusiasts. I also give a lot of encouragement to those who are first getting into the costuming and choreography aspect of Star Wars fandom.

I’m also working on trying to reinvigorate the martial sport of saber combat dueling for non-male individuals. That’s going to be a slow road because there’s so much stigma even in coed martial sports… Groups like LudoSport and Saberist Academy are making an effort to encourage a coed atmosphere. But there are still a lot of roadblock, often from well-intended men who think they’re being inclusive because they let you be there. That, unfortunately, is not the same as respect.

Saber Maidens has a public page but it’s a closed group with more than 50 members. That’s pretty large for a closed group!

I used to know everyone that was involved. I met them at a convention or at costuming choreography meetups. But now there’s a lot of people from all over the place. And Saber Maidens is maturing into a group to be very proud of.

The Saber Maidens motto is “saving the galaxy one stitch at a time.” What was the inspiration for that slogan?

We had been going back and forth about it for a while. We must have had 200 or 300 ideas. I am probably exaggerating a little. But that came together very organically. I think one of us was cross stitching Star Wars characters and there were some jokes about “A Stitch in Time,” and then it escalate and before I knew it, there it was.

Why a group for just women? I think some men might assume (quite wrongly) that women aren’t interested in lightsabers.

Hahaaaaaaaaaaaaaahaha.

Just a minute. I’m almost finished laughing and then I can answer your question.

You said, “some men.” Even men who identify as feminist can become protective of their lightsaber man space with an Imperialistic authority.

And more importantly, we’re trying to be more inclusive than just women. There’s a lot of people who identify in a lot of different ways who get left out of the conversation when it becomes machismo dominant.

Your members belong to a diverse array of Star Wars costuming groups, including Rebel Legion, the 501st, Mandalorian Mercs, and Saber Guild. That sounds so fun! What’s that like?

It is a privilege to have a costume that is accepted by one or all of these groups where you can go out and represent Lucasfilm to the public. I’m very proud of the volunteer work I have been able to do as a member. But we have quite a few Saber Maidens who participate purely for the love of lightsabers and the love of Star Wars and for whatever reason don’t want to be members of the costuming clubs.

Are you a member of any of these groups?

I have an approved costume with Saber Guild. I also served as costume coordinator and  local assistant director for Saber Guild Golden Gate Temple. Currently, I’m representing a Saber Guild outpost in the high desert of central California. I’m also working on approval for several costume with Rebel Legion.

But, of course, what’s first on my to-finish list will be the Jedi Leia (costume) from Empire Infinities.

What’s your personal involvement in the “saber arts”?

I first got involved with a little group in the Bay Area. We eventually evolved into the group that is now Saber Guild Golden Gate Temple. My first performance with Saber Guild was at the 2012 San Diego International Comic-Con.

Celeste with the Saber Guild at San Diego Comic-Con.

I’ve also been involved in several saber dueling clubs. I was the first woman in the Bay Area Saber Legion Charter. I was also one of two women who competed in the first International Saber Legion tournament. I’m very proud of that. The martial sport of saber dueling is so very, very different than choreography and cosplay.

What I do with Saber Guild dressed as a Jedi librarian is more like dancing with my Sith opponent. Combative martial sports with lightsabers is more like aggressive speed dating.

Celeste sports a Hat for House Elves.

Do you do a lot of costume making? If so, what Star Wars costumes have you built or put together? Where did you learn the skills required for that?

I started putting together costumes and dressing as Princess Leia at 5. As a child, I did Ren Faires. And I had a dress-up trunk in my room. Why wait for Halloween dress-up when you can dress up all year long? A lot of my early costumes were purchased pieces combined with thrift store finds. I didn’t do much original fabrication until that last five years.

I didn’t learn how use a sewing machine until I was in my early 30s. I started making hats and Harry Potter cosplay. In 2015, one of the other founding Saber Maiden’s, Mary Fischer-Boyd, took me under her wing and really showed me the art of Jedi and Sith costuming. Mary and Pat have a panel they do at many of the cons in the Bay Area, “How to Dress as a Jedi.” The both showed me the ways of the Jedi robe making.

Celeste, front row, second from left, at a Saber Legion meetup.

What do you enjoy most about it?

The hospital visits that I have done have been the most rewarding and memorable adventures. Star Wars was an escape for me when I was growing up. Haha … it still is an escape for me. And I think it is for a lot of people. I just really enjoy that I can set all the mundane stuff aside, the real life stuff, and just give myself permission to play. I feel really fortunate that I had parents who nurtured my passions and interests.

There were some horrible things that happened to me in my childhood. Without going into the unpleasant details, I’ll just say that I really over-identify with “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Star Wars and Carrie Fisher have helped me find balance in my day to day struggles as a survivor of rape with PTSD.

