Women In Comics: Simonson, Nocenti Talk Marvel & Gender Roles in Comics

To celebrate Women's History Month, CBR is highlighting female creators across the industry, past and present, who helped make the comic book world what it is today. And who better to kick off our series than two of the best-known female superhero comics writers ever: Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson.

Getting her comics start as an editor at Warren Publishing, Simonson eventually transitioned to Marvel Comics where she soon made the shift from editing to writing titles such as her kid-centric "Power Pack," "X-Factor" and "New Mutants." To many DC Comics fans, Simonson remains best known for her run on "Superman: The Man Of Steel" with artist Jon Bogdanove where she was one of the architects of "The Death Of Superman" storyline. Leaving DC in the late '90s, for the past few years Simonson has written sporadically in comics, mainly on miniseries like Marvel's "X-Factor Forever."

Originally hired by Simonson as an assistant editor, Nocenti also launched her writing career while at Marvel. Taking over "Daredevil" from Frank Miller, Nocenti proved a popular replacement for the fan-favorite writer. During her Marvel tenure, Nocenti contributed lasting characters Typhoid Mary, Longshot and Mojo to the Marvel Universe. Nocenti left comics in the '90s for travel writing and other pursuits, editing "High Times" and "Prison Life Magazine" as well as writing for "Utne" and "The Nation." She recently made her return to comics and currently writes "Catwoman" and "Katana" for DC.

Touching on the decades that defined them, Nocenti and Simonson (or Weezie, as she is known to friends) spoke with CBR about their experiences as women in comics during the '80s and '90s, their gender hiring pet-peeves and the career disadvantages of writing superheroines.

CBR News: Before we talk about your beginnings at Marvel, let's talk about your backgrounds, as both of you had been involved in writing and publishing before heading to Marvel. What was the appeal of working in comics for you two versus any other form of publishing?

Louise Simonson: I like stories, I like pictures, and comics is where these things come together. Also, it wasn't a job I was aiming at specifically. I was willing to work in any kind of publishing. I was working at a magazine publisher before and one of my friends said there was an opening at a comic book company that paid more than the job I had! [Laughs] But it was doing things that I knew how to do. Once I got over into the comic book company -- which was a small black and white company, one of the early independent companies, Warren Publishing -- once I got there, I saw that would be a lot of fun. It played to my skills.

Ann Nocenti: I think my story is similar in that I didn't come to New York saying, "I want to work in comics!" In fact, I came out of a family where we weren't allowed to read comics. You know -- Catholic. [Laughs]

Simonson: Me too, Ann! Same story! We were allowed to read Donald Duck comics. That was pretty much it.

Nocenti: I remember when I first started working with Weezie, she told me she had a Lapsed Catholic Theory that all of us repressed Catholics that were not allowed to read comics actually exploded with creativity when we finally got into them! [Laughter] I was a freelancer, ghostwriting a horror novel, and I was doing different sorts of writing for magazines. It was all very isolating to me. I remember when I moved to Marvel Comics, I answered an ad in the Village Voice for an editorial position -- but they didn't tell you what sort of publishing it was, it just said "publishing." So I thought, "Well, this has got to be porn." [Laughter] I called, and for whatever reason, even though I told them I didn't even know what a comic was, they had me go meet Jim Shooter. As soon as I got there, it was the wacky bullpen that drew me in. Everybody seemed to be having fun and there were all these colorful comics all over the place -- I was instantly hooked.

Simonson: It was something you were really good at too, I have to say.

Nocenti: Well, thanks -- you too! [Laughs] I also felt I was trained really well. I worked with Jim Shooter first and, whatever ill things you want to say about him, he was obsessed with basic Aristotelian plot structure: introduce a character visually, introduce a conflict, what's the theme? He had a really good grounding in how to tell a story. Then I worked with Al Milgrom, and what was great about Milgrom was, he'd take the pages that came in and put a piece of tracing paper over them and physically scribble over and re-do the artists layouts to show how you could do them better. Then, when I worked with Weezie, I learned -- this is one of the biggest things I learned from you, Weezie -- how to get what you want from the writers and artists and have them leave the office with their tails wagging, not realizing they had to re-do everything!

Simonson: [Laughs] I think that's just a legend. I can't believe I actually did that!

Nocenti: You did! You would sit there and say, "This is really great, this plot is great, but maybe you should make sure this happens," and they would be like, "Oh yeah!" And then they'd go home and rewrite! We used to say that Weezie's superpower was she had the power to cloud men's minds.

