Intersections: An Interview With Steenz

by Noah Sharma

There are people you observe in the comics industry who not only produce great content but make the act of comic creation seem natural or elegant. Christina Steenz Stewart is more than certainly one of those creators. She’s been a successful editor, a librarian, a writer, and an award winning artist/cartoonist and, in all of these roles, she’s brought her own unapologetic style and philosophy to the page.

Most recently Steenz has been the force behind Rolled & Told, the flagship magazine of Lion Forge’s Quillion imprint advertised as the connection between comics and tabletop RPGs. This less-unusual-than-it-seems fusion has been a favorite of mine since it released and she came even further into the spotlight after her graphic novel with Ivy Noelle Weir, Archival Quality, won the Dwayne McDuffie Award for diversity in comics, so I eagerly reached out to Steenz for an interview before C2E2 this year. Steenz was deeply gracious with her time and spoke at length about creating worlds that are honest to the experience of marginalized identities, how to allow yourself to get the most out of your creativity, and her goals and excitements in steering Rolled & Told.

Noah Sharma: So, firstly, congratulations on the Dwayne McDuffie Award.

Steenz: Thank you. Thank you. It was an honor to be a finalist and then to win. It was a pretty incredible experience.

N: Uh, so I was kind of curious. What kind of work did you do to develop the visual character of the cast of Archival Quality?

Interior art from Archival Quality

S: What’s great about working with Ivy is that she kind of- well, trusts most of my decisions. So when she gave me the story, she didn’t really give me descriptions on what the characters look like or anything like that, just kind of like what their personality was: their likes, their dislikes, what are they interested in, stuff like that. And then, from there, I was like, okay, well, since I have free rein to design these characters, however I like, I was like, well let’s make ’em all people of color. Easy peasy. Y’know?

So, for Cel, I was kind of playing around with ideas of like a small, round girl. Y’know, I think about her personality being kind of anxious and standoffish and I kind of imagined that she’d be more like- like a clam, I suppose? So I tried to think what does a person look like if they feel kind of off and away from the world. Y’know?

And then for Holly, I definitely wanted to make sure that she kind of embodied me, as well. Because she was a librarian and she… she seemed like she had a lot of her stuff together, but it took her awhile to get there, y’know? And I kind of like put together some style of me and my sister all in one. So, like, she has outlandish colored hair ’cause like me and my sister, we love doing that. Very fashionable. So I was like, ‘okay, cool, I’m like definitely into this person here.’

And then for Aba, oh gosh! I don’t know, I was just trying to think of someone who was just like… straight-laced but with a heart of gold, y’know? So I was thinking: definitely has to, like, always be in really nice suits. He cares very much about his job, y’know, so, nicely put together but also a mess at the same time.

So, yeah, I don’t know, I just kind of like- I try to put as much of their personality into the kind of clothes that they wear and how they wear their hair or their make-up and so on and so forth and then I made ’em brown, y’know? There’s really not too much to it. I do like the idea that, y’know, not only white people have to have adventures. So when you’re designing characters, who they are, what their ethnicity is like part of them, but it’s not everything.

Concept art of Aba included in the print edition of Archival Quality

So when someone’s like, “Design a black character,” well, what does that mean? That could mean literally anything. So, it’s nice to be able to start with, ‘Well here’s a personality, now decide what you wanna do with that, y’know?’

N: Right. Like there’s as many types of black people and brown people as there are white people and there’s not necessarily the same types.

S: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.

N: So, one thing I really loved about the book and thought was kind of rare was, um, the degree to which… Celeste is really dealing with some, y’know, some unhealthy influences in her life and finding new paths and new patterns to be on, but there are definitely a lot of times where, um, like, y’know, her boyfriend and her mom are talking sense.

S: Yeah!

N: Like, there’s definitely a sense that- that maybe they’re not in the same place as her anymore, but there are moments where you kind of do have that doubt of like, ‘oh, like, is she right in this?’ Like she’s not taking her meds, she’s not getting herself any help, she’s not opening up to people.

S: Mmmhmm.

N: And I just thought it was really cool that it didn’t shy away from the fact that choices that people with mental illness make are not always the right choices but they’re allowed to be their choices.

