Ted Naifeh Has Bold Plans to Take Superheroes Beyond Marvel & DC

The acclaimed creator of Courtney Crumrin, Princess Ugg and Night’s Dominion is launching a new superhero series, despite the commonly accepted wisdom that it's difficult to swim in Marvel and DC's end of the pool.

Debuting in May with a double-sized first issue from Space Goat Publishing, Ted Naifeh's Heroines will run seven issues, allowing the writer/artist a platform to build the foundation for a new superhero universe, one he's determined won’t be like any other.

When her college graduation ceremony is interrupted by a supervillain fracas, Marcy Madison uses her light-based powers to aid the local team of heroes, the Sentrymen, in saving the day. Building on the surprising exposure, she petitions for membership in the Sentrymen, but is bitterly disappointed that the team doesn't want another “token female” representative. So Marcy strikes out on her own, assembling her own group of eccentric and acerbic women heroes -- the unbelievably strong former henchwoman Jones; Raven, the activist working to expose the root societal issues that drive people to crime; and Shataru, disgraced ninja staying one step ahead of an old clan vendetta. They’re a diverse group, each with her own goals. Can they make the team work? Do they even want to?

“My main concern is to tell fresh, interesting stories," Naifeh told CBR. "What's the point of reaching tons of readers if I'm not saying anything new or interesting?”

While diversity and representation has become a contentious and challenging issue in the Marvel and DC Comics universes, Naifeh plans to build it into his from the start. “That's the trade-off. With a new, independent concept, I don't have to shoehorn modern ideas into decades-old characters," he said. "But on the other hand, I don't have their established readership or their built-in marketing machine. If I were working for the Big Two, working with their properties, my story would be compromised, bit by bit, into oblivion. I couldn't, for example, turn Wonder Woman into a bank-robbing supervillain, or paint The Flash as a sexist douche-bro. I certainly wouldn't have gotten permission to make Disco Dazzler the lead of an all-female superhero book.”

Working independently, he explained, allows him to “make the book exactly what I want -- part satire of my favorite classic superheroes, part unique story that explores territory the Big Two don't. And having to differentiate Bolt, my speedster, led me to create a speedster with running blades for legs, which I thought was pretty cool. It allowed me to reinvent Wonder Woman as a female Captain America who's become terminally disillusioned with the whole saving-the-world business. It freed me to turn superhero ideas upside down, and make something new. It's books like that that got me into comics in the first place.”

Building his universe in this manner has led to some interesting dynamics, including commentary on the far subtler ways that women and people of color characters are often portrayed. In the case of Bolt, the running blades-enabled, sexist speedster, Naifeh said, “From his point of view, it's all totally reasonable. He doesn't see it as sexism, just his perspective based on his experiences. That's how prejudice works. That's exactly the kind of stuff I wanted to explore with Heroines, those subtle dynamics that perpetuate social injustice.”

Despite the social content of his work, Naifeh’s very careful to incorporate the themes naturally, presenting them as an outgrowth of the characters. The sardonic, self-referential edge is always there, but it doesn’t preclude spontaneous battle among ninjas comically reciting the degrees of how they’ve been wronged. “It's a superhero book, after all,” Naifeh freely admits. “I want it to be exciting, funny, sad, silly and bad-ass all at once. That's what I love about superheroes. The best ones would sneak up on you with big heavy feels while you were laughing. Back when I was a kid, Chris Claremont was the master at that stuff. Nowadays, I feel like it's harder to find.

“Actually, my biggest influence for Heroines is The Venture Bros. Not for its vulgarity, but for its brilliant and loving parodies: Doctor Strange as divorced dad and aging has-been; Nick Fury as unhinged, paranoid Hunter Thompson. Jokes aside, I feel they captured something interesting, a superhero world where the heroes are painfully, hilariously human, filled with unexpected quirks and human failings. Of course, you get glimpses of that kind of stuff in most superhero comics, but I decided to make it a major feature of Heroines. It makes the characters funnier, and also more real. And let's be honest -- don't you sometimes feel reality has become a social satire?”

The big problem for Heroines right now is getting it in front of audiences. Launching a new concept with a small publisher can be a marketing nightmare. “Oni Press flatly refuses to do superhero books. It goes against their identity as a publisher. They feel there's plenty out there already. And they probably have a point,” Naifeh said of Heroines' exposure.

“On the surface, Heroines might look like a knock-off of mainstream superheroes,” he explained, “but I see it as anything but. This is a book about being marginalized, about how alternative voices in our culture get silenced. That's a subject best explored by independent creators. The big two produce some amazing work, but they are by definition the mainstream. There are points of view they'd never dare say. But me, I can say whatever I want. And thank goodness I found Space Goat, who got what I was doing immediately, and are backing me all the way.”

Heroines #1 is currently available on comiXology and arrives in stores this month from Space Goat Publishing.

Agents of SHIELD: We Think We Know Where Coulson's Doppelganger Came From

More in CBR Exclusives