Tuesday, March 5, 2024
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Comics Corner – Croc and Roll is the queer reptilian romance you never knew you needed

Hamish Steele is an animator and comic creator known for his work on the supernaturally tinged all-ages graphic novel DeadEndia, which follows amusement park workers Barney and Norma – and Barney’s talking dog Pugsley – as they learn the run-down haunted house they work in is an actual portal to hell. Starting (after)life as an animated pilot, Steele expanded DeadEndia as a webcomic, and now exists as two physical editions, The Watcher’s Test and The Broken Halo, with a third to come. Completing the circuit, DeadEndia has just been announced as a full animated series coming to Netflix, with Steele himself serving as showrunner.

DeadEndia has also been widely lauded for its diverse cast of LGBTQ+ characters, a level of representation that Steele will be continuing in his upcoming comic with artist George Williams and script editor Ayoola Solarin, Croc and Roll – a series about gay rockstar crocodiles in love! C’mon, with a concept like that, you know you’re interested.

Here, we talk about the launch of Croc and Roll, the creative differences between working in animation and comics, and why Steele will never work on a project without LGBTQ+ representation again.

Gayming Mag: Let’s start with the obvious question – tell us about Croc and Roll! What’s the short sell, high concept for anyone coming to this blind?

Hamish Steele: On the surface, Croc and Roll is basically Jem and the Holograms meets Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Four different crocodilians form a rock band and try to make it big in the real world. But the TRUE story is about their manager, Mayday Mendez. She turned her back on performing a long time ago and the crocs take her on a journey where she can face her demons and return to the spotlight.

Mayday meets the music industry’s hottest cold-blooded band (Art by George Williams, image courtesy Hamish Steele)
Gayming Mag: It seems there’s a bit of an Alvin and the Chipmunks/Josie and the Pussycats influence going on too, or at least a similar vibe to a lot of ’70s/’80s Hanna-Barbera cartoons – is that the case?

Hamish Steele: Absolutely! I basically wanted to make something filled with my nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons, especially the “Animals-with-Attitude” genre, but with a really modern, progressive, queer point of view. Issue 1 takes place mostly in the real world, in a New Orleans inspired city, but as we go forward, the world keeps getting zanier.

Gayming Mag: How did this project come about? You’re working with a couple of other creators this time, right?

Hamish Steele: Well, I’ve always loved gators and I used to be in a rock band (kinda). The idea appeared in my head fairly naturally during a comics jam with some friends while talking about that Animals-with-Attitude trend of the ’80s/’90s. The gator-band idea stewed in my head for a while and I pitched it to a few publishers last year without much success, originally hoping to write and draw it like my other books.

But then my new job came along – show running a cartoon series! It’s a dream come true and has given me a sustainable income but no free time to draw comics. I commissioned George Williams, our artist, to draw the characters just to trial him out, and loved his work so much that I decided to self fund the book rather than pitch it around again. I spend enough of my time on the show getting my ideas approved that I just felt screw it, let’s do it ourselves! I also hired my editor on my last two Nobrow books, Ayoola Solarin, to help reign me in and not turn it into a full mad-man vanity project.

You’re launching Croc and Roll as a Kickstarter – why this route rather than, say, a webcomic as with DeadEndia?

The idea to do a Kickstarter was more about getting it printed and spreading the word. The Kickstarter is to print Issue 1 but we are planning six issues eventually, and issues 2-6 are stretch goals.

Gayming Mag: How are you approaching the creative process on this? What are the merits, compared to your previous solo projects like DeadEndia?

Hamish Steele: IT’S BLISS. I love collaboration. Even on DeadEndia, I run most ideas past trusted friends, commissioned guest covers, used sensitivity readers. Then, on the second book I worked with Ayoola who I wanna work with for as long as I live. As I’ve started growing more confident in my writing, I’ve started realising art for me is a means to an end and I don’t enjoy it that much. So I love bookmarking artists I love the work of and trying to develop projects with them in mind. It doesn’t feel less personal to me, because instead I get to share my story with someone I really want to hear the perspective of. I’d never work with an artist who was just being paid to draw my vision, I want to see their vision on the page too.

Gayming Mag: OK, let’s meet the characters – and I love that you’ve given them all croc puns in their names. Tell us about Alan Gator first – is that not false croc advertising?

Hamish Steele: FIRSTLY: All the band are “crocodilians”, the animal group which contains alligators AND crocodiles. This comic is educational too!