When I am in costume, I love to see the adults come out of their shell. Not everybody had my mother and father, not everybody had a costume trunk when they were kids. Some kids don’t get to be kids. And playing is a learned behavior. If you never learned how to play as a child then you really should learn how to play as an adult. Like Mark Hamill said, “Learning to play is cheaper than therapy.”

Celeste at Star Wars Celebration 2017.

Saber Maidens members sometimes meet for “crafternoon get-togethers” to work on projects and hang out. Tell me about those meetups.

Sometimes we actually get sewing projects done. But there’s also a lot of consultation like, “This is what I’m working on, this is the problem, how would you solve it?” There’s also support, like when you’re costuming a lot of body issues come up, so we support each other around exercise and diet and health problems. And we remind each other to be kind to ourselves.

I think the best thing about it is that there’s such a broad base and we try and include both costuming and choreography. Some of our members find it difficult to do choreography and learn choreography in a machismo atmosphere.

Don’t get me wrong most of the guys are great, but it only takes one bad egg to stink up the kitchen.

Once I was working with a student who just felt too embarrassed to work on choreo in a coed environment. So having a place to practice, a place where you can get over all of your insecurities and play, I think that’s really what our crafting/saber meetups are about. Being a community.

Could you briefly explain what kind of work is involved in getting a costume approved by Rebel Legion or Saber Guild?

All of the costumed organizations have their own set of costuming rules so it can be challenging.

The first thing to do is to be in contact with your local costume advisor or coordinator or director.

People often want to do a big fancy costume first. I discourage this. Do the simple basic generic non-face character costume first. Figure out all the bells and whistles and hoops you have to jump through because most likely your costume is not going to get approved the first time around. Then when you’ve done the generic, you can delve into a more complicated costume.

Celeste as Princess Leia in 1987.

You’ve been a Leia fan since childhood. How were you affected by the passing of Carrie Fisher?

I was deeply affected! I remember when I read the news I was standing in my kitchen and I laid down on the floor and I cried, and then I called in sick.

Carrie Fisher put her struggles out there, her attitude was f*** them if they didn’t understand. She has been and still is a role model to me. That brazen honesty, that internal strength is something I still admire about Carrie Fisher.

You saw Star Wars at the age of 5 in the summer of ’77 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Tell me about your memories and first impressions of that.

My vivid memory … The movie was over and I was told I had to leave and I didn’t want to leave. And I remember shuffling my feet and staring at the carpet. And then I started to cry as I wanted to see it again. My Dad picked me up and one of the ushers in the fancy hats said, “You will get to see it again.” I have seen it 100 times. I dreamed that night of Death Stars and princesses wielding lightsabers.

Your mom was a DC Comics and sci-fi fan who raised you on Doctor Who, Star Trek, and classic monster movies. How did that shape you?

I grew up living this stuff. My mother is 87. Her favorite gift for her birthday this year was Wonder Woman sheets. Fandoms transcend age. I’ve never known anything else. When I became an adult and started meeting people who had never seen Star Wars and didn’t know who Doctor Who was, that was culture shock for me.

At home, It wasn’t seen as a childish thing. The idea that people had that I would somehow grow out of my love of Star Wars was extremely foreign to me. I’m 47 now, so any friends that I used to have that were hoping I’d grow out of it have moved on or they’ve gotten used to it.

Celeste and R2-D2 at the 10th anniversary Star Wars convention.

You saw Star Wars again in ’87 for its 10th anniversary and your parents came with you. What was that like?

We weren’t there just to see the movie. It was a four-day convention. But that was when my dad realized that Star Wars was more than just a kids movie. I think I was the only high school student there and the only fan there with their parents. Most of the people were aspiring filmmakers. I made quite a few friends … lost track of most of them over the years. We didn’t have Facebook back then.

What is it about the Star Wars universe that continues to intrigue and inspire you after all these years?

I’m a Star Wars mega fan. It’s my foundation. I cannot imagine not having Star Wars in my life. Being this deep into a franchise is kind of like being attached to the place you grew up. Some people leave their hometown. Some people take their hometown with them wherever they go. And some people stay right there their whole life. That’s what Star Wars is for me.

There’s a Rose Tico quote on the Saber Maidens page — “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” I found this interesting in light of the fact that the Star Wars fandom seems to have gotten nasty recently with all the “Last Jedi” hate and arguing about the “Solo” movie, petitions to remake the film, and calls for Kathleen Kennedy to be fired. What are your thoughts about that?

Wow, that’s a question, so you want me to write a book right?

The Rose Tico quote is a repeated theme within the Star Wars mythos. It’s just the first time that it was put into those words and said by someone who is not a man.

