Stephanie Phillips Challenges Violence in 'Eight Limbs'
We chat with the comic book scribe about her love letter to Muay Thai, and how it informs her storytelling.
Welcome to our Creator Corner, our new reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the comics industry. In this entry, we're conversing with Stephanie Phillips about Eight Limbs. Listen to the unedited audio HERE.
What's the difference between fighting in the ring and fighting out of the ring? Eight Limbs, the new graphic novel from Humanoids, written by Stephanie Phillips and illustrated by Giulia Lalli, explores the question and, in the process, celebrates Muay Thai and what the martial arts gifted the story's scribe.
The comic centers on two fighters. Joanna is a former Muay Thai champion trying to accept her new life as a mother and gym operator. Mari has bounced around the foster system, and it's eager to grind her up or spit her out. Joanna and Mari challenge each other after a friend connects the two, but Muay Thai offers respite, respect, and understanding.
As San Diego Comic-Con looms on the horizon, Stephanie Phillips found some time in her hectic schedule to sit down with us and discuss Eight Limbs. She explains what Muay Thai contributed to her life and how it informs her storytelling. We tackle a fighter's relationship with violence and why we should never let the small ugliness festering within fandom distract from the beauty that vastly overwhelms it.
Brad: My interpretation of the comic is that it's your way of giving back to Muay Thai in some fashion. Would you agree with that?
Stephanie Phillips: Yeah, absolutely. Actually, the name of the gym, Freestyle Muay Thai - that's the name of the gym that I worked at. So yeah, it's absolutely my love letter to the sport and elements of the sport that were really important to me and things I'm still thinking about, about bodies, about progressing and aging in sports. And something I thought about this morning too, lifting weights. I'm like, "Well, there's a crack that wasn't there last week." So yeah, it's about changing and growing up as an athlete, and I think that's very different for women to think about.
Brad: And when you're communicating this experience that you had with the sport, do you feel an extra sense of responsibility in translating it into comic form?
Stephanie Phillips: That's an interesting question. Yeah, I think so because it's really visual. So something that I talked with Giulia about, the wonderful artist on the book, was form and providing video reference and photo reference. And not to be overbearing, but how you do the technique is both important to how a woman's body looks doing the motions, and also important to the message of the story. So there was maybe an added responsibility there, and I think Giulia just absolutely nailed it and killed it, and I think got really invested in the art of Muay Thai as well, which is really cool.
Brad: Yeah, you can see it in the pages. It's often a hard thing to communicate this particular type of sport in stills, in panels. And I think she knocks it out the park, to borrow another sports metaphor.
Stephanie Phillips: I like it. Yeah, I think she did too. I think it turned out absolutely gorgeous and better than I could have imagined.
Brad: Lisa and I were talking about the comic earlier. And one of the nifty things that occurs in the story is that you have the function of a teacher and a student. So it allows the story through education to talk directly to the reader, and entice the reader's imagination about what this sport can possibly bring them.
Stephanie Phillips: Yeah, absolutely. Maybe that's partly because I taught Muay Thai. So I fought for a while, and then when I couldn't fight anymore, I taught Muay Thai. And one of my goals was absolutely to bring more women into the gym and more representation to something that's very male dominated, both in terms of the sport and the gym I went to. And also thinking through people that would come in and experience the gym and be turned away by it, because there was this very hyper aggressive component to the sport, which it was something maybe I didn't quite think about from somebody else's perspective coming in and being like, "People yell?"
And it's like, "Yeah, absolutely." When you kick, you get more power if you yell. And there's a joke about everyone yells a little different when they do this. And it's like I can imagine coming in for the first time and there's a bunch of men hitting things and yelling. It's like, "Okay, that's terrifying." So seeing it through somebody else's eyes I think is both funny, but also just this outsider perspective on something that I'm very maybe indoctrinated into, gives the reader the perspective of both somebody that's been there a long time and somebody new coming in, that maybe they want to go out and try it or learn more about it, which would be great.
Brad: Well, that's another thing that Lisa and I were talking about, is we tend to go into stories about combat sports with our arms crossed a little bit, because we are so ... We're so anxious around aggression, and sometimes I think we misinterpret what Muay Thai is about, what boxing's about, what any kind of martial art is about. And we're put off by the violence aspect. But what Eight Limbs does so well is it talks about the difference between what you do in the ring versus what could happen out of the ring. And this idea of violence versus respect. Can you expand on that concept a little bit more, about this idea of the choice that you make when you go into the ring?
Stephanie Phillips: Yeah, I think it's something I've thought a lot about as well. I've run a lot of self-defense classes too, and I did a project a long time ago that talked to sexual assault victims and their turn to martial arts, which is really interesting. And then I think there was a component piece about it on CNN, where one of the women that was part of this group actually talked about her story on CNN. And it's something that's been really interesting to me, which is people that have been victims of extreme violence turn to fighting as something that makes them feel empowered. And that's such an interesting dichotomy between those two things that I've been fascinated with it ever since. And I don't know that I'll ever completely make complete sense of it, which is maybe why I write about it or practice Muay Thai so much.
But I think there's something really interesting there about the idea of choice, about stepping into the ring and choosing this very violent sport that we are doing both with respect, we are learning, we are controlling every element of what we're doing, and responding in a way that makes you feel very comfortable with your body and comfortable with what's going on.
