I recently spoke with Kelly Sue DeConnick, writer of Pretty Deadly, Captain Marvel, Avengers Assemble, and the forthcoming and superbly titled Bitch Planet. The results of that interview can be found at YES! Magazine.
But like so many interviews, a lot of interesting material got left on the cutting room floor. So, with Kelly Sue’s permission, here’s the long-form uncut transcript of our conversation, covering everything from the origins of Pretty Deadly, the exploitation-inspiration for Bitch Planet, the Carol Corps, feminism, and the inner-workings of comic book retailing. Enjoy.
Finke: At Comic-Con last summer, during the Women of Marvel Panel, you made a comment about being willing to make people uncomfortable so that your daughter doesn’t have to. Is making people uncomfortable a goal of yours?
DeConnick: I don’t think it’s a goal to make other people uncomfortable. It’s something I’m willing to do. I do purposefully try to push myself out of my comfort zone. Which is fairly cliche, but one of those cliches that got there for a reason.
In Kill Bill 2, for example, when Kiddo’s daughter is there. Until then the violence is fun, it’s horrible, but we are able to enjoy it. Now that there’s a child in the mix, all the rules change. It’s now wildly uncomfortable to enjoy the violence. But the tone of the film does not change at all. It’s disorienting. It makes you uncomfortable. I love that.
Finke: Pretty Deadly is sexy and violent. But at the center of Pretty Deadly is the story of a child. The potential of violence being perpetrated on Sissy is real in the story. If that makes you uncomfortable as a viewer, is that one of the reasons you chose to center Pretty Deadly around that kind of story?
DeConnick: Not consciously. When Emma [Rios] and I started talking about Pretty Deadly, if you’d told me there would be so many children in it I wouldn’t have believed you. When we started planning the story it was not mythological. It all came in later. I fought to keep it out for a long time. It ultimately just came down to: does this development feel right? It just didn’t feel right until the monsters, the rivers of blood, the talking skeletal bunnies.
Finke: So even the narrative framework of Butterfly and Bones Bunny was not in the original plans?
DeConnick: Originally it was an East vs. West story of a girl in a Wild West Show, going into the real west to find her mother’s killers. She was a sharp-shooter, and the daughter of death thing was her costume, with her face painted like a skull and she would perform her act. That was Ginny. Sissy began as a way to get Ginny talk because she was so quiet. So we introduced a girl that wouldn’t shut up into her dressing room. Sissy was like the dog in Outlaw Josey Wales that she treated like shit and followed her around anyway.
Finke: One of my favorite elements of the early series is the idea of Death as a single father. I love the idea of Death raising a daughter by himself in Hell. There’s a panel in the book, an image of Death and Ginny that was really striking to me.
DeConnick: They’re in Death’s cavern and she’s hiding behind his leg.
Finke: That’s it. It’s very paternal and lovely. There’s a lot of loveliness and intimacy in your work in general. You found it in this case, in horror.
DeConnick: Everything Emma draws is beautiful. She draws an eye being sliced open and it’s just beautiful somehow. There’s something about her line that’s just stunning.
Finke: Do you read any of the response or reactions to Pretty Deadly?
DeConnick: For Pretty Deadly there’s been so much analysis. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t read it. Emma doesn’t seem to have a problem reading it, but for some reason, I’m afraid of being influenced in my work. I’m not concerned about being wounded by it. If someone doesn’t like something, there’s a good chance I agree, and it doesn’t keep from getting up and going to work the next day. The only reason I’d get upset is if someone said something personal. Which doesn’t wound me, it just pisses me off.
What I worry about is working in this serial medium, where people are talking about your stories before they’re done. We have this instant feedback loop now. I’m very active on Tumblr and I have a very active engagement with readers and I love it, but I don’t want to start writing to try to please someone else. I don’t want my meter to get skewed.
Finke: I follow you and your husband on Twitter. Your presence is very notable in the social media sphere. So it’s quite curious to hear that you have reticence about how that might affect you as a storyteller.
DeConnick: I’m lucky in that I’m a fairly straightforward extrovert. I enjoy social interaction, even online. And I have a really kind and generous readership. The Carol Corps is an amazing group of humans. But I think there’s something to be aware of, as creators, in the serial format, where we are getting feedback constantly. We’re asked to do press on things that aren’t even written yet. I liken it to a painter who’s sitting in front of a canvas and has to stop every 10 minutes to say what the painting is about. I’m not sure yet because I haven’t finished the painting.
In comics, the constant state of promotion that we’re in, talking about books before we finish or even started them, it’s curious. I don’t think it’s necessarily terrible. It’s just new. Something to be aware of.
