Twice As Smart, Twice As Tough: Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk Let ‘Mockingbird’ Fly [Interview]
This week sees the arrival of Mockingbird, Bobbi Morse, in her first ever ongoing series. Written by bestselling author Chelsea Cain and Marvel newcomer Kate Niemczyk, the series picks up on the momentum from Cain’s Mockingbird one-shot last year, along with the increased exposure of the character as part of the cast of Agents of SHIELD.
Mockingbird is a character with a long history, and ties to just about every Avenger. But who is she when she stands alone, and what motivates her as one of the best-known Marvel heroes with no super-powers to depend upon. There’s a lot going on behind those awesome shades, so ahead of the first issue debut this week, ComicsAlliance spoke to Cain and Niemczyk about their take on one of Marvel’s toughest secret agents. As an added bonus, Marvel shared a first look at Niemczyk’s black and white pages for issue #2!
ComicsAlliance: As the series kicks off, what can we expect from Mockingbird? Where is she and what is she up to when we pick up with issue #1?
Chelsea Cain: Issue #1 is bonkers. Bobbi is considered “high risk” because she’s been exposed to Super Solider Serum and Infinity Formula, so her health is being closely monitored by S.H.I.E.L.D’s medical division. She has to go in every week to a S.H.I.E.L.D medical clinic (imagine any big city clinic, but for super heroes) for testing.
Issue #1 consists of four of these appointments.
Each one is increasingly bizarre, and a lot goes unexplained, because there’s a lot we’re not seeing — namely what goes on between appointments. So the next four issues will fill in those gaps, and complete the puzzle. I had a lot of fun with the medical offices, imagining what would be the same as civilian clinics (crappy magazines, long waits, endless forms) and what would be different (super heroes in the lobby, informational posters questioning if you can get cancer from radioactive friends).
CA: Marvel seem to have found real success in focusing on the off-duty lives of their characters. Will Mockingbird also follow that path for this series?
CC: It’s a combination. She goes on missions and has adventures but they all have a personal component — rescuing a certain ex-husband, say.
CA: Kate, how did you first come to get involved with Mockingbird?
Kate Niemczyk: I was lucky to be able to show my portfolio to CB Cebulski and this is how it started, then Chelsea picked me for Mockingbird and here I am.
CA: What kind of look did you want Bobbi to have? How did you want to express her personality through her fashion, body language, and so on?
KN: I wanted her to be trim, but more in a casual way than classic elegance. For me, Bobbi is a woman who likes to feel comfortable when she’s in her casual clothes, she’s aware of her sex appeal, but her looks are definitely not the most important thing in her life. She’s way too smart to be focused on that. That also relates to her body language.
CA: You didn’t design her new costume — but I’m aware you made a few changes to it as you came onboard. How have you found jumping into superhero comics? What kind of approach are you taking as artist on this book?
KN: Yes, I’ve made only some minor changes in her new design — I liked how her new costume looked more like a special forces uniform than super hero suit, but I missed the orange ‘glasses’, so that was the most important change for me to be done. As for my approach on this book — I just want to be myself and put as much heart into this series as possible, I’ve been reading a lot of Marvel comics in my life and I like how different each artist’s approach on a super hero comic could be. And this is great!
CA: It seems like Bobbi has always been a character stuck in the shadows, off to one side, rather than the spotlighted hero. What’s your take on her?
CC: Well except for the one-shot we did for the S.H.I.E.L.D 50th Anniversary, Bobbi has never had her own solo book. She’s only appeared in other people’s stories, so of course she’s served their narratives. She’s had some great moments, despite this, which I think speaks to her potential. But mostly she’s been a victim, or a love interest, or ex-wife, or — most frequently — a plot device. I just want her to have her own identity. I want to be able to say that I’m writing Mockingbird without having to add, “You know, Hawkeye’s ex-wife?”
I think she has a lot of surprises in store, and putting her at the center of a story is the first step in making up for what has been, essentially, forty-five years of character slander.
CA: Sometimes it feels she spends her time being defined through others, being “the unpowered one” — do you think that gives her something more to prove? Does that weigh on her?
CC: I think Bobbi doesn’t see herself as “unpowered” at all. It’s easy to be a superhero if you can shoot rays of frost out of your palms or throw busses like Nerf balls. Bobbi has had to be twice as smart and twice as tough to get where she is. She’s fought for everything she has. She has a PhD, she’s trained herself to kick ass on an elite level, she’s taken on terrible undercover assignments, made hard choices. She’s proved herself.
KN: I definitely want to take her out of the shadows. I believe this is a character that many women can somehow relate to — she’s not a mutant nor super hero, she owes everything to her skills and intelligence. And thanks to Chelsea, she’s also funny!
CA: What’s it like working with each other? What’s the collaborative process been like?
KN: Chelsea is great, she always has a lot of reference to show and is really open to any new ideas. She’s got a lot of knowledge and knows perfectly how to use it in her scripts so working with her is a pleasure and definitely an exceptional experience.
CC: It’s been great, especially issue #2, where I think we really hit our stride. She’s in Poland and I’m in Portland, which I am only just now realizing is two-letters away from being the same place. There’s a nine-hour time difference. And you’d be amazed at what a non-issue that’s been. I am pretty sure that Kate never sleeps. It’s been a crazy process.
