The Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo brought fans of all sorts to Chicago, and a diverse group of them made their way from the hustle and bustle of the main show floor to attend the spotlight panel featuring Gail Simone. Dark Horse Comics' Editor-In-Chief Scott Allie introduced the writer as the two of them settled into the middle chairs on the dais set for six. In one of the larger conference rooms at McCormick Place, the message Simone brought was one of diversity, perseverance and compassion.
Shortly after the duo settled into their seats, Allie asked the crowd for pizza recommendations. An almost unanimous vote was offered up for Piece Pizza from the exuberant crowd. Following that, Allie set the table for fans to ask questions at any time, despite the room being quite large and absent of a free-standing microphone for the assembled audience. After the first question came from the audience, C2E2 staffers quickly set up a microphone in the center aisle of the room.
Allie kicked off the questions by asking Simone how important she felt an online presence is to creators these days, in trying to deal both with fans and other creators. Simone said it's home for her, back to her humor column. She didn't set out to write comics for work, but enjoyed writing the column. The digital presence of the column afforded Simone with an outlet for talking about comics. "One reason I'm a huge supporter of digital comics, [is] because not everyone has access to a local comic book shop." Simone feels that this gives people access to material they would never have had access to before. Since she "established the relationship at the beginning, before I even intended on being a full-time comic book writer, that is something I enjoy." She feels that she gains context from people from other countries and different life experiences to the point where the Internet is an irreplaceable tool.
"And Tweeting about bonerses," interjected Allie, referring to a tweet Simone sent en route to C2E2. This also prompted Allie to encourage the audience to follow Simone on Twitter.
Allie then asked about her convention experiences, pointing out, "You do a lot of shows." Simone agreed, detailing the specifics of her job in isolation, "staring at a computer screen [for] hours and hours and hours." Being able to connect to fans, who share an interest with her and one another, energizes the writer. Prior to writing, she was a hairdresser, which was a much more social career, further accenting the solitude of her current work.
Asked if there was ever a plan to transition from hairdressing to comic book writing full time, Simone said she enjoyed hairdressing but needed an additional creative outlet. "I really can't draw, I don't like to sew -- there was just a lot of things I'm terrible at." Simone decided that writing, which she enjoyed when she was younger, presented a viable option. She started writing her parody column, You'll All Be Sorry, for fun; it wasn't something she intended to transform into a career. It was fun for her to poke fun at the industry and to talk to creators who enjoyed the same things she did. Her first professional work was for "Simpsons Comics." Until that point, she truly had a secret identity -- not even her family knew what she was doing. As a self-proclaimed insomniac, Simone was up late anyway, and it wasn't until the first check was mailed to her that she decided to tell her family what it was she had been doing. From there, the days she worked at the salon began to wane. DC Comics offered her an exclusive contract, which was the impetus she needed to make the leap to become a full-time writer. In the early 2000s, Simone locked in for a long run with the "Birds of Prey" characters.
Allie then asked Simone what it was like getting a big gig at one of the two big companies as a woman. "It's been great. Truth is, those were not the things that ran through my mind in the beginning. It was things like, 'Oh, man, I'm from this little town in Oregon that's really isolated. I don't live in New York, and how can I write a comic where everything is based in New York? And my colleagues have been doing this for twenty years' and more worried about that kinds of stuff. I never really thought, 'Oh, man, I'm just not going to be able to do this because I'm a woman.'" Simone went on to say that she had a secret agenda on "Birds of Prey" in that she wanted to show that it was possible to have a successful comic book starring female characters that wasn't about dates and gossip and backstabbing each other.
Asked if she had any mentors at the time, SImone recalled "quite a few pros who, as it turns out, were fans of the column." Scott Shaw! really pushed her towards talking to Bongo about writing Simpsons comics as it hadn't entered her mind.
"In terms of your writing craft, was there anybody that was giving you advice at that point?" Allie inquired. Simone said she belonged to an online writers' group, which helped her find things that worked and verified when things did click. "A couple really good writing instructors early on," also helped inform her style.
Allie mentioned Simone's tendency to support upcoming creators online, wondering, "Do you mentor anybody? Do you get involved with people starting their careers?"
"I do. Especially if I run into an artist who is really appealing," Simone replied, saying she does get a lot of industry questions, not so much reading scripts or proposals, but she receives a lot of email, including one recent email that identified herself as a young African American woman wondering, "Is this going to be hard, for me to work in this industry?" Simone's answer was, "Yes, it is going to be hard, but are you going to let it stop you?" Saying that she likes to offer moral support and mental coaching to younger talent, Simone stressed the importance of not focusing on the negative messages from people, but to focus on the positive ones that build a stronger community. "It is hard, sometimes, to negotiate that, and it is hard not to take it personally, but you need to be comfortable in who you are, what your message is, and your career and not let these people stop you."
