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Ann Nocenti Talks ‘Katana,’ History And Violence: “She’s In Love With Her Sword” [Interview]

After 20 years in the ensemble casts of team books like Batman and the Outsiders, Birds of Prey and the upcoming Justice League, this February will see DC’s Katana taking the spotlight in her own solo series with the creative team of Ann Nocenti and Alex Sanchez. It’s a big move for both the character and DC — Katana is possibly only the third ongoing title from the publisher to feature a woman of color in the lead role — and with her knack for drawing out the symobolism of a character through twists on classic superhero storytelling, Nocenti is poised to leave her mark on a character that’s being brought to the spotlight.

To find out just what that mark may be, we spoke to Nocenti about who Katana is when she’s alone, her unique approach to violence, her love of martial arts and why weapons are more than just things to stab with.ComicsAlliance: Katana has usually been seen in the past as part of a group. She’s been in the Outsiders, in Birds of Prey, and she’s coming up in Justice League. How does it affect your approach to a character when they’re only featured in a group or as part of a team?

Ann Nocenti: I try to always follow what went before, and I noticed in Birds of Prey that she’s quite restrained. She’s carrying a lot of secrets, and in a group, you’re restrained. She’s doing a job. She’s a good team player. But on her own, things bubble up. It’s the difference between you in public and you at home, alone. Birds of Prey gives me a great segue into her being a lone wolf, because why is she so buttoned up? She doesn’t laugh a lot, she doesn’t smile a lot, she doesn’t make jokes. She seriously talks about her husband being in her sword, which her teammates very kindly humor. But do they really think she’s crazy, or do they think her husband’s soul is in her sword?

It’s a great launching point to say “okay, who are you when you’re alone?” And she heads to Japantown in San Francisco, basically because she has this huge thirst for vengeance. Her husband was murdered, and she wants revenge.

CA: Is that the core of your story? At least initially, is it about that quest for revenge?

AN: You said it right: Initially. I like talking about comic book process and one of the things is that I have plans going ahead for years, and the plans constantly get thrown away and shifted. There’s a difference between planning and what actually happens in life, and comics have a life of their own. You put someone through their paces and suddenly you’re like “wait a minute,” especially if you see the artwork. I see what Alex is doing and go “whoa, there’s an idea.” And then everything kind of shifts.

But in the beginning, yes, it’s a quest for vengeance, and by issue 3, everything has changed so dramatically, hugely dramatically, that nothing is really the same for her.

CA: Katana is someone that I’ve always thought of as one of my favorite underused characters. She was in the Outsiders, but then we didn’t see her too much until recently, when she’s suddenly in the Birds of Prey, the Justice League, she’s going to be on the Beware the Batman cartoon that’s coming up, she’s really in the spotlight. Is that something you’re glad to see as an opportunity, or does it just add more pressure to be able to flesh her out?

AN: I think both are true. The pressure’s huge. Nobody really knows if the fans are going to like a solo female Japanese martial arts book, which is what it is. I’m a huge, huge lover of weaponry, of Japanese martial arts movies. I just love them, so for me, yes, I want this book. But the pressure is, does anyone else?

It’s a genre that hasn’t been explored that much in America, so we’re out there with the rest of you. I’m having a great time, and Alex Sanchez is doing probably the best work of his career. Did they send you that first page?

CA: Yeah, it looks great.

AN: There are so many styles in it. He’s got this delicacy of drawing the leaf work and the backgrounds, but there’s this black smoky thing, and there’s this powerful look on her face. I see five different drawing styles just in that one first page. He’s responding beautifully to the idea that this book is modern and comes from antiquity at the same time. We’re trying to create something where you’re in ancient Japan and you’re in the modern world at the same time.

CA: You mentioned wondering whether people would be into getting a solo female Japanese martial artist book, which is something we were talking about here. This is really just the third ongoing title DC has done starring a woman of color, and again, that seems like something that would bring its own kind of pressure.

