‘TO ME IT’S LIKE CUISINE’
Gail Simone’s Bisexual Catman and the ‘Secret Six’
The legendary comic book writer says it’s time to look past the insular world that's been created on the pages. Catman’s sexuality matters in the new Secret Six.
Gail Simone is a legend.
That is not to say she is merely well known person in a specific field whose body of work will define a medium for generations (although, she is that too), but a legend in the sense that if all of modern comic books were a map, her contribution to the medium would provide both understanding and instruction for anyone navigating its terrain.
Before Kim Kardashian attempted to break the Internet on purpose, DC Comics almost did by removing Simone from her critically and commercially successful run as the head writer of Batgirl series, then quickly reinstating her following a fan revolt.
During her time at Batgirl, Simone introduced the first openly trans character to appear in a mainstream comic without requiring a warning label for emotionally fragile and squeamish cisgender readers. The series also reversed a long trend that saw the character paralyzed by the Joker and confined to a wheelchair for a decade. (Thanks to Alan Moore, Dick Giordano, and Len Wein, who allegedly approved the decision by saying “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”)
The new Secret Six continues that tradition establishing Catman as bisexual. The move is especially important in the wake of fellow DC Universe character John Constantine’s bisexual erasure when he moved from the comic pages to the small screen in the series that shares his last name.
Simone was also the creator of the influential website “Women in Refrigerators” that began as a critique of the widespread practice by which superheroes who are female are killed or depowered at a greater frequency than their male counterparts. The phenomenon has spread across all media and increased awareness of the propensity for “othered” characters to suffer physical and emotional harm to the dramatic benefit of their straight, white, and male heroes. The original list, which focused exclusively on comic books, contained 90 female characters who had been refrigerated, but the pattern is hardly unique to comics or modernity. Even Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace killed Countess Hélène Kuragin Bezuhkov “off the page” and in one short paragraph.
Simone’s newest project, which launched this month, is the revamped Secret Six. The group shares its name with the band of militant abolitionists who financed John Brown’s historic raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry and first appeared in a short run of 1960s comic books as a team of anti-heroes.
The Six briefly resurfaced in the 1980s, revealing the identity of their mysterious leader and disappearing again just as quickly as they had arrived. Simone resurrected the series in the mid-2000s on two separate occasions, a six book arc in 2006 and a 36-book run from 2008 to 2011.
In anticipation of the new series, Gail Simone spoke with The Daily Beast via email.
What should fans of the DC universe expect to see with the new Secret Six?
The one thing they all have in common is that they have a secret. Oh, and that they don’t like each other. The new Secret Six is deep in the DCU, quite a lot on the fringes, but also, their home base is the suburbs right outside of Gotham City, which is quite unlike how we normally think of Batman’s home turf. None of them are used to backyard barbecues and bake sales and for some, it’s actually harder to deal with than assassin training camps and villain hideouts.
We will see some surprising groups, maybe a legion of them, face the Six.
In the run-up to the book’s launch, much has been made of Catman’s bisexuality. What prevented you from addressing Catman’s sexuality in Secret Six’s previous incarnation?
Nothing really prevented me from showing Catman as bi, but it’s how I thought of him. The main factor at the time was simply a lack of opportunity before we ended the book for the big New 52 line-wide relaunch.
Why is it important to have a bisexual character in a comic book?
I think it’s important to have diversity in comics for a thousand reasons, it’s not just some airy conceptual thing, it’s important to reflect the humanity of the readership. It’s irksome to me on every level that some of the most loyal and vocal comics fans get so little representation in the actual characters on the page. They might have a token best friend or something, but it’s rare to see kickass characters who lead a book who are also LGBTQ, just as one example.
It’s not liberal guilt, it’s just facing reality after years of pretending that the audience is all one kind of person. Most of the big name characters in comics were created decades ago, but a lot of the readers weren’t, and it’s time that we addressed that, it’s important not just for the blue sky right and wrong of it, but also because for comics to be vital and modern and humane, we have to look past this very insular world that’s been created on the pages.
What do you think prompted the change in comic book representation of LGBTQ characters?
Famously, DC has been pretty great showing gay women, with characters like Batwoman, but has shown fewer prominent men on the sexuality spectrum outside of hetero, it’s something we need to address. I also think it’s lovely how the readers respond to this. There was concern that Alysia, Batgirl’s trans roomie, would cause complaints and she did, but the positive mail was overwhelming in comparison and she quickly became the most loved character in the book after Barbara. The readers are not just ready, they’re ahead of us and waiting for us to catch up.
How does that relate to Catman’s violence against women in his previous incarnations?
This is a new version of Catman, his past is yet to be told, but an ordeal made him not just badass, but flawed, deeply flawed. He had a run-in with a major DCU villain that left him with deep, deep problems that he hasn’t yet faced. In our first issue, he’s forced to face them.
Black Alice and Strix have origin stories that more closely resemble the archetypal comic heroes. What is it about Black Alice and Strix that places them in the realm of anti-hero? The Ventriloquist seems exclusively villainous. Do you see The Ventriloquist as a more agential character because she is motivated by a personal desire and not exceptional circumstances (revenge for a dead family member/disfigurement)?
This is the fun of Secret Six. It’s hard to put someone like the Ventriloquist in JLA, or someone like, say, Venom in The Avengers. The morality spectrum has to be a little narrow. In this version of the Six, we have good guys and bad guys and no one is sure which is which at first. Even Strix (an assassin) and the Ventriloquist (a telekinetic murderer) find their consciences tested.
The ending to the last run of Secret Six comics earned near universal praise for its storytelling (being compared to Butch Cassidy—by IGN—and Thelma and Louise—by Comic Vine) especially the way its various subplots were resolved. Do you think the comparisons are apt?
IGN actually voted issue #36, the finale, of the previous Secret Six as their best comic of the year, which is a huge honor, especially for a book I think most people were surprised was so successful. We were given tremendous license I think at least partially because no one expected the book to gain and keep an audience, but it did, it still sells great digitally and the trades are ridiculously expensive and sought after.
My point with the Secret Six was that no one wanted them to win. No one wanted them to succeed, not the cops, the heroes, not the villains. And they were always outmatched and they never won. But they never gave up, either, and that’s my favorite theme, really. Sometimes, the victory is in the struggle.
How do you create and manage the many narrative threads required for a group of characters?
I always look for a story that hasn’t been told in the same way. I don’t care about a lot of the usual elements people use for a quick drama boost, I want to know, for example, what happens when a man who was victimized by his father tries to be a father to a woman sixty years his senior. I mean, that’s what speculative fiction can do that straight fiction can’t, you can posit a hypothetical about the human condition that reality doesn’t allow.
You have mentioned in interview that Dale Eaglesham and Ken Lashley are joining you on the new Secret Six. Who else will be working on the new series?
Just those two guys as our pencilers. It’s exciting. We were trying to figure out who should do the book, we had a checklist of a-level people, but we wanted Ken or Dale, both of whom wanted to do the book, and it just hit us, we could alternate arcs! So the plan is for Ken to draw an arc with Dale doing covers, and then Dale does an arc with Ken doing covers. It’s a ridiculous wealth of riches, I love both those guys so much. The book looks stunning, in that way that comics did when the idea was to blow your mind, not show people drinking coffee in a diner for eight pages.
What is it about villains/anti-heroes that inspires such fan loyalty? Do you think “heroes” would still be considered as such if they explored the emotionally complex themes usually reserved for anti-heroes?
It’s harder to position those iconic characters into positions of genuine moral uncertainty. It’s tough to put Superman into a place where the right path isn’t mostly clear. But when you do get him there, I think that’s when he’s the most fascinating.
I have talked about this often, that it’s odd that the “villains” in the Secret Six could express more humanity than the big hero teams, sometimes.
Do you think there is a more diverse range of agency in male and female comic book characters than when you created the list of Women in Refrigerators? Or have gender roles in stories become fewer and more rigid?
Oh, yeah, to me it’s like cuisine…for a long time, the chief requisite in convenience food in America was palatability, the food was deliberately bland to offend the fewest number of people. And comics and television were like that, for a long time. McDonald’s cheeseburgers and little morality plays with white hats and black hats.
But tastes change—candy makers have to think up increasingly shocking foods for both kids and gourmands, things where a lack of palatability is a downright boon. It’s the same in comics, people want unique flavors. The books that are too white bread and take no risks just don’t have the same audience anymore. Once, it was enough that a character could fly and had laser beam farts or whatever, now readers want flavor, they want spice. It has gone from a reading experience to a reading experience.
Which is good because that’s what I like to write.
You've said that the new run of Secret Six stories will push boundaries, especially around sex in comics. Why do you think sex and sexuality are glossed over in American media, either in native stories, or ones adapted from more sexually open stories from overseas?
I think there are a lot of factors, there’s still a huge mindset that heterosexuality is “normal” and anything outside of that is a risk, a leap. Even when LGBTQ characters are added, the positioning is such that they are often not shown as worthy of love or sex, it’s frustrating and weird, it’s like having your grandpa in charge of what happens in all the stories.
But again, we’re talking mainstream comics, superhero stuff. The indie comics have been ahead of this curve for decades.
And I hear from friends a lot that they are afraid to “get something wrong,” that a character might not use the proper terminology or may conform to stereotypes. So they sometimes just give up on the idea entirely. I think those are poor excuses. We will get things wrong, the question is what you do when you realize you’ve messed up.
There seems to be an element of surprise in recent reports of women consuming sci-fi/fantasy comics, video games, books, etc. but as you point out, women have always been equal consumers of these products. What do you think caused the change in perception that these were specifically male spaces?
I don’t know if “equal consumers” is right, there were times when women bought huge amounts of comics, but there was clearly a time when fewer women did. They were kept with a small voice as creators for a while, and almost voiceless as readers, not because they lacked ardor, but because of deliberate marginalization.
I bring that up only because it’s so clearly changing. Con attendance is near parity, there’s now a small fleet of great female creators even at the big two, it’s lovely. Big change in just the last decade. I also think it’s important to mention that I find again and again that most guys are very happy to share the geek spaces with girls. The ones who don’t, they tend to isolate themselves, which I think is kind of a shame because I just want people to experience the joy of comics, and these other geek things. I hate for preconceptions to make people feel under siege.
Are you a fan of spoilers? Has social media changed your approach to narrative twists/secrets?
I am not a fan of spoilers, if it were up to me, I would lie like a dog about every upcoming issue. The thing is, surprise is still a huge motivator for readers. Comfort is great, but humor, lust, horror, to convey these things in the media, you have to learn how to surprise the viewer/reader. And that’s an increasingly tougher thing to do.
I am lucky on Secret Six to have an editor, Mark Doyle, who agrees, we want people to gasp out loud. That’s still my favorite reaction to my work, give me a stunned expression of shock every time. I hope people will try the book, it’s absolutely gorgeous and every issue peels back the onion a little, until we see these characters naked and untamed. And the fun thing is, it’s Secret Six. I might be speaking literally.