There’s a monster in the basement in Molly Knox Ostertag’s YA graphic novel The Deep Dark, but it isn’t a jump-scare monster. It’s a creature that teenager Mags must feed daily with her own blood, a secret that she must keep from the rest of the world, and a burden she cannot shed: If the monster dies, she will die. Mags lives in the Southern California desert, tending to her ailing grandmother but keeping her distance from others her age, to protect them as well as herself. Her’ childhood friend Nessa upends this uneasy balance when she returns after a long absence and starts asking difficult questions and stirring up unwelcome memories. Like Ostertag’s earlier middle-grade Witch Boy trilogy and her YA romance The Girl from the Sea, The Deep Dark is a fantasy story with a queer cast of characters, but the stakes in the new book are higher, literally life and death, and a happy ending is not assured. Ostertag spoke with PW about the genesis of her story and how it went from a vague emotion to a full-fledged graphic novel.

At the end of the book, you tell the reader how the idea first came to you, while you were sitting on a rock in Joshua Tree national Park. What was that first germ of this book?

When I make my comics, I usually begin by writing them, almost like a prose novel. So I wrote this 1,000-word piece from the perspective of someone who has to feed this creature in their basement. No genders, no names, just the idea of having to go underground every night and give up a part of yourself, and how you would carry that with you even if you are out in the world for the rest of the day. It was actually a lot darker, having the character who ended up being Nessa come in and decide “I’m going to kill this creature for you,” and then having the creature kill her instead. It obviously found its way to a more hopeful place, but there was just something about that emotion that’s tied in with various things in my life.

Once you had the initial idea for the story, how did you develop the characters?

What is so amazing about comics is that I can draw the characters. That’s always a really early stage for me, because that’s when I start to figure out the intuitive stuff: How do they carry themselves? How do they dress? How would they keep their hair? I start to figure out the physicality of the character, the subtle things that it would take me a lot longer to get to if I were writing it.

Mags is a butch-presenting person. I knew from the beginning that I wanted Mags to have this very masculine presentation and really short hair, and it’s all wrapped up in the sense that she feels that she needs to be strong all the time and she needs to be a provider and can’t show the weakness or the pain that she is experiencing.

I love the butch identity so much, and there are so few genuinely butch characters, especially in visual media. I think people are still very uncomfortable on a pretty basic level with women who look a lot like men.

A lot of YA stories with LGBTQ+ characters, including your earlier books, are about coming out or coming to terms with being queer. In The Deep Dark, the characters are more established in their identities. Why did you go in that direction?

That was definitely intentional. I think most people know someone like Mags. She is queer. Everybody around her knows that she’s queer. I’m sure she came out at some point. But that’s not the plot of the book.

At the same time, she’s not very invested in a queer community. She’s in this small town, and she doesn’t really have other people to connect with on this. Nessa, her friend, is trans and lives in Los Angeles and has made a point of making more queer connections. There are so many different ways to be queer, and there are so many people who are living their truth while not participating in the larger cultural conversation. Mags was a character like that, and I really liked bouncing her off Nessa in that way,

The story takes place in the desert, and the setting is very immersive. Did you draw the desert scenes from life, from photos, or from inside your own head?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Joshua Tree. It’s a really magical place. Some of [my setting] was drawn from photos, but at a certain point, it’s less about trying to do an accurate representation and more about trying to draw what you would actually see and how it would feel to be there.

There’s this big sky, but then are these big piles of tumbled rocks that look like they’ve been scattered by some giant hand. To me, it always feels kind of apocalyptic and bleak, but then you can look a little closer and there’s all this life, all of these birds and rodents and lizards and so many different plants. So I was trying to capture that.

You first drew and published this story as a webcomic. How did that change the way you work?

I didn’t draw it page by page, I drew it as a long scroll, so I totally transformed my layout process. It’s a lot more intuitive than my other books, and a lot less planned.

How hard was it to turn that into a book?

I had to go through and cut it up into pages. I anticipated that this might happen, so I made sure to have page breaks. It wasn’t the hardest thing in the world, but it was the work of a couple weeks to do that. I did go through and change some dialogue and visuals, redrew some things that bothered me, added in some plot threads that I hadn’t quite explored as much as I wanted to in the webcomic. That was kind of cool, because I’ve never done that before either.

This story feels more mature than your earlier work, in terms of both the characters and the complexity of the story. Were you conscious about going in this direction?

The Girl from the Sea did really well, and I think there’s always an impulse when that happens to be like, “I should do another just like that.” But I always have to make things a little harder for myself, and also, I do this because I’m interested in exploring. In The Girl from the Sea I explored emotions from that time in my life, and I wanted to go a little older.

Substack gave me a grant to do basically whatever I wanted for a year, and this was what I chose to do. I wanted to do something older. I wanted to not worry about the contents. Making work for younger kids, and writing for animation, there are always these voices in my head saying “Make it appropriate”—especially with queer stories—“Don’t talk about sexuality, don’t talk about drugs, make it a really good representation that nobody can take issue with and no censor could be bothered by.” I really wanted to push back against that, and this Substack deal felt like an opportunity to just be like, “Okay, what do you do when there’s not a censor?” That was where it came from. I’m trying to not think about what other people will put on this book and just make my own thing.

I always have this desire to push it a little bit further and make the stories a little more complex and try to draw from life. I think there’s this really big fear with queer artists that if I portray a queer person being less than perfect, then that will somehow lead to someone else becoming prejudiced against me or my rights being taken away, and it was my fault. I think that that’s a really legitimate fear, but it’s just a fear that I don’t want to give a voice to, so it’s been this long process of unlearning that I will continue to be on probably forever.

The Deep Dark by Molly Knox Ostertag. Graphix, $27.99 June 4 ISBN 978-1-338-84000-1; paper $16.99 ISBN 978-1-338-83999-9