The conversation turned to the recent controversy surrounding Janelle Asselin's critique of the "Teen Titans" #1 cover and the backlash the editorial elicited. Allie brought the room up to speed, including how Asselin's critique was lost in the sexist backlash. Allie wondered if Simone provided Asselin any guidance through that. Simone replied, "She didn't need me to talk her through that." Simone then went on to note that she admires Asselin for her analysis and bringing it into the foreground.
Allie switched to Simone's recent Kickstarter success, "Leaving Megalopolis," noting that Dark Horse would be delivering a trade paperback of the comic later this year. Simone surveyed the room, wondering how many supported it. The applause in the room was surprisingly underwhelming, which received a chuckle from Simone. Allie noted that despite the reaction in the room, it was one of the most successful comic book Kickstarter campaigns; Simone's goal was $34000, but the project brought in a total of $117000, a figure which drew thunderous applause from the room. The comic is a "survival horror story that takes place in one of the most safe, protected cities in the world," SImone explained. "[It's] protected by these great superheroes, and an event happens and it all goes wrong and humanity becomes these super-powered beings' prey." The project is a collaboration with artist Jim Calafiore. The extra funding the Kickstarter received "allowed us to do a cooler, better project," in that it enabled more content. The book went from an eighty-page, black and white softcover graphic novel to one hundred twenty page, full-color hardcover. Calafiore is adept at handling the business aspects of the Kickstarter distribution, a fact that Simone was extremely appreciative of.
Allie wondered, "Is that the kind of story that starts as an idea for Marvel or DC, then you decide to maybe do it yourself?" Simone said the story was designed specifically as a shared creative collaboration between her and Calafiore. This is the only Kickstarter she has done, and she is trying to figure out how to do more. The writer-artist duo enjoyed it a lot and is proud of the product that came out. Further questioning from Allie revealed that Simone heartily believes that if not for Kickstarter, some products -- movies, comics, television -- wouldn't get made. There is a certain cost that goes into production and some companies adhere quite tightly to prescribed numbers that do or don't "work."
Allie opened the floor to questions from attendees, and the first asked why more recognizable pros go to Kickstarter instead of taking the projects and ideas to established publishers. Simone's answer was short and direct: The creators frequently do this to have total control over the projects. While Simone believes Kickstarter has room for everything, she emphasized, "it's still about, is this going to get made without it?" Projects have all sorts of budgets, and Kickstarter takes it directly to the audience.
Allie turned it to process -- prompting Simone to fake agony over "process questions!" -- asking where Simone starts when writing. It depends on the project, she answered. If she's doing a big project, such as something for DC Comics, she'll pitch and have to go through a whole process. With smaller projects, she might do outlines or even just start writing. "I don't write in order. Ignore that I said that to a publisher."
"No, that's great," Allie said. Simone continued, explaining that sometimes she knows the end of the story and has to work backward, or maybe she has the beginning and the end, then works towards the middle. Explaining that she hates writing in Marvel Style - providing the artist a plot to illustrate and then scripting to the finished artwork -- Simone insists on writing full-scripts, even if the artist is more familiar with Marvel Style. Simone feels that without full script, emotions and settings might not be as evident.
Simone said that she likes to know who the artist is she'll be collaborating with as soon as possible, and learn about their preferences and aptitudes. Since the artist usually does one comic book a month, "it's really important to me that they enjoy it." The more information she has about the artist up front, the better things go.
A fan lauded Simone for her choice to be very vocal in regard to diversity in her stories, writing disabled characters like Vengeance Moth in "The Movement." Asked if disability is a big issue for Simone or comics the writer replied, "Broad answer to that is, when you've got an entire industry focusing on white, beautiful, young people that are built a certain way, I think that there's a lot of people who aren't interested in that." There is a large audience that doesn't find comics friendly, or see their world reflected in them. Simone went on to tell of her upbringing around strong women, including her grandmother, who had done prison time for handing out birth control. Simone's mother told her, "Don't judge people by things other than what they are inside of them." Her mother moved in a contrary direction, however, marrying Simone's stepfather, who Simone described as close-minded, prejudiced and opinionated.
"When I came into comics as a writer, I felt like I had a little bit of an agenda in that I wanted to see more stronger, three-dimensional female characters that people could love, and know that they weren't necessarily going to be raped and murdered or cut up and then forgotten." However, when she started writing and started going to conventions, she realized she was coming at it from a selfish angle when it dawned on her that the audience is much more diverse than male/female. Simone implored the creators in the audience, "Do something new, something modern. Something that has something new and different to say." She went on to recommend that writers bring their principles with them, which led to a round of applause. Simone continued, saying that it is "important for diverse creators to come into the industry, as well."
