Sam Maggs (l.) is a writer of books, comics, and video games. She’s the author of The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy and Girl Squads, and has written for comics such as Star Trek and Jem and the Holograms. Kendra Wells is an illustrator, comics artist, colorist, and designer living in Brooklyn. Their clients include The Nib, the New Yorker, and other outlets. Maggs and Wells teamed up for a new graphic novel, Tell No Tales: Pirates of the Southern Seas, based on the lives and exploits of the real-life pirate duo Anne Bonny and Mary Read. We asked the authors to interview each other about the importance of non-binary representation in graphic novels and their inspiration behind Tell No Tales.
Sam Maggs: Tell No Tales has been a true effort in co-creation from the start (“the start” being the day we both DMed each other on Twitter about how unbelievable we thought it was that no one had made a graphic novel about Anne Bonny yet). I remember back-and-forthing for hours in the early days, dreaming up this book, about who we wanted the crew of La Sirene to be and what we wanted them to represent. What was your favorite part about designing our kick-ass crew? What was the most challenging part? And how did having a writer co-creator on board (that’s me!) either help or hinder you in that process?
Kendra Wells: I love our origin story with Tell No Tales. I think I had tweeted, “Why isn’t anyone making books/TV shows about Anne Bonny and Mary Read?” and you immediately responded, “Let’s do it.” It was this perfect lightning bolt of inspiration and friendship that just alchemized into a beautiful graphic novel!
It’s funny, I don't remember a lot of the designing process for the crew of La Sirene, because it was one of those times where their designs just sprang from my head fully formed. When you sent me the initial descriptions of the characters you wanted to include, I could see them so clearly in my head from the jump. I wanted them to represent a broad range of backgrounds and body types because I wanted our readers to see themselves in these characters, big and small and quiet and brave.
Having a co-creator was a learning experience, but a really good one! I’m so lucky that we were already friends and I felt like I could go to you and be honest when I was struggling or had questions about your script. It has always felt like we’re on each other’s side and that’s been such a blessing for my first full-length graphic novel.
So Sam, what is particularly exciting about Tell No Tales from a creator standpoint is that not only is it my first graphic novel, but it was also yours! You’re an accomplished writer of books and video games already, but this was your first foray into the world of original comics. What was that like for you? Was it difficult to write for something that wasn’t previously established?
Maggs: It was an excellent, exciting challenge! I’m used to writing IP comics—that’s comics starring established characters owned by other people, like Captain Marvel or My Little Pony. With IP you have this box to work in, and I really like the box. There’s nothing that makes me more nervous than the endless possibility of the blank page, so IP takes a bit of the pressure off; you have a starting point. With Tell No Tales, we had real people and events to base things on (Anne was a real person, her crew come from real backgrounds, pirates existed, etc.), but the characters and story themselves were completely up to us to invent and mold and shape and direct. And it ended up being one of the most fun and rewarding parts of the creative process! Coming together with you to work out each character’s personality and how that would influence their design, and vice versa, was such a blast. I think we ended up with a cast of characters I would definitely want to hang out with on the open ocean.
Since this was your first long-form OGN too, what surprised you about the creative process once you had the script in hand and got down to actually illustrating the whole book?
Wells: I think the biggest surprise was how long and intense of a process it was. Like, I knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park but it was still shocking how much work it is to make a book! Do people know about this? That making comics is hard? Has anyone talked about this? It felt incredible to cross the finish line, though, and I learned so much about streamlining my process and solving problems in my work. It felt like completing a huge puzzle.
Speaking as a non-binary person myself, it was really incredible to see my gender identity represented in Mary Read. Speaking as a queer person, it was also rad to see so many queer relationships! What made you decide to write these characters as such?
Maggs: The relationship between the real-life Anne Bonny and Mary Read, as represented in the available historical documentation, is one that I look at and say, “That seems like it could be interpreted as a romance.” Obviously women-loving-women have largely been erased from the historical narrative and so it’s impossible to say for sure, but when fictionalizing these characters, that’s certainly the direction I wanted to take them in.
I’m so happy to hear you say that Read as non-binary is awesome to see; it was so great developing these characters with you to make sure that we were representing not only ourselves as creatives but also the vast diversity of our audience! I’m bisexual and I never got to see that on the page growing up; I want to be able to do that for our readers now.
Did you have a favorite panel to draw? What sticks out to you as the most fun moment?
Wells: Oh, man, any panel where I got to really lean into the super cartoony poses and faces. It’s so evocative and fun. Jack has a couple of moments like this, and obviously Anne is a real goof herself. I always forget how fun it is to really push my art into Looney Tunes territory! There are serious points in the story, but there’s also a lot of fun, larger than life emotions and I love when the art reflects that.
Why do you think pirates are still so fascinating and thrilling, hundreds of years after their very brief heyday in the open seas? Do we all just love swagger and treasure and cool hats, or is there something deeper?
Maggs: Pirates are my favorite anti-establishment folk heroes. They held democratic elections; welcomed people of all races, classes, and genders; provided disability and death insurance; and generally were providing folks a much better option than life in a royal navy (which offered none of those things to white men and even fewer to women and people of color). Pirates became so popular among the colonies, in fact, that the British government waged a publicity campaign against them to try and get people off their side. I feel like we’re in a moment today where the working class wants to unionize and turn against the ruling, oppressive class. We could all be a little more like Anne and our crew, I think!
Last question for you: Do you want to see more pirate adventures from our crew?
Wells: I mean, DUH! I literally wrote my final high school English term paper on Anne Bonny and Mary Read. This story has been close to my heart for a very long time. There are a million more adventures to be had, so why on earth not? Bring me the horizon, me hearties!
Tell No Tales: Pirates of the Southern Seas by Sam Maggs and Kendra Wells. Amulet, $21.99 Feb. 9 ISBN 978-1-4197-3966-8; paper, $12.99 Feb. 9 ISBN 978-1-4197-3980-4