Luke had a very similar line in “Return of the Jedi” when he told Vader he would not fight him in the Emperor’s throne room and when the Death Star was exploding all around Luke is helping his father die with dignity, which I think was one of the first on-screen euthanasias. ”I have to save you.”

Anakin replayed, “You already have.” Vader came back to the light when he stopped fighting what he hated, the Empire and started fighting for what he loved, his son.

I think the Star Wars haters are very insecure people who receive some sort of emotional satisfaction through the act of complaining. If they don’t like it they should just watch a different movie. Or better yet, if they really, actually, truly love Star Wars then they should go make their own Star Wars movie or go write their own fanfiction. This franchise is alive because that’s what people did in the ‘80s and the ‘90s when there wasn’t anything.

Star Wars is a huge universe. Make it bigger, make it better, talk to your therapist and take your medication. At least I think that’s what Carrie Fisher would tell people.

Celeste at San Diego Comic-Con in 2003.

There also still seems to be a fair amount of misogyny in the Star Wars fandom. Have you encountered any of that?

Is there sand on Jakku?

We live in a sexist, misogynistic, bigoted society and at one time or another we’re all guilty of something. I would like to think that Star Wars fans are more enlightened. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Percentage-wise I think there is less misogyny and sexism then there was in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. But I think the Star Wars fandom has changed and there is actually more misogyny now than there was in 1987.

One of the questions that George Lucas was asked in 1987 at the 10th anniversary convention was, “Why aren’t there more female characters in Star Wars?”

His answer was something to the effect that Star Wars was a war movie and women didn’t belong in war movies. There was a resounding unified “booooo” from the entire audience. I’m not sure an answer like that would get a “boo” now. There are men out there who seem to think it’s the feminist agenda that has ruined their franchise.

What are some of your other fandoms?

I used to be big into classic “Battlestar Galactica” and “Buck Rogers,” but that’s only because it reminded me of Star Wars. As an adult I’ve been fascinated by Harry Potter and the entire steampunk Star Wars mashups stuff.

You’ve done costuming in the Harry Potter fandom and Steampunk genre. Tell me more about some of the other costumes you’ve done.

I really like capes! I have a closet full of capes that would astound even Lando Calrissian. Unfortunately, not many Jedi wear capes and neither does Leia.

You’re a single mom with a 23-year-old son who’s also a geek. Any advice on how to raise amazing geek children?

Figure out what they like and immerse them in it. Don’t force them to like your franchise. Ask them to explain their favorite franchise to you.

Photo: Ruth Miller, Eclectic Eye Fine Art and Photography.

And now, a few Star Wars questions.

What’s your ultimate favorite film in the franchise?

Star Wars Holiday Special. Just kidding. “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Besides Leia, who’s your favorite character?

Luke Skywalker, Duchess Satine.

Favorite droid?

L3-37, Lando’s droid in “Solo.”

Lightsaber color?

I have plans for making a paisley lightsaber.

Porgs? Yes or no?

I’m Porg neutral. But very fond of Lepis. And I feel adamant that Jaxxon should replace the Easter Bunny.

If someone wanted to join Saber Maidens, how would they go about it?

Like us on Facebook and just start participating in the conversation.

Dumbledore’s Army co-organizer crusades for fun and inclusion

Tabitha Davis’ origin story is just about as inspiring as the Boy Who Lived’s. 

As a child, she struggled with reading, but manifested a vivid imagination, and with a little help from Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, she became a writer, eventually landing a nerd’s dream job with Geek Magazine.

She deeply connected to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series after looking for something she could read that would restore her sanity after the birth of her son. Rowling’s novels and the fandom surrounding them have subsequently shaped her life philosophy of love and inclusion.

Eventually, Tabitha found her “tribe” after joining the Meetup.com group Los Angeles Dumbledore’s Army and becoming a co-organizer of Harry Potter and other geek-themed events, from skate nights to Disneybounding days. 

With more than 2,400 hundred diverse members, Dumbledore’s Army is the second biggest Harry Potter fan group in the world, which means it’s a lot of work to run, but Tabitha wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

You’re a co-organizer of the Los Angeles Dumbledore’s Army, a Harry Potter fan group for adults, centered around the social site Meetup.com. The group was founded in 2008. How did you become involved?

I first heard of the group via a flier, but I wasn’t sure it was for me. After finally deciding to try it out, I joined the book club and began attending events. I had previously worked in marketing and enjoyed planning events so I volunteered to assist with the group events and have been doing so ever since.

For those who may not be as familiar with Harry Potter, what does the name “Dumbledore’s Army” refer to in the books?