Simonson: I remembered people saying that, but I never believed it! It was part of a legend they had made up -- but it was a good legend. I wasn't complaining! [Laughs]

Nocenti: I think what was great about the Marvel bullpen back then was that the editorial staff was so amazing. If you needed some kind of technical military reference, you went into Larry Hama's office and he'd be handing out Xeroxes; you had Xeroxes of Wally Wood for storytelling, and you had Denny O'Neil and Archie Goodwin. There was Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio and Peter Sanderson who knew the history inside out. There wasn't a single editor in there that wasn't strong. I think a lot of creativity came out of the '80s because there was a strong team there.

Simonson: You are absolutely right about that. It was an amazing staff.

Marvel's policy then was to have its editors also write, which is how you two began your writing careers. Without that policy, would you have ever transitioned to the more creative side of comics?

Simonson: I suppose! [Laughs] I had resisted Shooter's encouragement to write stuff or do freelance stuff because I thought he had writers whose livelihoods depended on their doing books and it didn't feel fair to take the work away from them. I had a job. But then Shooter hired a whole batch of new editors, and my workload was cut in half. I got bored and I thought I should create something rather than take one of the jobs that were already there, so I proposed the idea for "Power Pack" to Shooter. He eventually loved the idea, and so that was my taste of writing. I found it more challenging than editing, and way more fun, because I had been editing for a long time so I think it had gotten too easy for me.

Nocenti: I think Denny O'Neil came into my office and said, "Will you write a 'Bizarre Adventure?'" Usually the way this stuff would happen was there would be a late deadline and they needed someone else to do it and, hey, you're a warm body! Mark Gruenwald came into my office one day -- and I had only figured this out years later in hindsight -- he said, "Would you write an issue of 'Spider-Woman,' because we need to kill her and nobody wants to kill her." I love Mark, we had so much fun working on Spider -Woman, but I think he understood the deep connection readers have with a character. It's not fun to kill a character!

Simonson: Yeah!

Nocenti: Mark created the characters, he created Daddy Longlegs and all these other fun characters. So he said, "Do four issues and then kill her." I came up with this ending where I said, "What if she goes to the Astral Plane? That way, when we kill her, we can bring her back." And then we got all these letters from kids who were like, "Why?" I said, oh man -- I'm not killing any more characters! [Laughter]

Weezie, you probably remember this, too. I was creating these incredibly big and dense Bibles for this character I wanted to create, Longshot, and it was way too many pages of writing for anyone to bother to read. Then, one day we got these samples of the Beast washing dishes. We looked at this blue pencils and we were like, "Oh my God, look at this talent." Weezie did everything else, she put me and Art Adams together and convinced Jim Shooter to do a six issue miniseries. I think that was my really naive beginning in comics. The last thing I want to say about that is, I think being on both sides of the fence is really important.

Simonson: I agree with that.

Nocenti: As an editor, you just have to get something to the printer. You have to make tough decisions, you have to fire people, it has to sell. Then, as a freelancer, you're at home and you're lonely and you're writing by yourself. You're scared and you don't know what's going on with all the corporate people above you. So if you've been on both sides, you're a better editor and a freelancer.

For a lot of readers, especially a lot of younger readers, we look at the '80s and '90s as both a turning point for the type of comics being made and also for finally seeing women take more prominent positions in the industry. During that time, how aware were you of attitudes towards women creators and fans?

Simonson: I was so oblivious to that! I don't know, were you oblivious too, Ann?

Nocenti: I was oblivious to the fact that it was even a big deal! [Laughter] We had Marie Severin who was like a powerhouse, we had Jo Duffy, we had Mary Wilshire -- there seemed to be strong women at Marvel at the time. I don't think we ever did a head count. Yes, there were less women drawing, but at the time it felt like a boy's world and that was OK. It was like a football field -- why would a girl be on it? I'm sure this is a very anti-feminist thing to say, but I don't remember ever thinking, "Oh my God, I have to get more girls into comics."

Simonson: I never did either. In fact, "Power Pack" was drawn by June Brigman, a woman, of course, and it must have been five years ago when somebody said to me, "Oh, so it was like an all-woman comic." Until then, it never even occurred to me. I didn't choose June because she was a woman, I chose her because I thought she drew kids great. She was the perfect person for it. I liked having other women in the office, but it was never a goal. Maybe I was aware of women in comics some ways, like when somebody would come into the business and they would not be good at what they did, because I felt it brought it down. Then everybody said, "Women in comics aren't very good." So I think I was aware of it, because I hated it when someone did a bad job or was unreliable. I was like, no, no, no! I want examples like Ann Nocenti!

Nocenti: [Laughs] It was an organic thing. We were working so hard, it was so creative and fun -- we had a softball team! Remember the softball team?

