If there’s a job in the comic book industry, Christina Stewart (better known under her nom de plume Steenz) has had it: retailer (as a manager at beloved comic book store Star Clipper in its U. City Loop glory days), DIY comics creator (as a longtime member of local collective Ink and Drink Comics1), librarian, event planner, convention organizer (the St. Louis Public Library’s annual Central Library Comic Con), award-winning graphic novelist (Archival Quality, which she illustrated alongside writer Ivy Noelle Weir, won the 2019 Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics), editor (for then-locally based indie publisher Lion Forge), even teacher (as an adjunct professor at Webster University).
A year ago today, the longtime St. Louisan added yet another section to her CV: syndicated cartoonist. That’s no easy feat: the newspaper funnies are typically a stagnant, unchanging place, but when Mark Tatulli decided to step down from writing and drawing Heart of the City after 22 years (to concentrate on creating graphic novels in addition to his other strip, Lio), his syndicate tapped Steenz to reimagine the strip for a modern audience, a task she has handled with aplomb. Heart of the City is a sweet slice-of-life strip starring Heart Lamarr, an endlessly energetic middle schooler with Hollywood dreams in her eyes. “I just think she’s living in her own little world,” Steenz laughs, “and reality comes a-knockin’.” The strip centers around Heart’s everyday misadventures with her similarly pop-culture-obsessed friends and her harried but loving single mom. The strip is syndicated nationwide, including in the hometown paper of record, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
We caught up with Steenz over Zoom to look back at her first year on Heart of the City and get a preview of what’s to come, both with Heart and other projects. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Arts STL: How did taking over Heart of the City come about? It’s not like they had an open casting call. How did you find out the opportunity was available and how did you end up getting the gig?
Christina “Steenz” Stewart: Mark Tatulli, the original creator of Heart, was like “Well…it’s time for me to retire.” [laughs] He had been doing the comic for, like, 20 years, so it makes complete sense to want to retire after that…it’s grueling, doing a daily comic strip.
Shena [Wolf], the editor, and the rest of the editorial team at Andrews McMeel syndication wanted to pretty much do the same thing that they did with Nancy, which is get someone to take the comic to a new level, a new place for new 2020 readers. So they actually reached out to me and asked, “What do you think about syndicated comics?” And I was like, “Well, I read them!” [laughs] I grew up reading them, you know? It’s a pretty big part of my back story in comics, reading newspaper comics.
I auditioned, and the audition process was sooo long, because not only did I have to show them new styles for the characters, but they also wanted to make sure that I could execute on telling a full story over an arc [while] also making sure that each strip was relatively self-contained. It was definitely more of a focus on the writing than it was on the art, actually.
How much of that stuff that you created for the audition process actually ended up being printed?
The ear-piercing arc was part of the audition process, as well as the introduction of the new character Charlotte. And some of it gets tweaked and changed and a few words get moved around here and there, but overall, those arcs ended up in the comic.
That’s interesting! So I mainlined the entire first year over the last couple days. [both laugh] Not that I hadn’t been reading all along! But I just re-read all of it over the last three days and the earring arc was the one where I thought, “Oh, this is where she’s settled down into a groove,” so I’m kind of surprised that that was one of the first ones!
Yeah, that’s the one I wanted to start off with because that’s the one I really felt connected to, because it was really all me, y’know? But they wanted me to start with an introductory arc as well, finding a way to re-introduce the characters, and so that’s where the “Middle School Survival Guide” came in. Then I got to move on to other arcs that I wanted to do.
Who is Heart to you, and what aspects of her personality do you think make for the best gags?
Heart is precocious, she is dramatic, she is the main character of her world. Things revolve around her, but that’s not all she is: she’s also very interested in her friends’ lives and making her friends’ lives even more dramatic than her life and just wanting to live in the moment.
The best gags are when Heart goes too far and does not realize the reality of things. There’s an arc coming up now where she auditioned for another play, and she only auditioned for one role. She didn’t want any other role, so she [decided], “I’m auditioning for the lead and that’s it.” It’s such a power move. And then she doesn’t get it! And so now, she’s like, “What?!” [laughs] She has to realize that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in that one basket. What were you thinking?
I like those kinds of gags because then it allows for her to interact with others. I like using her as a soundboard. When things happen to her friends, how she reacts to them is really funny to me.
