In 1941, a debutante named Sandra Knight put on a skimpy yellow bathing suit and began fighting crime as the Phantom Lady. Eighteen years later in 1959 an aviatrix named Zinda Blake would become the only female member of the World War II ace-pilot unit known as the Blackhawks. Both can trace their roots to the Golden Age: Phantom Lady was created by Quality Comics during World War II while DC Comics added Zinda to Quality’s 1940s “Blackhawk” comic book after obtaining the rights to the characters. Both women went on to have over 50 years of history fighting crime within the confines of the DCU and both characters saw multiple incarnations of themselves pop up and die off in the intervening decades. This July, the Phantom Lady and and Lady Blackhawk unite again a new two-part “Birds of Prey” story arc.
Starting with issue #14, writer Marc Andreyko and artist Billy Tucci will take on “Birds of Prey” for a two-issue fill-in story that sees Phantom Lady and her granddaughter Kate “Manhunter” Spencer joining Zinda and the other Birds in Gotham. No stranger to writing strong women, Andreyko is perhaps best known for his 2004 “Manhunter” series at DC, featuring art by co-creator Jesus Saiz, who is now the permanent “Birds of Prey” artist.
Andreyko spoke to CBR about his upcoming issues, expounding on his love of legacy characters, depictions of women in comics and why World War II holds a special place in his heart.
CBR News: To start off, what can you tell us about your upcoming two-issue story? How is Phantom Lady involved?
Marc Andreyko: I’ve always been a sucker for vintage stories. A few years back there was an issue of “Birds of Prey” with Michael Golden where it was almost the Golden Age “Birds of Prey;” even though they weren’t called that, it was that sort of conceit. When asked if I liked to do some “Birds of Prey” stuff, I pitched, “What about dealing with the relationship between Phantom Lady and Zinda because they were compatriots in [World War II] and Zinda didn’t age and Phantom Lady is now in her 80s?”
So basically: Phantom Lady is in Gotham to do a charity event for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. She and Zinda and Manhunter, being her granddaughter, and the other Birds have a girls night out, and we flash back and forth from an event in the early ’50s when the Birds were going after a bad guy from World War II to how that ties in to today. So we’re doing the best of both worlds. Billy Tucci is doing the art; I just saw one of the first finished pages from him, and it is just spectacular. If you saw the “Sergeant Rock” graphic novel he did a year or two ago you know he’s really stepped up and evolved. His stuff is just absolutely stunning.
Now, Billy Tucci is an artist whose work on “Shi” is often pointed to as definitive ’90s Bad Girl art. Since the original World War II Phantom Lady is a notorious example of Good Girl art, was Tucci brought onboard because of the similarities in his pin-up style?
I think it’s easy to say that because it’s what Billy is most known for. I know when Billy was first suggested to me my brain instantly went to “Shi.” Then my editor sent me the “Sergeant Rock” graphic novel and I just went wow! This guy has really continued to grow and evolve as an artist. There’s going to be some of that in there because they are all attractive women, but it’s definitely not going to be a Lady Death in World War II sort of thing at all. Billy’s artwork is going to raise eyebrows in a good way because the stuff he’s doing is so elegant and so richly detailed. My hat is off to him because in the past couple of years he’s done tremendous work and grown substantially. I think people will be taken aback in a good way. And he’s a super nice guy! I’ve known Billy from the convention circuit, but I never had any sort of relationship with him other than in passing. Then when this gig came up we started talking, and he brought so much excitement to it. It’s always fun to work with creators who are excited — I mean, we get to play with superheroes and make money! What’s not to like about that? I’d do this for free!
From the cover to #14 it looks like you’re really trying to hit home that pulpy, World War II feel. Is that carried throughout the book?
The plan was for the stuff set in the past to be Billy’s pencil art, like how he did the “Sergeant Rock” graphic novel, and the contemporary art be inked. Actually, the second issue cover is the same as the first issue cover but with Manhunter, Black Canary and Zinda bursting through it. One of the best things about working in the DC universe is the whole concept of legacy heroes and the fact that there is history there with these characters. Having the continuity of Phantom Lady down through Manhunter is just a joy to do and play with that sort of great family tree.
Is this the original Quality Comics Phantom Lady, Sandra Knight?
This is the Sandra Knight Phantom Lady, not the one [Stormy Knight] with giant boobs from the most recent history! [Laughs] No offense to giant boobs, but this is the original lady from World War II — Starman’s cousin and Kate Spencer’s grandma.
Is that why you are using Manhunter in your two issues of “Birds of Prey?”
