In Other Ever Afters, Melanie Gillman’s new graphic novel collection of fairy tales, queer people find happiness, community, and kindness. It feels almost revolutionary, updating fairy tales’ traditional mores, using fantasy and folklore as a space to imagine something better than the familiar good-versus-evil binary that often defines fairy tales as we know them today. Beautifully illustrated and wholly unique, Other Ever Afters feels like a heartfelt yet funny antidote to the usual straight, whitewashed happily ever afters. As Gillman told Polygon in an interview to celebrate the book’s release, that’s exactly the point.
Other Ever Afters began life in 2016, with a fairy tale created for 24-Hour Comics Day, an annual collective shared challenge for comics creators. “The first time I did one, it was kind of on a lark,” Gillman says. “There was a local group of cartoonists in Denver, where I was living at the time, and we were gonna get together and do a 12-Hour Comics Day, which is essentially the same thing as 24-Hour Comics Day, but cut in half, as we like sleeping and we don’t want our wrists to fall off.”
During the planning for that community gathering, Gillman began to visualize the first in their queer fairy-tale series, “The Fish Wife.” “I thought, I could do a 12-page comic in 12 hours! And decided to do a little short fairy-tale-style comic about a mermaid who falls in love with a depressed middle-aged peasant woman, and then they get married, and it’s great!”
Gillman’s comic went viral in comic book communities, and not just because of the dark, memorable, yet warm twist on fable understandings of mermaids and monsters. The way Gillman shared the story with their followers helped boost the response. As with most 24-Hour Comics projects, Gillman posted the pages one at a time on Twitter, in a thread that allowed people to “watch live” as the story progressed. Gillman wasn’t expecting the huge reader response that followed.
“People really, really liked the story, and also really enjoyed getting to watch it update live over time,” Gillman says. “It’s like a really crunched-down, condensed webcomic. In any case, I got such a good response to it. I was like, Oh hell, I’ll keep doing this, then!”
Gillman’s queer fairy tales became somewhat of a 24-Hour Comics Day tradition. “Every year, I would try to come up with a short little fairy-tale romance-type comic, something I could do in about a day or two. And I’d post it live.”
The seeds of Other Ever Afters had been sown, but the book wasn’t born until 2019 and the success of Gillman’s comic Hsthete. That story introduces readers to the titular Goat Goddess, the deity of mishaps. After a young woman seeks out Hsthete to disrupt her unwanted betrothal, the Goat Goddess engineers a new type of happily ever after. It’s a perfect example of what makes Gillman’s imaginative stories so special. Hsthete caught the attention of Random House, which “slipped into [Gillman’s] DMs” and suggested creating a collection of new, queer fairy tales.
The idea sparked a great excitement for Gillman. “The idea of getting to turn it into a classic-style fairy-tale collection, the kind of thing you’d find on your grandmother’s bookshelf when you visit, really appealed to me,” they say.
So Other Ever Afters was born, collecting Gillman’s original four 24-Hour Comics Day stories and three entirely new ones that have “never been seen before by the internet.”
Gillman’s fairy-tale comics have been published online — Gillman says they’ll continue to be available as webcomics — and have been printed as zines, sold at conventions and shows. But they’ve never been available in book form. For Gillman, the new format offers a greater context, and they can’t wait for readers to experience the way the stories relate to each other when published together.
“I think the thematic connections between the stories become much more clear when you’re able to sit down and read them in one setting,” they say. “I also thought a lot about the intro and conclusion for the book, to illustrate some of the thematic concepts that tie the collection together as a whole.”
Those themes are at the core of what make the stories in Other Ever Afters so powerful. While Gillman was keen to create fairy tales, they wanted those stories to be a space of compassion and escape, rather than the traditional bleak moral warnings. “A lot of fairy tales are cautionary tales,” they say. “Like, Oh, here’s a character who did a bad thing, and then they were punished for it. I think as queer people, we already get a lot of that. Maybe it’s bad to be a person like this. And maybe you should have made different choices. And now we’re going to read about the ways in which the universe punished you for your decisions.”
Gillman didn’t have any interest in scolding comics readers. “As a storyteller, I wanted to take a more compassionate bent to the way I was structuring these fairy tales, especially since these are all centered on queer people, and the relationships and communities that queer people build with each other,” they say.
“So rather than punishing any of these characters for very understandable human wants and needs, oftentimes I tended to shift the blame more onto the social structures surrounding them, to point out the ways in which the societies around them are failing them, or are maybe not structured in a way that would allow them to thrive as queer people. They have the right to not be punished for their own needs and their own flaws as characters. And they have the right to go out and find better places for themselves.”
Protagonists’ search for somewhere they belong and can thrive is key to many of the tales in Other Ever Afters. “I think one of the themes that connects a lot of these stories is not just the longing for queer romance and queer sexuality, but also a longing for queer community, and looking for new ways of living in community with each other that extend beyond the family unit, or partners, or anything like that,” Gillman says. “Looking for broader social landscapes that would be supportive and beneficial for these characters. So, yeah, overall just taking a much more compassionate look at these characters and their lives than you often see in a lot of fairy tales.”
Other Ever Afters is enchanting, but the stories also have the recognizable tropes and satisfying story logic that typically make fairy tales so appealing. The collection really does feel like it could become a staple fairy-tale collection on readers’ bookshelves, alongside volumes of the Brothers Grimm and their timeless tales.
Gillman can barely contain their enthusiasm about that idea. “Oh, gosh, that’s the dream right there,” they say. “I would love it if some copies of these books are still kicking around decades from now, and people are finding them on their parents’ or grandparents’ bookshelves. Every now and then, when I wander into an old used bookstore, I love to go to the 1900s fairy-tale collection shelf. Maybe one day, my book is gonna end up there in dusty old volumes, decades into the future. If that ends up happening, I’d be very happy.”