Review: Rockstar and Softboy by Sina Grace

Picture it: New York, 2018. It was summer, I was between semesters of my graduate program at NYU, and I was attending Flame Con, the world’s largest queer comic convention, for the first time. A bunch of creatives I loved were going to be there, and I was eager to meet them and buy (more of) their work. I was perhaps most excited to meet Sina Grace, whose work on Marvel’s Iceman series became a major focus of my thesis project. When I met him, Grace asked if we met before because he thought he recognized me from somewhere. I said no, and we chatted a little about how much I love his work and about my thesis project. He signed a copy of Iceman #1 for me, and I also bought a copy of Nothing Lasts Forever (2017) because I wanted to read more of his non-Marvel work (and I love a graphic memoir). I walked away from the experience a complete fangirl and got awkwardly flustered later in the day when Grace walked past my friends and I having lunch downstairs in the hotel café area.

When I’m reading something by Sina Grace, I often recall that moment at his table when he thought he recognized me because of how much I recognize myself in his works. This is not a creepy stalker fan account of me being like, “He’s writing about me, I swear it, can’t you tell?!!”, I can assure you. What I mean is that one of Grace’s greatest strengths as a storyteller is that he operates from a place of vulnerability and authenticity, creating narratives that he and other LGBTQIA individuals have been waiting for forever. Instead of having to dissect every issue of a franchise for queer scraps (cough cough X-Men cough cough), Grace’s stories are indelibly tethered to so many facets of queer culture, it’s hard not to feel seen.

In Rockstar and Softboy (2022), his latest work released by Image Comics earlier this month, Grace presents a pair of protagonists that readers will enjoy playfully arguing over who they identify with more (I’m like 25% Rockstar, 75% Softboy). Rockstar, a touring musician and songwriter, is an extrovert with a penchant for drugs, thicc men, and bold fashion, while Softboy, a narrative designer for video games, prefers weekends in with tabletop games and red wine. When Softboy gets stuck in a rut creatively (he can’t figure out what to do with his latest video game narrative) and sexually (he hasn’t had sex in nine months), Rockstar decides the best way to get all his juices flowing is to throw an epic house party for the ages. Suffice to say, hijinks ensue!

Fans of Grace’s supernatural slice-of-life series Ghosted in L.A. can expect monsters and mayhem, with the more surreal elements perfectly grounded in the title characters’ relationship. Rockstar and Softboy battle emotional and physical demons with the help of their friends, including a mythical cat woman, and occasionally with a boost of super-charged queer sexual energy when the occasion calls for it (there is a fantastic cosmic power-up costume change moment featuring “Power Bottom Power” and “Big Dick Energy” that makes me regret not ordering one of Grace’s Sailor Moon-style commissions when I had the chance). Those familiar with the underrated Getting It Together will be satisfied with the music mentions throughout the story: the one-shot starts with the author asking you to “Please listen to ABBA while reading,” and Rockstar meets Softboy at an ABBA tribute concert where they bond over their love of “Keep an Eye on Dan.” I listened to Cher’s Dancing Queen album before reading, and Thank You for the Music during reading, and I can safely say I was thoroughly cackling when Rockstar suggests to Softboy that he put his “tussies” on a foot fetish account called @feetpraylove as “Waterloo” played in the background. These very specific details are what make reading a work by Sina Grace a joyous, meaningful, multi-sensory experience.

Beyond ABBA, the book is teeming with musical and cultural references to everything from Orville Peck to Doug Funny to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Rockstar and Softboy share a lot of genetic material with Romy and Michele, as best friends who love each other and are unabashedly themselves. In his author’s note at the end of the book, Grace points out that, “For the better part of two decades, [he] had to project [his] bff relationships onto female pairings…[because] there aren’t many iconic gay male-identifying pairings that persist in pop culture.”

This is something I’ve often thought about in my own history of media consumption; typically I relate to female characters more than male characters, because I don’t recognize myself in the men onscreen/on the page. In Rockstar and Softboy, Grace gives queer male-identifying readers their own iconic duo to root for and relate to.

Rockstar and Softboy is currently available wherever comics are sold, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. To hear more about Sina Grace’s past, present, and future projects, visit his website or follow him @sinagrace on Instagram and Twitter.

Review: Nimona by Nate Stevenson

Ever since it was announced in February that Disney was closing Blue Sky Studios—which they acquired in their purchase of Twentieth Century Fox—and was canceling the animated film adaptation of Nate Stevenson’s webcomic-turned-graphic novel Nimona, I haven’t been able to put the series out of my mind. It is one of my favorites, and in my disappointment over the movie news, I thought I would revisit the comic.

What began as a webcomic and senior thesis at Maryland Institute College of Art became a bestselling graphic novel (published by the HarperCollins imprint Quill Tree Books in 2015) and earned Stevenson an Eisner Award, a Cybils Award, and a Cartoonist Studio Prize. The story follows a young shapeshifter named Nimona, who shows up in the secret hideout of the villainous Ballister Blackheart one day and insists on becoming his sidekick. Together they antagonize the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, the governing body of do-gooders that Blackheart once belonged to. Amidst all of their exploits, Nimona and Blackheart uncover the corruption at the heart of the Institution and work together to take them down and expose the truth. However, their mission isn’t easy, especially with Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, Blackheart’s ex-boyfriend, attempting to foil their plans at the Director of the Institution’s bidding. Goldenloin’s constant interloping tests Nimona’s already tenuous promise to Blackheart not to murder anyone; and when her lust for vengeance threatens their friendship, Blackheart begins to wonder who exactly he’s taken on as a sidekick.

Thematically, Nimona’s narrative lays the groundwork for some of Stevenson’s later projects—namely, Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018-2020)—in its exploration of the grey areas of good and evil and its challenging of stereotypical notions of gender. While the form she typically presents herself in is that of a teenage girl, as a shapeshifter, Nimona can transform into any living creature within a matter of seconds. Her powers of fluidity and identity construction are a threat to the Institution, which is itself a representation of a heteronormative, hegemonic patriarchal structure. This is clear in the Director’s plan to kill Nimona for the danger she poses as a “monster”/queer figure and as a young woman. It is also clear from the Director’s secret plan to expel Blackheart from the Institution because she disapproved of his relationship with Goldenloin and because she “didn’t see” him as a hero. In Blackheart and Goldenloin, former friends/boyfriends on two different paths, Stevenson gives his fans a sweet queer relationship (albeit one that is not explored in such depths as some of his other ones, that I won’t spoil here); and the epilogue hints at an optimistic future for the pair and Nimona.

In addition to the narrative, the artwork is beautiful in its simplicity and its movement. The cuteness of the character design belies the darker, more complex story in a way that creates deeply emotional moments for the reader that will stick with you. I discovered Nimona on Tumblr the same way many others did, nearly a decade ago, and was enchanted with it immediately. Along with other webcomic creators like Danielle Corsetto and Jeph Jacques, Stevenson was one I followed regularly and religiously. I was very lucky to meet Stevenson at Flame Con in NYC in 2018, and he could not have been kinder. He signed my copy of Nimona and drew a little shark and a heart in it, and it was so meaningful to have such a great interaction with a queer writer/artist whom I admire so much.

If you like stories of science and schemes, frenemies and fantasy, and queers and quests, Nimona is the tale for you. I also highly recommend Stevenson’s other projects, including She-Ra (available on Netflix) and the comic Lumberjanes, which is reportedly being turned into an animated film and television series for HBO Max. For more information on Nate Stevenson, you can visit his twitter here.