Yes. In the conceit of the story Kate calls her grandmother about this event and asks if she wants to attend it and brings her to Gotham. It was a chance for Sandra to catch up with Zinda, who she knows has been back but they haven’t had a lot of time together, talking about what their lives are like now.
What made you decide to write a story with Lady Blackhawk at the center?
Well, Zinda is kind of the female Captain America. She’s a woman out of time. Can you imagine one day you wake up it’s 2011 and the next day you wake up it’s 2070? Since there are so few characters alive that Zinda shared any sort of history with it made sense to want to explore. I would seek out people I knew if I was suddenly a man out of time, so the character stuff to me is really interesting. Zinda’s such a great character and she doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but when she does it’s great to see her because she’s a broad! She’s a dame of the ’40s and all that that entails. It’s refreshing; she doesn’t define herself by men in her life or being single or wanting to go buy shoes or anything like that. She was in World War II. She holds her own.
What is also so fascinating about her is she doesn’t have any superpowers. She just has the strength of her convictions, and to me that’s really, really fascinating. How do you have any self-confidence when you are fighting next to people who are aliens or have power rings or are immortal or can travel through outer space and not worry about breathing? That’s intimidating! For her, like I said, she was in World War II. She has seen stuff that would make modern day heroes’ hair curl. She’s a great character to explore these things in a way that hasn’t been done before. That being said, it’s a two-part story [and] it’s definitely got a pulpy feel to it. It’s not “My Dinner With Andre” with the Birds of Prey. There’s definitely a lot of action in it.
Does that mean that the other Birds will get equal screen time with Sandra and Zinda?
Absolutely. It’s definitely a “Birds of Prey” story. We give Zinda the flashbacks to how this event ties in to today but everyone gets their chance to shine. And Black Canary has a connection to both Zinda and the original Phantom Lady because her mom fought alongside them. Dinah didn’t know a whole lot about her mom’s adventures as Black Canary until her mother had passed already, if continuity is the same on that. If you can talk to somebody who intimately knew your parent, that is a resource that is invaluable.
To touch on the other Birds, in your mind what makes the Black Canary/Oracle/Huntress trio tick? What makes them work as a team?
I think what makes them work as a team is that they have shorthand amongst each other. They’ve been through hell together so they’ve had a shared experience and they all compliment each other. Each one brings something to the table that accents the other, but there are very few redundant traits among these women. The fact that they’ve been able to withstand so much in the DCU and still remain friends is a great testament to all the work the previous writer have done with these characters, whether it’s Chuck Dixon back in the day or Gail [Simone]. It’s always nice to see female characters you believe are friends because the easy way to play it is that there is jealousy or animosity between them. But they are sisters and there’s a bond there. I think they would be this close even if they weren’t superheroes; there’s a real connection between these women on a level that transcends what they do for a living. There aren’t enough stories in media in general about women who are friends. To me, that is what makes it interesting — I really believe they hang out with each other when they aren’t working and have an investment in each other. There isn’t anything else like that in comics right now.
Why do you think there is still a dearth of female protagonists in comics?
I think in comics there’s a dearth of female characters because there’s a dearth of new characters. With the economy the way it is and with retailers it’s hard to get new books off the ground that aren’t reboots of existing characters. I mean it’s a challenge because so many men make up the majority of comics readers and comics creators. In a lot of ways, it’s much easier to write what you know and write from your point of view. It’s a challenge to write characters that differ from you. But for me, that’s the fun part! When I get a job if it doesn’t make me nervous then I don’t want to do it, because that little bit of tingly fear means you’ve got to be on your toes! This isn’t simply phoning in a villain, it’s making sure you portray these characters in a way that is as vibrant and real to you as when you read them.
Do you find there’s reluctance among creators to work with characters who are female, or gay or minorities because of that gap in their point of view?
I don’t know if I would say there’s reluctance to. When you are writing stories you have to write the characters honestly. I never write characters just to have women or minorities or gay people in books. The perfect example for me was when I was doing the last issues of “Manhunter” which were set fifteen years in the future. I called my editor and said, “Oh my gosh, I think Ramsey, Kate’s son, is gay! I didn’t think that when I was writing him before, but now that I’m writing him as an adult all the circumstantial evidence is there.” This wasn’t a case of me saying I’m going to make a gay character — he told me he was gay. I think when you write characters and their voices are vivid enough, they let you know who they are. Ultimately, the responsibility of a writer is to write honest characters and not issue characters or one-facet characters. With “Manhunter,” Kate is a woman but that’s not the be-all end-all of who she is. She is a character that happens to be female, not a FEMALE character. I think if you have characters who are minorities or underrepresented and you approach them by the traits that are underrepresented you run the risk of writing an after school special.
