Growing out, marching in
An Interview with kelly sue deconnick
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Kelly Sue DeConnick has been working in the comics industry for over a decade, beginning her career translating Japanese manga and writing for Warren Ellis' artbomb.net, where she wrote catalog entries for comic-book issues. DeConnick, considered the "future of women in comics," is the author and creator of Image's Bitch Planet, with art by Valentine De Landro, and Pretty Deadly, with art by Emma Ríos. She's also written for DC, Dark Horse, and Marvel, where she helmed the revival of Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel. Alongside her husband Matt Fraction, she runs the production company Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Inc in Portland, Oregon. You can follow DeConnick on Twitter at @kellysue and visit her website at kellysue.com.
TMR: You’ve stated that, as a female creator pushing for female representation in comics, you're willing to make people uncomfortable so that your daughter doesn't have to. What can other artists do to make the world better for later generations?
KSD: My intention is to make work that expresses some kind of truth. I do so in the hopes that the work will connect me to myself, and to my humanity, my community, and have the same effect on the consumer. But sometimes, finding truths or speaking truths means making yourself and other people uncomfortable. No one likes to be uncomfortable, but I think it's gotten easier for me with practice.
Everybody wants to be liked. Of course we want to be liked. I'm not aiming to be on anybody's shitlist—but I'm willing to go there. A lot of people will thank you for it later.
I think our culture tends to treat women as not fully human. That's tragic. It limits human beings as a whole.
There's a difference between art and entertainment. If we hope to continue experiencing growth, we have to let ourselves stretch and get out of the familiar places. We must try to understand how our truths are different from other people's truths—especially as a woman. On some level, our culture still wants women to be seen and not heard. When you're not quiet, it makes people uncomfortable. They may not be able to articulate it directly, but they sort of wish you would just be quiet, decorative, agreeable—just smile. I think our culture tends to treat women as not fully human. That's tragic. It limits human beings as a whole.
TMR: When did you first become aware that the world can be misogynistic?
KSD: It was a slow dawning. I've always been overly concerned with fairness, and I was born pissing vinegar for no particular reason. I'm a cishet white girl: I don't belong to a particularly marginalized community. Women, certainly, but in every other way, I'm glowing with privilege. I think because of that privilege, I came to seeing most prejudices later than I would have liked.
There's a naivety, too. I grew up on air force bases while my dad was a non-commissioned officer, and I believed all the history books. I thought, Racism has been taken care of by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's! Isn't it neat that I was born too late to live in a world where that was a reality. Of course, that's nonsense, as evidenced by the news. We are in a deeply, deeply racist culture, and always have been. But I'm a white girl. I didn't see it.
I meet young women today, too, who will poo-poo feminism and talk about how it isn't really a problem and that we just have to work hard. Every young girl goes through this period in her life where she's "not like other girls," and doesn't really get girls. That's normal, and it's smart, really. Young women are very bright. You start to become aware, on some level, that women are low-status in our culture. You don't want to identify with low-status—you want to identify upward, right? Because you're not an idiot, so you start to separate yourself. You're not like other girls. You don't like to work with women. You buy into the cultural message that women's friendships can't be trusted, or any of that other garbage. And it's normal, I think. I only hate it if you don't grow out of it.
TMR: What drew you to comics?
KSD: I grew up on airforce bases, and comic books were very much a part of military culture. This is pre-internet, and on-base in Germany, we had one American television station and it certainly did not have a lot of children's programming.
My mom rewarded me with Wonder Woman comics when I did my chores. I saved my allowance to buy big stacks of GI comics at the swap meets on Saturdays. So because I grew up in Germany, in that environment, I read comics that a lot of young women my age didn't. I never entirely let it go.
I had favorite creators, but maybe because they were all men, it never occurred to me as something that I could do.
I remember meeting a comic book artist named Will Rosado when I moved to New York, the first person I ever met who worked in the industry. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that there was an industry—that those comics were actually made by people. I had favorite creators, but maybe because they were all men, it never occurred to me as something that I could do.
Then through Will, I met more people in the industry. I was a big fan of Warren Ellis's Planetary, so I frequented an Ellis forum where I met a lot of my future colleagues. It's where I met my husband, who's also a comic book writer. Half of the industry were all there as fans at the time.
TMR: During your childhood, you’d say there wasn’t much visibility for women comics writers.
KSD: There were women working at the time. I don't think I was reading any of their stuff, or didn't realize if I was. Most of what I was reading was made by men. I don't remember entertaining it as a possibility on my list of "What I want to be when I grow up." A veterinarian? A doctor? If you ask my daughter Tallulah, she'll tell you that she wants to be a housecleaner and the president. And also a triple threat.
TMR: Today you're celebrated for drawing female readers back to comic books. Did you ever see this as a possibility?
KSD: I think there's many things that brought women back to comics, but I don't think I'm one of them. I'm incredibly flattered that people found Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps to be something that gave them permission to come play, too. I'm thrilled with that association. I have a lot of women colleagues that should share in any of that credit. And really, I think more than us: It's a confluence of a few things.
