Marguerite Bennett is a relatively new name to the comics world, but in the few months that she’s been gracing the covers – and more – of your comic books, she’s accomplished a great deal. She’s written Batman, recreated Lobo, and even filled in on Batgirl for Gail Simone!
A recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s graduate program, Bennett has proven to be a talented and distinguished voice within DC’s stable and has been rising like a rocket. Her fascinating entry into the world of comics and her even more fascinating talent for character work and psychological horror immediately made her a creator to pay attention to in my book and she’s been kind enough to speak with us.
WCBR: You’ve been a professional comic writer for a little while now. What’s your favorite part of the job?
Marguerite Bennett: Oh, gosh—I love all of it, from reading up on characters I love, to pacing the house in a bathrobe and eating Cheetos while I brainstorm, to getting dressed up to head up to the DC Headquarters to see my editors and bosses, to sitting on the kitchen floor with my best friends at 2 in the morning while I bounce ideas off of them, bless them. I even love pitching, though you’re trying to reduce your brilliant scheme to three paragraphs, and I love publication day, though you live in constant fear of Twitter, and I even love the gray days when the words come with a struggle, because you’re still living the life you’d dreamed of. I’m never not grateful for the blessings that brought me to this career.
In the end, though, I would have to say that my favorite part of the job is the conventions. The enthusiasm there is so infectious, to be swept up in the crowd of fans and cosplayers and creators, people of all ages and backgrounds united by a mutual love of the stories we all share. Writing is what I have always wanted to do, but no one can say it isn’t a lonely profession, and at the conventions, there’s such an air of freaky holiday—it validates and compensates the hundreds of hours of solitude. I often wind up at a friend’s booth, gossiping and giggling with fans, gushing over whatever story it is I’m toying with at the moment, acting out certain scenes with scowls and laughter and sweeping gestures, and telling truly terrible superhero jokes (“What do you call a superhero without powers? Batman.”) The conventions remind me of just how joyful the industry can be, how much can be accomplished by a shared love instead of a shared anger.
Is it weird being on the other side of the creator/fan relationship?
It’s exceptionally peculiar. I’ve grown up reading books by people I now sit at table with, and a great deal of self-restraint is required not to blush madly when anyone makes eye contact with me. I’m still navigating how to behave like a elegant professional when I’d really much prefer to stare at my shoes and mumble to them how much their work has meant to me.
To their credit, I can’t tell you how kind and welcoming so many of the creators have been. Mark Buckingham and Jim Zub minded me even before I’d been published, and my Team of Older Brothers™ (among them, Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Kyle Higgins, Sean E. Williams, Sean Murphy, and Tom Taylor) largely keeps me out of trouble. Keith Giffen sat me down in his own booth at Baltimore Comic Con after the (absurdly named) Lobogate and advised me, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t the warmest and most generous ornery bastard I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Shelly Bond and Kelly Sue DeConnick have been so unnecessarily kind, to my immense gratitude, and Greg Capullo sings the best karaoke death metal version of “Hotel California” you’ve ever heard.
Comic writers are a rather varied bunch. J.M. DeMatteis talks frequently about how his characters tell him what to write, Stan Lee preferred the ‘Marvel Method’. I’ve even heard Dan Slott admit that he tests some of the voices in his scripts. What’s your writing process like?
I suppose the process varies with the character, though establishing personality always comes first. I have to get into the headspace of the character first and foremost, and often wander around my house or neighborhood, trying to say words as they would say them, touch things as they would touch them. I try to fix my body language and posture to their own, and introduce the facts of their life one by one into my mind, noting the impact that each one has, how it enriches or damages my counterfeit perspective. I try to abide fully in their character, before I scramble back to my laptop with what I’ve spied.
From there, I consider what might be the worst thing that can happen to me-as-the-character, as they presently stand. For Batman, it was a foe that could strike him where he’s raw and vulnerable, forcing him to experience guilt, forcing him to rely on another for rescue. For Lobo, fueled only by vengeance, it was the end of his quest in sight, the sudden chasm and loss of identity awaiting once his white whale is slain. For Barbara Gordon, it was the specter of failure for her family, city, and allies in a moment of crisis. From there, I imagine what it would cost to grapple and struggle and rise above this awful thing, and plan out three crucial elements—the moment of spectacle, the moment of cruelty, and the moment of emotional climax.
I ask that all my art be three things—beautiful, brutal, and creative. I’m not sure if that answers your question properly, but I hope it might shed at least a little light.
All right, now the hard one: who’s your favorite character in comics?
Kate Kane! To the torches, to the pitchforks! My happy answer is still Kate Kane.
Which character would you most like the opportunity to write?
That is a very fine and very tricky question. Those characters I’ve fallen in love with often engendered that love by the skill and eloquence of their authors—there are characters I surely would’ve never loved at all, had they not been given such an excellent voice by their writers. Consequently, I would never want to presume to succeed or supersede those writers who inspire my love for a particular character.
