Pen hovering over her notebook a few hours after sunrise, Kelly Sue DeConnick is somewhere else. She has flown over seven thousand miles to Australia, for panels, lectures and signings. More gigs await her return to Portland, Oregon. Like her husband, fellow writer Matt Fraction, her year is a transcontinental to-and-fro of talk. But for now, DeConnick is alone with her trance – and her deadlines.
John Updike once remarked that the modern author has become a ‘walking, talking advertisement for the book,’ and comics are no exception – particularly since Marvel and DC began to annex every available screen: cinema, television, laptop and mobile. As the author of the Captain Marvel and Avengers Assemble series for Marvel, DeConnick has been a prominent part of the media behemoth. She recently left the company to focus on her independent comics and TV writing, but the spotlight will continue to follow her.
DeConnick is disarmingly candid about the industry. ‘My husband and I are employees of our own company,’ she tells me, ‘that is subcontracted by our clients to produce scripts. When we go out of fashion at the Big Two, there will be no pension, no gold watch, no 401K.’
The precariousness of full-time writing can easily turn authors cynical or false, particularly on the publicity trail. But DeConnick is animated with her readers. She talks genre and cosplay, poses for duckface selfies, and smiles genuinely (that is, not incessantly) during the long signing queues. She tells me she longs for quiet to write, but also craves company. ‘I have guilty fantasies about how much I would get done if I didn’t have all these other people… in my life,’ DeConnick explains. ‘But that said, I don’t want to be Emily Dickinson, you know?’
DeConnick demonstrated her engagement with the comics community in Captain Marvel, the series that made her name with many mainstream readers. The final issue of the first 2012 volume was a tribute to the ‘Carol Corps’: the loyal fans who celebrate DeConnick’s superhero, Carol Danvers, and proclaimed their love with Captain Marvel tshirts, earrings, mugs and homemade costumes. DeConnick replied with a story about the profound value of community. Captain Marvel saves New York – and is herself saved, existentially speaking, by the city, personified by her girl ‘sidekick’, Kit. Though the villain of the story is an Ayn Rand acolyte named Grace Valentine, DeConnick says she is not intended as a cheap shot at Randian philosophy. Rather, she epitomises petty egotism without esprit de corps. ‘It wasn’t objectivism I wanted to make the villain,’ says DeConnick, ‘but rather lazy and selfish thinkers who use half-baked versions of other people’s philosophies to justify their basest instincts. Grace isn’t a ‘real’ objectivist… she’s angry and self-centred’.
This particular issue of Captain Marvel, which has DeConnick’s trademark balance of banter and pathos, also highlights another virtue popular with the Carol Corps: strong female protagonists. The story celebrates the victory of a tough woman over an equally tough woman – there is no swaggering man saving the day. This theme of female autonomy runs through Captain Marvel, Avengers Assemble, and DeConnick’s Image series Pretty Deadly.
In 2014’s Captain Marvel #1, DeConnick wrote of a little girl who runs too fast and trips, but for an instant ‘she’s outrun every doubt and fear she’s ever had about herself and she flies.’ This not only evoked the heroine’s ambitions, but spoke to generations of female readers. Mainstream superhero comics have a horrible reputation for misogynistic or sexist writing, which reduce women to decoration or plot devices.
DeConnick is forthright about her own literary feminism. ‘When we limit ourselves to stories about men,’ she says, ‘and assume a readership that reflects the protagonist, we send the message to everyone else that they are other, that there is some kind of default human being, and they are not it.’ DeConnick believes writing that depicts a broader array of experiences is good for male readers, too, as they can then imagine themselves into other lives, instead of being ‘deprived by cultural depictions that only show Narcissus’ visage’.
Despite her throng of readers and intimacy with superhero tropes, DeConnick does not identify as a ‘true fan’. ‘I’d feel more like I qualified if I could tell you the first comic I ever read or the one that is The One that made it click for me,’ she says. ‘But the truth is that I don’t have that.’ Instead, DeConnick is drawn to a range of media and genres. Alongside Japanese manga, which she has in the past adapted for English readers, she is interested in myth, opera, commedia dell’arte, even seventies exploitation flicks. She speaks of being ‘gutted’ by a Llory Wilson & Dancers performance, based on Frida Kahlo’s paintings and life (a female-led company inspired by a female artist, by the way). This omnivorous cultural appetite can be seen in Pretty Deadly, the series DeConnick creates and owns along with illustrator Emma Ríos. While its plot and themes nod to many disparate genres – westerns, samurai films, gothic horror, fables, Bildungsroman – Pretty Deadly is much more than a pop culture pastiche.
