Diner-Owning Superheroes – TANVI & GABBY

Listen to the episode, which is simply audio of the entire article here: https://wisenotwithered.podbean.com/e/diner-owning-superheroes-%E2%80%93-tanvi-gabby/

Hello everyone, and welcome to Week 11 of the Wise Not Withered Character Showcase! This week is one of only three PAIRS of women, and this time, they are a MARRIED COUPLE AND BUSINESS-PARTNER SUPER-HEROOOOOOOOEEESSS!!!!

I am absolutely delirious to present Tanvi and Gabby, our Diner-Owning Superheroes! They are both forty-two: they met and fell in love while in college, and have been together ever since. The initial idea I had for this character was that it would just be one: Tanvi, the Diner-Owning Superhero, would also live with her wife and their niece. But at some point, sort of like the Potion Witches, we decided that they would both share the spotlight.

The focus is still more so on Tanvi, as the story is also told in first-person from her perspective. I originally thought that Gabby would just be a supportive character to Tanvi, but when the idea was brought up that they would be a unit—both of them owning the diner and both of them superheroes—it just made sense.

If I had one regret about the project so far, it would be that I didn’t add in enough LGBTQ+ characters. The focus is definitely on expanding representation of middle-aged and elderly women, but the opportunity to include more diversity in sexuality and gender identity may have been missed. I did include a few other gay characters in the project, and with others they may identify as LGBT but those topics were never discussed in their stories because it is simply one aspect of a person.

That is one of the underlying motives for this project as well… I mentioned it briefly last week but it has been rolling around in my head for months now: None of the characters in the project has age as a defining characteristic. Akuol, one of the Potion Witches, does struggle with aging specifically in her story, but there is so much other stuff going on that it still represents only one aspect of that story and that character.

I feel that that sometimes becomes a story’s downfall: if the character is based almost entirely around one trait, it can be easy to start taking out the labels and judgements. The token old person who is always hacking and coughing and waving their cane. The token woman who is always meek, weak, and in need of assistance. The token gay character who wears pink and acts in a flamboyant way. When a character is flattened to a very specific way of thinking and acting, not only is it boring and trite, it’s downright damaging to the demographic that it’s supposedly representing.

I find it very powerful when a character’s sexuality is simply a part of who they are, while the story focuses on other aspects of their awesome life. I do think it’s important to show the struggles of minority groups, but also just as important to show their successes as well. Again, that is part of the goal in this project. The characters are all older women, who are still thriving. None of the stories are about their differentiating trait bringing them down.

With each of these characters, it was important to me that not only did we represent uncommonly seen ages, but also from a huge variety of perspectives. That is, from many different parts of the world, with different cultures and beliefs, styles and aesthetics. Being an interracial baby myself, with Filipino and Western European heritage, I also wanted to include a few characters in the project who were in an interracial relationship, or the result of one!

The illustrator I found for this character was Meghna. We first connected over Behance, then once we got to email, the conversation just rolled.

We exchanged so many long emails when we first met, getting to know one another and bouncing around ideas for the character. Since Meghna had chosen the character first (before I even found Kristen), we decided that the main diner-owning superhero would be of Indian descent, and her wife’s ethnicity would be that of our writer.

Meghna and I talked about our experiences growing up while not feeling like we totally belong, culturally or ethnicity-wise. We also talked about the setting of the story, and how it would make sense to take place in a more progressive country like the US (or Canada, as it turned out), for a gay couple to own a diner together. This is one of the nuggets that Meghna said in our email exchange, from Meghna herself:

I’m actually convinced that it takes an ambiguous cultural identity to really open our minds to things like the freedom to love who you want. From my point of view, I wouldn’t mind anyone in my family marrying outside of community, because my ties to the community are weak, at best. I haven’t grown up here, so I don’t feel that sense of belonging like the older generations would. It’s a little funny because we discussed in one of our classes that culture is dynamic and constantly changing, so there’s no point getting hung up on the specifics because what seems concrete today would just be outdated and obscure tomorrow. So many traditions die out, it really makes no sense to me to worry about the specifics of caste and creed mattering.

