Jeremy Whitley didn't start out writing about comics. The Durham, NC native actually started out writing angsty prose in college. But comics were his first love and in 2013 he launched Princeless: Save Yourself, about young Princess Adrienne Ashe, whose parents lock her away in a tower with a dragon to guard her until she is "saved" by a handsome prince. Adrienne bucks tradition, and decides to "save" herself and take to the countryside searching for other princesses to save. On the way, she makes new friends and fights everything from vampires to zombies. That story also spawned Raven: The Pirate Princess, a YA story featuring the series' first LGBTQ character.
The success of the Princeless universe led to Whitley writing for Marvel, where he penned everything from Avengers and the Thor vs HULK series to a Secret Wars and Unstoppable Wasp.
We spoke with Whitley about how his daughter was the inspiration for Princeless and why he isn't afraid to write characters of ethnicities and orientations that are not his own.
So what were the comics that you were reading growing up?
I was always really into X-Men. I'm a sucker for '90s Marvel stuff. I was into X-Men and Spider-Man and all that fun stuff. I grew up watching the X-Men animated series and buying video tapes at Pizza Hut and whatnot.
When did you consider writing comics as a career?
I feel like that's still fairly recent for me because I went to school for English and creative writing and they were kind of anti-genre fiction at my school. So I had to write really serious stories about sad twentysomethings back then. At some point I just went back to the local comic shop, Ultimate Comics, in Durham and found [my way back]. I had always really just read superhero comics so when I read Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughn, I realized you can do all sorts of stuff in comics. That was I think the first time I realized that the person writing doesn't necessarily illustrate things too, because I'm a terrible artist. So being able to write and work with an illustrator is a really cool part of the job.
You've worked on all of these great mainstream comics, but it was Princeless that started it all right?
[Princeless] wasn't my first one, but it was my first one that wasn't just self-published. I did a couple of smaller things with my friends trying to get stuff out there but nothing that made it past a couple of issues.
Where did the concept for Princeless come from?
At the point that we started working on it we were about to have my daughter, and although I'd gotten back into comics, unfortunately, there wasn't much out there for me to read with her. The New 52 had just launched and it was a very aggressively straight white male time in comics.
And for me, especially having a daughter who's a young woman of color, I wanted something that she could herself reflected in, where it had the kind of messages and stuff that I want her to get. So I started writing [Princeless] with the intention of meeting her and other girls where they were at with princess stuff. I'm not trying to force girls to not like princesses, but I can make a princess who actually saves herself and does the kind of things that I want my daughter to be able to see role models doing. That's kind of where it started, re-writing the fairy tale trope. It just kept getting bigger and bigger.
Now the Princeless world is so big. And now you have Raven, who is older. Has the story grown with your daughter?
It certainly has. With Raven, I had a lot of people excited about Princeless, especially after the first couple of volumes came out. Specifically there were a lot of questions about Adrienne's sexuality and as much as that was something that I wanted to write about, I didn't think it was a good fit for that book. It's not about romance. It's not about whether she wants to be with a guy or not, but it's about whether she needs a guy to rescue her.
I just didn't want to mix those two messages, but I did feel like there was room to tell that story [in this universe] with a cast of LGBT characters. That's sort of where Raven came in. We introduced her in the third volume of Princeless and spun it off into her own story, which is a little more for the YA market. I tell people it's got a little more smooching and a little more stabbing than Princeless does.
When did Marvel come knocking and what was that like?
I think it was much more like I came knocking. I wanted to do stuff at Marvel for as long as I've been working on comics. I got into the habit of annoying a lot of editors over there, especially Tom Breevort, by saying, "Hey! I'm still interested in working on Marvel stuff. Here's the stuff I'm putting out now." And just showing them my stuff. Tom was very nice. I'm sure he gets a lot of emails but he was always sure to respond to me. He said, "I have a lot of associates under me that are always looking for people to do short story stuff. So I'm going to basically keep you in my artists alley here." Basically, if somebody came across my stuff and think you'd be a good fit on something, they'll contact you. He didn't make me any promises though.
But after a while, I got my first Marvel gig, which was on the Secret Wars spinoff Secret Love. Mine was the Misty Knight and Dany Rand story in there.
The one where they're watching a movie and he's doing her hair?
Yeah, I love that scene. That's one of my favorite pages of comics I've written. It's also like one of the closest to real-life stuff for me because my wife says that every time I write Misty, she sounds a lot like her. In fact, she thinks all my female characters sound a lot like her.
What advice do you have for people who don't know how to approach writing characters of other ethnicities or orientations? What should they do?
I think there's a lot of answers to that, but I think the biggest thing is if you want to represent other people, you need to talk to other people. You need to listen to other people. And you need to really put effort into writing other types of people that you would put into like researching a World War II story. You wouldn't just write not knowing anything about history. You've got to actually pay attention and think and not be afraid to run things by people.
What's next up for you?
Princeless Volume 7 is actually wrapped up in single issues, so it'll be out in trade soon. Volume 8 is coming up in the next couple months and we're already hard at work on Volume 9, so we're headed towards our big climax in Volume 10. We're still writing for Raven as well. A new Unstoppable Wasp is still coming out. I've got some more stuff coming up at Marvel and some other places as well. It's going strong right now.