Going back to “Manhunter,” when the book first came out people said, “God, she’s so unlikable!” I was like, she’s no more unlikable than Wolverine. Is it because she’s a woman you find that unlikable? My biggest inspiration for creating Kate was Helen Mirren in “Prime Suspect.” If you haven’t seen it it’s amazing stuff, Helen Mirren plays a homicide investigator who is a drinker and a smoker and is bad at relationships and is this deeply flawed character. But because she was a woman we hadn’t seen that before. Bringing it full circle, I think you need to write characters honestly. That’s what happened with “Manhunter.” I’m consistently amazed that I still get emails talking about how much they love her. I had a great time writing her and it’s the best thing that can happen to you as a creator, to have your work speak to you and speak to other people. It’s a great responsibility as well. It keeps me on my toes as I don’t want to disappoint anyone.
When you are tackling characters like Oracle who shares some of those same characteristics as Manhunter, what traits do you bring out to differentiate her from Kate?
Oracle more than almost anyone in “Birds of Prey” has overcome so much, whether being Batgirl and being a character who was inadvertently defined by Batman and the relationship with Dick Grayson, to being shot by the Joker. It would have been very easy for Barbara to become a bitter shut-in. Instead she allowed her accident to liberate her and make her the hero she might not have become if she had never been shot. She’s arguably one of the strongest characters, emotionally and pure-grit wise, in the DC universe. To take what is looked at as a handicap and transform into one of the most powerful characters in the DCU — when Superman calls you, you know you’re a power player! It’s fantastic, and it’s also a thrill to write her. She was Batgirl! I get to put words in that character’s mouth! What’s not to like about that?
And when I say that [being defined by Batman], I don’t mean Barbara was Batman-light. Just the very fact she’s taking identity from an iconic male hero, a lot of times as readers we compartmentalize. It’s what people do naturally. The fact that now when you say Barbara Gordon and people think Oracle, it’s a real testament to the transformation power of that character — especially in a genre where changes are transitory. Everything old is new again and rebooted. Superman Red and Superman Blue aren’t around anymore. Azrael Batman isn’t around anymore. Having that change be a permanent one is a real rarity, especially in the superhero world.
Oracle aside, how emotionally or physically involved are Black Canary and Huntress in these upcoming issues?
There’s definitely some emotional involvement for Black Canary. As you see in the flashback stuff to the early ’50s, it’s Phantom Lady, Zinda, and the original Black Canary. So we get to see her mother in action, as well as Dinah. For Huntress, she’s one of those characters who has a good time wherever she goes. I don’t think Huntress is ever bored or ever complains about not having something interesting to do. One of the facets of her that I find fascinating is that she really does live life, for all of the pluses and minuses that come with that. There’s a freedom about her that’s really rare to see in a female character. I think there’s so much untapped potential with her I hope someday I get to write her again. Just by the amount of characters in the story she doesn’t have any groundbreaking deep character moments in it. Like I said, she’s a blast to write. I want to do a story where her and Manhunter go out to drink. I want to go drinking with Huntress — I bet she knows all the best bars!
Have you had any conversations with regular “Birds of Prey” writer Gail Simone about the story for these two issues?
We chatted briefly about the story but not in any sort of detail. I let the editors deal with that to make sure I’m not stepping on any toes, but Gail and I have been friends for ten years now. Being able to play with her toys in her sandbox is always a privilege.
Ten years is a long time! How did you first meet Gail?
We started chatting online back in the day when she was doing her column on Comic Book Resources! When “Manhunter” came out, she was one of the first pros who contacted me and told me she was loving what I was doing, which validated the book for me in a lot of ways. Having a female creator happy that I was doing a female character justice means a lot. There are so few female characters and so few female creators out there, I wanted to make sure I was writing a female character that felt honest and real. And Gail has always been one of the most vocal supporters of “Manhunter.” She can write Kate really well too! Whenever Gail asks if she can use her I say, “Please, go right ahead!”
Do you have any other DC projects in the pipeline after these issues?
I’m shaking the bushes and looking for work but I don’t have anything that’s at any place right now that’s more than embryonic. But while we’re on this World War II kick, I am co-writing “Captain America and Bucky” starting with issue #620 with Ed Brubaker. Chris Samnee is the artist on that, and again Chris is channeling his inner Alex Toth and Milton Caniff. That starts July.
So World War II is a theme for the next couple of months, huh?
