Growing up, writer/artist Niki Smith loved stories that played with a familiar gender trope — girls
But she never saw a story about the reverse, where a boy disguised himself as a girl.
With The Deep & Dark Blue, the fantasy graphic novel Smith’s creating for a January 2020 release through Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Smith is exploring the concept with a transgender twist. One of her two main characters decides that this new life as a girl is desirable, deciding to switch roles permanently.
Newsarama talked to Smith to find out more about her story, what audience she’s hoping to reach, and how she drew from real myths and history to create the world of The Deep & Dark Blue.
Newsarama: Niki, up to this point, you’ve been best known for writing stories set in the modern world. What inspired you to write a fantasy graphic novel?
Niki Smith: Fantasy novels were all I lived on as a kid, so writing one was like coming home. There weren't a lot of LGBTQ+ characters in middle grade or young adult novels in the ‘90s and early 2000s, so I grew up reading fantasy and science fiction way outside of my age range.
Mercedes Lackey and Tanya Huff wrote some of the first queer characters I ever encountered, and anyone who loved Mulan or Alanna as much as I did should feel right at home with The Deep & Dark Blue.
No matter what genre I'm writing, my goal is always the same: to celebrate the characters and relationships we rarely get to see.
Nrama: Let’s talk about The Deep & Dark Blue. Can you describe the two main characters that carry the book’s story?
Smith: Grayce and Hawke are identical twins, noble "sons" with high expectations to live up to — to Grayce's regret. When they lose their title in a bloody coup, the twins have to go into hiding, disguising themselves as girls to join the Communion of Blue.
For Grayce, it's the chance she's always wanted: a way to live openly as herself — as a girl, as Grayce. She's always been the quieter, more serious twin, but her confidence blossoms as she finds her place in the world.
Hawke, on the other hand, chafes at having to keep his true identity quiet and hidden. He's got a big mouth and the confidence to match, and not being able to get revenge on the woman who killed his family is eating away at him. He's got a one-track mind, and unfortunately, that means he's blind to a lot of what Grayce is dealing with.
Nrama: How would you describe the setting of The Deep & Dark Blue. And where do the twins fit into it as nobles?
Smith: The average fantasy story has your standard king ruling over the land, but I decided to look at the medieval Republic of Florence for my inspiration.
The twins live in a city-state run by a council of wealthy families and guilds; there's no monarch with absolute power and the citizens are much more involved in the running of the government.
Hawke and Grayce are the grandkids of one of those lords, living happy and pampered, far down the line of inheritance.
Nrama: You mentioned that when the twins are in hiding, they join the Communion of Blue, which ends up being an important part of the plot. Can you talk about the concept behind the Communion of the Blue? Is it a positive, or a negative force?
Smith: Very much a positive force! The Communion of Blue is an order of women with the ability to manipulate a magic blue dye and spin the threads of the world. They're dedicated to following the mother goddess, who wove the world on her loom. The Communion is inspired by medieval religious sisterhoods, and girls from any background can pledge themselves to it.
Spinning and weaving show up in folklore and mythology all over the world: the Three Fates, Sleeping Beauty... even Plato's description of the cosmos says the planets rotate around the "Spindle of Necessity." Knitting and sewing are dismissed and viewed as "women's work" in so many cultures, and I really wanted to develop that into a system of magic — textiles, spinning and weaving, all powered by a mysterious, deep blue dye.
Nrama: Let’s talk about the artwork you created for The Deep & Dark Blue. What’s your process been like creating the pages of the book?
Smith: I work entirely digitally, with all of the line work done in Clip Studio Paint and the colors done in Adobe Photoshop.
Nrama: Is there a certain style or perception you worked toward visually?
Smith: The biggest visual goal I had was how to handle color. The Deep & Dark Blue has a carefully limited palette. The book is full color — minus blue. The color only appears in connection to the magic of the Communion of Blue.
I was inspired by historical dyes like Tyrian Purple — a color so incredibly difficult to produce (thousands and thousands of tiny snails!) that only royalty were permitted to wear it.
Nrama: What audience are you hoping to reach with this book?
Smith: The Deep & Dark Blue is for every kid out there who's still trying to find where they belong. It's about building a family of your choice that loves and embraces you, no matter what. Whether that's due to gender or sexuality or anything else (middle school is rough enough as it is), I want to reach the kids who need to know that's possible. And it's for everyone else out there who grew up never seeing themselves as the hero. It's about being more than a tragic subplot or a hilarious BFF. We all get to learn magic and save the day.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell potential readers about the book?
Smith: Growing up, I loved stories that played with gender — the classic Shakespearean trope. Girls disguising themselves as boys to have adventures and become knights and pirates and soldiers! Something about the blurring of gender roles really appealed to me. But I never saw the reverse, and I never found a story that didn't end tied up with a straight, cis bow. The Deep & Dark Blue is my quiet attempt to change that, and I hope you enjoy it.