Smash Pages Q&A: Sara Century and S.E. Fleenor

Learn more about ‘Decoded,’ a daily anthology for Pride Month featuring comics and fiction from a wide range of LGBTQ+ creators.

Sara Century is a writer and artist who’s written for Bustle, The Los Angeles Review of Books, SyFy, and one of the creators behind the webcomic. S.E. Fleenor is a freelance writer who’s contributed to Electric Literature, them, Vice and is a managing editor at Bella Media Channel. Together, the two host one of the best podcasts about comics that there is, Bitches on Comics.

Their current project is Decoded, a daily anthology for Pride Month featuring comics and fiction from a wide range of LGBTQ+ creators. The work coming out runs the gamut from fantasy to horror to science fiction to superheroes, from long stories to short ones, from prose to comics. This year Pride will be a virtual event because of the pandemic, and in the anthology and their podcast, Century and Fleenor are doing a great job of centering queer voices and perspectives in a way that is exciting to see. They were kind enough to answer a few questions.

To start, how did you come to comics?

Sara Century: I had an aunt who sent my brothers and I boxes of Archie and Donald Duck comics every now and again, which were great and provided me with a lot of entertainment in the middle of rural Missouri where my family lived. There wasn’t a comic store around, the nearest one was an hour out. Later, I would see X-Men comics on newsstands. My dad worked at a gas station that sold comics for a while so I would go and read them before they went on the shelves. I started working as a dishwasher when I was 12, primarily so I could buy comics. They’ve just always been in my life. I liked them more than anyone else I knew.

S.E. Fleenor: I keep trying to find the answer to this question. It was either when I watched the X-Men and TMNT animated series as a kid or 15 years later when someone handed me Palomar and I re-discovered comics. There weren’t a lot of books around my house as a kid (and the ones we did have were, let’s say, outdated) and because I was assigned female at birth, I was actively funneled away from comics. So when I re-re-discovered them and fell in love in my twenties, it felt like coming home.

So what is Decoded?

SE: Decoded is an online story-a-day pride month anthology of 30 queer stories by 30 LGBTQ+ creators. Every day of the month we will post a new story for subscribers to read on our website: decodedpride.com. We have everything from comics to longform stories to flash fiction. And our stories are just as varied in content as they are in length. We have stories about murder mermaids, sentient robots, benevolent mycelium, supernatural (feminist) sharks, and so much more. We’ve got genre favorites like superheroes and aliens and eerie stories about things that go bump in the night–or the encroaching light. For queer folks and allies, Decoded represents an opportunity to celebrate Pride virtually. For genre lovers, Decoded provides brilliant, mind-bending stories about queer folks living their wildest queer lives. For queer genre lovers, I mean, c’mon. We made this for you. Need I say more?

What was the thinking behind crafting an anthology in this way — by which I mean, a daily online project?

S.E.: We know that Pride is a time when people who might not otherwise think of queer folks suddenly do. And we knew that big corporations were cashing in on Pride, so we decided why not try to spread some of that sweet dough around to independent queer creators? And, as fiction writers ourselves, Sara and I both know that the publishing world can be really resistant to queer stories by queer creators. So we figured we could pull together an anthology of 30 stories, one for every day of Pride. Honestly, the point of Decoded is to create a space for queer folks to build community as creators, while providing entertainment to queer audiences and our allies – and to prove that there’s a market for queer stories by queer creators.

Sara: We’re both full-time writers who do tons of freelancing so it’s just been kind of natural for I think both of us to be expanding our horizons and challenging ourselves. I believe in stepping up my game. S.E. had the idea so we just decided we should go ahead and do it. It’s a lot of work so I tried to think of a good reason not to, but I couldn’t and I’m the kind of person where that means I say “yes.”

How did you go about putting together this anthology because you have a number of very different creators and a variety of genres and approaches. Talk about what you were thinking about and the process.

