Smash Pages Q&A: Steenz

The cartoonist who took over ‘Heart of the City’ this year discusses the comic strip process, her focus on the characters, her other projects and more.

Christina “Steenz” Stewart has been making comics for years, but earlier this year, she took over making the daily syndicated comic strip Heart of the City when its creator Mark Tatulli stepped down. Since then, as a reader I think she’s managed to improve the strip, but she’s also found a way to transform the strip while remaining true to what it’s always been. Instead of a gag strip, as Tatulli did, Steenz has focused more on character, introducing new people and grounding the comic and the characters as middle schoolers getting older and starting to see the world and their lives in new ways.

Even before taking over the strip, Steenz has emerged as a writer, artist and editor to be reckoned with. She was the artist of the award-winning graphic novel Archival Quality and is working on a graphic novel about the history of tabletop roleplaying. She’s been a contributor to anthologies like Elements and Dead Beats. A former editor at Lion Forge, Steenz edited the recent graphic novel adaptation of Work For A Million and teaches cartooning at Webster University. We spoke recently about how she worked on the strip, bringing her own voice and approach to it, and why she’s not addressing COVID-19 in the strip.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I was a frequent watcher of Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, Justice League Unlimited and all that great stuff from the ’90s-early 2000s. That’s where my interest started, through those TV shows.

I started reading graphic novels and I never got into single issue comics until much later. I was reading graphic novels because I had access to them via my library. I didn’t have a comic shop. I don’t think it occurred to me to go to a comic shop. It wasn’t something anyone I knew did until I was in college. After college I ended up working at a comic book shop and while I was there I was inhaling the knowledge and reading so much. I did that for four years.

My background in school was illustration, and so comics were something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t know how exactly that manifested. Unfortunately when you go to an art school, comics isn’t often considered one of the things you can do as a job, and because of that, it wasn’t something that ever came to mind. At the comic shop I started reading more comics, saw people who looked like me doing comics and that’s when it clicked that maybe I can do this as well.

I started making mini comics for myself, always drawing, always practicing my craft, and I didn’t do it to become a comic book artist. It was that I liked cartooning. But eventually some people took a look at my work, and I started getting a following and doing anthologies and constantly getting better at drawing. After I got into my first anthology, I started to get these opportunities. 

Heart of the City has been running for over 20 years. How did you end up taking over the strip?

I got an email from the editor, Shena Wolf, asking, “What do you think about strip comics? Would you be interested in taking over this project that the original creator wants to pass on to a new creator?” At first I was like, “Maybe?” [laughs] I didn’t really know what that entailed.

I grew up reading strip comics. I feel like all of us grew up reading strip comics. If you had a newspaper, you had the comics section. I read the huge collections of Fox Trot and Baby Blues and so many strips, so I had that interest and that background, but I didn’t know what it would mean to create those kinds of comics. 

We started an audition process. I looked at the comic and made two weeks worth of strips – two weeks of dailies and two Sunday comics. I did that for a while, getting used to the storytelling aspect of having an overarching story and then having each day be its own individual story as well. They all had to connect and be standalone to a point. Figuring out that process was hard but after four different rounds I could tell that Shena was rooting for me to get the job. I eventually got it, and now I’m doing it full time.

Had you read Heart of the City before Shena reached out?

I had never even heard of it. I stopped reading strip comics after a point because I don’t have a subscription to a newspaper. It wasn’t until Olivia Jaimes was doing Nancy that I started to get back into reading strip comics again. Heart of the City is a well-known strip, but it is not in every single paper. We never had it in the Free Press or Post Dispatch. When Shena told me about it, I read many, many years of the comic to the point where I feel like I can talk to anybody about the comic.

As you were reading years of the strip, I’m curious about your reaction, and what you saw as essential and made you connect with it?

I’ve always had a close connection with stories that focused on younger main characters. My favorite show of all time is Hey, Arnold, and I grew up watching that and Doug and Recess, and all of these TV shows that focused on younger people are ones that I find most interesting. There’s so much that we can learn as young people.

Most of the time when you’re doing stories about little kids, most of the humor comes from they don’t understand how the world works and that’s what’s funny. With stories about middle schoolers or even fourth graders, they’re trying to figure out who they are as people. They’re focused on building relationships and their personality because they have more people to interact with than just their parents or their immediate neighbors. I saw this was an opportunity to show the growth of Heart and the growth of her world.

When you’re young, often times your world is relatively small. It’s whoever’s in your house. You can’t go out and make adventures because you’re young, but at the age of 11 and 12, this is the time when these adventures can really begin. That’s what made me most excited. Being able to tell those kinds of stories about growing up without having to rely on jokes about how she doesn’t understand because she’s seven.

