Graphic Novel Alert! Catch the Wingbearer in This Marjorie Liu Interview
This year I’ve decided not to fight it anymore. I know I only have so many hours in a day to read, but I’m going to stop resisting my instincts. For 2022 I intend to read more graphic novels for kids, by gum. A good place to start? Well, there’s that WINGBEARER comic by Marjorie Liu. It just came out this month and has already started pulling in some stars.
Here’s the publisher’s description for you:
“A young girl must stop a threat to her magical world in this epic graphic novel from New York Times bestselling author Marjorie Liu and remarkable debut illustrator Teny Issakhanian.
Zuli is extraordinary—she just doesn’t realize it yet. Raised by mystical bird spirits in the branches of the Great Tree, she’s never ventured beyond this safe haven. She’s never had to. Until now.
When a sinister force threatens the life-giving magic of the tree, Zuli, along with her guardian owl, Frowly, must get to the root of it. So begins an adventure bigger than anything Zuli could’ve ever imagined—one that will bring her, along with some newfound friends, face-to-face with an ancient dragon, the so-called Witch-Queen, and most surprisingly of all: her true identity.”
Got questions? Good. So did I . . .
Betsy Bird: Thank you so much for joining me today. I wonder if you could tell me the origin story (as it were) of WINGBEARER. With your extensive work at Marvel, why the shift into the younger reader market?
Marjorie Liu: Thank you for having me!
In some ways, the origin story of Wingbearer is fairly simple. Over ten years ago I saw a photo of my cousin sitting high in a tree — we’d venture into the woods to look for fairies — and a question entered my head: “What if a girl had to go save the souls of birds?” Which was a fun idea to mull over, but it wasn’t a story. And, frankly, it took me a very, very long time to understand what that story was, and how to write it. I had a lot of false starts — there were months when I was positive I was on the right track — and then all the energy would fade away and I’d be back at ground zero. I was writing other books at the time, but even with that distraction, the inability to write Wingbearer in a way that satisfied me was really frustrating. I could feel Zuli waiting. Finally, though, I found the emotional thrust of the book, and I realized why I was writing it: that this was a love letter to my family, a book where I wanted to discuss how kindness and compassion can be a superpower in world where that’s in short supply.
As for the shift…well, I suppose I’ve been writing about young people for some time — both at Marvel and at Image, with my book Monstress. In Monstress, the young people are survivors of a brutal war, they’re broken and angry and hardly believe in kindness anymore — and yet, bit by bit, healing comes into their lives, and hope. Wingbearer is a very different book, in which the protagonist has never known suffering or cruelty — which is its own challenge, because it makes her a little naive about the world and its complexities, and there’s a great deal of learning she has to do — about others and herself.
BB: Since this is a comic, I’m seeing comparisons to Amulet and other series. What comics did you read as a kid?
ML: I didn’t read comics when I was a kid! In fact, I didn’t begin reading comics until I was in college, where there was a comic book store just down the street. I began with superhero comics like the X-Men, Batman, Punisher, and I completely fell in love with that medium of immersive storytelling and the seriality. But when I was young I loved reading about magic, and adventuring into the unknown and making friends along the way. I wanted to express my love for those kinds of stories with Wingbearer.
BB: You’ve worked as an Asian-American comics author in a traditionally white male dominated field. How much of what you’ve faced in your profession informs works like WINGBEARER? Or does it come out in your work in other ways?
ML: As an Asian-American writer I was the odd woman out for a long time, first as a romance author, and then as a comic book writer. There were so few of us, and there was nothing I could do to change the situation except just plow forward, stubbornly — telling the stories that mattered to me and trying to help others do the same– and hope things would change. But in hindsight, it was lonely. And yet, so much has changed since those early days. And so when I write a book like Wingbearer what’s emerging from me are the lessons of my family, about compassion and kindness — but also, the lessons of resilience and blind courage that allowed me to be here today. Many people told me, in different ways, for different reasons, that I wouldn’t last in this profession — and I ignored them all. Zuli has many of those same qualities — everyone keeps telling her she’s wrong, or that she should give up, and she doesn’t believe them even for a moment. She’s resolute, and her faith in herself is so much stronger than her fear — a faith that gives her strength to continue, to put one foot in front of the other, even when she has no clue where she’s headed or how she’s going to win the day.
BB: Can you talk a bit about the ways in which you make it a priority to put women of color at the center of your comics? The same could be said for this book for kids.
ML: I guess there’s no “way”, as much there’s “I do.” And I’ve been doing for a long time, trying to make in-roads where I could, when I could — whether it was in my romance novels or my work at Marvel. But only when I left Marvel for Image Comics did I really have room to breathe, and begin writing stories that fully embody me — stories where women of color are always front and center, where their loves, their lives, their strength, their courage, are the backbone and source of power across all worlds. This is fully representative, too, of my family, which is a diverse mix of Chinese, Black, and Latinx women. I’m writing for all of the people I love most in the world.
BB: You’ve been creating comics at least since 2005. How has the comic market changed since you started out?
ML: Wow, it’s been almost 20 years — and a lot has changed. First, comics are more mainstream than they’ve ever been; the average person is far more knowledgeable about the medium than they were when I started. Second, webcomics have done a lot to bring in new readers and new creators. Third, there are so many more diverse creators than there were two decades ago: women, BIPOC, and LGTBQ storytellers are no longer invisible or unwelcome.
BB: Finally, what are you hoping kids take away from WINGBEARER?
ML: A sense of hope, a sense of adventure, a chance to exercise their courage and their imagination.
If you’re hoping for a glimpse of the book yourself, the best thing to do is to high yourself hence towards a library or bookstore, since it is out right now. Many thanks to Grace Fell for setting this up and to Marjorie for answering my questions.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network
Strega Nona Stamps Are Coming
Creating a Collective Black Ancestry: Researcher Kimberly Annece Henderson Discusses Dear Yesteryear
Review: Victory! Stand!
Book Review: Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave with illustrations by Tom de Freston
The Classroom Bookshelf is Moving