Growing up among the military, Kelly Sue DeConnick discovered American comics amidst foreign lands. Years later, she took her foreign experiences with comics for a spin as an adapter of manga for VIZ and Tokyopop, then put her creative chops into writing special and limited features for IDW, Image, and Marvel. Her first gig at DC is an arc on Supergirl, where she takes the Maid of Steel to school.
You grew up on military bases overseas and so your access to American pop culture was mostly limited. How did you get into comics, of all things?
Wow! You did your research–I love that!
Comics were very much a thing on base when I was growing up–the Stars & Stripes bookstore at Hahn AFB in Germany carried what I remember as an impressive selection. And if you didn’t want to spring for the 45-cent cover price, you could pick up a stack for a dollar at one of the Saturday swap meets. We only got one English language TV station, so reading—and comics—were the thing. (I’m sure there’s something sociologically significant about the predominance of super-hero comics in a society of soldiers, but that’s purely speculation on my part.)
Anyway, everybody read them. And this was the 1970s, so the women’s movement was a thing too. My mom used to pick up Wonder Woman comics for me as treats and rewards. I think she thought they were empowering.
Way back in the day, it was traditional for soldiers to get rations of comics, among other things. Was that still the case while you were around those bases? Are there still comics nerds among our military men?
Is that so? I did not know that. How very cool. No, as far as I know that was not the case when I was a kid. Our folks bought them.
Despite the fact that I have not been a part of that world for a great many years, I can say with some confidence that there are indeed still comic nerds among our military men and women. Every once in a while Matt and I will send some of our books overseas as part of the anySoldier.com project. I have instructions up on my website if you’re interested.
You spent a good chunk of your work life adapting manga for US readers. There are a lot of stylistic differences between Eastern and Western comics, but what are some which really pop out to you? What can each school learn from the other?
Boy… I wish I had a better answer for this. When I first started reading manga I found the plot lines wildly unpredictable as compared to Western comics. It took me a couple of years to start recognizing their tropes. So if you’d asked me this question in 2003, I would have said, naively, that the Japanese plotted with heady abandon.
Now I guess, the differences that jump out to me are more on the systemic/business end. The Japanese didn’t have their industry infantilized (is that a word?) in the 1950s, so they have a far greater selection of genres. The US market suffered a kind of ‘bottle-neck effect’ thanks to the CCA. The lack of diversity has limited our audience, which, in turn, dictates our distribution system… there are days when you look at something like what they’ve got in Germany or France and the American comics industry feels broken and doomed. But then my husband reminds me that sequential art has been around since Lascaux and I pick my chin up. Comics will survive. We may not be able to continue making our living in the current model, but comics will survive.
I fear I’ve drifted off on a tangent. I do that frequently. Sorry.
As do we all, as do we all. Do you have any theories on how the stylistic differences in Eastern and Western comics may come from certain cultural differences between their creators?
Mmm, maybe? I don’t know. I hesitate to speculate as I have a decidedly American perspective and I’m afraid I’d come off as an ethnocentric ass, like I’m ooing and ahhing at how exotic Asian comics are, you know?
Oh, wait–I do have this theory that the Japanese economy of language reflects an island culture where space is at a premium, whereas our Western tendency to use three words when we could use one reflects a culture of (we thought) endless resources. Or perhaps that’s just me. I do seem to love the sound of my own voice.
Hey, me too! I’ve always been fascinated by how publishers adapt manga, with all their cultural and linguistic idiosyncrasies, to make them as accessible as possible to an American audience. Can you talk about the kind of thinking and work that goes into doing this?
Ad nauseum, yes. But let me see if I can control myself. Every adapter has their own style, but my approach is to try and divine the author’s intent, and adapt the language to produce that effect. It’s decidedly subjective, but I think if I’ve done my job well, my hand is invisible–I try to keep my ego out of it. Ultimately, I want the reader to experience the story with minimal awareness that they’re reading it in translation. (That said, I prefer to footnote distinct cultural references rather than to localize or eliminate them. That can be disruptive, but it’s my preference.)
Hey, lookie there. I was almost succinct.
An unassailable triumph. You’ve mentioned before that the popularity of manga with women and girls proves there can be a female audience out there for comics, but that goal is still kind of elusive. Why do you think there’s such a huge appeal to female readers in manga, but not so much in the American comic book stands?
Blargh. I think a lot of it goes back to distribution models. You don’t have to go to a specialty store to get manga–you can go to the bookstore at the mall, you know? And while I do insist–frequently–that there is a sizable female audience for superhero comics, it’s also got to be said that there’s much more genre diversity in manga. And in American superhero comics, we have a history of not making girl-friendly books. I hasten to add that when I refer to girl-friendly superhero comics, I’m decidedly not advocating for books about female heroes shoe shopping or going on lunch dates or bitching about their boyfriends while eating ice cream on the couch. I mean simply that we can have female heroes and villains who are the protagonists in their own stories, who are as diverse and as perfect or imperfect as the people who read them and write them and who are maybe not present for the soul purpose of giving the male hero something to save or avenge.
