Marjorie Liu’s Wingbearer, her middle grade debut, is about a girl who faces an unknown world to save her home from darkness.
If you’re at all familiar with the comics world, then there’s a chance you’ve heard Marjorie Liu’s name. Having written comics about X-23 and Black Widow for Marvel, as well as Han Solo for Star Wars, she’s proven she can play in some pretty spectacular sandboxes.
I first became familiar with Marjorie when she debuted Monstress, a horror fantasy series that was grotesquely beautiful in both its artwork and its message. Speaking on issues such as racism, war, and feminism, it received critical acclaim, and I was happy to see its author praised for her incredible work.
Now, years later, Marjorie has created a very different kind of story in Wingbearer. Her name was enough to catch my attention, but I’m happy to report that the story exceeded my expectations within minutes of starting this book.
Wingbearer holds lessons for children and adults alike, and if you’re interested in reading about an adventurous young girl who takes on an impossible task with nothing more than love and kindness in her heart, I urge you to pick up Marjorie Liu’s latest. You won’t be disappointed.
When given the opportunity to talk to Marjorie again, I knew I’d want to ask about how the industry has changed for women and people of color over the years, but I also found myself curious about the origins of Zuli’s kindness and what we could learn from this intrepid little explorer.
Marjorie Liu interview: ”Wingbearer’ and kindness as a superpower
Going on seven years ago, we spoke for the first time about your comic book Monstress, which had just debuted with its first issue. A lot of that conversation centered around women in comics and the changing tide. Do you think the landscape has continued to change for the better since our previous chat?
I’m glad we’re talking again! And it’s interesting, reflecting back on the last seven years, and how the landscape has continued to change. The movement of women, BIPOC, and LGTBQ creators into independent comics has only gained steam, and the diversity of stories being told, from the “real” to the “fantastic” is a reader’s dream. The hunger was always there, and finally publishers are beginning to recognize that. Can more be done to make publishing more welcoming for our voices? Always, particularly in corporate comics like Marvel and DC where gains have been slower. But for those of us who have been in the field 15, 20, 25 years, the future feels much brighter. I’m very hopeful.
Congratulations on your middle grade debut! Did you ever struggle to find the right tone for this story, especially after writing something like Monstress? Is there anything Monstress taught you to do (or not to do!) when it came to the creation of this project?
Oddly, I didn’t have trouble finding the right tone—I think, maybe, because Zuli has such a powerful voice inside my head, and her character, her adventure, emerged so strongly from her spirit. Even though the world she’s found herself in is tired and cynical, and not all that safe, her intentions are so powerfully affirming it “lifts” everyone she encounters—and I felt lifted as well, writing her. Leaning towards the complex darkness of Monstress would have been impossible simply because of that. But also, I couldn’t have written Wingbearer without first having spent all that previous time on Monstress. World-building and character development from the ground up, in a graphic novel, isn’t easy! And what I bit off with Monstress was, for the first couple years, almost more than I could chew. I learned so much—I’m still learning—and I was able to bend that knowledge to the creation of Wingbearer.
Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind Wingbearer and what you wanted to bring to the table with this graphic novel?
My family! Ten years ago or so I saw a photo of my cousin sitting in a tree—we used to go looking for fairies together—and I thought, “What if a girl has to save the souls of birds?” But that question, while provocative, wasn’t a story—and it took me until around 2019 (after many false starts) to finally unlock the emotional heart of the book—that Wingbearer is a love letter to my family, and what mattered more than anything was this is a story about all the things my family taught me and my cousins: that kindness is a
superpower, no matter what is happening in the world or around you.
I found myself incredibly moved, on more than one occasion, by Zuli’s kindness and the way she trusts and forgives so readily. What made you want to tell a story about a girl who approached a new world full of strange people in this manner?
We’re often taught that the “strange” is dangerous, that what isn’t “us,” what is other, is something to be wary of and avoided. There’s so much fearfulness in this world: little fears and big fears. We close ourselves off from so much because of this. Now, is the world perfect and safe? Of course not. It never has been, and people will always have an excuse for being cruel and suspicious—we see that in Wingbearer, too. But I was raised in a family that believes that compassion and kindness should always be our first reaction to everyone and every situation.
