Representation in comic books has become one of the most prevalent topics in today’s industry, but writer (and Newsarama alum) Brian Andersen is looking to reach out to a previously unserved demographic – namely, with a comic about a gay Mormon superhero.
Teaming up with artist James Neish, Andersen’s Striping Warrior is the story of Sam Shepard, a man tapped to be the Hand of God, and is inspired not just by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, but also by much of Anderson’s real-life journey as a gay Mormon himself.
With the book’s Kickstarter campaign reaching its final days, we spoke with Andersen about his latest work. In addition to unveiling an exclusive cover to the book's second issue, we spoke with Andersen about Stripling Warrior’s roots, its supporting cast, the feedback he's received during his campaign, and how this book will both represent and transcend its inspirations in both religion and sexuality.
Newsarama: Brian, just to start us off, can you tell us a bit about the high concept of Striping Warrior? How did you come up with a gay Mormon superhero?
Brian Anderson: My go-to pitch: Stripling Warrior is an exciting, sexy and fun new comic book about the world's first gay Mormon superhero.
Being gay and Mormon myself, and a colossal comic book-loving and reading geek, I thought a gay Mormon superhero would make for an interesting story.
Hit me back after the first issue comes out if I was right or horribly, horribly wrong.
Nrama: The character of Sam Shepard - who is he? What are his powers, and more importantly, what is he like as a character?
Anderson: Sam Shepard is just your average guy. An average guy who likes other guys. He’s recently married to a man, he loves his life and has no hang ups about his sexuality. Suddenly, on his honeymoon, he has epic power and responsibility thrust upon him. By an angel from Heaven no less.
Sam’s fun. He’s goofy, he has a jokey and cheesy inner monologue that I blame Spider-Man for. I liken Sam’s voice (perhaps mistakenly) to being Spider-Man-esque – though nobody can possibly banter like Spidey…well, nobody except for maybe Buffy.
As for powers Sam has the strength, speed, and leaping ability of a group of 2,000 young men from ancient America. These men, called the stripling warriors, are found as scripture within the pages of the Book of Mormon. Since Sam can channel these warrior dudes, he’s taken on their name.
Nrama: Can you talk a little bit about the supporting cast, like Jase and the Angel Abish?
Anderson: Jase is Sam’s husband and he’s also a Mormon. Since I brought up Spider-Man above I’ll continue with the comparisons in that Jase is like Spider-Man’s Mary Jane. Like MJ, he has his own life outside of Sam and is thoroughly supportive of his husband – ‘course I’m referencing pre-Mephisto Spidey and Mary Jane.
The Angel Abish has more of a sporadic presence in the series. When she shows up it’s because something needs to be done. The Heavens need their champion. She’s kind of like the Watcher. Only she has hair. And both her eyes. Abish is also found in scripture in the Book of Mormon. She is one of the very few females named in the entire book. She was a slave woman who changed her entire civilization just by using her voice. Yeah, she’s pretty radical.
Oh! Also, issue two will introduce a new female character who becomes the missionary companion to Sam. Whether he likes it or not. In the Mormon Church missionaries always go forth and preach in twos. Our new character, who is yet to named – there is a reward on the Kickstarter to name her if you got the cash dollars – is an equal to Sam. She’s no “lady hero based off a preexisting male character and therefore is a pale comparison” like most lady heroes are. She’s just as powerful and important as Sam. She’s her own woman.
Nrama: And what about the enemies that Sam will have to fight? Can you tell us anything about what challenges Sam will have to go through, both on the streets and in his personal life?
Anderson: Sam is charged with being the Hand of God on Earth. He smites those in need of smiting. That means all kinds of terrible people need to be taken down. He seeks out those that do the evil deeds. He tracks down those who harm others, those who spread fear, those who do really awful things.
Most of these individuals doing these dirty, dirty misdeeds are encouraged and supported by a corporation called Cain Enterprises. Cain Enterprises acts like a training ground for those want to cause chaos in society. Cain Enterprises teaches people, gives them the tools and ideas they need to wreck havoc.
Cain Enterprises’ President and CEO is Cain himself. You know, the first killer in the Bible. (Sorry ‘bout it, Abel.)
Nrama: You've put this project up on Kickstarter, and I'm curious, what has the reaction been for this book? Do you feel as though you've reached out to a community that otherwise hasn't been represented in traditional superhero fare?
Anderson: I love Kickstarter. It’s such a great barometer for creative endeavors. If you can make it on Kickstarter, you can make it anywhere! It’s like the online New York City.
Thus far, I’ve gotten a lot of support and positive feedback, which has been a surprise given the nature of the comic. Even from my dear Mormon friends. There are oodles and oodles of gay geeks out there who love seeing our stories being told in our favorite medium. They’re happy to back the project and I’m beyond grateful to them!
Not that I only want gay geeks to read the book. I’ve spent my whole life reading comic books featuring straight heroes. More often than not these hetro-heroes have epic life or death relationships that are key to the overall plot of the story. If I can read and love these comics then hopefully non-homos can do the same for Stripling Warrior.
And it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows over in case of Stripling Warrior. I’ve gotten a few negative responses. They’ve come from a couple gay dudes who seem to have issue with the sex in the comic. Weird right?
I’m not saying all gay men are horny for comic book sex, but you’d think they’d at least be tolerant. Not so! These guys seem to think there is too much sex at the start of the first issue. That I’m using sex to market the comic.
And if I am, so what? (Not that I am.)
Personally, I don’t believe that sex is bad thing. And I certainly don’t have any shame in homosexual sex. If we can see Spider-Man (him again!) sucking face half-naked with Silk, or Cyclops and Emma in bed nearly every issue (when they were still together of course), then why can’t we see Sam and his husband Jase in bed?