Alan is a sweet heart. He’s the rose-tinted dreamer who loves glam rock and the spectacle of being a front man. He’s very gentle, polite and a bit of a dork. And unfortunately, his sheltered life has made him finding his muse a little tricky. His songs tend to be about nice patches of dirt to sleep in or his top three sandwich fillings. Mayday encourages him to go out and break hearts and live a little for inspiration… but he might hiding his true feelings because letting them out could make things very awkward with another band mate… (Dylan!)

Gayming Mag: Yes, Dylan Crocatansky! I have to confess, this is the only pun I’m not quite getting…

Hamish Steele: HA! Well, it’s not a very good pun. “Croca-Dyl” – not my finest work. His surname is a reference to Mad Max’s surname, Rockatanksy, because Dylan is a Rockin’ Aussie. He’s the TRUE Animal-with-Attitude. He’s the Raphael. He was mistreated in an abusive zoo and hates humans and doesn’t care about seeking their approval with his music. But his gruff attitude is a defence mechanism – he’s fiercely protective of his croco-family and never wants to be abandoned again.

Gayming Mag: If Dylan is the Raphael, does that make Kyle Mann the… Donatello? The drummer, precise and technical?

Hamish Steele: I think maybe more the Michelangelo (but I might be mixing up my Turtles)? He’s a caiman and a wild-child. He’s the youngest of the group and acts like it. He’s basically always drumming out a beat. In contrast to Dylan, he doesn’t fear abandonment because he’s used to it. He’s been kicked out of every band he’s been a part of, and was flushed down a toilet as a hatchling. But he’s also in a bit of a Romeo + Juliet thing with a band mate from one of his old bands which are now Croc and Roll’s rivals. He’s the comic relief with a tragic past!

Gayming Mag: Then the last of the band to discuss is Gary Albarn – my favourite of the puns. Is that a deliberate reference to a certain Britpop icon with links to animated bands?

Hamish Steele: Absolutely! Gary is meant to be British and is my shout out to the music of my youth. He’s also a man of mystery… he says very little and is always sneaking off. Of the crocs, he’s the most integrated into human society. While the others hide in their swamp, Gary happily strolls down the street jamming with any cool cats who’ll let him.

Mayday Mendez – Croc and Roll’s manager, and the glue holding the band together (Art by George Williams, image courtesy Hamish Steele)
Gayming Mag: You’ve touched on this earlier, but it’s actually Mayday who’s the main character, right? The April O’Neil to the boys’ TMNT, to tortuously extend the comparison. How does she get involved with the band?

Hamish Steele: Mayday is the main character, so we see the whole story through her eyes. She’s the manager who needs to pull this band together. In each issue, Mayday helps one of the crocs solve the big issue holding them back – but they’re all lessons she should be telling herself. The crocs are an easier elevator pitch to sell to people, but really this is a story about Mayday overcoming her baggage and stepping back on stage – a place she never thought she’d feel comfortable again. As the series goes on, we will start to feel like maybe the universe put her and the crocs together for a reason. There’s a reason her name is a cry for help.

Gayming Mag: You’ve hinted there’s some romantic tension between Alan and Dylan – can you go into a bit more detail on that?

Hamish Steele: Yeah! Alan is a true romantic but Mayday wonders who he keeps singing about in his love songs. “I wanna be in his big green arms” etc. But Dylan keeps his emotions buried very deep. The guy who owned the abusive zoo used to say he loved him too. He doesn’t know how to respond to genuine affection. Mayday ships them hard and tries to force them to open up to each other, but she needs to step back and let them take their time.

Gayming Mag: Is there more LGBTQ+ rep in the comic besides these star-crocced lovers?

Hamish Steele: Well… we don’t actually have any cishet main characters because I genuinely struggle to write them! Or at least, if I’m going to make a book for myself, I’m going to make it as queer as possible. Mayday is a trans lesbian, Alan is gay, Dylan is bi, Kyle is trans and Gary is asexual. And then we also have Mayday’s girlfriend Chloe and other characters in later issues.

A beginner’s guide to how queer your crocs are (Art by George Williams, image courtesy Hamish Steele)
Gayming Mag: You’ve prominently featured LGBTQ+ characters in most of your comics work. Aside from being a gay creator yourself, why is it important for you to feature these themes and characters?

