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The Feminist Rebel Changing Comics

Kelly Sue DeConnick, the storytelling mastermind behind the revolutionary Bitch Planet, Captain Marvel, and Pretty Deadly, opens up about the changing face of comics.

Photo Illustration, Image Comics/Marvel

The cult of Kelly Sue DeConnick, the feminist force behind some of the most twisted, compelling stories being told in comics today, is especially passionate.

Men and women inspired by the survivors of Bitch Planet, DeConnick’s futuristic, outer space-set riff on ’60s and ’70s women-in-prison exploitation movies, regularly tweet the author photos of tattoos branding them “non-compliant,” just like the status quo-smashing women of the book.

And the self-named Carol Corps, the fan base surrounding the Carol Danvers-led Captain Marvela book that under DeConnick’s three-year tenure, helped kickstart an overdue surge in inclusive superhero titles that are not “actively insulting to women,” as DeConnick puts it—became so vocal and distinct that they partially inspired their own comic: Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps, a Marvel Secret Wars title that wrapped up in September.

The end of that series marked a bittersweet end to DeConnick’s time with Marvel as the voice of the Star Wars-loving, super-powered fighter pilot who provided a much-needed dose of real-world humanity in a woman character when such a thing was still relatively hard to find in comics. (Carol struck such a chord, in fact, that her story will be adapted to film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first solo, female-led title, Captain Marvel.)

Leaving Carol behind after three years was “a little heartbreaking,” DeConnick says, adding that, “There was a time when I felt like I needed to be loud, and elbow, and represent…The job is not done. There’s still a long way to go, but it felt like a lot of women are now speaking up and taking their place,” she adds proudly.

And then there’s DeConnick’s Pretty Deadly, a breathtakingly beautiful (thanks to the art of co-creator Emma Rios), bloody, Eisner Award-nominated mythological Western that combines both horror and folk-style storytelling. In the book’s sixth issue, out on Wednesday, a young girl named Sissy has taken on the mantle of Death, with Death’s daughter Ginny, a gun-slinging, sword-swinging spirit of vengeance, by her side. For the first time, real-world historical events have begun seeping into the story, which finds Cyrus, who was just a boy in the last arc, now grown up and fighting in World War I.

The Daily Beast caught up with DeConnick before the release of Pretty Deadly #6 to talk representation in comics, the problem with highly sexualized superhero costumes, and what she hopes to see in the Captain Marvel movie adaptation.

In Issue 6 of Pretty Deadly, we catch up with Cyrus several years after the first volume, after he’s grown up into a soldier and enlisted with the American army in World War I. Why did you decide to include real-world events in the story, which previously stayed in a folk tale-esque, mythological realm?

Yeah, that was kind of a scary decision. We wanted to maintain the feeling of “myth-space,” so the mythos and iconography of the American West will run through the entirety of the book. But one of the things that scared us was we didn’t want the real-world touchstones to feel jarring, like “and then Ginny walked into a Starbucks.” (Laughs.) So the story is sort of on the fringes of the events. In this arc, we’re with the Harlem Rattlers, which is this battalion of Black soldiers from New York that fought with the French. But the guys in my story are not real guys from the battalion. You’re not gonna see Henry Johnson win his Croix de Guerre or anything. Our idea is not to make a World War I comic, it’s to make a war comic [in this arc].

I read once that you found it intimidating at first to write so many women of color into Bitch Planet, for fear of misrepresenting POC-specific experiences. Pretty Deadly centers around a Black family but I imagine the same fear didn’t apply.

No, it never did, oddly enough. But I think that’s because I don’t think of Pretty Deadly as overly political. So it’s not a lighting rod the way Bitch Planet is. Pretty Deadly is the story of these immortal and mortal characters, and the mortals’ story follows Sarah’s family, a Black family, through the ages. I never made the choice of, “Oh, this is gonna be the story of an African American family!” It was a deliberate choice in Bitch Planet. We wanted to talk about the fact that women of color are three times as likely to be incarcerated as white women and how jacked up that is. That would be the discussion. It wasn’t incidental, we weren’t shying away from it, it’s the point.

What was most of the response like for the first volume of Bitch Planet back in September, since it is such a political lightning rod?

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It’s a book very few people have middling feelings about, you know? There’s a lot of people that love it, there’s a lot of people that hate it—some for legitimate reasons, and some because they hate my politics. I’m okay with that. I think that’s fine. I try not to think too much about how it’s being received, because it’s kind of crippling. There’s just no win there. But I’m not an idiot, I see our sales numbers, I see the people sending in pictures of the [“NC,” which stands for “non-compliant”] tattoos. I know it means a lot to a lot of people and I’m very humbled by that. I just try not to be paralyzed by it. You’ll go mad, you’ll go absolutely mad trying to think about that stuff. It’ll put you in the fetal position—or you’ll become one of those people who fights with readers on the Internet. Like, don’t do that.

It is so hard not to become one of those people when hostile, misinformed opinions are being lobbed at you online.

I get it—I get the impulse—but follow that to the logical conclusion. There’s no win there. And also, sometimes people just don’t like things. Taste is subjective, you know? And that’s totally fine. I can’t let people send me things, either. Sometimes they mean well and it’s like, “This fucker said this bad thing, and I defended you!” I’m like, I didn’t wanna know that… (laughs) But about the representation thing, there’s only been two people that I’m aware of who’ve told me I was misrepresenting women of color. And they’ve both been white ladies.

That’s not very surprising.

Yeah, I know. That was fascinating to me.