Dumbledore’s Army is a group the kids in the book form to fight against the tyranny of the dark wizards and the misled government officials. Their goal is to learn to protect themselves and others.

Is your group affiliated at all with charity group the Harry Potter Alliance?

We have done work with them, and many of our members work with both. They do a book drive at our skate night every year.

What are your duties as co-organizer?

It really depends on the event. Usually, we are all assigned specific tasks when we arrive at an event, and we all set up and clean up. I personally co-host Wizards Chef and will be co-hosting our first Wizards in Wonderland (Harry Potter Day at Disneyland).

Tabitha Davis and Tanya Mueller at a “Fantastic Beasts”-themed skate night.

Tell me more about L.A. Dumbledore’s Army. How often do you meet? What are some examples of the type of events/activities the group participates in.

Oh man, we do so much! We meet at least once a month. We have two very active book clubs, we host skate night, have done trivia nights, movie nights, scavenger hunts around the city, family-friendly events with a focus on the educational benefits of the book series, and Wizards Chef.

There are 2,426 members of the group, according to Meetup.com. It’s the second largest Harry Potter fan group in the world. It must be quite a bit of work keeping this group running!

It really is. In addition to the group being large, it is also diverse, so we also have to come up with a variety of events for our members. We are all working people with other responsibilities, but since we can lean on each other it is very much like Harry and his team. We get it done!

Out of curiosity, what’s the largest Harry Potter fan group in the world?

Funnily enough, it is The Group That Shall Not Be Named, out of NYC. Our names are in competition with each other, but we have members that came from that group and that visit groups events when they are in the area. The HP community is cool like that.

A group shot from the recent Wizards in Wonderland event at Disneyland that Tabitha helped organize. Photo courtesy of Jon York.

I understand you recently helped organize “Wizards in Wonderland,” a Harry Potter-themed meetup at Disneyland. How did that go? Tell me about the day. 

We all met up in front of the train around 10. Our first meeting saw probably 50 or so Potter heads, but as we moved through the park we ran into many more. There were those in cross-over T-shirts, and some people fully decked out. One group did Hogwarts-inspired Mousketeers.

Tabitha at Disneyland for Wizards in Wonderland, a Harry Potter-bounding event.

What were some of the best Harry Potter-bounding outfits you saw there?

So many fun ideas! Two ladies came as Hogwarts Express, one woman was a pin-up version of a chocolate frog.

What do you enjoy the most about being a part of Dumbledore’s Army? How would you describe the group dynamic?

Meeting other wizards. I had previously sought out other fandom communities, specifically the Star Wars fandom. I found that the wizarding community tends to be more welcoming. There isn’t a lot of pretense here that one finds elsewhere. The world J.K created is one of inclusion and acceptance, and that is very much what the group tries to embody.

Let’s talk about your personal connection to Harry Potter. How did you first discover J.K. Rowling’s series and how did your passion for it grow?

Well, first off, I am a Potter. It’s my maiden name and more than a few teachers referred to me as Snape does to Harry, as simply Potter. Since I was already an adult when the books came out, I bought them for my younger brother since he is a Potter too, obviously.

He never really got into them, and when I had my son, I asked my husband to buy me the biggest book he could find because I was going nuts. It was just after “Order of The Phoenix” was released, and that’s what he brought me. I devoured it, and then stole all the HP books I had given my younger brother.

As a mom, I connected with the books in a different way, I think than a lot of fans. First, these kids were my age, I graduated the year the Battle of Hogwarts takes place, so these were my contemporaries. I didn’t have the greatest childhood. I was bullied, and we were very poor when I was younger. I found that I connected to these characters very deeply through their trials, and it inspired me as a parent to listen to and try to better understand my children and their unique experience.

When I found the group, I felt like I had found my tribe.

What is it about J.K. Rowling’s series that sets it apart from other fandoms?

I think it may be that it was designed for children, so there is an honesty to it. It was untainted by so much of the adult world, but still, the lessons of life are there. No one is perfect, everyone is flawed and makes choices that can bring good or bad outcomes, but it is what they do about it that counts. It lets us believe in magic while understanding that we are the ones who need to make our own magic and take up the fight for those who can’t.

Aside from your involvement with Dumbledore’s Army, how is your love of Harry Potter currently manifesting itself?

Well, in my decor for sure. My living room is in Ravenclaw colors, with various witchy accouterment. We have a cupboard under the stairs, also known as the reading nook, but probably the most significant impact is how I raise my kids. I try to listen to them and to think deeply about the impact I have on them. There is a lot of wisdom in the series that I feel I keep with me in my daily life. WWWD, What Would a Wizard Do?

You were a panelist at this year’s WonderCon, discussing “Hogwarts Academia: 20 Years of Fantastic Harry Potter Fandom.” That’s impressive! Tell me about that experience. 

