JQ Sirls started popping through the multiverse as a child; escaping through various worlds and alternate realities via stories like “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Peter Pan,” and “The Wizard of Oz” — as well as magical realms he created himself.
“Those are my DNA,” said Sirls, a Kansas City-based author, artist and the entrepreneur behind the AI-infused Storytailor. “But, the only stories with characters that look like me were always oppressive stories. As a kid, I just always felt I wanted to go to Neverland. I wanted to go to these places.”
Today, these kinds of escapist themes and storytelling concepts involving alternate universes are back in the mainstream, creating multi-billion-dollar franchises for megabrands like Disney and Marvel.
“What’s funny is that Marvel created the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I’ve been doing that type of literature since before I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” said Sirls, creator of his own universe, Fantoria, which is depicted in several of his books.
Here, characters from his childhood imagination, like Vladimir Victorious, the King of Fantoria, spring to life and coexist, Sirls detailed.
“They asked me ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said I wanted to take over Disney World. I wanted to kick everyone out, make my own movies and then retitle Disney to Fantoria,” said Sirls. “So, when I got to college, I just realized I wanted to start my own company.”
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Fantoria is following
Within the world of Fantoria, Sirls introduces “Vladimir Victorious,” a novel set to be published Nov. 14. In the book, character Lucy Brown’s life takes a magical turn when she’s adopted by billionaire James Washington, owner of Washington Manor, a home to imaginary friends.
Lucy discovers a shocking secret: James is the exiled King Vladimir Victorious, split between two worlds. Lucy’s key holds the power to reunite these realms, as she joins Vladimir to battle Heartless, reclaim the throne, and restore the connection between worlds.
“If you were to read it, the first thing you would think of is a combination between ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” said Sirls. “I loved those stories and how they have sequels, but they also stand on their own.”
“I wanted a story that featured a Black protagonist that those characters could stand shoulder to shoulder with,” he explained.
Vladimir is distinctly Black, Sirls said, noting he wanted to have a Black character as the focal point.
But, as Sirls puts it, “Vladimir Victorious” is also about the themes of imagination and the idea of humanity, not Black culture and over-the-top representation; thus creating the adventurous escapist book he wanted to read as a child.
Click here to purchase the Kindle edition of “Vladimir Victorious.”
Sirls plans to have all of his books officially established as coming from within the universe he created.
“Once Vladimir comes out, I’m going to go back to all my digital picture books, and it’s going to say Fantoria Industries,” he said.
He also drops easter eggs in some of his books to emphasize their connection to Fantoria. One notable example is in his book, “The Moon is Following Me,” a retro-inspired, read-along about a little boy trying to convince his family that the moon is following him every night.
“In the print version, if you open up the dust jacket, you’ll see the universe of Fantoria, and you find out that the moon came from Fantoria,” shared Sirls.
Although Sirls operates the AI storytelling platform Storytailor, generating personalized stories for children aged 3 to 8, he emphasized that artificial intelligence was not involved in the authorship of “Vladimir Victorious” or any of his published books. The platform, while based on Sirls’ storytelling framework, lacks an author’s distinctive flair, prose, and style, and hence he does not endorse its use for commercial purposes at the moment, Sirls said.
In the case of “Vladimir Victorious,” the cover artwork underwent a collaborative creative process. Sirls crafted a collage from an array of images, utilizing AI to merge and refine the life-like photographic facial depiction of Vladimir Victorious, melding it with childhood pictures of himself. The goal, he said, was to achieve a lifelike look for the character’s face and pose, with the rest of the artistic process being from Sirls’ own illustrative and creative direction.
‘Yeah, I’m Vladimir’
Sirls always had a creative mind, he said. As a kid, he would often watch TV, turn the show off halfway, and finish the story himself for fun.
“Storytelling was just an extension of what I was already doing,” said Sirls.
He created the world of Fantoria when he was 7 after being inspired by a TV show, he added.
“There’s this show, ‘McGee and Me!’ And it started with a little boy who drew a character, just by happenstance, and the character popped out and became his best friend,” explained Sirls.
“So, I loved that. I’m just drawing characters every day. I mean, just character, after character, after character,” he said. “I naturally just honed my skills, but I kept making my characters complex and even drew their backstories.”
Sirls ended up with about 300 characters that he illustrated himself.
“I just remember being like they’re from Fantoria. They’d be like, ‘So you’re the king of Fantoria ?’ and I would say, ‘Yeah, I’m Vladimir.’ I would just say that because I thought that name was cool. So, the entire time, I was King Vladimir Victorious,” he shared.
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No outside validation needed
Aspiring writers should not be discouraged by rejection, Sirls said, emphasizing the importance of perseverance on the road to success.
“They say, if you write a story and you get rejected by 50 or more agents, it’s probably a sign that your story is not good. Go ahead and go to the next story, But what if that story is Harry Potter?” he asked.
“Don’t wait for a gatekeeper; don’t wait for somebody to tell you that you’re great,” Sirls added. “Don’t wait for somebody to tell you you’re an author.”
Unwilling to wait for someone else to give him his flower, Sirls looks to his own inner child to see if he would be pleased by the work.
“If I could go back to my childhood and show that kid who wanted to make all those animations come to life what I make now, he’d be like, ‘You did it!’” he said.
“He wouldn’t care about bestsellers. He’d just care about the fact that I did it,” Sirls shared. “We need to strive to always make that person proud.”