Q&A: Comics scribe Gail Simone

A panel from Simone's Secret Six.

A panel from Simone’s Secret Six.

A panel from Simone's Secret Six.

Gail Simone is one of the most high-profile women writers in the world of superhero comic. She began her career working for Marvel Comics on titles like Agent X before moving on to Secret Six and Batgirl at DC Comics. She was recently in town for the Crossroads Writers Festival, and our geek liaison Ross Hardy managed to snag an interview. Feel free to check out more of Ross’s writing at his blog, Later I Will Destroy This Earth.

Ross: To start with, what is your favorite character and your favorite story that you’ve worked on, across your career?

Gail: People ask me a lot what my favorite character is, and it’s so hard for me to answer, because of course I love Barbara Gordon, and I’ve written her character for years, and now I’m writing her as the new Batgirl as well, and I really love her and love the stories. I like writing Black Canary, because she’s kind of got that sarcastic wit and she wears her heart on her sleeve, and it’s fun to tell stories from her point of view. And I love writing Lady Blackhawk’s dialogue, it’s so fun.

But I have to say, writing Wonder Woman was an amazing experience for me. I’m very proud of the “Circle” arc, for instance, because it brought a lot of new stuff, some very feminine, dark themes to it that really hadn’t been done before, and told the story from the point that not everyone was happy she was born, for one thing. So I’m very proud of that story. Also, working on that character as I traveled around the world, it was really amazing to hear stories from people on how the character Wonder Woman inspired them. Inspired them to get out of abusive relationships, to get their health back, to survive cancer, just amazing, amazing stories like that. And when I traveled in countries where women don’t have the same type of rights that we do in the United States, Wonder Woman meant a lot, and very deeply, to those women. So that was probably my most interesting experience as a writer.

Ross: Are there any stories, or stories with characters that you want to write, but you haven’t really gotten around to it yet? 

Gail: I would say that there’s…You know, very character, every book I’ve written, I felt almost like I could write forever. [Laughs] I never felt like I was running out of stories per se…So that’s a difficult question for me to answer, because I felt like I could have written Birds of Prey forever, like I could have written Wonder Woman forever, Superman, Deadpool even, at Marvel. And when I leave a book, it’s like a divorce.

Ross: Okay, and sort of the last question in this series, are there any characters or stories that you wanted to write, but you haven’t been able to, either because of editorial mandates, or for whatever reason? 

Gail: Well, I would really like to write Captain Marvel and the Marvel family someday, and I haven’t had an opportunity to write those characters in any aspect yet, so that’s something that I’m hoping for in the future. Also, if I ever got a chance to write Spider-Man, I think that would be really fun as well.

Ross: Very cool. Alright, with the whole DC Relaunch, you’re doing two brand-new titles: You’re doing Fury of Firestorm with Ethan van Sciver, and you’re doing Batgirl. What is your approach in terms of having this old continuity with all these characters that’s going to appeal to the longtime readers, versus the idea of accessibility to bring in new fans. What’s your approach in trying to merge those two ideas, or is it that you have to have one at the expense of the other? How does that work?

Gail: In both of those books, you don’t need to have read any past stories at all to understand immediately what the book’s about and what’s going on. For one thing, the approaches are different, in terms of Batgirl is much more of a solo book, with more intimate stories in it, more intimate in her personal life and her family life, as well as her night life, so to speak. Fury of Firestorm is a much larger, much more global, all-encompassing story. It’s about things that bring people together, things that tear people apart, how one thing can affect things around the world. It’s very huge in scope. And it starts from the ground up. You don’t need to have read any Firestorm ever to know what’s going on there.

Ross: Sort of as a follow-up to that, do you feel that when you’re doing something that is so accessible, are you handicapped at all by all these decades of continuity, or do you feel that you’ve got the opportunity to take this continuity and update it? Do you keep it, do you jettison it, what is your responsibility to the past of the character?

Gail: I think my responsibility is to keep the characters true and honest, and for them to have their own motivations, for the book itself to have its own reason to exist, its own place in the DC Universe, to be unique, and to tell a story that hopefully is compelling and will make people want to continue reading it to find out what’s happening with these characters. That’s my goal. It’s not a matter of baggage or not baggage. That’s how I approach it.

Ross: You’re one of the most high-profile woman creators in comics, and you’ve worked with a lot of the most high-profile woman characters in comics. I think the big elephant in the room in terms of the [comic] industry right now is “Should there be more woman characters? Should there be more woman created and controlled books?” I’ve spoken to a number of more independent writers and artists who say that the problem isn’t that women aren’t in comics, the problem is women aren’t in superhero comics.

Gail: Yeah, that’s true at this time, although I do not think that it’s going last forever, just if I want to gauge by the women and girls who come up to me at conventions, and that’s their dream, is to write superhero comics. So I believe that that is going to change very soon.

