Simply Marvel-ous

After the runaway success of last year’s The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, affection for superheroes was rekindled throughout the country. Without fail, a successful superhero film means that dormant and brand-new readers will step back into comic shops, or at least check them out online. But many have found that it’s not as easy as just picking up a book.

O captain my captain: Kelly Sue DeConnick, who writes Marvel’s Captain Marvel, will appear tomorrow at Portland’s Things From Another World. Deconnick grew up on comics and wants to make comics more accessible for everyone. Photo by © Ed Peterson.
O captain my captain: Kelly Sue DeConnick, who writes Marvel’s Captain Marvel, will appear tomorrow at Portland’s Things From Another World. Deconnick grew up on comics and wants to make comics more accessible for everyone. Photo by © Ed Peterson.

After the runaway success of last year’s The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, affection for superheroes was rekindled throughout the country.

Without fail, a successful superhero film means that dormant and brand-new readers will step back into comic shops, or at least check them out online. But many have found that it’s not as easy as just picking up a book.

Comic book scribe Kelly Sue DeConnick is hopeful that this will change in the future. A Portland native, DeConnick writes Captain Marvel for Marvel Comics and Ghost for Dark Horse Comics. Her new creator-owned comic, Pretty Deadly, is due on shelves later in 2013.

Local comics shop Things From Another World will host DeConnick and artist Pete Woods for a signing party tomorrow night to celebrate the release of the latest issue of Avengers Assemble.

The title is about to enter its second year in publication as a movie-friendly Avengers comic, with a cast and tone that should be recognizable to fans of the hit film. As is the norm at TFAW events, plenty of food and drink will be available.

DeConnick took some time out to chat with the Vanguard’s Tristan Cooper about how to get new readers into comic books and what it’s like to be a writer in an industry that is (at least perceived to be) male-dominated.

Vanguard: Were you always into comics, or was that something that started later in life?

Kelly Sue DeConnick: I grew up on military bases, largely overseas, and comic books are a big part of military culture—or they were in the ’70s, anyway, when I was living on base. They were always around. The family that I went to stay with after school—because my mother worked—they were big collectors. They had two boys and a girl, and a bazillion longboxes. So we would hang out there and read.

At the swap meets, on the weekend, you could get stacks of these books for a buck and the base bookstore next to the PX had as good of a comic selection as most of the direct market stores these days. It was pretty fantastic—and they were 45 cents!

I came back to the states and I fell out of the habit. [I was] in and out for years. On the way [home] from high school in Texas, there was a used bookstore I used to stop at a lot, and they had some boxes there where everything was 25 cents apiece. That’s how I got into the George Perez Teen Titans run.

VG: Comics at the time seemed like they were directed mostly toward young boys. Did you ever feel excluded by what you were reading? Did you ever feel like you were left wanting for more?

KSD: I actually won’t grant you that. I think comics from the ’70s, and at times a lot of culture in the ’70s, was much more geared toward, and much more accepting and progressive, as far as including women, than comics of today.

VG: What’s happened?

KSD: I don’t know, what’s happened to the women’s movement? The women’s movement of the 1970s, of my childhood, was pretty fierce. I think at some point we started to think that more progress had been made than has actually been made. At times I think it started to move backward. I’m sure there’s someone smarter than me who understands the economics.

Comic books used to be everywhere. I did not go into a comic book store until I was an adult woman, and yet I read comics on and off my entire life. Now it is very rare that you find them, with the exception of an occasional Archie digest at the grocery store. It’s very rare that you see them anywhere outside of the comic book store—unless they’re bound collections, trade paperbacks.

Even then, we’re spending less and less time at brick-and-mortar bookstores. Borders went out of business last year. The rise of Borders and Barnes & Noble killed so many of our independent bookstores. We’re acquiring a good deal of our books online. It’s to the point where they’re referring to real-life bookstores as showrooms. We go in to browse, and then actually purchase online.

I think that what happened with the direct market [was that] it was good for comics in a lot of ways and bad for comics in a lot of ways. One of the ways is that, over the years, it’s come to cater to a smaller and smaller demographic. And direct market stores—I don’t want to paint them all with the same brush, there are a number of really, really fantastic stores that go out of their way to try to foster community and cater to everyone.

