Smash Pages Q&A | Kendra Wells

The creator of ‘Real Hero Shit’ discusses the role-playing origins of the graphic novel, working with publisher Iron Circus, their work at The Nib and more.

For years now, cartoonist and illustrator Kendra Wells has been one of those people making short comics for various outlets including The Nib, where they excel at finding ways to make readers laugh out loud as their blood pressure skyrockets, remembering just how angry they are at what’s happening in the world. Last year they collaborated with writer Sam Maggs on the graphic novel Tell No Tales: Pirates of the Southern Seas, and Iron Circus just released Wells’ debut as a writer and artist, Real Hero Shit.

Real Hero Shit features a mismatched group of adventurers who, in between attacking each other, do actually stumble onto a mystery and manage to help a village. It’s funny and weird, and it manages to walk that very fine line of loving and paying tribute to the genre and its tropes, while also undermining and mocking almost all of them. And while it’s no surprise that Wells is able to write funny dialogue, they deftly manage to juggle writing a long narrative with character moments, humor and making a story that feel familiar but also surprising.

The first of hopefully many such books, Real Hero Shit is out now and next week, a new dating sim game that Wells is the lead writer for, Kiss U, goes live on Kickstarter. They were kind enough to answer a few questions about their book.

Where did the idea for Real Hero Shit begin?

It was 2017 and I was in a deep depressive spell, and coping with that by watching the new season of Critical Role and playing Dragon Age: Inquisition for dozens of hours. Engaging with both of these things simultaneously made me realize what was drawing me to them: they were action-packed, team-oriented medieval fantasy with a specifically modern slant to the way characters interacted with each other. It was a character-driven narrative full of humor and charm, aimed at adults but not just wall-to-wall violence and gritty grimdark dystopia. I had this ah-hah moment, realizing that I loved these kinds of stories and nothing was stopping me from making my own adult medieval fantasy story with dick jokes in it.

Why did the book take so long? Was it making it in between other projects? Was it the struggle of writing and drawing a long-form narrative? 

I sold the book to Iron Circus in 2018, about six months after the idea’s original inception and shortly after selling ANOTHER book, Tell No Tales: Pirates of the Southern Seas, written by my friend and creative partner Sam Maggs. Because Tell No Tales had a shorter timeline, I had to put Real Hero Shit on the backburner until it was finished, and am lucky that ICC was willing to wait for it.

Comic books take an immense amount of time when you’re doing everything yourself: writing 100 pages and then penciling 100 pages and then inking those 100 pages and then coloring those 100 pages – it adds up. Thankfully, I had an incredible team editing and designing and color-assisting me. Shout out to Kel McDonald, Amanda Lafrenais and Beth Scorzato! This was the first book I’ve written and drawn myself, and it was a huge learning experience. I had to remind myself constantly that I held the power to make creative decisions the way I wanted to, and I think quite honestly I am still waiting to kick the training wheels off. I hope every subsequent book continues to grow and teach me more about myself and the craft!

This is a fantasy quest story involving four mismatched figures, which I think is a setup every fantasy reader and D&D players knows well. And you’re very conscious of this. What were the benefits and what were the challenges of starting out and having this story structure?

D&D and other tabletop games have a real advantage in storytelling in that building out a team that works well together is narrative problem solving. In a game, you want to make sure your bases are covered: you have a martial fighter, but also a spell caster and a healer so you’re prepared for whatever tries to kill you. In storytelling, having a cast of engaging characters requires you to have them fill similar roles so you’re prepared for whatever conflict you set up for them. My favorite kinds of stories are ones where a team of misfits are forced to figure out how to make things work when everyone has a different opinion on how things should be resolved. It makes writing easier for me when I have these very strong characters with defined personalities and I can just set up a bad guy and go “Okay, now how would XYZ character react? Would ABC make the smart choice here or go with their less-advisable gut feeling?” It’s like DMing a tabletop game, only I get the benefit of getting to move all the pieces around myself.

The story is very queer, there’s a lot of sex, and it’s funny – and I feel like all of those aspects were important to you.

It is! I am a queer, non-binary trans person, and frankly I’m not interested in stories that lack characters of at least some of that experience. I get bored of stories where I have to read between the lines and make up my own, better version of the characters’ relationships.