Finke: Right now, it seems like we’re in a dynamic time in the comic book industry. I don’t think it’s hard to see issues of diversity, and racism and institutional sexism are really kind of coming to the front right now…
DeConnick: All over culture right now…
Finke: Yes. All over our culture. In this industry, like a lot of industries, there’s a rising chorus of people drawing attention to these stories very openly in social media. What’s it like writing in an industry getting more and more scrutiny but which also has an ever expanding cultural reach?
DeConnick: I suspect that those of us who live in social media can have a skewed view of how widely this kind of shift is happening. I have my doubts that the decision makers see this. I think calling it a revolution would be a little premature. This is a conversation that’s happened many times in our industry and in our culture. And I don’t know that I see it as being particularly seismic at this moment.
Finke: So you’d say that there is an amplification in social media that is not being mirrored in the broader culture?
DeConnick: I think amplification is right. We’re in a bit of an echo chamber. For instance, on Tumblr I have a 34,000 strong following. I don’t know any statistics but I’d guess it’s at least 50 percent female. The readership I encounter at conventions is roughly 50 percent female—which in context of a convention, looks disproportionally female.
We have this perception that there is this rising tide of very engaged female fans. But if you talk to the stores or the publishers they tell us women are still a very small portion of their audience, and of the industry overall. Their largest concern is of course, their business, they have bills to pay and they’re concerned about alienating their core reader. And their core reader is a dude in his 30s.
Finke: I get that. That’s who I am.
DeConnick: I’m married to a dude in his 30s. I love dudes in their 30s. Its just, look, women are raised without much representation in the media. So we’re taught very early on how to identify with a male protagonist. This is a switch we have no trouble making. Right?
But men are actively discouraged from identifying with a female protagonist because female is less in our culture and we don’t want to power down, right? Anything you do that is feminine is weak and small and not a good idea. From a business perspective, if you publish something from a male point of view, women who read these things will probably buy it anyway. But if you do the same story with a female protagonist, you are going to alienate your core readership.
Finke: But you are writing the books that are stepping out from that. You’re writing Captain Marvel and Pretty Deadly, and it sounds like eventually Bitch Planet will be a break from that as well. So, what propels you as a storyteller to say, I know that these stories are not going to propel the business side but I’m going to do this anyway.
DeConnick: I’m filled with piss and vinegar? I don’t know. It makes me angry. I was asked in an interview once: You’re writing another book with a female lead? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to be pigeonholed? And I thought, I write a team superhero book, an uplifting solo hero book, I write a horror-western, and I write a ghost story. What am I gonna be pigeonholed as?
Has a man in the history of men ever been asked if he was going to be pigeonholed because he wrote two consecutive books with male leads? Half of the population is women. I lose my temper here. And it’s certainly not at you. It’s just this pervasive notion that “white male” is the default. And you have to justify any variation from it.
Finke: It seems like your stories are being rewarded with the attention they deserve. I understand that Captain Marvel has been successful and Pretty Deadly has been well received and I believe successful. It sold out the first issue, there was a lot of interest. Is that experience rare? Do you think that’s still the exception and we shouldn’t look at what you’re doing as a trend?
DeConnick: My books sell well enough that we can continue making them. Captain Marvel doesn’t do tremendously against other Marvel books. I don’t think it’s shaking any foundations or causing people to re-think business models anything. I dunno… But the relatively modest number of hardcore Carol fans are hardcore Carol fans. A small group but half of them have tattoos. Really dedicated to the character. And I guess if we’re looking for an uplifting takeaway, it’s that that has been noticed in house at Marvel. There have been things that I’ve seen happen.
There’s a lot of new female-led books in the new Marvel Now series. The success of the Women of Marvel panel was mentioned at the retreat. The Marvel social media people are noticing. And I think the new Captain is going to stick. She’s in the new suit and now there’s a new Ms. Marvel so they can’t take Captain away. So my pessimism has been thwarted in that way.
Finke: Your success has directly led to new opportunities for other women. You mentioned the new Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, for example. There seems to be movement in that direction. Marvel is big, Disney owns Marvel, it’s a gigantic corporate entity, so maybe it’s just a small, independent portion of the company that’s seeing these changes. But they seem to be noteworthy changes at least.
DeConnick: Comics are reflective of what’s going on in larger culture. Wonder Woman came to be in her position when women were first entering the workplace in numbers during the War. Then Wonder Woman had another rise in the 70s when Gloria Steinem latched on to her as an icon for the [feminist] movement. I think we’re seeing another wave of feminism today, a fourth wave characterized by intersectionality and the internet. And I think it falls right in line that we would see another wave of superheroines coming to the fore.
You know girls used to read comics in huge numbers. And were driven out, I would argue, by stories that actively excluded them. If we can only get women and girls to pick these books up again.
