Niki Smith’s second graphic novel, The Deep and Dark Blue, is a departure from her first book Crossplay. Blue, out now from Hachette, is a middle grade story of twin princes who, after a coup, have to hide out as girls in The Communion of Blue, an all-female magical order based around weaving and spinning and the magical properties of the color blue. The book plays with the trope of gender bending that has been popular for centuries, but for one of the twins, living as a girl isn’t an annoying burden, but offers her the chance to live as her true self.
The book is also a great medieval adventure as two sheltered children are given a crash course in the world around them that involves politics, conspiracies and magic. The book itself is designed and colored in a way that practically jumps off the page. Smith and I have talked before, and I was thrilled that we had the chance to discuss Grayce and Hawke, the color blue and not owning a pencil.
To start, how did you come to comics?
I always read them. I grew up in the manga boom of the early 2000s, but before that I read Elfquest and all sorts of things. I wasn’t ever a superhero fan. I went to art school wanting to be an illustrator or an artist of some sort, but in my second year, a few of my professors told me that my art had a sequential feel to it and asked if I had I ever tried making a comic. I always loved reading them, I had just never thought about making them myself. My first attempts were adaptations of short prose excerpts; I loved it, started writing my own work and never looked back.
Where exactly did The Deep and Dark Blue start?
I grew up reading the series Alanna, by Tamora Pierce, about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to become a knight. Mulan came out around the same time. All these stories about girls disguising themselves as boys to go have adventures, because being a girl was miserable and they were stuck inside sewing all day. I wanted to take this trope and reverse it. I also wanted to acknowledge that as much as these stories play with gender, flirting with other boys while in disguise as a boy, each character went back to her life as a straight, cis girl in the end. They went back to their old lives and their original names. I wanted to acknowledge how queer this trope could be and let trans characters have adventures and save the day, too.
This trope stretches back to Shakespeare and French comedies and beyond, and they see gender as playful and performative, but by the end things always go back to “normal.”
I think Shakespeare used the trope five times in his plays. It’s a well-founded trope. You just never see anyone end up queer, and I wanted to do my own twist on that.
Was queering and playing with trope part of the reason you have twins as the protagonists?
Exactly that; twins let me show both sides of the trope. Hawke is living as a girl because he needs to disguise himself; they’re being hunted after a coup and he needs to keep himself hidden. His twin, Grayce, has a very different reaction – as awful as the circumstances are, this is the first chance she’s had to live as herself, as a girl. She doesn’t want to focus on getting revenge and going back to the life she had. She likes being able to live as Grayce for the first time.
It’s unclear to what degree it is her first time. There’s a line early on when they’re trying to put on a dress and Hawke is saying, “I don’t know how to wear one,” but she says, “Mom showed me how to do this.”
There are a lot of small moments like that. The things she paid attention to, that her brother never even thought about. I think she has longed for it for a very long time, but never saw it as an option she could pursue.
Not to spoil anything, but it creates tension later on because Grayce helps her brother, believing that doing so will prevent her from ever being herself.
She’s torn between helping her brother and the risk of losing everything that she’s gained. It’s a tough situation for her.
As you were writing and playing with these ideas and shaping this world, did you know that you wanted to tell the story for younger readers?
The stories I grew up with, like Alanna and Mulan, were aimed at this middle grade audience and I really wanted to do the same. I was always a huge fantasy lover. I wanted to play with that and invent my own magic system. I decided not to do the standard kings and queens and princes royalty fantasy world, and instead went with something inspired by medieval Italy and the independent city-states, which were run by a council of nobles or merchant families. It’s a more unusual political structure than the average fantasy world, which tend to follow a British hereditary monarchy system, but I think it’s makes for a much more interesting backdrop.
Besides just the political structure, you have a system of magic that is centered around weaving and spinning and the color blue.
Because I wanted to twist the trope on its head – where rather than girls disguising themselves as boys to be knights, the twins have to disguise themselves as girls – I tried to think of a social structure that has historically exclusively been the domain of women. I kept going back to fiber arts. There were various orders of women – whether religious or not, like the beguines in Belgium – that lived on their own and were self-sufficient; they supported themselves through their weaving and spinning. This is where we get the word spinster, a woman who was unmarried, who supported herself by living in with other women, spinning thread. I kept thinking about fiber arts and developed this system from there. The Communion of Blue is separated into different factions. Four of them can manipulate this magic: There are spinners, weavers, dyers and healers. I only go into some of them in this book, but I would love to expand the story if I can. Grace is learning how to spin thread, and by doing so she learns to manipulate fire, water or the world around her. The magic all comes from a mysterious deep blue indigo dye.
The color blue was relatively rare and a recent development.
