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ND Stevenson’s new comics Substack: ‘a beacon for people who are struggling’

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s creator explains his new plan for comics on mental health and transitioning

A cartoon version of Noelle looks into the mirror after top surgery, with the caption “This is me. It always has been.” A panel from the free comic The Weight of Them. Image: ND Stevenson

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Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

Long before Netflix’s animated series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power became a five-season sensation with a devoted, vocal fanbase, its creator and showrunner, ND Stevenson, had built a separate fanbase for his personal work. Stevenson started the tremendous, Eisner-winning fantasy webcomic Nimona while still in art school, and eventually completed it and collected it as a book. That project drew readers to follow Stevenson through a series of projects, from his work on the comic Lumberjanes (which he’s developing as an animated series for HBO Max) to their Marvel Comics runs on Runaways and Thor.

But as Stevenson seemed to be enjoying massive success at a very young age, he also built a fandom around a long series of personal comics about mental health, which eventually became the book The Fire Never Goes Out. He continued that process as they began to explore their gender identity, chronicling his mental and physical journey toward transition via a free comic called The Weight of Them.

On Oct. 5, Stevenson announced a plan to continue those intimate comics via a new Substack, I’m Fine I’m Fine Just Understand, which will continue to explore mental health, gender identity, and anything else he feels like discussing. Polygon recently reached Stevenson by phone to discuss his intentions for the new project, Substack’s anti-trans reputation, and the process of maintaining a little privacy in a public forum.

A comic-strip image of ND curled up in bed, face in a laptop, surrounded by art and dishes and food. Caption: “I have lived my life very visibly online since I was 19 year old and I’d found myself very suddenly alone for the first time.” From the Substack I’m Fine I’m Fine Just Understand. Image: ND Stevenson

What’s the overall plan for what I’m Fine I’m Fine Just Understand will look like?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the last few years about how I want to talk about topics related to gender, transition, and mental health — topics that are a little more personal, that I want to keep a little closer to my chest. So when Substack came along, I was really interested, because I’d been looking for some way to be able to post my comics on a platform that I had more control over.

Places I’ve posted comics in the past, like Tumblr or Twitter, have reblog or retweet functions built in. I feel more and more lately that I want these to be hosted in a place I can control more. It seems like the right home. I really enjoy sharing these parts of me, and hopefully they speak to people in similar situations.

It’s exciting to be able to just have that go to people who are choosing to be on that mailing list. These comics aren’t necessarily secret. I understand people will download them and distribute them in their own ways. But Substack cuts down on the expectation right from the start that they will circulate, which is built into most social media platforms.

Is there a primary intended audience here?

I think it’s going to be more interesting to people who’ve followed me for a while. I’ve always been very chaotic about my social media use, posting all kinds of things. In the wake of She-Ra, the amount of eyes on my social media increased a lot. I’m very aware that there are a lot more young people following me on Twitter, because I made a cartoon aimed at young people. That makes me a little self-conscious about sharing slightly more mature content. Nothing on the Substack will be specifically 18-plus, but it may be about more adult issues, and being able to step away from some of these platforms where I feel hyper-visible seems like a good idea.

A comic panel of ND, shirtless and short-haired, looking in the mirror and laughing. Caption: “Still, it makes me happy, to see my face in the mirror now (though I don’t know what it will look like in the end.) From the Substack I’m Fine I’m Fine Just Understand. Image: ND Stevenson

What’s the paywall plan?

There’s always been a type of comic that I’m just not comfortable having public. The truth is, I’m making these comics anyway, even if I’m not posting them. These things might deal more with mental health, or family matters, or the more intimate side of transition — things I want to talk about, or that I’m processing on my own, but that I don’t want to be public or forward-facing.

Again, I understand that some people will spread those comics outside of the Substack. It’s not going to be anything so personal that I wouldn’t want anyone to see it. But the ones I usually keep to myself, I like having some way to cut down on the number of eyes on them and keep them more intimate. That is really my thinking about what’s going to be behind the paywall. Most of the comics will be free, and people can read them whether or not they subscribe to the newsletter. But having just that little bit of privacy is something I’m really looking forward to.

Those early Tumblr posts always seemed to come from a place of so much pain and uncertainty. Are you in a more comfortable place now?

I think so. Over the past year or so, I’ve been really scaling back my social media presence because I’ve had a lot of big feelings going on. I was dealing with premiering the final season of She-Ra and moving on to other projects — anyone who’s made a project on that scale, or for that amount of time, knows it’s not easy to let go of and move on. And then also transitioning, and trying to figure out who I was, and who I’m going to be. I found it valuable to be able to scale back my social media presence and do these things for myself for a while.

I’m a lot older now, and more stable in many ways, than when I first started making mental health comics. I was 19, and undiagnosed, and unmedicated, and like any early-20s person, dealing with a transition from teenagerhood to adulthood — it was a tumultuous time. It’s not that my life has suddenly become smooth sailing, but I do have resources that have allowed me to take back a lot of control, and become more settled, and be able to rest and take stock. I feel very lucky for that.

New feelings have come in to take the place of the old ones, though, things that are really intense. I struggle with them in a different way. So I want to put something out there as, hopefully, a beacon for people who are struggling in the same way, or who maybe are where I was when I first started making these comics, and need some kind of reassurance from the future that there is a path out of those dark places that seem so absolute. It’s also a way, honestly, to process these new feelings as well. So I hope it’s something people relate to, something that hits a chord.

