Last year, brand new comic book company Kickstart Comics, founded by film producer Jason Netter, promised to change the face of comic sales and distribution by rolling out original graphic novels in both comic stores and Walmarts across the country. This month sees the release of their latest original comics property, “Headache,” written by “Pushing Daisies” and “Burn Notice” scribe Lisa Joy with art by Jim Fern, Vertigo artist for “Crossing Midnight” and “Fables.”
Taking Greek mythology and turning it on its head, “Headache” centers on Sarah, a young girl locked in an insane asylum for believing she is the goddess Athena. “Everybody says she’s crazy, and she’s on all these meds that innervate her and is told again and again to repeat, ‘I am not a god,'” Joy told CBR News about the graphic novel. “They are basically trying to convince [Sarah] that she’s a schizophrenic and convince her she’s a weak human.”
Of course, it isn’t long before Sarah uncovers the truth: she’s actually the half-human, half-goddess Athena, locked away by her divine brethren after opposing their plans to destroy humanity. Now wide awake and determined to prevent that fate, Sarah breaks out of the asylum and embarks on a 90-page stint of taking names and, in Joy’s own words, “kicking ass!”
“Here is a girl capable of so much. The biggest prison she has is her own self-doubt. In order to become a goddess, she has to first overcome that and realize her own strength,” said Joy, summing up the main theme of the graphic novel, the idea for which came to her from a combination of reading “Wonder Woman,” real life inspiration from friends and trying to address the “deep, crushing hole in my heart” left by the cancellation of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
“I’ve been looking for a superhero I could tune into and relate to for years, and when nobody stepped in to take the place of “Buffy” in my poor soul, I thought, ‘Maybe I can create somebody!’ That’s how “Headache” came to be.”
While the graphic novel ostensibly revolves around Sarah/Athena, Joy rounds out her cast with a dysfunctional family of gods and goddesses, all of whom have been forced to make concessions to fit into modern times. “Hera is a trophy wife; Neptune is a surfer; Hades has a nightclub called the Styx. I try to keep it so that all of the huge Greek elements had a foothold in reality, to keep the metaphors true and also to make the characters as rounded and relatable as possible,” said Joy.
Illustrating this point, Joy touched on Aphrodite, goddess of love, as an example of a secondary character grounded in reality while still keeping magical elements.
“In Greek mythology she is this beautiful face of love. To me, I started thinking what would it be like to be that person? What I realized was, it must be such a curse! Aphrodite’s gift is to literally be the face of love, so everyone who gazes upon her sees the image of the person they are in love with,” said Joy. The end result is that aside from the goddess herself, no one in “Headache” actually knows what Aphrodite looks like — other than Ares, who is incapable of feeling love. “When [Aphrodite] looks in the mirror, she sees a middle-aged frumpy person,” added Joy.
Acknowledging that many writers have tackled modernizing the Greek gods in recent years (think “Percy Jackson and the Olympians”), Joy wanted to approach the story from a distinctive female perspective. “There was a lot I wanted to do with playing with traditional gender and roles,” the writer told CBR. Citing Wonder Woman as her starting point, Joy began asking herself what elements made up the iconic character. “The appealing thing to me about Wonder Woman is the question of, who is this woman in tights and leotard walking around? What’s her story and how does it resonate with women today? The point of it is, she’s trying to figure out who she is. I wanted to do an update of that with a protagonist who was a little grittier and darker and more contemporary.”
While Joy worried that a grim, gritty tone would cause editorial to change her story in order to fit the Walmart demographic, she was pleasantly surprised to find Kickstart supportive of her endeavors. “On one hand, it is great to get distribution at Walmart and it’s great to get a wide audience like that; on the other hand, I didn’t know if there would be a ton of creative interference. Happily, there really wasn’t.”
Touching on her years of work in TV prior to “Headache,” Joy said she believed working with Bryan Fuller on “Pushing Daises” helped fundamentally shape her as a writer. A dedicated fan of his short-lived series “Wonderfalls,” upon graduating college Joy was presented with the opportunity to apply for a writing job on “Daises” and meet the creator himself. “I got hired on the first job I ever went out for by Bryan,” she said. “It was an incredibly lucky break.”
“The two things you learn to appreciate most in Bryan is, beware of cliches and make the world spectacular, but keep the people grounded. You can have wackiness, but the heart of all of Bryan’s things is very true and very real. It’s people’s dreams and people’s love,” Joy said, explaining Fuller’s writing philosophy. “I think working with him has made me a much better writer and much more sensitive to those things.”
Four years after “Daises” went off the air, Joy teamed up with Fuller once again to write an original pilot for USA titled “Mind Fields.” With Fuller supervising and Joy writing, the “Headache” creator happily divulged the basic premise to CBR.
“It’s about a couple of MIT pranksters who, after graduating, are basically private instigators. People come to them with problems, and they use engineering and high-technology to engineer solutions,” said Joy. Diving headfirst into the world of genius jokesters, Joy spent much of her time researching various MIT pranks over the years, citing a stunt where students turned the campus into a hayfield as her favorite. “[‘Mind Fields’] adds that dash of Bryan Fuller, ‘Pushing Daisies’ kind of flair, so the characters are all whimsical but still grounded and emotionally relatable.”
With a laugh she added, “They are really fun to write and they are cool people — and there are octopi and Amish people, too!”
This combination of whimsy and reality is something Joy says drew her to writing in the first place. “I think that sense of wonderment, where you walk out expecting the ordinary and are confronted by the extraordinary, is something that has always interested me, whether in TV or comic books,” said Joy.
Though “Headache” has only just hit stores, Joy is already in talks about potential “Headache” television and feature film projects. However, she admitted ] those ideas are on the backburner until her work on “Mind Fields” is finished. And beyond the pilot and her current work on “Burn Notice,” the writer is collaborating with her husband and “Dark Knight” scripter Jonathan Nolan on a prose novel. “It’s kind of a thriller with a sci-fi twist, which is fun, but my goodness — writing a book takes a lot of time!” laughed Joy.
The world and gender politics of “Headache” may be complex, but Joy believes her ultimate message is simple: “I would love people to feel empowered by it and understand everyone carries self-doubt, even superheroes. It’s a universal predicament. And it’s sort of beautiful, it makes triumphs that more triumphant and failings that much more forgivable,” said Joy.
Laughing, the writer added, “I hope the ladies like it. I hope they read it and say, ‘I’m going to go kick ass!'”
“Headache” is available online through Amazon and in Walmarts and comic book stores across the country
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