When Brian Andersen and James Neish set out to kickstart one issue of their comic Stripling Warrior a few years, they had no idea that not only would it be a success, but that it would strike a nerve. Some of the press and the attention has been about the very idea of a gay Mormon superhero, but Andersen uses Mormon theology and stories similarly to how Catholic teachings have become so familiar to many of us through pop culture.
The series, which has now been collected into a trade collection, is about Sam Shepard and Fe Fernandez, two queer ex-Mormons who are charged by an angel to be the Hand of God on Earth. It sounds heavily religious, but no more so than many other comics that draw from different religious traditions, but it’s a book that also embraces superhero conventions. At its heart, the book is about two conversations. One is between Sam and Fe about how they never stopped believing, the church’s hatred towards them has meant that they refuse to accept this mission as face value, even as they seek to carry out their quest. The other conversation is between their spouses, Jase and Shonda, about identity and how their sexuality is vital to who they have become, but it does not define them because they are so much more than that.
Stripling Warrior is a book unlike anything else on the stands, and I spoke with Brian Andersen about the project, making a sex positive, inclusive story, and what he’s working on now.
How did you come to comics?
I found my first comics at – they call them liquor stores here – but they’re convenience stores. That was back when they had spinner racks. I picked up Marvel Comics’ Daredevil and I got it because here was a tiger attacking a guy and I was like, this is cool. I don’t think I ever read the issue, I just looked at the art. I was probably around eight years old. Then I saw a copy of Fantastic Four where She Hulk was jumping off a cliff and smashing into these robot horses and I was like, okay, I’m into this thing. [laughs] Seeing this giant green strong woman grabbing robot horses, making them into a ball, throwing them spoke to me on a personal level and I’ve been a fan ever since.
Stripling Warrior is my book about gay Mormon superheroes. Basically being a former Mormon I really wanted to create something for people who grew up in the Mormon church or the Mormon culture and have been told their whole lives that being gay is wrong and being gay in sinful. I wanted to create is a book where these characters are openly gay, are happy to be gay, but they’re given these gifts by characters from the Book of Mormon to be heroes on Earth. They are empowered and given gifts to do good for the world. They’re not punished because they’re gay.
Can you just explain briefly what are the stripling warriors in the Mormon theology?
The whole story behind the Book of Mormon is that a bunch of people left Jerusalem, came to America, settled here and they populated the Americas. A lot of Mormons believe that the indians that were here before the Europeans settled are descendants of this group of Mormons who sailed over from Jerusalem. The story is that they splintered. The righteous group was called Nephites and the sinful group was called Lamanites. They were always warring with each other and there was a group of kids that were super righteous called the Stripling Warriors. Because they were so righteous they were never harmed, they were never injured, and they were able to win every battle. A lot of Mormons use them as a reference. They tell youth to choose the right thing, be brave, be confident, be close to God – be like a stripling warrior, and no harm will come to you.
Before we get more into the book itself, I kept wondering about the role of angels in Mormon theology. I was raised very mainstream Protestant which means there’s very little, but Mormonism seems much more interested in angels.
Angels are big. They’re heavenly messengers and for Mormons, angels are basically elevated beings. They’re the most righteous and the highest level of the celestial kingdom and so closest to god. They’re beings of light and a lot of time angels will come down to earth and deliver a message to people from god. All the angels in the Book of Mormon are male. There are no female angels mentioned in the Book of Mormon. There are few female characters in the Book of Mormon unless they’re a mother or a sister. They’re never a main character. In my story Stripling Warrior I wanted to have a female angel who came and delivered a message to these characters telling them that they are righteous and empowered. I wanted to empower a female in the role for a change and have her be a messenger. But for our Heavenly Mother instead of god, the Heavenly Father. Mormons believe in a female god who’s married to god.
The main character is Sam Shepard. His last name is obviously a Christian reference and his full name a Stan Lee-esque bit of alliteration. Which I guess is you showing off two of the book’s main influences.
You have this larger story, but in each issue you’re building this world. Did you have this story and structure in mind from the start?
Originally I just wanted to do a one shot and see how it would go. When I did my kickstarter for the first issue I got so much support and so much success and I got so much press that I thought, maybe I’m onto something. After that I had to think about what the rest of the story was going to be. I quickly realized that I wanted to have a diverse group of queer heroes. I wanted to have characters who could represent most of the LGBTQ community and give them a voice within the context of Mormon culture.
