Good, old-fashioned ghost stories that tackle tough subjects can be hard to find. Harder still is finding stories in this vein with non-white protagonists, which makes it difficult for audiences who want to see themselves having adventures and solving mysteries, too.
Enter writer Ivy Noelle Weir and artist Steenz, whose graphic novel Archival Quality hits shelves on March 7. The story follows Celeste Walden as she struggles with depression and is consequently fired from her job at the local library. She applies for an archivist position at the haunted Logan Museum, once a poorly-run mental health facility, and believes that it will be her second chance at doing something she loves.
However, as Cel starts her work, she discovers that the history of the Logan Museum is far more sinister than she expects.
She loses time, gets random nose bleeds, passes out, and struggles to maintain her mental health and relationships, all while fixating on a former patient whom she knows nothing about, but can’t stop seeing everywhere she looks — including her dreams. When this young woman asks Cel for help, everything gets extra weird, and Cel has to figure out how to save her when she has a hard enough time saving herself.'When I met @oheysteenz and saw her art, I suddenly felt like #ArchivalQuality needed to be a graphic novel.' - @ivynoelle Click To Tweet
In an interview with Weir and Steenz, both expressed incredible passion for this graphic novel, their first with Oni Press. The team has collaborated on several other comics projects, including a short for the series Princeless, through Action Lab Comics.
Archival Quality began as a prose novel that Weir worked on as an escape from her studies when she was interning in the image archive of a medical history museum — which she said was “100 percent ethical, not haunted, and awesome.”
“I worked on that book off and on for years,” Weir said, “but when I met Steenz and saw her art, I suddenly felt like it needed to be a graphic novel. I approached her about it and thankfully, she was on board!”
Once Archival Quality transitioned into a graphic novel, the collaboration process took hold. Steenz said that she and Weir mostly worked around each other’s sleep schedules, and that drawing the book took over a year to complete. At nearly 300 pages, this graphic novel is a behemoth compared to other comics, many of which are written as single issues before being collected in trade paperbacks.
“We talked every single day,” Steenz said. “We still do! I see it as a pair of best friends creating something great instead of a writer and an artist collaborating.”
Steenz said that one of her favorite moments in the book happens pretty early on: “…when Cel is packing up to move into the museum was when I felt like I was really getting a hold on Cel’s mannerisms and physical personality. When Ivy writes, you get the plot vividly, but she left the characterizations to a minimum so I could really mold them to be what I saw in my head. A true partnership.”
Weir admitted that if Steenz wasn’t interested in drawing Archival Quality, she would have continued writing it as a prose novel. Once it became a comic, however, the story changed significantly, and the creation process pushed Weir to adapt her writing to comics. She also said that while much of Archival Quality is grounded in real research or life experience, she leaned into the “ghost story” more as the graphic novel came to fruition.'We talked every single day. We still do! I see it as a pair of best friends creating something great instead of a writer and an artist collaborating.' - @oheysteenz, on creating #ArchivalQuality with @ivynoelle Click To Tweet
“I studied the topic of historical psychiatric treatments extensively in school, to inform my own artwork. I’ve lived with depression and anxiety since I was a young teenager, and have been in some sort of therapy on-and-off since then, so I was always drawn to the topic as a way to understand myself, too,” Weir said.
“That said, and I mention this in the afterword to the book, I leaned away from reality a bit for the actual medical treatments. I’m not a doctor, and while I’ve done tons of research into the subjects tackled in Archival Quality, I thought I’d be opening the door to potentially misrepresenting things, so I wanted to err on the side of vague,” she added.
“It’s a ghost story, and a story about Cel finding her own path through depression, and I didn’t want the gory details of a lobotomy to become the focus,” Weir said. “I did list some books in the epilogue for readers who are curious about the history discussed in our story, though!”
