Towards the end of 2017, writer and musician Vivek Shraya received some graphic transphobic hate mail from someone she didn’t know. It’s an experience she’s chosen to share in the graphic novel Death Threat (hardcover). But given the nature of the story — and, admittedly, Vivek’s unavailability — I wondered what it would be like to draw something this personal about someone else. In the following email interview, Death Threat artist Ness Lee discusses what it was like to draw this graphic novel, why she wanted to do it, and what she hopes people will get out of reading it.
Ness Lee, Vivek Shraya
Photo Credit: Tanja-Tiziana
To start, what is Death Threat about, and what inspired it?
In Death Threat, Vivek Shraya receives transphobic hate mail from a stranger online. As disturbing as these letters are, they are also written in such a graphic way it was hard to not imagine the details being described in these letters, which inspired the idea to create these letters of hate into a comic.
When in the process of making it did you agree to work on it?
After already receiving a few letters, Vivek contacted me, and that is when I was informed of her experience and the idea of turning it into a graphic novel. I was in a grocery store.
And what was it about Death Threat that not only made you want to draw it, but also made you think you were the right person to draw it?
From working with Vivek before — on her Part-Time Woman album cover — I had such a great time creating with her. I felt really honored that she would trust me with her story and with an experience that is not only very personal — involving mention of her family and religion — but very visually descriptive in its hate.
Given the personal nature of what Death Threat is about, how collaborative did you two get?
I would say the level of collaboration was quite involved. I felt like it was necessary when it came to having the visuals and narrative complement each other to effectively tell the story. There were definitely lots of moments of suggestion when it came to adding or removing narrative or altering / replacing panels in order for the moments of the story to be the most effective in its flow.
Are there any artists, comic book or otherwise, who were a big influence on what you drew in Death Threat, but not on anything else you’ve done?
Mutually, we both took inspiration from Michael Deforge. For me, it was in ways of imagery and conveying the narrative in a conceptual way, more in between the lines. While working on the comic I also looked at favorites such as Jillian Tamaki, Lisa Hanawalt, Jesse Jacobs, Elenor Davis amongst many others.
For you, as someone helping another person bring a really personal story to life, what was the hardest part about drawing Death Threat?
Personally, I wanted to get the likeness of Vivek, as I don’t normally practice portraiture. The facial features I would draw in my work would often be pretty much the same in its appearance. Especially it being a retelling of her experience, I wanted to represent her the best I can, especially to get the feeling of her in the pages.
Was there anything easy about it?
As hard as the creation of this comic was, and how many notes and comments we would have everywhere, I would have to say working with Vivek, communicating with her and getting her feedback, was very comforting. As difficult as it was in producing the pages on time, I was really grateful that she was really considerate and critical in her feedback as well as caring in checking in with how I was doing along the whole process.
Obviously, you and Vivek would probably love it if some transphobic person read Death Threat and it changed their way of thinking. But what do you hope someone who is not transphobic will get out of reading Death Threat?
I hope that the book is appreciated for what it is. As much as it is very much a form used to express Vivek’s personal experience of transphobic hate, it was also about having a mutual appreciation for the medium of graphic novels and wanting to create an expression of work that can be felt. I hope and would be so grateful if it is read and appreciated.
As you know, movies and TV shows based on comic books are big these days. And that includes graphic novels, not just superhero stuff. Has there been any interest in adapting Death Threat into a movie or TV show?
I haven’t heard of this, I’m still digesting the fact that it is printed and out, that it exists.
If it did happen, would you have a preference?
I’m not sure what would be best, [but] I do know that Vivek is amazing on screen and should have been in several movies and TV shows by now!
If Death Threat was to be adapted into a movie or TV show, and they didn’t want to cast Vivek as Vivek for some reason, who would you want them to cast instead?
I don’t think I would be comfortable having a say in this, especially it not being my story! I would just hope they would involve Vivek and respect her voice in this. To not rob and take advantage of marginalized people and their stories for profit as it so often ends up being the case.
Finally, if someone enjoys Death Threat, what graphic novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I don’t have one specifically to recommend as I’ve been more enjoying comics and zines made by local and indie artists. It’s really beautiful to see the work of people in the community and supporting them in their creations, especially as it takes so much to produce and so much vulnerability is involved as well in having one’s work out there open to criticism and judgement.