One of the really interesting things to me is that Andrews McMeel is willing to take their old properties and reinvent them for modern readers. I grew up reading the St. Louis Post-Dispatch comics page where they would do a reader’s poll every year, and what that made clear was that comic strip fans are some of the most conservative, least accepting-of-change fans out there. How do you face that, knowing that that is the audience that is going to be looking at this and saying, “Well, I like the old stuff better”?
The first couple of months were hardest because I would constantly get, like, hate mail. [laughs] Which is so stupid! “You really want to take time out of your day to send somebody hate mail over a fucking free comic? Okay.” But it was all the time, from all different places. And I pretty much told myself that I wasn’t going to interact with the fans. The only way for me to really see what people think of the comic is to [read the comments] on GoComics and I have made a habit of not reading the comment section. And [reading the comments section is] a part of being on the internet! But I [could] already tell that there was no reason for me to be on there. There’s no way for me to actually interact with the readers without also having to expose myself to the hate at the same time, so I just said, “I just won’t look at all, then!” [My husband] actually goes through the comments and tell me if there’s something interesting.
It’s very weird considering that, with traditional comic books, someone can be like “Oh yeah, I read it because someone recommended the book to me” or “I got it from the library” or “I bought it.” There are so many different ways for people to read my other stuff, and there’s really only a few ways to read Heart of the City and that’s GoComics or your local newspaper. I’m looking forward to when it gets collected because then I’ll actually be able to find out what people think who aren’t just GoComics commenters.
Right, because those are the most opinionated people but they’re not the most representative people.
Exactly. And I’m sure there are people out there who are reading Heart relatively regularly and enjoy it, but I wouldn’t know! [laughs] Occasionally I’ll get a tweet that’s like, “I really love this arc!” or I’ll get an email that says “I’ve been reading Heart for years and I really love the direction you’re taking it,” which is really, really nice, but in terms of how much negativity versus how much positivity, it’s still leaning towards more negative, and I think it’s largely because syndicated comics readers are so rigid when it comes to anything new. And a lot of that comes from the fact that syndicated comics artists don’t leave. When you think about single issue comics, you think about “Oh, who’s taking the next arc of Wolverine?” You’re excited for new creators and those new creators do what they must to go back and read back issues to get caught up so they know what to write about. And with syndicated comics, it’s not like that. People do not leave their jobs for, like twenty years because it’s so lucrative! [laughs] It’s a super, super stable job for the amount of work that you put into it.
That was something that I had to kind of get over, was referencing things from Mark Tatulli’s run—I kept wanting to use things from those stories and my editor told me, “You don’t have to do this. When I say you take over, that means you can really take it to wherever you want to take it.” But the Wednesday Warrior in me is like “Okay, but let’s reference some back issue!” [laughs] Because if you’ve been reading it for many years, it’s kind of nice, and that’s just how I know how to write ongoing series.
You’re a year into the daily grind. Can you imagine doing a daily comic strip 21 years from now?
You know, I think I can. And I think the reason why I can visualize that is because of the way that I write these comics. A lot of syndicated comics are current event gags, so a lot of them right now are writing about, like, the boredom of being in quarantine. Cathy right now is one of my favorites because Cathy Guisewite is doing “letters from quarantine” where all of her comics are these little squares that she illustrates from her house. But my comic is not like that. My comic is definitely more arc-focused and it’s a lot easier to make an arc that spans two weeks than think of two weeks’ worth of singular gags. I think because of the way that I’m structuring these stories, I have a much easier job to get to twenty-something years.
“I can see myself doing it 21 years from now. I think I would be very interested to see what kind of stories I put her and the kids through.”
Also, Heart did grow up in those 20 years that Mark Tatulli [drew the strip], so I have the opportunity to do the same thing. Because all comic strip contracts are three-year or five-year contracts, I’m thinking next time I renew my contract, let’s give Heart a year: now she’s 12. That would mean by the time she’s in high school, I’ll be, like, 45 years old. [laughs] Which, it’s weird to think about that, I guess it’s only 15 years in the future, but it’s weird to think that far ahead when it comes to a comic because most comics have an end, and this is supposed to be ongoing.
But I can see myself doing it. I mean, it’s a fun job, and I think it really helps me with my illustration skills. For sure, I feel like I’ve already gotten a ton better from the first few arcs. We’re working on the collection right now so I’m looking at some of the older pieces and I’m just like, “Oh my god!” [laughs]
“Can I redraw that?” [laughs]
[laughs] I can see myself doing it 21 years from now. I think I would be very interested to see what kind of stories I put her and the kids through.
