To say as Star Trek fans that we have days where we wish it were real is probably an understatement. The wish to traverse space, to take part in building a better future with our own two hands, to walk among beings of infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Which is why as Trek fans any one of us would have a natural curiosity about what it would be like to grow up believing it was real. Enter Amy Rose.
In April of 2020 Rose and writer/cartoonist Ryan Estrada published a comic (which can be read here) on StarTrek.com. The comic gives a brief look into the unconventional childhood of Rose, growing up in a cult that taught that the aliens of Trek were very real. That Gene Roddenberry was an awakened being connected to a cosmic truth. But, by some miracle of Rose’s own resilience, the characters in the world of Star Trek inspired her to withstand the strange confusing messages that were being thrown at her. So naturally when we here at Women at Warp were asked if we’d be interested in saying a few words on Occulted, a full-length graphic novel from Rose, Estrada, and illustrator Jeongmin Lee about the experience, I was on board.
The book details the introduction of Rose’s family to an organization offering free yoga and meditation classes to help with her mother’s health and their family problems. Soon enough though, Mom is gifted a new name by the totalitarian leader, the kids are only allowed to read children’s books about the organization, Dad is conscripted into the “Away Team” to find new recruits, and the family suddenly consists only of a silent Amy and her Mom. It isn’t a stretch to say that watching things progress from there is ROUGH.
To hear any account of a family falling apart is going to sting, but to watch it happen through the eyes of a small child is a winding road of emotional and literal nightmares. Amy struggles to make sense of a contradictory world that keeps taking from her, but somehow manages to fight for her sense of self. The little rebellions of free thought and found joy are a child’s weapon against hopelessness. And Amy puts up an honest fight that you can’t help but be proud of. She survives. She gets to be a whole person.
I’m happy to say (and I’m sure you as a Trek fan will be happy to hear) that even a sci-fi obsessed cult-leader couldn’t sour grown up Amy Rose’s love of Star Trek. We were able to reach out to her and Ryan Estrada with a few questions on her experience as a fan.
GM: Can you tell us a little about your introduction to Trek? What were your first impressions of it?
AMY: My first memory of Star Trek is watching it with my mom and thinking that her hair looked like Deanna Troi’s. My mom was always so engrossed in the episodes, I remember not being able to get her attention when the show was on. As I got older and got into Voyager too, both shows became a safe haven for me. They are so easy to escape into.
GM: It looks like TNG is a personal favorite of yours, do you have a specific character or story that you connected with?
AMY: It’s hard to pick just one. The whole TNG family really had an impact on me. I remember being jealous that Commander Data had no emotions. On bad days I could try to emulate him and on good days I could try to appreciate human emotions like he did. And “What would Picard do?” has guided me through a lot of tough decisions. He is such a careful adventurer. On the other hand, the Voyager crew’s story was so captivating. They were barraged with tough choices that tested their morality and humanity. And as a teenager I had a huge crush on Tom Paris.
GM: Trek had to be an influence on you pursuing an education and career in science, right? Is watching any different for you now that you have that scientific background?
AMY: Boy, that episode where they played poker with Stephen Hawking. *heart eyes emoji* Star Trek is 100% to blame for my career choices. Not just because it is set in starships encountering wormholes. It fostered in me the belief that I could do anything I put my mind to. Overcoming adversity and striving for excellence is a theme repeated in all of the series. The more I learned in university about the universe the more I appreciated Star Trek, TNG especially. They tried to be true to the science whenever they could and imagined futures that are likely and based on what we know. Even when what they encountered was a bit outlandish, Picard often enforced the scientific method when investigating the phenomena.
GM: If you could tell someone who is considering watching Trek for the first time anything, what would it be?
AMY: I have told several people that Star Trek isn’t just sci-fi escapism at its best, it is also extremely topical. Watching old episodes is like digging through political and cultural history. You can watch the crew deal with situations that were similar to real world problems of their time. Moral problems people faced were mirrored and dealt with in the episodes in a really powerful but empathetic way. Thankfully, the new shows have continued that amazing work. We can watch the characters we respect handle the monstrous problems of our time in an elegant way.