We are both new to comic books, so there’s definitely a learning curve, but we’re helping each other through it. It’s weird because I think we have different visions of the style of the book. So we are constantly working to accommodate each other’s instincts.
I couldn’t ask for a more graceful, hard-working, committed, and flexible artist. She is so tolerant and patience with me. And I think we communicate really well with one another.
CA: What does her art bring to the character and story, for you?
CC: She draws a wonderful Bobbi. That hair! Here’s the thing about Bobbi as a character — she’s way too pretty. It’s a real problem. I knew early on that we were either going to have to reimagine her as a more realistic looking human, or just go with it…
So we embraced it. Keep in mind, Bobbi is the one telling us these stories. They are from her point of view. She’s the narrator. And the way she remembers it, she looked great! I just love that. This is a female character with complete confidence in herself. And Kate draws her that way — unapologetically beautiful.
But Kate also works in these wonderful physical moments that subvert that fantasy. There’s a panel in issue #1 that shows Bobbi, dressed like a dominatrix (long story), standing on a scale at the medical clinic, and the physicality is just perfect. Her arms are crossed, her weight is kind of shifted to one leg, and there’s a natural looking curve to her thighs. It’s how people stand. It really humanizes her, in this completely ridiculous setting. Bobbi doesn’t have a whole lot to do physically in this issue. She’s at medical check-ups, so she does a lot of sitting and walking down hallways. And frankly, Kate was in the same boat — because the whole issue takes place in a medical clinic, and medical clinics are about as fun to draw as they are to be in.
I’m excited for everyone to see Kate’s work in the next issues — the ones that fill in the missing time between appointments — which have a lot more exotic locations and loads more punching.
CA: In other interviews, you’ve said that you’re looking at a ’70s aesthetic for the series. What interested you in establishing that style, at a time when a lot of other characters are being revamped to be contemporary, or futuristic?
KN: I think that when it comes to interiors the colors played a major role to make it more ’70s. I had a bunch of reference from Chelsea for the look of the clinic. I’m sure Rachelle Rosenberg’s colors are what made all the rooms look more ’70s. As for Bobbi, the most significant thing in drawing her in comics was a change of her hair. For my first concept art I made Bobbi’s hair straight — back then I didn’t know anything about Chelsea’s vision, so the wavy hair came in later.
CC: I blame all those hand-me-down issues of The Dark Phoenix Saga my cousin Jason gave me in middle school.
CA: Bobbi has definitely benefited from the spotlight Adrianne Palicki has shone on her in Agents of SHIELD. Will her performance reflect into the way you approach the comics character at all?
CC: One of the many things I love about TV Bobbi is that she keeps a lot of secrets. We’re not going to see her weeping in a bubble bath or gossiping with May over a pint of ice cream. Her intentions aren’t always clear. That’s a rare, wonderful quality in a female character and one that defies the archetype. It’s also powerful. TV Bobbi can be the smartest person in the room, because knowledge is power. Comics Bobbi — traditionally — was the last to know anything. So I have definitely taken a cue from TV Bobbi on that one.
KN: I must confess — I don’t watch Agents of SHIELD, so I’m not very familiar with Adrianne Palicki’s performance. Not because I don’t care, but simply because I don’t have much time to watch any TV series at all!
I like the separation between comics and movies based on comics though, so I don’t think I would [base] my Bobbi on TV series Bobbi. Both of these mediums are somehow different worlds for me, with slightly different targets.
CA: We saw Agents of SHIELD character Lance Hunter appearing in the Mockingbird one-shot you wrote last year, Chelsea — will he also be showing up at some point in the immediate future here? What kind of supporting cast can we expect in the book, and on a scale of 1-10, how shirtless will they be?
CC: So so shirtless. I am going to give myself a 9.5 on that one. You’ve seen right through me — I am having a contest with myself to see how many humiliating outfits I can get away with putting Hunter in before someone at Marvel panics. Bobbi has to rescue him from the London Hellfire Club in issue #2, so you can just imagine what Kate and I have in store for the guy, wardrobe-wise… the fetish gear image references we were sending back and forth were definitely NSFW.
Like I said, this is Bobbi’s version of events, and in her version of events her hair looks great and Hunter is wearing a slave collar and black latex. In Hunter’s version of events, I suspect he would be wearing a tuxedo and she’d be the one in underwear. As for other supporting cast, we’ll see some other heroes at the medical clinic, Clint Barton will need rescuing (shirtless, check), and issue #2 will feature a very special guest star: Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II.
She is wearing a shirt. I’m not a monster.
CA: Mild treason which — as an Englishman — I will duly drop my monocle at. Starting with a one-shot and then launching an ongoing series must require two very different creative processes. With one you’re pushing all your ideas into a dynamic short space, with the other you’re expanding into a grander narrative scope. How has it been to get to spend more time developing and exploring the character and her world?
CC: I’m still figuring it out. And frankly the whole puzzle box approach to the first five issues may have been a little ambitious, since it means that the first issue is totally bananas. But I’m really proud of it, and it’s chockfull of winking references and visual gags and little clues and set-ups that will pay-off as we go.
And if you buy issue #1, then you get to see Lance Hunter get rescued from a sex dungeon in issue #2. That seems fair, right?
The 100 Greatest Avengers, As Votef For By You