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Indie Comics Spotlight: Vita Ayala on manga, representation and why Wonder Woman is Puerto Rican

Contributed by
Jun 15, 2018

Vita Ayala is very humble. For the success that they have had in the past 14 months, they could justifiably be more cocky if they wished. Part of the first graduating class of DC’s annual Talent Development Workshop, Vita’s first published story featured Wonder Woman. Not bad if you considering the fact that their career only got started in 2016. Since then, they’ve worked on Batman Beyond, Suicide Squad, and more Wonder Woman for DC. But it’s been their work on the queer zombie story The Wilds for Black Mask along with artist Emily Pearson, that has really solidified Ayala as a real talent in the industry. Not to mention that in their creator-owned work, they unapologetically are writing stories that feature brown and black queer characters.

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Artist: Natasha Alterici

What made you decide to get into comics?

Vita Ayala: I was about six or seven years old and it was, funny enough, Wonder Woman. There was this Korean bodega down the block from where I grew up in New York in Alphabet City, and I was there with my mom, and there was a little spinner rack of comics there. And on the spinner rack was a Wonder Woman comic and an X-Men comic. The X-men one had like a hollow foil cover.

Anyway, I thought Wonder Woman was Puerto Rican because she looked like one of my cousins, she was wearing like short shorts with stars on them and giant bangles and a tiara and like a halter top with some gold stuff. So to me, she was clearly a Puerto Rican. So I was like, “Oh! I want these!” But in terms of making them, I didn't really think about people making comics until I worked at [the New York comic shop] Forbidden Planet, when I was 19 years old. I was really, really, really into manga and anime and mangakas sit there drawing and writing a manga, you know what I mean? So I thought comics work the same way.

But working at the shop gave me a real appreciation for each individual's role in making the comics. It made me realize you don't have to be able to draw it to write it. That's amazing. And that blew my mind because I, I've many siblings and many of them are visual artists. But of course, I'm a writer. Once I learned I could just write it and work with an artist, I decided, cool, this is the only kind of group project that I will ever want to work on.

What was your favorite manga growing up?

I was obsessed, well, clearly the classics of, of Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, but I actually was super obsessed with this manga and anime called Flame of Recca.

My first tattoo was a Flame of Recca tattoo. Looking back, this is the very typical teenage thing to be into. It's about this boy who travels forward in time. He's from a very special ninja clan where, you know, they all are basically fire benders, and he gets shot forward in time to save him from being murdered. So he lives in modern times, but he's obsessed with old ninja culture, and then suddenly all these ninjas start popping up and they all have elemental powers and he fights them. It's... it's great. It's... very high school. But yeah, I still actually go back and reread them because I love him so much.

So when you were at Forbidden Planet, like that's a little bit like comicbook Mecca, it sounds like you basically immersed yourself in this medium.  

So much. I went from reading three titles when I was 19 because I was poor and had to use my lunch money to buy comics, to being able to read dozens of books as they were coming out. That was really important because it allowed me to see not just how a particular storyline develops, but how to tell a sequential story over a long period of time versus a limited series. How to keep people engaged from month to month, and that kind of stuff.

And so in 2012, I went back after college to work there again, just because you go back to what's familiar. And I met Matt Rosenberg, who now writes for Marvel and does Black Mask stuff. He's very talented. He was one of my best friends. We became really good friends and he was pitching to Black Mask at the time and he was like, "You should pitch some of your comic ideas." Because I'd come in every day and I would have spent like an hour or two hours in the basement of the store writing before my shift, and I'd write on my break and like that kind of stuff. And he encouraged me to just show someone. I would tell him “no” because in my head, I had the like classic New York being-discovered story going. Like my notebook would fall out of my bag one day and then some agent would pick it up and go, “Oh my God, this is genius!” and give me a book deal or something

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You’ve either read too many manga or watched too many Korean dramas.

A little from Column A and Column B. I'm a very anxious and shy person and the thought of showing people my work was so stressful. But Matt kind of pushed me into it. So I pitched to Black Mask first, and they liked my ideas, and yeah that's how I got started in comics.

