Julie and Shawna Benson came to comics after being story editors and writers for the hit CW show The 100. Their first foray into the magical world of caped heroes has been DC Rebirth’s Batgirl and the Birds of Prey. Their run has brought both Barbara Gordon and Helena Bertinelli back to the team, though Barbara’s in a much different role than ever before. When we met at SDCC to discuss their run, they complimented my women of DC shirt, and we all lamented that Black Canary was nowhere to be found on it, or on much merchandise at all, and hoped that this would soon be remedied.
So both of you came to comics from television. While both mediums are collaborative, what are the biggest differences you’ve found in writing comics?
Julie: I think just the format itself because in tv and film we’re taught so much to just write the story and don’t direct on the page, while in comics it’s the polar opposite, we are literally directing on the page for the artist. You’re trying not to be so specific so that you’re not handcuffing them, but at the same time, if you have a reason why you having somebody standing next to somebody, or moving which way. So it took a couple of issues for us to remember, (A) direct on the page, which you don’t do in TV, and, (B) you can write anything, you can draw kind of anything, whereas in TV you can’t have a helicopter crash, but on a comic book page we can, so it took us a little bit to remember. Oh yeah, we don’t have a production budget. As much as our artists hate to hear that. Oh sure you can draw zoo animals. Got it. Okay.
Shawna: Our brains had to rewire a little bit.
There are a few times you have had Dinah make some nerdy pop culture references (Star Wars and Veronica Mars spring to mind)- do you have a list of pop culture that all the various Birds enjoy?
Julie: We just come up with them out of our own heads
Shawna: I would say Dinah has a lot more nerdy pop culture references because she has most of the jokes, but don’t count Barbara out. Barbara is well-versed.
Julie: We’re going to run out of Star Wars ones eventually.
Shawna: I think we actually did. I think [issue]#14 we finally…
Julie: “Never tell me the odds!” I think is in there.
Shawna: No that’s in #13.
Shawna: I think we ended at #14, but that’s because we were going to start a new —
Julie: We’ll start Doctor Who.
Shawna: We’re going to just start a different movie or a different franchise to start doing quotes from. Everything is applicable. But Star Wars quotes are just so easy to work in and it would just come up naturally. Like you have to do a joke about “Let the Wookiee win” if you’re fighting a werewolf! It just has to happen!
Julie: And if it doesn’t, we would be fired.
The Birds of Prey have a long history with an impressive pedigree. Were you fans of the team before you took over the book for Rebirth?
Julie: No. Hated them so much. Never read the books. Worst team ever. Of course we were! We read the Chuck Dixon run, we read the Gail Simone run — Queen Gail!
Shawna: Most of New 52.
Julie: I even collected the New 52 because that’s when I started getting my pull list and so the Duane — I can never pronounce his last name… [Editor’s note: Swierczynski]. I liked that they brought in all the team. They brought in Katanna and — I thought that stuff was fun. When they told us they had a book to pitch us and they told us it was Birds of Prey, we were like, “we’ve heard of it, go on, we’re listening…”
The Valentine’s Day issue with the Birds just hanging out was a lot of fun. Are there any plans to do other one-shots like that in the future?
Julie: Yeah, there’s another one coming in #14. So #14 wraps up “Source Code” and then Helena and her class take a field trip outside of Gotham, and we’re having fun with that because we’re doing some history of Gotham that has already been in canon. And any smart canon reader will potentially know what that means. A certain deacon might show back up. And we also have Batgirl who kinda holds down the fort back at home, so what does that mean when she’s the only Bird back home. Does she recruit a couple of gals to help her out?
Shawna: Yeah one of the things ongoing is the — this gets a little spoilery — but you know, Barbara’s relationship to herself being Oracle in the past and being Batgirl now — I think she still has to juggle those things and in actuality and also mentality.
In the “Source Code” arc, you’ve revealed that Gus Yale, the new Oracle, has bipolar disorder, and it’s discussed a little bit as to the issues that has caused in his life. Is there a particular reason you chose bipolar, rather than another disorder?
Shawna: Well, and, to be fair, even though it wasn’t explicitly stated, he also has anxiety issues, but —
Julie: I think that came up in #12.
Shawna: His bipolar disorder is something we didn’t think had really been explored in comics and it was interesting to us. I mean, I suffer clinical depression, so I certainly have a relationship with that in terms of what it’s like to have treatment and take medication and you know and the stigma that’s attached to it a little bit. I think that stigma is starting to go away because people are much more willing to talk about it. You know when you have Prince Harry in the UK talking about his depression and other high-level figures, people in the public space who are willing to say, “Yeah, I deal with this and struggle with it and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” That’s something we certainly wanted to draw out, that mental disability is just as hard as a physical disability. So Barbara’s relationship with Gus was sort of — I think it was made stronger.
We’ve now seen a couple of past Birds show up, with Catwoman and Poison Ivy. Any plans to bring other former Birds in, like, Starling, Zinda, or Hawk & Dove?
Julie: We just heard that Zinda is in DC Metal. Maybe just a little bit. Part of the problem is making sure they’re already established in the universe. We can’t just take them and throw them in, so now that someone else has sort of played in that now we’re like “Ooh!”
Shawna: Like Barda.
Julie: And Barda now and Mr. Miracle so it’s like now these girls are bat girls — I shouldn’t call them girls — these women are back in the zeitgeist so we can play in that sandbox and we definitely plan on having a few people.
Shawna: Yeah, there are a lot of people coming in the next big arc.
Finally, after Source Code finishes next month, the next arc is entitled Manslaughter. Anything you’d like to share from that arc that isn’t too spoilery?
Julie: Yeah the cover went out and it’s the Birds of Prey plus Catwoman and Ivy now and what looks like a dead Jim Gordon and Dick Grayson and Ollie, and Batman on the ground below their feet. And so the general idea is a virus going around Gotham and it’s affecting the men only, and we’re going to have to see what the women can do to take care of business. And there are more women superheroes in Gotham that just the Birds of Prey. So getting to play in that sandbox is really fun. And we’re bringing in some people from different cities perhaps to help out, so …
Shawna: Maybe Metropolis…
Or National City maybe?
Shawna: Themyscira…. But yeah, we’re looking forward to that because it’s a chance to try out some people and see how they play.
Julie: It’s going to be huge.
As we head into their second year on the book, the Benson sisters seem to have found their footing in telling important stories, both in the terms of the heroes involved and, more importantly, in the lives they lead outside of the costumes. Julie and Shawna have already left a lasting impression on these iconic characters, and it’s promising to see what they’ll continue to add in the future.