Interior art from Archival Quality

S: Absolutely. We definitely wanted to show that mental health doesn’t look the same on everybody. But it doesn’t give you agency to be shitty to your friends and family, even if you are going through it. And, when you’re going through it, sometimes you don’t make the best decisions. And, I mean, just the whole point of the book: she feels like, “Oh, if I can help this ghost, it’ll make me better.” And I’m like, ‘no, that’s not how that works.’ That’s very cool that you want to help this ghost, but also, like, examine yourself too. Know that people are there for you. And, even though you make mistakes, like they’re not gonna shy away from you. No one feels pity for you, no one thinks badly of you, they just wanna help. And sometimes when people say they just wanna help, it maybe doesn’t feel like that’s what they’re saying. So, especially when you add in the influence of that anxiety and depression that can also change how you see what people are doing and what they’re saying and what [they’re] actually meaning.

And that is definitely something that Ivy is fantastic at. She writes real characters, y’know? I remember when I was reading the script for the first time, I was like, ‘I don’t like this person.’ ‘I don’t know how to feel about this’, like, ‘this is our main character!? And she’s so annoying. Like why won’t she see that people are trying to help her?’ And then I’m like realizing that that’s a great thing. Y’know, you don’t want your stories to all be people who just have their shit together all the time. They need to be flawed because humanity is flawed. Everyone’s got problems, y’know? And I’m just really happy that we’re able to get that across sensitively to people. ’Cause we also didn’t want it to go too far to the other end where it’s like, oh, ’cause she has a mental illness she’s crazy. That’s not what we wanted to do.

Interior art from Archival Quality

N: Exactly. And it’s very- it’s a very touchy subject-

S: It is.

N:-when you have that feeling- ’cause there are moments where it’s like, ‘oh, I don’t know that I can trust her assessment of things.’

S: Yes!

N: But that’s a really dangerous place to go with mental illness, ’cause that leads to a lot of the kind of abuses that prior Celeste- that Ghost Celeste has dealt with.

Concept art of Cel and Celeste included in the print edition of Archival Quality

S: Yeah, so, I definitely think that having Ivy work from a place that she knows – y’know, dealing with that mental health herself – that’s how we really get a clear idea of how real this is. And that’s definitely another reason why I feel great about having won the Dwayne McDuffie for diversity because… me being black and her dealing with her mental health, like we’re writing stories from our own perspective. And, the more that you have people, marginalized folks, writing from their own perspective, you get more stories that have not really been done before. So, it’s exciting to see this version of mental health. It’s exciting to see this version of people of color, where they’re not really dealing with like microaggressions at the moment because like the building is haunted. Y’know, that’s what’s important.

N: As the artist – especially by the sound of the way this particular collaboration worked – you really had a huge say in how scenes were presented in tone and…

S: Mmmhmm.

N: And how did you kind of come to that, taking Ivy’s script and trying to make sure that that was-

S: How she saw that in her mind?

N: Well, how she saw it in her mind but then how you interpreted it. What were your feelings on how you could best do that?

S: So, I think a couple of different things. One of ’em- well, Ivy and I are very close, as friends. We like gravitated towards each other almost immediately when we first met. So, I mean we talk to each other every single day. Which is pretty incredible, considering we’ve known each other for almost five years now and every single day? That’s a lot of talking. So I feel like we’re just on the same wavelength. Pretty sure she’s a Sagittarius and I’m a Libra. And Libras and Sagittariuses always get along. So there’s that.

But, um, also, when we first started the story, she gave me a lot of background on why she wrote this story and what was going through her head when she was writing it. She was an archivist herself at a medical museum in Philly. And, as she was working there and doing her archiving, she was starting to feel a little displaced from her own humanity. And, I mean, that tends to happen if you’re just working with bones and pieces of skin and it’s just like ‘what is humanity if not just pictures on a computer?’ Y’know? So she wrote this to try and get that back so she wouldn’t just be, like, dead to the world, emotionally. And so that story is what kind of inspired the color scheme and the mood and the tone. Y’know, telling me stories about like how she felt when she worked there is kind of where I was coming from.

And then, I actually went to Philly to visit her and I went to that museum and we got to experience the place ourselves and that helped a lot too. Y’know, like, how I had it in my mind before I went to the museum is a little different than afterwards actually, so, before I was thinking more about, like, the library side of it. Like the dustiness, the browns and the blues, that I think of when I think of a library. Well then when I went to the museum, I was like, ‘oh, there are golds, there are reds’! Y’know, and that comes from the antiques that are there and the blood. Which sounds really intense, but that’s kind of what I was thinking, y’know?

