For Joseph D. Carriker, superheroes and the worlds they inhabited were an early escape from a sometimes difficult childhood. Growing up with a single mother in a rough neighborhood in Brownsville and coming to the realization that he was queer at a young age in the Rio Grande Valley of the 1980s, Joseph often immersed himself in reading sci-fi, comic books, and playing role-playing games (RPGs) such as Dungeons & Dragons.
Like many queer fans, superheroes and the challenges they faced in their stories resonated with Joseph, who often identified with the struggles of the marginalized and misunderstood characters he found in comic books like X-Men. However he also sometimes found himself frustrated by the lack of visible queer representation in most mainstream comic books and superhero fiction.
Joseph’s passion for creating and writing games and characters eventually led to a career in the gaming industry as a game developer. Joseph has the kind of job that many gaming and comic book geeks would dream of, helping create characters and worlds for games professionally. During his long career, Joseph was among the first game developers to include queer content and themes in RPGs, as part of a goal of making the gaming world more LGBTQ-inclusive.
After almost 20 years of doing this, Joseph decided to also pursue a new creative endeavor: writing his first novel, Sacred Band, about a group of LGBTQ superheroes.
The novel focuses on a diverse cast of super powered individuals including Rusty (who goes by the code name Gauss; a young gay man from Texas and former sex worker), Sentinel (a former publicly gay hero who is in retirement when the novel starts and who Rusty has idolized for most of his life), Deosil (a biracial half-white/half-native Hawaiian lesbian transgender woman), Optic (a bisexual African-American hero who was forced out of the Air Force towards the end of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy), and Llorona (an older Mexican-American lesbian).
Sacred Band was published in March of 2017 by Lethe Press and is available for purchase on Amazon. I sat down with Joseph to talk to him about his inspirations and goals for writing this novel, growing up as queer in the Valley, his work on creating LGBTQ-inclusive role playing games, and the importance of diverse representations in superhero fiction and other media.
So, first question, how do you feel growing up in the Valley influenced you?
I consider myself very fortunate. It was rough. We grew up in a really rough neighborhood. But I would definitely never trade growing up in the Valley for anything. It shaped me and made me who I am.
Because I grew up in the Valley, I didn’t live in a place that was majority-white until I moved to Oregon. And I think that gave me a perspective on diversity and on things such as white privilege and how it operates.
How did you first get into Sci-Fi and Gaming?
I went to Rivera High School in Brownsville in the first few years that it opened. And, at the time, when Rivera opened, it became sort of a dumping ground for all of the other districts to send all of the kids that they considered “problem children”, which included a lot of kids from various gangs. So it really was like the wild west at that school, there was always fighting and conflict between different groups of kids. So I spent a lot of time hiding away from all of that in the library and reading, which is where I discovered a lot of sci-fi and fantasy.
I started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was 12, so I’ve kind of identified as a gamer longer than I’ve identified as gay. So it’s interesting, because I know a lot of queer gamers who sort of used gaming as a way to test out their identities— whether it be gender identity or sexuality through characters they create for a game. I know many trans folks who are gamers and that was their first opportunity to kind of experience that difference and to engage in identity creation that to some degree was the beginning of their own sort of establishment of who they are.
So gaming was kind of an outlet for me not just to test out my queerness as I became more aware of that aspect of myself, but I also sort of tested out the reactions of my social groups by playing bisexual and gay characters.
And how did you transition from playing games to designing them professionally?
In 2000, White Wolf created a publishing house called Sword & Sorcery studios and began creating game material. And then they announced an all-call, where they put out a call for submissions saying they are creating this book that has this kind of content and asking for ideas. Basically saying that if they liked what you sent, they would publish it and pay you. So I worked up some of this content and sent it to them and they chose all of it. Then after that one of the developers from Sword & Sorcery studios got in touch with me and said that they really liked the content and asked if I would like to create more material for them on a freelance basis. So I started doing that and I basically never stopped. It’s been about 18 years or so at this point.
What are some of the things you’re most proud of in your career?