But during that time, again, Rosenberg, was a couple of long steps ahead of me. Networking and getting to know a lot of people in the industry and introducing me to them. He'd take me around during conventions and introduce me to editors, artists, and other writers and stuff. I ended up talking to Sara Miller who is at DC in new talent, and she asked me to send over some samples of my stuff. She liked it, and it became part of my admissions package for the DC Talent Development Workshop. So my first published work was actually through DC, and it was because of that.

Was that the Wonder Woman anthology?

So they do for each class, they do an anthology of work that's eight to ten pages a person from the class. It was another Wonder Woman story actually, that I did for that. It wasn't canon or anything, but it was a lot of fun. And actually Khary Randolph drew my story for that, which was amazing. I was lucky enough to be able to work with a couple of editors at DC and they were showing my homework from the class around. I'm also good friends with Steve Orlando who's at DC, and he brought me in on the Batman Beyond scripts, and on, actually, for the holidays I had a Three Kings Day story that we co-wrote together in the holiday book of 2016. So from there, between Steve and the editors that I now have a relationship with, that's where all that stuff kind of came from.

So how did we get from there to Bitch Planet? I'm assuming The Wilds wasn't done yet?

Not yet, no. I had had some DC stuff, Evan Narsisse had interviewed me at io9, which was really awesome, and so I had my name out there a little bit, and then because I worked at a comic book shop and I was designated female at birth, I was able to join the Valkyries.

So through that I made a lot of really great friends that I still have to this day, whom I absolutely adore. One of them is Juliet, a very big Valkyrie who’s friends with Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction and Chris Sabella. I was sitting at the Valkyrie table, for a signing for I think it was The Secret Loves Of Geeks (Dark Horse).I had a story in that book with another Valkyrie, Jessi Jordan , and Juliet was like, “Oh, Kelly Sue is at the end of the table. Have you said hi?” I'm a really awkward and shy person. So she introduced us. And I was shook. Kelly Sue is like five-foot-two. (She's shorter than my wife). She's a little, she's got all that power in her. But she was so sweet and said, “I've heard good things about you please, I'd love to talk to you at some point.” And she gave me her email and I was screaming inside.

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Kelly Sue is amazing.

A few emails later, after sending her my work she contacted me about doing something for this Bitch Planet anthology series that she putting out. I didn’t care what she asked me to do, I was gonna do it. I was very, very lucky, and then they paired me up with an incredible artist. Rossi Gifford. She's is so good. She was very sweet and very talented

Speaking of Bitch Planet, you tend to have political themes in your stories, is that intentional or are you really just writing stories that you want to see happen?

I have very strong opinions on art in general, and kind of what... what is inherent to art, but I understand that it’s my own opinion. Like I don't look down on anyone else who has a different opinion. That's fine. I worked at an art museum. I worked at the Met for four years in security. I worked both day shift and night shift, and the more I was around canonical art, the more and more I realized that art in general, but comics especially, are inherently political. I think that all art is political because you can't exist in a vacuum. You are from your own perspective and your own perspective in the world has a political component, especially if you're brown or queer or have a vagina. You know what I mean?

God forbid it's all three.

Oh God yes. We all saw what's happened with Kelly Marie Tran. Just her existence was politically divisive, so much so that they harassed her off the Internet, just her breathing and existing in a movie. And her role in the movie wasn't inherently like a political statement, she just existed. She was just... she just did her job. She showed up and she was on camera and that was political to them. People made that political. So it's like any art that I create is inherently political. Just by virtue of me being who I am. I think that any, any art worth its salt has something to say, sometimes it is just to promote joy. So to me, whenever I'm writing something, whether it be franchise or creator owned, having in my mind that no matter what I'm going to do, people are going to hate it because I am just who I am. I decided that I'm going to put as much of whatever the particular messages that I have into the work. 

The Wilds is really in your face, super-duper political, and I'm unapologetic about that. It was literally about the fact that people of color, especially women of color, especially black women in particular, are used and abused and exploited until they die. How that is not fair and how we buy into that at first, because we’re led to believe if we don't do all this work, then the world will actually end, and we buy into that. But we can say no.