GM: With all the new Trek they’re putting out, do you have any hopes for the Trek future?
AMY: I hope it continues to inspire kids to be their best and be curious. And I want them to keep tackling real-world problems and continue to teach people empathy.
At Rose’s request we kept her questions in the world of Trek, and reached out to Estrada and Lee for further questions on the book itself.
GM: What was your hope in helping Amy share this story?
RYAN: Amy inspires me. And I know her story can inspire others. I was incredibly touched to be one of the first people to hear it, and knew that if she was ready to tell it again, more people needed to hear it. Everyone has experienced manipulation, gaslighting, and indoctrination. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a cult. It can be a family member, a friend group, a significant other, a political group, or even a multilevel marketing company. It’s a cycle that breaks down your confidence and individuality, and it can be incredibly hard to break out of. By showing how Amy learned that she was in such a cycle, figuring out the process of manipulating someone into compliance, and breaking free of it, we hope that we can help anyone who reads it recognize those steps and escape them sooner. And by telling it in the course of a sci-fi-themed adventure story with Vulcans, flying turtles, and sexy space Gandhis, that message can reach people who aren’t actively looking for it.
GM: Tell us about the decision to make Occulted a YA title. Was this a difficult decision to make?
RYAN: Every book I write has the same target audience: me. It’s up to publishers, libraries and bookstores to decide what shelf they want to put it on, and I hope that anyone who stumbles across it can enjoy it. I’d assumed that Occulted would be YA simply because that’s where my previous graphic memoir Banned Book Club was shelved, but we ran into problems! Many only consider a book to be YA if its main character spends most of their time at that age. But a large part of this story happened when Amy was younger. However, if we considered the book middle grade, some of the scary true stories, as well as the cult leader’s habit of smoking like a chimney, could be considered too intense for younger readers. But I think that if kids young Amy’s age can experience that kind of situation, there should be books available to help explain it. So I don’t know what we want to call it, I hope it’s a book that anyone can pick up and feel something!
GM: Can you tell our readers how you and Amy connected on this story?
RYAN: I was running a storytelling show in Busan, South Korea. It was called NDA. The schtick was that everyone who entered the building had to sign a non-disclosure agreement so that everyone could be completely honest and tell stories they’d never tell otherwise and no one was allowed to talk about it outside of the room. It was basically just a joke, to make the night seem more fun and dangerous. People admitted to fun and adorable crimes, told saucy stories of their younger days that they didn’t want to tarnish their current reputations, and it was the typical fun night out in a bar. Someone was on stage telling their story and the audience was laughing, folks in the back were chatting, and others were ordering at the bar.
Then Amy got up to tell her story.
When she finished, the bar was SILENT. Everyone was frozen. It was a story Amy had never told in public before. We all knew Amy. We all loved Amy. We had no idea she’d been through something like that, and the way she told it was so powerful that it brought us all to tears. I had to go on stage after her to do my hosting duties, and I didn’t even know what to say.
Afterward, I knew it was a story that needed to be told, but because of my own silly show theme, (and of course Amy’s privacy) no one could talk about it. It was until Amy bravely told the story again on a podcast that I suggested the idea of turning it into a book (as well as our Star Trek comic.) I’m honored that she agreed.
Ryan, you’re no stranger to the world of book bannings (his book with Hyun Sook Kim and illustrator Hyung-Ju Ko, Banned Book Club, is about book bannings at a South Korean University in the 1980’s) . Did that knowledge give you any kind of concern for this book as a YA title, or did it strengthen you wanting it to be a YA title?
RYAN: After interviewing so many people who risked their lives and safety for the freedom to read in the process of writing Banned Book Club, speaking out against book bans has been very important to me. It was only strengthened when Banned Book Club itself was banned in a school district in Florida. I’ve been working with many of the librarians, teachers, authors, and organizations on the front lines of the fight. And we’ve seen that the motivations behind the groups banning books in America are just as sinister and selfish as those under dictators or cult leaders. I found one book challenge that got a children’s picture book about friendly bears banned because they said its themes of zen, kindness, and empathy were incompatible with Christianity. They suggested that rather than teach turning the other cheek, the book teach Castle Doctrine instead so kids can learn to simply shoot those who trespass against them. Then they tried to ban Banned Book Club so that no one could see that it describes their exact playbook. This makes it more important to get Occulted out into the world for those who need it the most. They can ban it all they want, we won’t stop fighting back!
