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Kelly Sue DeConnick talks the state of comics, legacy of Barbarella and her game-changing Aquaman finale
Kelly Sue DeConnick's career in comics thus far is one of impressive variety and depth. She's adapted thousands of pages of manga for English-language readers, worked in superhero comics from one-shots a decade ago to marquee superhero stories in the years since, and contributed to fictional universes ranging from Alien to 30 Days of Night to Castle. With creator-owned series like Pretty Deadly and Bitch Planet, she's brought her unique, genre-hopping perspective to a devoted fanbase, and with her work on Captain Marvel she helped revitalize Marvel's Carol Danvers character into a figure so popular that she ended up getting her own feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
She's easily one of the most influential writers in mainstream comics over the course of the last decade, so when she tells you she's concerned about the state of the industry, it's worth paying attention.
"I have a huge concern about, not our medium, but our industry," DeConnick told SYFY WIRE via phone from her home in Portland, Oregon. "I think of our two major publishers, the dominant genre in comics in the U.S. by, still, a very large margin, is the superhero comic. Even though we've had a lot more of awareness that it is a medium and not a genre, and there isn't quite the stigma around being a comics reader that there used to be, not universally anyway, and we've got these billion-dollar movies and whatnot, it remains that the dominant genre is superheroes. The largest portion of our industry is published by either Marvel or DC. And look, I'm not disparaging Marvel or DC. I have worked for them both and read them both and enjoy Marvel and DC and superhero comics in general, so please don't mishear me here. But as Marvel and DC have become corporate structures owned by larger and larger corporate structures, I think they don't quite understand what they've bought. And that concerns me because the things that make comics special are that we're fast and cheap, and ... because we are fast and cheap, we are innovators.
She continued, "If we're going to be acquired, we should be treated like R&D Instead, I think they think that they are buying the IP and the IP must be protected at all costs. And I think that those two concerns are actually in direct opposition. And then when you protect the IP at all costs, you throttle the actual strength of what comics is and the actual value in what you purchase. And I don't care about millionaires getting more or less millionaire-y or billionaires, that's not my concern. My concern is comics, the largest portion of comics being throttled from being innovators. That worries me."
DeConnick's emphasis on using the "fast and cheap" medium of comics for innovation is something that echoes throughout her work, but it's also, she noted, not anything new. In fact, she expressed her concerns about the industry right now not in the context of a new project, but a slightly older one: Her English-language adaptation of Jean-Claude Forest's landmark sci-fi adventure comic Barbarella. DeConnick's adaptation, which included the first two volumes of Forest's work character, was originally released back in 2015, and while it's still available digitally, the hardcover collections are a bit harder to come by these days. That changes this month, when Humanoids will release a softcover collection of DeConnick's complete Barbarella work. Looking back on her time adapting Forest's wild, sexy space adventure now, as it's set to arrive in a new format and draw new readers, DeConnick still considers it a book with a level of complexity it's not getting enough credit for.
"So everybody treats Barbarella like it's a sex joke, and there's certainly an element of that, but I think it's a lot smarter than people think. I think it's a lot smarter than Forest ever intended for it to be," she said. "Sometimes these things just get away from us. Sometimes we think we're writing one thing and then it starts pulling us in another direction. And there's a genuine melancholy in the second volume. It is really fascinating, and I would actually like to know how it matches up to his biography. I'd like to know what was going on in his life at the time that he was working on that, because it's very unexpected and very sincere. I think that was really cool to me. I think it's genuinely progressive, both volumes, in fact. And I know that there are people who will argue with me about that, but I'm allowed to have my opinion."
Perhaps most importantly for DeConnick in the context of modern comics, though, Barbarella is innovative even to 2020 eyes. With its witty energy, strange sci-fi high concepts, and breathless pacing, it is to her mind the kind of book more people in the industry should be paying attention to as a sort of guiding light for what comics can be, despite originally being published nearly six decades ago.
