"If you want to see 'angry feminist,' I will show it to you": "Captain Marvel" writer opens up about the backlash against the new Carol Danvers

Salon talks to Kelly Sue DeConnick about being an influential feminist in the male-dominated comics world

Published November 18, 2015 1:00PM (EST)

Captain Marvel   (Marvel)
Captain Marvel (Marvel)

Kelly Sue DeConnick is not afraid to say she’s a feminist. The comic book writer was behind Marvel’s “Captain Marvel” for a very successful run—culminating in Captain Marvel film, which is slated for a 2018 release. Before stepping away from “Captain Marvel” to focus on other projects, DeConnick was briefly behind three of the medium’s most influential titles—“Captain Marvel”; “Bitch Planet,” with Valentine DeLandro; and with Emma Rios, the elegiac, haunting “Pretty Deadly,” returning for volume two on Wednesday. DeConnick is a female comic-book writer in an industry (and a readership) that have been historically dominated by men, and that awareness both infuses and sharpens her work. All three of her most recent titles are about women, but otherwise, they are quite different; “Captain Marvel” is an upbeat, sunny superhero story, aimed at a younger audience, while “Bitch Planet” is a raw, pulpy, dystopian parable, definitely not-safe-for-work. And “Pretty Deadly” is a western myth, narrated in dreamlike poetry from a bunny to a butterfly. Between them, they demonstrate enormous range. And crucially, they indicate how vast and varied comics “for women” can be. DeConnick created a community for “Captain Marvel” fans of all ages; “Bitch Planet” garners the commendation of political and activist media, including Ta-Nehisi Coates. And there’s no sniffing at DeConnick’s chops from a purely artistic sense, either—“Pretty Deadly” is Eisner-nominated and critically acclaimed.

Now DeConnick is expanding her interests to that other great episodic form—television. She and her husband, Matt Fraction, signed a development deal with Universal TV, in addition to working on their other comics projects. Before long, you'll be seeing her name on a screen near you. I sat down with DeConnick to talk her own politics and both how and why she incorporates them into her stories.

“Bitch Planet” in particular is such an openly feminist, openly political comic. Why did you decide to put feminism front and center?

Well, I mean I think the easy answer is because I can, you know? That’s one of the really beautiful things about our medium, a pretty low threshold of publication. So we can be more responsive than really anything but the web. If you want to, if you are a crazy person, you could go from idea to the stands in about four months. It does not cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a comic the way it does to make a television show, or a movie. We don’t have stockholders to appease. Nobody has to weigh in and tell me who I might offend, you know? So there’s enough freedom to hang yourself there, really. Yeah, the easiest answer is because I could, or because we could.

Breaking it down a little bit more, I think in the timing I had just come off of a bit of a backlash against the “Captain Marvel” relaunch and redesign where there were—it’s one of those things where most everyone was enthusiastically supportive, but because I am a crazy person, and by which I mean because I am entirely normal, the only ones that really stuck in my head were the people who were the people who were saying, she’s taken our character and inserted her feminist agenda. Super, super pissed off that we covered her ass. It was unexpected. I didn’t see that coming at me for some reason. And you know, I have always sort of felt that feminism and the ideals of comic book heroes are very much in line with one another.

Carol Danvers—in 1977, she was an overtly feminist heroine. I was 7 years old. I had nothing to do with it, you know? And so I was just kind of like floored by that reaction and pissed off by it, and I thought, you know, this is not "angry feminist." This is a very uplifting, very kind of light superhero fare. If you want to see "angry feminist," I will show it to you. And so there was “Bitch Planet.” And in the researching of “Planet” I started to examine my own feminism and learned more about what was happening in contemporary feminism—and just getting angrier and angrier.

It does interest me that you very confidently use the word “feminism.” I think a lot of activists have distanced themselves from that word.

I am so shocked and confused by that. I do not understand that, and I don’t understand this whole need to rebrand. No, what’s wrong with the old word? Maybe I’m just belligerent, but I don’t like to have words taken away from me because someone had mischaracterized them.

I was just in Paris, and there was a woman who interviewed me who said she was amazed and impressed that I don’t flinch, when I say I’m a feminist. She demonstrated a little flinching. And I was so confused by that. Just because some idiot says feminists are man-haters doesn’t make it true. It is, in fact, entirely the opposite. In particular, when it comes from people who are superhero enthusiasts, I don’t get it at all. That Venn diagram is a circle. Everything that feminism stands for is everything American, white, red and blue democratic. It is all the same stuff. So, I am boggled that I should have to give up this term that encapsulates what I want for my children, for my world, culture, brothers and sister because someone else thinks it means I don’t shave my armpits. You don’t get to define that for me.

Who do you credit with teaching you or inspiring you in feminism, or the ways of feminism?

Wonder Woman?

Oh, nice. That’s awesome.


One of the things that I like about “Pretty Deadly” is that, despite being about a lot of other things, it is has an understanding that feminism and diversity are things that matter the way we think about the past, too.

