Gail Simone: The Comics Alliance Interview, Part Two: Red Sonja, Diversity and Nightwing Ass
Gail Simone, longtime comic book writer for DC Comics (and snarky Twitterer), is in the midst of a career evolution at the moment. Simone’s comics work started with the Women in Refrigerators website, which was a commentary on how female characters are all-too-often mistreated in comics (named after the 1990s story in which Green Lantern Kyle Rayner discovers his girlfriend’s body stuffed in his refrigerator). WIR became an important part of the discussion of how female characters are treated in superhero comics – a discussion that continues today. Simone’s work on WIR led to a column at Comic Book Resources titled “You’ll All Be Sorry” and the humor in that column in turn led to Simone working on Simpsons comics.
It was her entry into superhero comics, however, that permanently shifted Simone’s career. Although she worked for Marvel a bit, including a run on Deadpool and then Agent X, Simone has primarily made her home at DC over the last decade. Popular books like Birds of Prey, Secret Six, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, and others solidified Simone as super hero writer with an outspoken fan base.
Now Simone is in a brand new position: that of a non-exclusive freelancer. For many creators, this can be a difficult hustle, as the shift from guaranteed work minimums to having to look for gigs can be a struggle. Simone seems to be thriving, however. Between working on various Red Sonja projects at Dynamite and writing a Tomb Raider series at Dark Horse, Simone is also still working at DC, with a Vertigo series called Clean Room on the way and preparing to relaunch of fan-favorite Secret Six, which is in stores on December 3.
In this second and final part of our in-depth interview, Simone talks about her initial concerns about working on Red Sonja at Dynamite, her relaunch of Secret Six, her passionate fan base and her "secret" comics agenda.
ComicsAlliance: So - let's talk about the future. What can you tell me about your plans for the Secret Six relaunch?
Gail Simone: It's funny, because going back is always tricky, so one thing I wanted to do right away was not simply recreate what we had before. This is a different team and there are different themes. But I still want a vibrant, sexy, funny, violent cast, I want the kind of "oh, my god, what the f*ck just happened?" kind of vibe that the first book had.
Again, it's weird in a way that with these anti-heroes and villains, you can often show more humanity than you can with the big names, who aren't always allowed to show their weak side.
CA: I always find flawed characters to be more interesting. I feel like writers can play with them more and take them to more intense places.
GS: That is the fun of them. My thing with the Secret Six is that they never win. The odds are always against them, everyone wants them gone. So they never win. But they never give up, either. It's kind of the book that people demanded be brought back, and [DC Co-Publisher] Dan [DiDio] himself asked me personally. It was so far out of the realm of what I thought likely that I didn't have an answer at first. But Dan was a huge supporter, he just really pushed the idea and gave us tremendous freedom.
CA: You're also working regularly at Dynamite now with Red Sonja - what has that experience been like for you?
GS: Amazing. I really had a very narrow opinion of Dynamite, I thought they were that company that did cheesecake books. I just hadn't looked. But they had been after me to write something for a long time, and when I was fired from Batgirl, they were the first people (of many, thank god) to call. They treat me like family. When my house was robbed, [CEO and Publisher] Nick Barrucci wanted to know what he could to to help and he meant it, and that stuff, it goes a long way with me. I have a terrific editor in Molly Mahan, she's the best, and Red Sonja has become up there with Black Canary as my favorite character to write, ever.
CA: Were you a fan of the character already when they asked you to write her?
GS: I was a fan of the idea of Red Sonja, but the gender politics of the character made her hard to read for me, at times. I said, if I'm coming aboard, I'm not doing this rapey origin. And Dynamite agreed immediately. They're wonderful.
CA: What else are you working on?