I wanted the cultural representation to be as authentic as it could be. I didn’t want someone writing about a culture that they knew nothing about. At some point, it was decided that the superhero’s wife would be Asian. So, I accepted the challenge!

I scoured the internet for a writer who was Asian AND identified as LGBT. I typed in all kinds of hashtags, spending a couple hours pouring over pages of twitter, Instagram, and random blogs on the internet, and it was finally #queerasian that brought me to Kristen!

Kristen’s online pages are under “The Sapphic Nerd”, which has such a beautiful ring to it! I was so intrigued by the posts on her blog, not only cartoon and book reviews advocating for representation of LGBTQ+ and women, but also about her own experiences as a queer woman of color.

Something Kristen said really hit a chord with me: “There’s also the added element of a superhero having more abilities than a regular person, but being frustratingly the same as everyone else is in how they deal with their relationships (romantic and non-romantic).”

When Kristen joined the conversation, the three of us just bounced around ideas like dumping a gum ball machine into a bouncy house. It wasn’t quite as mad as that image seems though; we quickly, mutually decided on loads of details and got to work! The story that Kristen wrote, titled “Change”, is everything I wanted it to be and more. The characters of Tanvi and Gabby are so relatable, and the way they interact is just perfect.

It was really important that I include a lesbian couple in the project, showing a stable gay relationship into middle age. Tanvi is significantly more emotional and outspoken, while Gabby is more reserved and calm. They joke around often, and balance each other out very well, working together as a loving couple, as well as business-owner partners, and a super hero team. Tanvi’s powers revolve around gravity, while Gabby has the power to multiply things, including herself.

Illustration by Meghna

When I first thought of the character concept, simply a Diner-Owning Superhero and her wife, I wanted to add in that their niece gets kidnapped. Tanvi’s niece Navami wanted to go to college near where Tanvi and Gabby live, so she moved to Toronto and is living with them. What ended up happening is that Tanvi’s older sister (niece Navami’s mother) tries to take Navami back home to India.

Instead of a crazy villain kidnapping her niece, it’s her own sister who is struggling with seeing her daughter changing and becoming more comfortable in Canada’s more progressive society. I thought this addition worked perfectly, as it still creates quite a bit of conflict and drama, not to mention it shows how Tanvi and Gabby are still dealing with disapproval from their family about their relationship (though the relationship itself is still very strong and solid).

Meghna took some time to introduce herself and talk about the characters Tanvi and Gabby, including their creation/inspiration, and their illustrations.

Hey! I’m Meghna, I’m in my mid twenties and an architect and graphic-designer, specializing in illustration. I’m from Kerala in the south of India, but I was born and brought up in the Middle East so there’s always been a sense of not completely belonging to either culture. I’ve been drawing seriously maybe from the ninth grade when I got SUPER into Beyblade and Naruto. I spent my summers in India and these two shows would play on Cartoon Network in the evenings and I was OBSESSED, and that isn’t even an exaggeration. When I returned home, I experienced withdrawal symptoms and hadn’t figured out that I could possibly watch the shows online, so I started drawing anime-inspired art of my own to make up for the void (to be a tad dramatic). Over the years, my art style did evolve based on what I was reading and watching. I don’t think I’ve found ‘My style’ just yet, and I’m not sure if I will, because I like the evolution process too much to really let myself get too comfortable with one method of work.

One of the first sketches Meghna made for Tanvi and Gabby
Another one of the first illustrations Meghna made

I’ve become so attached to both Tanvi and Gabby over the process of their creation, and reading Kristen’s portrayal of them only cemented my attachment to them. As a queer Indian woman myself, I’ve sort of ended up latching onto whatever little queer representation I see in media, whether good or bad. A lot of this representation doesn’t necessarily have me identifying with it so having a chance to create this representation that would have meant so much to me as a young confused girl really feels more fulfilling than a lot of things I’ve worked on in the past, and I couldn’t be more grateful to Juliana for the opportunity. I’m also so thankful that over the months we emailed each other, I really found a good friend in both her and Kristen. Before they were fleshed out characters, the brief was basically just Diner-owning superhero wives, and everything about that just screamed at me to choose it and build it into something. I’ve been into Marvel and DC growing up, less of the comics, since I didn’t have access to that, but more of the animated series and movies, and the portrayal of women superheroes have been changing for the better has me delighted ♥ This felt like a little tribute to that too. And who doesn’t love a diner, right? It’s a foreign concept to me, since I haven’t really been to many, but it’s so romanticised in all those American movies I watched growing up.