Both Pretty Deadly and Bitch Planet portray naked bodies very naturalistically, with lumps and folds and scars. Why was that important to you, and to Emma Rios [Pretty Deadly artist and co-creator] and Valentine De Landro [Bitch Planet artist and co-creator]?

Yeah, that’s all credit to Val and Emma. I am only wise in choosing very talented co-creators and begging them to work with me. In the second issue of the first arc of Pretty Deadly, there was this character who wasn’t even supposed to have a name. I really wanted her to be a fever dream, not even actually a real person. And then Emma drew her with this—and it’s such a weird thing to say, but this beautiful, sagging flesh. And I just kind of loved her, and was like, “Ohhh, well no, she gets a name”: Lily.

And Val has worked really hard on this in Bitch Planet because it’s a book that plays with the aesthetics of how women are consumed in pictures. So he’s had to be really analytical about how he’s portraying the women, and really examine the kind of comics habits that he’s developed from traditional mainstream comics, and what we consider an idealized female form. Because that’s always the defense when we talk about the women characters in these ridiculous “brokeback poses,” or highly sexualized costumes: “Well the men are idealized too!”

Right. If male characters were idealized for sexual availability, their costumes would definitely look different.

Like, that isn’t idealized from my perspective, that is idealized from your perspective. These women are being idealized for sexual availability; the men are being idealized for strength. Having a costume that was the equivalent for men, you would have to be able to trace the crease in their scrotum, you know?

I mean, it is all about sexual availability—don’t lie to yourself and say, “Oh, yeah, the women are strong!” Like, yeah, no. We don’t need to see both of her breasts and her ass cheeks to understand she’s strong. It’s the hypocrisy that bugs me. You wanna make sex comics? Make sex comics! I don’t care. It’s this lie that says that’s not what’s happening. It sort of normalizes the idea that women are for consumption, and not actually characters.

I’m curious how you approach writing the women who aren’t “non-compliant” in Bitch Planet, like Marion or Whitney. The ones who aren’t challenging the status quo and can be selfish, mean, and petty. They’re not the heroes—are they part of the problem?

I hope I approach them the same way I approach any character, with a sort of empathy, and trying to understand where they’re coming from. And the thing is, they may think they’re compliant, but they’re not. A real-life compliant woman doesn’t exist. That’s an unattainable fantasy. And the tragedy of the women like Whitney, or Marion, who are doing their damnedest to play by the rules and win the game, is it’s set up against them and they’ll never win. And that’s heartbreaking to me. Even though I think Whitney in particular is deplorable, I still have empathy for her. This is a thing that every young girl who’s not an idiot goes through at some period in her life, where she’s like, “I’m not like other girls!”

“I hate the color pink!”

As annoying as that is, it’s smart. Young women are very smart and very perceptive. They see that women are mocked and treated as less, and they think, “I don’t want to identify with that! I’m going to identify up, I’m going to cross-identify.” So [they say things like], “All my friends are guys. I don’t get along with other girls.” Or, “I don’t like to work for women.” I mean, being girly doesn’t work out well for you. If there was any creature in American culture more derided than the young girl... I know people will argue with me about that, but everything girls are into gets ridiculed. I have a lot of compassion in my heart for girls in their teens and twenties who are going through this particular passage, because I get it. It makes sense! You wanna differentiate yourself and you’re taught to compete with other women. It’s just that the majority of us figure out that that’s a trap.

I’m going to eulogize your run on Captain Marvel for a minute now. Captain Marvel helped kickstart the shift toward inclusivity in comics, which means stories and characters that aren’t—

Actively insulting to women?

Yes. What has it been like to watch this explosion in numbers of women comic book readers, writers, and artists since the beginning of your first Captain Marvel run?

It’s been mindboggling. I mean, the first Women of Marvel panel that I did [at a convention], I may have been like one of two creatives on that panel. I think it was in 2010, maybe? But the last one I did, there were so many people on stage I literally had to sit on the floor. There were 14 women on stage, all actively working, all creatives. I was sitting on that stage and I knew I wasn’t gonna be with Captain Marvel for much longer, and I knew that was probably my last Women of Marvel panel. And it was a little heartbreaking, ’cause I love Carol [Danvers, aka Captain Marvel], and I didn’t wanna leave, you know? But I also knew that it just didn’t make sense anymore and I really wanted to leave while I was still welcome.

But also, I thought there was a time when I felt like I needed to be loud, and elbow, and represent. I didn’t grow up [known as] Kelly Sue, I used my middle name so that girls wouldn’t have a question about whether I’m a woman. I don’t want to make it sound like, “Well it’s all over, everybody sit down!” The job is not done. There’s still a long way to go, but it felt like a lot of women are now speaking up and taking their place… I’m trying to end this sentence in a way that doesn’t sound really self-aggrandizing; it just felt like it’s an okay time to go, like you’re not needed anymore.

Is there something about the spirit of Carol you hope Marvel preserves when the movie adaptation is finally out?

Yeah, you know, the casting in my head is Kathleen Turner circa 1984. She has a sense of humor, she can be funny, she can even be goofy, in the way Carol can. Like, Carol’s sense of humor is terrible. It’s all dad jokes, you know? But I don’t know that Kathleen Turner could play a character that didn’t have natural authority. Even when she’s a goofball, there’s a kind of gravitas about her. Maybe it’s the voice, but I kind of think it’s just something about her spirit, and I hope they find that in Carol. I always say that I hope she’s tall, because in the Marvel Universe Carol’s 5 feet 11 inches, and I like that. I’m 5 feet tall, and I’m bossy as hell, but I would love it if she’s tall, though it’s certainly not an important thing. And I don’t care what color she is or anything like that.