A story of revenge, loyalty and love, it invites the audience to read (and often reread) in a mythic mood. DeConnick’s rich symbolism requires the mind to work: bones, butterflies, feathers, rivers of blood giving up a baby. Each issue is what Freud called ‘overdetermined’ – able to be interpreted rightly in various ways. The work is not easy reading, but it echoes after the song has ended.
Pretty Deadly was a risk for comics audiences accustomed to fisticuffs and wisecracks, with one company-mandated ‘beat’ per page. But because it was creator-owned, DeConnick was less anxious about the series’ popularity.
‘The thing was, when we thought very few people would read it,’ she says, ‘we felt absolutely free to do whatever the hell we wanted – because who was going to know?’ This contractual and psychological freedom gave the duo a chance to let their obvious chemistry simmer. As it happens, Pretty Deadly sold sixty thousand copies – three times the authors’ pre-publication ‘fantasy number’. Readers were clearly seduced by the combination of oneiric storytelling, Ríos’ gritty elegance, and – once again – fierce female protagonists.
Given her principled playfulness with genre, DeConnick’s new project is characteristic: Bitch Planet, set in a future prison for ‘noncompliant’ women. While talk of father earth and mother space touch on the mythic themes of Pretty Deadly, the atmosphere of Bitch Planet is closer to an HBO series: nudity, brutality and social commentary. One scene (right) has a hulking inmate complaining about her uniform size (‘Where’m I s’posed to put my tits?!’), before she hurls herself into a fistfight with armed security.
DeConnick clearly has an abiding love for the women-in-prison genre, but gives her world more nuance than the shower-and-shank films of forty years ago. Deftly shuffling the tropes of sexploitation, dystopian and action films, the first issue invites readers to witness naked and violent prisoners – and then to gaze at others gawping at them.
I ask DeConnick about the risk of this genre: how do you visually critique exploitation without succumbing to it? She replies that such scenes are written to make readers uncomfortable; the naked flesh is not shown in the ‘come hither’ way so common to mainstream superhero comics. This, says DeConnick, ‘humanises the women and calls attention to the sexualisation by its absence. If we just covered them up, you wouldn’t notice or think about how they’re commonly presented.’
The nudity of Bitch Planet #1 certainly prompts reflection. The lines of rippling, dimpled skin, together with DeConnick’s dialogue, suggest not only rawness, but also intimacy: an introduction to full human beings, rather than convenient stereotypes.
This touches on another theme in DeConnick’s prison work: ethnicity. Given the over-representation of women of colour in America’s prisons, a world peopled only by Caucasian prisoners and their stories is absurd. Yet Bitch Planet #1 is more than a didactic work of social conscience. There is, as with Pretty Deadly, an aesthetic aspiration at work:
‘I’m not trying to speak for people of color any more than a man who includes women (or, gasp! writes a female protagonist) is trying to speak for women. I’m trying to create relatable human beings and use them to tell stories that make me think and feel, that connect me to my humanity.’
Ethical reflection and artistic struggle can work together: nuanced literature does justice to ambiguous worldviews. This truth underlies the tension between gregariousness and imagination in DeConnick’s work. Fantasy becomes indulgent and insipid without contact: with others, and the world at large. But these impressions must be transformed by an agile mind. ‘Employ empathy, research and imagination,’ she says, bluntly. ‘Do the work.’
The philosopher AN Whitehead once compared scientific discovery to a plane taking off and landing, and this analogy can be stretched to fiction. Flights of fancy begin with grounding particulars, which are then put in perspective by mental distance. We then return to the ground with new awareness: the journey adds breadth and variety. DeConnick’s Carol Danvers is an ace pilot, and the trope of flight runs throughout Captain Marvel (‘Higher, Further, Faster, More’ was the subtitle of 2014’s first volume).
But there is a touch of Whitehead’s metaphor in all DeConnick’s work: the to-and-fro between perception and invention, intimacy and aloofness, smiles and the unseeing stare. ‘I am not setting out to solve the world’s problems and I don’t want to pretend to be important,’ she says. ‘I’m trying to be a better writer.’
I suspect DeConnick, like all literary aviators, knows this ambition is less humble than it seems.
Kelly Sue DeConnick photo credit: Pat Loika