Artists and coffee shops go together, like tea and scones or steamed milk and espresso shots. So it’s no surprise that writer Taneka Stotts and artist Sara DuVall have steeped up something special in their new comic about magic, mystery and the daily grind in Deja Brew. Available through the iOS app Stela, this digital-exclusive comic is offered in a monthly subscription format, rather than floppy books at your local shop. The plot revolves around Tobias, a barista at a coffee shop named Bijou that exists in a city where magic is part of the day-to-day lifestyle. When a mysterious spirit wanders into the shop, he decides to use his magic to investigate it—a test he hasn’t tackled since before he was expelled from witch academy. Paste took a quick coffee break to talk to Taneka and Sara about magical boys, working in a new format and why, now more than ever, #WeNeedDiverseCreators!
All Art by Sara DuVall
Paste: Taneka and Sara, thanks so much for answering some questions for us. Tell me about the process for developing Deja Brew and why it’s a great fit for the Stela app!
Taneka Stotts: First, thank you so much for reading! I’m happy you enjoyed the opening. It was quite a treat to have the opportunity to write for Stela. For Deja Brew I wanted to create a story around the “black girls are magic” movement, but turn it around to feature our magic brothers, too. So while diving into the world of Arcadia, my focus was on just that. Since I didn’t see a lot of all-ages magical black boy stories out in the world, unless you count the superhero ones, I went for it. I felt with Stela, not only could I tell a unique story, but I could also stitch it together in a unique way. The concept of a continual vertical scrolling comic format is one I see a lot since I love to read Korean and Chinese comics, which already adhere to that model. I was super surprised they released the first chapter for free online, but I highly recommend checking out Stela’s current library of awesome stories as well, like Afrina and the Glass Coffin or Breaker.
Sara DuVall: For me, I came into the project at a point where Taneka had everything fairly well-developed for me. She had all her characters ready, the plot outlined and the world built, so it essentially came down to the two of us talking a lot about the world and the essence of all the characters, and really getting a sense of where exactly I wanted to go with the overall aesthetic of the story.
Paste: What’s the process like building a book for Stela? While most publishers work in pages and panels, Stela uses a unique vertical-scrolling style that’s intended for a smartphone reading experience. Was this a big transition?
Stotts: It was really easy. We’re given a template and we can utilize it how we please in the vertical narrative. This led me to having all sorts of thoughts about how I used to pour so many cups of coffee myself. Yes, once upon a time I was a barista. It made me think of long shots or quick pours from the French press. I wanted the story to just slide down the screen and intrigue users to keep scrolling for more.
DuVall: It was definitely a big transition for me! As someone who likes to work with wide, spacious panels, it definitely took some getting used to. I remember I actually drew the entire first chapter on a standard comic page, thinking I could just pop my panels into the Stela template when I was done with them…only to find that, surprise surprise, a lot of my panels really didn’t fit in the narrower format. But once I got over just how different it was and realized there were a lot of really fun ways I could work with the scrolling format, I totally embraced it. I ended up learning a lot, and I loved the challenge.
Paste: Sara, your art has a wonderfully whimsical style that doesn’t shy away from making real-people traits (such as tattoos, beards and scars) into charming visual cues for characters—your Lord of the Rings fan art comes to mind here! How do you keep your designs feeling like they’re all in the same world, where you’re drawing things like train cars and coffee machines alongside magical spirit girls?
DuVall: Taneka is amazing in that she provided me with an incredible amount of reference for both the characters and the world of Arcadia, so really it came down to me going through everything and putting together all the details I needed in order to create a cohesive look that matched her vision.
Right off the bat she had a very specific look in mind for the story, and that was really a fun challenge for me because I typically don’t draw urban-set stories or work with a very colorful palette. Since I was a little out of my comfort zone, I decided to start with what I love most—the characters. I decided I’d get the main cast designed first, and then build the world around them so that it all felt cohesive. I felt that the key was to push the boundaries of a “normal world” aesthetic and give each character a little bit of flair, so there was always a subtle nod to this being an urban fantasy (i.e. giving Maddox some funky white hair, and having Tobias’ outfit deviate from a typical American barista uniform), while also not having too much going on with each character. Once I had that down, it was really easy for me to go through my reference for the city and put together everything I thought would really fit with the look I had cultivated with the characters.
Paste: Both of you come to comics from some work in the anthology world. How did an ongoing story like Deja Brew compare to developing the short stories so often seen in these anthologies?
Stotts: I personally have a long format webcomic called Full Circle, and once upon a time I had a starter comic with my girlfriend called Gran Grimoire (I’ll revisit it one day, I swear). So I was used to longer narratives. Anthologies taught me a lesson of shorter storytelling, which I also enjoy. However, I consider myself completely spoiled that I was allowed to tell a multi-chapter story for Deja Brew. It was a great experience.
