An epic quest story of high science fantasy, Michelle Fus’s Ava’s Demon is one of the most popular titles in webcomics history. Now with its first graphic novel collection Ava’s Demon Book One: Reborn available through Skybound Comet, the YA saga is winning a new audience of readers. We recently sat down with Michelle as part of our ongoing celebration of Pride Month 2023, and the animation artist turned cartoonist told us about their origins, inspirations, and plans for their heroine Ava’s future. Here’s what they had to say…
How would you describe Ava’s Demon for those who are just discovering it?
It’s a story about transformation. As a teenager, I really had a strong desire to just be reborn somewhere else as a different person. To put it literally, it’s about a girl who’s possessed by the ghost of an alien queen who’s the complete opposite of her. Even though it’s scary and daunting – her quest that she embarks on with this this alien ghost that wants revenge – I like to think that there is strength in taking on things that are scary. So that’s the theme of the story, in a sci-fi and fantasy setting with a bunch of different alien rulers from a different time in a different place in the universe.
Why do you think Ava’s Demon is such a hit with so many comic readers?
I think there are a lot of different things that attract them to the comic. Everybody kind of finds a little piece of themself in all the characters or in the world. I know I just wanted to make something that I really enjoyed. I went with my gut about what I should make. Mostly because it was a side project that I started with… I think a lot of people identify with Ava wanting a new life. The theme of transformation and rebirth is something people identify with.
How did you discover and fall in love with comics?
As a kid, I felt the need to escape a lot. Comics was just one of the things I escaped into. I like anything with a good story that helps me live another character’s life. I was really into manga growing up, mostly because it had characters that I could really relate to. And I felt the need to tell my own stories. The easiest, most basic way for a 13, 14-year-old to try and make their own stories was just to make comics. It’s one of the most concise and simplest forms of storytelling. So even kids can understand it.
There’s a real purity of vision to your work, in both the writing and visuals. How do you keep it so uncluttered and minimalistic?
I think working in animation helped a lot. Because the nature of making animated movies is to keep them the least cluttered as possible. Because you wanna keep the attention of the audience, and you don’t want the movie to be too long. I didn’t outright go and analyze movies, but I kind of studied and noticed that the animated movies I enjoyed as a kid feel much shorter as an adult, and much more concise. I try to keep that in mind and only communicate the ideas that are important to me and try not to necessarily get carried away.
It is still pretty hard for me, because there are just so many things that you really feel like you wanna explore as an artist when telling a story. But there might never really be opportunities or ways to fit it in.
How did you first come to work in animation?
I graduated from School of Visual Arts, for Computer Art and Animation, and I got a job at Dreamworks Animation, and I interned at Pixar. The things that really inspired me were the storyboards and the color scripts that they would make. How they really did have to put an entire scene into just this one image using color and light. Not even words.
I thought if I could hit something like that in a comic, I thought maybe it would be interesting to do. Because you can see how that kind of planning carries over to limiting the scenes in the movies. To communicate the idea, but to also keep them to the point.
While you were working in animation, did you approach comics as another creative outlet? As a break from the day job?
I always really loved comics and I kind of got sidetracked in life with what I thought I should be doing as an artist, as opposed to what I really wanted to do. So starting a comic was just a way to cope with not feeling very fulfilled in animation. Even though I was really grateful for all the opportunities I got, I just didn’t feel like it was for me. I really wanted to get more into storytelling.
Speaking of storytelling… When you’re doing your web comic, how far ahead do you envision the story?
I like having a lot of structure, because I feel like a lot of ideas can be very fleeting. So when I think of specific ideas pertaining to the point that I want to get across, I definitely write them down. I have it all planned out. Whether or not, I’ll get there is a different story – just because up until this point, there have been things that I have changed as I was doing them. But it’s important for me to have a guide and an outline. Even if I don’t communicate an idea that I originally wanted to do one way, I’ll still do it in a completely different way that I like.
What inspired and informed Ava’s Demon? Were you a big fan of fantasy or science fiction?
I grew up with a lot of things, but I do like fantasy. I grew up with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, so I like the hero’s journey. I grew up with a lot of sci-fi stuff. I guess my taste is kind of corny, but I really liked Starship Troopers and I really liked The Fifth Element and I really liked Galaxy Quest. I kind of liked all the goofy spinoffs of traditional sci-fi. But I also have a lot of respect for things like Dune. I really like Dune a lot…
The book or the film?
The book. But I like David Lynch too, so… The film wasn’t ideal, but I like the setting and I like the fantasy elements mixed in with being in a different world.
Are you working on anything else right now or is Ava’s Demon taking up all of your time?
This is taking up all my time. But, you know, I do think about other things… I’m also a horror fan. I really like the horror genre. I really like Junji Ito and I really like modern horror movies. It seems like people keep coming up with really cool things and it feels like horror is one of the more unlimited genres because you’re allowed to go over the top.
So I might explore that one day, writing horror graphic novels.
What else inspires you these days?
I’m constantly looking at new things, but a lot of them don’t inspire me as much as they would’ve when I was a kid. These days, the weirder it is, the more I enjoy it. Like, if there is no real plot that makes sense, I don’t necessarily care, if it’s a spectacle. I like stories made by independent people because they usually veer off the beaten path and it’s unpredictable. I think I’m just constantly on the search for really weird stuff. I don’t know how else to put it.
One thing off the top of my head that I really enjoyed recently was that horror movie called Smile. A lot of the weird stuff that comes out, it might have bad reviews, but I’ve learned just to ignore it and kind of take it in for what it is. I really enjoyed the new Dune movie too. It was the most faithful they’ve ever been to the franchise, aside from the Syfy show that they made way back. I really like Chainsaw Man. It was bizarre and it was super over the top. Something about it being over the top was so refreshing to me. Just the absolute chaos of it.
I really like Ranking of Kings. It was nice to see an anime that was almost Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings-inspired and the characters were designed much differently than most mainstream anime. Also, I really related to the story – when it feels like not many people believe in you, because of their judgments of you. The main character is a little deaf king. People think he’s weak because he’s deaf and because he’s small, but he actually finds his strength, his own unique strength over the series.
Going back to Ava’s Demon… Do you have an endpoint in mind yet for your saga?
Oh yeah, I have an end point. I had an end before I started making it.
Given your background in film, can you see Ava’s Demon being adapted for the screen one day?
Oh, yeah! Definitely. I’ve written it specifically with that in mind, just because I was in animation. Again, the storyboard process inspired me and I hope other people get inspired by it too and perhaps adapt it. That would be very cool. But we’ll see!