That being said, I hesitate to market Real Hero Shit as a checklist of marginalized identities. There is something very cynical about taking these very personal, intimate details about characters and reducing them to bullet points to sell books. Not all of those aspects of the characters are revealed in book one; I wanted their experiences to come across as naturally as possible when it made sense in the narrative. Some characters have overlapping experiences and identities, but none of them interact with the world around them in the same way, so not all of them will be as obvious and forthcoming about it.

I won’t pretend I’m doing this the “right” way, but then again, I don’t think there is a “right” way to create queer work. I just want to do right by these stories that have become so important to me and be proud of what I’ve written.

You’re coming off of Tell No Tales: Pirates of the Southern Seas with Sam Maggs, which came out early last year, and I know that you were the artist there, but I’m curious about the two experiences and how they influenced each other?

Tell No Tales was a HUGE learning experience. I feel very lucky to have been working so closely with Sam on a project like that; she did an incredible amount of research and breathed so much life into Anne, Read and the whole cast. We both set out to create the kind of queer book we ourselves would have wanted to read as a kid, and I believe we did. It’s been an unbelievable honor to see the reception to it. It was featured on ALA’s Rainbow Book List 2022, was on the ALA’s 2021 Best Graphic Novels For Children list, and received a starred review from the School Library Journal.

That being said, it was an incredibly ambitious and challenging book to complete and ended up being released a year into the pandemic. It was a real crash course in learning how to advocate for myself in a professional setting, but also care for body and brain when tackling massive workloads during incredibly stressful times. I’m very thankful to have learned the lessons I did with Tell No Tales so I could apply them to Real Hero Shit and create what I believe is even better work.

So many of us know you for your great short comics for places like The Nib. And they are great because you’re able to combine topicality and so many elements in ways that make me laugh and sigh (and occasionally reminds me that I have this simmering rage about things).

Haha… hah…. yeah.

For you, what’s the difference between making shorter comics and longer narratives?

Shorter comics are easier! It sounds obvious, but my brain operates in punchlines and short, quippy dialogue. I grew up on newspaper comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, so my sense of humor always defaults to quick absurdities and slapstick. I think I am still trying to train myself out of going as quick and short as possible. Long-form comics really allow you to breathe and take your time, and I am still getting used to that. I look at the range in long-form manga comics, many popular stories have dozens if not hundreds of chapters, and I can’t fathom what it would be like to spend that much time with a single story. 

What was it like working with Spike Trotman, Kel McDonald and Amanda Lafrenais at Iron Circus on Real Hero Shit?

Iron Circus has been amazing! They were my top choice for Real Hero Shit because I trusted them to let me make it as adult and weird and niche as I wanted to go, and frankly I think I have even more space to grow. Real Hero Shit, in spite of its edgy little name, is fairly tame to me! But I wanted to know that I would have the space and permission and encouragement to get freaky with it down the line if I needed to. I’m so thankful to my team for understanding my vision and listening when I pushed for certain aspects of the story and I really feel we made this book as good as it could be.

I do have to say, it’s a great title. When did you realize that this was the title?

Isn’t it silly? It started as a joke, but as with all things that start as a joke like this, it ended up sticking. Kel, Spike and I tried to come up with alternatives at a certain point because there are many bookstores and libraries that simply won’t carry a book if it has a cuss on the cover, even if it’s censored. After much deliberation, there just wasn’t anything I liked as much as Real Hero Shit, so it just stuck and now I have to stand up here and defend it – which I will happily do. I will say, it helps properly categorize it as an adults-only book! No one is accidentally going to buy a book called Real Hero Shit for a 10-year-old.

Just to close, how do you think of the book? What’s your elevator pitch?

I have called it “Lord of the Rings, but dumb and gay” and I think that mostly fits, with apologies to my friends who are big Tolkien heads and will argue that Lord of the Rings IS dumb and gay. It’s a book about the kind of people who treat adventuring and heroism like any other freelance job: with exhaustion and frustration, but maybe in spite of it all, a little bit of pride. That’s how I feel about making art anyway, even though I don’t usually get to swing a sword around.

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