So, I used those experiences, Ivy’s stories, our closeness to kind of figure out what the tone of this book was going to be. And the way Ivy writes it- originally she’s trained in film and she writes, like, novellas. So this is her first book that she’s written as a comic script. And so the way that she writes her comic scripts is she definitely thinks about what people are feeling and how it comes across to other people, what the mood is in the room, and then I just kind of take that and I figure out, well, what does that mean to me. And, I don’t know, I just kind of let it happen. And, typically, it works out for the best.

N: Clearly.

The cover to the November 2018 issue of Rolled & Told by Koi Carreon

N: So you are an editor at Lion Forge and you are working on Rolled & Told right now, which is a monthly magazine. How many pages is an issue?

S: 64. It’s a lot.

N: So, before I fully transition into that how do you still make time for your own art and creative endeavors?

S: So, I definitely am very deliberate and strict when it comes to my schedule. So, while I was working on Archival Quality, the big bulk of it anyway, I was working at the library. And so that was still full-time work. So I would do eight hours at the library, come home, take a nap, wake up, get some dinner with my husband, and then work for four hours or four pages, whichever came first. And that’s how I worked for the majority of the time. And just making sure to stick to that schedule is a lot mentally, just because there are days where I’m like, “I never wanna draw ever again.” But it’s definitely worth it. And, once you get into that habit, it’s really easy to keep the train going. And so, y’know, we’re working on a pitch for another book that we want to do, and I kind of will do exactly the same thing. Make sure I have my deadline in place, figure out my schedule. I mean, it’s kind of the same way I approach editorially. As long as it’s on a calendar, it will get done. Y’know? So it’s definitely a lot of schedules, regimen, making sure I don’t go too far. But also I like to make sure that I have time where I don’t draw at all. So that schedule, I will do it like five out of seven days. And then those two days that I have, I can relax and, when I get back into it, I don’t get burnt out. Because burnout is real. I mean, when I finished Archival Quality, I was like, ‘I’m not gonna draw again.’ And I don’t think I drew anything like in earnest for like four to six months. But that was a mistake. Because when I got back into drawing I was like, ‘yeah, this is hard.’ I hate it. But I love it.

Interior art by Jemma Salume from the September 2018 issue of Rolled & Told

N: Defining it kind of however you want, when you were “starting out”, is there any advice that you have now that you would give yourself?

S: Oh gosh. Um, definitely stretch more. That’s another thing. I started working out recently, where I would like actually work out for, like, anywhere between like thirty minutes to an hour like four days out of the week. And it’s helped TREMENDOUSLY. I could not believe it. Like who would have thought that exercise is good for you? I was so shocked. Like I’m running around like, ‘Agh. I’m so tired!’ But then I’ll work for hours and hours and hours and I’ll stand up and be like, ‘I feel okay. This- this is fine.’ So, taking care of yourself, for sure. Definitely stretch. Get in a good amount of sleep. Y’know, people like to romanticize “work culture”, like “I didn’t get like more than three hours of sleep last night.”

Absolutely not.

I get eight hours every night. And I make sure it. And that means I don’t have a lot of time to just like sit around and just do nothing, but I don’t really do nothing, y’know? Everything is something. So definitely take better care of yourself and then you’ll be in a better state for the next book and the next book and the next book.

Interior art by Johanna Taylor from the February 2019 issue of Rolled & Told

N: Rolled & Told is a magazine that is particularly targeted at new players of Dungeons & Dragons. Has it been difficult at all to continuously produce, like, fresh content and advice that isn’t present elsewhere for those players?

S: Um, so far, no. But we’re only so many issues in. So I’m currently working on issue #12 right now. So we’re working very far in advance, just because of the amount of work that goes into it. But we’re twelve issues in and only a couple of times I’ve had to tell the article writers, “That’s actually already been written. So, try something else.”

But it’s really helpful to show writers what’s been done before. And that kind of gets them excited and gets them thinking about, ‘well what’s another way that I can look at it’, y’know? Like, for example, we have one that’s called Random Nonsense. Every article is based on a subject and Random Nonsense could be anything, y’know? So a lot of people are like, ‘well what does that mean?’ And I’m like, ‘ANYTHING’. So I have had someone writing about how writing for D&D is helpful when you have writer’s block, if you’re a comics writer. Or I’ve had how someone write about tabletop roleplaying is very similar to Victorian séances. Y’know? So, a weird, weird article. But really, really cool. And so knowing that someone like can write about something like that inspires writers to reach outside of their box.