It was so incredible. Being on stage with my daughter, and with these incredible women who I have seen achieve their dreams was an honor. It really drove home to me how great this community is, and how wonderful for my kids to have these incredible role models.

These women are lawyers, doctors, graphic designers, empowered humans making the world better every day. It’s amazing to be counted among them. Also, (fantasy writer) Patrick Rothfuss showed up so as a fan and writer I’ve been geeking out about that for months.

Los Angeles Dumbledore’s Army also devotes itself to other fandoms, including Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Sherlock, and Doctor Who. What other fandoms are you into?

Star Wars, for sure, is my first love. The first movie I saw in the theater was “Jedi.” I love most of those other fandoms, Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, Sherlock. Game of Thrones is freaking amazing. Comics, anything Neil Gaiman ever does. The list is long.

You write for Geek Magazine. That sounds like a cool gig! How did that come about?

It is a super sweet gig! I work with some of the coolest geeks out there. I write Haiku for fun in a group on Facebook, and one of the members is a fellow writer. She heard the magazine was hiring, so I sent in the most recent thing I had written, which was a blog about the near-death experience I had delivering my daughter. I’ve been geeking out ever since.

What’s your writer origin story? What sparked your interest in that art form?

I am dyslexic, so learning to read was the worst. I was in a special ed class to learn to read. I couldn’t read, but I would make up insane stories for sharing time. My teacher told me I would make a great writer. I thought he was nuts, I couldn’t even read.

Fast forward about a year and I was reading everything I could get my hands on. I learned that Stephen King was also dyslexic, and while I couldn’t read his work yet I knew there was a lot of it. If he could do it, maybe I could too.

Around this time I was lucky enough to meet the great Ray Bradbury. To me, he was just a really nice old guy. He asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, and I had decided that I would be a writer even though I wasn’t good at spelling. He told me to follow my heart, and to never ever let anyone tell me I couldn’t or shouldn’t write. I took his advice, ended up reading a lot of Stephen King, and pretty much anything I could get my hands on and writing whenever I could.

What sorts of things do you write about for Geek Magazine? What do you enjoy most about it?

Most things geek. TV shows, movies, books, and technology. My favorite stories are when I get to write about something I really care about. It’s like a chance to share my own love with a broad audience and maybe show them something they can love too. I love to do research and doing reports and writing for the school paper were my favorite parts of school. Now I get paid to do research and write about things I love. It’s a dream come true. 8-year old-me got her wish with this job.

Are there many other women writing about geek culture? What’s your experience been like in that regard?

Absolutely. I’d say at least half our crew is female, and some of our writers write for other pages and do podcasts and blogs about geeky stuff. I have to say that there really has only been one incident where my sex mattered, and it was a comment from a reader not from my co-workers.

The guys I work with never question what I know, or make me prove that I know something because I am a woman. I know there has been a lot of toxicity in fandom regarding men vs. women, but the vast majority of the guys I both work with and know socially are completely comfortable being schooled in geeky trivia by a woman.

Tabitha’s son, Brodey Davis, on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour.

You’re a mother raising two “geeklings.” Does your family share your geeky interests or have pop culture interests of their own?

They do, and they have introduced me to fandoms I would never have explored. My Little Pony is probably the best example. They’re sort of over it now, but they totally got me hooked. Bob’s Burgers has become a family favorite thanks to my daughter, and we even cosplayed the kids to a con last year. I also know way too much about Overwatch, thanks to my son. We spend a lot of time together, so it’s nice that we like the same sorts of things.

Members of Los Angeles Dumbledore’s Army at the Women’s March.

Of all the interviews I’ve done with women who are geeks, the biggest fandom they have in common, by far, is Harry Potter. Why do you think this franchise speaks to so many people?

Its core messages are the messages of our time. Equality, diversity, love vs. hate. These things are in our headlines, and though we don’t have magic, we do have love. We joined the masses at the first Women’s March together, and a lot of the signs were Harry Potter related. If these kids could stand up against a powerful evil then we can too.

Do you have any future plans/hopes/dreams for the L.A. Dumbledore’s Army?

Right now we are gearing up for our last Skate Night, Wizards in Wonderland, and Wizards Chef, but I would love to plan another family event. A lot of our group are having kids and it’s fun to introduce the magic of the series to another generation of fans. Also, more pub crawls.

If anyone reading this is interested in joining the group, how would they go about it?

You can check us out on Facebook, and join us on Meetup.com.

Tabitha, cosplaying as Ginny Weasley.

Let’s close with a few pressing Harry Potter-related questions:

What’s your Hogwarts house?

Ravenclaw 4 life.