I find it really interesting that you’ve got so many other things going on in addition to Heart. How do you fit in working on a comic strip that has a requirement that you have to have one done for every day of the year?
All cartoonists work differently. The way I do it is I’ll write three months of story ahead of time—right now, I’m currently working on October-November-December of 2021. I’ll write these arcs, breaking it down into what’s a Sunday, what’s a daily. I take the time [in the writing stage] so that when I do the drawing every week, it’s really just a matter of pulling from what I’ve already written. Some things change because, obviously, if I wrote this six months ago, I might want to change it a little bit when I finally get to drawing it, but overall, they’re pretty much the same as when I wrote them.
Then I do a week of roughs—I take the general idea, place the characters, put the dialogue in, and then my editor will go through and approve or make suggestions—and then the following week I’ll finalize them and turn them in. So it’s a week of roughs, then finals, then roughs, then finals. But it’s not too difficult because it’s already written, so [at that stage] it’s really just a matter of zoning out and drawing it. The ideal is I do two [dailies] a day [or one] Sunday—they’re longer, they’re full color, so those ones take a bit more time. But that way, I still have three or four days of my week that isn’t drawing Heart of the City. It’s really just all about organization, and I’m very organized. [laughs]
Man, I feel like I’d fall flat on my face trying to maintain that schedule. [laughs]
It’s definitely not easy! It took a while to get used to. When you’re used to having a set schedule, eventually it becomes a lot easier, but to start it, you have to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
I just started pencilling Side Quest, which is the next graphic novel that I’m doing, and so I’m currently at that point where I’m trying to figure out what’s working, what’s not working, how can I schedule this, what time do I need to wake up, what days can I work to make sure that the work is getting done but I’m also not burning myself out. Because when you get to a certain age, your body just can’t handle the same amount of stuff it could—even ten years ago when I was doing stuff for Ink & Drink, it was a lot easier to do that than it is to do now. I’ve got an occupational therapist and a physical therapist, because if my career is drawing and I want to draw for the rest of my life, I have to take care of my body to do so.
Can you tell us a bit more about Side Quest?
I call it a semi-memoir/history of tabletop role playing games because the idea is that me and my cocreator Samuel Sattin are taking the readers through space and time to see how tabletop role playing games were first created, and their inspirations as early as ancient China, and all the while we’re going through that timeline, we’re also talking about how that sort of thing relates to our lives as well. Which I think is going to be really interesting: Sam, who’s always been into D&D since he’s been a child, versus me, who, I don’t even like D&D! [laughs] I like other forms of tabletop role playing games, but the main Dungeons & Dragons? Not my thing. I don’t care about fantasy—like, wizards? Not into it. But I think that’s a really important part to tell in that story, that tabletop role playing games aren’t always sword & sorcery. There are other ways for people to get involved in role playing games that isn’t just Dungeons & Dragons.
You’ve seen the local comic scene here in St. Louis from literally every angle that is possible, I think. How do you see our local comic scene? What do you think our strengths are and what do you think we should be doing better?
When I think of the St. Louis comics scene, I think of the St. Louis community as a whole and the way that…people do not want to drive out of their neighborhoods if they don’t have to. [laughs] If something is more than a 15-minute drive, it’s like, “Ehhhh, do I really want to go?” And I think the comics scene is kind of similar.
I feel like I’ve met pretty much everyone that works in comics here in St. Louis at some point in time, but I think because there isn’t a very clear indie convention—besides the St. Louis Small Press Expo, which is relatively recent—there’s not really a lot of opportunities for us to gather. There is Ink & Drink [Editor’s note: Ink & Drink doubles as a monthly comic creators social club in addition to being a publisher, hence the name—JG], but Ink & Drink is kind of one type of cartooning…there’s also the writers of single-issue comics, and there’s the graphic novelists…there’s a lot of different styles of comic creators here in St. Louis and I would like to see us interacting a bit more.
I’ve been to Austin, which is very much an indie comic creator city as well, and they’ve got a ton of small press shows. A lot of the Austin creators all know each other and all hang out together because they go to these shows together. That’s where their camaraderie comes from and there is a real camaraderie among people who go to those conventions. If the Small Press Expo ends up becoming more and more popular, I think we’ll see more relationship building across comic creators in the city. | Jason Green
1 Full disclosure, I’m also a member and have edited and collaborated with Steenz on some of her earlier comics.