We need more diversity of all kinds in comics. Creators, as well as material, and the more diverse creatorship we get, the more diverse material we get, and that’s all good. To have books that appeal to female readers, I believe is very important, because that’s fifty percent of the audience, and to not have product for them is ridiculous. But that’s not to say that all female readers want the same thing.

Ross: How do you go about writing characters with different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different life experiences from you? Oracle is a disabled woman, for example.

Gail: Well, I do a lot of research. I don’t like lazy writing and lazy writers. [Laughs] If you’re going to write a character like that, or if you’re going to write a character from a background that’s completely different from yours, then you either need to get close to somebody who is from that background or is what you’re looking for, or that being several people because a character is a combination of several people. You need to do it, if you can, you need to travel, and get closer to it. But mostly you need to do your research and use your imagination and keep it honest and totally avoid stereotypes as well as putting characters on pedestals and that kind of thing. It’s research, imagination, sensitivity, listening, and not being lazy about it. You can no longer get away with the picture postcard idea of a character or place, because these books go worldwide now. So someone is going to read your book that is from there, or has that background or that religion of whatever, so you need to respect that.

Ross: I think it’d be fair to say that you’re one of the more fan-favorite, one of the more popular writers in the comics industry, so you tend to get a lot of attention on the comic blogs. For the most part, everything I read is overwhelmingly positive, but as a person who a lot of people read, how do you deal with people saying, “Oh, this is terrible,” or “She should have done this”? Because comic fans are very vocal.

Gail: Yeah, comic fans are very vocal, and the internet’s very vocal, and it seems like the negative stuff does seem to speak the loudest sometimes. However, guys, if I’m not upsetting somebody, I really don’t feel like I’ve written something different enough to be worth reading. I’m sorry to put it that way, but if everybody is happy with everything you do, then you’re probably not taking the risk and you’re not creating something new, that type of things. So it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes I don’t like it when people get personal with their comments, and make accusations about me personally, but, you know, that comes with the territory, and if you’re an aspiring writer, be prepared for that [Laughs].

Ross: You’ve mentioned that you always had this love for the characters and the superhero genre, but why comics? Is that just sort of where you found yourself? Why did you decide to express your writing through comic books?

Gail: I do read everything, and I do like to write things other than comics, but I love comics because we can do things in comics that are very difficult to do in other mediums. We can have scenes that take place on other planets, other worlds, other time periods, and it doesn’t cost us gazillions of dollars to produce it, you know, set-wise. We can create all kinds of crazy things, and also, it’s a very intimate experience between the creator and reader, I believe, because the reader needs to fill in the panels, and what they fill in, you know, we can lead them along, but everybody brings their own perspective and their own thoughts to what they’re reading. And I enjoy that. I enjoy putting material out there and seeing how people react to it. It’s very dynamic. I like the fact that it’s kind of the halfway between a novel and a film, basically.

Ross: In the same vein of “why comics,” what’s your opinion on comic piracy? The conversation has sort of died down in recent months, but with the whole digital distribution of comic books, piracy is still something that publishers are very aware of. And some creators take the stance of “Somebody’s reading it, and I’m getting fans I wouldn’t otherwise get,” other people are saying “I’m not getting paid for the work I’m doing.” What’s your stance on that?

Gail: I kind of feel both ways, in a way. I think there’s going to be a certain amount of it, no matter what we do. However, what I would say is I would like people who are consumers of these things to learn that they need to pay for their entertainment. Just like they would pay to see a film, you don’t sneak in to a film without getting into trouble. A lot of work goes into this. We have to work for a living and pay our rent, and all these things just like everybody else who has jobs, and to have tons of people feel like this material should be free, somehow I think that attitude devalues the work a little bit. That’s the part that bothers me, is making it feel like it’s not worth paying for, and most of this stuff is so amazing. We have the most creative and most brilliant minds working in comics, and if you don’t feel it’s worth paying for, that’s a mistake.

Ross: I completely agree. Got a couple more: The big question is, “What’s next?” What’s next for you? What’s next for comics? And off of that, what do you think comics needs? What do comic readers need to be told? There’s sort of a lot going on there, so take whatever you want.

Gail: I think comics overall need to reach out more. We need to concentrate on diversity so we can gain a larger audience worldwide, and also in terms of age ranges as well. I’m imagining one of the next steps for comics is going to be a more interactive comic, and by that I mean digitally we can put in trails to follow that you can’t really do in a linear printed comic, and I think that’s exciting that you could, if you want more of an in-depth story or you want more about the creative process, you could click on things and get further into it. I think that’s probably coming real soon. And after that, who knows? My son is majoring in computer science right now in college, and thinking about by the time he gets out what they’re going to able to accomplish with digital stuff, and 3-D, and all that, it’s going to change.

Ross: Anything else you want to add?

Gail: If you haven’t tried a comic, you need to go out and try one. Go to your local store and tell them what you like to read and what you like to watch on TV, and they’ll point you to a comic you might like.

Ross: All right, thank you very much. 

Gail: Yeah, thank you.