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Indie Comics Spotlight: Gabby Rivera and Royal Dunlap's queer, colorful, anthemic b.b. free
Award-winning writer Gabby Rivera (America) describes her first original comic, b.b. free (BOOM!), best when she calls it “an eco-divine adventure about friendship and healing the natural world ... one brave wiggly step at a time.” The series, a collaboration with artist Royal Dunlap, follows b.b., a 14-year-old girl who lives with her father in a sharing community in Gainesville, Florida, following “The Plague That Ate Greed" — an apocalyptic event of epic proportions that has forced humans to live in small enclaves and settlements. The United States are now "Fractured States."
This comic, similar to other YA Boom! Box predecessors like Fence, pulls the reader into the story by unfolding events entirely from the teen protagonists' POV. The protagonist, b.b., is at a point in her young life where she yearns to get out from under her father’s thumb, and all of the society’s rules and regulations, and explore the world outside the swamp. And with the help of Chulita, her mobile sound engineer who uses a wheelchair, she does just that, narrating her adventures through a shortwave radio show, b.Chula radio, that they broadcast to the surrounding area every day.
Not only is b.b. free a bright, refreshing take on teenage angst and apocalyptic aftermaths, it somehow manages to be thoughtful without being preachy, and strives to be a colorful anthem to queer kids everywhere. SYFY WIRE spoke with the creative team and explored some of the layered meanings within the story.
How did you get involved with this project?
Gabby Rivera: I’d been in love with the BOOM! folks since they first published Lumberjanes. While I was writing America, I also wrote a short issue for the Lumberjanes collection, "Bonus Tracks." Working with Shannon Watters, Dafna Pleban, and everyone at BOOM! Studios was such a fun and uplifting experience! I loved it. So when Shannon reached out in 2018 with an offer for me to write my own series, I was so excited. Literally the most fun gig ever.
Royal Dunlap: Prior to working on b.b. free, I worked with BOOM! last year as a variant cover artist on the revived Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, which would become my first credit in the comic industry. At the same time, I was in my senior year of art school at CCAD [Columbus College of Art & Design], so it was a wonderful experience getting to provide an original Slayer for them. Fast-forward a couple of months, towards graduation, [my current editor] Shannon Watters contacted me about working with Gabby Rivera on her first original series and … well, here we are!
Where did the concept for this world and the "plague" come from? What has happened to the rest of the country?
Rivera: I wanna tell you. I really do. But I can’t. You gotta go read it. And if you really want to nerd out, pick up Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams’ anthology A People’s Future of the United States. I’ve got a short story in there called “O.1.” I wrote all about the Plague That Ate Greed. Had a blast writing it, too, and expanded my favorite elements of "O.1" to create b.b. free. The characters from "O.1" hadn’t left me, and I knew they’d be perfect to explore in a brand new sci-fi, post-climate-change-apocalypse, goofy weird story.
Environmentalism and socioeconomic inequality are subtly highlighted in the story. Why was that important to you to include?
Rivera: Climate change is real. All over the world, young folks are watching grown-ups, especially the greedy billionaires and all their cronies, suck up all the resources on the planet: water, air, land. They’re watching rich folks kill wild elephants and other endangered species just for the “sport” of it, bottle up all the water, burn down the Amazon, and basically piss over their entire future with rich smiles on their faces.
Indigenous folks, Black people, QTPOC, and teenagers are leading the planet-saving revolution through protest and using all available power to protect the earth.
So that’s what I’m writing about, cuz I’m pissed too. And yet I’m always trying to move with all the healing, bouncy joy that I can, and so: b.b. free.
Where is b.b.’s mother?
Rivera: This is another incredible question. You gotta let b.b. answer this question. I promise, it’s coming. Also, wait until you meet Chulita’s mom and the two folks she loves and co-parents with.
Is the “Freedom Fifteen” a Latinx post-apocalyptic take on the Quinciñera?
Rivera: Something like that. Wow. I might hold on to that idea and reflect on it. In the Fractured States, once someone turns 15, they gain their freedom. They can leave their sharer community and embark on whatever journey or life they want.
Royal, what did you think of the script when you first read it?
Dunlap: When I was first told the initial premise of this world b.b. and her best friend Chulita would be traversing, I was instantly captivated. Dystopias and post-apocalyptic stories reclaimed by Mother Nature is my bread and butter when it comes to the fiction genre. After reading through the script for Issue #1, I had practically envisioned everything before I even got a chance to draw anything.
The artwork is very reminiscent of manga. Especially some of b.b.’s expressions. What are some of your manga/anime influences?
Dunlap: Yes indeed. Manga will always be my main source of subconscious inspiration for how I’d develop my current style and direction of storytelling. Just to go down the list in no particular order — Dragonball, Yu Yu Hakusho, Cowboy Bebop, G Gundam, Digimon, Pokémon, Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist, Katekyo Hitman Reborn, FLCL, and Zatch Bell! There’s just way too many, Haha! It came out of the plague snatching up so many adults. Young people had to fend for themselves. We catch b.b. at the beginning of hers with a Dad who’s not really trying to let her do anything.
What was your favorite panel to create?
Rivera: First, Royal Dunlap is hyper-talented and so kind. Working with Royal is a joy. They’ve brought b.b. to life in all the ways I imagined and a million more I could have never even thought of.
My favorite series of panels are of b.b.’s best friend, 15-year-old Chulita navigating her home. Everything is accessible for her, literally made to suit her needs, her body. She knows it; she built it that way. Chulita’s confidence beams out of her and Royal’s artwork elevates her energy at every turn.
Dunlap: Oh, that’s a tough one, but I’ll have to say the first panel of page 21, when b.b. arrives home to meet with her dad. I wanted that scene to encapsulate that sense of confronted tension and the eerie moonlight and hazy lighting around them to set the mood as if the only sounds present was the near still waters and critters lurking among them. Overall, I had a ton of fun coloring it to bring it all to life!
b.b. seems to be struggling with her relationship with her dad and her own identity here. Are her father’s demands borne out of the demands of life in the swamp? Or old traditions?
Rivera: I grew up with a strict dad. We were all afraid of him. He was mostly bark, but what a devastating bark he had. And so b.b.’s got her own strict dad, and right now we don’t know why he’s so fixated on her. But he’s not just mean for mean’s sake; discovering why he’s so harsh is gonna be part of b.b.’s journey. So many of us grow up under the rule of dads who have unresolved s**t: anger issues, pain, grief. Dads who struggle to be affectionate, to say "I love you," to not let their tempers control who they are.
In my novel Juliet Takes a Breath, it’s all about Juliet’s relationship with her mom. b.b.’s gonna tackle way more dad stuff and also be an exploration of all types of families.
Chulita, b.b.’s streaming buddy, doesn’t appear to be in the swamp. Where is she?
Rivera: Chulita’s on Comadre Island, which is right super close to Gainesville, where b.b. lives. In Issue #2, "Be Brave. Talk Loud. Fight Back," Chulita’s family and her home take center stage as she also announces her Freedom Fifteen plans.
Does b.b. have powers? She appeared to start up the transmitter just by touching it.
Rivera: b.b. totally has powers. Where they came from or how powerful she actually is, nobody knows. Not even b.b. But wow, what a ride it’s all gonna be finding out! That’s half the reason she brings b.Chula radio on the road, to ask her questions to the world.
What is the AWC?
Rivera: All b.b. knows about the AWC is that her dad’s been going to their meetings. She thinks they’re a group of grumpy guys her dad’s age that complain about living in Sharer Communities. And for b.b., the worst part about the AWC is that her dad’s signed her up for their youth group. When the reality is much wilder. The AWC could be the end of everything b.b.’s ever known. But Chulita’s watching and b.b.’s got these powers, so who knows what’s coming!