Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gets a steampunk makeover in S.H. Cotugno’s fantasy graphic novel reimagining, The Glass Scientists, first in a planned trilogy. Adapted from the webcomic of the same name, which Cotugno began in 2015, The Glass Scientists stars Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who must work together to save Jekyll’s beloved organization of wildcard scientists when an encounter with a powerful foe turns society against them. In a conversation with PW, Cotugno ruminated on their fascination with the Victorian era, the differences and similarities between animation and publishing, and the opportunity to connect with their audience on a more personal level.
What inspired you to set The Glass Scientists in a steampunk fantasy world?
I’ve always been drawn to the weirdness of the Victorian era. What’s cool about it is that it’s kind of the time period right before modernity hits, and I think a lot of the concepts we sometimes take for granted today were formed during that time. I particularly love the scientific and medical history of the period, which was absolutely buck wild; there was so much self-experimentation going on, so much dangerous, pre-regulation exploitation and explosions. Everything was kind of constantly on fire. And to me, it’s very entertaining. I always wanted to set a story in a world like that, one that highlights those aspects even further and explores just how many of the inventions and fabrications that we take for granted in the present-day came about in this very strange time.
There’s a certain type of queer person, such as myself, who is really drawn to antiquity, to an extent. In reality, during these time periods, basically no one who wasn’t a straight white guy would want to be there. No one really wants to use a time machine to actually go there, you know, but there are certain aesthetics and a little bit of a different vibe that I’m really drawn to. There’s a fun fantasy element to imagining, what if I was still sort of myself but I could dress up in these amazing, wild costumes and play with gender in ways that are kind of less accessible nowadays. That’s another reason I brought in the steampunk element. Like, this is not meant to be realistic. This is queer people at play—but with real emotions underneath, because I do want to tell a serious, emotional story.
While you were developing the story, how far ahead did you plan? Is there anything now that you’d change about the concept or wish you had done differently?
I came up through animation, and one of my most formative experiences was working on the show Star vs. the Forces of Evil. That’s what’s called a board-driven show, in which the boarders—which is what I was, I’m trained as a storyboard artist—would write the final scripts for the episode, so I got to learn the writing process through animation. And what’s cool about that is, in TV, there are times when you might change your mind as to what a character is like, or realize after the fact, “Oh, I wish I’d done that differently.” You can’t go back in time and fix it, but you can find subtle ways to change things and improve things in future episodes to find a happy medium. That’s how I’ve approached the comic as well.
For example, in 2017, I read A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. It’s this really beautiful queer adventure story that’s set in the late 1700s that opened my eyes to the idea that I really wanted to lean into the romance within The Glass Scientists and not tell, like, a stereotypical tragic gay love story. That book inspired me to look at my own romantic subplot, and it fully changed the original ending of The Glass Scientists. Luckily, it was early enough in the subplot that I could make those changes relatively easily. But there have definitely been a lot of changes that were fairly substantial.
There’s also something challenging about committing to a story that was based on how you viewed the world at 25, and then committing to it all the way until you’re 35, which is how old I’ll be by the time the trilogy is finished. It’s been rewarding to see my growth like that.
Was there anything about transitioning from working in animation and creating a webcomic as a side gig, to producing a physical bound book, that surprised or challenged you?
Honestly, the transition has been relatively smooth. The biggest comparison point is that, in animation, where I’m developing a show from scratch, I have gotten so many incredibly harsh edits that I’d gotten used to answering and dealing with. And so, by comparison, I’ve found—knock on wood—that my editor [Chris Hernandez] has been very, very kind to me, and has given me notes that I felt were pretty doable. I see myself as someone who doesn’t like to cause a fuss. I like to look at other people’s perspectives; I appreciate getting them. And, for me, the notes have been very reasonable. So now, when I go into revisions, I say to myself, even if I disagree with the note, I would like to give it the benefit of the doubt. I always give it a shot. More often than not, I find something extremely valuable in that. And if it doesn’t feel right, then I’ll push back.
What has been harder is just the reality of the schedule. We’re in a little bit of a tough stage right now, in the film and television industry. The upside was that I wasn’t working full-time for a good chunk of last year, and so I was able to work a lot more on the comic. It would have been really hard to hit the deadline for all three books if I didn’t have that eight-month period to work on it full-time.
Do you have any plans to pursue a new graphic novel venture when you finish The Glass Scientists?
I still have a good ways to go on this one. I have over a year left, I think. Right now, my focus is so much on facing this problem that I can’t really think past finishing The Glass Scientists. In the back of my head, however, I’ve been toying with a story that’s still playing in the world of fantasy that leans a bit more into a fantastical realism plotline involving monsters. I want to play even more directly into the specific plight of mixed-race people like me feeling as if they’re stuck within two cultures at once and trying to find their place in them.
In addition to the comic itself, I’ve also been developing various shows for networks. Over time, however, I’ve gotten a bit… I would say “studio poisoned,” where I’m so aware of marketing to demographics and doing what’s good for the market that I feel like I’ve lost touch with my personal voice. I want to get back in touch with what that personal voice is. But also, I’ve definitely been feeling like I’ve been doing so much output lately. I haven’t been able to do enough input. I want to read more. I want to get inspired more. I want to live more. So, I think I want to make sure that the well doesn’t run dry and that I’m taking time to take in the world.
In the meantime, I really want to invest in my relationship with my existing readers. It’s great to have that kind of personal connection with my most frequent commenters, because even though it’s very fulfilling to have a personal story out there, it’s such a long commitment. I probably wouldn’t have stuck through it if I hadn’t felt accountable to the people who were going to show up every single week to read it. And because social media can feel so isolating and a little like a numbers game, it’s been really fantastic that the comments section on my website has become a more personal connection with people.
I’ve been doing this preorder campaign where I send readers a little package with bookmarks or enamel pins, those sorts of things. It’s been really, really fun, having that kind of tactile connection with my audience. It’s almost like a gratitude practice, thinking about every single person individually. I don’t want to take this time for granted. I want to be present.
The Glass Scientists by S.H. Cotugno. Razorbill, $24.99 Oct. 3 ISBN 978-0-593-52442-8; $16.99 paper ISBN 978-0-593-52444-2