THE MISSION is a weekly column spotlighting diversity in comic books, graphic novels, and popular entertainment.
The interviews and editorials featured will focus on successful entrepreneurs, whose accomplishments serve the goal of creating an equally diverse creative and business landscape.
Alex de Campi writes comics, directs music videos & commercials, kicks ass and takes names. She is best known for the NY Times-reviewed, Eisner-nominated spy thriller "Smoke/Ashes" and her "Grindhouse" series (USA Today's "Most Insane Read of 2013"), both from Dark Horse. She has a second season of "Grindhouse" on shelves (starting off with "Slay Ride" drawn by RM Guera and Giulia Brusco) and the supernatural horror story "Semiautomagic" (with Jerry Ordway and Marissa Louise, in "Dark Horse Presents" #4 and onwards). Her supernatural thriller webcomic "Valentine" is ongoing at Thrillbent and comiXology, first one's free).
On Christmas Day, her take on Wonder Woman drops in "Sensation Comics" #20, and you can read her free "Dead Island" zombie comic (with Mike Hawthorne) online now. She has a bazillion things coming out next year but can't talk about many of them yet, but she did chat with THE MISSION about her approach to characters, the "Lady Danger" story in "Grindhouse" and much more.
Joseph Phillip Illidge: In your graphic novel collection "Smoke/Ashes" published by Dark Horse Comics, the main character in the "Smoke" volume is an assassin named Cain who is searching for the murderer of his former Commanding Officer. Unlike the typical male, hired killer archetype, Cain is an Albino, with a look that some people may consider effeminate or androgynous.
Was making Cain an Albino a way of challenging the reader's perception of race, and by doing so making race a non-issue? Were you purposefully trying to make our brains hurt by giving us a smooth-faced, pretty man who just happened to be the wrong person to mess with?
Alex de Campi: I wanted Cain to be an insider and an outsider at the same time. He's very associated with the British "system" -- Guards officer, private school -- but also because of his appearance, a bit of a freak and someone who would never be fully "in" the system. As you suggest, it was also fun taking the most macho character archetype and making it someone a bit more androgynous rather than a big, burly action hero. Maybe it's an aspect of being a female writer, liking a prettier/androgynous hero (perhaps keeping an element of feminine/self into the masculine) rather than the male power fantasy of the muscular hero.
The other main character in the story is Katie Shah, a female reporter of Indian descent. Why did you choose that nationality for her? She could just as easily have been Caucasian, like a lot of other female reporter characters in mainstream comics. You would have gotten away with it.
I just thought it would be boring to have the main characters be two White people? There are huge Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi populations in London (where I was living when I wrote "Smoke" back in 2005) and it just made sense to me to have Katie be a smart, struggling British Indian gal trying to make her mark in tabloid journalism. I guess perhaps I also wanted her to be a little bit outside the traditional British system too, but in a different way than Cain.
For the "Ashes" section, you shifted the focus to Katie, and by doing so tackled the "Lois Lane" model head on. However, your depiction of her life provided a relevant and realistic depiction of the state of journalism, along with the consequences of becoming famous from involvement in extraordinary events.
Did you have concerns about doing the story with a woman of color as the initial focus? Was there a conscious desire to anti-Lois Lane her?
"Ashes" was a very self-indulged book. I knew I was going to have to fund it via Kickstarter, so I felt even less need than I usually do to pander to what the "audience" wants. I always liked Katie a lot as a character, she was both optimistic and pragmatic, and she (in the five year gap between books) was the one who had attempted to stay engaged with society, whereas Cain had sort of just fucked off. I felt Smoke focused mainly on Cain, so it was Katie's turn.
I didn't deliberately set out to anti-Lois her, but I did feel she had a lot to say as a character and it was time to give her space to say it. On that note, I think there are great Lois Lane stories out there as yet unwritten. I think a theme in my stories is my interest in what is happening around the action, at the margins of the battle and after it is over -- rather than just the typical hero quest. "Ashes" is very much about the consequences and ramifications of a heroic moment, seen through Katie, the most "normal" character in the book. There's this great Auden poem I refer back to a lot, Musee des Beaux Arts, when thinking about stories.
When developing new creator-owned projects, as opposed to creating the pitch, you write all of the scripts in advance, and then identify the right publisher. It's a risk, to be sure.