Simonson: I remember the volleyball team!

Nocenti: We went to the movies together! I don't ever remember feeling like it was unnatural to have a lot of boys in comics because it felt like [comics] were geared towards boys, and boys were drawing them and reading them. Maybe I was not yet a feminist, but I did not feel it was my mission to get women into comics. Mary Jo Duffy was writing "Star Wars," we got samples from Cynthia Martin and they were just a great team. They did great "Star Wars" stories together. It never felt like, "Oh, we're putting two girls on a comic."

Simonson: We never thought of it that way.

Nocenti: I always felt I was treated really well by the other editors. We had super-talented guys who never felt macho to me. They were very encouraging to women. They were very encouraging to get us to write and draw. It never felt prejudiced.

Ann, whenever people talk about that time period in terms of women in comics, Typhoid Mary is almost always one of the first characters brought up --

Nocenti: You can't have a good comic without a good artist. When I created Longshot, if anybody but Art Adams had drawn that -- he brought the innocence and this amazing spirit to the character. [With "Daredevil,"] I think John Romita Jr. just hit such an amazing stride. Anything I threw at him, he made it amazing. We did this story where we went to Hell, we met Mephisto, we created Blackheart; so much comes out of the artist and writer talking together. I think Typhoid Mary's visual was based on a girl he was seeing! [Laughter]

John Romita Jr. is such a nice man, his parents are so awesome. He was able to get a female character that is a virgin and a slut and a feminist and not a feminist. I just decided to make her all the different stereotypes of women in one woman. I really just made her a triple stereotype! John just went to town with her, and as soon as I got the first image of Typhoid Mary, I said, "This is going to work." He got her. He got the need for her.

Another group that's always brought up in discussions of female superheroes is the X-Men and how inclusive that team has been, featuring so many strong women and minority characters. In editing the X-titles while Storm was leading the team, and then working on "New Mutants," Louise, was that ever a conscious goal? Why do the X-Men feel more inclusive than other teams?

Simonson: You know, I can't take credit for that. It's really Chris Claremont. All of his characters had very strong personalities, and I guess it's not surprising that his female characters would be just as strong as the male. He really liked working on female characters. Maybe that was why they were stronger than some of the guys.

Nocenti: He likes women as people. Chris would come in, and I think he listened to opera as he wrote --

Simonson: Did he? I forgot that!

Nocenti: -- and his work always had this high drama. It was operatic, and at the same time, very personal. He would take Kitty Pryde and Colossus very personally; you'd have these action adventures, but at the root you had the best soap opera, people's personal desires. He wrote Storm and Rogue and Kitty Pryde as well as he wrote Wolverine and Cyclops. He was spectacular in what he did because he liked playing with the Barbie dolls! [Laughter] I never felt Chris thought, "This is a woman, this is a man." He just loved characters. When he said, "Let's make a character black," I never felt like it was political correctness.

As you left Marvel and moved forward in your careers, did you ever feel any sort of pushback from fans or the industry because you were women? Or were you more focused on the work you were doing?

Simonson: Yep! [Laughter] I was doing the work! I don't know if I ever consciously thought about the gender of characters. Maybe a little bit when I was doing Superman in that I had generally avoided doing female characters and being put on female character books -- in part because I felt it was a great way to get stereotyped as a person who does female characters, and that's all you do. I loved doing "Red Sonja" -- Mary Wilshire and I did a six-issue story.

Nocenti: That was a beautiful story!

Simonson: It was great working with Mary and it was fun doing a female super heroine, because that's what Red Sonja is. We did it as a Russian fairytale, essentially. We wrote the plot together, it was glorious fun. That was the exception to my rule, because I loved Red Sonja. When I did Lois Lane, I really loved writing Lois Lane. I began to relax my rule, but that was probably the only time I thought about it.

Nocenti: Its undeniable when you look at industry-wide statistics, women are hired low, their salaries are lower; I think statistically you can say women aren't treated fairly in any industry. In the film industry, in the publishing industry -- it's kind of a universal thing. I'm not a historian, but I know during wars when men left, women got a chance to work, but when the men came back they'd be kicked out again. So from a feminist historical perspective, there is a kind of inherent prejudice against women in all industries. It's one reason I feel like I dodged a bullet. I got lucky.

Simonson: We both did, Ann. We both did. My pay was as good as the guys around me, as far as I knew.

Nocenti: I have no idea, actually, because I don't know what everyone else made! [Laughter] But the thing is, I got back into comics because of stereotypes. I think there was some big controversy in some convention -- I wasn't in the industry because I was off doing other things -- about how there were no women in comics, and then I got a call, "We need women in comics." So if I got back into the industry because I'm a token female, I say great! I'm all in!