I wanted to embody that philosophy in Zuli, who also knows something very important: we’re all going to die. That’s not a negative—that’s just life. So why waste time holding grudges? Why waste time being angry and unkind, and resistant to forgiveness? Why not be patient and compassionate, curious and open to the unfamiliar and strange? It’s not always easy, but it is infinitely more rewarding to spend life dwelling first in the spirit of kindness. It doesn’t make Zuli a pushover, either. Just the opposite—she still gets angry, and she’s got a firm ability to say no to anything she doesn’t want to do. Being kind isn’t a weakness (as I think we’re often taught); it takes a lot more strength to be kind and open than to be otherwise.
Wingbearer is also a story about going off on your own and into the unknown. What lessons are you hoping readers will take away from Zuli’s adventure?
I read a lot when I was growing up—that’s not a surprise, I guess—but for those of us who read, there are always pivotal books or sentences that stand out, that inspire in ways that maybe the writer—long dead—never imagined they would. I have a lot of those in my head, but I’ll mention two that I think are relevant to what I was feeling, emotionally, while writing Wingbearer. First, a line from Joseph Campbell, the context of which I don’t recall: “Dwell in possibilities.” And second, this excerpt from Rainer Maria Rilke, who says: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
Zuli isn’t fearless–but she also doesn’t let fear stop her from living her purpose and encountering the world with an open heart. I hope that inspires young readers who might feel intimidated by the world and the unfamiliar—it’s good to dwell in all the endless possibilities of life, most of which we’ve never imagined for ourselves—and the best way to face our fears is with love.
The story itself evokes a lot of emotion, but I also found myself laughing out loud at the characters’ various facial expressions. What was it like working with Teny Issakhanian on the look and feel of this book?
Oh, a joy. And I love their expressions, too! She captured them perfectly! It was a sheer delight to work with Teny, who is such a powerful storyteller and world-builder. She brought so much love and energy to Zuli, Orien, and Frowly—and she imagined and drew the world of Wingbearer into existence with such loveliness that I wish I could open a door and step through to that place and see her griffins and walk in her woods, and fly those skies.
Your world-building is consistently phenomenal. How do you approach creating a new universe? Is it something that comes slowly, as you work your way through the story, or do you generally know all the rules when you finally sit down to write?
That’s very sweet of you, thank you. It’s usually a slow process, one that evolves as I write—a world can emerge in so many ways, from the characters themselves, from the demands of the plot—even just an idea around culture or history that demands exploration. I ask so many “what if” questions when I write—and some of those work well and some don’t. It’s a slow discovery, but I hope that because it’s slow and careful, the worlds resonate with a lot of deep life and feeling.
What other projects do you have going on right now? Is there a dream project out there you’re hoping to get your hands on sometime in the next few years?
Sometimes I don’t even know I’ve got a dream project until I’ve already started working on it! And then suddenly I realize that this is the very thing I’ve been wanting to do for years! That happened twice during the pandemic—neither of those projects are anything I can talk about yet—but one of them will be published in October as the start of a new graphic novel series. I’m also working on a novel, my first in almost a decade. I miss writing prose. I suppose if I have any kind of dream, it’s to start writing novels again, too.
About ‘Wingbearer’ by Marjorie Liu
Zuli is extraordinary—she just doesn’t realize it yet. Raised by mystical bird spirits in the branches of the Great Tree, she’s never ventured beyond this safe haven. She’s never had to. Until now.
When a sinister force threatens the life-giving magic of the tree, Zuli, along with her guardian owl, Frowly, must get to the root of it. So begins an adventure bigger than anything Zuli could’ve ever imagined—one that will bring her, along with some newfound friends, face-to-face with an ancient dragon, the so-called Witch-Queen, and most surprisingly of all: her true identity.
This captivating middle grade graphic novel, the first of a series, is perfect for fans of the Amulet books and the Wings of Fire series.
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