GS: I am finishing up Tomb Raider today, as a matter of fact, for Dark Horse Comics. Great editor there, Dave Marshall, and Dark Horse has been lovely to work with. Jim Calafiore and I are working on doing more of our Leaving Megalopolis which was a massive surprise hit on Kickstarter. I am working with the wonderful Shelly Bond for my first Vertigo Book, Clean Room, with fantastic art by Jon Davis Hunt, I am tremendously proud of that. I have another book in the works for another publisher that I can't talk about yet, but is going to be unlike anything I've ever done. And I've got assorted things here and there, at DC and elsewhere. It's a full plate, fortunately.
I get asked a lot about writing for games and prose and film, and I will do some, but I can never see myself leaving comics. I love it too much.
CA: So, one thing I really enjoyed about working with you is that you're constantly scouting artists. You mention artists you want to work with all the time and it's not just "so-and-so is my friend," it's "I was walking around artist's alley and found this person.” What stands out for you in regards to art and what do you look for in an artistic collaborator?
GS: Yeah, I had someone say to me that I have brought more people in, helped more people with their first comics work, than most anyone he knows, and if that's true, that's a legacy I would be very proud to own. I talked about this recently... when my first comic hit the stands, I drove ninety minutes each way to buy a copy off the racks at the closest comics shop. My hands were trembling, I couldn't believe it. I want everyone who wants to to experience that. With artists, my hope is always that they do the acting well. Pin-ups are great, there's a place for them, but I have to be able to write a scene where a character is, say, morose, and feel confident that that image will end up on the page. I am lucky enough that I get to work with people who amaze me. Nico Selma, Jan Duursema, Walter Geovani, Jon Davis Hunt, Jenny Frison, these are the people who send me pages in my email. It's the best feeling ever.
CA: Are there artists you haven't worked with yet that you want to find a project to work on together?
GS: I love the Kuberts. I wanted to work with Ken Lashley very much and he's doing Secret Six with another favorite, Dale Eaglesham. I still want to work with Jim Lee. There are a lot of new female artists I wanted to work with, so we got them for covers on Red Sonja, but it just made me want to work with them more.
While we are talking, I just got a colored page of Nightwing/Oracle [the Convergence miniseries] drawn by Jan Duursema. Man alive, this is the best job ever.
CA: Is there Nightwing ass involved?
GS: I am writing it, of course there's Nightwing ass! That's a funny but true thing, I got a lot of crap in the early days for having beefcake in my books, people thinking it was me trying to put just what I like in comics. But it wasn't that at all, it was just trying to open that door a little, to have sexy characters that might appeal to more people. It's not enough to make comics women with similar tastes to mine might like, I want there to be characters for everyone. That's my dream.
And it's worth noting that some of the people doing that best are guys. It's going to take all of us to pull the ship into this century.
CA: What's your writing process like? How much time do you spend on each script usually?
GS: I think on a script for as long as I can, it takes about a week to actually write it, but I always have several going at once. If I am only doing one book, my pace becomes unbearably slow. I have to be juggling.
CA: I’ve talked to a lot of writers about this, and I'm curious what your feelings are - do you feel continuity is a strain on writing or do you enjoy working with a continuity in place?
GS: I am terrible at the continuity thing, because I actually kind of love it. I have huge gaps in my comics knowledge because I could only get comics sporadically all my life. But I love the tapestry, I love the connectedness of it. Anyone can write superheroes, anyone can write a guy who flies. But it's rarefied air to get to write Metropolis or Gotham City and have it count, have it part of the collage. I love crossovers, I love all that stuff. But it has to be done with care, you have to respect the work of the others at the loom.
CA: As a young woman living in fairly white, homogeneous Iowa, I was first introduced to transgender people through things you talked and wrote about. It was actually really helpful for understanding the concept when I didn't know anyone like that (that I knew of, anyway). You work a lot of diversity into your books and seem really passionate about that. Where does that come from for you?
GS: Well, I am the same, a white het female from a farming community with no diversity at all. This bit is a little shameful, so please bear with me. When I started, I had a secret agenda, I mean, I literally was thinking, "Oh, yeah, gonna get in there and create some new female characters for readers like me!" That was always part of my plan...I say “secret,” but I was open about it. So I created a lot of fun, quirky female characters and that made me happy.
