Talking Comics with Tim | Ann Nocenti on 'Katana'

Ann Nocenti is a creator who caught my attention in different ways over the years. As a news and documentary junkie myself, her career path (which ventured into journalism and making documentaries at various times) fascinates me. Once she agreed to a interview about her new DC Comics series Katana, I filled her in-box with my questions. Wednesday marks the release of Katana #2, in which the lead character has become a member of the Sword Clan in her quest for vengeance.  Nocenti's discussion of her current work becomes even more interesting to read when juxtaposed the recent Comic Book Resources interview with Louise Simonson and Nocenti regarding their journeys into writing comics.

Tim O'Shea: I love your ability to offer conflicting imagery in the first issue of Katana. For instance, you stage a fight with Katana in a garden sculpture park/kawaii park (including teddy bear topiary). Was that your idea or did artist Alex Sanchez suggest it?

Ann Nocenti: I do a lot of research before writing a comic, then try to forget it all before actually writing the scripts in order to allow something new to seep in. When I was first offered Katana, Jim Lee said something about how it would be great to have the fight scenes in spectacular visual settings, rather than alleyways and streets, and his comment stuck with me. So when researching Japan, I was enchanted by kawaii art, how it is both soothing and endearing, and yet it reminded me of my childhood filled with Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty tales — the myths that are hoisted on little girls. So I set the battle in a kawaii park, but it was Alex’s idea to turn that into a topiary. I was surprised and delighted when the art came in. I also wanted to play with visual riffs on feminist themes — to contrast what is expected of women, both here and in Japan, when one is raised in a traditional fashion and yet struggles to be progressive. I was raised Catholic, so I can understand that. Visually, I want to continue the idea of strong settings for the fight scenes: In Katana #2 there is a battle in a zoo and at a double-ended sword show. In Katana #3 the battle is in a boat graveyard.

What prompted you to have the series open in San Francisco, Japantown in particular?

I had set it in Gotham, but my editor at the time, Rachel Gluckstern, came up with the idea of setting her apart from Gotham by taking her to San Francisco. I’ve not spent much time there, so when researching the city I found that there were a few blocks of Japantown. I decided to create a fictional Japantown, adding in a mythos that there are hidden streets that are like Japantown before the 1940s World War II internment camps, and to go even further back to a Japan of antiquity. So there is a temporal telescoping there, that gives us a rich history to play with. And Alex has done a magnificent job in creating that bridge between the Japantown that exists and the imagined one that goes back in time. Katana’s first language is Japanese, she grew up in Japan, so I wanted her to feel comfortable in her surroundings, and to continue the melting pot immigrant tale of America, where ethnic groups settle with their own people. I live next to Little Italy and Chinatown in New York, and both those neighborhoods are like going back in time.

Am I right in thinking you love writing comics partially as an opportunity to explore the nuances and complexities of violence? For instance, Katana picks jewelry that she knows can also double as weapons.

Absolutely. Violence exists, you can’t avoid it, and action comics have violence. Conflict creates a possibility of violence. What I love about Alex’s work is that it is fierce but also gentle. It is as if he is drawing violence with an anti-violence subtext. It’s brilliant, what he’s doing. And the jewelry bit was to establish that yes, she’s in love with her sword, but that her skill is such that everything in her hands is a potential weapon. And that idea dovetails with the “visual feminist” aspects of the comic, hopefully.

Speaking of weaponry, how much research did you do regarding weaponry for this series? I would love to know how you came up with the idea for the hem of her dress to be stitched with razors?

The hem stitched with razors came just from me thinking about what she could be wearing that could have an aspect of weaponry … I wanted Tatsu to look lovely, but also “dressed to kill.” For weaponry, I have some old weapons books, and for instance, when I saw a picture of an urumi, a flexible sword, it inspired me to create the character Coil, and to give him an urumi. It’s a snaky sword, not easy to control, kind of like trying to whip a length of barbed wire. I exaggerated the real weapon to make wild new weapon, and Alex did an awesome job of showing how this urumi could coil and squeeze like a snake. I’ve studied martial arts, judo and karate mostly, so I try to use that knowledge in the fight scenes also.

What kind of supporting cast do you look to build for Katana?

I wanted Katana to have a rogue’s gallery all her own, plus the local denizens of Japantown, and then toss in some surprising villains from the DCU. So in Katana #1 I introduce Junko, who is in the “drunken master” tradition of filmmaking, and Nori, who is a sharp businesswoman who runs a sake bar that caters to yakuza, so that Tatsu has a way to eavesdrop on the criminal underworld, which leads to potential conflicts. Then Yoko, who runs the local brothel and hides Shun the Untouchable and her tattooed body, was a way to show the history of the Sword Clan in a visual way. Of course, who knows if we can trust what is drawn on Shun’s skin? Katana #2 and #3 introduces more Sword Clan and Dager clan villains, and Katana #3 and #4 brings in some DC Universe villains, so she has a range to her supporting cast.

Is a sliver of humor in the narration going to be a staple in this series? Why I ask is that in the first issue you wrote "As my elders would say: My shame is deep ... As the kids say: Epic fail."

Yes, I always want an undertone of humor. And that line was a very self-referential joke. Tatsu embraces old and new, she’s traditional Japanese, and yet modern in that she’s an aggressive fighter. So she’s joking with herself. The way her elders would put her failure is too somber for her, and yet she isn’t so hip to really say “epic fail” so she’s mocking herself, and revealing that she herself is between tradition and modernity.

In the first issue, one character asks: "Who controls the sword? You or him [Katana's dead husband]? Or does the sword control you both?" Are these questions you plan to explore in the series?

Yes. Her Soultaker is a character in the series. At first, these questions are open. Is her sword like Excalibur, or Thor’s Hammer, in that only she can pick it up? Does it contain the souls of those it kills, or just certain souls, or is she crazy to even think there are souls in her sword? Does the Soultaker have a destiny of its own, no matter who wields it? These are all open questions that are answered in Katana #s 3-6.

What is the biggest challenge or greatest enjoyment about tackling a series like this one?

Well, it’s daunting in that it is rare that a female protagonist gets her own comic, then add in that’s she’s Asian, and doesn’t automatically have a ready-made fan base, it’s a big challenge. All I can really do is spin fun yarns, play with her mythos, and hope the fans like her. It helps that the artist, Alex Sanchez, is so terrific, and his work adds layers of mystery and intrigue.

One non-comic book question: Given that you are a person equally well-versed in nonfiction and documentary, I am curious if there's any documentary you have seen recently that you recommend?

Most recently I loved Detropia, how the city of Detroit was the main character, and the filmmakers layered it with the music history, the industry failure, the ruins, and the new wave of artists coming to take their chances in a city that’s seen better days. It brought up issues of re-invention, both of cities and people, which is a big thing in the country these days. Since I teach and make documentary films, I also have favorites I use in teaching, including Crumb and American Splendor ... Both wonderful documentaries about comic book artists.

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