After a successful Kickstarter and several months of well-publicized buzz, former Comics Alliance editor Janelle Asselin’s romance anthology, Fresh Romance, is in full swing. With its fourth issue released this month. “School Spirit,” written by Kate Leth (Edward Scissorhands, Adventure Time, Bravest Warriors), illustrated by Arielle Jovellanos, coloured by Amanda Scurti and lettered by Taylor Esposito, the story has cemented itself as one of Fresh Romance’s most prominent titles. The six-issue story looks at a variety of relationships – queer and straight, romantic and platonic – in a retro, high school setting. Dork Shelf sat down with Leth to discuss her enthusiasm for romance comics, her process, and her views on the future of the genre.
Dork Shelf: How did you get attached to the project?
Kate Leth: I’ve known Janelle Asselin for a long time. We had talked a bunch at different conventions and things like that; we’d always hang out. She mentioned the project to me and approached me with it and asked if I’d be interested in writing a romance story. Obviously, yes! I loved Arielle’s art — so yeah, it was pretty organic. We were were really interested in the idea, and it just happened.
DS: Was it you who came up with the initial story pitch, or was it something you created organically with Arielle?
Leth: It’s something I came up with initially and pitched to Janelle, before we had an artist attached. We worked a little bit once Arielle was on, because I like to collaborate with people, but the story was fully formed when we came to Arielle with it.
DS: Is it the only story that you’ve planned to do for Fresh Romance so far, or are there others in the works?
Leth: So far. I know Janelle wants to have a real variety of contributors, so we had just allotted six issues. I think all of us weren’t sure what our schedules were going to be, but that’s it so far.
DS: When I was reading [the comic], I was really surprised because it was marked very, very heavily on its couple – the main queer couple that’s the star of the show – but then there was a magic and fantasy element to it, which I thought was really interesting. How did that come into play?
Leth: [Laughs] It’s something that I always wanted to have, but I kind of wanted to surprise people with it, so we kept it out of a lot of the initial solicitations and previews. I wanted it to be kind of a surprise. I wanted it to play as a straight – well, not straight at all [laughs] – but as a non-magical, queer high school story. But there’s actually two couples, and the story, as it develops, is mostly about couples who have to hide who they really are, and their relationships, from people for a number of reasons, whether they are gay or whether they are magical.
DS: When the prom comes up and they mention the “Romeo and Juliet” aspect, of course there’s the obvious aspect of why you don’t want to imitate them – they die. So how much of that motif were you going for without going for the tragic lesbians?
Leth: See, I hate tragic lesbians! Obviously there are some good stories out there, but I grew up in the era of … [stories] where the lesbian couples, or the women, or the gay couple – although I think there were more popular stories about women – one of them dies or one of them turns straight. Pretty safe bet that that’s not going to happen in my story. I’m fighting against that. It’s a romance story, and there’s going to be a trial, they’ll be put through their paces, but it’s a love story.
DS: I noticed that the time and place seems a little bit wonky, because you’ve got modern-day elements like cell phones, and the clothing is really old-fashioned. Is that intentional?”
Leth: Yeah, it’s funny because I had just come off of working on Edward Scissorhands and I’m sort of in the Tim Burton aesthetic, which is really anachronistic. Because that movie is both the ‘50s and the ‘80s. When we were working on it, Arielle and I were both really into the Heathers musical, that was some of the first imagery we really looked at. So yeah, it is that sort of Clueless, Heathers, late ‘80s, early ‘90s, high school movie visual, but with the technology today. It’s comics. You can do whatever you want, so that’s what we did.
DS: Besides those [movies], did you look back in any old romance comics for inspiration for the story?
Leth: Oh, for sure. I bought a big collection of the Young Romance books last year, and I really liked them. Obviously there’s an Archie influence in there, which I think is a very different kind of romance comic, but also one of the most prolific romance comics; I grew up with it. So we took from a lot of different places, I think.
DS: One of the reasons why I think people have been going gaga over Fresh Romance has been because of “School Spirit,” and has been because of the two queer girl characters, who are right on the cover with that gorgeous Kevin Wada art. There aren’t a lot of queer women in comics right now, especially not in superhero comics. Was that your intention to bring some focus back to queer ladies?
Leth: Yeah, I’ve worked in licensed comics for a while, and while there is more of a leeway, now more and more with what you can do with the characters, this was something where I could do whatever I wanted. They were our characters. I wanted to just have it in the forefront. I thought, I don’t want this to be… [Laughs] Gal-pals, arm-in-arm situation, I said, “No!” This is a queer couple, and they are together, and they are in a romance comic, because it’s something Arielle and I both wanted to make something that didn’t exist when we were teens, that we really would have wanted to read. So I think it was definitely kept in mind, and hopefully it came across. It’s kind of funny that our second cover featuring our characters, the Babs Tarr one, in issue 4, is Miles and Karrin, our heterosexual couple, so that came later.
DS: On top of the LGBTQIA inclusion, “School Spirit”’s following in the footsteps of a lot of comics of having not just a lot of people of colour in the backgrounds, but also a lot of main characters that are people of colour. Was that a conscious decision or was that more natural?
Leth: Definitely a conscious decision in my part in the writing and Arielle’s in the art, because Arielle is a woman of colour and that was one of the first things we discussed, in terms of background characters. One of the earliest discussions we had was if I don’t specify the background characters in a scene or the audience, keep it diverse, keep it interesting. It was definitely an effort.
DS: Getting to work with a brand, brand new publication and a brand new company is a really new, different experience, I’m sure. What’s that like, having this total free reign over your characters?
Leth: It’s pretty fantastic. Janelle’s been an editor for so long that she really knows what she’s doing, she’s not somebody that’s just starting out. Her having that experience is great and really helpful. It’s a lot of fun. The scripts are shorter than what I’m used to, it’s only 10 pages at a time, so trying to cram as much story and character development as possible into those is fun. I like writing that sort of episodic, serial way. She’s been great, and really supportive, and let us do whatever we wanted. I’m really happy with it.
DS: What are your thoughts on the other comics that are in Fresh Romance right now – “Ruined” and “The Ruby Equation”?
Leth: I like them both a lot. “Ruined”… I’m an especially big fan. Sarah Searle is someone that I’ve known for a long time, and I’ve always really liked her art. I think I met her five years ago, when I was just starting in comics. She was one of the first comics people I met. Seeing her art is just – it’s beautiful, and I love that sort of style, it’s like a classical piece. They’re both really cute, I like them a lot.
DS: Do you think Fresh Romance is going to invigorate that female-driven romance story that a lot of people have been wanting?
Leth: I certainly hope so. I know a lot of people are interested in it, a lot of people are pitching for it, and I think it is a genre that is not tapped into anywhere nearly as much as it should be. I love romance comics, especially by diverse creators and by people who are newer to the industry and have more interesting things to say. I think that’s great, and I’m really excited for it, and I’m excited for the next round of stories that Fresh Romance is going to do.
DS: Anything coming up with “School Spirit” that we should be excited for – without spoilers?
Leth: Issues 3, 4 and 5 we get to meet the parents of each of our characters, except Miles, who’s the only one who has pretty mild, straightforward parents. Stuff really is going to come to a head before the finale. It’s going to be interesting! There’s going to be smooches!