Sara: For me, it was just wanting the widest variety possible. Genre applies to so many different kinds of story and how people ran with that prompt is what allowed the project to take a form that I don’t think either of us would have predicted, which is what you hope for in an anthology. You want the diversity of both creator and subject matter, and you want the other contributors to be so good that you feel like you have to step up your own game a little.

S.E.: I completely agree with Sara. I mean, we got over 200 submissions for only 30 spots and we had a really, really hard time whittling it down. If we had the money and time, we could have published probably twice as many stories as we’re able to – they were all so good. So, we decided that we wanted to focus on building an eclectic but tonally unified anthology. We didn’t know what that meant before we read the submissions, but what has resulted is a spread of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comics of all types of lengths and content – really, the only thing they all have in common is that they’re queer stories by queer creators. To me, that’s what makes it so exciting. If you join us for these 30 days of stories, you’re bound to be exposed to something that makes you think about queerness and gender differently, something that makes you think about what horror or scifi or fantasy or comics can do differently, something that makes you think, period. And, as far as I’m concerned as both a reader and a writer, that’s the damn point.

But along those lines, what is some of the work and who are some of the people you’re excited for people to read?

Sara: The complete project. What I’m personally looking forward to is reading through it as an audience member. I know every part of the story besides the finished piece, so I’m most excited just to experience it with everyone else through the daily releases and see how it comes together as a whole.

S.E.: Ha! Sara is so right. I think the project as a whole is really something special – especially because Sara is doing illustrations for each and every piece that isn’t a comic. Sara’s art is so arresting and powerful and I think it’s really going to make the project cohere in an interesting way. Additionally, Sara and I both have stories in the anthology that couldn’t be more different from one another–which just shows how eclectic the anthology really is. There are so many amazing stories by amazing creators and that’s pretty much why it’s impossible to choose favorites. How could I choose between PipeBot16 and Phiren? I can’t. 

And if you join us, you’ll get to meet both those extremely special characters!

For those who haven’t heard your podcast, what is Bitches on Comics?

S.E.: Bitches on Comics is a comics and pop culture advice podcast, particularly geared to LGBTQ+ folks and women readers. We take questions from listeners and answer them, providing recommended reading, philosophical discussions, and advice about how to self-advocate in a field that can be a bit of a boys’ club. We’re both huge fans of comics and pop culture, so the podcast has an overall positive outlook, even when we grapple with the darker sides of comics like fridging, bury your gays, brokeback position, and other problematic tropes. Every week we also have a “Comic of the Week” where we highlight a comic, graphic novel, or other graphic work to help expose our listeners to new stories and creators. We also interview comics professionals and critics, which means you don’t just hear from us! But, I have to say, listeners seem to really love the camaraderie between Sara and I. We both love to make each other laugh and we love comics and queerness so much you can just feel it through your headset.

Sara: Well, it is what it says it is. We talk about comics with ourselves, and other people. We were assuming it would be mostly just us answering questions about comics, but now we’ve had tons of creators on, too. There’s a lot of times where we’re like, let’s just ask this critic or this creator about what they love or what they find problematic about comics. We can’t be the ones to say everything, what do they think?

Do you want to say a little about what’s coming up on the podcast for Pride month and things you have planned?

Sara: Yes, this is our first Pride as a podcast so we’re just going as big as we can go. People are going to be celebrating indoors, or at least we hope they are, so we’re just giving them some entertainment. Pride is so corporatized and there are a lot of queer voices that get lost in the shuffle so it’s on us to do whatever we can to foster that self-sustaining community that will still be here when the corporations go away. Talking to queer creators for Pride is part of that.