The next fan wanted to know if Simone preferred one publisher over another, wondering if they foster different atmospheres. There are some subtle differences corporately, she said, though she treats "each project as the biggest summer blockbuster that ever happened." She described her current character workload of Lara Croft in "Tomb Raider," Red Sonja and Batgirl as such a joy to work with. Three completely different characters that have their own books, their own looks, their own motivations and are completely different from one another. "So don't tell me that we have to have female characters that all look and act the same. That's just horseshit."
Allie interjected with the next question, asking, "How do you decide which characters you're going to take on?" Ultimately, it comes down to what the challenges are, and what Simone can do differently with each character. She initially passed on "Tomb Raider," then she played the game, which got her enthused about the possibilities. She had high praise for Rhianna Pratchett, the lead writer for the "Tomb Raider" game. Simone got excited about the character and had some ideas about getting deeper into the character and her supporting cast.
Describing Red Sonja as a character in a chainmail bikini that was on the side of a van in the 1970s, Simone found an angle to make the character more believable as a barbarian and decided that she was going to take this character and make her really kick ass. Red Sonja simply should not be some aloof character.
A fan dressed as Doctor Strange gave Gail's writing some hefty praise, wondering, given Simone's upbringing in rural America, if she grew up with the characters she writes. Like most comic book fans and writers, Simone did grow up with some of them, but explained that she does not have a great memory for trivia, relying on her friends and the Internet. She called out Mark Waid and Kurt Busiek, specifically, who she said know it all. Strange then left the microphone, but in doing so, declared to Simone, "Everything you do is brilliant," which once more brought up the applause.
The next fan wondered how Simone treads the fine line between calling creators out for bad behavior and avoiding it all together. Allie weighed in that he does not like the court of public opinion online. Simone declared, "I like to stay out of the gossip part for sure. I don't like to feel like I'm in high school again, so I stay away." She declared she is unafraid of confronting other creators directly. She is not a huge fan of behind the scenes talk of how comics get made. Simone is very cautious of that, as she doesn't want to spoil the experience for the reader based on things the reader may or may not have heard on the Internet. "I know creators who are gossipy little bitches." After the laughter in the room faded, Allie and Simone jokingly agreed not to call anyone out at this time. "And by 'bitches' or bortches as I really like to say, I'm not talking about one gender or the other."
The next fan wondered if other creators are coming to Simone to get tips on how to find success with Kickstarter. "Yeah, they are, and I tell them to call Jim [Calafiore]." Asked if the inevitable second volume of "Leaving Megalopolis" would be published through Dark Horse as well, Simone mentioned that details were being discussed. "Stay tuned."
The next fan wondered if Simone found it difficult to write Lara Croft. Simone said she doesn't find it difficult, but rather exciting. "The fact that we have some female characters that my son could grow up with, like Lara Croft and Xena and Buffy, is just super exciting. And to have them still around means they have a core to their character that people still respond to that gives us a chance to add more to it."
The next fan described Simone's work on "Red Sonja" as "relentlessly unapologetically metal," which got a chuckle and an "Awesome!" from Simone. The fan went on to ask how she decides which online trolling she decides to respond to. Simone said she usually decides that late at night, when she's tired. She tries not to dig into too much, as she respects other people's opinions, but she draws the line when people get nasty. She also declared, "Don't say bad things about my doggies!"
The next fan was concerned about the lack of a female-centric superhero movie despite the pervasive nature of superhero movies in pop culture. He also wondered who is the most important character to get out there. "I think a Wonder Woman movie would be great," Simone replied, explaining that the truth as she sees it, and filtered through her opinion, is that the entertainment industry is still largely run by men who sometimes package things for audiences based on skewed, outdated notions of what audiences might like to see. Movies lose strength, direction and power when this happens. This is what happened with the "Catwoman" movie and the "Birds of Prey" television series.
Allie was quick to follow up: "Have there been movies with female protagonists that you think got it right?" Simone's examples actually trended towards to television shows, such as "Scandal," "Lost Girls" and "Buffy."
Where does Simone draw the line between enjoying somebody's work and supporting a creator who doesn't have the same morals or viewpoints as hers? "I can enjoy great art. I'm not really a huge fan of Lovecraft's viewpoints, I'm a huge fan of Lovecraft['s writing] -- I enjoy other people's viewpoints, especially when they're well thought out and have something to say. I just don't enjoy them actually repressing someone else."
Asked if there were any characters Simone would like to write, she was quick to reply that she would like to get ahold of Mary Marvel and the rest of the Marvel family. Spider-Man would be fun, but she sees herself focusing a bit on creator-owned and creating new stuff for the time being. Allie asked if Simone thought we'll see less of her work for hire stuff as she puts more energy into creator-owned. She said no, as she really enjoys work-for-hire.
Simone ended the spotlight by surveying the crowd, asking how many people get their comics from their local comic shop. The majority responded that they do. Readers who are exclusively digital were considerably fewer in number, while those who shop both locally and digitally made up about half the room.