She’s Back, Y'all

Paula Deen, Feminist Icon?

The embattled chef is back after racist remarks nearly destroyed her career. But is a comic book the best route to reinvention? By Tricia Romano

AP, Bluewater Comics

Paula Deen recently found herself in some highly esteemed company when Bluewater Productions added her to its pantheon of feminists in the comic-book series Female Force. The Washington-based company released the comic Wednesday, a few months after the embattled chef was dropped by numerous sponsors after making racially insensitive remarks, and a few days after her return to the public eye.

Deen might seem to be an unlikely choice, joining women as varied and celebrated as Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Sarah Palin. The series spotlights a different iconic woman every month.

The comic tale, which tracks Deen’s career from her humble beginnings to her latest scandal, makes the case for the chef as a feminist icon: “Paula Deen took her cooking which is deemed as a stereotypical woman’s role and turned it into an empire. And that is why she is a female force to be reckoned with.”

How does Deen end up on the same stage as Condoleezza Rice or Tina Fey? Co-founder and publisher Darren G. Davis, who picks the women featured in the Female Force series (as well as the company’s other biographical series—Fame and Fifteen Minutes) said he was interested in telling Deen’s story.

“She basically revolutionized Southern cooking, She was a woman who sold sandwiches door to door. She turned that into this multimillion-dollar corporation,” he said, comparing Deen to Martha Stewart.

While Davis, who is gay, won’t reveal his political leanings, he does want to give both conservative and liberal figures equal time—with equally fair, even-keeled treatment.

“We don’t hold back the punches. We talk about it [Deen’s public scandal] in a way that has the empowerment angle,” he said. “It’s no different than Hillary Clinton dealing with Bill’s affair with Monica. She prevailed. She [Deen] is still a work in progress with her story.”

Davis said that he started working on the Deen book before the racism accusations, but held off publishing because he didn’t want to appear to be capitalizing on the media frenzy.

“After Walmart left her, I felt really bad for her. I think she said stupid things, I think she owned it, I think there’s sort of a witch hunt for her. I don’t think what she said was politically correct or nice but I think she learned from it,” he said.

“Personally I want somebody to feel like there were people who aren’t against them when the chips are down and everyone is kicking you,” he said. “People in this world are horrible.”

He should know: Davis said he’s seen erroneous press reports claiming he was being sued by stars like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. He has been criticized by some in the comic-book community for what they say are cheap and exploitative contracts, and, he says, he gets excoriated for his choices of subject matter. The New York Observer likened Bluewater to “the graphic novel version of”

“I’ve been called a whore, a bottom feeder,” he said. “People will say anything they want, without any sort of consequences.”

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Davis got into the comic-book business after several years in the trenches in Hollywood, working in advertising and marketing in companies like Lionsgate and E! Entertainment Marketing. He moved into the comic-book space, working as a rep for top illustrators at DC Comics. After he left DC, he worked at another independent company putting out a comic, 10th Muse, that was a surprise bestseller, standing shoulder to shoulder with X-Men, Batman, and Spider-Man the month it was released.

When the company he was working with turned into a Christian title, Davis set out on his own. He had an “aha!” moment during the 2008 election. “I saw somebody doing biographies on John McCain and Barack Obama, but we saw how unfair [the female politicians] were being treated because they were talking about their looks but they weren’t talking about their positions. They were talking about their hair or how they dressed but not doing the same thing to John McCain or Barack Obama. We decided we would do Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton for the first one.”

The comics were a hit, he says. Over time, the style has shifted—the early Palin and Clinton comics had some meta commentary from the writer thinking out loud and pointing out the parts in the storyline that would get critics riled up, but have since become more straightforward. Some of the biographies are unauthorized—but many of them are done with the involvement of the subjects. Ellen DeGeneres, Olivia Newton John, and Carrie Fisher all worked with Bluewater in return for some of the proceeds going to a charity of their choice, says Davis.

But even the unauthorized bios are sometimes appreciated by the subjects (Lady Gaga tweeted about hers; Bill called to get a copy of Hillary’s, says Davis). The Female Force series covers the political gamut—Nancy Reagan, Condoleezza Rice, and Margaret Thatcher have comics alongside the likes of Angelina Jolie, Rosie O’Donnell, and Sonia Sotomayer.

The Deen comic, written by Michael Troy and illustrated by Manuel Diaz, is informative and straight shooting. It talks about her agoraphobia and her diabetes, as well as her recent court testimony, all without judgment or venom.

Davis says he picks people he finds interesting, but it’s not surprising that many of them are also polarizing figures. “I do try really to be conscious of making sure that they are fair on both sides.”

His other series— Fame and 15 Minutes—feature celebrities like Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Honey Boo Boo, and Kim Kardashian. In terms of sales, Justin Bieber’s got nothing on Michelle Obama: the first lady outsold the teen dream by a mile (150,000 copies to Bieber’s 28,000, though Davis allows that Bieber’s was a graphic novel with a “bigger price point”).

Next to get the Female Force treatment? Nancy Reagan and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg.

“All my life I had really strong female role models. I’ve always learned not to denigrate women. My best friend is a huge feminist,” he said. “My stuff is no different than Wonder Woman.”