Regarding the look of the characters, their costumes were entirely thought up by Kristen and she did such a marvelous job that I really had so much material to work with. I did experiment with a few different styles, ranging from super stylized to more realistic and sort of settled on a middle ground. I did try to make sure that you could tell that they were middle-aged women of colour, with body types that stray from the ideal. Being a plus-size person myself, and I nearly always have been, it helped to draw someone I’d have loved to see on screen as a child, as an insecure teenager, as a less-insecure, but still sometimes insecure adult. Body diversity is still something that we don’t see enough of, even with big franchises like Marvel and DC and I’m hoping that changes in the future, but for now, being able to do this definitely counts towards some healing and satisfaction.

My main motivation for working on the Wise Not Withered project was that it made sense at the time. I had just been getting into gaming and had been watching animated shorts from Overwatch and League of Legends and remember being so fascinated with Ana, since she’d been the first person I’d ever seen in a game who was an elderly woman with an active role. Over time, it really just became about being involved in this project with women from all over the world who were working toward something, and I’m honoured to be a part of it, and to be associated with all these creators, and I’m so glad I took it up.

And now, an excerpt from Kristen’s story “Change”:

Changing doesn’t feel the way it looks on TV. It’s not some musical, sensual, colourful, intricate set of dance moves that take an entire minute to go through before you’re ready to fight. If I took that long, I’d barely save anyone! No. Changing for me is a bolt of lightning. It’s a shot of white heat and electricity that ricochets through my body in an instant and leaves me crackling with energy. With power. I’m transformed into someone else in an instant. All thanks to a little stone.

If I were up against anyone else – if this were some evil villain dragging my niece out of the diner instead of my own sister – I’d be able to change. But this is family business. Navami needs me, not some random superhero. I can’t smash my way through personal drama. I mean, I could but that might not be the most productive…

Instead, I chase after them, reaching the diner’s entrance doors before they fully close. I’m not worried about what the customers will think. Most of them are regulars – even friends – and they’ve seen me throw out my fair share of unwanted guests or break up fights.

“Revathi, what are you doing?!” I demand of my sister, feeling the stone pulse from my necklace. I push away the power it offers.

“What are you doing?” My sister hurls back at me. “You and your lifestyle have been influencing my daughter! I see her posting photos with these weird people, going everywhere with them. She’s becoming like you!”

It takes me a split-second to understand and I give her a flat look. “She’s not turning gay, if that’s what you mean.” I know this because Navami and I regularly have in-depth conversations about things that would make her mother go pale. Not in a creepy way! My wife and I are just open to talking about anything, and so far, it’s resulted in quite a harmonious relationship with our resident teenager.

Revathi, who looks positively scandalized that I said that word, jerks Navami’s elbow. “See? Look at your values! Talking like that now.” I clench my fists. “I’m taking my daughter back to India.”

“What?! Ma, It’s the middle of the semester! I can’t go back!” Navami digs her heels in and there’s a stubbornness to her expression I’m not used to seeing from her… but have seen many times on her mother. I almost smirk.

“You can study somewhere else. I’ll pay for you to go anywhere, but I don’t like what’s happening to you here.”

“I like it here!” She argues. “I have a life here! You can’t make me leave!”

“You’re my daughter! You have to listen to me.”

“Ladies,” My wife’s voice cuts in, calm as ever as she leans on one of the diner doors to keep it open. “Are we putting on a show?” She angles her head over her shoulder.

All of us turn around to see a theatre of the diner’s patrons watching and Revathi shrinks. She hates disturbing the peace.

“I’ll be back in two days with plane tickets.” She says and storms toward her waiting taxi.

I exhale slowly and usher Navami back inside with my arm around her shoulders.

“I’m not leaving.” My niece states. Her expression is determined.

“Of course not.” I reply, nodding thanks to Gabby who’s holding the door for us.

Stay tuned for more Character Showcases, releasing every Sunday (sometimes Monday!) until mid-2020!


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