The DICE interviews continue with artist, writer, and all-around outstanding creator Becky Cloonan. She currently writes the new series Gotham Academy and is the principal artist on The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. Her past work includes the Eisner Award-winning The Mire, Conan the Barbarian, and American Virgin. Cloonan is also the first woman ever to be a principal artist on a Batman comic.
I got her thoughts on diversity in comics, self-publishing, and the stories that are most important to her.
Let’s start by talking about Gotham Academy—which is awesome, by the way! Why did you opt to be a writer on the series rather than an artist?
I don’t have time to draw it right now! Also, when I thought about the book Karl [Kerschl] was right there, and I could see it was the book for Karl. He is perfect for it. Why would I draw something that he would be so much better at? You can see it in his style. His Teen Titans: Year One stuff is incredible, so he was a huge part of the reason why I’m even doing this book, because no one could draw this book like him. And if he wasn’t available, I don’t even know if we’d be doing it—we’d probably just do a miniseries or something. Karl is like a linchpin for this.
Two out of Gotham Academy’s three main characters, Kyle and Maps Mizoguchi, are Asian-American. Was it a conscious decision from the start to make them Asian-American, or did that happen as the plan for the series took shape?
It just kind of happened. I mean, your cast should be diverse, because that reflects reality. And it makes for a richer tapestry: your story’s going to be more compelling, you’re going to have characters with different backgrounds, different life experiences—they’re going to make different choices. If you as a creator don’t think about that, you are doing your story a disservice. However, you don’t want to have diversity for diversity’s sake, so when choosing the cast of characters, we wanted characters with different paths; they’re going to make different choices, and that’s what makes this story compelling. It’s high school, you know? You get all sorts of types of different kids. You get some weirdos, you’ve got the popular kids. We want the story to reflect that, and having these types of characters makes the story more exciting.
You also mentioned on the Batman panel at DICE that you’ve brought in characters from all through Batman continuity. Were there certain characters you knew you wanted to have in there?
Yeah, definitely. We’re curating these characters and the cast because we want Gotham Academy to have a specific feel. In the first issue there’s a little panel where we’ve got Professor Milo teaching science. If you’re familiar at all with Batman, you kind of know what that might mean for the future, since he’s a mad scientist! It fits so well into Gotham Academy and the feeling of it. And Milo hasn’t been introduced in current continuity yet; he’s not in the New 52. When we started this pitch process and started thinking of stories, we had this huge list of characters where we were like, “okay, who’s going to fit in Gotham Academy? Who would make sense? Who are characters that have never been seen before in comics?” There are certain characters that aren’t going to fit at all, because they’re going to be aliens or too sci-fi. But we had characters from all over: from the old Adam West TV show to Batman: The Animated Series, even Batman Beyond, and minor characters from the 70s. Stuff like that. There’s just so much Batman, and it’s so much fun—just sitting around with friends and talking about Batman all day. But I get paid for it! It’s my job.
A lot of your mainstream comics work seems to be on what could be described as “manly” series: you’ve worked on Conan and you did pencils on the issue of Batman with Harper Row. How would you say Gotham Academy fits into or breaks away from that?
Remember when The Minx was going on, the Vertigo imprint? Plain Janes was the big one that I remember. There were some really great books, but they were all YA. And I always wanted to pitch something, because Shelly Bond was the head of that line and she was always like, “pitch something! Pitch something!” But I was never able to think of a YA story that I really felt invested in. My mini-comics might be a lot darker and more adult, a little bit more mature; I work on Conan, and like you say, it’s pretty manly, although it is a kind of romance. With Gotham Academy, we were talking to Mark Doyle about it, and everything fell into place. I always felt like all the steps we made were right.
I also have a few questions from the Women Write About Comics staff! This one is from Claire, one of our editors:
Oh, awesome! Yeah, that was so much fun. That was at a point in my career when I wasn’t making much of a living off comics and working with Steven Seagle, who’s an incredible writer, and with Shelly [Bond]. (I just talked to her on the phone a few days ago, so we’re still in touch.) I don’t know if it impacted my career in the sense that I’m going to be drawing sexy books forever, but I’ve always really enjoyed emotionally and sexually charged stories. One day I’m going to write my masterpiece erotic comic. You were talking about diversity earlier—that was a huge thing with American Virgin, just the difference in the characters. That book ranged all over, and there were no holds barred. Steven did such a great job creating this vast world. It was a great experience, and I had so much fun working on that book in general. So yes, it definitely impacted my career.
We have another question, this time from Sarah:
The Wolves/Mire/Demeter trilogy is really inspiring! How did you go about creating it? Did you start drawing first or writing first, or did they happen at the same time? And what kind of research did you do? We want all the geeky details!
Oh my God, so many geeky details. Well, I did Wolves first in 2011, which started out as a short story. I wanted to start writing, but I wasn’t at a point where publishers wanted me to pitch writing. I was working with other writers, but I felt like I really had to tell another story. So that’s how Wolves happened: I wrote this little story, and then I drew it. I put it out myself because no one else would do it for me. That went surprisingly well, probably just because my career was at a certain point. And I was able to get it up on Comixology, and it sold a lot, and I was able to get some great quotes for the book from Gerard Way and Frank Quitely. I had a lot of people saying really great things about it. The next year, I decided to do the same thing. So, in 2012 I did a book called The Mire—it won an Eisner award, which was nice!—and the following year I did Demeter. And now that I’ve got these stories, I collected them into a little graphic novel. It kind of feels like it’s a lot of work, but at the same time, it took four years to do because it was all on my own time. Self-publishing is really difficult.
I don’t know if I necessarily did too much research for it, because it’s all vaguely fantasy. I just wanted to take the idea of a fairy tale and really get personal with it. So you’ve got these characters that are like archetypes—Demeter’s basically a selkie story, and Wolves is a werewolf story—but I wanted to take these kind of simplistic stories and really get inside the characters’ heads, which you don’t get in a fairy tale; you’re skimming the surface and telling a story, but you never go into the feelings of the characters. You never dig through their emotional baggage. I just wanted to make really sad stories! I don’t know why.
One more question: the Wolves/Mire/Demeter trilogy and Conan take place in these wild settings that are detached from what we would think of as structured society in the contemporary sense. Would you say that’s a conscious theme in your work or something that inspires you?
Definitely. I’ve been a fantasy geek forever. I played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid, a lot of roleplaying games, video games, fantasy novels—you name it. And I grew up in the woods in New Hampshire. Not in the woods woods, but we had a wood stove—we would chop wood for heat in the winter. That sticks with you, that kind of stuff. And they’re the kind of stories I love to write and the kind of environments I love to draw.
I guess it’s one of those things where it impacts you so much at a young age—you kind of avoid it for a while. For a long time, I was trying different things and experimenting, like American Virgin and even East Coast Rising, which was a post-apocalyptic punk rock kind of story. But now I’m kind of able to do my own thing again, and it comes down to “What do I really want to do?” I want to go back to what I was doing as a kid. Right now, I’ve got one foot in this Gotham boarding school, and I’ve got another foot in Southern Cross (a book I’m doing for Image, which is a science fiction murder mystery horror story). So I’m able to do a few different things, but my heart is always in fantasy. I want to go back to that world of escape and at the same time tell stories that really hit home and resonate. I want to make fantasy stories real.