But the cliche of The Android’s Dungeon [& Baseball Card Shop] from The Simpsons has some basis in truth. We’ve all been to that store, seen that store at some point. As comics have sort of developed their own base, it’s logical to make more comics for people who are buying the most comics. That has, I think, whittled down the audience.

There’s also the matter of perception, too. We’re saying “comic books” but what we mean is “superhero comic books.” Superhero comic books do not define the genre any more than superhero tentpole movies define all of movies.

I think there is a perception that women don’t like superhero books, and I think that is untrue. I think that women don’t like superhero comic books that are overtly made in a way that does not represent women in a good light.

VG: I read a quote from [DeConnick’s husband and fellow Marvel Comics writer] Matt Fraction; he said that the industry has “fallen into a pattern of not caring about new readers anymore.” Do you think this is the cause or the effect of the regression of the comics market?

I think that instead of growing—and again I want to stress that this is a sweeping generalization, there are a lot of really fantastic stores out there and a lot of really fantastic publishers—but generally speaking, I think rather than trying to grow our audience we are trying to sell more books to the same five guys.

VG: I know that we’re kind of talking apples and oranges here, but I read that you translated a lot of manga in the past?

KSD: I didn’t actually translate, I wrote the English adaptations. My Japanese isn’t good enough for me to work as a translator.

VG: What do you think manga in its boom did that superhero comics weren’t doing or aren’t doing?

KSD: It’s not quite fair to compare manga to superhero comics; it definitely is apples and oranges. But why were so many women and girls reading manga versus American comics, which tended to be dominated by the superhero genre?

No one can say for certain, but my suspicions are that, for one thing, they were accessible. You didn’t have to go into a specialty store. You had only to go find the manga section in the bookstore that you were likely to already have a reason to be at. Once you were there, you didn’t need a guide.

You need a mentor, practically, to get into reading American serial comics. If you’re reading DC or Marvel comics you need someone to hold your hand and walk you through the process. And even then, it is confusing.

I have read comic books on and off my entire life. I am a professional in the industry. I have had to sit in a comic book store and look things up on the Internet to figure out the reading order for some stories. I’ve had to enlist clerks to help me, and often, they don’t know, either. We do not make it an easy process. If someone is at all shy or intimidated, they are out the door.

Whereas with manga, new readers—not just women and girls, but any new reader—could, easy enough, find the manga section in the bookstore, read the description of the story off the back of [the book]. The hardest thing they might encounter is learning to read backward.

It’s sort of astounding to think that learning to read right to left, back to front, is easier than making your way through the numbering system in American comics. Just think about that. That is astounding.

So pick up a good book off the shelf, read the back, find one that seems interesting to you, find the one that has the big number “1” on the end of it, take it to [the] front counter and pay for it and you’re done.

Say you go see a big summer tentpole movie, and there’s a character in it that you like and you think: “You know, I want to read more about this character.” So you find your local comic book store, and let’s just pretend that you find one that’s nice and well-lit and not smelly and not intimidating, and you go in.

And the first thing that you encounter is that everything is shelved by publisher, which is unlike any bookstore you have ever been to in your life. So you are responsible now for knowing what publisher puts out that character that you’re interested in.

Let’s say you have a good clerk and they help you, and you know that you want to go to either DC or Marvel, we’ll assume. So you want to go to the Marvel section, and pretend you’re looking for Black Widow. You thought that Black Widow was pretty fantastic in that movie, so you want to go read more about her.

You go look on the shelf and there’s Black Widow and Captain Marvel, or there’s some Black Widow book, and it’s number 623. And you’re like, well, can I start here? And there’s another Black Widow book that’s got “Number 3 of 12,” or whatever, on the front. It’s confusing, it’s intimidating. it does not welcome a new reader.

If there is a personable and patient person on staff there who can say, you know, “Hey, you might actually want to pick up this Avengers Assemble that reflects the tone of the movie, and this new arc features Black Widow.” But you’re not going to know that just looking at the shelf, know what I mean?

VG: What would you do to remedy the situation?