Favorite book?

“Order of the Phoenix,” even though Harry is totally having a case of the puberties.

Least favorite movie?

“Chamber of Secrets.”

Favorite character?

I don’t know if I can pick one. Book Ron, Movie twins, Snape, Lupin, Tonks, Mrs. Weasley … that’s a short list.

Most devastating character death?

Snape.

Wizarding subject you’d most like to study?

Potions, Apparation.

Favorite magical creature?

Thestral.

Favorite Harry Potter item you own?

My custom wand designed after my first Pottermore wand.

How often do you visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter?

I’ve been twice. I’m more of a book fan.

Tabitha and Jeff Davis enjoy some butterbeer at the employee preview of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Hollywood.

Cold Butterbeer, Frozen Butterbeer, or Warm Butterbeer?

Cold.

What’s left on your Harry Potter bucket list?

To see the dragon at Diagon Alley, and to visit the locations in the U.K.

 

When your garden needs a little walking dead, Zombie Gnomes artist is here to help

Is your garden looking sad and boring? Backyard in need of sprucing up? Want to add some thrills and chills to that mediocre front yard?

Fortunately, Jane DeRosa-Stever and her husband Chris are here with an unconventional solution to your humdrum garden blues. It’s a little bit R-rated, is guaranteed to get the neighbors talking, and involves a hefty helping of humor and gore.

The Stevers sell their famous Zombie Gnomes — a playful, gruesome twist on the classic garden gnome ornaments — out of their Etsy shop, ChrisandJanesPlace. You may have seen their clever, red-hatted, undead creations at WonderCon or horror conventions, where they get a lot of attention from fans of all ages, especially kids.

Jane’s background in theater and painting, along with her family legacy of animation and an internship at Disney’s vintage El Capitan Theatre was the perfect preparation for starting this unique business, which began as a joke of sorts but soon blossomed into a fun — and bloody — phenomenon.

She and Chris draw inspiration for their ghoulish designs from horror classics like “Evil Dead,” “Shaun of the Dead,” and “The Walking Dead” TV series, along with traditional folklore and gardening culture. They’ve even spun their hand-painted ornaments into a book, and there’s a sequel in the works.

I talked to Jane about Zombie Gnomes, her magical Disney childhood, and the zombie apocalypse. 

Jane DeRosa-Stever, her husband Chris, and their sons, Anthony and Liam, at Sequoia in 2017.

I read that Chris dreamed up the idea for Zombie Gnomes while stuck in traffic on the 210 Freeway. Tell me about the first Zombie Gnome you ever made. Chris’ practical effects skills and your theater painting skills were put to good use on this project.

The first Zombie Gnome that we made was Patient Zero, which Chris sculpted for his practical effects class and I painted it up for him. Chris developed a lot of his techniques for our business from that class, such as his sculpting, moldings, and casting.

When I started theatre at Azusa Pacific University, I got hired to paint up their sets, which I had done before in high school. I became head of the paint department by my senior year and occasionally I helped with color and texture design. Mostly, I painted sets and props, which was a lot of fun. One’s mind gets to wander, which is nice for a stressed out college student.

Jane and her husband, Chris, when they first started making Zombie Gnomes.

Zombie Gnomes started as a joke, but eventually became a serious business. When did you first realize there was a demand for such a thing?

When we started getting a lot of sales. I wish it was more magical than that.

Some of your pop culture inspirations for the gnomes are “Shaun of the Dead,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Evil Dead.” How have these horror favorites influenced your products?

Well, we enjoy all of those films and TV shows, so we wanted to make something not only that we would find entertaining but other fans would, too.

You’ve also drawn inspiration from folklore and “gardening culture.” In what ways?

When we first started making Zombie Gnomes, we based a lot of our sculptures off of gnome folklore. Gnomes are usually 6 1/2 inches tall and we used some similar color schemes for their designs. We do make larger ones now so people can show them off in their garden if they so desire.

In regards to gardening culture, we see what’s popular at gardening stores and get ideas of how our Zombie Gnomes could be incorporated. For example, pinwheels are a popular garden decoration. So we made a gnome that has a hole in her belly where you can put a pinwheel.

Zombie Gnomes are handmade and painted by local artists. Walk us through the process of designing and manufacturing a gnome.

So when we first started, it was just Chris and I. We did everything from designing to manufacturing to shipping. Then work got really crazy and we had to hire some local artists from the colleges in the area to paint. We were just starting out so we had no idea how to manage the huge amount of orders we were getting, so as time went on we made some changes in our production to be more efficient. Now we are able to handle all of our orders between the two of us now.

How do people generally react when they first encounter your Zombie Gnomes? They’re a little bit R-rated.