Throughout the book in conversations that characters are having about sexuality and identity and faith, you’re trying to engage that they’re queer but you also want to push against what that means and how it’s defined and limited.
In Mormon culture being queer is one of the worst things you can be. I would say it’s probably worse than adultery though not worse than killing. But besides murder, being queer is the worst thing in Mormon culture that you can possibly be. I don’t want to say you’re shunned, but in a lot of ways you are. There are a lot of homeless Mormon youth in Utah – Salt Lake City in particular. The high teenage suicide rate is because a lot of Mormon families just disengage with their queer children. It’s viewed as such a terrible thing that they cast their children out. It’s a terrible thing.
I would imagine it’s almost worse in Mormon culture compared to other religions because it’s so focused on the family and the community and is so tight knit that to be thrown out of this is just painful.
It’s horrible. Mormonism is almost more cultural than it is religious. It encompasses your whole life. From when you’re a child you go to church for three hours every Sunday and then there are multiple meetings throughout the week. You have Mormon friends, there are early morning classes for learning about Mormonism, there are evening classes, you go to camp. Everything in your life circles around this culture and then all of a sudden you are outside of it. I can’t fathom how hard that must be for a child or a young person to navigate that world where you’re just thrown out of everything you know. You have to navigate how you feel about your sexuality after being told it’s wrong and evil your whole life and then how to live in a world where you don’t have any support systems. It breaks my heart.
Sam and Fe talk about how they never really stopped believing – the church stopped believing in them.
Exactly. You don’t have to be Mormon to enjoy the series, I use the Church and it’s theology as the groundwork for the characters. Take a character like Thor; he’s immersed in this whole Norse tradition and theology. I wanted to say, what if there was a Mormon character like that? I wanted to take a character who was representative of the ideals in the Book of Mormon and uses those beliefs in a superhero, magical way. The way Thor is representative of the Norse gods, the way Wonder Woman is sort of representative of the Greek gods, Stripling Warrior is representative of Mormonism their beliefs in god.
While we’ve made so much advances with gay representation in American culture we’re still mostly portrayed as very chaste. It took forever for Cam and Mitch to finally kiss on Modern Family and when they did it was the tiniest peck. I’m not ashamed of my sexuality. I’m not ashamed of the sex that I partake in. I don’t think it’s a shameful thing. I wanted to show that they have a healthy positive sex life. I don’t want to exploit sex and make it a sex book, but I wanted it to be in it. When I read Spider-Man back in the day, he and Mary Jane would be in bed together or I remember there was a scene where he was leaving the bedroom in his underwear and Mary Jane and his friends were there laughing. It was clear that they were engaging in sexual activity and I wanted to have the same thing for queer comic book characters in a superhero story. Yeah, they have sex, but so what? There’s nothing shameful about that.
There’s a scene where Sam and Jase are having sex and the way it’s drawn, comics readers – plus TV and movie viewers – over a certain age have seen this image a million times. But we’re used to seeing woman straddling a man and not two men.
Right. Isn’t it awesome? And hot!
When Sam and Fe first talk about what being called like this means, they accept it but they also reject how the angel defines it. Which I suppose is also their relationship to their faith. They accept it but they also refuse to accept everything at face value. Along with that conversation about identity, I feel this relationship that they have to their faith is at the heart of the book.
A lot of people tell me, gay Mormon superheroes? That’s awfully specific. I feel like isn’t a blind Catholic lawyer specific? Isn’t a Muslim Inhuman superhero very specific? I feel like all characters in their own way are awfully specific. Just because that’s how I differentiate them, at the base of it all it’s a superhero story. It’s also about a character who has strength and abilities who goes out and tries to do the right thing. I try to take elements of the typical superhero story within the context of what I made the book about. A lot of times people are like, why would I want to read about Mormonism? I’m like, well, I don’t know anything about being a lawyer or being a Muslim, but I still read Daredevil and Ms. Marvel and I really enjoy them.
Also I think as queer people, we’ve all felt marginalized. It would be rare for any queer person to say, I’ve felt one hundred percent vindicated about being gay since I came out. Whether you come from a religious background or a non-religious background, we’ve all felt ostracized or judged or dismissed or told something negative about who we inherently are. I reject that notion. I don’t believe that any of us are broken or any less or wrong or need to be changed or repaired. I am who I’m supposed to be. This is the me I was meant to be. I love being gay. This is a blessing. Being queer is the best thing that ever happened to me and I’m so grateful that this is part of who I am. It’s not all of who I am, but it is part of who I am and I’m so happy about that.