That all said, I would make a deal with the Devil to write Cass Cain, Stephanie Brown, or Harley Quinn.
Do you have a favorite comic that’s coming out now?
Oh Lord—may I issue a tie? In traditional print, Batman, Thor, Bedlam, The Wake, and Saga, and, on the web comic front, Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona.
In each of your issues so far there’s been one word or statement that’s come up again and again – cages or the “Sorry. Not Sorry” in Lobo – has that been a conscious choice in your writing and, if so, what about that technique appeals to you?
I’m charmed that you asked this. I suppose the concepts are the spines that run through the stories—a place for the nerves to connect. Both characters—the Anchoress and Lobo—were creatures of obsession that the point in their stories that I wrote them. The Anchoress was locked away, her mind churning in circles as it cannibalized itself, until all she was left with was her outrage and her revenge. She comes to sound like a broken record because she is a broken record, maddened with that no one listens to her any longer, left to make her music in the dark.
For Lobo, the phrase was first meant to indicate his own obsessive instability. Second, the “imposter” Lobo had no conscience—this Lobo has one, but chooses to ignore it, making all of his actions deliberately immoral instead of carelessly brutish, and I wanted the phrase to contain Lobo’s awareness of how awful his actions were, as well as his dismissal of the consequences. Third, I wanted a reflection of the day and age—as Lobo was originally a reflection of the hyperviolence of the early 1980s, I felt that, for this single issue, he would need something that would remark upon the present culture. I chose that phrase for its boastful indifference and prevalence in our social media. Though I know the phrase has been much critiqued and debated, I think I chose well—less than a week after the book was published, that phrase coincidentally trended for days as hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter aired their unsavory opinions with that particular tag. Obsession, instability, conscience, carelessness, and exigency—beyond that, I’d like it to be open to reader interpretation.
Your stories have also tended to deal with some pretty primal fears, notably imprisonment in Batman and Lobo. What role does fear play in your writing?
What a kind thing of you to say (and to notice)! I love fear. I love horror. I needn’t use traditional horror—no masked man with a chainsaw in the woods—but the horror of the everyday given a voice and the chance to act on those with whom it comes in contact. I try to write of the quiet horrors—the horror even of feeling too much, knowing too much, remembering too much—of grief, of regret, of nostalgia, of sensing the presence or absence of God. Fear is a reminder of life and passion, hones the edges of our love by reminding us what it would be like to lose the things we hold dear. All of these characters, and all the characters I write, are somehow in the terror of losing or gaining a dear thing. How (or whether) they negotiate that terror proves the mettle of their worth.
Your next projects are a pair of one-shots that are due out in February, one starring Lois Lane and one spotlighting the Joker’s Daughter. A lot of people are particularly excited to see Lois getting that kind of attention, but I imagine there are plenty who don’t get it. Especially with all the classic supporting characters in the Superman mythos, what makes Lois so special?
Lois is the human soul in an increasingly superhuman world. When our sun god fell to Earth, Lois Lane was the individual at whose side he fought and chose to remain. Even beyond the chance of romantic love, Lois is the individual that contained all of our real or potential human goodness, all the better angels of our nature. She is no naïve dreamer; instead, her goodness is born of experience. She has seen the ugliness of the world, yet has never once grown weary of it or been made bitter by it. She rises above all of the malice and treachery the world can throw at her—and when she cannot rise above it, she endures it—and if she cannot endure it, then she strives to keep herself whole and uncompromised until she can rise again. She’s flawed and clever and compassionate and scathing and fantastically human.
The solicit for the Lois one-shot has already made it clear that there’s going to be a lot going on in this book. Was there a thread that was your favorite to explore and how was it tackling one of Superman’s archnemeses?
I don’t think I may discuss the chosen thread just yet—do forgive me! Love, guilt, and nostalgia—even if it’s fleeting, that one swift moment to look back and feel the ache of what we once believed we could be. Do we regret our choices, or rejoice in what we’ve become?
The new take on the Joker’s Daughter interprets that name in a less literal direction, making her a kind of high priestess of the cult of Joker. I expect that one way or another we’re going to see how the Joker inspires this character, but what does he mean to you?
Hahaha, oh, JD aspires, though at the moment she is less a priestess than the one carrying the cardboard sign, hissing that the end is pretty goddamned nigh. At the moment, JD is crude and lowly—unworthy, perhaps, of the Joker’s service. She is cruel, broken and petty, but it is through wounds that the Joker often slithers in, like the infection he is.
As far as what the Joker means to me… Against the wall of my bedroom, just beside my window, above the Lady Rainicorn plush, above the collected Hemingway, is an enormous poster of the Joker from The Dark Knight. The poster once decorated the side of a bus in England, and a great deal of patience was required to have it brought to America. The Joker is the first thing I see in the morning, and he is the last thing I see before putting out the light.
