In an age of remakes, reboots, and corporate meddling, indie creators are becoming ever more popular and relevant in modern pop culture. In particular, those who cater towards a niche, or an underrepresented audience.
Xanthippe, best known as Xan, has certainly made her mark in the indie LGBTQ+ community, with her autobiographical comic Thinking Too Much to Think Positively, and her original fiction series, Pandora’s Tale.
How did you start making comics?
I can’t even remember when I started, I must have been very young. My first serious attempt at a long-form comic was in around 2007, and that’s when I realized it’s one of the most labor-intensive ways to tell a story! Back then I’d draw everything by hand, then scan it and do the coloring, layouts and lettering digitally. Nowadays I use a tablet and the process is a lot more streamlined, thank goodness.
Before Pandora’s Tale, you were more well known for your autobiographical comics. How did the urge to write a fictional story come about?
The weekly comics are a good outlet for whatever happens to be on my mind at the time, and there’s a lot of freedom in that, but I’ve always liked telling stories so I think it was inevitable that I’d end up working on an ongoing, narrative-driven comic. Pandora and Isabelle are actually characters I created for a completely different story almost twenty years ago, and after re-reading that old story, they were suddenly in my head again.
What inspired Pandora’s Tale?
I think a lot of young closeted or in-denial trans women get into anime at some point, as it has a lot of well written, identifiable female characters, but also plenty of guys are into it, so there’s this veneer of plausible deniability. Pandora’s Tale is me looking back on some of the shows I used as an escape back then, and sort of re-examining them from the perspective of who I am now. Back then there were a lot of shows – Steel Angel Kurumi, Chobits, Mahoromatic, maybe even something like Oh My Goddess – which had the basic plot: beautiful, not-quite-human girl imprints on the (typically male) protagonist via some programming or magic, and becomes slavishly devoted to them. It was kind of a wish fulfilment thing for the male audience, though in my case I was usually identifying more with the girl. And back then, and also now, you also had the jokes about genetically engineering catgirls to keep as pets.
And in hindsight… isn’t all that stuff kind of weird? Keeping sentient beings as pets? Isn’t the protagonist in a terrible situation, ethically speaking? What sort of people would design a system like that? I’m not saying these shows are bad because to some extent they do all ask these questions (and also Steel Angel Kurumi remains a huge guilty pleasure for me, specifically the second season which is really, really queer). But this was such a common plot hook back then, and I wanted to try looking at it from the perspective of the not-quite-human girl.
The comic has a noticeable Japanese manga influence, did you intend for that, or is it more accidental?
My biggest stylistic influence by far is Kiyohiko Azuma, creator of Yotsuba&! and Azumanga Daioh. His character designs are fairly simple and expressive, and a lot of his work also has these gorgeous, lovingly rendered backgrounds. I am terrible at backgrounds! But my characters and how they express themselves are very informed by his style.
But my comics also exist because of the earliest trans webcomics: Crystal Frasier’s Venus Envy [side note: you can read Aidan’s interview with Crystal here], and Jenn Dolari’s Closetspace. These were some of the first webcomics I read, and back in the early 2000s, you just didn’t see trans narratives by trans people anywhere else. There were jokes! The only jokes about being trans I’d seen up until then were about mocking us. It’s hard to describe, but seeing trans people joking about their own experiences was a revelation to me.
Pandora’s Tale has a lot of trans representation, much more than a lot of mainstream comics. Have any of your personal experiences been used in Pandora or Isabelle?
Definitely, and on a few different levels. A lot of the challenges Pandora faces in pushing back against her programming parallel the stresses experienced by a trans person struggling to accept themselves. On the one hand, I wanted to explore some of this stuff because it’s meaningful to me, but on the other hand there are so many stories about trans suffering. So Pandora is extremely secure in her gender, but she also has to contend with this programming that tells her she should be behaving in a particular way.
Sometimes I’ll include scenes that are more directly informed by my experiences, such as Isabelle repressing her anger because of how often an expression of anger is used to invalidate trans women, which in turn makes it difficult for us to stand up for ourselves. Nobody ever described me as “angry” until I started transitioning – at which point I was, ironically, less angry than I’d ever been.
Do you have a favorite comic that you’ve made so far?
There are a few that mean a lot to me personally, like Dial D for Dysphoria and Death of a Memory, but the one that’s ended up being the most important is called Moment of Impact. It’s about how many trans people go through a phase of being a really enthusiastic trans ally just before realizing they themselves are trans. It was sort of a last-minute idea for a comic and the art isn’t great, but it gets shared around a lot and I’ve lost count of the number of people who told me they discovered they were trans after reading that comic. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to knowing that something that I’ve made has had that kind of an impact on someone
Is there anything else you’d like us to know?
I’m hard at work on the next chapter of Pandora’s Tale, in addition to my weekly comics. I have a lot of exciting stuff planned for Pandora and her friends, so I hope you’ll look forward to it!