Interview with Lilah Sturges

Lilah Sturges is a writer whose career spans nearly two decades. She's authored well over one hundred comics and two prose novels in addition to short stories.

JC: You’re a prolific writer who has been published in both comics and prose. How did you break in, and is your passion more in the medium as a whole or the specific genre that you're writing?

LS: It's not so much that I'm prolific as that I've been doing this for over a decade, and the work has just sort of piled up behind me. I honestly don't know what to make of that big stack of work that I've put out over the years. A lot of it seems like it was done in a different life. It's weird.

The way I broke into comics was that I met Bill Willingham at a comic book store here in Austin, Texas. He wanted to form a writers' group, which ended up comprising him, me, Chris Roberson, and Mark Finn. The idea was that we would read and critique each other's work and become better writers in the process. What ended up happening, of course, is that Bill made the rest of us better writers by telling us what was wrong with our stories and we just kind of sat there and watched him produce nearly perfect stories from out of the ether. It was maddening. Bill and I became friends through that group, and more importantly, he became aware of my writing style and sense of humor. So when he wanted to do a Fables spinoff and DC wisely refused to let him write it all by himself, he asked me to co-write it with him. I was already a big Fables fan, so of course I said yes, even though I'd never written a comics script before.

And oh my lord, did it show. My first few scripts were wretched. Fortunately, I had a multiple Eisner-winning writer there to explain to me how to fix them before the world ever saw them. I was pretty lucky in that regard.

JC: To follow up on you mentioning Bill Willingham, the longest stint in comics you had on a single series was Jack of Fables. What was it like writing a spin-off of a beloved Vertigo series and working so closely with the series creator?

LS: In most ways it was really easy. Like I said, Bill was always there to offer advice and critiques before an editor ever saw anything I wrote, so I probably came off as a much better scripter than I actually was at first. Also, it was understood by everyone, including me, that I was the junior partner and that the final decision on everything was Bill's. That might sound a bit oppressive, but actually it was freeing because I knew that the ultimate responsibility for the book wasn't mine. The downside of that, of course, was that the ultimate responsibility for the book wasn't mine, so I can only take so much credit for it. Probably the bits of the book that are most "me" are the characters of Gary, the Pathetic Fallacy, who I came up with and Bill just let me roll with, and the Babe the Blue Ox pages. Bill and I came up with that goofy idea together, but I wrote probably 80% of them. Pretty much everything else is out of Bill's imagination and then me trying to keep up with him. It was a lot of fun and I learned so much doing it.

JC: What were some of your other collaborations over the years that were particularly meaningful to you in comics? Are there any series that you worked on that you want more people to know about?

LS: Well, there's my current collaborator, Dave Justus, of course. He and I worked on a book for First Comics called Public Relations that's one of the best things I've ever been a part of. It's so clever and funny and filthy and sweet, and it really deserved much more attention than it got. But the publisher had no way of marketing it, so nobody ever knew that it existed. It's 13 issues and it's marvelous and everyone should seek it out immediately before they're all gone.

JC: One of your most recent comics projects was contributing to the Love Is Love benefit anthology. How did you get involved in that?

LS: Marc Andreyko and I are friends, both in real life and on Facebook. When the Pulse Nightclub tragedy happened, he put out a post saying that he wanted to do some kind of comic book tribute and I begged to be included the instant I read it. That was pretty much a no-brainer. It was very odd, though, writing that page, because I was in the process of transitioning, but hadn't come out yet. So here I was, an LGBTQ person writing a story for an LGBTQ anthology, but not able to be honest about myself in the writing of it. It was maddening and sad and I don't think it's my best work, as a result. But I meant well, and I think if you read it with a generous spirit, my story has a nice thing to say.

JC: You publicly came out as transgender this past December. Has it been well received by the comics community?

LS: I had no idea how it would be received. I thought maybe people would say, "Oh, okay." Or people would pretend it wasn't happening, or they would quietly slink away. Or something. I had all these fears about bad things that would happen when I came out. What happened instead was that everyone in the comics industry was incredibly nice and warm and accepting, and I have never received so much love or acceptance in my entire life. Overall, coming out is by far the smartest decision I've ever made. It's changed my life in a lot of incredible ways, and opened me up to a whole new world of relationships and love and self-awareness.

I won't say that it's been easy. There can also be a lot of pain and fear in coming out, and a lot of the circumstances of my personal life have changed a lot as a result. I'm essentially starting over from scratch. I'm like a 14-year-old in an adult's body who lives on her own and has credit cards. It's a recipe for disaster and I have to be pretty careful with myself. Fortunately I have a lot of friends who keep tabs on me and make sure I don't go too insane.

JC: Do you feel that as a comics writer you need to strike a balance between tackling trans issues in your future comics and writing more accessible stories which tends to mean writing stories for a cis het white audience? Is there a fear of being pigeonholed as a trans writer?

LS: I don't give the slightest fuck about this. Like, honestly, my outlook is so different now. In the past I wanted so badly to write things that other people would find acceptable. When I was writing superhero comics for DC I used to study what Geoff Johns was doing and try to replicate it because I thought it would make my comics more appealing. Of course, that was the stupidest thing I possibly could have done. But I'd spent my entire life trying to emulate others; I was terrified of anyone finding out who I actually was. Now I can't imagine writing anything with a mind to creating some kind of perception or another. What the fuck do I care if I get pigeonholed as a trans writer? That's someone else's issue. I'm just going to write whatever I write.

And yes, what I write is going to have a bunch of trans and queer characters in it because the world needs more narratives about us. Trans people need to see themselves in literature: living, succeeding, failing, falling in love, being the hero, being villains. Just like anyone, we want to project ourselves onto fiction and it's really hard for us when the story doesn't match our lives. Where is a love story I can lose myself in? It's not there, so I have to make it. That's my job. That's what I want to do. If that makes me a "trans writer," I honestly couldn't care less.

JC: What advice or words of wisdom would you impart to trans creators still trying to break into comics?

LS: Oh, god. I never know how to answer this question in general, or specifically. I can only say that whatever you do, it must be honest. It must be truly your own work and your own vision. Your craft—your ability to write or draw well, and understand the context of the medium you're working in—is the bare minimum of what's required of you. It should go without saying that you understand your craft. Beyond that, you need to be shamelessly, fearlessly yourself. This is actually not as hard for out trans people, because we have to be shamelessly, fearlessly ourselves every damn day. Put that on the page and hope that it's the thing that someone is looking for that day. You have no control over whether the market wants your work. The single issue of comics that I wrote that sold the most individual copies is some crossover tie-in thing that I barely remember writing. My absolute best single issue of comics that I ever wrote was an issue of The Spirit that nobody read. You have no idea how your work will be received, so don't even worry about that part. Just make things that you think are awesome that you'd like to see exist.

JC: Before we wrap up, do you have any projects coming up that we should be keeping an eye out for?

LS: Right now I just have the ongoing Everafter: From the Pages of Fables that I'm co-writing with Dave Justus. But I've got some irons in the fire and we'll see. Whatever the next thing is, it's going to be a Lilah Sturges book from tip to toes. I can't wait to find out what it is!

JC: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I can't wait to find out what the next thing will be either!