“Anxiety and Skirts” – an interview with Valerie Halla

Two years ago I had never heard of Valerie Halla; now she seems to be everywhere. Whether it’s with her established original comics work, her assistance with other artists’ comics, or her weighing in on trans community issues on Twitter, her impact on the world of webcomics is undeniable, and with the release of her brand new action comic Goodbye to Halos, it’s only growing. I talked with her about her new work and old, her hopes for the future, and the secret to her success.

Wisp

First off, you just launched a new comic called Goodbye to Halos that I, personally, have been really excited about for a while. Tell us a bit more about it; what’s the premise?

Halla

It’s about a trans girl named Fenic who gets stranded on a world she’s never heard of, works through her grief with her weird gay friends, fries onions, helps people out, and tries to figure out magic while she slowly settles into her new identity!

Wisp

Fenic seems like a cool protagonist, at once recognizable and unique. Thematically speaking, what sort of things is she going to struggle with in the story?

Halla

Well, without spoiling anything… she’s a bit of a goody two-shoes. She has a rough start, but the more she begins to love her friends, the more she wants to help them. She’s the kind of person who wants to save the world, whether or not she hurts herself in the process.

She’s also a very, very anxious individual.

Wisp

Speaking of which, you recently tweeted “the biggest breakthrough i had during the long process of plotting GtH was when i decided to replace all the swords with anxiety issues”

Looking at some of the early concept art, it seems that Halos went through a lot of transformations during development. How did your ideas for it change over time?

Halla

THAT is a long story… before I really got into traditional art, I was a pixel artist. I wanted to make games, and Goodbye to Halos — originally called “Bloom” — was one in a long line of too-big game concepts I’d been coming up with and discarding over the years. Of course, it was much different back then. It was originally going to be far more action-oriented than it is now (although big, over-the top fight scenes are still very much in the script). There was a lot of killing in it — because it was going to be an action-platformer — and the plan was for it to be very straightforward and video-gamey.

But, the more I developed the characters, the harder it was to see them being hyperviolent in that sort of way. So, most of the conflict ended up being emotional.

Of course, there are other big differences from the original incarnations too. For just one example, Leo — the femme gay lion boy — was originally a tall, handsome dude with swords, and the protagonist!

Now, instead of swords, he just has anxiety and skirts.

Wisp

Me too, Leo. Me too.

By the way, how is Fenic pronounced? Is it with a long E like “phoenix” or a short one like “fennec”?

Halla

Haha, I always knew this was gonna be a sticking point… if you want the OFFICIAL pronunciation, it’s actually “fuh-NEEK,” but really, anything’s fine. There’s a story behind this, and it’s stupid. You’ll find out.

Wisp

I look forward to it, haha.

Anyway, this isn’t your first comic, obviously – a lot of people know you for your earlier comic Portside Stories, not to mention your coloring work on Meredith Gran’s Octopus Pie. How do these three projects differ from each other in terms of your creative process?

Halla

Could you elaborate?

Wisp

Well, Portside Stories was your first comic, unless I’m mistaken, and it seems like you’ve taken a more deliberate and planned approach to the development of Goodbye to Halos, to my eye at least.

And both are of course very different from Octopus Pie, which is written and drawn by a different person.

I’m curious how it feels to work on such contrasting projects.

Halla

Oh, definitely. Portside Stories was my first comic, and I was really going into it blind. In the end, that’s kind of what doomed it. I always had a basic plot in mind for it, but it was changed repeatedly during the run, extended over and over as I began adding new characters and things… I was flying by the seat of my pants, and it turned into something I kinda didn’t want to work on.

But with Goodbye to Halos, I’ve been working through the plot for something like five years? I know exactly what beats I need to hit. I feel really confident about it. Every moment of the current chapter is planned out and has been playing over and over in my mind for years. I have a much better idea of how to handle it now — I’m thankful I had a chance to make so many mistakes on PS first, haha.

OP is fun to work on, but not really comparable. I’m definitely glad to be on that project, and I love the comic, but I’m not very involved. I just get the pages and color ’em.

Wisp

Is coloring something you like? I see you tweeting about color theory from time to time, and you’re always emphatic about it!

Halla

If I have a specialty, it’s probably coloring! There’s aspects of the process I enjoy more than coloring, but the colors are definitely where I’m most confident. I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of how it works, it’s probably what I’ve been working on the longest — back when I was a pixel artist, well, pixel art rides or dies on good palette management. That’s where my appreciation for minimal, effective palettes comes from.

