I Wanted To Do A Buddy Story: Magdalene Visaggio Talks Friendship, Worldbuilding And Identity in ‘Kim & Kim’
Debuting in July from Black Mask Studios, Kim & Kim is a rollicking science fiction adventure comic about two young queer women working as dimension-hopping interplanetary bounty hunters. It's written by Magdalene Visaggio, drawn by Eva Cabrera, and colored by Claudia Aguirre, and it promises to be one of the breakout debuts of 2016.
ComicsAlliance sat down with Visaggio to talk about sci fi settings, character-building, and that whole messy queer representation thing.
Comics Alliance: Eva Cabrera's art is so charming and perfect for the book, and Claudia Aguirre's colors bring a lot to the table as well. Is this your first work with them, and how did you all find each other?
Magdalene Visaggio: I actually met them through Tess Fowler. When we were looking for a permanent artist for the book, we made a big list of names. Mostly we were looking for published female artists, because we wanted to have a little bit of legitimacy going into the pitch process. I had been a fan of Tess’s since she did the Braga special for The Book That Shall Not Be Named, so I dropped her a line on the off-chance she might be interested.
She was super into the pitch, but it turned out she was also super duper busy. But she told me to look up Eva and Claudia, who were both perfect for the book and very much available. She actually reached out to them on my behalf, and after we spoke, we brought them on board. It’s been one of the most positive and fruitful professional relationships of my entire (short) career.
CA: How much of the character designs come from Eva, and how much of that is direct from you?
MV: The character designs actually originate with Moriah Hummer, who I worked with during the development process. She did a lot to come up with the basics of the Kims, although Eva and Claudia have brought their own spin on the characters. The Kims' wardrobe is very unique, and changes from issue to issue, with Kim Q having very flashy, aggressive outfits and Kim D tending to sport much more sober attire with a military flare.
If I have specific ideas I’ll mention them, but their aesthetic is largely up to Eva and Claudia.
CA: The tone of the comic is upbeat and fun, but there's a lot of real emotion in the characters and their backstories (which I suspect will increase as we learn more about Kim Q’s relationship with her father, among other things). There are also moments of real, brutal violence mixed in, but they never feel jarring. Did you find this tonal balance challenging, or did it come naturally out of the story you wanted to tell?
MV: It’s really interesting, because I definitely set out to do something upbeat, but I was reading a s---load of [Ryan Ferrier and Devaki Neogi's] Curb Stomp during the development process, and that book is brutal as hell. So it definitely seeped in; the violence in Kim & Kim doesn’t tend to be super flashy or stylized, and I don’t shy away from blood (although, I mean, they do fight a giant monster with the magic of rock music in a later issue, so…)
Really, I just wanted the book to feel honest, and that meant taking violence somewhat seriously and taking the Kims’ back stories and pain seriously --- and both of them are nursing pain. I mean, everyone is. Nobody is bouncing around without a care in the world. Maintaining the balance with the lighter atmosphere I’m trying to create actually does get pretty difficult; I tend to find that if the book is getting too maudlin, too violent, or too aggressively ridiculous, I need to throw something into the cogs to break that pattern.
CA: I love the setting as well. The interdimensional travel gives it a very different feel from typical planet-hopping sci fi. Not to mention the prominence of organized crime (complete with shapeshifting octopus people) and of course, most centrally, the bounty hunting. What inspired this world you've created? Are there specific sci-fi properties you drew on?
MV: I can point to two specific sci-fi properties that had a massive influence on Kim & Kim: Cowboy Bebop and FLCL. Which is funny because I’m not super into anime, but both of those are seminal works in my life. There’s some Star Wars in there, and some Indiana Jones, too. And Doctor Who is all over it, especially when I’m trying to think of weird new settings. The city of Caspardan in issue #1 is literally just New York in The Fifth Element.
Really, I wanted it to take place in the kind of sprawling, ill-defined world that a lot of the stuff I watched as a kid inhabited.
The organized crime thing actually comes out of my love of history. The Italian Mafia arose primarily because in Italy, south of Napoli, there’s a history of the government not really being present, and the country basically being in a state of quasi-lawlessness. The south of Italy has a reputation for being borderline barbarous. The Mafia basically arose to provide basic social services and social order in an area the government couldn’t be bothered to run, and I wanted to capture a little bit of that dynamic.
It’s not a really huge element in the series, but the idea that crimelord/warlord figures like El Scorcho are filling this kind of organizational gap in the bizarre complex universe is definitely present.
CA: I love a good duo, and Kim and Kim are a great duo. I admit, I spent a lot of the comic not totally sure if they were work partners, life partners, or BFFs. By the end of the first issue, I was comfortable in knowing that they're at least two of those things. What led you to focusing your comic on a partnership between women, and how do you approach their relationship?
MV: They are definitely at least two of those things. There’s a line in an upcoming issue where Kim Q describes herself as Kim D’s “business partner, best friend, and Personal Whole World.” Take that as you will.
