Seosamh, or Saint Vagrant, is a trans author and illustrator living in Central MA. He works with his partner, Anka on incredible sci-fi comic series SUPERPOSE. SUPERPOSE is an entirely self-published project focusing on quantum physics, glitches, trauma, and identity. Seosamh also does beautiful paintings and we are so grateful that he was willing to share some of his work and to talk with us about his process, thoughts and ideas.
How did you get interested in comics? Is there a specific artist or writer who inspires you?
I grew up reading Tin Tin and the Pokemon Adventure comics, Calvin and Hobbes, Sandman… but it was when I found team anthologies and companies like Oni or Image, producing totally different and very emotional work, that cemented in me that maybe it was actually possible to create this stuff myself, and that approaching it differently from what I’d seen before wasn’t some sort of cardinal sin. I hope this doesn’t make me sound like a turncoat, but I was initially (and still am) inspired by cinematography, and timing, from film. I think I still am in a lot of ways, and I try to translate that inspiration to visual art without making it static. Really, it was manga and webcomics as a memorable and viable medium that changed my life and career path. I wasn’t sure I’d ever do comics. There are a lot of stories that may not have ever existed without the push for this, and I’m really lucky to be in leagues with the creators. I’m still experimenting! I definitely don’t approach every story with the same process or product.
My favourite manga-ka is Hirohiko Araki; I admire his ability to craft a world and keep it going for… 30 years, always introducing something new and always very open about reflecting on his relationship with his work. My favourite webcomic… I have many, but a big one is Brainchild by Suzanne Geary (which even takes place in the Boston area.) Other artists/authors who inspire me are F. Choo, Katie O’Neill, Toril Orlesky, Kam “Mars” Heyward, Taneka Stotts, Michelle Perez, Reimena Yee, Higu Rose, Otava Heikkilä, Rami Lehkonen… many more! I’m non-stop inspired by my partner Anka as well, the way they think and approach stories/characters/the world makes me think and explore in brand new ways.
To me it seems that the people pictured in your paintings are characters in a story, they have so much personality. When you go to create a painting do you create or invent stories around these characters?
Some of them are from stories (Superpose or otherwise) and many of them are me, and many of them are strangers. People I could know, or maybe never could. It’s hard not to imagine lives or circumstances for them, especially when painting traditionally since it’s such a physical and in that way an almost intimate process, if that makes sense. But I try to keep some distance, too, if I don’t know them. I’m happy to hear that a personality shows through! The paintings are definitely to provide a space where the subject is comfortable, even if relative to whatever story might be hinted.
How do you feel your work fits into modern day pop/counter culture?
As far as fitting in goes, I’m not sure how objective I can be– sometimes I think my work is still kind of niche, in that it layers niche on top of niche. But I also know I’m in good company– I’m lucky to be surrounded by friends and people I admire, and our interests/needs may veer slightly from pop culture or even counter-culture as a block. I do know independent and small-press work, and the people represented by/in that work, have found more footing now, so I think I fit into that in terms of who’s telling and reading stories, merging genres and reinventing what can be done with them. People making/seeking out this work isn’t new, but it’s above ground now. There’s also the cycle of resurgence of nostalgic themes and concepts, complete with elaborate neon colour grading, to play off a real or imagined collective memory… that concept alone is really interesting to me (inventing memories) so maybe my work fits into that movement.
In your comic, Superpose, do you work on writing the story as well as drawing it? What kind of input do you and your partner have? How did you initially come up with the concept?
Yes! We write and draw it entirely together. (We live together, which makes it easier.) We came up with it having both just graduated from school, figuring ourselves out, and reevaulating what we find important in storytelling. The break from school meant gathering up everything we put on hold or discovered in that time, which ended up being: our own lives/childhoods (we both spent them on various shores,) those of new friends, and the media we like, have always liked, and finding more of it to feed us.
We watched all of Miami Vice and read all of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, a manga series by Hirohiko Araki, and presented on it at Anime Boston 2016, focusing on its legacy and art history. We realised we were dedicating a lot of time and attention to this thing we ultimately couldn’t do much with, and we’re both driven people with a desire to make earnest and productive narratives. So as soon as I asked my partner if they wanted to create a project/world with me, one we could actually affect and build ourselves, it went pretty fast: the original idea was implanted in December 2015, we made what was supposed to stay a simple zine in February-March 2016, and we launched the comic in May 2016.
I love how the website and all associated media for the comic are hosted on old-school websites, it reminds me of internet in the 90’s! Is there something aesthetically or otherwise that draws you to that period of time?
