Surreality is a web-comic about Jackie. It’s about more than just Jackie and her world though, it’s about dealing with identity on top of mental illness, on top of finding yourself. It’s about figuring out just where you belong (or don’t belong) in a world that doesn’t quite seem to want you.
GenderTerror was lucky enough to interview Surreality artist and creator, Ashes, about the comic, what it means, and its place in the world of webcomics.
GT: Can you explain the general plot of Surreality?
A: Basically, it’s about this goofy, shitty, edgy “teen-ish” kid named Jackie, who finds herself in a “High school for Magical/Mutant/Different Children” trope location.
It ends up not being what she thought it was.
Then everything starts going very, very, VERY downhill. Jackie’s preconceived notions about how her world works start breaking apart, both literally and metaphorically. The students at the school are definitely NOT who they seem. Jackie’s self-awareness and self-hate increase by the page, with what seems like absolutely no hope of redemption for the crimes she apparently committed. She becomes terrified and helpless and frighteningly alone, and decides the only way out is by inserting herself in the lives of others. This turns out not to be the best idea.
GT: What made you decide to start working on Surreality?
A: Well, I’ve been working on Surreality officially since I was 16, but I started developing ideas for it way before then. When I was really little I wanted to be an artist, then I wanted to be a writer, then I wanted to be a writer who illustrated their own work, and then I figured, “well, actually I think I’ll be a comic book person, because I think that’s a more solid combination of those two things.” I was also constantly making up stories and stuff and always trying to figure out my, like, “break-out story”, to show the world my awesome powers of plot construction. Obviously that was a stupid and terrible way of looking at any kind of story building, but I didn’t know that at the time because I was a small and stupid little child with big, big dreams. Also, I had a lot of trouble being able to finish stories and stuff without getting distracted with some other New and Totally Awesome Idea I’d come up with. One day I dreamed about a girl who was some kind of trans-dimensional detective and it really stuck with me, so after that I ended up combining other ideas I liked/had already developed/wanted to explore into this concept, as well as elements that were very important to me as a person. It ended up evolving into something that I was way too emotionally invested in to be able to quit, ever. By that time, I had poured so much of myself into it it felt less like working on a “project” and more of something I was compelled to do with my life. Anyway, officially started working on Surreality at 16, finished writing and editing the script at 18, finished drawing chapter one at the end of the school year and sent it out to as many publishers as possible a couple months after that. Absolutely everyone hated it but that’s not the point.
GT: The comic focuses on at-risk teens, potentially violent mental illnesses, and queer characters. What makes this combination of character traits so important to you?
A: I belong to these groups, and even though saying “I didn’t have any story that catered to me” sounds a little dumb and over-used, that’s pretty much the general situation here. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy stories about other stuff, but I never found much to relate to in these stories. Stories are both entertainment as much as they are wish-fulfillment and a way to see options for yourself by living vicariously through others, and if you can’t see yourself in the stories you read, the opportunities available to others won’t seem available to you, whether or not they actually are. The characters I COULD relate to were usually villains. The worst ones too, the irredeemably evil scumbags. For young queer and mentally ill people, seeing ourselves represented this way, and ONLY this way, can be extremely damaging. It sends the message: “You hurt people and are incapable of doing anything else. You will never be liked. You will never be a hero.” When my demographic hears this sort of thing, it’s not a new and sudden insult coming out of nowhere. You’re confirming something that they already think about themselves as true, and as a result they slip into this “role” that they might have been already leaning towards, and never leave. They don’t get a redemption arc in the stories, and they don’t get one in real life. End of story.
Obviously when I was making Surreality initially I didn’t see myself as a “mentally ill at-risk queer teen”, I was just extremely angry, violent, and emotionally detached, and the books I read and movies I saw did nothing but encourage this behavior from people who didn’t understand what it was like to feel that way, because it’s easier to demonize things you don’t understand than to consider all types of people are multi-faceted. You need the nice person to get the last laugh, and the mean person to get punished. That’s the basic formula for fiction. People don’t consider the effect this might have on the “mean” kids reading. Later on I was able to figure out what was exactly going on with me and was lucid enough to move towards recovery. But the reason that happened was more a function of luck, and not because I’m better or stronger in any way than those who don’t see these options as available to themselves, and ESPECIALLY not because seeing people I relate to get murdered on television actually taught me anything. The stories that DO embellish on these characters are done so in a way so that “normal” people can ogle at them, not in a way that people who are actually like that can relate to or learn from. Having less empathy than others doesn’t make you a demon, even if sometimes you want to be one; everyone should have a chance to see themselves represented in a positive light.