Simonson: Also, Annie, they call you up because I think they like a female face on videos and things like that. I always get people asking me to do video interviews! [Laughs] It's pretty funny!

Nocenti: They put me on "Green Arrow," and I have to admit, I just didn't get Green Arrow. I struggled with him. He was a rich playboy in an armored suit who was young. I liked the old Green Arrow, the wise guy who was stealthy and a social crusader -- Denny O'Neil's Green Arrow. This was a different Green Arrow and I didn't connect with him. Now, doing "Katana" and "Catwoman," I have no idea if there was a meeting where someone said, "Lets give the girl writer the girl books," but I instantly related to those characters! It's fun to write girls.

Simonson: I hear you, and I agree!

Nocenti: I did Daredevil for years. I wrote macho characters for years. I wrote Punisher, but I don't know if I've ever written a female lead before. I felt like it was delicious. It was slipping into something I understood.

Simonson: It is fun! I have to say, I kind of regretted that I hadn't gone more in that direction when I was younger, because it was so much fun. But you do what you do.

Nocenti: History is only understood in hindsight. Having this conversation with you right now, I'm thinking, "Oh, I wasn't much of a feminist, was I?"

Simonson: But you know, Ann, I think at the time, if either of us had chosen to just do female characters, we wouldn't have lasted as long as we have because, for one thing, female characters' books seem to not last all that long. That was another reason I made that choice; they'd run for six months, maybe a year and a half, then they'd be gone.

Nocenti: I also think some characters are just great. Daredevil is a Christian influenced by a nun who wears a devil suit and who also believes in vigilantism and blind justice. He's packed with so many contradictions that when Daredevil walks in a room, there's a billion stories to be told. He's not a one-note, one-trick pony.

Simonson: You're right about the contradictions -- that really is what makes characters interesting, those internal conflicts.

Nocenti: That's why he's lasted so long, that's why people love to write him. Sometimes you get put on a character, and its just not working, you don't see the multiple layers. But there's a reason the more legendary characters have been around. They're great archetypes. I feel Catwoman is a great archetype.

Simonson: She is.

And Daredevil brings us back to the Lapsed Catholic Theory, again.

Simonson: Man, you could make a list! The first generation was a lot of Jews doing comics. They were really the creative force behind comic books. It was like the third wave when you got to Catholics, it's very funny! [Laughter]

Nocenti: And at that time, too, you're exactly right! [Laughs] I would love to find a way to get women into comics, but I think it's going to happen organically.

Simonson: I think it's happening already in that there's a lot more options for different kinds of comics. When Ann and I were doing mainstream comics, they were selling hundreds of thousands of them. Now they're not. But there are all these smaller companies that are offering kinds of comics other than just straight superhero stuff, science fiction and cowboy stuff. The field is much more open than it was. I think superhero comics are one of many.

Nocenti: I think the whole notion of personal comics, be it "American Splendor" or Robert Crumb, the people open the door to whatever is wandering around in the brain are interesting. There are some really talented women in the industry now like Carla Speed McNeil and then Alison Bechdel, there are so many young females working in comics doing very personal comics. There are sites like Activate, a website where people can try a personal comic and if it catches, it catches. You know who writes great new comics? Elaine Lee! We forgot about Elaine Lee!

Simonson: How could we forget Elaine Lee?

Nocenti: How could we forget Elaine Lee? She's a fantastic female force. She did that great graphic novel, "Starstruck." That was genius! She has a son now who's doing a comic called "Strong Female Protagonist," and it's so good! We're already getting strong female creators from alternative press and from the underground.

Right now, fans of mainstream superhero comics seemed to be more engaged than ever in conversations about women in comics, the need for women creators and the need for strong female characters. While that was never a primary consideration for you two, do you think conversations like this one help? Does it actually accomplish anything or are there other things we need to do if we're serious about involving women in the industry?

Nocenti: For me, I don't think you can have a conversation about women in comic without talking about Karen Berger. When she started years ago, she started the Vertigo line and I think she was one of the major forces in comics. I never looked at how many men versus women there are; I come from the perspective that it has to be good first, and then gender comes into play.

Simonson: Or gender doesn't come into play if it's good enough.

Nocenti: There is an emerging, strong female comics voice from the things I've seen. I'm not comprehensive -- I don't know what's there unless it falls in my face, but its there. I do feel like women's voices are getting out there.

Simonson: Absolutely. There are voices these days, it's true, it's true!

CBR's Women In Comics History Month continues next with Joyce Farmer and Trina Robbins discussing women in the 1970s Underground Comix Movement.

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