Devin Grayson is well-known for superhero work on such characters as Nightwing, the Titans, and most recently, the prose novel Doctor Strange: The Fate of Dreams. But now, Image Comics is reprinting one of her most personal creations – a 2001 story of online identity that is still relevant today.
USER, originally published by DC's Vertigo imprint back in 2001, is a reality-twisting tale of online identity and worlds colliding, produced with the all-start artistic team of Sean Phillips and John Bolton. Despite strong reviews when it was originally published, it’s long been out-of-print – but this new edition, in stores this week, represents both the first full collection of the story and the chance for a new audience to discover it.
Newsarama talked with Grayson about this new edition, what has (and hasn’t) changed since she wrote the original story, and much more.
Newsarama: Devin - it’s been a while since this story has been available, so to clarify: Could you tell us about the history of this story, and whether it’s an updated version or just a re-release?
Devin Grayson: No problem. To clarify, then, this is a collected edition re-release; aside from a few typos that had been driving me crazy for the past 15 years, the story is unaltered.
It was originally published as a three-part prestige-format Vertigo miniseries in 2001 and was never reprinted. Though the issues were sometimes available online, it was very difficult to cobble together a full set; the three parts also didn’t have individual subtitles, so people would sometimes order “USER,” and be confused to receive one-third of the story.
In any case, it was clear to Sean and John and I that a collected edition was in order, and after we bought back the rights to it from DC, we were excited to get the opportunity to republish it, as a hardback collected edition, through Image. Sean designed the collected edition himself, creating a new cover for it, putting together the extra material in the back, assembling the new layout, helping me make those little edits that were keeping me up at night, and coordinating with Image to get us from inclination to publication.
Though the story is wildly personal to me, I have a feeling that this edition feels pretty special to him, and he deserves all the credit for how gorgeous the final product is. I’ll talk more about why I’m so excited to have it available again below, but that’s its origin story, if you will. [Laughs]
Nrama: For those who haven't experienced the story before, tell us about USER.
Grayson: USER is a coming of age story about a young woman, Meg, who finds the self-understanding and impetus she needs to grow up through text-based online role playing. She’s initially what we’d refer to today as a failure to launch, still living at home with her parents and a younger sister in her early twenties. And although she has a good job and a range of interests and even people she’s friendly with at work, she’s emotionally stuck.
It’s not until she creates a character for an online MUD - a bisexual male paladin, Guilliame - that she’s able to access the parts of herself she needs in order to take responsibility for her life and propel herself forward.
Part of what makes the book unique is that the two worlds Meg moves through - the real and the virtual - are portrayed by separate artists. The Eisner-award-winning Sean Phillips - currently nominated for three more - handles all of the action in the real world, and the utterly inimitable John Bolton handles her online adventures. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that they’re two of the most talented artists working in comics, and the tension created between their visions ends up being an integral part of the story.
Nrama: What made you want to revisit/update the story?
Grayson:I think I’ve answered the technical part of this question previously, but the other piece is that I identified a new audience for it and really wanted to get it into their hands. I’m a role-player, and Meg’s delight at first discovering that amazing world online comes straight from my own life.
One of the places I roleplay these days is on Tumblr which, honestly, is not a platform that lends itself well to it in terms of formatting. But still there are people there working in small fandoms with nothing more than their writing skills and maybe a folder-full of character icons or gifs and they are so passionate and so talented and so…millennial. I adore role-playing with them, and within a week of doing so felt absolutely sure they’d respond to USER. The story is full of passionate role players, intense interpersonal conflict, and spectrum-ranging gender identity and sexuality.
I dug copies of all three issues out for my then fifteen-year-old transsexual stepson, who is also a roleplayer and who was finding a lot of supportive community online as he moved through an FTM transition. He loved it, and I started wondering if maybe the series wasn’t literally before its time; not in terms of content so much as in terms of finding its audience. The people who might appreciate it most were being born when it was first published.