AN: There are a lot of Chinese comics, but the Chinese comics tend to be more historical and conservative. Japanese culture, just the comics are amazing. They’re like films, very few words, they move so much in these books with hundreds of pages. It’s a different approach to comics, that you could almost just flip through and see the action. To me, we’re trying to have that kind of book here.

CA: One of the themes that I really noticed in Daredevil that’s come back in your work again and again is the way you treat violence. It’s very much a subversion of the traditional superhero story, where you depict acts of violence as failures rather than solutions. If it comes to that, something has gone wrong in the life of a superhero. It’s something you see so rarely, but with Katana, you have a character who has this very violent, tragic backstory, but at the same time, she’s literally defined by a weapon. How does that fit with the way you approach violence?

AN: I love the superhero genre, and the way it goes is that things escalate to fights. If you look at that, how often in your life do things escalate to fights, other than verbally? They have their own kind of rules, which I love. You have to fight for something you believe in, you have to fight against bad things that are happening. It’s different from the violent culture of today, where people are shooting each other randomly, or going into wars that maybe we shouldn’t be in. The superhero comic has violence that’s justified, but you still have to look at that whole culture of violence.

When you choose the sword over a gun, just like Green Arrow chooses an arrow over a gun and Catwoman chooses a whip over a gun, you have to be highly skilled and highly trained. I can grab Green Arrow’s bow, but I’m not strong enough to shoot it. I can grab Catwoman’s whip, but have you ever tried to whip a whip? It’s not easy. So I believe that when a character has a weapon that you need to be really skilled at or someone can just take it away and use it on you, it gives them way more power than just having a gun or something that blasts out of their hands.

CA: So does that represent her dedication to her mission?

AN: Yeah. I studied karate and judo and aikido. I don’t anymore, but for a while, I was a very versed martial artist, and if you have a good teacher, the teacher is always teaching you ways to disarm or disable without hurting. You don’t kick someone in a spot that’s going to kill them, you kick them in a spot that’s going to disable them, or best of all, you use aikido, where you use their force against them. The high level of martial arts is not about brutal killing, it’s about disabling. Because I have those skills, even though I don’t have them any more except for some funny tricky stuff, I want to have Katana practicing at that high level.

CA: Kyle Baker had this great quote about the Hawkman story he did for Wednesday Comics, where he said that Hawkman is a guy who hits things with a mace, so the challenge in his story was finding problems you could hit with a mace.

AN: [Laughs] That’s very Nietzsche. If you have a hammer, you see everything as a nail.

CA: Exactly. When you have a character like Green Arrow or Katana, someone named after a weapon, is that where the difficulty is? Finding a challenge that fits with what makes her unique and dynamic and visually interesting, but that also resonates with the reader, and plays to her personality?

AN: What I’m trying to do, and I talked about this before, is that I’m very interested in samurai and ninja and yakuza culture. All three are ancient, and before guns, there were swords. In ancient Japan, you had this judicial system that didn’t have lawyers or courts. You didn’t have cops. Imagine a world with no cops, or lawyers, or courts. What would happen?

So the nobility hired trained swordsmen, samurai, to protect them. Ninjas were spies, they collected information. Yakuza were the downfall of that culture, probably as the judicial system rose, the swordsmen’s clients moved into the backgrounds and started doing gambling and extortion, taking over the organized crime markets, but that arc is still there. The yakuza are still in Japan, they’re in New York and other places, but they put a legitimate front on their businesses, just like the American mafia. So what I want to do is have the ancient samurai in Katana, with the modern yakuza, and sword clans running someone for office and hiding behind legitimate business. It’s not just her sword, everybody has a sword, and how they use them.

In the first issue, she fights the sword clan in Japantown, and then she’ll fight the dagger clan, and each weapon brings a different mentality. The dagger is short and nasty, and you have to get in close. With a sword, you keep your distance, it’s more elite than a dagger. Each clan will have a different weapon that they love. Katana is completely in love with her sword.

Katana #1 is out from DC Comics this February, by Ann Nocenti and Alex Sanchez.

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