Yes, I did a lot of research into that. There are some extraordinarily expensive dyes you can only produce by crushing the tiniest snails, all to produce a tiny portion of purple dye. Blue was similarly rare, originally derived from lapis lazuli. Only royalty were allowed to wear certain colors of dye, because they were so expensive and highly prized.
I assumed you used it because blue was so hard to make and so rare.
Yes. We take intense dyes for granted nowadays because they’re so easy to produce artificially, but in the middle ages or throughout history it was very hard to make intense blues and purples—the average plant dye produces something green or brown. Paint pigments had the same struggle for centuries.
Besides everything else, Hawke and Grayce are sheltered kids who don’t know how the city works, learning about things for the very first time.
That’s exactly what I was going for. If I ever get to make sequels, my plan was for each book to expand their world. The Deep and Dark Blue takes place in their manor and in the Communion of Blue. The second book would take place in the city, and the third book in the larger world. Each one would broaden their and the reader’s understanding of the world around them.
Some of that would be about magic. Not to spoil anything but the final confrontation, it is startling because certain aspects of magic have been explained, but we haven’t seen it. And it is startling to see Grayce do it.
Writing fantasy, I think it’s very easy to just info dump and overwhelm your reader with too much information that they can’t parse. I wanted the reader to discover the world as the characters do. Hawke and Grayce come from this sheltered, privileged life and they’re encountering this magic for the first time. They’re still novices in the world and learn step by step, and it gives the reader a viewpoint to enter this world. I tried to find a balance of hinting at this wider world without dumping too much information on the reader.
Did you draw the entire book digitally?
Yes, I do everything digitally. I realized last year that I don’t even own a pencil. [laughs] I don’t sketch in sketchbooks anymore. I write each of my books as an outline first and then a script, which my editor reads and gives feedback on. From there I do rough pencils for the whole book. I think we added ten-fifteen pages during the revisions stage, to make sure things were clear for the reader. A panel here. Add a couple pages here. Some dialogue there. Then I ink it and color it. I tried to color the book with a limited palette, so you only see blues when the characters enter the Communion of Blue. There’s no blue paint or clothing anywhere else. Even the sky takes on a different hue, just to make the impact of this color that much more striking.
My art director at Little Brown decided to use a different ink when producing the final book. Normally books are printed using cyan magenta yellow and black inks – CMYK – but instead of magenta we used a different ink, Rodamine Red. It makes the colors pop even more.
Crossplay was a black and white book with some pink. I know you’ve done short work in color and what was the process of figuring out the colors? Obviously, you knew blue had to play a major role.
My original pitch was for a black and white grayscale book with spot blue colors. But because The Deep and Dark Blue is a middle grade book, and middle grade tends to be full color, we reworked it. We tried to find a way to still keep that emphasis on blue, but have the rest of the book full color. I’m happy with how it came together, after spending a lot of time playing with different palettes.
These two books are so different in so many ways and it sounds like you want to consciously want to keep doing something different.
Because I work digitally, I suppose I’ve always jumped from different brushes or coloring styles from project to project. I see it as a way to try something new. It can be exhausting wrapping up a 250 page book. You want to try something different, whether it’s a different inking style or digital brush, or anything really, and see how that works for your art.
I know some people love that freedom but I’ve talked to artists who see it as a flaw in their own work that they haven’t found a style that works so they just shift from style to style.
I don’t think of it as a shortcoming. I think most people have a recognizable style, no matter what tool they’re using. I can still recognize how someone draws faces or expressions, or their sense of timing and panel layouts. People have their signature style for how they imagine scenes. I see starting a new project as an opportunity to try something new.
You mentioned you have a contract for another book, but once a book is done do you have daily practice of writing or drawing?
I try to keep normal healthy work hours. [laughs] My wife leaves for work and I sit down and start working. When she comes home, I stop. At some point last year I was juggling drawing The Deep and Dark Blue and inking Chronin Volume 2, by Alison Wilgus, for Tor. I really notice the impact on my mental health and exhaustion when I work evenings or weekends, so I try to keep normal hours now. I’m not a night owl by any means. Generally, as I’m wrapping up a book I’m trying to pitch my next project; publishing can move very slowly, and you don’t want to be left with months of waiting between books. Different stages of the book process give me more time to think about projects; for example, when I’m coloring a book, I have the mental space to think about new stories. Whereas if I’m scripting a book, I can’t be thinking about another story at the same time. I keep a file with ideas, and jot down anything that strikes me as interesting. Sometimes it’s just a line or two, but I’ll revisit it and see if there’s a story in it, and wonder where it could go.
So the next book will be something different?
This one is not fantasy, but it is still for a middle grade audience. Still queer, most importantly.
So are you doing any events or book signings in Europe or in North America?
In April and May I’m going to do a tiny tour of festivals and signings. I’ll be at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in May. I haven’t done a North American con since I moved to Germany, so that’ll be exciting. I’ll also be doing signings in Kansas, St. Louis and Rochester.