To St. Louis-based cartoonist Christina Stewart, known as Steenz, what makes a comic worth reading is its ability to transport readers to a different world. As the newly named illustrator and writer for the newspaper comic strip “Heart of the City,” set in Philadelphia, her latest world is ours.

Steenz, 29, is inheriting the gig from South Jersey illustrator Mark Tatulli, who created the series in 1998. She started Monday. Her first syndicated strip will appear in The Inquirer on May 24.

Not many black women have had roles creating funnies for newspapers; Steenz is one of just a few. She has a decade of comic industry experience — including managing a comic book store and working for a comic book publisher — and is the author of the award-winning graphic novel, Archival Quality (2018, Oni Press).

“Finishing a graphic novel is a really big deal in that it shows you know how to execute something from start to finish,” she said. “I saw this as an opportunity to add something else to my repertoire.” She’ll juggle her new role with a teaching position at Webster University and freelance editing jobs.

The Inquirer talked with Steenz about starting her new post, bringing diversity to newspaper comic strips, and why you won’t see much about the coronavirus pandemic in the story lines.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

An illustration by Christina “Steenz” Stewart, who is now the artist of the Philly-based newspaper comic strip, "Heart of the City."
Courtesy of Christina Stewart
An illustration by Christina “Steenz” Stewart, who is now the artist of the Philly-based newspaper comic strip, "Heart of the City."
How did you get the illustrator role for Heart of the City?

The editor of the strip, Shena Wolf, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in doing comic book strips. I grew up reading strip comics and I get a lot of inspiration from them when it comes to simplicity and cartooning. I thought it was a really good opportunity to combine all the things I care about and also learning how to do another skill.

How will you be inspired by Philly?

My creative partner and best friend, Ivy Noelle Weir, is actually from Philly. I want to utilize what I get from Ivy and having visited there. I like that it’s set in Philly, but also, this is a comic about being young and in middle school. So it’s not going to be too Philly-focused, but more so adolescence and growing up. I will be bringing things from Philly into the comic.

What will your day-to-day in the new role be like?

Typically, I send my editor about three months’ worth of story lines ahead of time. She’ll go through it and make sure that it flows. Once she figures that out, they go into production. So one week I’m doing a rough [draft], and then the following week is when I’ll finalize and upload them. I do this every week. We stay about six weeks ahead and I’m working on it every single day.

What characterizes your comic style?

It’s closely tied to Saturday morning cartoons: Recess, Hey Arnold!, Doug, that sort of thing. Those were my inspirations when I was younger, and those are the kind of shows that I pull from when I think about working with stories that focus on children — especially, like, middle school and younger.

The cartoonist Steenz took over the strip "Heart of the City" beginning April 27. Credit: Steenz 2020
The cartoonist Steenz took over the strip "Heart of the City" beginning April 27. Credit: Steenz 2020
This is your first time working in newspapers. What’s different about the medium?

The biggest difference is simplifying. When you’re working in graphic novels and comics, I think about putting my characters in a world that is also a character, in and of itself. So having to do this on a smaller scale is what I had to change. Having to find a way to simplify and focus on just the characters is just a different thought process.

Will you leverage the coronavirus pandemic into the story lines?

No. Mostly because when I started this it was before the pandemic and I had already written it. While I love comics that take in a piece of culture, I want my comic to focus on the fantasy — a world that isn’t tied to the stressors that we have going on right now.

Characters of color don’t often appear in newspaper comic strips. Do you plan to address that in your work?

Absolutely. The first thing I noticed was that Heart [the central character] didn’t have any friends of color, but she lives in the city of Philadelphia. What are the chances of that? So I wanted to make sure the world around her reflected the world that we actually see.