It seems that way! Early this year it was vampires — I did the prequel to “Let Me In” for Dark Horse and I just finished up the second “True Blood” miniseries, so I was on my vampire riff. Now it’s WWII riff and its fine with me. If I had my druthers I’d love to write “All-Star Squadron!”
Is WWII one of your favorite time periods to play with?
Yeah, there’s just something about it that fascinated me as a kid. If I could go back in time I’d be a big-band leader in the ’50s and ’40s. The whole era, whether it’s “Indiana Jones” or “Captain America” or “The Rocketeer” or “All-Star Squadron,” there’s just something so pure. Villains were villains and good guys were good guys. It doesn’t mean things were less complicated, but there was less cynicism and more unity back then. There’s something about having faith in good guys and having that faith restored and rewarded as opposed to the dark cynicism that comes as we become an older society.
For me, we’re getting to part of our history where soon there will be no people who fought in WWII alive. What those people did is what allows us to be the self-absorbed people we are today! [Laughs] Tom Brokaw called them the Greatest Generation, and in a lot of ways they were. Back in those days you had movie stars ending their careers and enlisting to go fight Hitler. With the exception of Pat Tillman, the football player who enlisted after 9/11, how many people are doing that? How many people are thinking on a global scale and making a sacrifice? Even Elvis enlisted — can you imagine Justin Timberlake joining the army? Unfortunately these days, most of the people who are soldiers are there out of necessity. We don’t see people from the upper classes voluntarily going to give back. That’s something that fascinates me about that time period. People who came from lives of luxury thought it was their duty and were more than willing to put their lives on hold to make the world a better place. It’s ironic that we got Osama Bin Laden because watching Barack Obama’s speech was so exhilarating. It felt like it must have when FDR was giving fireside chats, it was just so evocative of the period. Even [Obama] said hopefully this will unite us as Americans. It’s an era of selflessness that has fallen by the wayside, and I’m just as guilty of it as anyone else. I didn’t go fight. It’s almost a foreign mindset to think of people doing that.
And it’s such a monumental time-period for women as well.
Oh yeah, absolutely! Absolutely! Not only was being a woman back then substantially difficult, but being a woman out on the front lines? Who were your reference points? Once again it brings it back to why Zinda and Sandra Knight are still friends, because there were so few of them. There’s the experience there of, “You get it, you, understand what I’m talking about.” It’s a bond that transcends DNA. It’s a bond that goes so deep, it’s a rich soil in which to plant things. It’s a testament to the creators that these complexities still resonate today. And they kick-ass! That’s important too.
Will we see more fill-in work from you on “Birds of Prey?”
As a freelancer I’m always looking for work, so if there are other DC editors who need a writer I’ll throw my hat in the ring. For now, these issues are a chance to allow the new incoming artist on “Birds,” the great Jesus Saiz who is one of the co-creators of “Manhunter,” to get a full head of steam. I’m so jealous Gail gets to work with him! Jesus is one of my favorite collaborators and an absolute dream. I’m looking forward to seeing what Gail and Jesus come up with on further issues of “Birds of Prey.”
Any plans to bring “Manhunter” back as a series or as one-shots?
I’m always planning on more stuff with her, but it’s just a matter of there being enough of a financial reason for DC to do it. If people want to inundate Eddie Berganza and Dan Didio and Bob Harras once again saying they want more “Manhunter,” they have my blessing. But the market is so tight right now. This is a business as well as being creative. There’s a responsibility to do things they know there’s a market for. The only way they’ll know is to hear from the fans. Even though it is tight, the voices of the fans are heard because we know where they are spending their dollars. So if there are characters people like that they want to see more of, they need to send emails and letters to the appropriate people because DC does listen to that stuff. DC is really, really great about that. It’s what brought “Manhunter” back from cancellation three or four or five hundred times! The readers need to realize that their voices are being heard, especially now.
To wrap things up, as both a writer and a fan, to your mind what is the reason behind the popularity of “Birds of Prey?”
I think the alchemy of putting those characters together is brilliant. There is some great chemistry there. Again, there’s such a dearth of female characters in comics to see a bunch of women who go out there and do the same things all the male characters do and just do it? There’s such directness about what the Birds do that it’s refreshing. I’m a fan of chocolate cake, but if all you eat is chocolate cake you’re going to get sick of it. I think “Birds of Prey” bring a different flavor to comics that isn’t seen [with] anywhere near the regularity it could be.
“Birds of Prey” #14 by Marc Andreyko and Billy Tucci hits stores July 13, 2011.