Most people might think The Wilds is just another zombie story. Can you elaborate?

It is a survivor story. It is a post apocalyptic zombie story, there is that element, but It is about a group of people who live in this settlement. In order to survive, pockets of humanity have formed walled off settlements, and there's a particular one called The Compound, and it is basically the U.S. Postal Service meets the black market. There is a group of people within The Compound called Runners, and their job is to leave the compound, go get salvage, and bring it back. They're the only people with cars. So  they take objects and people and messages from settlement to settlement. They're like the hardcore mouse guard is what I used to call it.

The story centers around these two particular runners, Daisy and Heather, and Daisy really buys into the fact that if runners don't do their job, humanity will actually die, and she lives her life accordingly. All she's ever wanted to do was help people. Heather does want to help people and is a good person, but also feels that caring is fine but the system is bullshit and it’s okay to say, “Hey, this isn't fair.” And that ties into the theme of exploitation and all this other stuff. No one ever wants to pay attention to the exploitation stuff, so I put a bunch of really pretty looking zombies in there, and if you've ever worked like a service job like she has the worst boss ever that smiles in her face and then sends her out to do terrible things. Like it has old stuff that's very universal in that way. Then the big kind of conflict comes with there's a settlement called Medical Central and it's full of doctors and scientists; if you get hurt you get brought there if you can't just be healed where you are.

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And they've decided they're going to cure the plague, the Zombie plague. But they are absolutely not ethical. And what they do is they ended up kidnapping “disposable people,” brown people and women and the elderly and that kind of stuff and experimenting on them. And so they take someone that Daisy cares about and she finds out what's going on. She wants to burn it to the ground.

Part of the idea was to use those elements to talk about this theme of exploitation and also just to show a perspective that isn't really the center. When we watch post apocalyptic things like it's just like we always have the token one or two brown people or token gay and often they're murdered and then they just introduced another brand person. I wanted my story to be different.

Let's talk about Submerged from Vault a little bit. How did that come about?

I've been working on that since Hurricane Sandy, that is kind of where Submerged was birthed. I'm from New York and there are still parts of New York that are still not recovered, but I was living in the Lower East Side at the time and we lost power for days, and like it was crazy watching it roll in and then the water come like it was, it was really just nuts. I've never seen anything like that in The City. It was just really frightening and I'm a horror head. Like I love horror stories. I love, I grew up on that. Anyway, I was walking uptown, walking past Union Square, and a there's a really beautiful subway there and I looked down and it was chained up, but like it looked like you could get in if you pushed the chain hard enough. I started going downstairs and I was like, “Wait black people die in movies like this.” I'm also obsessed with mythology, especially Greek and Egyptian and Roman and the classical stuff. And immediately I thought looking down there that it looked like an underworld. Like clearly an abandoned subway during a hurricane is a hundred percent a way into the underworld.

Of course. Just like if there is an animal sitting by itself in the middle of the street, it’s obviously a side mission.

Obviously. I had developed this story arc with another company. And then we ended up parting ways very amicably. It just did, the scheduling didn't work. Um, and I was, oh, who was I talking to? I know a couple of people who have books with Vault Comics, and so I got to meet Damian and Adrian Wassel, they’re brothers, they're very sweet. They were cool. Like I was like, “Hey, if you're looking for pitches, I’ve got a story." (At this point I'm almost brave enough to say that with a straight face and not freak out internally.) I sent a full pitch and they loved it.

The lead in this story is LatinX correct? Did it mirror your own childhood at all?

Yep. My mom is from Puerto Rico, and she’s like this Disney princess who is also like a hardcore activist that marches for civil rights. She is incredibly progressive, accepting, and feminist - one of the smartest and most forward thinking people I know. But when it comes to my brother, who is a grown ass man by the way, she’s always like, “Can you just help your brother please?” And it’s so frustrating. I love my siblings, especially my little brothers, but just like what Ellie is going through with looking for her brother Angel it's not fair. Also everyone plays into it including them. So it's as racial as it is a cultural thing.