There’s a lot of stuff that I’m very proud of. I’m really proud of the various games where I’ve introduced queer content into early on. I didn’t see a lot of queer material out there and you know I was in a position to introduce it into the games I was working on. And so having had people come up to me at conventions to tell me the impact that being able to see themselves in these games, and what that meant to them? I love hearing that. It’s fantastic.
I did a lot of work on a game called Exalted and the setting of Exalted is very queer friendly, in terms of sexuality and trans cultures and identities. The game line that I was working on until recently was the Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, based on the books by George RR Martin (the ones that inspired the Game of Thrones TV series). So I got the opportunity to highlight the queer content that was already in the books and through discussions with the creator (was able) to highlight some areas of queerness in the setting that may not have been immediately apparent.
I love the work that I’m doing right now, on a game called Blue Rose. Blue Rose is a game of what we call romantic fantasy: a genre of fantasy gaming inspired by the fiction of authors like Mercedes Lackey, Diane Duane, and Tamora Pierce. Romantic fantasy focuses on heroes and the relationships that they create; not just their romantic relationships, but also their friendships and their mentor relationships and alliances that they make. Often the game has as much to do with who they know and who is willing to help them through the relationships they have as with whether or not they are a skilled swordsman or a skilled magician or what have you.
So how did you transition from designing board games to writing a superhero novel?
So I started working on Sacred Band just for myself in 2013. And I had come up with a query letter where I basically summarized the book and explained it to editors or agents so that I could try to get it published. I contacted Steve Berman, the editor at Lethe Press, who I knew from social media and the convention circuit. And I sent him the query letter I’d written and I just asked him, “I know you see these all of the time, so could you just look at this and tell me where I’m lacking something or where I’m failing to sell what it is that I’m trying to sell?” And he responded by saying that he’d like to publish it himself! So after it was greenlit, it probably took me another nine or ten months to finish.
You mentioned to me that you wanted to address several real life social injustices in the book. Was there any one event that sort of inspired the whole thing?
I sort of dipped into a lot of areas that are of concern to me. A lot of things that you hear about that make you think “Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?” Things like the incredible number of disappearances of women around the El Paso area, and the number of these punks just grabbing and beating queer people in parts of Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe and literally filming them being tortured and put on YouTube. It makes you just stop and think “Why is nobody doing anything about this?” And all of that gelled together when I started really writing the team.
And a lot of inspiration came from the fact that, you know, queer people have often had to police themselves. Because the police have often been danger for us. We are likelier to be harassed or assaulted by law enforcement then we are to get actual help from them. And some of that is changing, but certainly not everywhere. In any situation in which you have a minority population and official law enforcement does not protect them, that marginalized group ends up having to protect themselves in some ways. So that kind of informed the dynamic for Sacred Band.
Was there anything else that helped inspire you to write this book?
I really wanted to look at what would happen in a world in which people had superpowers: what would an all-queer superhero team look like? Because in the real world, queer people often tend to congregate together and find each other. But in comic books and other fiction you don’t often see that, sometimes you’ll have the one queer token character in an otherwise all-straight team.
A couple of years ago, Marvel Comics started a new X-Men title and all of the characters on that team were all women and someone I was friends with on Facebook posted a link to the article and said “Well, you know, I guess I know why women would want to just be part of a team with only women but it wouldn’t make sense for me for other minorities…like it wouldn’t make sense to have an all black team or an all gay team.” And I remember thinking to myself, you must not know any gay people because half the gays I know, if they have their way, they will never encounter a straight person again!
So I started thinking of logical reasons why a team of only queer supers would form. And that, combined with my understanding that queer people often have to protect each other because no one else will, really gelled into Sacred Band.
And how did you go about integrating conversations that the characters have about real-world social issues? Like for example the conversations Optic and Deosil have about transphobia and bi-erasure? Was that a challenge?
You know, at first, I included a lot of dialogue about that stuff. And then I was worried that it might seem forced, so I started taking a lot of that out. But then I realized that in the real world, LGBTQ people often do have a lot of these conversations amongst ourselves. A lot of the conversations I have with my friends do involve tackling these subjects.