I was going to say that so much of the work you’ve made and a lot of the editorial work you’ve done has been young adult-focused, and this occupies a similar middle grade/young adult space.

For sure. It’s interesting because as an editor the demographic colors how you edit the work and how you approach the work. Because this is about 11-year-olds, I want to make sure it is something that other 11-year-olds can relate to. But the nature of syndicated comic strips is that it’s for everyone to read. You don’t open a newspaper and flip to the YA section. So I’m not just writing for younger kids, I’m writing for everybody. They should be stories that are universal and that teenagers and adults and seniors are going to enjoy.

Mark’s approach for Heart of the City was closer to a gag strip, and you’ve gotten away from that to focus more on serialized stories.

I don’t want to say that I don’t like gag strips because I love that kind of stuff. I will always and forever love Far Side and Pearls Before Swine, but I really enjoy fleshing out of characters and getting to know them. One of the things I remember growing up was For Better or For Worse and how they would grow with you and would get connected with these characters. I feel the same way about Heart. I want people to grow ups with these characters and while they may grow at a much slower rate, they still have real lives and layers. They’re not just an avatar for the writer to say something about what’s going on in the world. They’re actual characters.

Your Sunday comics are standalone, but the rest of the week you have story arcs that last for one or two weeks.

The Sundays are hard because not every newspaper gets daily strips. Some of them only get Sundays and you don’t want to give them something in the middle of a story, so it has to be even more standalone than the daily strips but still follow along slightly with the dailies. Sundays can be a little more difficult.

Is making Sunday strips a different process for you?

For sure. A lot of it is because the sizing is different. When I’m doing daily comics, I’m keeping in mind that I only have so much space, and so the cadence of the storytelling and the progression and the punchline is relatively similar across the dailies because of the space that I have. With the Sundays, because I have more space and I can do more things with it, it’s hard to get out of that cadence of introduction, conflict, conflict resolution, punchline.

I like Sundays because I get to color my own work. I didn’t realize when I was approached for the project that daily comics are not typically colored by the creator. They have a whole color department, which is great because I can’t imagine drawing and coloring my strips and getting it done in the time that’s needed. Sundays are also nice because it gives me a chance to remember what I like about comics and these characters, the coloring, the layouts, the paneling and doing exciting things with the design.

I know that some Sunday strips have a geometry to it because many newspaper will change how they’re arranged. Do you have to deal with that?

When I first started, there was one way it was done and now there’s a different way. [laughs] When I first started I had to think about how a portion of the top row may not be included and the middle has to be a certain size and the bottom row is a little more free for all. Having to puzzle out which parts of the story I can use for a gag and which parts I can’t was difficult. Now they’ve changed it so that Sundays the title art is one panel and the rest of it you can do whatever you want, which makes it easier for both newspapers and online readers.

At the end of Mark’s run he was making COVID jokes and you stopped that dead when you took over.

It was interesting because I didn’t have much interaction with Mark at all. Shena said, “Mark said to reach out about anything, but this is your comic now and you get to make it how you want it to be.” There was a point where I was making the audition comics and I was taking things from Tatulli’s run and mentioning it. Shena was like, “I appreciate that you’re doing this kind of research and making sure the continuity is there.” As an editor I always consider the continuity and consistency. She said, “This is your comic and it’s starting new so you don’t have to do that.”

I understand that it would take far too long for me to make something absolutely seamless just because he’s been doing it for over 20 years. When I started Shena said, “We want the first weeks to feel like, ‘This is what this comic is going to be about.’ Don’t worry about what the fans are going to say or any of that. This is your story, we hired you for that, and we want you to tell your stories.”

His story was relatively cut off at the end. COVID was one of the things I wanted to shy away from. We already live through COVID, I don’t want people to have to read through it as well. There’s a lot of art out there, a lot of comics out there, a lot of op-eds about what’s going on with the coronavirus – and that’s great, but my work doesn’t have to be one of them.

You intentionally wanted to be about these characters and middle school and people will relate before and after and during, but you didn’t need to tell a COVID story

Absolutely. I wanted to make sure that came across in my work that this is a fantasy. It’s an escape. While these people have real layered lives, it doesn’t always have to be about what’s happening with us. 

I know that you live in St. Louis. Are you thinking of this as set in Philadelphia and have call backs and references to the city, even if not in obvious ways?

It is a little difficult to put that stuff in there just because of writing it six weeks ahead of time and making sure I cram in as much as possible when it comes to the storytelling. It is important that she’s from Philadelphia. I want to make sure that some of the stories follow living there. I also want to be careful because I don’t live in Philadelphia. I don’t want people to say, “Your comic doesn’t ring true because you don’t live in Philly.” They would be right! [laughs] So I do the best that I can with the knowledge I have, knowing that I am from Detroit and St. Louis. So I am going to try and make sure that we get some Philly-focused call outs but overall, Heart could technically live in any city with the stories that I’m telling.