I can totally relate. My mom is from Bermuda and I’m the only girl and my brothers have multiple degrees, but I get called for everything.

Every time I meet people from the Caribbean or Africa, they're like, "How did you know my story?" It doesn't matter. It's the same. So it's funny because we're having this conversation about all of these cultural, political, and interpersonal things, and I think to me kind of the theme in the larger world stage is how we expect women to take on all these burdens but act weak around men. Be this, but do this, be this strong person but not too strong, and kind of how we twist ourselves to fit these roles and the resentment that breeds, not just at the people asking this of us, ourselves. But in this story you’ll see it's not that her mother was a bad person. It's just that this is what she knows, and also she's afraid, and she's trying to protect her child, and this is the way that she thinks she should. And Ellie’s way of dealing with all of this is to isolate herself, which is not necessarily healthy, but I wanted to show this is in direct contrast to her family and there was a reason for it.

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What's a character that you wish you could either write or rewrite because they were badly used?

I won't say that she was badly used, but I will say that I believe that she is not used enough, and that is again my belief because I can never get enough of Renée Montoya. She is my ride or die, given just even the tiniest shot. Just the smallest opening. I don't care if they made it a kids book, I would make it work I just love her so much. I just want more brown and queer people in comics. (I do have an agenda. You can print that).

I'm Brown. I mean, I'm black and Latin and indigenous American because that's what it is to be Puerto Rican. My father was half Cherokee, I'm queer, I'm non-binary. I'm all these things and like I've rarely found them all in one place, and it took me a really, really long time I feel to figure out who I was. Not just like, “Oh, I like, people that present as feminine.” That took me a longer time than it should have. Considering how like super accepting my family is with everything. And also, just I grew up in Alphabet City in the eighties and nineties, where like half the population was gay. I didn't know till I was 15 though, and then my whole life made sense.

I didn't really know how to express myself in terms of being non-binary and feeling like I'm not, you know, just definitionally as desired. I didn't know how to express that I did NOT fit into the gender binary until I was in my twenties. That's not a thing that people had really put words to in the mainstream, and like if I had kids books with like queer characters that looked like me, my God, that would have saved me so much strife. So many weird relationships.

It would have also helped my confidence. Just to be able to know that I exist, if that makes sense. I mean, this is a conversation I've had with people, white people and people of color. Having privilege in one area doesn't mean that you can't suffer. It's about representation. In 2017 in the year of our Lord, Beyoncé, I saw Moana in theaters and I literally cried from start to finish in that movie. My wife was with me and it opens and there's little baby Moana with all that beautiful curly hair. And I started crying, sobbing out of joy because I was seeing someone from an island, brown skinned with all that beautiful hair. And it hit me that my kids will actually not know what it feels like to have to struggle in this way. They won't ever know what it feels like to search sub textually for yourself. And for me that's especially in terms of my queer identity. If I had more positive examples [I might] not have known exactly who I was, but I would have had a way better start and it would not have taken me years to not hate myself.

Is there an artist that you would like to work with that you haven't worked with yet?

Paulina Ganucheau. She does Zodiac Star Force. She is incredible and we talk on occasion and on Twitter and stuff, and I'm always like, "Oh, I would do so many books with her." I really want to work with as many people as I can, but the people that I get the most excited for working with are people that I know, if that makes sense?

Because there's a familiarity there? You don't have to necessarily start from scratch with them?

That's true. But it's also like, “Oh, you're my buddy, we're going to do a thing together and it's gonna be so cool.” I have a very good friend who I may be working with soon, Liana Kangas, and she's so good. She’s only done a couple of things in illustration before I think, but I would love to do EVEN one thing with her. I also have a buddy named Elise, and they live out in Minnesota and they wrote a book called Living Space, which I adore. And so we're starting to kind of develop a project together. And Valentine de Landro (Bitch Planet). I just want to make as many comics with as many people that are cool as possible.