What made you choose that approach? Has it resulted in accelerating the process of getting a commitment from a publisher? Has your sanity been called into question by four out of five therapists?
There's not that much I want to write. I am not the sort of person who can throw off pitch after pitch and then let the ones that don't get picked up just die. I get very committed to my stories, sometimes thinking about them for years before they're ready for me to actually write. And I don't have a lot of time. I work a part-time job (that tall comics' dollar, folks! The only Ferrari it bought me came in a Hot Wheels pack). I'm a single mom. I do volunteer work with a dog rescue. So the precious time I have to make comics? I am not going to waste it. I write my stories. I say what I want to say. And I've been lucky enough that almost every story has found a publisher. When the luck runs out? Kickstarter has my back.
It's worked. Would I recommend it for everyone? Oh, heavens no. Everyone has to find a process that works for them. I'm a surly isolationist who likes to get lost in stories, and is okay with having only one or two books out a year. (I also letter my own work, which makes the whole process even more time-consuming.) It is a patently, ass-backward, crazy way of doing things, but it works for me.
The publisher acceptance process is a funny thing, though. There are some publishers I've never made any progress with because though I have a full manuscript, I don't have a first issue drawn or all sorts of flashy concept art. (My artists tend to be very busy, in-demand pros, and I'm not going to ask them to do free work.) There are other publishers whose contracts I'm not a fan of, so I've never really darkened their doorstep. I'm hoping once I have a bit more out there I can widen my circle of publishers -- that the folks with decent deals who want all the art learn to trust me the way my existing publishers do.
As a female writer, have you had to deal with more offers from editors to write female characters instead of conventional male characters?
Yes! It's maddening. And complicated. Allow me to explain. I get mad when you only call me to write female characters. I also get mad when you don't call me at all, and let white dudes write the female characters when there are barely four or five women total writing work-for-hire comics. See, it's sexist to think women can only write chicks. But it's also profoundly infuriating to see one of these unicorn-rare female books come up and it get handed to a no-name male writer. (See also: Mighty/Minority Avengers). I get it when [Rick] Remender gets put on Captain Falcon, or [Jason] Aaron on She-Thor, because they're big names. I won't be thrilled about it, but I'll get it.
So no, you cannot win, editors. I will always be sorta mad, whatever you do. Because here's the thing: there are like eight white dudes a year who bounce off a single Image series to do a C-list superhero team or guy at DC or Marvel, and I always think, "Hey, why not ask a white chick. Ask a black dude. Ask a black chick." [I refer editors to this very column's archives if you need to swot up on talented, underrepresented authors]. Why do I have to wait for the special girl book to get an invite? Because, see, we can aaall write white-dude superheroes. Why? Because 99% of books, movies, comics, plays, shadow puppet theaters, etc., are by and about white dudes. Like, we got this. We have been watching you from birth. We know how to write you.
Giving credit where it's due, you kicked off the present wave of grindhouse genre comics with your "Grindhouse" series of miniseries for Dark Horse. Does that genre allow you a creative liberation that, say, the mainstream superhero genre, may not? Because really, could Superman even begin to handle the celebration of carnage those kinds of stories require?
I dunno. Did you see the DC Free Comic Book Day comic? Seriously. Black Canary's severed face tacked onto some other dude's chest. It's not the violence and carnage that's unique to "Grindhouse" (because all that's been co-opted by mainstream comics for ages). It's the sex, and inventiveness.
I love writing "Grindhouse" because on the one hand, it completely panders to the worst and basest impulses of the traditional comic book dude: tits and gore! I love selling comic books to that guy, even though his dollar is like the most competed-for dollar in the comics market. But on the other hand, "Grindhouse" means I am completely free to write, say, a Black lesbian love story (as in "Grindhouse: Prison Ship Antares"). Because it's "Grindhouse", there is an element of othering/okayness to the mainstream White reader, where I think they're more willing to pick up something starring a character of color than if it weren't an "exploitation" title. It's kinda like why many white liberal readers will pick up books by foreign authors of color such as Junot Diaz or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before, say, a book by an American author like Tananarive Due. Because we love us some tourism. (I'm not saying any of this is remotely okay, the subtext is in fact quite fucked. I'm just pointing at it and going, "Hey, that's weird.")