Anyway, my work is for those kids, the ones that aren’t understood by the rest of society and aren’t given a chance or option to be understood because casting them aside is much easier than dealing with them. Surreality is for them, about them, by them (by me), in a language they can actually understand. Other people can read it too, obviously, but this is specifically a story for the scary kids that feel so trapped by hate, confusion, and inability to relate that there’s nothing on earth left to do but destroy everything they possibly can.
GT: What do you feel is most misunderstood about your demographic [mentally ill, queer teens]?
A: Mentally ill queers, especially VIOLENT mentally ill queers, are different, and different in the way most people are afraid of. They seem dangerous, and sometimes they can be! So that feeling is sometimes justified. But because of this, people think the best thing to do is not interact with them if at all possible.
But! They need support systems just as much as everyone else, if not a whole bunch more. It can be a saving grace, in fact. Scary, strange kids needs friends, community, understanding without enabling, and positive guidance. They need to feel like their society, and the people in their lives, have not abandoned them or will not abandon them.
GT: What makes Jackie a hero in your story?
A: Well first of all, Jackie is a character who is dealing with an ENORMOUS amount of stress throughout the comic, dealing with horrors both metaphorical and terrifyingly literal. She feels lost and out of control, despite, apparently, having more control than anyone else. She is terrified, confused, and any sense of identity she might have had at the beginning of the comic is slipping through her fingers like sand. All her fears about the world are coming true around her, and worst of all, she is completely and desperately alone throughout the whole thing.
Despite this, there is no point in which she gives up. There are consistent themes of suicidal ideation throughout the comic, and yet despite this she doesn’t at any point try any of them on herself. She wanders, and attempts to find the exist, she reaches out to people, she does everything she can, but at no point does she simply sit down, motionless, and dissolve into dust; even though every possible obstacle is against her, even though she is painfully aware there will be no reward for her efforts. Even though she knows that the exit she is looking for probably doesn’t even exist. Her endurance in this situation is extremely admirable.
It’s fighting with no hope of victory. It’s fighting without being sure what you’re fighting for, what you’re trying to achieve, but trying to get there anyway. This is why she’s a hero. This is why people root for her when they do, I think.
GT: Surreality, it seems, is ultimately a story of finding one’s self, what do you have to say to the people still trying to figure themselves out?
A: Don’t avoid your darkness, and do not be ashamed of it. But, do not live entirely in your darkness, and keep in mind that the people around you who hurt you are just as complicated as you are. No matter how it might seem sometimes, boring people don’t exist. Everyone is strange and interesting, whether or not they let you see it. There’s no shame in asking for help, because getting help from others will make you a stronger person than if you did it by yourself, always. You are the most important person in your life, and you and your happiness and personal development always come first. But if you ignore other people completely, you won’t get the happiness you’re aiming for. And honestly, I can’t tell you that you’re going to be ok, no one can, because no one knows what you’re going through except you. But if YOU decide you’re going to be ok, and you fight for that, I promise you that you will be.
GT: Why should people read Surreality, especially those who are not the focus of the story/theme?
A: When I say Surreality is for a group of people, it should be considered like a foreword in the beginning of a book, “Dedicated to Frankie and inspired by our times together”, and while 99% of the people reading that book are probably not going to be Frankie, they will all still really enjoy it.
Surreality is, at least in my opinion, COOL. I’m not gonna lie to you, this story is cool. The art is bizarre and the story is intentionally designed to constantly trip you up, so it’s almost impossible to know where it’s going. There are giant lizard monsters and clones and the Grim Reaper and dumb jokes and spooky experiments and spooky people and pizza and a talking Mr. Potato Head.
It’s about deconstructing boring, tired tropes and redefining them into something completely different and completely sinister, it’s about pushing the boundaries of what a comic is and what it can be capable of, it’s a psychological horror and a mystery and a mythological and religious explorative fantasy, and a science fiction take on those fantasy concepts. It’s a nonfiction take on fiction, and it plays with the idea of what quantum physical concepts could mean on a cosmic scale. It’s something designed to be interesting and enlightening and different strange every time you read it, and most of all, it’s a puzzle in story form, challenging the reader to solve it before it ends.
Surreality also has a Patreon! And merchandise! Surreality also isn’t done by Ashes, but also an awesome group of folk.
Our posts are 100% Patreon funded! If you want to see early posts, full resolution art, and WIPs, please consider supporting us on Patreon!
One thought on “Scary and Strange Kids: Interview with Surreality artist and creator, Ashes.”