So I went back and added them in and just tried to make sure they happened organically. I wanted it to occur not just as something that someone brought up out of the blue, but because something was going on and that conversation seemed relevant. Like the scene in which a trans character encounters someone who just insists on dead-naming her and she has to deal with that friction.
I definitely didn’t want it to be a case of people just hanging out at a restaurant and all of a sudden someone brings up dead-naming, I wanted it to be something that happened organically. And the fact is, we talk about those things because they happen to us. We’re not having theoretical discussions when we talk about these social justice issues, we’re talking about our lived experiences and the lives of people we love.
Some of those conversations happen around the character Rusty and his past as a former sex worker. Was that something you wanted to tackle specifically?
I have a number of friends who have engaged in sex work of various kinds and like there’s such a stigma attached to it, you know. Despite the fact that they might have done so in a completely healthy way or they might have done so in a foolish, got-influenced-by-other people situation where they didn’t fully understand what they were doing. But regardless of where they fall on this sort of spectrum, there’s always this idea attached to it and it feels puritanical. How are we as adults, in the modern world, trying to pin a scarlet letter on somebody? It just doesn’t make sense that we can’t discuss topics without attaching such a stigma to it.
What about the character of Deosil and some of the experiences she has as a trans woman? Was there anything you drew on specifically for that?
Within the past decade or so, two of my very close friends who work in the same industry as me came out as trans. And these are folks who have an established name in the industry, so their old names are out there, they have book credits and video game credits. They had to go through their transitions with this added degree of celebrity attached–celebrity in a very tiny arena but people knew their dead names and they didn’t have the luxury of being known as their authentic selves from the get-go. They are some of the most amazing people, I just love them so much.
And watching the bullshit they had to put up with was so frustrating to me because these are incredible individuals who have been through hell and back just trying to live their lives authentically and the notion that there are people out there who can’t support that or understand that? It’s just so frustrating to me. And so, a lot of my friendships with a number of trans women in particular really informed my writing with Deosil. So much so that I asked two of them to read over my writing of her and call me out if they felt that I needed to be. Because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t propagating any bullshit assumptions about trans people. As far as her interactions with other characters, I wanted to know how true it rang.
I think this is a really important step in the process for modern writers. We acknowledge that we need editors for content and grammar, but we also need more than that.
I’m a big proponent of the idea that if you are a writer, you need to connect yourself with networks that have people who are willing to look at your writing and tell you when something is problematic or when something could be done better.
Do you feel like your time living in the border influenced Llorona and the world she inhabits?
Oh absolutely. It’s funny because I get told that people really felt this sort of vibrancy and realism with all of the scenes that take place in Oregon and in Mexico. And those were definitely inspired by time living in Oregon and my time growing up in the Valley and the culture that surrounded me.
Llorona’s backstory is rich, and I can’t wait to explore that in the next book. I just kinda ran out of room to give her as big a focus as I did some of the other characters, but we’re going to see a lot more of her next book. Not just her past, but who she is today, how she operates. I think it’ll be fun.
The character of Radiant–Sentinel’s boyfriend in the 1980s before he was murdered–ends up playing an important role in the story. What inspired that character specifically?
I had a boyfriend when I was quite young who committed suicide. He and I met when I was in high school and he was the first guy I’d ever dated. And when he came out to his family, they were not at all accepting. I had come out to my mom before that and she was overall very accepting and I don’t think he thought it was going to be as easy for him but he didn’t think it was going to be as hard as it was. And one night we were supposed to meet up; I was going to take him to a dance at my high school. And he never showed up. I found out later that his father had beaten him when he found out where he was planning to go and he took his life later as a result.
So, to me, it always felt like that homophobia at its worst means that queer people die. And so without ever consciously thinking about it, I think I just added that element to Sentinel’s story. I tried to avoid “trauma porn” (as they call it, where you have those stories about gay people where we are never allowed to be happy), but part of my story is the fact that homophobia kills queer people, and Radiant is very much the one who occupies that philosophical center there.
As the character of Sentinel comes out of retirement in the book, you have a lot of people talk about how important his role as an out gay hero was to them? How important do you think queer representation is?