The only hate mail we ever really got for "Grindhouse" was someone mad that we killed off the White sheriff (who traditional mainstream storytelling would have had as the hero) in part 2 of "Grindhouse: Bee Vixens From Mars", and a couple of White guys were like, "::blink blink:: Wait, the Latina is the hero?" Which taught me a lesson. Things go better if you just have the woman of color as the hero up front, no explanation, no switches, no excuses.
Your next story arc in the "Grindhouse" series is "Lady Danger, International Agent of B.O.O.T.I.", with Afua Richardson from Top Cow's "Genius" as the artist. Lady Danger is a Black woman in the Cleopatra Jones vein. Has she been in your head for a while and you considered this the right time to bring her into the light? Also, just what does it take to work for B.O.O.T.I.?
B.O.O.T.I. is the Bureau Of Organized Terrorism Intervention, because in my world, when Americans are in danger overseas, the President no longer sends an army. He sends one Black girl. She's bulletproof, she's adorable, and she works part-time at a convenience store. She also has a pink and gold jet. I think she's one of my all-time favorite characters. I grew up watching Blaxploitation films, but I didn't want to write a "tough" chick, or do a gang story. Rachelle (AKA Lady Danger) is powerful and heroic, but not sassy or hard. Don't worry, the fierce is strong in some of the other lady characters, notably our Grace Jones-influenced B.O.O.T.I. Commander. Obviously, The Man tries to keep her down, though... the Man does not succeed.
Just what does it take for a B.O.O.T.I. agent? Smarts, heart, martial arts, and an ability to deal with the fact that B.O.O.T.I. headquarters is nowhere near a Starbucks.
The idea for Lady Danger actually came from my (languishing) music video directing career. I was asked to write on a Morcheeba song called "The Face of Danger" and I pitched an animated, blaxploitation music video with Kyle Baker on board to draw/animate. Obviously, because we cannot have nice things, the label decided it didn't want to wait three months for us to do an animated video, so instead Morcheeba would have no video for that song. So there, that's Lady Danger's secret origin! (The Morcheeba song was really good, too.)
You've tackled the spy genre with "Smoke/Ashes" and the upcoming "Lady Danger, International Agent of B.O.O.T.I.", and you're about to go at it from another angle with the upcoming book "Mayday" and artist Matthew Southworth from Oni Press' "Stumptown" series. How will "Mayday" examine the idea of the spy in a different way than the other two stories?
"Mayday" is the early-1970s young White kids against The Man story: "Zabriskie Pointm" "Badlands," "Easy Rider" -- kids on a spree across California, The Man catching up with them step by inevitable step as they fall apart and screw up. Except, the kids are Soviet agents, and they've just killed a defector and taken back microfilm with the name of every Russian spy in the East, including high-ranking Army officials in Vietnam.
It does a lot of odd things for a spy book in the Cold War. It's college-age kids; it's no suits; the shooter has no uniform. It's out of the shadows and into the pitiless sunshine of California and the space of modernist architecture. And on the other side of the country, April in Washington, the cherry blossoms falling over Langley, as the Soviet Bloc division scrambles to find out where the leak is, who let the Russians know where the defector was, and how they can find the pair of spies before they escape The U.S. Oh, and our main CIA agent character is a Black guy. (He's not The Man, but he knows where The Man's office is.)
We're hoping we can do further stories with these characters in short, discrete miniseries. The next mini is the Berlin/Baader-Meinhof one, for example. I have long-term plot outlines for all of them.
Now that you've written everything -- from spies to sexy swashbucklers to little ponies to Blaxplotation intrigue to high school students fighting alien hunters -- you must be jonesing to write a "Death of (insert popular mainstream superhero who cannot be killed permanently because he or she is depicted in toys and on bedsheets)" story.
Tell us who you want to kill and resurrect. Zombies do not count.
Oh, gosh. I don't really want to kill any mainstream superhero character. They all have enough Frequent Dier Miles anyway. I'd quite like to write a few good Wonder Woman or Superman stories. Nice, happy, uplifting stories with just a touch of melancholy and a big dash of wonder.
Joseph Phillip Illidge has been a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and politics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World's forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel "Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books," and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.
Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment (www.verge.tv), a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series "Thief of Thieves" by "The Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman, and video game developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for transmedia development. Live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.
His latest project is "The Ren," a 200-page graphic novel about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war and spotlighting the relationship between art and the underworld. "The Ren" will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.