DuVall: As the artist, I had to remember that characters I designed would have to be drawn a bit more than in, say, a six-page story. So in designing them, I had to find a balance of making their designs simple enough to draw over and over without it taking too long, while also keeping them detailed enough that they wouldn’t look like cookie-cutter characters.
Paste: Taneka, you’re really having a moment right now, with Beyond II listing a fantastic creator lineup, and the Elements Anthology for creators of color hitting its funding goal on Kickstarter. Tell us a little about what inspires you to do this fantastic anthology work!
Stotts: I want anthologies to speak for those who feel they don’t have a megaphone. I want to showcase voices and lead as an example that they can do it, too. I felt that inspiration from watching various other anthologies like Smut Peddler from Iron Circus Comics and more. Seeing an all-lady anthology was very inspiring. That moved into Beyond by Sfé R. Monster, which was a queer anthology, and an amazing experience that led to my becoming a publisher and editor. However, the lack of creators of color in a lot of anthologies I was also involved with left me feeling alone and curious. It made me question what I could do to help change that kind of status quo. Elements was my answer!
Paste: Speaking of Elements, the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseCreators has brought to light a bigger issue than just a preponderance of straight white male heroes—a preponderance of straight white male creators. I couldn’t agree more, and I think projects like Elements are doing the right thing to give diverse creators a platform to get their work out into the world. What do you all recommend to a person who wants to make comics, but feels unwelcome in the midst of the comic industry’s homogeneity problem?
Stotts: Every excuse I hear from creators and editors explaining why there is no representation puts them immediately on my block list. It’s pathetic to tell people of color that the world just wasn’t in the right place at the right time. They have systematically kept us out, while benefiting from telling our stories and pocketing money in place of their integrity. Well I don’t want into that club (I have a conscience), it’s not for me and I hope they enjoyed that money, because each and every one of them who has been a gatekeeper to this antiquated system will now be its undoing.
Just know that when you create comics in an environment that feels unwelcoming, you just have to do it and don’t question yourself or your direction into the point of not producing anything. Enjoy your failures—it will make celebrating your victories even more delightful. After all, there is no one who can bar you from being a creator. You will create your own audience, your own worlds, and your own peace of mind. Have confidence! This life is your journey, you are the one to choose how it will play out.
Duvall: I say don’t let the mentality of the ignorant majority stop you from making the kind of stories you want to see in the world. Whether it’s looking into anthologies or posting your comic on Tumblr, I think it’s really important that artists keep creating work that challenges the outdated ideals we see in the comic industry today. Narrow-minded people in the industry will continue to claim otherwise because it keeps the status quo, but there’s a huge audience for diverse comics, and creators will always be welcomed by those who appreciate and want stories that better reflect our diverse world.
Paste: Back to the book—there’s a moment in the comic that seems to hint at Tobias’ queerness (at least, I sure hope it does)! As you’re both queer creators, how did you want to approach sexuality in Deja Brew?
Stotts: To me being queer is just as normal as breathing. So in stories, as in life, you’ll always find that representation in one way or another. I approach it in storytelling by being honest to my experiences and being respectful to the multitude of sexualities that exist. I love queer comics.
Duvall: Queer representation is so important to me, and what I really appreciated about Taneka’s script was how that representation was handled so naturally. I think it’s really important for the vastness of the sexuality spectrum to be represented in comics, but also for it to not be the only defining characteristic of a story’s characters. Queer characters are more than just their sexual orientation, and I love that our characters get to be in such a world where diversity is the norm.
Paste: Much of what I’ve seen in Deja Brew does a masterful job of fusing the everyday with the mystical. Witch school, Tobias’ roommate—these things are everyday parts of a world where stopping at the local coffee shop seems like something you do on the way to waving your wand. How did this world develop for you two?
Stotts: Slice of life is a genre I’ve never told, but always thought of as a beautiful narrative. I wanted to give it a shot while infusing fantasy, because why not? Wouldn’t people in magical realms still kind of have to worry about paying the rent on time and keeping the electricity on? I’m the writer, I could god-mod it out, but that just feels like cheating. I feel the world around me is a little magical, including the coffee shop around the corner from my house where I wrote most of the script. So for me I just fused the real world, my real experiences and a world unknown all together and made it the new home for Tobias, Maddox and Rossell, and the story just blossomed like the crema on my cup.
Paste: And finally, when it’s time for a pick-me- up, what does the team order at the coffee shop?
Stotts: This is pretty easy for me. I’m a pretty hardcore tea drinker, so it’s either an iced soy chai or a hot cup of rooibos (chocolate mint if it’s in stock).
Duvall: A soy chai latte, every time!