(Or to show their panties. Please do not tell me that showing your panties is empowering. Showing your panties is not empowering. I feel pretty certain about that.)
No comment. On a related note, the number of women working in comics still remains rather sparse. I’m just gonna flat-out ask you: why do you suppose that is? Something in the institutions, or the culture, or…?
I don’t think there’s an easy answer, honestly. I think there are a lot of complicated reasons.
On the one hand, I feel strongly that our industry has a ways to go toward equity. On the other hand… I don’t want this to become The Thing I Talk About. I did an episode of Wordballoon recently and John says in his blurb for the episode something like, “the inevitable conversation about women and comics comes up” (I could look up exactly what he says but I’m being lazy. Forgive me, John.) and I felt myself cringe when I read it.
Gah. I have such mixed feelings on the topic. On the one hand I think, things won’t get better unless we talk about it and every uncomfortable conversation that I have is maybe one fewer my daughter gets straddled with. On the other hand, I think the best thing I can do for my daughter is *excel* in my field, to write the kind of books I want to read.
I don’t know. I honestly don’t. I have recently come to the decision that I will not do any more Women in Comics panels. I think they’re a huge waste of time–counter-productive even. Laurenn McCubbin recently said something so true it went right through me, she said the only way a Women in Comics panel is going to be productive or frank is if it’s comprised of academics and social scientists instead of professionals. She’s two hundred percent right about that.
We’ll talk more specifically about writing Supergirl later, but I was interested when I read that when DC came to you, they did have your gender in mind in their consideration. This is a case where being a woman worked out for you, but have you encountered obstacles as well? How have you managed those obstacles to work in your favor?
I’ve quietly seethed and scrawled names on my enemies list. I carry a grudge like it was a Birken bag.
I find spite to be one hell of a motivator.
You’re a writer, and you’re married to a writer. Sometimes writing profits by being collaborative and other times it’s better to mull over your own ideas alone. Do you exchange ideas with each other, and in what cases is that helpful?
I’m more of a talker than Matt is, and… I was going to say “less confident,” but I don’t know if that’s true. I’m not quite as adept at courage as my husband. He is every bit as insecure as I am–possibly even more so, I don’t know–but he’s incredibly brave when it comes to facing the blank page, staring down the resistance or whatever. I am a great admirer of my husband’s talent, his intellect and his humor, but it’s his heart, his courage that really makes him the writer that he is. If you’ll permit me the Harry Potter reference, he’s Gryffindor through-and-through. I’d like to be Ravenclaw, but I’d probably end up in Slytherin.
This is the nerdiest answer I’ve ever given to any question. EVER.
Where were we before I lost my mind? Ah yes. We do exchange ideas sometimes, but probably not as much as you’d imagine. The trick is the timing–if I talk about things to early in the process I can scare my ideas away. And, you know, Matt may ask me about word or a line here or there, and I may get his opinion on panel layouts, but for story stuff? You mostly go to your editor for that stuff. It’s not limiting, it’s just practical. No one knows more about your book than you or your editor. You haven’t got time to catch your spouse up, you know? They’ve got deadlines of their own.
I saw you have two super-cute kids. Any hopes for a future in comics for them, whether reading or creating? How would you react if one day they come to dinner and tell you and your husband, “Comics are for dweebs?”
“Then dweebs paid for the clothes on your back and the phone that you text your friends on, you little shit. If you have no respect for the people who financed your lifestyle you can hand over the phone and go see if you can find some accountants to take you in!”
Too much? I have a few years yet to prepare.
(Honestly, I think we’re going to be okay. Henry Leo already loves comics. If I were to predict a career path for him at this point, I’d say Director–film or theatre, I don’t know. He’s three years old and he’s already taking amazing photos, making up stories and directing his family to act them out. His sister, Tallulah… it’s too soon to say. Right now she enjoys walking with her eyes closed, spinning around until she falls down and running into people head first. I suspect she’s going to be enough like her mother to find me and everything I cherish a horrible bore. Until she’s about 30. Then I’ll be a genius again.)
You mentioned your arc on Supergirl contains a few Easter eggs alluding to eighties movies. What is one of your all-time favorite scenes from an eighties movie?
Hm. Duncan at the party in Some Kind of Wonderful? The opening of Who’s That Girl? Try A Little Tenderness from Pretty in Pink? The entirety of Adventures in Babysitting. Real Genius. The Goonies.
Those are the sorts of 80s movies I was referring to when I was talking about Supergirl: This Is Not My Life. But there were a LOT of movies made in the 80s for which I have mad love. Robocop. Unbearable Lightness of Being. Heathers. The Hidden. Tremors. Footloose. (Yes, I love Footloose and I am sick that they’re going to remake it. Is nothing sacred, people?!)
They’re turning Captain Planet into a live-action vehicle. So no.
Check in again tomorrow for part two of our small talk with Kelly Sue DeConnick, where we chat about French poems, redheaded twins, and moles and trolls. In the meantime, see what we had to say about Supergirl #65.