Thank you!! This is a bit of a spoiler but the comic takes place over… some amount of time, starting off in the early 80s, but not staying there. The website design is meant to reflect this, and has many hidden treasures ;^) So I’m excited to hear it jogs personal memory! My formative internet looked like that, I even built a few geocities sites in middle school. It’s so visceral. I talked about inventing memories or tapping into a collective memory, and that’s really the motivation. There’s a generation who grew up totally separated from the hands-on experience of this, and yet due to resurgences, find themselves being a part of what came before them. The fake-real we build, we want it to be like what you might find on a blank VHS tape at a liquidation sale.
If I can plug, I’m extremely inspired by the work of Olia Lialina, who in addition to being an artist herself (and has been using web-based/hypertext since its inception) maintains the Geocities Archive. In 2018, we went to the ICA for their “Art In The Age Of The Internet” exhibition, which was deeply inspiring and validating in terms of the work we do. Olia’s “My Boyfriend Came Back From The War” was in show, a narrative piece, and an installation, since it’s inside a Netscape browser on– I think– an old Gateway desktop. It has to be shown that way. I mean, it has to. The experience would be so different otherwise, tapping into something completely different.
If I had my way… well. Superpose is actually in part shown through similar means. We make physical items from its time– or somewhere else– and send them off to people. I only found out last year (talking to the partner of a MIT lecturer, the lecturer being Shariann Lewitt who specialises in the subject) that the word for this is “transmedia.” That’s fitting on a few levels.
Do you find elements of the character of Rafael reflect some of your experiences as a trans man? Are any storylines inspired by your own experiences?
Oh, for sure… this work isn’t meant to be autobiographical or even biographical, everything in it is a total amalgam of many many other things, people, experiences, and Rafael isn’t an analogue for myself. I’m not at all qualified to tell too real/biographical a story, for all kinds of reasons. For one, I’m white, so Rafael’s racial/cultural background is something built from the guidance and experiences of other people. In other respects, parts of me do show up, bluntly or vague. Not committing to neatness about some aspects is, I think/hope, also fair representation, with the goal of portraying how hard it is to know what you feel or how to react in the moment.
Rafael is transitioning around people, hasn’t and may never have surgery, he has his documents changed during the story. With his transition being public, people react aggressively, with entitlement, or they pointedly ignore and neglect him. I do really relate to the pressure of needing to be “the best version” of __, in this case a trans person, in order to keep the peace and be safe. But the pressure to keep ones head down and not make a fuss isn’t safe, that’s still a thing being done to you, and for some (like me) passing as cis is impossible. Rafael’s also gay, and for me that’s been invalidated along the lines of “well if you’re a gay trans boy, why can’t you be a straight girl? Why can’t you be a lesbian?” like people beg for this to make sense in the narrow way they understand it, they need it to look like what they want, and will enforce it. A challenging moment is when Rafael hooks up with a guy when he (Rafael) isn’t in the best state, and it’s almost something, but then the guy’s pretty uh… mean. And it’s unfortunate but when I was young, even mixed or negative attention felt like proof of existence when living in a haze. It wasn’t a good thing, but it was a thing, it happened. However, on a positive front, I also relate to finding myself through things unrelated to cis-passing or at all cis-centred standards. “Man” is such a loaded term for some and I have no interest in fulfilling the expectations attached to it. Many of my trans man/masc friends feel the same.
There’s a lot of pressure to write only the most diplomatic narratives about trans people, like it has to be didactic and clean and relatable to a cis audience, or a het audience, a thin audience, a white audience that values and trusts themselves as the default and does no diligence to correct it, unwilling to either relate or respect other lives, and take it personally that a piece doesn’t centre their comfort. My pieces don’t always centre my own comfort! Fiction has been a carefully-considered cushion, or, map-making in real-time to understand experiences and concepts I didn’t previously have perspective for… it’s a place to put things, it’s an ongoing process. It’s not supposed to be a vacation for people who don’t want to do the work.
I want to share these considerations/journeys with people who feel it, and that’s absolutely not everybody. I’m in my stories, but they’re not about me. All of my stories feature trans people no matter what the story itself is about, and SUPERPOSE is still a sci-fi, with increasing unreal elements.
How do you start world building for your comic? There are so many details in the world and characters that add a lot of texture and feeling of “reality” to your story!