I love duos, too. I love friendships in media. They’re my favorite thing in a show or comic bar none. Troy and Abed. Abby and Ilana. Turk and JD. Data and LaForge. O’Brien and Bashir. And I know that my own close friendships have been some of the most defining, important relationships in my life. So that’s where I started. I landed on doing a book about two women because I wanted to do a woman-centric book and I wanted to do a buddy story.
As for how I approach their relationship? In a lot of ways I use Abby and Ilana from Broad City as a model, but that “sober one/crazy one” dynamic is kind of built into the buddy dynamic. Someone is going to be the wall for the other person to bounce off of. The primary thing I always want to make sure I communicate is how much they love each other, how much they mean to one another, especially in how they support each other --- and in the dumb compromises they make to make the other one happy.
The first issue revolves around a financial crisis with an easy solution that Kim Q won’t participate in because it means working with her dad. Kim D is obviously upset about this but doesn’t press the issue --- and when Kim Q comes up with a really stupid idea for how to get the money they need, Kim D (the sober sensible one) goes along with it. Because you never know!
That’s kind of the key thing there; they’re both willing to bend for the other, to go out on a limb for the other.
And if there’s a little sexual tension there, hey, I just write this thing.
CA: We learn a lot about Kim Q's backstory in this first issue, but not much about Kim D’s. Do we eventually get to learn all of Kimber's secrets too?
MV: Kim D’s backstory is a huge part of issues #2-3, largely revolving around where she comes from and why she left, which ties directly into the plot from the first issue. Basically this is a story in which their pasts come back to haunt them both at the same time.
CA: Kim Q has probably my favorite "trans reveal" ever in comics. Not only is it not treated as shocking, it's not even treated as surprising. The reader just learns organically as she's talking to her friend who already knows. That casualness meant a lot to me, and I'm wondering how you came at that choice.
MV: Hoo boy. I have definite thoughts about trans disclosure. It’s such a goddamn minefield and I’m still worried about it. Because honestly, I didn’t even want to do it in the first issue but I felt like I had to, that I absolutely had to make it abundantly clear from the get go that Kim Q is trans, because that’s how it goes when you write for the cis audience. If it’s not undeniable, someone is going to deny it.
The thing is that every story about trans people made for a cis audience has to acknowledge that the audience is cis, which means the whole thing gets super f---ing complicated. I would love to have done this with Kim Q’s transness never ever ever coming up. Because why should it? Why should that fact get mentioned when everyone but her stupid dad has moved the f--- on with their lives and just accepts her as the woman she clearly is?
And if this was a longer-term project --- like if Kim & Kim was an ongoing, I might have felt the freedom to not slap that down in the first issue. But I went into this assuming that four issues was all I was ever going to get, because it might be. And Kim Q’s transness matters. And that means I have to tell the whole stupid world how friggin’ trans she is (very, BTW).
The cis audience exerts a controlling gaze on trans characters, which turns transness in media into a matter of controlled disclosure; the information has to be imparted in a very deliberate, organized way that makes sense to the cis audience without being patronizing, preachy, or “in your face.” But at the same time, it needs to be unapologetic --- the trouble that Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell ran into with Blaze in Jem was that Blaze was all nerves and apologies. Which is a totally valid way to disclose, and totally true to life. I absolutely get that nervous need for female validation of my identity. But it veered too far, because it felt like Blaze was apologizing to the audience for being trans.
So I was kinda stuck with this need to disclose, but I didn’t want it to be any kind of reveal. Kim Q being trans isn’t a secret. Kim D knows. Her dad knows. Her friends know. It’s just part of her deal. So I constructed a conversation where it would make sense for it to come up naturally, like the camera just happened to be trained on them at that moment.
Trans disclosure shouldn’t be surprising. It shouldn’t be a shocking reveal. It needs to just be, “Oh here’s some extra information about the character I didn’t have work that contextualizes their experience.” That was my goal.
CA: I think it's a goal you achieved, and I definitely can relate to your concerns about writing for a cis audience. One unfortunate thing that we keep hearing from the cis/straight mainstream comics audience is this idea that you can't just decide to center queer characters in a comic. It's supposed to happen "organically." Considering Kim & Kim is advertised as "putting queer women and trans women front and center," what's your response to that rhetoric?
MV: I mean, it’s hard to respond to a hypothetical argument like that, but insofar as anyone is saying that specifically, that’s some serious garbage. Characters are decisions. Every single character in fiction is a made up person, with the personal qualities the creator or writer decided to give them. They are the sum total of a bunch of choices. So the idea that we can’t just decide to put queer people in the spotlight just assumes that the default of cis white dudes belongs there naturally, and putting anyone else there is somehow invalid.
If people expect that queer characters can only emerge from the background and earn the spotlight as if they have some kind of independent existence is someone who is deliberately ignoring the fact that these are not real worlds and that writers have agency.
CA: Okay for real though, how long are you going to make us read about bounty hunting adventures before we get the comic we really want, in which Kim and Kim open a queer punk bakery?
MV: That would be so rad, wouldn’t it? I bet they’d be so much worse at it than they are at bounty hunting, honestly.