Writer and artist Molly Knox Ostertag is having an eventful year. Disney cancelled its animated show Owl House, where she was a regular writer, and fans are making a stand trying to extend it past the planned final, shortened season. Netflix announced plans for an animated musical feature adaptation of Ostertag’s first graphic novel, 2017’s series-launching fantasy The Witch Boy. Her latest graphic novel, the insightful coming-of-age gay love story The Girl from the Sea, was published in June. And on Oct. 28, Ostertag announced that she’s kicking off a new graphic novel, Darkest Night, which will be serialized through her Substack, In the Telling.
Darkest Night will be her fifth solo book, after the three Witch Boy books and The Girl from the Sea. But it won’t be her first foray into serialized storytelling that starts life online. The passionate, philosophical superhero webcomic Strong Female Protagonist — illustrated by Ostertag, written by CollegeHumor writer-performer and Dimension 20 DM Brennan Lee Mulligan, and eventually collected as two chunky graphic novels — gave Ostertag her start in comics, and that series is one of the things she has in mind as she heads back into the webcomic trenches.
“It’s really going back to my roots,” Ostertag tells Polygon. “I started with Strong Female Protagonist 10 years ago, maybe more. That was my first entry into the world of comics, and it really opened so many doors for me. So webcomics always have this very special place in my heart. With this graphic novel, I’ve had the idea for a while, but I wasn’t quite sure where I would do it. It felt maybe a little old [audience-wise] compared to some of the other work I’ve done, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to change it for a publisher. So it’s been fun to write exactly what I want.”
Ostertag says she plans to release the story in weekly segments, with each new short scene arriving on Fridays, and each set of scenes eventually adding up to a chapter. She plans to make the scenes available to paid subscribers first, with general subscribers eventually getting the collected chapters.
The story will be formatted with web scrolling in mind — each scene is a vertical scroll rather than a series of pages. “Making a story fit into pages is always really hard for me,” she says. “I get into the rhythm of it, but the act of the page-turn, the fact of it being a book, it’s sometimes so limiting. So getting to publish something online, I’m drawing it all as this long scroll, a format I really enjoy, and that feels very natural to me.”
Ostertag says she’s writing and drawing Darkest Night with the intention that it can eventually be published as a physical book, but for the moment, her focus is on the possibilities of the online medium. “I’m interested in exploring stuff you can only do online,” she says. “There are a lot of songs that inspired parts of the story, so I’m excited to post the songs when we come to those scenes. I think there are fun things around reader interaction that I’m going to try to do while it’s in this format.”
The story tracks a reunion between two former childhood friends: Mags Herrara, a chunky, short-haired teenager caring for her aging abuela at home, and Nessa, a trans girl returning to their town and meeting Mags for the first time post-transition. Ostertag describes it as a dark YA story with a hint of magical realism, but the opening chapter she provided Polygon edges into areas that almost feel like a horror story.
Describing more of the plot, Ostertag carefully circles around the story’s big reveals. Mags and her family have a secret that’s only hinted at in unsettling ways in the first chapter. “It’s something that deeply affects her life,” Ostertag says. “And when her oldest friend comes back into town, she shines a light into Mags’ life and forces her to confront things she hasn’t confronted before. I know that all sounds very vague! In this case, the magical elements are a little more metaphorical than in my previous work.”
She describes Darkest Night as a story about “the burdens people carry, and the things that separate us from other people. It’s really close to my heart, something I wrote from a very emotional place. That’s the heart of it — a story about about depression, and about staying in the darkness. It’s a lot of conversations between these two teenage girls hanging out in Joshua Tree, as the mystery of what’s going on with Mags is slowly unfolding. At the same time, there are these bright, luminous memories of their childhood, as they remember their time together before everything went wrong.”
Sadly, it doesn’t seem like returning to webcomics will include returning to Strong Female Protagonist, which went on hiatus in 2018 with its final chapter unfinished. “Brennan’s gotten very busy, and I’ve gotten very busy,” Ostertag says. “We’ve both been wanting to return to it, but I don’t know if I would have the time. So we’ve discussed ways to finish the story, but it was Brennan’s project. As the writer, it was very much his story, so he’s a better person to ask whether things will continue.”
For the moment, it seems Darkest Night will take a year or more to roll out — Ostertag is still working on it, but she believes it’ll be a story on the scope of The Girl From the Sea, which runs 256 pages in its print edition. Ostertag will launch the first pages of the book on Oct. 29.