Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Comic book writers are writers by any other name

I spent last weekend hobnobbing with writers and poets and editors.

One of the most intriguing ones was Kelly Sue DeConnick. She writes for Marvel Comics. Once upon a time I would have said that wasn't real writing. Comic books? Nah!

I've changed my mind. Not because I've read a bunch of recently-published comic books. I will, I swear, just as soon as I get over to the local comic book store. But it was DeConnick's talk at the Casper College Literary Conference that got me thinking about the comics and the literary world.

The literary world is M.F.A./fiction workshops/writers' retreats/coffee house poetry readings/small presses/chapbooks/NEA/grants/fellowships. Maybe some graphic novels based on cool books or short stories. But not comic books. 

The non-literary world is blockbuster best-sellers/romance/hobby writers/agents/New York Times Book Review/hard-boiled mysteries/big publishers/Barnes & Noble/advertising/marketing/film rights. And comic books.

We turn comic book superheroes into special effects-laden films. Batman/Superman/Spiderman/Avengers/The Incredible Hulk. And so on.

Kelly Sue DeConnick told a literary conference audience on Friday that she got her first jobs in comic books "by being a loudmouth on social media."

DeConnick is not only is on Facebook and Twitter (with 20,000 followers). She has a cool Tumblr site at kellysue.tumblr.com and her stand-alone western, "Pretty Deadly," which is set for an Oct. 23 release, is at pretty-deadly.com.

DeConnick, 43, grew up on military bases. "Very much a part of military culture to have comic books," she said. "It makes sense that people who sign up to give their lives for their country might see themselves in the heroic themes of comic books."

She loved "Wonder Woman" comics, although she noted that "Wonder Woman spent a lot of time in chains in the '70s."

Which brings us to the gender issue. Male writers and illustrators might feel compelled to portray a female superhero in bondage. DeConnick, now a member of the Comic Book Boys Club, has no such inclinations.

She writes Captain Marvel and Avengers Assemble for Marvel Comics. The Captain is now a woman, Carol Danvers. DeConnick wanted Danvers to be a real woman, one with flaws and good female friends, one who could also set right the universe when necessary.

This Captain Marvel in a long line of Captain Marvels began to gain a following. A group of fans called the "Carol Corps" grew with each issue. They submitted fan art based on the character, and they began to send Carol Danvers stories to DeConnick.

Then came the merch, such a Carol hoodies and dogtags.

"I got a letter from a civil rights attorney who wears Captain Marvel dogtags under her clothes every time she goes to court," DeConnick said. "I've heard from a doctor who wears dogtags when she goes into surgery."

The Carol Corps raised $2,000 online for the Red Cross after Hurricane Sandy. And it appears that a CarolCon-style ComicCon is in the works.

Issue No. 15 is out and DeConnick is working on the next installments. "The Internet doesn't know this, but she [Carol Danvers] gets her first kiss in issue 17."

DeConnick said that she works hard to present real women in her comics. She tries to avoid the Smurfette Principle -- the lone female character must represent all female traits. To avoid stereotyping, she applies the Sexy Lamp Test to her stories: "If I can replace one of my female characters with a sexy lamp and the plot still functions, I might need another draft."

DeConnick seems to enjoy her role as one of the few female comic book writers. Of the top 300 books produced in June, 6 percent were produced by women. Some of them were written by the same women, so DeConnick estimates that women might make up 2 percent of her industry.

However, when Marvel Comics asked her in 2009 to write the next saga of Norman Osborn, a.k.a. the Green Goblin, she was "proud to have been asked to pitch on a boy book." The result was "Osborn: Evil Incarcerated."

Still, it gets a bit old always being asked the same question: "What does it feel like to be a woman writing in a man's field?"

"I used to joke -- 'I write through my vagina'."

She's married to another comic book writer, Matt Fraction. who's never asked similar questions.

"I don't want to be He-Hulk," she said, "I want to be She-Hulk."

As is the case with most writers, DeConnick wrote a lot before getting published. She said that she may leave the comic book world behind some day in favor of novel-writing.

She often gets letters from young writers who ask how to get started in the biz."I ask them what they're written and they'll say 'nothing.' Nobody is going to ask you to fix a sink if you've only washed your hands."

No comments: