How Kelly Sue DeConnick Made ‘C-List’ Captain Marvel the Most Powerful Superhero in Hollywood
Kelly Sue DeConnick says she was such a ‘C-list’ writer when she started writing Captain Marvel that she paid for her own merch. The superhero is now Marvel’s most powerful.
Captain Marvel will be the 21st movie in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and its first to center on a woman’s story.
Carol Danvers will be the most powerful hero in the MCU when she debuts onscreen next March.
The super-strong, super-fast, photon-blast-punching superhero owes it to one person, the comic-book and TV writer Kelly Sue DeConnick.
There were only eight months between DeConnick’s first issue of Captain Marvel selling out in September 2012 and Marvel Studios getting its hands on a script about the hero formerly known as Ms. Marvel. A year and a half later, it officially announced a film. Carol’s quick ascent is a testament to audiences’ hunger for a hero like her, and to DeConnick’s resolve to see her succeed.
“It was a C-list character and a C-list writer, and a brand new artist,” DeConnick said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I mean, we had so little chance of being successful that I didn’t actually plan past the sixth issue.” Marvel’s low expectations for the book (which DeConnick says she totally understands) meant little to no marketing was done for it, leaving the writer to make dog tags, buttons, postcards, and more on her own. She does not recommend it.
“It was a stupid thing to do. It was a straight dumb thing to do,” she says. “But I got real lucky. The character happened to attract a fan base which made that dumb move on my part end up looking smart and worthwhile. But really, it was super dumb.”
For the past year, DeConnick has worked as a consultant on the film, which will star Brie Larson, guiding its conception of Carol’s character and squeezing in enough time for duck-face selfies with the Captain herself.
She also expects to see more of her comics—she earned Eisner nominations for Pretty Deadly, co-created with Emma Rios, and Bitch Planet, with Val Delandro—make the jump to the screen with a newly signed deal with Legendary Television.
For now, though, DeConnick’s mind is on a different project: her first ongoing run of a DC Comics book, beginning with Aquaman #43. DeConnick’s Aquaman remixes the noble Arthur Curry longtime readers know with the warmth, charm, and swagger moviegoers will recognize from Jason Momoa’s debut as King of the Seven Seas on Friday. It will feature sumptuous art by Robson Rocha.
DeConnick likens her story to the epic feel of the rock band Led Zeppelin: “Mythic and huge and sexy and ancient and visceral.”
We spoke to her about her story’s mythological roots, her time working on the Captain Marvel film, and more.
This is the first superhero story you’ve written for DC Comics in almost ten years, right?
Yeah, I did like three issues of Supergirl and I did a Superman short story. If there’s anything else, I’ve forgotten it. I’ve had very little history with DC so jumping in with both feet is pretty cool. I grew up reading DC. I didn’t read a Marvel comic until I was an adult, so it’s a little bit of a nostalgic, bucket-list thing.
Is Aquaman the book DC Comics approached you with or was it something you pitched to them? And why him? No offense to Aquaman.
So Brian [Michael] Bendis kind of shook up the industry by moving from Marvel to DC at the end of last year. Brian is a super classy guy and a good family friend and he made this transition in a way that I think was really good for everyone—good for the whole of our industry because it gave us a kind of shot in the arm, you know? It was just a thing you never imagined happening. So he made the switch and it was super exciting, and then he fell ill. Quite ill. He was in the hospital and, as I said, our families are quite close. The whole Portland comic scene is a real tight group of people that care a lot about one another. And so while Brian was in the hospital, a lot of us would hang out in the room with him. Brian has two things he is interested in and they are comics and his family. And so to keep his chin up, we would talk shop.
There was a lot of fun teasing and joking and we would talk about what creative teams we would “cast” for what books and whatnot. And I think he was kidding, but he asked me if I would do Aquaman. I laughed it off at first. Then my husband, who is the comics writer Matt Fraction, called me on that. He was like “Hey, hon! Two things. One, I don’t know what you on Aquaman looks like. That’s not obvious casting and I’m kind of fascinated by that. What would be your take on that character?”
He knows me incredibly well so that was interesting to me. It was like, what would I do? And then the other thing he mentioned was, “I would like to remind you that Mr. Jason Momoa will be portraying Aquaman on the silver screen.” And I was like, “Oh yeah! I could live with him in my head for a year and a half.” Then I talked to some DC folks and they were like “We would like it if you thought about that.” Eventually I had a take, and here we are.
When you say Bendis’ move to DC was like a shot in the arm, do you mean you realized you might like to do something unexpected as well?
Yeah, I mean, Brian has been synonymous with Marvel Comics for more than 10 years. Well more than 10 years. He’s gonna love me for putting the emphasis on “well” there, it’ll make him feel so old, it’s gonna be awesome. It’s no disrespect to Marvel. He still loves those characters and those people, and I think the opposite is true too. It’s just time to do something new, get out of our safe places and shake things up. And I love that. I love going where it’s not obvious, where we’re taking risks and bringing fresh ideas and perspectives to our work. ’Cause you know, I get sick of my voice. I get sick of where I’m comfortable.
It always feels pretentious to talk about yourself as an “artist” but I do work in the arts. I am still looking to not just check boxes and bring in a paycheck but to put questions into the world, to make work that inspires someone to feel something that maybe they needed to feel or hadn’t considered. Especially when we’re talking about popular art. I’ve said this before, but I think when we dismiss the potential of popular art we dismiss the potential of the populace. Everyone has to define this for themselves but, for me, I think the purpose of art is to connect us to ourselves and to one another. So whether I’m doing that with Aquaman or Bitch Planet or Pretty Deadly or whatever it is, that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s not just to put pretty colors on a page.
Your version of Arthur Curry is rugged and masculine, but also caring and warm. He’s got swagger yet also feels lost—he’s unlike any iteration of the character we’ve seen. The closest thing, perhaps, is Jason Momoa’s Aquaman. Did his portrayal weigh on you as you wrote?
It’s walkin’ a tight rope here, right? On the one hand, the longtime fan and reader of Aquaman needs to recognize an Arthur that they know. At the same time, Hollywood has been kind enough to make this bazillion-dollar commercial for our book and I don’t want them to feel like their money was wasted. So I need to make a book that a reader who has never picked up an Aquaman comic before or who is coming in off the movie would recognize. And this is a challenge because they’re very different! I have to marry the regal, upstanding, king-of-the-seven-seas, traditional Aquaman with the slightly roguish, twinkle in his eyes, swaggery, ornery, Jason Momoa Aquaman.
And do it in a way where you don’t feel like you’re reverse-engineering and writing to a formula, where it just feels like a genuine human being. You have to feel like this is somebody who lives in your head and you know how they think or feel about a particular situation. So it’s a little bit of a trick. But I’m having a real good time with it, and I like him. That’s the important part. This Aquaman that I’ve been getting to know for the last several months is a man I enjoy spending time with. He’s not Jason Momoa and he’s not exactly the Arthur Curry he’s been in previous runs, but it’s not a record-scratch either, I hope. I like hanging out with him. I like discovering who he is with him, and I like watching him try to bob on the ocean, trying to learn to ride out these challenges as they come at him.
The first issue establishes its mythological tone from the very first line—“In the beginning…” Its villain Namma, a rebel punished for defying the sea, and her daughter Caille feel like elements from Greek mythology, almost, or a Wonder Woman story.
I have a tendency to think about my books in terms of music. It’s a really good shortcut in tone for me. Captain Marvel was Tom Petty, and Avengers Assemble was AC/DC—short, pop, fun. Pretty Deadly is Ennio Morricone. That kind of thing. So for Aquaman I was like, all right, this is Zeppelin. This is mythic and huge and sexy and ancient and visceral. Because we’re talking about the ocean, right? There’s so many creation myths that begin in the ocean and so many destruction myths where we return there. We come from the water, we return to the water, our bodies are water. And there’s something about the heavy richness of Zeppelin and those high, screeching vocals that was like, “Oh, right, here we are. This is it.”
And I have been working on Historia, which is this DC Black Label book on the history of the Amazons, so I’ve been reading tons of mythology. And as I was going through this, I wanted to talk about the tradition every culture has of ocean myths and gods. Namma kind of came out of that. The third issue of the run, issue #45, is really special to me. We get the entire story of the ocean gods, of Namma, and the beginning of the world, and it mirrors some Greek traditions and Middle Eastern traditions. It’s kind of an uber myth. And Robson is like, crazy brilliant. These pages are coming in with just huge, amazing splashes where you can feel the water on your face just looking at it.
Apart from infusing your Aquaman with some of that Momoa swagger, did anything else stand out to you about the character that you wanted to change or avoid?
I wouldn’t even call this changing, but the model with him in recent years has been—and pardon me for the pun because I wish to God there was a better saying, but it’s like a fish-out-of-water thing.
I know, I’m so sorry. (Laughs) Like, it’s genuinely the phrase we use, I’m not being cute! But when we tell stories about him on Earth it tends to be, “Well, he really belongs on Atlantis.” But at least in the most current continuity, he doesn’t really belong in Atlantis. He grew up in Amnesty Bay. He lives there, he has a home there, he has a dog there. Where you have a dog, that is where you live. So I just think that doing a story where we’re trying to use the idea of him being a man with no home—because he’s half-human, he doesn’t belong on Atlantis, and because he’s half-Atlantean, he doesn’t belong on Earth—I don’t think that works.
I was given the directive to tell more stories of him in our world and I don’t think it works because I can’t believe he suffers from being Atlantean. He’s super handsome, he’s literally bulletproof, he’s on the Justice League—it’s not like he’s subject to bias. That’s disingenuous and I think at this point in our political world it’s cruel to play as though the literally bulletproof white boy is suffering for being half-Atlantean, you know what I mean? “Tone-deaf” is the nicest thing you could say about that.
The first issue also tells us that the ocean is in pain—at least in our current world, it’s not hard to imagine why. I’m curious how much, if at all, you wanted to invoke environmental themes in your run.
Yeah, that’s hard, right? There’s a famous line where Alan Moore talks about deciding to leave Swamp Thing when he realized he wanted to tell stories about the environment and a giant muck-monster kept getting in the way. Nobody wants to read stories that are wagging their fingers at you all the time. At the same time, how do you not talk about how essential the ocean is to the health of our planet when you’re writing a book about a man whose name is “Water Guy”? That’s a challenge I’ve been thinking about. How do I do that in a way where I’m using metaphor, that isn’t helpless and depressing? I don’t need to do stories preaching to the converted. Also, I don’t need to pretend like I’m some sort of expert. ’Cause I have no idea. If I knew how to save the oceans of the world, I would not be writing comic books.
(Laughs) So I’m not sure how long I’ll stay on the book, but in the first few arcs I do not have any plan for a strictly environmental story, at least not in the most literal sense, because I don’t know a way to do it that would add anything to the conversation.
I also wanted to talk about your early days on Captain Marvel, since your run on the Marvel series seems to have heavily influenced the film. I’ve read before that you paid marketing costs for the book out of pocket.
Well, Marvel was not like, “Here’s the marketing material, Kelly Sue, and here’s your invoice!” It was not like that. I just felt like the only shot I had at making that book a career move for me was to have it be successful. Which is the most obvious thing in the world. But I didn’t feel like it was super high on their priority list, for incredibly good reasons. I don’t want this to come out like this is me shitting on Marvel or whatever, but it was a C-list character and a C-list writer, and a brand-new artist. I mean, we had so little chance of being successful that I didn’t actually plan past the sixth issue. So, issues #7 and #8 are a two-issue arc that I had to throw together as filler because I had no plan past issue #6.
So I did go out of pocket on marketing materials. I made membership cards for the Carol Corps, I made dog-tags, postcards and buttons, I think. And I didn’t do that because I asked, “Hey Marvel, will you do this?” and they said no and then I was like, “I’ll pay for it.” Rather it was just like, I need this to be successful, I know that the only chance I have is to bust my butt to make a community to support this, so that’s why I did that. And it was a stupid thing to do. It was a straight dumb thing to do. But I got real lucky. The character happened to attract a fan base which made that dumb move on my part end up looking smart and worthwhile. But really, it was super dumb.
So it was pretty much standard operating procedure for books without sky-high expectations.
Yeah, I mean, marketing was pretty separate from creators at the time. Like, all the interviews that I did at the time I set up myself. I’m sure things have changed, but that’s how it was back in the day.
Marvel Studios brought you on as a consultant for the film version of Captain Marvel, and I saw your duck-face selfie with Brie Larson. Tell me that story!
I do duck-face selfies with people. And so when I was hanging out with Brie on set—which is a hilarious thing to say, by the way—we honestly, oddly enough, did not talk about Carol that much. But we talked about what the film meant to us, why it and why she were important to both of us. And we talked about how this role was changing and affecting her life, and how being a part of something as big as this was changing things even for someone who’s already a movie star. And was great and she was funny. We got along great and then it was like, oh, we gotta do something that’ll break the internet, so I asked her. It’s funny, I also have one where it’s just us with big smiles but I chose not to post that one.
What was it like for you to watch the most recent trailer? It draws on a lot of imagery—especially Carol punching things in space—that felt familiar from the first arc you wrote.
I got a little tripped out, I have to say. I’ve been working on this movie for about a year, and I’ve had a really incredible experience with everyone. I have not worked on a feature before but I was never made to feel less than, or like the new kid. Everybody made me very included and very valued and heard. And I’m intensely grateful for that, because I very much was the new kid, you know? They’ve all been really, really tremendous, but it’s been a job. The two moments that I’ve had, I think, have been related to my kids. One was at the end of Infinity War, when the pager goes up on the screen. My son stood up in the theater and went, “That’s my mom!”
Which was just like, well, now I have to give you to the circus because I’m never topping this moment. I’ve peaked as a mother and we’re done, I have to walk away. And then when the second trailer went up, my daughter and I watched it together, and she got very excited and when they did they do the “her” before the “hero,” I genuinely had a physical reaction to it. It was amazing, it was like “aw.” This matters, this is important.
What do you think Brie has brought to the role that resonated to you as uniquely Carol?
She’s got a strategic mind. In the same way that Carol wrestles with her impulsivity and her temper and keeping her eye on the bigger picture, I think Brie does, too. Now, I have known her for all of ten minutes, so we’re not tight. I have no long relationship, I’m saying this based on very short interactions. And it may just be that she’s a hell of an actress. But that is the thing that I see that I recognize as Carol primarily. That wrestling with, “My impulse says this and I want to blow this up, but my head says think this through.” That is such a Carol moment, that is such a Carol struggle. And you can see it in her—in her career management, in the choices that she makes and her social media profile. It’s very, very Carol. And I love that woman, so I love Brie.
Was there ever anything you objected to? Like, “No, actually, Carol wouldn’t do that?”
No, I had long talks with them in the beginning. I sat down for a few hours in L.A. on a couple of occasions, talking about her as a person and her books thematically and what I thought did and didn’t work and why, and what mistakes I felt had been made with her in the past and what I felt were the strongest choices, that kind of thing. I think it would be bad form for me to get into specifics but yeah, there were a couple of things where I was like, “I don’t think that’s a great choice!” And we’d talk about it. But there were never like, dumb things. It was more, here’s why I think that’s sticky and here’s why I think that’ll end up undermining what we’re trying to do here. And they’d be like, “Oh, OK.” That’s the kind of cool thing: I really felt like I was included in a team of people who felt like they were trying to make the best thing that they could.
Have you seen a full cut of the film yet?
No, but in like a week and a half I’m going to see it. I get to see Aquaman next week and then I get to see a cut of—I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that, actually, but oh well, don’t fire me—Captain Marvel in a couple weeks.
How are you feeling going into that?
I am a nervous wreck about both, and I have nothing to do with the Aquaman movie! And god, the world is such a scary, freaky place right now. We need stories that tell us if we all work together we can overcome. We need media that gives us hope, and the fantasy of putting aside our differences and bringing our greatest strengths and overcoming those of us who would give into our worst impulses. So I am super excited for it, whatever shared-universe franchise it comes from.