Nrama: What do you feel are the biggest things that have changed since this story was first released... and what are still the same? What do you feel was most prescient about the story? Certainly, it existed before “catfishing” was a household term.
Grayson:When I was writing USER games like Everquest were just starting to become popular, but for the most part when you said “roleplaying,” people still though of pencil and dice tabletop campaigns or MUDs. And actually, the story takes place even earlier than that, in the mid-to-late nineties.The one part of USER I was worried contemporary role-players wouldn’t relate to was the concept of text-based play.
The MMORPGs we have today are so ornate and gorgeous and they come equipped with customizable avatars, top rate voice actors, and quest compasses. By contrast, the role-playing in USER is nothing but words in a chatroom – an AOL chatroom, at that, though I don’t think that’s explicitly mentioned! [Laughs]
But what I’ve learned while gaming on social media more recently is that the urge to create narrative is so strong that role-playing on Twitter in 140 characters or less and role-playing in a dynamic, beautifully rendered game world aren’t mutually exclusive. People do both. This amazing new immersive technology is available, and people still find small corners of the web in which to get together and just write.
And then, as you mention, there’s how much the social landscape of the internet itself has changed. Catfishing, online dating, the mobility and subsequent ubiquity of life online, the aggressive commercialization of the space… it’s hard to explain to people who didn’t live through it how antithetical all of that is to the original experience.
The most egregious example of that in my mind, at least - is Gamergate. If you had told me when I was in my twenties how much hostility there was going to be toward women in gaming, I would have laughed at you. I remember my male friends playing female characters in Everquest because total strangers would stop and just give them money and equipment they weren’t using anymore.
It hadn’t really occurred to people yet that the players behind the characters might not be of the same gender as the avatars themselves, and guys were delighted to have females in the games - because why wouldn’t they be!? But a small group of angry people has corrupted that for everyone. My mom had to take back the night, I’m gonna have to take back the Internet.
In terms of prescience, I think the way Meg uses the virtual world to explore her individualism and sexuality flows quite naturally into a continuing social narrative about online identity, community, and even the addictive aspects of social media.
Nrama: What was working with John and Sean like back then?
Grayson: Both Sean and John live and work across the pond. I’d never met either one of them when we started the project, and I remember getting pages in one day while my mom was visiting me in New York. I was looking at one of John’s pages and I gasped, because there was Dallian - er, Guilliame, this character I’d played for years and years but never seen visually represented, and he was perfect, he looked exactly the way I’d always imagined him. And next to me I heard my mom gasp. She was looking at one of Sean’s pictures of Meg, who she thought looked a lot like me. I’m not so sure that’s true - I’d told Sean, who I don’t think had any way of knowing what I looked like, to use Christina Ricci for inspiration - but what was true was that the characters both felt so immediate and knowable and right.
It’s really exciting to see a great Batman page come in from an artist, but to see two such amazing artists creating these things that had previously existed only in my head was breath-taking. I feel this enduring, inexpressible gratitude to both of them and loved having the chance to be in touch with them again to create this new edition.
Nrama: Would you want to revisit this universe for new stories?
Grayson: Absolutely. I think it would be interesting to catch up with Meg ten or so years later and see the ways in which she was and was not successful in keeping her internal life integrated with her external one. And of course, now she wouldn’t just have the one original character, she’d have multiple characters on multiple accounts, some of which would be purerole-playingand some of which might be more like fake identities. She might even be catfishing a little.
I’d love to have different artists covering the various games she may be playing and lives she may be leading, and of course it would be perfect to have Sean come anchor it all again, but I suspect he may be a tad too busy these days. [Laughs]
Nrama: What was the biggest challenge of telling this story, particularly in transitioning between the two worlds?
Grayson: In terms of writing, I think the challenge was making sure that Meg’s life felt as important as Guilliame’s. Obviously it wasn’t going to be quite as dramatic, but there had to be clear emotional stakes. I think it worked, in part because of the different moods Sean and John were able to create.