S.E.: Sara nailed it. We’re going all out to bring some of the funniest, wisest, and most powerful voices in the comics universe together for our Pride Month Extravaganza. We aren’t able to have the Pride celebrations many of us are used to, but we can still celebrate this important time through entertaining and enlightening interviews with creators like Leah McKendrick and Mariah Owen, creators of the 2020 Pamela & Ivy film; Anthony Oliveira, War of the Realms writer; MariNaomi, indie comic veteran; Judith Slays, drag star and comic critic; freelance writer Chingy Nea; and Gabby Rivera, author of Marvel’s America series. We’re also having bonus episodes where we talk about The Young Avengers – because it’s so freaking queer – and queer comics anthologies we want listeners to pick up. Learn more: https://bitchesoncomics.com/pride-extravaganza/

How has the podcast and a lot of the writing you’ve each done for different outlets over the years shaped your thinking about what’s missing, what you’d like to see more of? And how did that help to shape Decoded?

Sara: It was more S.E.’s idea than mine, but speaking as an accomplice I think it’s true of all queer people that we struggle to find queer media. Even now, when people talk about there being “too much” queer representation, so seldom is it by queer people. When it is by queer people, more often than not, it’s no longer mainstream, it becomes niche. There are just a lot of double standards and still a lot of hatred towards queer subject matter in genre so of course these things inform us. There is definitely something to be said for straight writers trying harder to be respectful in telling their stories, but I’d just rather see more queer people being given the space to challenge the highly conditional representation we are given without this intense pressure to be universally inoffensive to straight audiences.

S.E.: That’s exactly it. We need more opportunities for queer voices to be centered, whether in fiction or non-fiction and we need more transgender, nonbinary, and queer folks – particularly Black and Brown trans, nonbinary, and queer folks – to be in leadership positions. As white queer people, there are some insights we can provide while editing stories – and those have had great value – but we need more Black and Brown transgender, nonbinary, and queer editors. We just do.

With Decoded, I can’t tell you how many people we edited that told us how unique working with two queer editors has been. I got to have a conversation with two transgender writers about how gender was playing out in their piece–and I wasn’t talking about the 101 level stuff. We were talking deep gender theory and because I’m a trans editor, I could hang with them, support them, and help them clarify their writing for an audience that may or may not get all the levels at play there. THAT is something few other publications are giving folks: an opportunity to read queer stories from queer creators being edited by queer editors, who aren’t worrying about sanitizing or translating their works for a straight audience.

I know that it hasn’t come out yet, but has working on the project changed what you’re interested in doing going forwards thinking about what will come next, make you want to make more anthologies or change your own personal work?

Sara: I’m already booked about 20 projects out so it hasn’t changed things for me so much as it has rejuvenated me to see so many people doing such incredible work. I think I only knew two of the writers who are appearing in this anthology going in, so just seeing this group of people writing genre stories is nice because it makes me feel like people are out there creating and feeling stronger in their work.

S.E.: Like Sara I’m booked with editing, writing, and teaching projects through the end of time, but Decoded has really made me believe in what we’re doing and in the importance of publishing queer voices. Listen, we’re just two people paying for Decoded and Bitches on Comics out of our own bank accounts. That’s how much we believe in independent queer art. But, together with our listeners, our authors, and our supporters, we become something more – a tide of people offering up their stories and demanding that LGBTQ+ folks be taken seriously, paid fairly, and given leadership positions.

Just to close by giving people all the details they need, where do people need to go, how much is it, how can can they pay, why is this something missing from their lives.

If you love comics, pop culture, short fiction, and queers, there’s no reason to miss out on Decoded and Bitches on Comics. We’re just two queer folks making independent queer art – and providing you with two chances to support it!

To learn more about the Decoded Pride Anthology, visit: DecodedPride.com. We will be selling subscriptions for all 30 original queer stories for only $15 throughout the month of June – and then we’ll have a PDF of all the stories available for purchase for $15 after the anthology ends. You can buy your subscription on the website using PayPal or a credit card.

To learn more about Bitches on Comics, check us out on your favorite podcast platform or at bitchesoncomics.com. Our podcast is supported through Patreon where you can join us for as little as $2 a list and get awesome perks like early access to extended episodes, reading lists, playlists, and bonus episodes where we review TV and movies we love and discuss the convoluted histories of comic characters. Come play with us! https://www.patreon.com/bitchesoncomics

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