And I think that choice is really at the heart of the difference between fighting and violence. And again, I don't know that I have a great answer for it, but I think it's something that's really interesting and it's something that I've seen with a lot of women I've worked with. It's something I've experienced and it's something that I really wanted to try to portray with the different women characters in the book. So they all have a different reason for choosing to fight. And some of them, like Mari, has a background with violence. So coming out of that and saying, "Okay, this fighting that I'm choosing to do is different than the violence that I was a part of." So I think that was a really interesting thing to think about while writing the story.
Brad: And the answer to that thought experiment is the comic itself.
Stephanie Phillips: Yeah.
Brad: What I was fascinated by, and I don't want to spoil too much about what goes on plot wise, but there is a character named George that is introduced at some point in the story that represents the opposite of this philosophy. When did George come into the story?
Stephanie Phillips: I think he was always there. And it's always the ugly side of martial arts in any form, is this overly aggressive thing. You see it a lot. I would run the beginner classes a lot at the gym I worked at, and those were always I think maybe the most fun because you have such an array of people. You'd have somebody come in whose very excited to try martial arts and excited to be a part of the community. And then you would have somebody come in that's clearly just there to punch somebody.
And that dynamic of this person, just like, "I am very excited that there's some place where I'm allowed to go and just beat somebody up." And it's like, "Yo, that's not what this is." So it would be interesting, I think, to see those different people come through the door. And the reason those people do come through the doors because there is an ugly side to MMA and martial arts. And I think that there's probably been some bad incidents. And so George represents that side of things, but it's not the whole of the community. And I think the community at large is very respectful, very welcoming from what I've experienced, moving around to different states. Even other countries, martial arts is a very welcoming community for the large majority.
Brad: Why should sports operate any different than any other fandom? All kinds of negative forces breed within these cultures, and they offer us an opportunity to reflect on what we represent and what we want to put out into the world. And again, I think that's what Eight Limbs is.
Stephanie Phillips: Yeah, I hope so. I'm glad you feel that way, so thank you. Yeah, absolutely. Sports are a huge part of my life, whether it's hockey, Muay Thai, football. I love sports and in particular, I think Muay Thai means a lot to me personally. And I think getting to demonstrate that side of it, which not a lot of outsiders know, I think maybe there is that general conception of the tough MMA guy covered in tattoos just looking for a fight. And so to showcase what my reality with the sport is, is something that I think comics allowed us to do in a way that maybe other mediums wouldn't. So yeah, I'm happy it came out.
Brad: I love that thought. Could you extend on that a little bit, how this story works so well for comics or what comics allows you to do that maybe another medium would not?
Stephanie Phillips: Yeah, I think it's the visual elements of it. And yeah, of course you have something like animation or movies, and I think it could very well be translated. But for me, I'm a comic book writer. And so the way I envision it is in the comic form. The way that we tell stories, static pages and panels, which obviously you need an artist like Giulia who can absolutely nail the design of those things. There's one spread in particular that I'm thinking about in my mind when you ask this question. Some people call it a dance that you do before the fight -
Brad: [Holds Up Splash Page]
Stephanie Phillips: Yes, that page! When you get put into the ring. And it's something that a couple times a week the fight team would do with our trainer. And sometimes, when you would go to fight wherever you're fighting, sometimes they would be like, "You can't do this. It takes too long." That kind of thing.
And they'd want to just get the fights rolling, so you would do an abbreviated version. Sometimes it was always different, but fighters would often make that dance their own. There's a lot of famous examples of people that get very playful with it in the ring. And really make it their own way of showing respect to the sport and the fighter and their trainers, which I thought was really cool. And in my mind, I was like, "Okay, this might be a really difficult thing to show in a comic." But it ended up being, I think, the perfect format for it. Just the different glimpses of this dance while Joanna is talking over the top of it. And I really, really love the way that Giulia portrayed it. I pitched this idea out to her and she ran with it, and I was like, "This is why the comic works so well. This is beautiful." So yeah.
Brad: What I love about that spread is how the panels drop out. There's no borders. And so by not having borders on this page, it creates a fluidity that would not be there otherwise. And yeah, it is such a comics moment.
Stephanie Phillips: Yeah.
Brad: What has Muay Thai taught you? And what do you bring from it into comics?
Stephanie Phillips: One of the biggest things, and I don't know that this is specific to Eight Limbs, but I think the way how any character fights. Talking about comic books, there's a lot of fighting, it's very specific to their personality. I've written Wonder Woman who's a very structured warrior, she's a trained warrior. And she fights very different than Harley Quinn does, who at some point, I think I had Harley strangling a psychiatric orderly with a feather boa. And it's like all these different components to how somebody fights or moves, I think is also embedded in their personality. The way that Mari fights in the book is actually different from the way Joanna fights. There's more aggression. Joanna's very controlled. And in part, Joanna is the more experienced Muay Thai fighter, and we wanted to show that. But also there's I think an element to who they are.
Joanna is a more defensive fighter, and Mari is a more offensive fighter. And I think that's just part of their personalities, is Mari's going to go hit first, whereas Joanna's looking to use openings against her opponent. And I think that gets into a very psychological element of the two people we're dealing with. And I wanted to show that Mari and Joanna, as they get closer, are still two very, very different women. And I wanted to show that both in the physicality, how they react and respond to physicality, and also just the way that they respond to each other, which was really fun to have them play off of one another.
Brad: Stephanie, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about Eight Limbs. I hope everyone who loves all your other comics work finds their way to this book. I think it's something that you've never really put out there before and it's really rad to see.
Stephanie Phillips: Well, thank you. Thank you so much for doing this.
Eight Limbs is now available from Humanoids. Purchase it wherever fine comic books are sold. Click HERE to find the shop nearest you.