They laugh, actually, and usually say, “Zombie Gnomes.” My favorite reactions are when kids see them for the first time. Usually their eye bulge out and mouths drop. Some of them stay for a while just staring at them, saying, “Whoa!,” “Eww,” and things like that. It’s pretty great.

How would you describe your customer demographic? Do they tend to be horror fans?

Actually, no. We do have fans of horror who do buy our Zombie Gnomes but it’s really quite a variety of people who are interested in them. Some have gnome collections or have fairy gardens and want to add something funny to their collection. A majority of the people who purchase them think they are just really funny. To be honest, when we go to cons we see all different age groups gawking at our display.

You’ve said it can be “hard as a husband and wife team designing and creating fun products but we love doing it.” In what way is it challenging?

We spend almost every waking moment together and that can be trying. Not only do we work together, we also raise our kids together. So finding a balance between work and personal life can be challenging. We try very hard to have good communication.

We also have to find a way to be to firm but kind when critiquing each other’s work, which is difficult. It’s much harder than give notes to a co-worker or an employee. However, I actually feel more in love with Chris doing this with him. I saw how hardworking and dedicated he was and we worked so well together, marriage seemed plausible to me.

How would you describe your collaborative dynamic?

We respect each other’s opinions, which I think is a huge reason why we work so well together. Also, we think very similarly, so that helps.

Custom Zombie Gnomes.

You do custom and personalized gnomes. Tell me about some of your favorite custom orders. 

One of my favorite custom Zombie Gnomes was a woman asked us to make Zombie Gnomes taking down an owl. I had so much fun studying the coloring of different owls. I don’t get to spend a lot of time doing detail work so that was a nice change.

You’ve also branched out into literature with the book “Zombie Gnomes: The Epic Tale of Wyrick.” How did this idea come about?

It’s actually something we planned from the beginning. We thought giving the gnomes stories would be more enjoyable to our customers. Our line of thought was gnomes to books to TV show or movie. I was having trouble finding work when I graduated college and I realized if people didn’t give me the opportunity to create then I would just do it on my own. Also writing my own book was a life goal. So two birds, one stone.

I understand you’re working on a second book, “The Forging of Evelyn.” What can you tell us about it?

The first book is about Wyrick trying to find his family. The second book leads off from the end of the first where we actually meet Wyrick’s daughter, Evelyn. We follow her through her journey in the Zombie Gnome apocalypse.

You’re a bibliophile who collects a lot of books, so was it exciting to publish your first tome?

Very. As I said previously, it was a life dream to write and publish a book. It really hit me when I saw it in the first bookstore who started selling it, Dark Delicacies. I was really proud of myself that I actually did it. Of course I wouldn’t haven’t been able to do it without Chris or my mother who did the illustrations.

You also sell some non-zombie items in your shop. Tell me about some of your other products. 

We sell a variety of home and garden décor, such as our Easter Island Head Planter, our Cat Unicorn Head Mounts, and the Unicorn Skull. We just enjoy creating unique and fun things.

Jane at the Zombie Gnomes booth at Silicon Valley Comic Con.

You and Chris frequently take your Zombie Gnomes to conventions and other events. Tell me about some of your favorite places to rep your products. 

We mostly do comic book conventions like Wondercon and LA Comic Con, but we started branching out into horror conventions last year, which was great. People love them and we usually do very well at cons. I love doing all of the events especially because Chris and I try to make sure we go to at least one panel to learn something related to our craft.

Some serious artistry goes into your gnomes. You earned a degree in theater arts from Azusa Pacific University with a focus on storytelling. How did this prepare you for what you’re doing now?

Well, first off, thank you for that compliment. I did get my BA in Theatre Arts hoping to get into directing and writing. Being that the programs for either of those were not fleshed out yet, I tried to learn as much as I could. I auditioned for plays and wrote my own monologues. I even wrote a one-act for my senior project.

Really, I was just trying to be a sponge and soak up as much as I could while I was there. I stage managed, worked on sets, and so on. I think it really prepared me for what I do now because it’s a constant learning experience. We are always trying to create new products and be more efficient and half of the battle is having the curiosity to actually do it.

What story are you telling with your Zombie Gnomes?

Life is scary and you just have to laugh at it sometimes.

You grew up in a family of animators and your father still works for Disney. You must have had a magical childhood. 

I think so. My parents also love Disney movies so I grew up watching all of the classics. I loved when my parents would point to their work or give me a little history about a certain scene or something. It was really fun. Also not many people can say that they live off of their art but my parents are examples that it can happen. My parents never told me that I couldn’t be an artist because I couldn’t make a living off of it so that was different.

You participated in the Walt Disney Internship Program and worked as a stage manager at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. What did that job entail?