Manga proved that it can happen. If anyone gave any credence to that absurd argument that women don’t like comics because they aren’t visual. Which is literally the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard but I’ve heard it more than once. Women are just as visually stimulated as anyone. They just don’t like comics that insult them or actively exclude them. Women and girls fueled the Manga boom. They were spending 10 dollars a book–not four dollars, 10 dollars a book–and buying them in huge quantities. It can happen. We just have to make them feel welcome.
Finke: So it’s about being welcoming and creating an environment that girls actually want to be a part of…
DeConnick: A place that’s not being actively hostile. Women don’t have to read exclusively female protagonists. That’s a shift we’re accustomed to. I’ve been told by a retailer, “oh yes we have a lot of female customers that come into our store, we love them, and I always recommend to them Fables. Because women love Fables.” It’s a very good book, no doubt, but the notion that there’s one book all women like bugs the crap out of me. There are women who like Fables, and women who Witchblade, and women who like Pretty Deadly. Women are going to like the books that appeal to them. We are not a hive mind. If you don’t actively insult us…actually, even if you do actively insult us there’s probably a woman who will like it anyway. But not in numbers that are going to mean anything.
Imagine a store where a dude walks in and someone says, oh hey, you’re a guy, I’ve got an issue of Punisher you’ll enjoy. Because dudes love Punisher. It’s ridiculous. But there are alot well-intentioned, genuinely nice people who think that. And it makes my brain explode.
Finke: Do you have a lot of interaction with retailers?
DeConnick: I try to have as much as I can. Until our business model shifts, the retailers are the customers. Those books are not returnable. The retailer places an order three months before a book comes out. They haven’t read it. They have to guess based on their notion of who you are, and how you’ve written a 75 word solicit. They have to guess how many issues of that book they are going to sell in their store. They’re trying to figure out: can I sell 5 issues of this book or 6 issues? It’s really small numbers that they’re working with. Whatever they can’t sell they’re stuck with.
That’s not even the biggest problem. The biggest problem is where to keep all these extra books. These stores are generally small. The limiting factor is often actually space more than it is budget. They make these calls with very little info, trying to decide how many copies they can sell without actually seeing the book. They’re in tough position.
Once the final order comes, that’s a sale for the publisher. It is done. That’s how books can get canceled before they even come out. A lot of readers don’t understand that this happens. The reader is not the customer. The retailer is the customer. So I try to have as much interaction with the retailers as possible because those are my customers.
Finke: In the Bitch Planet press release you mention the “problematic relationships” between feminism and these genres as being the soil you like to work in–about loving these exploitation films despite their problematic relationships with the characters and women. In Pretty Deadly you’re working in a world that clearly borrows from westerns, horror and fairy tales, and it sounds like Bitch Planet is inspired by old exploitation films, specifically the ‘women in prison’ subgenre built around the literal imprisonment and objectification of women. What draws you to writing stories in these relatively niche genres, genres that haven’t been the friendliest environment for female characters and creators?
DeConnick: My parents raised me to believe I could be whatever I wanted to be, but for whatever reason I’ve always been an angry little person. My daughter is the same way. She has nothing to complain about; I think it’s just genetic. I think for that reason, those vengeance films have a tremendous appeal to me. And they come in all kinds of guises. It has now been pointed out to me that there are tropes and themes I return to. I return to questions of identity and I return a lot to cages. Light takes and dark takes but I come back to them over and over.
Pretty Deadly and Bitch Planet will be very different in every other way–in tone and pacing and story–but obviously a book about a women’s penal colony is a book about cages. In a feminist examination, the notion of the exploitation films, they’re looking at identity, I think that is much of their appeal for me.
When wrote Osborn I read about this prison off the coast of Seattle, it has since closed down. When I first read about, it was a salacious headline that was like [effects movie trailer voice]: 340 of the country’s worst sexual predators, and one women. And I thought, what the hell did she do? I tried to figure out who this woman was and why she was there. As I learned more about this prison, I learned that a lot of the offenders had completed their sentence but had not been released. The card-carrying ACLU member in me was horrified. It’s about as un-American as anything I can imagine.
But the mother of two small children who doesn’t live too far from Seattle thought: an Island of sexual predators? Yeah. I’m okay if we lose that key. I had really really mixed feelings about it. And I think Osborn is to this day one my favorite things I’ve written because it came out of those very mixed feelings. I could identify closely with both sides of that story.
There’s a Fitzgerald quote about being able to hold two opposing opinions at the same time. [“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”]. I love and I hate these exploitation films. I hate that they set up these exploitative situations so we can bite our fingernails while we judge them. And I hate that they are largely framed on the consumption of female bodies in a way that is dehumanizing. But I love that women always get the revenge. I find that very cathartic.