I’ve really come to understand [“Pretty Deadly”] as a kind of old West based mythology that we are using to look at very difficult questions of life and death. So, that first arc is really about understanding death in cycles, and the second arc is about war. We keep talking about the third arc, and the joke is the third arc going to be about taxes, and I kind of think it might actually. But maybe not in the literals sense, but it’s about the price that you pay for things, that it’s a cost. Then there will be a half arc, that we’re calling three and a half, that will be a short reissue arc. And I think Emma [Rios] might watercolor that one. And that one will go back—the first arc was old West definitely and then, we keep the West but we’re going to World War I in the next arc. And the final arc is the Great Depression.

In the first arc of "Pretty Deadly," there’s the little boy who’s crying under the table. In the [upcoming] arc, he’s a grown man and he’s tried to run away from his family’s relation, his family has this cultural relation with these immortal forces. He doesn’t want that so he tries to outrun it and he runs into the trenches in France. And one of the things that’s kind of cool for me was, “Oh OK, so, now I need to write about African-American soldiers in World War I,” And I find out, oh hey, we had one regiment, and our country is so wildly and deeply racist that there were actually riots in this country when we armed our African-American soldiers, and so we sent them to fight with the French. Our book isn’t a history by any means, but it gave me an opportunity to learn about those things, to kind of have a flavor for it. You know, like what the trenches looked like, and trying to understand it. We change things as it suits us, again, because it’s not a history. What part of the history has a talking dead rabbit, you know? But it was neat to have that.

Years ago – I used to be an actor – I was in a production of Vaclav Havel’s “Temptation,” and when we started rehearsals he was in prison. When we closed the show, he was running for president. And it felt incredibly timely and important and also this lucky thing. And when we started working on this, I had never heard of the Harlem Rattlers, but this summer, Henry Johnson finally got the Medal of Honor after 70 years or something. God, a hundred years. Jesus. It was a little bit of a goose-bumpy situation, the way synchronicity makes you feel like you’re on the right track. That was fateful.

Something that we have been seeing a lot of across various geek cultures is a call for broadening inclusion and then a backlash to that inclusion. “Captain Marvel” was a big turning point in your career. Were you expecting that level of backlash, or critique, of the way you had interpreted her?

I was super-naïve. And the reaction to my perceived feminism has done nothing but make me more of a feminist, honestly. I didn’t set out to write Carol as a “strong female.” There was none of this that entered my consciousness at all. I was just writing Carol as a person, and Carol is a heroine—someone who like Captain America stands up for what is just and protects those who can’t protect themselves.

And I wanted to write about female friendships. That’s one thing I can say I consciously did, was I wanted to write about female friendships in a way that I don’t get to see enough of in popular culture. The example I always use is guys get the “Top Gun” kind of thing, where you can be competitive, but you’re making each other better — and still friends! women don’t get that in popular culture. Women, if they’re competing with one another, are competing for a man, and they do it in these sort of manipulative and conniving and cruel ways — and they don’t stay friends, you know?

That is not my experience of anything except popular culture. That is not a reality in my life. I do compete with other women, but not in this way that I’m like, “There’s one seat at the table for a lady, and I’m going to have it,” you know? That’s ridiculous. And I’m super happily married. My love life is sorted. I don’t really give a fuck, honestly, you know? Romantic relationships are the least interesting thing for me to write about. I’m 45 and that’s not the most interesting thing in my life anymore.

This reminds me, one of the comics-related things that became news in non-comics circles, about you and your husband. A comic bookstore that I have gone to in Chicago advertised your new title as being written by Mrs. Matt Fraction. I don’t know if this is something that has an enormous impact on you, but people were upset by it.

I can’t remember what the specific story was. That shop owner wrote to me, and apologized. I think he was trying to make a joke, and the joke didn’t fly. I think it was out of context; I think Matt’s said “Mr. DeConnick,” as well. But only mine got screencapped.

It was a lot worse in the beginning. When his name was better known than mine, a lot of assumptions that were made were unfair and insulting. I had actually worked in comics previous to my husband, but people think they know things, and they don’t. That is the nature of the Internet. They would argue that it was a natural assumption that he got me the job. It is actually not a natural assumption at all. It is a deeply ingrained assumption. Poor Matt gets sick of hearing this story, but Matt was my plus-one to Marvel's EIC’s 40th birthday party. And I worked in professional comics before he did. I didn’t get him his job any more than he got me mine.

So, you’re done writing Captain Marvel.

Oh, yes. I was very sad to leave.

Do you feel that your Captain Marvel run led to the movie?

I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s flattering. I know there are other people, who think that, and it is good for me to think that, so I am not going to argue with them. It sounds like some weird combination between arrogance and low self-esteem, which is, welcome to my world. But I think she is the obvious choice. I think she is a really, really tremendous character. She was a tremendous character before I got her.

Probably the best thing I did for Carol was name the Carol Corps. Probably -- this is really cold -- but I think that had more to do with elevation in status than any of my writing. But, I would like to think they are good, or are stories that affect people.

When they announced the movie, I was already behind on deadlines, and my plate was really full. I was clearing out, at that point, what I was going to give up. I couldn’t make a decision. And they announced the movie, and it was either I’d have to begin for three more years, or I drop the fucking mic. So, this was a good spot. Take your bow, and get off the stage.

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