You Don't Have To Change Yourself To Be A Hero
By Zack Rocklin-Waltch | Images by Tessa Beatrice
Hi there! I'm the eighteen-year-old Head of Writing and Story Production at Underdog Comics – an independent comic book imprint that’s dedicated to telling stories featuring characters from demographics that are often underrepresented or misrepresented in the mainstream media. So, who in the world let that happen?
The story of Underdog and its mission actually starts when I was twelve-years-old. That’s when I met Tessa Beatrice, a classmate of mine. Together, we started creating stop-motion animation films during our study halls. At first, they were hardly a minute long, but as we went along, we created more and more long term projects. This culminated in the creation of a twelve-minute long animated movie. At that point, I said to Tessa that I wanted to be her business partner forever and always. She laughed at me.
In the spring of Freshman year of high school, I went over to Tessa’s house to begin working on a new stop-motion film that would never end up being made. Instead, Tessa told me about a dream she had recently had. The dream involved five teenagers wandering through different rooms and areas of an enormous building. Tessa woke up and immediately sketched the five characters, who sprung out of her pencil as fully-realized people. She showed me these sketches and said that she wanted to create a graphic novel based on her dream and these characters. But she needed a writer. She didn’t even finish asking the question before I said yes.
We set to work on the project that we were referring to simply as “The Maze.” From the beginning, it was never a question that we would make these characters diverse and representative of real people. None of them would be idealized. None of them would fall into stereotypes or classic character tropes. The five protagonists of this story would all be of different races, different religions, different body types, sexualities, backgrounds, families, places, and cultures. We weren’t trying to make a statement. We never even really talked about these facts. It was just clear to us that we wanted to write a story that was genuinely relevant to everyone.
“The Maze” was renamed “Fury’s Forge,” and by our Junior year of high school, it was in a place that felt ready to send off to publishers. We had both poured our souls out into this project, and we were eager to share it with the world. And that’s when the rejections started coming.
We tried, and we tried, and we really, really tried. But no matter where we sent it, Fury’s Forge got turned down. We eventually met with an industry professional who was kind enough to take a look at a few chapters. He told us that it would never ever get published. It didn’t follow the traditional story structure: the women weren’t quite attractive enough, the guy didn’t “get the girl” in the end. He told us that, if we wanted to put something out into the comic industry, we’d have to write something that fit the industry standards. And that wasn’t something either of us were willing to do.
Simultaneously, Tessa was taking an entrepreneurship class at her school and was learning all about the intricacies of business models, funding, profit, and costs. The idea started to be batted around that we could publish Fury’s Forge ourselves. Tessa crunched the numbers and worked out the logistics. While her classmates were using their time to develop hypothetical businesses, Tessa was using hers to work on a very real one – one with a mission to change the way that the comic book world viewed representation and digressions from typical storytelling.
Tessa named the business Underdog Comics. We launched an online crowd-funding campaign on the website Kickstarter to fund the printing of Chapter One of Fury’s Forge in the spring of 2016. Despite criticisms that the female characters were too overweight, or that we were forcing diversity simply for the sake of political correctness, the Kickstarter campaign was funded. We’ve since ran and successfully funded two more Kickstarter campaigns and have the first five installments of the nine-issue series printed.
The work is hard. It’s hard to gain exposure; it’s hard for your comics to underperform; it’s hard to constantly wonder if everyone else was right, and you should have just conformed to the expectations of the industry. I’m a full-time college student, constantly involved in extracurricular activities, with very little free time on my hands. So why do I choose to stay at home writing comic scripts or editing blog posts instead of going to parties or hanging out with friends?
Growing up without representation is incredibly difficult. As a kid, and even as a teenager, I didn’t have a single positive gay character in the media I consumed who I could look up to. No one to make my identity, my struggles, myself feel valid or normal. That was awful. No child should have to go through that. Things are changing, but not quickly enough.
To those frequently represented, the inclusivity and representation that Underdog Comics strives for may seem overkill. It may seem like we’re trying too hard. It may seem like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. But Tessa and I can never undervalue the merits of having a character that truly represents you. Someone who isn’t subjugated or challenged for their identity, but who wears it with pride while they fight robots, sail the high seas, or navigate high school. The importance of this can never be overstated.
I stay at home and work in my free time, because I believe in the work that I’m doing with Underdog. We had a booth at Boston Comic Con last summer and there was a young girl who bought the first chapter of Fury’s Forge. The next day, she came back and bought the second one. And the third day, she ran up and bought the third issue. She later bought the fourth and fifth issues online. Any time I start to get demoralized, I think about that girl and the smile on her face as she devoured a story in which, I hope, she could finally see herself.