"It is risky and it is nuts, and it throws storytelling convention out the window and he follows everything that is an idea that appeals to him in any way. And I think that that is the strength of Barbarella, that is what I love the most about it," DeConnick said. "I think I was chosen for it because of feminist bona fides, I guess. No one's ever said that to me, that was just my assumption. But the thing about it that is the most interesting to me is really just how massive it is. And it's full of so many ideas. He's just clearly really enjoying himself, and it's just throwing everything on the page."
It's been five years since DeConnick's Barbarella adaptation first arrived in the hands of readers, and she's since moved on to numerous other projects. She wrapped her acclaimed run on Captain Marvel, moved over to DC Comics for projects centering on Wonder Woman and Aquaman, and continued work on both Bitch Planet and Pretty Deadly, which wrapped up its third volume — the Hollywood-set The Rat — earlier this year. Looking back on her time with Forest's work, she can't recall any time she's ever used what she learned from it "in a direct way" in her own work, but she does tie its importance as a kind of storytelling touchstone to another sci-fi masterpiece she has great affection for.
"You know what it reminds me of, and no one will understand this but me, but I'm going to go ahead and say it anyway? It reminds me of Alien, and it reminds me of Alien because Alien is a very simple movie on its surface. And one of the things I love most about it is that seems to have been made before everyone in Hollywood had a copy of [screenwriting guru Robert McKee's book Story], and nobody is like 'Well, what is Ripley's arc?' Ripley doesn't have an arc! Ripley was right in the beginning, and Ripley was right in the end," DeConnick explained. "It's a simple man-versus-nature story, but it's not simple, because it is just brimming with ideas. And there are ideas about the stewardship of life and ideas about creation and ideas about class and sex and sexuality. There's so much going on, so many things to think about, and so many things that were clearly of interest to the filmmaker, and they are all woven so beautifully into this very simple story. And I think that there's some parallel in my brain with Barbarella, which is entirely different, but it's also just like, 'OK, it's a lady having sexy adventures in space.' But then there's all this other stuff that he throws in with the talking ear and the paper that is a drug and loneliness and connection and false personhood. And it's a lot, and I love it."
Barbarella's softcover re-release arrives at a time when DeConnick is also looking back on her time spent on DC Comics' Aquaman. Her run on the series, which ended up spanning nearly two dozen issues across nearly two years (several issues longer, she noted, than she'd originally planned), will conclude this November with a rather momentous 65th issue. With that in mind, DeConnick's looking back on the storytelling goals she brought into the series, many of which she's achieved by giving Arthur Curry a definitive home locale, an impending marriage, and, of course, a baby named Andy.
"We wanted to build Amnesty Bay up into a place that felt as specific as Gotham or Metropolis and that had a regular cast of characters that you might know and regular landmarks that you might know. And I think we did that, and I'm very proud of that," DeConnick said. "And we wanted to deliver on the wedding that had been promised. So we're delivering the marriage. They will be married. And then prior to the marriage, we got to give them a child too, which I only got to do because I think there was a point where big plans were being made. And so they gave us permission to go nuts in this because of something that was going to happen that would change everything, you know? And then the 'change everything' thing got taken away, but I already had permission!
"There's a thing they worry about like, 'Oh, if the characters get married or have children that it ages them too much.' And it's a perennial argument and I can see both sides of it, but there had been a thing done before where they had had a child [Arthur Curry Jr.] and the child ends up being murdered, and it's incredibly dark for a character that to my mind is a ... To me, Aquaman is a blue-sky character, an upward-facing character, which doesn't mean you can't challenge him, but a murdered child was a bit dark for my taste. So I wanted to revisit that in a less sinister way. It plays to a lot of his backstory and strengths and weaknesses. Giving him a child challenges him in a lot of ways that are uniquely interesting for who he is, and so I wanted to do that. And I love this kid."
Barbarella's softcover collection and DeConnick's penultimate issue of Aquaman, #64, both arrive October 20.