The manga boom was a big deal because it took comics into the mall, where girls didn't have to overcome gateways of going into a comic book store. The way that manga is organized and shelved made it easy to buy—you didn't need a guide. It seemed easier for these young women to learn to read books backwards than it was for them to find their way through American shared-universe corporate comics. And young women read tons of manga, and it was, very quickly, a lucrative industry. Then there was the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which a lot of women loved and continue to love.
When I was a kid, comics were at every gas station. But then they went out of public spaces and into private spaces; they went into these hobbyist stores, what we call the direct market. And the direct market was mostly run by male collectors, where women often did not feel welcome. It was a kind of thing where you needed a guide, and so women left comics.
Today, there are more women working in comic shops and more women owning comic shops. But for a while, there were really bad barriers. And there are some still. It's getting better, but it's a long way from a welcoming community.
If you find a great store and a great staffer who’ll be a guide for you, they'll help you find your way. But if you don't, God help you. You're gonna walk out thinking, "Ugh, I don't know what comics to buy," and go back to a bookstore. Which is why manga worked. You find the manga section: You find one that looks interesting, pull it out, read the description on the back of the book, find the book with the number 1 on it, and then take it to the register to pay for it. You didn't need a guide. That's why it was easy for so many women to get back into comics that way.
TMR: What advice can you offer to young women/non-male comics creators?
KSD: My advice is the same as it is for anyone: Make comics, and start now. Time is fleeting. You don't have it to waste, and the older you get, every passing moment becomes a smaller portion of your life. Time really does feel like it moves faster, like you're in some sort of time machine and someone has pressed their foot on the accelerator. It moves so much more slowly when you're young, so start! Start immediately.
Make comics, and start now. Time is fleeting. You don't have it to waste, and the older you get, every passing moment becomes a smaller portion of your life.
If you're a writer and you don't have an artist to work with, learn to draw. Elsa Charretier taught herself to draw in two years, and she's amazing. If you don't want to learn to draw, and you are too shy at the moment to find a collaborator who is an artist that can learn to make comics with you, then start practicing scripting. Find scripts, read scripts. Start finding opportunities to write small comics. Draw them in stick figures just to make sure they're drawable. Two of my husband's favorite exercises that he likes to recommend are finding your favorite comic and reverse-engineering it. Try to write the script that produced that comic. Find your least favorite comic and reverse-engineer that. Try to figure out what went wrong. There's a lot that you can do, but you really need to start now.
People will ask me all the time about what it's like to be a woman working in a male-dominated industry or whatever, and I think every industry is a male-dominated industry. Even if it's not dominated by men in numbers, the highest earners are always men. The only exceptions to that are models and sex workers—and that does nothing to undercut my ideas about the patriarchy. If you want to make comics, or make games, don't approach this like, "I'm interested in a male-dominated industry," because literally every industry that you could be interested in is that way. You might as well do what you love. I don't think it's going to get harder, so go ahead and get in.
TMR: What kind of mark do you want to leave behind?
KSD: I want to make something good. And I wonder how much time I have left. I'm ambitious and I have specific goals: I want to write a novel one day. I want to get a television show on the air and I'd like to write a feature. I have two nonfiction book pitches on my desk right now that I have to finish. I have specific goals and I'm certainly not without ambition, but at the same time I really have to think about just what's in front of me.
Kind of like my sobriety, if I start to think about not drinking or not using drugs for the rest of my life, the thing I most want to do is drink or use drugs. So instead, I think about what I'm going to do today. Today, my life is happy, and I know that I would lose all of that if I were to pick up again. I don't want to do that. I'm not going to drink, and I can handle it today. I think about that in the same way with my work. Yes, I'm ambitious, but if I sat down to write thinking I'm gonna make Guernica, or that I'm gonna write my Handmaid's Tale, I'd never put a word down on the page. Never, never, never. That is a bit of advice for someone starting out that is very important.
It takes so much courage to create. And you have to suck first—you just have to. Unless you're Milton, dictating brilliantly Paradise Lost, the rest of us are just going to suck. And that's okay. You have to get through the bad books to get to the good ones, or the bad paintings, or the bad whatever it is. There's no way around, there's no shortcut. It's vitally important. Every idea that you have in your head is so much better in your head than it is when you take it out and put it on paper. That act of moving it from your head to this place where you have to inspect it and see it, it reveals all of the flaws, the holes, the unoriginality. You can suddenly see those things, and it's daunting and depressing. A lot of people think the idea is the good part, but ideas are cheap. I have shit-tons of ideas! I have thirty ideas a day! It's time and courage that are limiting factors.
Having the courage to put it on paper, having courage to make the thing, that's what makes you a writer or an artist. If you die with the thing on paper, you're a writer. If you die with the idea, you're a dreamer. You didn't do it. And we're all going to die one day, so which way do you want to go?