I wanted to examine that. And the more I read about these films the more I’m learning that there were a lot of women in the making of these films. Some of them were made by women. Not just starring women, but women behind the camera as well. There’s a magical thing that happens sometimes when marginalized groups make they’re own space to play: they play.
Finke: One of the things I gravitate to on Pretty Deadly, there’s a great deal of liberty being taken. In the content, and the narrative structure and paneling and the artwork. There just seems like a real openness and freedom that you and Ms. Rios feel comfortable taking. I wonder if you’ll find that kind of freedom in Bitch Planet?
DeConnick: I don’t know. We talked earlier about my fear of being influenced by feedback. I think in a way Emma and I rebelled on Pretty Deadly. Working in mainstream comics, clarity trumps all. Everyone needs to know what’s happening at all times. Often to the detriment of mystery.
Emma and I are pushing against that. I think maybe we overcompensated. Emma says no, but she is braver than I am in all things. “This is our playground,” she says. We didn’t expect the book to do as well as it’s done. And there was a freedom that came from that. We don’t know how long we’re gonna get to do this book and its our book and we’ll do whatever we want. Its not until the third issue that we tip our cards at all. This is not the action of someone with their own commercial interests at heart.
Finke: It seems natural that those two things are related, that the lack of expectation would correlate to why the book is surprising people, why it’s being read.
DeConnick: I hope so.When it first came out there were so many people who hated it. Our numbers have been fantastic and they’ve stayed good. But it is a book that you either love or hate. Colleagues of mine say that’s a good thing. That means you’re doing it right. But it’s hard not to be affected by that. Going into Bitch Planet I can’t help but feel I have to now fight against this image that I am deliberately obtuse.
Finke: I can’t wait to see how it comes out. Do you know when that might be?
DeConnick: I’m hoping to have the plan done and the first script to Val[entine De Landro] by the end of next month. I expect something will be out at the end of the summer or beginning of the fall.
Finke: I could just look at the cover image that was released at the Image Expo, I think it’s brilliant and hilarious.
DeConnick: It looks like to me like an old bubble gum card.
Finke: There are frequent references in your use of social media and in interviews to your children. This goes for both yourself and your husband [writer Matt Fraction].
I was very interested in the story in the backmatter in Pretty Deadly #2 about your son seeing Bones Bunny and talking with him about some of the issues in the books. These are adult stories. How does being a parent and an artist shape not just your stories but your interaction with the industry? Thinking about your appearance at the Women in Marvel Panel, and talking about your son, saying he’s a peacemaker. Giving your kids identities. Do you as a family think about that? Or is that just a subconscious element of your public life?
DeConnick: It’s something we think about a lot and re-evaluate frequently. My children are very different. Henry is a Peacemaker and Tallulah is a shit-stirrer. We often get asked if we think they’ll go in to the industry. My son loves to draw. He’s a natural storyteller. He’ll find his own medium and if it’s comics then great, we’re probably more suited to help him in that than any other, but we’ll support him in whatever it is that interests him. But we have a lot of questions about their privacy.
My identity as a mother is very much a part of my feminism. There’s still a stigma attached to motherhood. If we’re serious about our work, we’re trained to hide our familial obligations and identity as a mother. As though that might take our attention away from our work. As though that wouldn’t for a father. It’s a cultural stigma.
It’s the same way I use my middle name on purpose so that people identify me as a woman. There’s that old advice that women are given to use their initials because if you use a female name it could hurt your sales or prospect.
Finke: That was the case with Rowling. That’s why she’s J.K. instead of Joanne.
DeConnick: I want young women to see my name on Avengers Assemble and to know that there are women who write comics, who write mainstream superhero comics and if it is something that interests them, it can be done. I don’t want anything to be ambiguous about my gender. In the same way I’m vocal about the fact that I’m a mother. I want other mothers to know they don’t have to choose between motherhood and a creative life.
It’s a struggle. It’s a balancing act. But I don’t think it should be, any more so than for a man. There’s certainly biological components that make mothering and fathering different. But you’re not a bad person if you don’t turn over your entire being to the care of your child. I want to model for my daughter that I love her and my first job in the world is to protect her and keep her safe. To bring her into womanhood in a positive way. But one of the way I do that is staying active and healthy myself. For me that means being a creative person.
Where it gets sticky is that we talk about them a lot. They enjoy it at this point, but at some point it may become an invasion of their privacy. That’s uncharted at this point. We’ve never lived out loud the way we do right now. This is a thing we have to figure out as the kids get older and as our profiles become more, I don’t know, profound. That’s a question we have to ask. We don’t want to be using them at any point.