There once was a girl named Ae who only ever told lies. There once was a girl named Bee who only told the truth. This is the story of how they found love and, inevitably, lost it.
Thus begins Fairyfail, a sequential art fairy tale by web comic artist and illustrator Maya Kern. A native of Houston, Texas, Kern recently graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and has been creating web comics for years. Three of Kern’s completed comics – Fairyfail, How to Be a Mermaid, and Redden – feature fairy-tale themes with a dark, often LGBTQ twist turning gender roles on end.
“The main character of any given fairy tale is the fairy tale itself,” she said. “If you’re interested in Sleeping Beauty, it isn’t because Sleeping Beauty is a really great character. It’s because you like the story. Sleeping Beauty isn’t really any different from Beauty from Beauty and the Beast, or any other princess, like Cinderella. It’s really about the story being the character, and I think that’s what drew me to it, especially in terms of writing short stories – making short comics.”
Kern describes her comics as “what happens when a girl who really likes shoujo manga realizes how poorly shoujo manga portrays gender roles,” which she adds is also an issue in several fairy tales.
Among the shoujo manga titles that inspired her, Kern said the work of manga group CLAMP has been a huge inspiration – just don’t ask her to pick favorites.
“You’re going to make me pick? There’s a lot,” she said, laughing a little. “I would have to say it would either be Cardcaptor Sakura or Magic Knight Rayearth. Probably Sakura. Probably Cardcaptor Sakura is slightly ahead of Rayearth.”
Kern’s art style is best described as “soft”: round and sloping shapes, pastel-esque strokes, with a palette heavy with bright yellows, oranges, and pinks. Her ongoing web comic, Monster POP!, exemplifies her visual style with a combination of diverse character designs, bright palette, and shoujo-inspired lines.
“I think the girliness just comes from me, because I really like cute things, pretty things, and I like round things,” she said. “My least favorite thing about anime and about shoujo manga is how much all the characters look alike. You get all these chances to make different characters, and they all look the same. Why would you want to draw the same thing, the same face, all the time?”
The influence of shoujo manga and fairy tales are both apparent in her work. Her most recent completed comic, Redden, retells the story of Red Riding Hood in a soft, feminine art style with an incredibly haunting storytelling style.
“Redden was about how the history of Little Red Riding Hood has changed – the original version of the story, which was how scary traveling alone was – because the version that everybody knows now is very victim-shaming and rape culture, and it’s very disheartening.”
The darker aspects of stories like Redden – and Fairyfail, which focuses on the doomed romance between a girl who only lies and a girl who only tells the truth – have had a strong effect on readers. Kern said she’s received emails from readers with intense emotional reactions.
“I like crying because of stories and I like making people cry. It’s my favorite thing. You make a story, and it makes an emotional impact on people,” she said. “I really enjoy hearing about people who have these deep reactions to things I’ve created. That’s really rewarding.”
But Monster POP!, which Kern describes as “very light-hearted,” has a different tone and structure. Its bright, colorful, and soft style – the story follows a girl named George who happens to be a cyclops – shows the daily life and adventures of people who might just be different without emphasizing their otherness.
“What I want to do with it is take people who don’t usually get treated ‘normally’ and treat them normally,” she said when describing her approach to Monster POP!. “Treat women as people, treat gay people as people, treat everyone as people – they’re all people and they’re all normal, but usually when you have [a character] who’s not the white cis heterosexual dude, they make a big deal out of it, it has to be a big deal, and they get marginalized and they don’t get treated the same, and the rewarding part is when people see what I’m doing with that, trying to treat everyone as normal.”
In fact, representation is an important issue for Kern when making web comics because of the disconnect she said she’s felt with Western comics in general, saying she felt disconnected from characters in Western comics.
“I was really sick of not seeing people who look like me or my friends, or that I can relate to,” she said. “I think it’s really important to have people’s lifestyles and personalities reflected visually not just in hairstyle or color scheme but in body type, in facial expressions they’re able to do based on how their face is arranged.”
Monster POP! exemplifies this idea, in part because of the wide diversity of character designs: apart from the variety of colors and skin tones used for each character, the setting in a world filled with monsters lends to creative designs for each character, from George’s one eye to Marina, a Medusa-like monster with snake hair.
Kern said she hopes large, high-profile animation studios will be able to create more diverse character designs to have better representation of different groups across the board, though it may take a while to come into reality.
“With any big company, they have a lot of money and a lot of people working on any given project, so they can’t take all the risk in the world,” Kern said, “but at the same time, if they don’t expand and they don’t take risks, then what’s the point?”
Kern hopes to see better representation in comics and animation overall, not just from the biggest companies: “More women as three-dimensional characters, as people, as humans – more people of color, plus gender binary, plus stereotypes – hopefully more gay characters,” she said. “I mean, the gay character’s not just there to be the sassy gay friend, like a fashion accessory.”
Yet with more creators like Maya Kern – and those who may become inspired by her work – better representation and greater visibility may be closer than expected.
Find Maya Kern online at mayakern.com or follow her on Tumblr via mayakern.tumblr.com. You can check out Monster Pop! at monsterpop.mayakern.com, where it updates every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.