Smash Pages Q&A: Kel McDonald

The cartoonist discusses her latest project, now up on Kickstarter, as well as the urban fantasy genre, ‘The Stone King’ and more.

Kel McDonald has been making comics for years. I read her webcomic Sorcery 101 years ago, but she’s also made comics series like Misfits of Avalon, written Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics and contributed to Dark Horse Presents. Late last year Comixology Originals released The Stone King, a comics series that McDonald made with artist Tyler Crook. Her work is always interesting because she clearly loves fantasy, but she wants to do interesting things with the genre, telling different kinds of stories in really exciting ways.

In recent years she’s been making the series The City Between, composed of different books with different characters and genres set in the same world. Right now she’s kickstarting the third book in the series, The Dead Deception. I’ve been reading McDonald’s work for years and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about urban fantasy, werewolves, her future plans for the series, and how Kickstarter has changed over the years for the better.

I like to start by asking people, how did you come to comics?

I always liked drawing and telling stories. In high school, I wrote the first draft of a prose novel. While I did finish it, I found the whole thing to be a chore rather than fun the way drawing was. So I started looking into making comic and started reading them more regularly. Before then the comics I read were mostly just the manga that animes I enjoyed were based on and some X-Men. If I hadn’t started making them, I probably won’t have dug much deeper than that. 

So what is The Dead Deception?

The Dead Deception is the third book in my series The City Between. Maria Pimienta is a detective assigned to work with the only open werewolf detective, Connor Burke, on supernatural related cases. Because of him being the only werewolf detective is a little famous for getting cases solved, but his partners have all gotten injuries while working with him. Their first case is a murder where a girl with super strength killed the cashier. Connor is extremely unhelpful and dismisses Maria’s work. So that combined with all his previous partners’ injuries makes her think he might be dirty. 

Do you want to say a little about The City Between series? Because it’s urban fantasy, but you like to play with the genre and what that means in really interesting ways.

The City Between is urban fantasy stories in a futuristic city. But it’s not connected to our reality. A lot of my decisions while making the series is based on figuring out what I liked and didn’t like about my previous series Sorcery 101. Sorcery 101 is a different universe but it’s not immediately obvious that it’s different. So designing a future world makes it more clear that things aren’t here. Also, I wanted to work on dialogue and humor that isn’t as dependent on pop culture references, so The City Between being takes all those off the table too. Then I could build the world around what I enjoy drawing. My joke answer about explaining The City Between is “It’s a future were everyone takes public transit and horses have gone extinct.” When I say that, I instantly know who is an artist because they are the ones that laugh about there being no horses or cars. 

Also I like mythology and folklore and supernatural stuff. So I’m really just taking what I like about urban fantasy stuff, aka the magic and putting it in a setting that is different. And it being a futuristic-ish setting just helps contrast the magic part more. 

And beyond this series, with so much of your work I feel like you love the trappings of the fantasy genre, but you hate a lot of the typical stories told in the genre. Is that fair?

I don’t hate them. I love them. I have been a Buffy fan since I was 10, I have listened to audiobooks of the Dresden Files multiple times while drawing, my favorite book series is the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire. HOWEVER, I think gore is boring. And most folks who make werewolf movies seem to think the werewolf tearing people up is the best part. Also, a lot of Urban Fantasy books are written by cis straight white dudes and it shows. Ginger Snaps is one of the few werewolf movies about female werewolves, but it’s entirely clear a cis man wrote it because the main character gets her first period at 16 even though the rest of her body has been developing on already. The whole movies theme is interrupted and weaker than it could be because a cis man wrote it and didn’t bother to have someone who has been a teenage girl look over the story. And in urban fantasy’s deciding urban means today, a lot of them getting caught up in the pop culture of the day. I still love Buffy but her character was created as a comment on the blonde girl victim in late 80s/early 90s movies. So her entire existence is a dated reference. I love urban fantasy or I wouldn’t write it. I just want it to not be all action hero stories. 

What is it about werewolves that you find so fascinating?

I jokingly tell people they are the proletariat of supernatural creatures.

That’s like half a joke though. 

Basically, I think each supernatural creature has metaphor for society role and view point. Like I think vampires work best in stories when they are the 1 percent or written about as such. They do terrible things cause they can get away with it and then can tempt people with promises of what they have. With that in mind it’s not really surprising that a Twilight fanfic that removes the supernatural has a wealthy billionaire rather than a vampire. But I like vampires best when they are the villain.

With werewolves though you have someone who is “normal” most of the time or could pass for it. However there are parts of them society has deem unacceptable, whether it’s too violent, too large, too feral, too big, too loud, too messy, too hairy, etc. Then while they are hiding this, once they have other werewolves you have have a community that is joined together by something society has deemed unseemly. So that community angle interests me as well as the how do you react to part of you being “unacceptable.”

There’s also another book that came out recently, The Stone King, which you made with Tyler Crook as part of Comixology Originals. Do you want to say a little about the series?

The Stone King is a YA series about a young thief Ave. She steals a gem from a giant stone creature called The Stone King. After she has sold the gem on the black market, The Stone King to attacks the city she lives in. Now she has to retrieve the gem to save the city. We came up with the idea because Tyler described a picture to me of what would later become the Stone King. I wrote the story based on his image idea. I made it an adventure story with a teen girl without a love interest because I think those are super rare. 

You’re kickstarting The Dead Deception, and you’ve been using Kickstarter from pretty early on. I’m curious what it was like in the beginning and how you’ve seen the site change and be adopted as a wing of comics in so many ways.

I have done 16 Kickstarters and every time I launch a new one, Kickstarter is changed for the better. When I first did one, Kickstarter was invite only, payments were processed through Amazon, and you couldn’t charge for shipping separately. There wasn’t even a comic section. Now everyone can use Kickstarter, their payments are through Stripe, you can charge a different shipping price for every country, more than one person can have access to a kickstarter, (so I don’t have to share my password with Kate Ashwin my co-organizer on Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales anymore), and there is so much data on the back end. The Kickstarter staff is really on top of always improving things and responses quickly to people’s requests. Like last year they added nested comments to make talking to backers easier. And a few months ago they added the creation of tags. So you can better track what links are working. I can make a tag that say “interview,” give it to you for this interview, and see exactly how many people back because of this interview. 

The Dead Deception is the third book in the series as we said. Do you have further plans for the series and what you want to do with these characters and this world?

I have five outlined, one with the script started, and like 12 that are half an idea/a set up but not a story. 

Each story is mostly self contained. I’d like it to be like Discworld where the reader and myself can jump around a lot. So I’m just building the world where it interests me to go and trying to keep a theme/tone for each characters. I have a few ideas of Maria and Connor to solve as a case, but I’m trying to keep their stories more mystery/noir. Lighter stories are gonna be more tied to the cast of The Better to Find You With, which was the second book, and stories that are about the rich and famous are gonna be tied to Rebecca, the lead for Fame and Misfortune, the first book in the series.

So final question, just to bring it back to the beginning, give us the elevator pitch for The Dead Deception and this world and why people should pick it up.

Detective Pimienta must try to solve a supernatural murder while figuring out if her new partner is hiding something more sinister.

Grab it if you’d like a mystery mixed with the supernatural and world building. 

The Dead Deception Kickstarter runs through March 12.

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