Archival Quality definitely goes beyond the limits of traditional ghost stories, though certain elements are classically haunting. Things fall off shelves, end up in strange places, and create lasting tension as the characters struggle to figure out what’s going on. Meanwhile, Cel struggles with her depression and expresses aversion to taking medicine for her symptoms — something many people experience, including Weir.
“I wanted to portray Cel realistically – for example, her aversion to taking medicine is something I really struggled with, especially when I was younger,” she said. “It was important to me to show Cel not being ‘fixed’ or ‘cured’ at the end of the story, rather, learning to move forward and manage.”
Weir added, “I realize that the way she feels and acts isn’t going to fit with everyone’s lived experience with mental health — depression doesn’t look the same on everyone, and we’re all going to handle it differently.”'It’s a ghost story, and a story about Cel finding her own path through depression, and I didn’t want the gory details of a lobotomy to become the focus.' -@ivynoelle on #ArchivalQuality Click To Tweet
Like Weir, Steenz said she also drew inspiration from lived experiences when working on Archival Quality.
“All my references were of me and my fiance exclusively and many of the places (the diners) were all based off places I’ve been,” Steenz said. “Holly [the librarian, Steenz’s favorite character] is kind of a mix of me and my twin sister. Hair colors: me, fashion sense: sister. Also, purely coincidental, Celeste is also the name of my twin.”
As for the setting of Archival Quality, Logan Museum is also more absurdly sinister than any modern medical history museum that Weir knows of. “That’s purely for the spooky factor,” she said.
However, both Weir and Steenz advocated for the importance of libraries during the course of our interview: “Stay spooky and get a library card!” Steenz urged. Weir seconded the suggestion.
As former librarians themselves, both Steenz and Weir said that libraries hold a special place for them.
“I will always be an advocate for libraries,” Weir said. “Librarians have to wear an incredible amount of hats and work so hard — there are so many factors to working in a library that most people never consider. You basically have to be a librarian, an IT professional, a social worker, and a marketing professional all in one. Appreciate your local librarian!”
“I worked in a public library for five years, and I think the thing I saw that shocked me the most what the shortsightedness of most people when it comes to the importance of the library,” Weir said.
She noted the importance of libraries for providing access to tools and resources for those who might not have the same access points at home. “…daily, I saw that the public library was so much more — it was a place to learn English, to develop literacy skills, to get homework resources, to access job hunting websites, to gather in a community space to organize ideas and projects,” Weir said.
Steenz agreed with Weir’s assessment, adding: “The kind of people who use the library use it because they need it. Sure there are casual users and come to the library to get work done or they drop their kids off to sit and read for a few hours,” she said. “But the vast majority of patrons are those who need a place like the library to survive.”
According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, 55 percent of new Americans — immigrants — utilize a library at least once a week. As such, librarians have stepped to the forefront of the fight against the administration’s repeated attempts to thwart immigration into the country. They’ve also been heralded as important pillars in the struggle against disinformation and “fake news”.
Weir also noted that very few public spaces are truly free, but libraries are public spaces that provide services at no cost to patrons. Even for casual library users, this allows people who might not otherwise be able to afford certain services or luxuries (like comic books) the ability to indulge.'Stay spooky and get a library card!' @oheysteenz urged. @ivynoelle seconded the suggestion. #ArchivalQuality Click To Tweet
“Public libraries are especially important to me because that’s where I read my first comic book,” Steenz said. “The idea that Archival Quality could be someone’s first comic book absolutely thrills me.” She added, “I hope loads of people look to their library for Archival Quality. One of the main characters IS a librarian! It would be a shame to not have it in the collection.”
Archival Quality hits stores in March. You can pre-order the book on Amazon or at your local comic shop before February 12 to get it on release day. To keep up with Ivy Noelle Weir, check out her website and follow her on Twitter. To keep up with Steenz, follow her on Twitter, too.
To find a local library near you, check out the Digital Public Library of America. You can also access thousands of ebooks and audiobooks from your local library right on your phone with Libby app, available for iOS and Android.