Managing the shows before the movies started, help running movie premieres at the theater, things like that. It was an amazing experience and I learned a lot about management, working with professionals in the field and the general public. I had many mentors but I spent most of my time with James Wood who was the best manager I have ever had the pleasure of working with. He taught me a lot of how to be a good manager, which I think really helped me out with our Zombie Gnome business.

That sounds like an amazing experience! What was it like to work at that gorgeous, classic movie venue?

It was magical. The theater has so much history and to be able to walk through it every day was such an amazing opportunity. It was the only theater that would do the premiere for “Citizen Kane,” which I realized when I walked through their hallway full of old pictures. I actually grew up going to that theater as a kid for premieres for my parents films. So it has a very special place in my heart.

Jane with a “The Birds” cosplayer at ScareLA in 2017.

Let’s talk about your personal fandoms. As a fellow Hitchcock fan, I must ask you about your love of the director’s films. How did you discover Hitch and which of his movies are your favorite?

My parents and my grandfather, who lived with us most of my childhood, are big old movie fans. We enjoyed watching classic movies together on Friday nights and would have TCM on almost all the time. They introduced me to “North by Northwest,” “Rear Window,” and “The Birds.” I loved them.

It’s funny, I don’t really like Hitchcock as a person, but his films were thrilling. He also used my favorite actress Ingrid Bergman in a lot of my favorite films of his. My favorite films of his would probably be “Shadow of a Doubt” (love the woman protagonist), “Spellbound” (Because of the Dali sequence), and “Rear Window” (because, duh).

You’re into “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.” What do you like about those series?

So much. Buffy being a badass superhero who was also feminine. I love the development of all of the characters in the shows from being teenagers to awesome vampire killers. I love when Buffy dies and comes back and she deals with not being in heaven anymore. When we met Dawn and everyone is like, “Yeah, Buffy has a sister. What? You don’t remember her?” The musical episode is magical even though not everyone could sing very well. Of course, there is Faith, who for me is a great anti-hero. “Angel,” I thought, was such a solid show and I am so sad it got cancelled to soon.

Are you Team Angel or Team Spike?

Spike. He was funny and didn’t sulk all the time. Got to love that in a guy.

How many hours have you spent playing Fallout?

Too many, but it is a good way for me to de-stress.

Jane and Chris dressed up for Halloween in 2016.

What was your introduction to Harry Potter?

I was in junior high and I heard some kids at my Christian school talking about how their parents wouldn’t let them read the books because they had witchcraft in them. I asked my mom about it and she said I couldn’t read them for that reason. She was into witchcraft when she was younger. So as a Christian, she felt like she had to protect me. However, as the years went on she got over it and I finally read them. I love the books and even got my mom interested in them.

What’s your Hogwarts house?

Ravenclaw, all the way!

You’re a “Lord of the Rings” fan. Who’s your favorite inhabitant of Middle-Earth?

As a teenager, I loved Aragorn because he was handsome and brooding. I also enjoyed the elves because they were just so smart and composed. Now that I’m older I think I really enjoy the hobbits. They are just so fun and full of life. They are very clueless though …

Do you prefer the books or the movies? Or both?

The books are very tedious. I don’t know if I have completely finished one because they are just that tedious. I can only care so much about the description of a mountain that I will not hear about ever again. However, I do love and appreciate the books. My husband and I love the movies and watch them a couple times a year. We actually saw them in theaters when they came out again.

If you were stranded on an island with just one movie by Hayao Miyazaki, what would it be?

“Spirited Away.” One of the most beautiful and magical animated films ever made. Close second would be “Princess Mononoke.”

Do you and your husband have any future plans or dreams for ChrisandJanesPlace or your business in general?

Always. We want to keep getting bigger and better. That includes new Zombie Gnome products, books, and other products. Of course, we are always working to get more of our products in stores across the U.S. and the world.

Let’s wrap up with a few zombie-related questions.

Why do you think zombie stories have become such an iconic part of pop culture?

I think it’s the thought of losing control of one’s body. Having no free will and possible killing the ones you love is terrifying. I like how Robert Kirkman puts it in his introduction in his first volume of “The Walking Dead,” “Good zombie movies show us how messed up we are, they make us question our station in society … and our society’s station in the world. They show us gore and violence and all that cool stuff too … But there’s always an undercurrent of social commentary and thoughtfulness.”

What will be the cause of the zombie apocalypse? 

Cuts to the CDC.

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

Going to a hardware store

Which is scarier: Classic slow-moving zombies or fast-moving rage-monkey zombies?

Fast. Always fast.

Should there be a Zombie Gnome movie?

Yes, but of course I’m not biased at all.