Hamish Steele: Like… I don’t know how to write anything else. I need that basic investment to be able to commit the time. I refuse to work on any book without a LGBTQ+ lead character, no matter what plot, setting, genre, age group. I’ll turn down any job that doesn’t let me do that. I understand why others can’t be that picky, but I’ve arrived at a point in my career where it’s make or break for me. It ALWAYS makes the story more compelling and original to me. There’s been enough media without us, I feel like if I don’t make every work I make explicitly queer, I’m not doing enough to tip the scale.

Gayming Mag: Do you feel that queer rep is more important in all-ages series like Croc and Roll and DeadEndia? Have you had any pushback from publishers about prominently featuring LGBTQ+ characters in “kids” comics?

Hamish Steele: I’d say equal importance. Representation needs to be improved at all levels, and in some ways all-ages media is doing better because the focus is on positive storylines, rather than suffering and pain. I have had pushback in the animation world but in comics, it hasn’t come up for me yet and I’ve been lucky. I come from the webcomic world where LGBTQ+ storylines and creators are plentiful. Perhaps if I was interested in breaking into mainstream superhero comics or something I’d have a harder time, but that’s never really interested me. But if they’re reading DC, hit me up if you ever wanna do an all-ages bisexual Superman book!

Gayming Mag: You actually did a series of superhero redesigns – how do you feel the state of LGBTQ+ representation is in comics at the moment, particularly mainstream titles?

Hamish Steele: I think they’re still taking baby steps. I want more queer creators helming books and given the trust and support to tell their stories. But the fanbases of these comics can be so toxic that it almost feels like the publishers are just tossing queer creators to the wolves a little bit. I don’t know. I want things to improve but also think if you’re not getting the representation you want from mainstream books, support the indies more!

What dark secret in Mayday’s past keeps her from performing herself? (Art by George Williams, image courtesy Hamish Steele)
Gayming Mag: You have a background in animation – how does your approach differ when developing a project for screen vs the page?

Hamish Steele: When you develop stuff for TV, the intention is for there to be a much, much bigger audience (hopefully!) than with comics. There’s a lot more money and a lot more people involved, so many more stages of approval. So the kinds of stories I choose to develop are a little different. Croc and Roll is probably a bit too niche for animation right now, but maybe one day I’ll be proven wrong!

Gayming Mag: We’ve started seeing animated kids shows become far more open to exploring LGBTQ+ identities – Steven Universe and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power most prominently. What do you think has shifted that’s made networks and studios more willing to feature queer characters?

Hamish Steele: If I’m being blunt, I think it’s because they’re realised it’s profitable. Animation is a business. Representation has to be profitable. When the audience becomes more progressive then the production companies, that’s when demands are listened to. To stay relevant. I think at an individual level, it’s a bunch of creators, producers, etc fighting their honest, good intentioned battles, but I think profitability is why they’ve started winning those battles.

Gayming Mag: Do you think it’s coincidental that nearly all the queer rep we have seen in cartoons so far has been focussed on lesbian or female-presenting characters, or is it seen as more “acceptable” than male same-sex pairings?

Hamish Steele: I do get why that appears to be the case but I think it’s partially coincidental. I get worried when people start assuming it’s been easier for these WLW showrunners to get their stories approved. It’s thanks to them fighting for their own representation that’s helped convince studios MLM showrunners like me can also tell their stories.

Gayming Mag: You’ve just announced that you’re bringing DeadEndia to screens with an animated series at Netflix – can you tell us a bit more about the project and how you’re bringing it to life? Any major changes fans should look out for as a result of the different medium?

Hamish Steele: I obviously can’t say TOO much but it’s thrilling not only be getting an adaptation of the books but getting to be the guy adapting them! I think had the show gone to a different showrunner, I’d have demanded they follow the books by the letter, but because I’m in charge, I’m having a lot of fun collaborating with our incredible team to tell a slightly different version of the story. The characters are a bit younger and the show gives us so much more time to delve into their lives and the world. And I believe this version will be spookier, funnier and even more dramatic. I’m so excited for you to see it!

Gayming Mag: Finally then – if the Kickstarter for Croc & Roll proves a success, and given your animation work, could you see it transitioning to a cartoon too?

Hamish Steele: I would love Croc and Roll to move to animation – mostly because I love musicals, and the music is the one aspect that’s hard to translate to comics!

Matt Kamen

[He/Him] Matt Kamen is a veteran media writer based in the UK, specialising in video games, film, and comics. If found, return to nearest coffee shop.