Interior art by Max Bare from the November 2018 issue of Rolled & Told

Also, for me, I have played some tabletop games. Y’know, like I did Mage, The Ascension; I did Starfinder; I’ve played D&D like once, but it’s really not my bag to be honest. Like I have- I do comics, I can only do so many hobbies.

So I’m actually coming at it from an outsider point of view. Like I’ve been working on this project for a full year now and I’m still learning so many different things about the gaming industry. And I work very closely with my partner, he’s the lead game designer, E. L. Thomas. Now he knows more about D&D than anyone I’ve ever, ever met. It’s wild. I mean the kind of stuff that he can just rattle off of his head, out of the books, I’m just like, ‘how?’ And it’s like, ‘well he’s been playing since Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.’ And I was like, ‘oh, okay. You’ve been doing this for your life.’ Y’know? So you are an expert. So, having his background as being someone who has written plenty of modules and have gone through so many different kinds of stat blocks and magic items and then having me focusing on the entire look, the content, the flow, making sure that it works for novices, that’s a really good combination of minds together and I think that’s what’s making it a successful book, something that people can pick up and find something fresh and new.

The map of Varacadabra Academy by Little Corvus from the November 2018 issue of Rolled & Told (this issue’s probably my favorite)

Also, one of my things that I like to do is – when I work in editorial – is find people who may not have had an opportunity to tell their stories before. So a lot of the people that I have working on Rolled & Told are people who maybe this is the first thing they’ve ever done. Y’know, whether it’s an artist or a writer. Some of these writers are like, “Well, I’ve only really done homebrew stuff.” And I’m like, “Well, send it to us and we’ll tell you if it’s good enough.” And if you have a good sense of rules, you have a good sense of story, and you’re not like railroading a whole lot—which is one thing that we always have to look out for. People railroad all the time.

N: Well they’re also- they’re short modules. Some people, just to pack enough in, you gotta be like ‘no! Get to this room!’

S: Exactly. Exactly. So reaching out to people who maybe this is their first time ever doing something like this, that’s how you get more fresh people. And then also they’ll tell their friends like, “Oh, you should also do this too.” I’ve had plenty of people work on Rolled & Told that I have never met. But I was recommended them by another writer of mine, so I try and keep an eye out on people that are doing current D&D stuff. That’s why I go to conventions all the time. Y’know, I go through artists’ alley and I’m specifically looking for people who would be great as artists or writers for the magazine. I mean, y’know, among other stuff, of course. But that is what I’m looking for.

N: So that’s a very appropriate answer to my next question, which was, being in this kind of intersection of RPGs and comics, has anything surprised you about that venn diagram that Rolled & Told is right in the center of?

S: Yeahhh. Yeah. I’m always finding that current comic writers have a huge background in D&D. Like shockingly. Like I’ll talk to them, like, for example, I’m working with Matthew Erman, Sam Sattin, Chris Roberson and I know these dudes as comics people but they’re like, “Yeah, we run D&D as well.” And I’m like, ‘How do you have time? How do you do it?’ But, uh, I always knew that there was like an intersection, but I didn’t realize how big of an intersection it actually was.

Interior art by Sam Mameli from the January 2019 issue of Rolled & Told

So, I think I’m mostly just- I’m always surprised at how many people actually play. And I think a part of what I attribute it to is the fact that D&D is kind of making a comeback at the moment. Y’know? What with Critical Roll and Adventure Zone and all these new ways to get into Dungeons & Dragons, like, now was the time if I’m gonna be finding people who are fresh and also people who want new people to be a part of it. Y’know? I talk to so many different D&D players and it’s like, at least the ones that I’ve talked to, they’re very into bringing new people in.

Like, if someone’s like ‘I’ve never played D&D before’, their first thing would be to say, ‘Well you should join our campaign.’ Meanwhile, with comics, if you say ‘I’ve never read comics before’, it’s like, ‘Okay, bye.’ And that’s kind of what happens in the comics industry. I don’t think it’s as welcoming as D&D, but I think a part of that is because D&D is-

N: Inherently-

S: Is welcoming, yeah! I mean, you have to have at least six people to really get the best out of it, so you have to be constantly inviting new people in and talking to new people. So, yeah.

N: In planning the magazine, how do you balance content for DMs vs. content for players?