Oh man, that’s so awesome to hear! Yeah, it’s like setting up a sandbox to play around in… for SUPERPOSE, the characters came first, but even as we were developing them, Anka and I were both living in a coastal town and working overnights. We wanted to capture that bizarro-world feeling where everyone’s made honest by the witching hour versions of ourselves. I want to create a… fake-real reality, a merging of places that maybe can’t be pinned down to one particular place, but a place you know. You can recognise certain parts of it, like migraine-inducing fluorescent or thirsty crabgrass, grainy Sanyo flip phone photos, squeaky wet flip-flops… it’s all super sensory to me even though it’s flat images, so I want to share that. The more “believable” some of it is, despite its cartooniness, the freakier I hope the unreal parts will be. The people, too, are like this, I hope they feel like people you could know, but maybe never quite did, or you had a really personal moment during a party where you both spilled your guts, had a tender time of it, and never talked again until you hear a weird rumour about them and defend them on principle.
Did formally studying art affect how you work, or how you define yourself as an artist? Did you find that time valuable?
I have mixed feelings about it. I did very well in school, and it allowed me to escape from where I was before. But this also came with constant misgendering and even arguments about my identity, little consideration for mental illness or for people of dissimilar backgrounds/circumstances to the status quo, a lot of administrative gaslighting, loads of debt… so it’s hard. I’m grateful to have had 4+ years to make work, to touch base with and expand on my values, to meet my partner and many of my closest friends. I had to fight to be taken seriously in some respects, which I don’t think is a necessity in academia. Every year, more and more people are being hired for incredible jobs and starting amazing self-driven careers without school, and I think that’s something institutions themselves should also acknowledge as being totally viable.
What kinds of reactions do you think your art gets? How do you feel about that?
All I know is that I get personal responses/messages from other trans people of various backgrounds/experiences, in all stages of transition, whether they’ve come out or not, going out of their way to say touching things about what my art means to them. I had more reach and more opportunities a few years ago when my work had less of a so-called “narrow” focus, but not only do I feel better about it now, I feel better about the way people approach and talk about it. When there are negative or questioning reactions to it, I do whatever I can to understand where someone’s coming from, and figure out what I can improve on, or whether or not it’s a unique personal reaction and not something I alone can fully take on/dismantle. The difference there can be hard to gauge, so at the very least, I aim for compromise.
Uh, SUPERPOSE was recently the subject of a presentation at High/Low, the Film & Media Graduate Student Conference at UC Berkeley. Tony Wei Ling, the presenter, has also written about SUPERPOSE for two other publications (Lady Science and WWAC.) It was also nominated for a PRISM Award for Excellence in LGBTQ Comics. So… I guess as far as reactions go, that’s pretty intense. Sometimes I lose my own place, like, so much of this is about an individual’s relationship to my work, and just making the work doesn’t guarantee me access to that experience. So I’m grateful when I get to hear about these reactions– positive or negative. Someone letting me into their emotional space is a huge act of generosity and I’m moved to respond in kind.
You mentioned your non-comics art has a goal of “Dignifying queer people” Can you explain what you mean by that and give an example of how you’ve achieved that in one of your works?
Maybe that’s the wrong wording, but essentially what I mean is not only make up for time I lost to curating my work to a vague audience, and bring queer and trans people into art/genres/stories where they’ve been frequently excluded. I want to portray various lives and presentations as being valid whether I relate to them or not. A lot of things have felt very off-limits to me for a long time, like being scrutinised for my choices to include queer and trans people in genre fiction, or for my approach to even writing/drawing being trans. My personal work has focused on using traditions of iconography, loosening the more churchy grasp there (the church has no interest in what I do, haha) and instead utilise a more general idea of iconography– to perpetuate the importance of a life, rendered in a way and with imagery meant to inspire. (I completely understand another trans person wanting to hold themselves far away from even the mere themes of any religion which ostracises them, so this work, like everything else, is more an exploration of/for myself and whoever feels similar.)
For a really exaggerated example, I recently I participated in a show by Light Grey Art Lab (in Minneapolis) called “TASTEFUL NUDES”, and created the following gouache painting, titled SACRED HEART. I used motifs from a carpet page in The Book of Kells, sacred heart imagery, sticky rhinestones mimicking Mater Dolorosa, and with a mood to resemble The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. But it’s a self-portrait, the figure is transgender, euphoric in the maybe-painful sense of total unity of mind and body.
What is your goal as an artist?
I want to make very honest, heartfelt work that honours the complexity in trans/queer lives rather than remaining in super-simple territory. Right now, SUPERPOSE is the largest project I have going, but it’s nowhere near the only one I have planned. I want to do a lot more personal exploration too, delving into my history while still using fiction to navigate it. I hope to do more residencies and gallery work and experiment with other, bigger mediums
Seosamh can be found at saint-vagrant.com and on twitter/instagram as @saint_vagrant.
SUPERPOSE can be read online at superposecomic.com (rated 16+)