GM: With rebellion and questioning authority being such big parts of the story, what are you wanting YA readers to take away from it?
RYAN: I want readers to know that they can stand up for themselves and make their own decisions, even if they feel trapped in a situation where that doesn’t feel possible. And that the things that help you find your own voice can be the things you least suspect. Even though Star Trek was one of the tools the cult used to manipulate Amy, its messages of hope shined through and gave her the confidence and bravery she needed to boldly go where she never thought she could.
GM: Was it an intentional choice to leave the name of the cult out of the story? Can you tell us about that decision?
RYAN: Yes. The cult has taken up enough of Amy’s life and mental energy. They are known to be very vindictive and litigious, and Amy doesn’t need it. And the cult doesn’t need the publicity. Readers don’t need any of it either, because we want the story to feel universal. It’s not about the unique actions of one group, it’s about how those actions are everywhere, how they can control us and how we can break free from them.
GM: Do you have any future projects you’d like to tell our readers about?
RYAN: I have a couple more banned book-themed stories coming from Penguin Workshop, starting with No Rules Tonight in 2024. I also hope people check out my kids adventure series Student Ambassador, and all of my weird sci-fi novels that don’t have release dates yet. Check out ryanestrada.com any time to see what I’m working on. That’s also where you can find my own Star Trek story of my odd connection to the series!
GM: How did you come into this project?
MIN: I was invited to join this project by Ryan and Amy, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for several years now. Being part of a vibrant local community of creators in Busan, we often share our work and ideas with each other. At one event, Amy shared her compelling story, and Ryan saw its potential as a graphic novel. They collaborated on the script, and subsequently approached me with the opportunity to illustrate the project. It was a tremendous honor for me, and without hesitation, I eagerly accepted the invitation.
GM: This must have been so daunting to draw! What was it like going into this project knowing you were going to be putting Amy’s figurative and literal nightmares on paper?
MIN: Admittedly, the thought of visually depicting Amy’s personal struggles and nightmares through my artwork was a daunting prospect at first. During the initial stages, I spent a considerable amount of time sketching and refining the characters, but I was apprehensive about presenting them to my teammates, particularly Amy. While one of the main characters was an evil and ill-minded individual who had caused Amy great hardship in her youth, I tried to keep that character as comical and ridiculous as I can, given our graphic novel was intended for a teenage audience.
GM: Were there any specific artists or pieces of work you felt creatively influenced by with this work? Specifically in those nightmare sequences?
MIN: As an artist, I draw inspiration from a wide range of comic books I’ve read throughout my life. While I can’t point to any specific artist or artwork that directly influenced my creative approach for this project, I have certainly been inspired by the works of Junji Ito and Yoo Shijin, both well-known manga and manhwa artists, respectively, whose distinctive styles have left a lasting impression on me. Additionally, Ko Hyungju, the artist behind Banned Book Club, has also been a significant source of inspiration for me.
GM: Do you have any future projects you’d like to tell our readers about?
MIN: In terms of future projects, I am currently immersed in creating a series of linocut prints exploring the theme of anxiety. My ultimate goal is to complete a cohesive collection and showcase them at a solo exhibition. Additionally, I have been toying with the idea of pitching my own graphic novel concept, with Ryan’s encouragement. I am currently developing a storyline based on my own childhood experiences.
Amy’s final thoughts on Trek pretty succinctly sum up why a book with little actual Trek content in it still felt worth writing about on a Star Trek-based blog. The story of Amy, someone without power but full of curiosity and seeking knowledge, is one of the fight for a place of understanding and caring in a chaotic world. Starfleet would be lucky to have her.
Occulted will be published by Iron Circus Comics on June 6, 2023 with an MSRP of $15.00 US for the paperback edition. It is available for pre-order online, or will be available after June 6 at your local retailer.
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