It makes sense right?
There is this Mormon story about Cain and I don’t know if it’s been approved by the majority of the leaders of the church but there is a story that an old prophet went into the woods and Bigfoot came upon him. The Bigfoot turned out to be Cain. Cain became Bigfoot because he was cursed to live forever when he killed Abel. This Mormon prophet rebuked Cain and he ran off. I thought it would be funny if this were true. This is why Cain as a CEO in my story is a big hairy person – basically he’s still Bigfoot – but if he lived for millions of years he’d be somebody in power. Who’s the most powerful people in our culture right now? Corporate CEO’s. And a lot of corporate CEO’s are viewed as unethical and ego-driven so I thought, perfect!
I have to look up this Bigfoot story. But the other villain in the arc is the church itself.
It’s not actual doctrine of the church, but it is a story that has been told multiple times. Maybe it’s more folklore now, but a lot of people do believe that Bigfoot is actually Cain. For the church the whole reason they’re against the stripling warriors is because they know that being gay is not actually wrong and bad. If they come out and say being queer is not a terrible thing, it upsets everything the church is about. It will ruin the church so they’re trying to silence these characters so that they don’t reveal to the world that being queer is actually a blessing not a curse.
How did you and James Neish connect?
His then-boyfriend was a photographer and I stumbled upon his work on Instagram. He shared James’ artwork and so I reached out to him and asked if he would like to do this book. He’s queer but he’s not Mormon, he was raised Catholic, so I think he was fascinated by the religious aspect of it. His artwork is gorgeous. Every time I got pages I would moon over it because it was so beautiful.
How did the two of you work?
We’ve never met because he’s in Nova Scotia. Everything has been online. We just constantly emailed each other. After the first two issues I trusted his vision so my scripts were less descriptive and just panel outline, what was happening in a panel, and dialogue. I let him do whatever he wanted basically in terms of his art. I rarely asked him to change anything. I wanted him to feel like he was an equal partner in the process so I wanted to give him as much slack as I could.
The Annual which closes the collection takes place a little later and changes the status quo by the end, but the heart of the book was really Sam and Fee’s partners getting to talk about identity and what it means to them. That’s at the heart of the book.
I think so. For me it’s about empowering different types of queer people and what that means. Even within the queer community there are so many identities and I just wanted people to be able to see themselves in these characters and say, I’m okay, I’m not alone, I’m not crazy, I’m not a terrible person. I believe that you’re born how you’re supposed to be. I believe that god doesn’t make mistakes. You’re supposed to find the path to become who you’re supposed to be, whatever that means for you.
Did you know from beginning that Jase would be bi and Shonda would be trans?
I knew from the beginning that Shonda would be trans, but I didn’t think about Jase being bi until I got into the story. I liked the dynamic of Sam being completely homosexual, and his husband being bisexual. I think that’s an interesting dynamic that we don’t see all the time, so I thought it would be good to explore that.
I don’t know. Now the comics have all been collected in this really beautiful collection so I just want to let it breathe for a bit and take a little time off. I do want to explore the characters again because like you said, the status quo has changed and I want to see what that means for them going forward. What adventures they’ll have and who they’ll be as a team, because they’re now a team of heroes. Again it’s all about empowering queer individuals so I wanted to make sure that they all became empowered in their own way. They all became stripling warriors, which to say strong heroes, in their own right because of who they are.
So do you want to take a break to write other comics?
I have a four year old daughter and she is a lot of my focus. I’m 43 years old and so I lived for forty years as a selfish forty year old person and I did all the things I wanted to do so now I focus on being a parent, which is great. I’ve read a lot of children’s books to her and some I like and some I do not like. She has two gay parents and so she’s more aware of the things we like as queer people. I want to give her a book that she can hopefully enjoy but that also references the things she’s familiar with because of her parents. I’m working on a book called Princess Drag Queen because she loves drag queens. When we go to San Francisco she’ll look at them in awe. She understands that’s a boy dressed as a girl. She has no problem understanding that and she loves it. So I’m doing a book that’s all about a Princess who happens to be drag queen.
I also have more ideas for comics I want to do. I love comics. They’re my first love and I will always make them. I plan on a new book soon.