The summer that I was twenty, I was working in twelve-hour shifts at backbreaking manual labor, hauling 120lbs crates and burned in the 106° heat of a Virginia July. I hadn’t been able to read comics in ages; I couldn’t afford it—I hadn’t written in months; there wasn’t time. That was the summer that The Dark Knight came into theaters. In the cool dark of the theatre, I was given to remember why I had once loved this universe so much.
The Joker was the god of death to me, more than chaos, more than laughter. I dug out all my old comics, studied the grin, the eyes, the teeth, the lips, the pupils—the knives, the bombs, the gas, the laughing fish. I thought about how he had become death—that just the sight of him in Gotham signs the death warrant for those who see him, that his mere presence in a room heralds the end for those beside him. I thought, too, about Heath Ledger, that poor boy, who died so young—just 28, only two years older than I am now. I thought a great deal about death and gods of death, about what would be left of my life if I died tomorrow. What would I want to be remembered for? I had given up writing to make room for work, had given up ambition for security. I watched the Joker on the silver screen, studied him on the thin pages of my comics. What if death came for me, too? What would I have done or left undone?
Whatever you want to be remembered for, you must do it NOW, came the answer. You must do it against the specter of death that could come and snatch you away with all your life’s work left undone.
I went maybe a little mad over the next year—I became obsessed with filling my life as much joy and art as I could, which, when madness is considered, isn’t such a terrible way to go a little mad. For me, it was the specter of the Joker, cutting at my heels—the threat of my death if never slowed down. I wrote 50,000 words a month for over a year, averaged 5-6 hours of sleep, took 18 credits, worked two part-time jobs, read with abandon, and crammed every weekend with parties, amusement parks, birthdays, festivals, and excursions from one end of my state to the other. It was a beautiful year, but whenever I glanced back, it was Joker, the grinning god of death, that kept me running faster and faster, wilder and more ambitious than before. It was a beautiful year, and he started me on the chase that sent me running to New York after a dream.
So that’s what the Joker is to me—the god of death, present in every stone and step of Gotham. I think sometimes of how terrible it is, to feel so aware of his presence—but sometimes, what a wonderful thing, too.
How did these one-shots come about? Was it something you pitched, or was DC looking for someone to work with these characters?
DC was thoughtful enough to approach me for both projects, for which I’m quite thankful.
As someone who’s just entered this industry, do you have any advice for people who want to write comics?
Write. Don’t make excuses for not writing—you’re tired, you’re not feeling it, you’re not inspired, you’ve had a long day, the baby kept you up, the dog kept you up, you’ve been meaning to catch up on that TV show, reddit isn’t going to check itself, your boss was mean, your dad was mean, that girl you like didn’t laugh at that joke you made, you just want to veg tonight, that comic you read just retroactively stole the idea you had but didn’t tell anyone about, you just want to take it easy tonight, you need to clean out the fridge first, clean your room first, clean the house first, win the lottery first—write. You are what you do, and no one lies in bed as a kid and dreams of being an excuse-maker when they grow up. Writers write. No one will do this for you.
That said, write the kind of the story you want to read. Tell the stories that feel resonant and true. Don’t let critics into your head while you’re composing. Don’t write by committee. Don’t open hate mail. Don’t wait for inspiration—start anyway. Remember that beginning is easy, but persevering is an art.
Recognize that rejection is not personal; editors and agents pass on projects, not people. Remember that no one goes into comics to get rich. Remember that everyone in this industry is human, with wants, needs, hopes, flaws, and virtues; what is a careless joke to you may be a kick to someone who’s down, and what goes on the Internet is on there forever. Practice. Edit. Exercise empathy; it will make you a better person and will improve your writing to boot. Don’t read and despair from comparing yourself to others; read and remember how magnificent you felt the first time you finished your favorite comic. Imagine creating a world like that for other readers. Create a world like that for other readers.
Don’t let the bastards get you down. If this is what you want, really and truly—don’t give up.
Is there anything else you’re allowed to tell us about that we should be looking for from you in the near future?
I have an issue of Talon—Talon #15, to be precise—out this January. It’s a one-shot horror story about an African American Talon and is set in the 1920s. Come April, I’m a part of Rachel Deering’s In the Dark: A Horror Anthology from IDW (alongside Scott Snyder, Tom Taylor, Justin Jordan, Tradd Moore, and many others). Beyond that, I don’t dare jinx the other projects by discussing them so soon, but I am presently working on different stories with three different companies. I can only keep my fingers crossed that 2014 proves to be as enchanted a year as I hope.
Thanks for talking with me, Marguerite. Keep being awesome and congratulations on all your success.
Thank you! It’s been a genuine pleasure—you had such unusual questions. If you ever have any more for me, I hope you won’t think it’s untoward of me to be happy to hear from you or your readers on Twitter (I’m @EvilMarguerite, and I much look forward to it).