Marginalia: Calla Cthulhu Proves Brown Girls Belong in the H.P. Lovecraft Mythos

It’s more than fitting that Calla Cthulhu, the tale of one brown girl’s struggle to piece together her identity by fighting her monstrous inheritance, should be the first installment of Marginalia. If you skim any of the lists I’ve published in the past (Five Queer AF Comics or Five of the Blackest Manga, for instance) it’s clear I have a enduring soft spot for lesser established media that center on women of color and QPOC. Unfortunately, it’s often tempting as a pop culture writer to focus on more popular (and often less intersectional) creations for a variety of reasons including that sometimes the product is really just that good. That’s why I’ve decided to commit myself to dedicating this monthly column to creative works I feel are pushing the boundaries of story, character, and style, and Calla could not be more at home.

Equal parts teen action thriller and dark fantasy, Calla Cthulhu acts as a powerful metaphor for the question all of us who’ve ever fought against misogyny and racism know: How do you cope when your wits and a weapon are all that stand between you and a cursed existence? How do you learn to value your own life when there are so many people (including your own family) who either want to exploit, abuse, or outright kill you just for who you are? Who do you trust when you feel like there’s so few people who understand you? Calla also grapples with recognizable issues of respectability politics, trying to stave off violence from both her immensely powerful Elder God relatives who wish to mold her for their purposes and the human beings who refuse to see her as one of their own.

Power team and married couple Sarah Dyer and Evan Dorkin, already the recipients of multiple nominations and awards for their writing on pop culture favorites like Space Ghost Coast to Coast, bring an attention to detail to this work that not only reveals a love for the source material, but also the capacity for compassion and connection no matter how different two beings are. I have a real admiration for YA writers who are able to portray teens as young people and not just millennial stereotypes, and the inclusion of characters like assassins Carnacki and Silence, with their casual reliance on technology and wry-yet-sincere commentary in the face of horror, feels true to the current generation. Artist Erin Humiston’s inviting and expressive designs only increase the strength of this re-imagining, making every panel’s narrative so clear the reader never once feels lost in the complexity of the Cthulhu Mythos.

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If it isn’t already apparent, I’ve been excited for Calla Cthulhu since its initial debut over a year agowhen a preview appeared on a fresh new comics app called Stela that featured comics specifically formatted for your phone for a monthly subscription. I couldn’t resist diving deeper into the creative mind of co-writer Sarah Dyer, who was kind enough to spend some time with me for an interview.

Black Nerd Problems: I’m the type of person who’s too scared to look twice at horror material. What drew you to the world of H.P. Lovecraft?
Sarah Dyer: Ok, I have to confess I am not the biggest fan of Lovecraft’s own work. But the entire Mythos universe is really an amazing playground; it’s such a pack of fever dreams and it allows so much leeway to creators who want to dive into it. I definitely kind of come at it from the side — Evan says I’m the Mythos anthropologist because I’m interested in how things work, separating (fake) fact from fiction and how we can adapt and explore those facts more than I’m interested in reading the original stories. I’ve actually avoided reading them at all since we started the project!

Also — it’s a type of horror that is in some ways more accessible if that makes any sense. It’s a big sprawling creepy super-science world that is horrifying in a different way than most. More head games and weird beings and powers than gore, or jump scares, or realistic horrifying events. I enjoy that sort of thing a LOT less now that I’m a mom; and my daughter really hates gory horror. And the visual potential is just limitless as well — the whole creepy, horrific, tentacular fantasy/horror world is there for exploring.
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BNP: Calla Cthulhu has been described as a “coming of age” story, and often in these tales there’s a pressure to include a love interest that you’ve avoided so far. How important is the theme of other kinds of bonds in this series?
SD: It is super-important to me. While I can’t say there would never ever be a hint of romance, we have no plans for it right now, and I don’t see it ever involving Calla. While we definitely explore ideas of family — both biological and chosen — the bonds of friendship are the most important. The relationship forged between our three main girls as they become a team, along with the support group they collect of various….beings….is the important relationship in the series.

BNP: Calla’s design obviously sticks out in more ways than one as an addition to Lovecraft-inspired works and you mention in a previous interview that you wanted to create a powerful girl character for your daughter to look up to. I’m wondering how integral Calla’s brownness and the myriad of other brown and Black support characters were to this idea?
SD: That was super-important, and one of the first conscious decisions we made. My own family is multiracial, I have siblings, a foster sibling and cousins who are POC (while I am almost 100% European — I don’t think I can really explain it without a complex diagram!). So I came up not only desperate for representation for myself as a girl, but for all these boys I was growing up with who were seeing almost no positive role models (until Power Rangers, probably, and even then not for all of them.) We have such a long way to go for equitable representation, especially when it’s a story that isn’t about race. And I also think it’s important, not just that readers can see themselves reflected, but that other readers can see characters who aren’t like them being cool and doing fun things.

It’s definitely a personal thing that two of our main characters are multiracial though, that’s coming from my own family and the SERIOUS lack of representation of multiracial families. Basically it’s me making the world I want to see.

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BNP: How have these intersections affected how you maneuver through traditional Lovecraft tropes?
SD: Well, my weird sideways approach is that the Lovecraft stories are just one writer’s take on this actual real universe of events — stories which are written with all his racism and classism coming through. An example: he says the Deep Ones are ugly, but who’s to say that’s true when he had such a narrow view of “attractive”? Our Deep Ones can be attractive or not, they’re not intrinsically anything. Plus honestly, I don’t believe that these ancient creatures with amazing powers would give a crap about the different looks of various humans. We’d be like so many cats to them. They’re not going to care which cat they’re messing with. So we kind of threw away the tropes we found to be racist or misogynist, as things that came from the mind of that particular recorder of events and not real parts of the Mythos. We approach it as though it’s a whole big interesting world that in reality is expansive and inclusive, regardless of how certain people may have viewed it.

I didn’t read this until we were almost done with the first volume, but I think a really good explanation of the approach we’ve always tried to take is what Dylan Marron called “unintentional casting,” or using non-white characters as often as possible when race isn’t part of the story. Or at least any human race — since it’s the non-human ones that the plot revolves around. There are only a few characters that actually needed a specific background, and the rest of the time we tried to think about the character and who they could be — and didn’t just default white.

You can catch Calla and friends in action on August 16th from Dark Horse.

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