S: So, for the modules in particular, those are for the DMs. But, the way that they are written, I’m always editing with the thought in my mind that this is not just for DMs. This is also for players. Because if they’re not going to play the campaign I want them to read it and still get enjoyment out of it. Like my husband, he doesn’t read the ones that they’re going to play. But he reads the ones that they’re not going to play, just to get an idea of the story. ’Cause it is a story Y’know? It’s a playable story.

Interior art by Jade Feng Lee from the September 2018 issue of Rolled & Told

So, yeah, part of it is definitely making sure it’s easy for players to understand, so I have to watch out for jargon and making sure that it’s like- just be more specific. Y’know? I watch out for the age level as well. So, I think it’s just really a thing of just being cognizant and knowing that more than just GMs are going to be looking at it.

And then for the articles, those are a little more interesting, just because I like to make sure that we get not just the stuff that’s like, “Here are ways to make your game better,” but also, “This is what I found out about gaming that’s helped me.” There is one article that is coming up about a teacher and he brings D&D into his classroom. And so his article was about playing D&D with kids, especially kids who are special needs. And I found that absolutely fascinating. Like I don’t plan on doing that. Y’know? But I like knowing about it. And I know that other people would like to know about it too. So, keeping a good eye out on the kind of variety that comes with these articles. And also the art in the comics. I want them to be entertaining as well. So I usually think that making sure that there is enough for a person to look at on the page that’s just enough for them to be like, ‘Oh, this is fun. I like this. This is good art. I like looking at it.’ Y’know? It’s like an art book as well as a gaming module.

Interior pages from the November 2018 issue of Rolled & Told with art by Jen Vaughn

N: And you said, you’re working on issue #12, which means you’ve done a full year of this. So, congratulations to that.

S: I know. It’s wild to think about.

N: Uh, what is next? I can’t think of a better way to say this that isn’t a gross pun, but how do you level up Rolled & Told for the second year?

S: Well, first of all, what’s really cool is that we have the hardcover coming out.

N: Really?

S: Yes.

N: Awesome.

S: So that comes out in June. And that’s going to collect issues #0-6. Which is great for people who may have missed out on the 0 issue, because it was a free issue we gave out at San Diego [Comic Con]. So, I think you can really only get it on Ebay for like ten bucks.

N: It was a free issue then, so…

S: Yeah. I know. I know. But, if you get the hardcover collection you’ll get the original story. And as well as issues #1-6. And a lot of behind the scenes stuff, some original character designs that we had for our iconic heroes, drawings from some other artists that they’ve done, some fanart for the characters as well.

The cover of the Rolled & Told volume 1 hardcover by Alexa Sharpe

So it’ll definitely be fun for people to look at. But I think in the next twelve- oh we’re changing the trim size, actually! So, starting with issue #12, the trim size is gonna be 8 1/2 by 11 and I originally liked it at the comic trim size, because it definitely pushed, even further, that gaming plus comics mix. But we wanna make sure that it’s also available for the gaming market. And I think that the gaming market is more open to magazines if they are of a bigger size. So, we’re trying that out. We’ll see how that works.

So bigger trim size, more articles, I wanna do more- oh, we’re also gonna have more character sheets in them. So, for the first twelve issues, if you have like a module, we’ll go through and we’ll give you maybe a stat block for that character, but there’s no illustration for ’em. So now we’re actually going to illustrate these characters that you can actually get more into playing them.

So, yeah, more art, more articles, bigger trim size, and some really fun themes. One I’m really looking forward to is lycanthropes. That’s gonna be great. Just because who doesn’t like werewolves?

So, yeah, that’s what we got.

N: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for talking to us.

S: Yeah. You’re very welcome.

Unfortunately, since we recorded this interview Steenz was laid off by Lion Forge following their merger with Oni Press. Sadly this means that she is no longer affiliated with Rolled & Told and we cannot say if the magazine will continue past issue #12 or, if it does, whether any of the ideas she mentioned for its second year will carry over to the new editor’s tenure on the book. She finds herself in the strange yet not entirely distasteful position of being a fan of Rolled & Told and hoping that there will be a future for it just like the rest of us.

Despite these sad developments, Steenz is exceptionally proud of Rolled & Told and all of the work she did to make it what it is. “It was a challenge, but it exemplified everything that I am as an editor and as a person. If Rolled & Told comes to an end, it’s heartening to know that so many folks loved it as much as I did,” she writes.

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