Wisp

Bringing it back to Portside Stories for a second, you recently put that comic on the back burner to work on Goodbye to Halos. Do you think you’ll come back to it, or was it more of a stepping stone in your growth as an artist?

Halla

It would break my heart to think about never getting back to Portside Stories, but it’s not a priority at the moment. I do want to do more with it, especially with the characters… it might take the form of illustrated stories or the like.

Incidentally, there is a character in Goodbye to Halos who is basically just a slime-based version of Nat.

Wisp

I can get behind that.

Your characters in Portside have a number of identities that aren’t often represented in fiction, including being trans and autistic, and you’re continuing that trend with Halos. Do you have a personal philosophy about the importance of representation that these characters stem from?

Halla

With Portside, the two main characters were essentially very personal reflections of my own personality and experiences. They were less representation and more reflection! And that got a reaction out of people I hadn’t expected. I was able to write them very genuinely, and I want to carry that feeling through in GtH. With GtH, though, there’s a much, much broader cast of characters, so I’m stepping out of my comfort zone a lot, but the main cast still has a lot of this poor maiden’s soul in them.

One thing I decided long before Goodbye to Halos even resembled what it is now is that I wanted every single character to be queer. For me, that’s less about representation and more the simple fact of making it the kind of story I’d want to read — I’m bored of straight people, they have their own comics, it’s gay time now.

So there’s a cast of something like 20 principle characters, all of them are non-straight, and a good number are trans or nonbinary.

Wisp

That’s a lot of characters!

Halla

Well, only like half of them are involved in world-shattering showdowns. The rest of them are mostly just nervous and kiss each other a lot.

Wisp

One of the things I’ve noticed so far with Goodbye to Halos is there seem to be a lot of parallels with action anime, and also some other webcomics that take inspiration from action anime. What would you consider your major inspirations for the tone and content of Halos?

Halla

Okay, so, like… I love really goofy, over-the-top shounen anime. It’s no secret. Growing up in my teens, I was soooo into shows like Gurren Lagann, Evangelion, Blue Exorcist, stuff like that. Any show where cool young people get really mad and turn their fierce determination into unstoppable power, I’m a sucker for it. So I always wanted to make something like that, and that’s kind of the foundation of what ended up being Goodbye to Halos.

So that’s why Fenic has a DBZ-esque super state, for the record. I’m shameless about this. I want people to go, like, “that’s so frickin’ cool” like a preteen.

Tone-wise, it’s something a bit more subdued, though. I want to subvert a lot of typical action tropes, but I can’t really get into it without entering spoiler territory. I want to make something I haven’t really seen before — so it’s hard to identify my individual inspirations!

Wisp

Twice now you’ve said that your stories are personal and/or self-indulgent, but people seem to really enjoy them and resonate with them. How does that feel? Is that the secret to your success?

Halla

I’m really lucky that there is such a big audience for the exact things I want to create. I think that’s true for a lot more kinds of stories than people think, though. I think genuine expressions are really special and unique. Passion really shows.

ESPECIALLY if you’re a marginalized creator. If you have something uncommon to show people, your audience will probably be a lot smaller, but they’ll be passionate, I think. So many trans girls came out of the woodwork for PS, haha! I’m so happy about it!

Wisp

With your work on three different comics within the past year, you’re starting to look downright professional. Do you think of comics as a career, something you’re in for the long haul?

Halla

God, for better or for worse, I am pinning my hopes on this to be my career. I have no idea how it’ll turn out, though, but I’m hopeful. Ask me when I’m not 22.

Wisp

Do you have a patreon or some other way fans can support you financially?

Halla

Not now, but I will! It’s on the to-do list for sure. People have been asking me that question for ages, so I’m hopeful for it to be successful when I do!

Wisp

I’m rooting for you.

Aside from that, what’s next in the pipeline for you? What should we be getting excited about?

Halla

More Goodbye to Halos, mostly! That’s my number one priority right now. Of course… at night… I may or may not be dabbling in some… ADULT works. Drawing/writing cute trans girl smut is how I’m blowing off steam these days. And I have no qualms about shamelessly advertising it, either, haha. THERE’S a whole topic I’m really passionate about, but that’s probably a discussion for another time.

Wisp

Word! That’s on http://hiddenval.tumblr.com/ right? Ever think about doing a longer-form work with those characters?

Halla

I am actually writing an illustrated smut fic featuring some of those characters (set in the same universe as Goodbye to Halos, even)! I’ll be back to it once my hands are less full, haha.

You can find Valerie Halla and her work on Twitter, Tumblr, and her various internet websites.

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