In Sean’s hands, Meg’s world has such intensity and contrast - you can see and experience the ways in which she’s feeling boxed in, and the elation she feels when she breaks free from that. Then at the same time John has Guilliame’s world infused with a colorful vibrancy that communicates that hyper-arousal you feel when you’re playing.
They managed to create a visual landscape in which these two divergent realities are clearly reaching out to one another - you can kind of see the need for integration.
Nrama: What sort of research and personal experiences did you draw from for the story?
Grayson: USER is the most personal thing I’ve written to date. I like to say that all the made-up parts of it are real and most of the real parts of it are made-up, meaning that Guilliame’s adventures in Vhydon are all based on adventures I had online playing the original character (“O.C.”) on whom Guilliame was based.
The characters Guil interacts with are all inspired by real O.C.s, some of whom I was in touch with as I scripted USER. And Vhydon is based on Rhydin, one of the fictional realms once supported in the AOL Red Dragon Inn chatrooms.
The narrative of Meg’s life, though, is fictional, with elements borrowed from my real life: I worked in the research division of a large HMO, a job I was almost fired from as I became obsessed with online gaming, I’m bisexual and gender fluid enough to strongly prefer playing - and writing - male characters, and I have a younger sister for whom I wish I could have done more. But Meg’s parents are nothing like my own, and she lives in Tallahassee, which I’ve only visited. She makes decisions I would have thought through differently and interacts with people who are either made up or composite.
I know that most people assume that all writers regularly pull from their real lives, and of course many do. But USER is the only writing project in which I’ve done that, and I find it really validating that it worked as well as it did.
Nrama: What was it like looking back at this story? How do you rank it in your progress as a writer, and what's been the most interesting reaction people have had to it over the years?
Grayson: I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written and it still exists as a kind of challenge to me as a writer: if that’s the kind of story I can create when I’m honestly sharing my lived experiences, why the hell don’t I do that more often? I really love working with established characters and franchises, but rereleasing USER has me thinking a lot about doing more personal projects.
I still spend a lot of my creative currency on roleplaying, and although I don’t in any way regret that, I suspect I should really start channeling more of that into my professional work.
In terms of reactions to USER, for me the most meaningful were those of the people I’d been roleplaying with. That they loved the story and felt I’d done justice to their characters and to the storylines we’d shared was deeply satisfying. There was also a review in The Village Voice I remember, because the reviewer brought up what I was discussing above. He was familiar with my franchise work at DC and wrote something like “maybe the auteur in her is emerging.” And I’m not sure I followed through on that promise then. But I think I’m ready to now.
USER was also nominated for a GLAAD award, which was very significant to me because I knew that it had resonated with gamers, my tribe, but that nomination suggested that it had also been embraced by the LGBTQ community, my other tribe. I think it can support a broader audience, but as long as it resonates with those two groups, I’m happy.
Nrama: Now, what are some other books and creators you'd currently recommend?
Grayson: The last book I read that took my breath away was The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. I also loved Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng. Somewhat disgracefully, I’m not much of a comics reader, but I did just read several hundred Doctor Strange comics to prepare for The Fate of Dreams, and I have to say, if you haven’t read Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s original Doctor Strange run, you missed a truly unique and wonderful series.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Grayson: Remember when I said I loved working with licensed characters? Well, the one down side is that I’m never allowed to talk about the projects I’m working on. But I recently scripted the graphic novel version of a wonderful book by an incredibly talented and beloved author, and I can’t wait to be able to talk about it.
I also just did a super-fun fill-in for a franchise property I’ve never worked with before which Craig Rousseau is drawing right now, and have Yasmin Liang lined up to do a short story I’m scripting for a nonprofit fundraising anthology that I think will be announced soon. I’m also hoping to do more prose work - I loved writing the Doctor Strange novel - and am putting together a pitch for a creator-owned graphic novel I’ve been toying with - read: roleplaying - for some time.