Like many of her undergraduate classmates, Mary Cleary had a college career that was bookended with infamous school shootings, starting with Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and ending with Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. The tragic events left her contemplating what a world without weapons would look like.
For her senior thesis project for the honors program at Fordham College at Lincoln Center, she expressed her ideas in a graphic novel titled Nath for its lead character. In Cleary’s imagined world with no weapons, Nath is a college athlete in a street gang. But the author, a major in new media and digital design, pointed out that just because there are no knives or guns, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a world without violence.
“I was curious how people may adapt to something like that, so I settled on hand-to-hand combat,” she said. “In Nath’s world there’s a lot of emphasis on honor in fighting, and I thought about how in martial arts they focus on protection and not on harming others.”
Set in an urban landscape that combines the density of 20th-century New York with the sprawl of modern Tokyo, Cleary’s novel wrestles with many contemporary issues, such as the need for weapons in the first place.
Cleary also majored in economics at Fordham, and her background in that area informs the story as well; the characters come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. She said Nath’s life in college differs from her hardscrabble upbringing on the streets.
“There’s an otherness to her, and she tries to bridge that gap,” she said. “Throughout the course of the first issue, she feels that gap in some ways closing and in other ways, it’s too great for her to exist in both worlds.”
It’s an otherness that is not too far from the personal challenges faced by Cleary, who grew up in a suburban working-class family and is the first to go away to college. Her father died when she was 8, and her mother raised the family on her own.
“I am here on scholarship and I don’t come from a very privileged background,” she said. “But my mother always made sure we were together and doing things even when she was looking for work. She never broke down. I’ve always been inspired by her. No matter what struggles I’m facing, because of her, I know I can still overcome them.”
While in Nath’s world there is no established patriarchy, in the real world, Cleary said, the comics industry has been somewhat dominated by men. But she said publishers— even the big ones like Marvel—are starting to hear and hire diverse voices. She plans to shop her comic around at the end of the summer and use her economics background to help market it in “a changing economy.”
In the meantime, fans can keep up with Nath on Instagram by following @streetfighterturbo.