I think things would have been different for a lot of earlier queer generations if we’d had people we could identify with. Maybe someone we knew wasn’t perfect, but we could at least look at them and know that things would be okay.
Which is one of the reasons that I believe that coming out is so important. You know, I would never publicly out someone but I firmly believe that if you have a position where you are in the public eye and you are a queer person, if there is any chance that other young queer people might look at you and benefit from you coming out, I sort of feel that it’s an ethical thing that you should do. I would never insist that anybody do it if they didn’t feel comfortable doing it, but if you have the ability to make life easier for other queer people just with the act of coming out, then why the hell aren’t you doing that? And of course I understand just what kind of career death we could be talking about, but at some point in time someone had to say “I’m going to do this anyway.” And enough people said “I’m going to do this anyway” that it’s not career death anymore. It’s so tragic that it didn’t happen earlier.
I think as queer people we look for these people, we look for people to look up to because things homophobia does so well is crush those within us so that we can’t look to each other for inspiration. And I think that that’s why it was so important for me to have this group of queer superheroes.
And why do you feel like queer representation is so important especially now?
Speaking to an audience, we learn about our world from the media we consume. We have an illusion that we interact with a lot of the world, but we don’t. Any given human being engages with only a very narrow slice of the possible interactions in the world. But I feel like our media, particularly our fiction, gives us the illusion of broader interaction: the stories we consume, the people we come to “know” through them make the world seem bigger than our experiences would suggest. And when we don’t accurately represent what the world is like in that media, we are essentially creating and fostering marginalization. Like there’s no reason for there to be no people of color on a show about queer people or for all of them to look the same. And when we consume that media, it normalizes the notion that this lack of diversity is normal in the world. And it’s really, really not.
And especially in a time when, for the love of God, we have Nazis congregating in city streets! We need to be reaffirming what the actual values of our fucking culture are. And if you are not in opposition to these sorts of people, then your silence is helping them, your silence is aiding them. I think more than ever, creators who create enjoyable fiction need to be asking themselves: Is my shit helping to create the kind of world I want to be living in or is it crystallizing and reinforcing all of the awful about the world that we have now?
What are some of the best reactions from fans that you’ve gotten to Sacred Band?
I have had some really wonderful reviews, and some very personal reactions from emails or private messages. Basically, most of them just thanking me for creating three dimensional queer characters. I’ve had people tell me that these are the kinds of queer characters they always wanted to read about.
I think all too often queer fiction goes off into smut or it’s really campy and silly or it veers off into tragedy porn. And that was really important for me to avoid. A lot of times, when something is targeted towards queer people, it can be done as campy and silly almost to the point of caricature. I wanted to make something that was similar in quality to what you might get from the Big Two comic book companies (Marvel and DC), something with three dimensional characters, who have flaws, and difficult backstories and have emotional complexities. I wanted characters that are interesting and that I can, if nothing else, take as seriously as you can take a bunch of people dressed up in tights.
I like to think I succeeded, at least to some degree. A lot of the feedback I’ve gotten has agreed.
Do you want to give us some teasers for the sequel?
I have a Patreon and I’ve been writing short stories for it. Before we put out the second book, we’re going to compile some of the Patreon material, along with some original short fiction set in the world of Sacred Band as an interludes book. It’s not a lot of superhero action. It’s more like characters getting to know each other and that’s some of the stuff that I love writing. So that’s material that we’re going to be releasing before we put out the second Sacred Band novel. Gauss and Sentinel were the big focus characters with Deosil somewhat for the first book but the second book will definitely have Deosil, Optic, and Llorona as the focus characters. I’m really excited for that
There are two elements that are super important in the first book but people only ever talk about them: Echo Events and the DTPA’s Health Weekend retreats. So I’m actually going to show them in the sequel. It’ll start with Sacred Band showing up to help out at an Echo Event. Plus, part of the second book will have the characters attending one of the DTPA yearly weekend retreats for powered people. It will give me a chance to introduce a bunch of other characters that the main character have backstory with, among other things. I’m really looking forward to it all.