But then I started going to conventions and I just felt like a fraud, I felt very selfish. There was this incredibly diverse audience of dedicated, passionate readers, all ethnicities and sexualities and on and on, and they loved comics so much they stuck with them even though comics did not really seem to appreciate them back, at least in terms of representation. And over and over, I would go to these panels and there was a huge disconnect between the diverse audience and our non-diverse product. And when you are in signing lines, you have to either choose to ignore it or at least try to push the boulder a little bit.
You can't worry about representation only for the group you belong to, I think. I don't think it's something anyone should be getting medals and cookies for, it's like basic levels of humanity to try to acknowledge that our audience exists and they don't all look like Ron Howard.
CA: I mean, on that topic, I think you have a reputation as a comics creator that cares passionately about your fans and their needs and they reward you by being pretty passionate in return.
GS: I have a ridiculous amount of blessings, even when crappy things happen or people are mean, I always feel like a cad to really sit and dwell on it. People have been too kind, too supportive, I just get overwhelmed. Meanness, I can take, kindness wrecks me often. I think, even when people might hate my writing, I feel like they are aware that I care about this stuff, I care about the work, I try to do right by the characters, I try to do right by the audience. That's important to me.
CA: But you're right - as important as better representation for women is, we have to be intersectional as well and force that to include people of color and LGBTQ folks to the best of our abilities.
GS: More diversity in creators and editors help, it's not a cure all, and the burden shouldn't be solely on them, but it would definitely help.
CA: How do you approach writing diverse casts? Do you worry about getting people wrong?
GS: Again, first, it's acknowledging someone else's humanity. I think, people respond to Greg Rucka's female characters because they are full of humanity, despite the fact that he's not a woman. If you start at that premise, I think everything else flows from that.
But yes, I do worry about it because I have gotten things wrong in the past. I once saw Brian Bendis give a lecture on writing to a packed house...I wandered in because I had an appointment and wanted to sit down, and it was the best hour ever. He said, no matter how much research he does, someone knows more than he does and he will get things wrong. That stuck with me, the goal is not perfection, that's not attainable. The goal is the best truth you can achieve with your best efforts, and when you get something wrong, you own up to it and try harder next time.
This is an area where the readership has been a huge help...before creating [Barbara Gordon's trans roommate] Alysia, I spoke with a lot of trans writers, brilliant people who were endlessly patient and helpful, it meant something to them and they wanted me to get it right. Alysia is a moment where I am very happy I worked at DC, because Dan's only concern when I brought up the idea of Babs' roomie being trans was that it was handled with respect, and that it be meaningful in the story.
CA: All right - one last question, sort of on that topic: what movies, books, comics, TV shows, people, things are inspiring you in your work right now?
GS: I just talked about this on Tumblr...I don't watch much television, and I don't listen to music when I write, but two of the biggest influences I have are Columbo and Kate Bush. The standard of excellence and care that they both exhibit is so far above their contemporaries that I find it endlessly inspiring. If you watch a Columbo, you work just a little harder on your mystery. If you listen to Kate Bush, you stand up a little stronger for the way you put the words together. You can't help it, they are art that inspires better art.
If I can just end with a quick note, I want to say that this is a very different time than a decade ago, and it's wonderful. You can't walk through a con without tripping over a talented female creator. It's a time of Becky Cloonan and Faith Erin Hicks and Kelly Sue DeConnick and Marjorie Liu and G. Willow Wilson and Nicola Scott and dozens more. It's a time for Lumberjanes and Ms. Marvel and Harley Quinn and Pretty Deadly. There was a time not that long ago where this literally did not seem possible.
But it's not only possible, it's going on right now. The readers made that happen, and the commentators and the creators and publishers, we all made that happen. And we're right at the start of it. That makes me very, very happy.