You mentioned working six weeks ahead. What’s your typical work week like?

Every week on Monday I start by doing roughs, thumbnails or general ideas for that whole week. I’ll send that off to Shena my editor so that she can see where it isn’t working and copyedit it. While I’m doing roughs for one week, I take the notes I sent Shena last week and draw the finals. I do two strips a day Monday through Wednesday – so Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Then on Thursday I do the Sunday strips because they take much longer. Then I have Friday, Saturday and Sunday off. 

I do a lot of other work, but in terms of Heart I only work on it Monday through Thursday. When it comes to the storytelling, I actually write three months of strips ahead of time. I have Shena look over those so that way when I’m actually doing those roughs for that week, I can refer to the outline I wrote months ago and see if a) it rings true, and b) so I can also make edits so it’s more effective. I just finished writing November and December, but I’m currently drawing August, but it is currently June. If there’s anything that happens from now until December I have to go and change it because I’m working so far ahead. Which I prefer. I want that schedule because it’s easier to deal with and I have a much freer schedule to work on other projects.

Are you mostly thinking in these one to two week-long story arcs?

For example, we’re going through the story of Heart wanting to get her ears pierced. I will write the entire story. It doesn’t have to be beautiful. I’m just writing out – she wants to get her ears pierced, mom has hesitation, Heart has to make a list of reasons why she wants to get them done, she decides to plead her case in court, her mother has already scheduled an appointment to get it done so Heart never needed to plead her case, she gets to the piercing place and gets freaked out, she starts spiraling in her head about how scary its going to be, when she finally gets it done it’s not as bad as she thinks it is, she loves them but she’s not getting the attention she thought she’d be getting from it, and at the end she gets that attention from an older student and it’s all worth it.

So I have that full story. Now I need to take those chunks of story and split them up so they fit Monday through Saturday. Figure out what happens on each day and then I think, “How do I have a punchline that fits that specific action each day?” Then I’m thinking about what can I do on Sunday that matches with the story but doesn’t derail it. So I had her at the mall where she takes her mom’s wallet and gets in line at Blair’s, that works as a standalone Sunday comic. That’s how it works. I write the entire story out and sometimes it’s a week, sometimes it’s two weeks. It depends on how long it takes to get the whole story across. 

You mentioned other work and I know that you teach and are working on a book about table top role-playing games – and probably other things as well.

I am working on Side Quest, which is a visual history of tabletop role-playing games, with Sam Sattin. Right now we’re in the scripting phase. While the book is a history of tabletop role-playing games, it is also a memoir. We are talking about how our histories relate to our interests in gaming and culture and it’s been very interesting to write with another writer. I don’t really care for writing. [laughs] If I could not write, that would be cool. But we’re working on it together. He’s doing most of the research and writing of the book, but it’s still very collaborative at this point because I want to make sure it has my voice in it. Sam and I are going to be in the book, and we’ll be your tour guides so we have to make it sound like the both of us talking to the reader and each other. After he finishes the script, I’ll start drawing it later this year.

I am editing a story for Mad Cave Studios, which I can’t talk about. We’re making good progress. I teach cartooning at Webster University. The fall semester starts up in August so I have to rework my syllabus so it works for in class and on-line because of the state of the world at the moment. That’s going to take up some time, but I’m excited to get back to it. I’m doing some illustration gigs that I can’t really talk about. So I’m working, but most of my time is going into Heart.

It sounds like you’re having fun.

I really enjoy it. I enjoy fleshing out these characters. Even though I don’t like the actual process of writing, I do like character development and being able to play with their mannerisms and their emotions on their face and thinking of stories that work for all of them is really fun.

Will we see more Charlotte?

Oh yeah. I had to take some time to introduce her, but when you have an ensemble cast you have to make sure you’re giving equal amounts of time to everyone. It has to focus on Heart because it’s her story and it’s about her relationships with these people. We’re going to see more of their families. More students. That’s one of the things they wanted me to do when they reached out to me for this project. They wanted me to expand on Heart’s relationships with other kids. When you’re younger, you have your babysitter, your mom and a few close friends, but she’s in school and around all these other people and has to navigate all these relationships. They wanted me to focus more on the kids and less on the adults. But they are 11 and at that age, you still talk to your mom. [laughs] So the parents are still in there but most of the stories are going to be focused on the kids.

The piercing story is about Heart and her mom and Kat, and I assume most stories will take a similar approach, focusing on a few characters.

Yeah, there are stories that are more about Charlotte and Dean, and others that are about Kat and Charlotte, or Heart and Kat. I make sure to get time between the characters. It’s important to look at the relationships between those characters and Heart, but also those characters with each other.

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