Interview: Sara Alfageeh, Nadia Shammas debut fantasy graphic novel SQUIRE

SQUIRE is a graphic novel full of sweeping settings, wonderful characters, and lessons for the upcoming generation of leaders. It debuts today, and I spoke with author and illustrator Sara Alfageeh about how she and co-creator and writer Nadia Shammas worked together to draft and publish this compelling, heartfelt adventure.

The novel tells the story of Aiza who leaves her home to pursue her dream and become a squire in the Bayt-Sajji Empire’s army. In training camp she meets more teens from other regions, forging some friendships and sparking some rivalries. The group of youths must navigate prejudice, corruption, and propaganda that is adult in its complexity. Though set in a fantasy world, SQUIRE is an apt allegory for many real-world conflicts in occupied or colonized regions.

Experienced with well-known legacy superhero universes, Sara (www.sara-alfa.com) has illustrated for Marvel and Star Wars, and Nadia (www.nadiashammas.com) has written Marvel and DC Comics, in creating SQUIRE they provide us with a refreshing and unique cast of heroes, reflective of their own heritages. Sara is Jordanian-American and Nadia is Palestinian-American.

How did this project begin? What sparked the idea for SQUIRE?

The characters are based on some illustrations I initially created on my own while still in college. But when I was approached to turn them into an entire novel, I knew I wanted to find someone who could be my partner and a true co-creator.

Nadia and I have similar backgrounds of being self-made, create-our-own-projects on Kickstarter creatives. We are also some of the very, very few Arab-Americans in the comic book space. We had the same kind of touchstones. We grew up with anime and manga, grew up with fantasy and had a distinct upbringing with one foot overseas and one foot over here as immigrant kids. We started this project by asking each other, what do you want to say, what do you want to talk about? We realized that in our shared experiences were also the themes that really resonated with us. Those were the stories that we had to get out.

Let’s talk about that story. It is so powerful and reflective of the “one foot in two worlds” experience you describe.

Yes. I’m born and raised in the United States, but spent nearly all my summers in Jordan. Our character Aiza is similar. And while her story is set in an alternate history of the middle east, it’s very much a story about diaspora, it’s very much an immigrant story and it’s honestly a very American story. We wanted to bring that very real experience that I think a lot of immigrant kids have. There’s a pressure of prove yourself. A feeling of “you are suspect until proven otherwise.” That conflict is very real. If you are someone who comes from two different backgrounds and you want to feel pride in both. If those two backgrounds are at odds with one another in a broad narrative, where do you make a stand as an individual person vs. the structural power around you? We wanted to bring those experiences into the fiction.

I’m glad you mentioned the setting because it is one of my favorite things about Squire. The artwork is gorgeous and did I recognize Petra? Tell me about how you developed the world.

The double page spreads and expansive landscapes that you might recognize like Petra and other landmarks were pictures that I took myself when I went overseas to do research for the novel. I think there’s a lot of aspects of fantasy tropes based in medieval Europe. We know where the Shire is, for instance. I wanted to do the same for the Middle East. I want certain audience members to feel like they know where these places are. It’s meant to be recognizable. It also meant a lot that I was bringing the troupes of fantasy that I love into a setting that I recognized.

Were there any specific tropes that you decided to embrace or reverse?

I wanted give every single character clear reasons for acting the way that they do. No good vs. evil without the context behind their choices. I also wanted to be intentional about the training scenes – I wanted Aiza’s accomplishments to feel earned.

Another big one. I also didn’t want her to rebel against her parents. It’s a common troupe for this genre but I think the stereotype of over-controlling Arab parents has been overdone. I didn’t want her to start the story on that stereotypical note.

Lastly, not all the problems in this fiction have been solved in the end on purpose. That’s not how any social justice in the real world works. I wanted people to feel content about how Aiza’s story wrapped up, but not create an easy, unrealistic solution to all the problems the story poses.

What’s the process for developing and selling a graphic novel?

Developing a graphic novel is very different than pitching a book. You don’t have to have it done. First you develop what happens in your story beat to beat. We created that together. This was not a someone has a script and hands it off to an artist situation. Once we had our story, I created character concepts and then we created a 6-page sampler. Those six pages ended up being in chapter 3 of the final. We sold the book on that premise and the sampler. From there worked together with Nadia creating the script and me developing pencil pages, basically a black and white drawing that can easily be changed. That way my editor and Nadia can have input on what happens next. From there I’m getting edits from Nadia and the editor and it’s more of solo time, I’m inking, I’m coloring and I’m bring it to the polished final.

Throughout that time I’m also doing some micro-writing, where I am changing where dialogue falls on the page, adding sound effects or additional lines based on the page layouts. So we felt like we were writing truly up until the end. There’s no such thing as plotters vs. pantsers in graphic novels, because it’s too much work to kind of wing it. We are plotters all the way and we’re still refining and polishing up until the last minute.

In illustration, some of your pacing has to come from the graphics themselves. How do you navigate those choices during the micro-writing stage?

I learned a lot of these tricks from reading romance manga. For example, leave room for your characters to react to emotions. That way you as the reader also know to breathe and sit with this feeling for a minute.

For example, at times Doric (Aiza’s mentor) doesn’t have to say something for two pages. I can leave him to sit alone and process what happened in an earlier scene. When I want Aiza to feel isolated, I make sure she’s the most prominent thing in frame but she’s also small in the setting around her. I increase and decrease proportions of characters to space in order to create some of that perspective.

With graphic novels, you are able to control time based on how large or small a panel is. I can decide how long a reader stays on a page. And what scenes fall on one page or another, that flip can add to the element of surprise.

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