The sex in Striping Warrior is all off-panel. It’s hinted at. We do see them in bed together, but so what. They’re married! They have sex. Embrace it.
I also found it humorous that a fellow homosexual took umbrage with the use of the word “humping” on the first page. I find the word humping to be ridiculous. Ridiculously funny.
This anti-humper’s argument was that the word humping sounded more like some emotional-less, meaningless hook up, not the love act between a husband and husband. I just thought it was goofy and a good representation of Sam’s often thoughts. His character right off the bat. His (and my) humor is subjective and not every joke is going to land.
What was I supposed to write? “Make love”? Barf. No thanks. Talk about cheesy!
Nrama: This isn't your first comic, obviously, as you've done several other projects such as So Super Duper. How do you feel you've grown as a creator?
Anderson: Well, it’s been eight years since I put out my first comic and I’m about 30lbs heavier now with lots more gray hair…oh, wait…grown…as a writer? I see.
Welp, since I released the premiere issue of So Super Duper in 2007, I like to think I’ve gotten better as a scribe. (I may be mistaken, of course.) Hopefully that old saying, “the more you do something, the better you get at it” is true for me.
My first line of comic books were all ages, aimed at kids and adults. I used a very particular writing voice: full of OMG’s and cutesy language and valley girl colloquialisms. I learned that my early comic book dialogue wasn’t the cup of tea for more than a few people. Oh, well. I loved it.
Since having my daughter and taking a year off I’ve come back to comics with a new writing voice. I’m striving for a little more maturity. I’ve moved past the OMG’s and am now deep in with the Rated T for Teen crowd.
My story is still peppered with humor – or my feeble attempts at humor (see the above re: humping) - but now mixed with more adult themes. We’ll see if I pull it off with this new comic book.
Nrama: Every religion has its own mythology and history – beyond the Angel Abish, will you be digging any deeper into the Book of Mormon for inspiration?
Anderson: Oh yeah. The LDS Church (the Mormons) has a wealth of history, stories and unique aspects to its religion that are ripe for exploration.
To the mass public, so little is actually known about the Church and our beliefs that it will be great to dig into them. I’d like to also target a lot of misinformation – like that the Mormons are a cult, practice polygamy, and don’t drink soda, etc.
By the way, some of my fave Mormons are total coke-heads. (That’s what you call a Coca-Cola drinker, right?)
Nrama: I imagine you've got a bit of a balancing act in this book, looking at sexuality and religion together. Usually, it seems that sparks fly when the two come anywhere near each other, with some even seeing homosexuality and the Mormon faith as mutually exclusive. With this comic, what's your approach on tackling what some will see as a controversial topic?
Anderson: My approach is to just put it out there and let the sparks fly. Some people will love it. Some will hate it.
I had one person say it was blasphemous. Eh. You can’t please everyone.
It’s easy to judge something based on a cover image, or from just reading the first few pages. I can’t stop that. But my goal is to hopefully surprise people with a story that has much more depth beyond the homo-sex and the religious aspect.
Nrama: I know this book has a personal connection for you, as well, as you yourself are a gay Mormon, with a Mormon husband and a child of your own. Is there some of your own journey reflected in this book?
Anderson: Yes, this book is very much a reflection of my personal experiences.
I was a devout, hardcore Mormon for a decade. Served a two-year mission for the Church in Guatemala (habla español because of it), went to Brigham Young University (where I met my hubby), and had many callings (service roles everyone performs in the Church).
I did everything I was supposed to do. I adored being a Mormon. I was so proud of my faith.
I just couldn’t shake the gay thing. Turns out when you’re gay that’s who you are and who you’re supposed to be. Imagine that! Now, nearly 15 years after I accepted my true self, I’m happier than I ever was then.
Nrama: Let's talk a bit about the artist of this book, James Neish. Where did you first find his work, and what do you think he brings to the table?
Anderson: James is my comic book miracle. I’ve been a fan of his for some time when I stumbled upon his work on Facebook through his boyfriend, who’s an amazing photographer (how you doing, Shaun Simpson?), a few years ago.
I’ve worked with some amazing artists in my previous books, and James is certainly one of them.
His work fits perfectly with my vision. Actually scratch that, he elevates my story beyond what I could have ever dreamed. He just gets it. It a wonderful thing when an artist fits so perfectly with your creation.
James is incredible. Period. Or exclamation point is more like it.
Nrama: Can you tell us a bit about the design process, and how you and James worked together to come up with the look of Stripling Warrior and the rest of the cast?
Anderson: I was actually originally working with another artist before James agreed to do the comic. A fellow gay Mormon. Sadly he had to bow out. But he and I collaborated on the basic look for Sam after a doodle I made.
When James came on he took the rough design, made some awesome tweeks, and added his super radical weapons – totally his idea. The final look is perfection.
For Jase, Sam’s husband, I just basically told Jase, “hot husband with some tattoos.” James seemed to know exactly what this meant. Jase came in with zero revisions.
Abish had a few back and forths between James and I, but mostly I just steered him towards Aztec culture and garb, and he nailed it.
Oh, and for the new character – the lady Stripling Warrior – we had a few ideas throwing around but my husband suggested her final look. (If you hate it, blame him.) James came up with her awesome weapons and suggested the cat as her guide. I’m in love!
Nrama: Finally, for those who still aren't sure about Stripling Warrior, what would you tell them to get them on board?
Anderson: Because it’s something different while still being steeped in classic superhero themes.
Because it’s fun – plenty of humor and goofy jokes – it’s sexy – our boys and girls will be having an active romantic life – and it’s exciting – fisticuffs, drama, action and the eternal struggle between good and evil. All this plus zero reboots and recons. Isn’t that amazing, a comic book universe that hasn’t rebooted itself? It’s a modern miracle.