Within the first 10 minutes of the "Geek Girls and Catbirds" panel last month at Comic-Con International in San Diego, famed novelist Margaret Atwood had already derailed the conversation by peppering "Lady Killer" creator JoÃ«lle Jones with questions about Marvel Comics mainstay the Punisher.
Jones had just answered the standard "What were your first comics?" question by admitting that she had stolen her brother's Punisher comics as a child.
"What is the Punisher?" Atwood asked. "S&M for grownups?"
The crowd roared with laughter, and Atwood pushed on: "Does he have a costume? Does he have some punisher friends?"
"I don't think he has any friends," Jones said.
"Who does he punish, may I ask?"
"I don't know if he has punished since the '80s," Jones replied. "Back then I think it was mobsters."
"What did he wear to do the punishing?"
"A black T-shirt with a skull on it."
"And guns. Lots of guns."
"Well," Atwood said, to peals of laughter from the audience, "I must look into this."
She may be the author of literary novels such as "The Handmaid's Tale" and the Booker Prize-winning "The Blind Assassin," and she may not be up to date on the Punisher, but Atwood's geek-girl credentials are in good order nonetheless. She grew up reading comics in the 1940s and 1950s, when comics were common entertainment for boys and girls. "This was the time when you could buy these things in drugstores," she said. "There were racks and racks of them, and they were probably the most stolen item by children of my generation."
Atwood was at the convention to promote her graphic novel "Angel Catbird," illustrated by Johnnie Christmas. Jones is the author of the stylish housewife-noir "Lady Killer," and the third member of the panel, Hope Nicholson, is the editor of "The Secret Loves of Geek Girls" anthology and also helped put "Angel Catbird" together. All three are published by Dark Horse Comics, with the panel moderated by Dark Horse publicist Aub Driver.
Atwood, who has long been outspoken on environmental issues, explained that the genesis of "Angel Catbird" was her concern for the risks that keeping cats outdoors pose to migratory songbirds, whose numbers are declining, and the cats themselves. She chose the comics medium to strike a balance between the entertaining and the instructional.
"Unless it's entertaining, forget the rest," she said. "If it's only entertaining, on the other hand, it's a one-time read. If something has layers, you are going to be spending more time with it and returning to it. I was actually drawing flying cats since I was about seven, so this has been with me for a while."
To balance the interests of both cats and birds, she created a character who is part human, part cat, part bird. "He's in constant conflict," she said. "In volume two, you will learn that instead of just one love interest who looks like a cat, he's going to have two love interests... 'Should I have a kitten or should I have an egg?'"
Jones took the floor to discuss her series "Lady Killer," which is set in the early 1960s and features a housewife who moonlights as an assassin. ("As they did, yes," observed Atwood. "I was there.") In the second arc of the series, which launched earlier this month, the main character, Josie, moves to Cocoa Beach to set up her own business as an "entrepreneur-murderer," as Jones describes it. She spends a lot of time researching the styles of the era: "I get down these wormholes of looking at stuff for hours without actually working."
"Where do you find the inspiration for all the brutality?" Driver asked.
"It just comes from within, you know?" Jones replied.
"I was really interested in the duality of a person's nature," she said later in the panel. "[Josie] does enjoy her family, and she enjoys taking care of them, but she also has a dark side that she can't help but indulge in."
Even before she started the comic, Jones said, she had a large collection of old magazines. "I love sexist ads," she said. "I went to antique stores all the time looking for the most sexist, horrible ads I could find." A friend gave her an entire collection of "Good Housekeeping" magazines ranging from the 1930s to the 1970s, and now, she said, "My house smells like old magazines, but I love them."
With "Lady Killer," Jones starts with the visuals: "I get caught up in drawing pristine patterns and clothes and set pieces, and I have so much fun just attacking it with ink at the very end, after it's so painstakingly done, and then I just splash ink all over it. I really enjoy that part." Once it is drawn she adds the dialogue.
Driver introduced "The Secret Loves of Geek Girls" with a trailer depicting the creators revealing their geeky first crushes. He then invited the audience to shout out their own crushes, which resulted in two answers: Spock and Kirby.
Nicholson said she put together the book because she wanted a way for women to share their stories in hopes of helping others. "A lot of us have this great anxiety about love and dating and sex, and they are things I don't often see portrayed in any kind of TV or other books, at least not from our perspective of being geeky girls," she said. "'Seventeen' doesn't give me any answers to what happens if start to get a crush on a guy you are playing D&D with or anything like that. Or what happens if you just don't want to do any of that, what happens if you may be asexual." As more contributors joined in, the project grew from a zine to a book to a successful Kickstarter project, and now Dark Horse has picked it up for distribution to a larger audience.
Atwood, who first met Nicholson on Twitter when she supported an earlier project, contributed several four-panel strips to the books, offering the originals as Kickstarter rewards, and she also drew a custom comic for one supporter about his girlfriend going to Comic-Con for the first time.
Nicholson is the editor who helped assemble the "Angel Catbird" team of artist Christmas and colorist Tamra Bonvillain; Daniel Chabon is the in-house editor on the book at Dark Horse. "These people are all very agreeable and easy to get on with, and nobody resents anybody else's comments," Atwood said. "We did have to overcome some of the Margaret Atwood fear factor" -- she assumed a gruff voice -- "'Oh my god, how can I edit Margaret?'"
She compared her comics experience to being at summer camp: "If the weather is great and the people are great, you have a terrific time. If the weather is horrible and you hate the people you have an awful time and your parents will have to come and take you home."