“I’m Cryptovexillologist, or R. Smith, a college senior in the northeast US! I go by they, and I love unreliable narrators, the history of political theory, and thinking about utterly alien social norms. I make a webcomic, Parhelion, about gay space pirates and lots of shcemes at cross-purposes. My most active social media presence is on Mastodon.”
What do you do? (Write, draw, edit, publish, promote etc.) How did you get started doing that?
Most of my art energy these days goes to Parhelion, but I have some other projects in rotation to fit my mood and avoid burnout. I love drawing sketch studies of weird architecture, especially Soviet futurism, and messing around with one-off illustrations. I’ve been drawing digitally since middle school, and it’s neat to look back and see art that’s clearly an earlier evolutionary stage of what I’m doing now: still plenty of glyphs and robots, but with a lot more grayscale and gratuitous horror.
(Parhelion is “A comic of space pirates, warlords, bureaucrats, and unwelcome obligations” and it updates on Fridays.)
How did you get your start in comics? What was your first project and how did it come about?
My first-ever comic project was a playing-card-themed mafia story, The Suits, that I designed with a friend in high school. (Looking back, it was a lot of fun character design practice.) Parhelion began in my first year of college, when I was thinking about “low” space opera that leaned strongly on the difficulty of managing giant areas of space, strange alien laws and customs, and cute gay stuff. Turns out it struck a chord with some friends, and that’s what’s kept me going for nearly three years of making it!
Any current or upcoming projects we can find you on?
I’m working on a dating sim set in Parhelion’s universe, but with all-new characters unrelated to the plot, primarily a way to explore aspects of the world only teased or implied in the comic itself. Someday, I also want to make a short comic anthology about demonic contract law.
Do you work solo or do you collaborate with others? If so, what are some of your favorite types of collaboration? (People you’ve worked with, style of creators you get along with etc.)
I’ll sometimes bounce ideas off friends, but Parhelion is a solo project. Although I absolutely love collaborative art games, especially anything in a “Telephone” format, or trying to redraw images in shorter and shorter amounts of time.
Anyone you’d like to collaborate with some day? Why?
Ada Palmer‘s my favorite living author and creator and her work has done a lot to shape my love of weird speculative societies based on different parts of history. I’d love to work on any graphic adaptation of her books, or even just chat for an hour!
What are your favorite genres/styles of comics to work in? Are there any you definitely will not do?
I’ve tried exploring different subgenres and pacing styles within Parhelion- slice of life, legal drama, emotional slow-burn- but I’d like to stretch my wings and make a comic all-in on something like romance or suspense.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? What is it you hope to accomplish with the works you help foster?
I’m a very big fan of audacious, colorful, “theatrical” sci-fi, trying to convey a lot with very little. I love reading about the history of places that were utterly transformed within one generation, like Shenzhen and the United Arab Emirates. I hope I inspire people to think about the range of ways to express themselves and think about the world, to investigate the source of ideas they take for granted and how history might have turned out differently. And to think about cute aliens.
How has your specific identity shaped how and what you create? (Your gender, sexuality, religion etc.) How do you think your work is uniquely “you”?
I think the force that drives people to make heartfelt autobiographical comics is the same one that makes me think about salamander-aliens who invented HRT before clothing. A lot of my work is autobiographical, in a sideways way: I love writing characters who think and express themselves strangely but still get taken seriously by the story.
(Read more about this species, and more, in their Worldbuilding Wednesday series.)
How do you feel about the current comics industry’s state? What gives you hope for the future of comics?
I’m thoroughly out of the loop on “the comics industry” in any sense, but I’ve had a lot of fun volunteering with my school to teach a class on the history of comics, focusing on webcomics. The kids were huge fans of Calvin and Hobbes and Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Lumberjanes, and they loved making a giant collaborative comic on index cards. I’m so excited for them to get in the game!
Who are some of your favorite/most inspirational characters in comics? What about in other media (novels, TV, movies, podcasts, pop culture)? Why?
Sulla, from O Human Star, is a fantastic character: a good, kind person, with a very messy origin and big problems to face. I also love Ambrose from Job Satisfaction [read creator Jey Barnes’ Comix Feature here] – you’d think that an exiled demon working as an exorcist and outrunning underworld drama would be the protagonist, but no, he’s the wacky neighbor.
Do you have any advice to aspiring creators? What was the best advice you were ever given about comics?
Most importantly: it isn’t a rare superpower to make art that you’re proud of. It can also help a lot to play collaborative art games and suspend any idea of “quality”, just blasting out ideas and building on the best ones. Finally, don’t worry about not being good enough to start a comic- it’s the best art practice ever, and watching the fossil record of an artist’s growth is a great part of reading webcomics.
(Petty Tyrants is a name-your-price walking simulator set in the Parahelion universe, but you can download it without having read the comic yet.)
What do comics mean to you?
Recently, I read about how Japan had very tight censorship of anything politically dangerous during and after WW2, so a whole generation grew up with no way of understanding what happened to their country. Osamu Tezuka got away with a lot of commentary on bigotry and fascism in his “harmless” Astro Boy manga, which laid the foundation for so much great manga directly about Japan’s faults and history. Comics have been neglected and underestimated for so long, but they have so much power to teach, build empathy, and unite.
If you’re on the fence about putting a goofy, self-indulgent thing in your story, do it 100% of the time.
Parhelion has tons of extra goodies too, including a summary of the story so far, a name-your-price download of Act 1, a fashion zine, Twine roleplaying adventures (think choose-your-own-adventure stories), and a Tumblr full of extra content and Parhelion-themed shit posts.