KSD: I would renumber it for every arc. I would renumber and subtitle for every arc. That’s probably the best thing that I can come up with.

VG: Do you think it would alienate existing readers, by making each book self-contained? Or is it just like a superficial [renumbering], and you wouldn’t change the stories at all?

KSD: I mean certainly it would alienate someone. Every decision that we make alienates someone. I don’t want to alienate anyone, but it’s a numbers game. Are we contracting at such a rate that we’re going to clear ourselves out of business by catering to the same five dudes? Luckily for everyone, I am not in power to make these decisions.

I don’t have an MBA, I have never run a multimillion dollar corporation. What I can say is that [there] are a lot of smaller publishers who have existing characters and existing universes that do have internal continuity that renumber for every arc, that are much more accessible for a new reader.

VG: Traditionally, a lot of [editors-in-chief] will say that there are no female titles because they don’t sell. Is that an added pressure on top of an already-hard job of writing a book?

KSD: I don’t believe that they can’t sell. Our numbers on Captain Marvel have waxed and waned. I don’t want to carry the weight, I don’t want to be representative of the future of female-led comic books. I’m still pretty new at this. Captain Marvel is my first ongoing book. I am going to make some mistakes. I should not represent the future of female-led [superhero comics]. That’s not gonna go well for any of us.

Marjorie Liu is a brilliant and wonderful woman, and she and I were on a panel together. She cut to the core of it, and she said, “This is a business.” More than anything, the books that are produced are the books that will sell, and it becomes cyclical.

And as soon as there is a top-10 female-led book that is selling like hotcakes, there will be 30 more female-led books. They’re going to produce what they know sells. One of them has to do it, one has to break through. And we’ll just keep trying, you know?

I think that with the rise of digital comics, we’re becoming much more accessible to people who may be put off in one way or another by the traditional means of getting serial books. We have an opportunity to expand the audience.

I’m one of the few people I know who has a larger following on Tumblr than on Twitter. There are a lot of Tumblr readers who are digital-only. And they are super, super dedicated fans. Carol Danvers [of Captain Marvel] has a support network on Tumblr like you wouldn’t believe. It’s truly astonishing, and it pre-dates me.

There are also a lot of readers that came into the books through the Joss Whedon film [The Avengers]. That was just last year. We haven’t really seen how that’s going to play out in the end. There’s a new Iron Man movie coming out. It’s going to be interesting.

VG: There are a lot of female character-led books coming out, there’s [Fantastic Four spin-off] FF, there’s Uncanny X-Force, there’s Brian Wood’s new X-Men. I don’t want to discount the colorists and the editors on those books, and their importance, but they’re written and drawn mostly by men. If you look at a video of a Marvel roundtable, it’s mostly men. Why do you think there aren’t more women writers around that table?

KSD: I think that’s a difficult question for someone who is within the industry currently to answer frankly, honestly. It’s complicated, but it’s changing. Progress is being made, I think.

What I can say is that I want very desperately to see more diversity, and I think that mentorship is a big part of that process. I also get very uncomfortable when we start—I saw some backlash about Cullen Bunn writing Fearless Defenders [an all-female superhero team comic]: “Why couldn’t they get a woman to write it?” And it’s like, because it was Cullen Bunn’s pitch! It’s his book!

I made a joke about my short temper and my affinity for the Hulk, and then it was a thing about how that would be unimaginable, to be like the Hulk. Well, you know what, I did, so there. No one ever said, “I don’t know how [Brian Michael Bendis] could possibly write a book about Spider-Man. He doesn’t have spider powers!” You know what I mean?

It’s stupid, it’s dumb. You don’t have to have the same gender of the character that you’re writing any more than you have to have the same powers as the character you’re writing. What you have to have is a writer’s imagination.

And that’s it. If we start insisting that women must write women, it just becomes absurd and limiting. Do I want more diversity? Absolutely I want more diversity. We’re getting there. At every public appearance I make, I tell the women there is room up here for you. Start making your comics; get your stuff out there. We should be at least 50 percent of the industry, if not more.

The way I don’t want to see that happen is this insistence that female-led books or teams need to be written by women. I bristle at that. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing girls! You know? I’d like to write a boy every once in a while.