A comics panel image of younger ND in a dress, saying “I’ll never die!” Caption: “I’m not the spunky baby I was. It’s not a bad thing, even though sometimes I miss her but there’s no crawling back into a skin once you’ve outgrown it.” From the Substack I’m Fine I’m Fine Just Understand. Image: ND Stevenson

I can’t say for sure how much of it will be these darker, more venting comics, I guess you could call them. I do have one of those that I’m planning to take behind the paywall, because it’s very personal. It’s something that happened several years ago, during my time on She-Ra, that I’ve never felt comfortable talking about before. But it is something that still affects me to this day.

I still don’t know for sure how much of that I am going to be comfortable posting. It’s something I’m going to feel out as I go, to get a sense of what the Substack audience looks like. But I’m also excited. I would love to be able to talk about these things, because they’re things that will affect other people very much like me. And I do think that when people are open about those things, it does end up making a difference.

My dream is that it becomes something a little more like the Tumblr audience of the past. Maybe that’s seeing it through rose-colored glasses, but I always enjoyed being able to be open within that smaller crowd of people. So I hope some of the people who’ve been around for a while find them interesting, find them fun, find they speak to them. I’m really hoping you all like it.

Substack has a history of anti-trans harassment and platforming anti-trans voices. It’s trying to rehabilitate its reputation, but are you concerned either about being harassed, or about fans who are leery of the platform?

Yes, I’m very aware of the criticism, and it’s something I take very, very seriously. Part of my intention with being on this platform is to add to the trans presence on Substack, and to raise money for trans charities. I would like to donate that money back to charities that allow trans people to get grants for surgery, for example.

Some of the really vile TERF rhetoric on Substack is just something I’m very comfortable being outspoken about. I would like to see those incredibly toxic voices removed and barred from the platform, the way they’ve been barred from other social media platforms. Also, at the same time, I am very aware of the fact that when I post anything about my gender or my transition on places like Twitter or Instagram, I become a target of the TERF presence there anyway.

So it’s complicated. If people are skeptical or upset with Substack for platforming voices that have been deplatformed elsewhere, that’s very, very fair. I would like to do what I can to offset that. But I’m prepared to own up to being a part of this platform. I hope people understand my reasoning behind it, to increase the visibility of trans people on Substack, while calling for the removal of the incredibly hateful, incredibly dangerous anti-trans voices there.

How much will these comics look like the kinds of things you were posting on Tumblr, or that went into your book?

I think they will be pretty similar. But I really enjoy making comics that are tailored for the platform I’m putting them on. So if I’m posting something on Twitter, you have to think about the fact that you can only upload four images at once. That comes into the pacing of the comic. Tumblr has more of an infinite scroll, so comics designed for Tumblr feel different. I’m really excited to figure out how the comics will adapt to a new platform.

But other than that, they will be pretty familiar. I started doing this way back in college, making comics that were stream-of-consciousness, just me putting my feelings down on the page. I try to have them be very honest, just straight from the heart. So I think in that way, the comics will be similar to the ones I post on Tumblr or Twitter, but I’m excited to get more in depth with them for sure.

Having a safer space for these comics, do you plan to post any of the older ones you mentioned, or are you starting from scratch and from the present?

I may post some of those older comics. It’s something I want to feel out as I go. These will be pretty personal, pretty intimate comics, but there are still things I don’t necessarily want to share. We’ll see, really. There are certain comics I’ve made in the past, and that I’m making now that I would never post on Twitter or on Tumblr, and I am really excited to be able to talk about some of those things. It’ll be interesting to see how that pans out, and how a more intimate community functions.

A comics panel of ND swaddled in a blanket with a fan blowing on her, sitting in front of a laptop. Caption: “Making comics changed my life. I was so lonely but on cold nights I found warmth in my connection to people I would never know.” From the Substack I’m Fine I’m Fine Just Understand. Image: ND Stevenson

How have you felt about the response you’ve gotten to your past comics about mental health or transition? Has the feedback or engagement been useful?

Transition is a really interesting one, because I gained a lot from being able to read other trans people’s accounts of their own transitions, and I learned a lot from people who were willing to be really, really open and get into the details. I think a lot of people feel this way. It’s so personal, but I do try to share, because I know how important that can be for people who are searching for information for themselves. But it still is so personal, and I feel like I benefit from taking my time with it, instead of going in with that stream-of-consciousness approach I was just talking about.

I’ve been as open as I am comfortable with on social media about going on HRT, or top surgery, things like that. But there is a lot more that I would like to be able to explore in more of an educational way, because I benefited so much from first-hand accounts of other people in transition.

How hyper-focused will the project be on mental health and transition? On your other social media outlets, you’ve done comics on everything from playing D&D to just making art in general.

It’s really going to differ. I think some of the comics will be shorter and have a lighter tone, or be about things that aren’t as personal or heavy as some of my other comics. There may be comedic day-in-the-life comics. I think there’ll be a pretty broad range. And some of those comics, I may post on Twitter also. The broad theme is just autobiographical comics. Not everything is going to be really heavy and focused on the darker side of mental health, or the more intimate side of transition. But it’s exciting to me to be able to have the ability to explore some of those things as well.

The book cover of ND Stevenson’s The Fire Never Goes Out, with a sketched black-and-white image of a girl with a flame bursting from the center of her chest, and her eyeless head fuzzing out into a wash of grey at the top.

The Fire Never Goes Out

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From ND Stevenson, the New York Times bestselling author-illustrator of Nimona, comes a captivating, honest illustrated memoir about turning an important corner in the creative journey — and inviting readers along for the ride. In a collection of essays and personal mini-comics that span eight years of young-adult life, author-illustrator ND Stevenson charts the highs and lows of being a creative human in the world.

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