Women Making Comics: Sitting Down With Ann Nocenti At SDCC
As a woman, growing up as a comics fan, you’re often told that you’re in some kind of minority, that women don’t read (or write about) comics, and have certainly never MADE comics. This weird ahistorical version of things is a relatively recent one, with people of all genders enjoying newsstand comics and creating them since the inception of the medium.
One of the first women I ever came across in the credits of my favourite X-Men comics was Ann Nocenti. Alongside Weezie (Louise) Simonson, she crafted some of the most iconic Big Two comics of all time, though it was her radical run on Daredevil that made me a lifelong fan. I was lucky enough to sit down with Ann at San Diego Comic-Con to talk about creating comics, how the industry has changed, and her brand new comic The Seeds with superstar Hawkeye artist David Aja from Karen Berger’s Berger Books imprint at Dark Horse.
Nocenti has been making comics for 35 years, so conventions are a time for seeing old friends and reconnecting with previous collaborators. “It’s really fun when you work in the business for so long, you run into people. It’s just great that we’re sort of being creative and making comics. You see Art Adams, you see Walt and Weezie Simonson, and it’s just incredible,” Nocenti told Women Write About Comics.
The eclectic nature of modern conventions is something that Nocenti finds a great deal of pleasure in. “There’s just so much really interesting stuff going on. To see the School for Makeup, that’s interesting to me cos a lot of people come to cons for fun and to cosplay, but a lot come because they want to make comics, draw comics. But I like that there are also these other careers, like being a makeup artist for The Walking Dead or something, so I’ve been having fun,” Ann explained to us backstage at the Dark Horse booth.
San Diego Comic-Con is now a huge multi-million dollar trade show for Hollywood, but Nocenti’s early memories of the convention are very different. “When I was here with Longshot, there were just artists. No movie people, no stars, just artists. You know, at one of the early San Diego cons I went to, there were just these two guys drawing their turtles, and everyone was so used to these two really, really sweet guys always drawing their turtles. So when that comic happened, everyone was so happy because those guys were everywhere always drawing those turtles,” Nocenti reminisced about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.
The convention experience was a far more relaxed beast in the early years of Nocenti’s career, with creators adventuring outside the constraints of the convention center, something she’s seen change over the years.”I spent years on the gambling circuit as a professional poker player, and you know casinos are designed so that when you go in you forget that there’s an outside world. And the con, it used to be more porous. We’d go to the beach, we’d go to Tijuana, and we’d come and hang. This is very much as soon as you come in, you’re sucked into a world of eye candy and toys and play, and you’re transfixed and you can’t leave. And at some point you think, ‘I have to get out here,'” Nocenti laughed.
Though the show can be overwhelming, Ann adores the chance to discover new creators and support their work. “I love going to Artist Alley to see old friends, but I also love going to the Small Press section. If I see anything that looks remotely like something I’m interested in, I like to spend my money there. You see someone sitting at their table without a line and you think, ‘I’m going to buy that girl’s comic,'” Ann enthused.
Coming up with her new book The Seeds was something that arose organically out of her friendships with beekeepers and farmers. It really began to cement itself whilst staying on her friend’s farm. “I was thinking about the process of raising animals as if they’re your buddies and your pets and then eating them,” Ann explained. “I eat meat–I’m not a vegetarian–but there were weird things happening to me and I just started thinking about the whole process. Not in some kind of manic PETA way but just, ‘What’s it like to be a farmer and this is your living?'”
Nocenti also took her own experiences as a journalist to build one of the book’s main protagonists. “Thinking about my time as a journalist–stories I couldn’t tell, times I’d been compromised, or I fucked a story up because I became to close to it–these different characters were building in my head and in my life. I started learning about all the bees dying, and things percolate in your head and you don’t even know what to do with them,” Nocenti extrapolated on her creative process.
Reflecting back on her previous work, Ann was refreshingly honest about her own perceived flaws. “People bring comics up to me and I look at them and think, ‘I wrote it but that comic fucking sucked. Like it just didn’t fucking work, what was I thinking?’ And then you look through and think, ‘Oh, I had to do that in two weeks,’ or ‘Oh, I had to write that last issue over night,’ or ‘The boss said I had to have Crock Ock or whoever in this suddenly and my whole story is derailed.’ It’s so hard to make a good comic when you’re in that whole sausage making process,” Nocenti expressed.
In contrast to her feelings about some of her work, there’s much of it that Nocenti really loves. “So I have these things like Daredevil with J.R. Jr., which I love, where we just had a great editor. We were allowed to do so much, to put so much social justice stuff in there, so many wacky ideas. If we said, ‘Ralph, we want Daredevil to go and fight Mephisto,’ he just said, ‘Sure.’ He trusted us and it was a three-way trust. That’s what I believe is happening with Karen, David, and I on Seeds. We have this really strong editor who trusts us but also knows exactly when to say, ‘No, don’t do that,'” Ann professed.
Her feelings for her collaborator on The Seeds are easy to see. Nocenti is nothing less than joyful to be working with her Daredevil collaborator Aja again. “David is probably one of the most brilliant if not THE most brilliant in the business right now in terms of design, storytelling, going deep, and knowing what should and shouldn’t be on the page. He’s feeding me ideas through images which totally change the story. He’ll send me an image and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, it’s gotta be this creepy idea. This has gotta be there,'” Nocenti said.
As for the themes and cultural resonance of the book, well that’s no coincidence. All of Nocenti’s work is filled with radical political themes and content, and The Seeds is no different. “I feel like our sensibilities are dovetailing in terms of our fear for the planet. A big part of it is this love story, which is definitely going to cross gender, race, and species. It’s very important in these times where people are saying ‘You can’t love that person’ or ‘You can’t define your sex’ that we say ‘Why? Why can’t I? Where’s this dusty old rule book?'” Nocenti pondered.
Working in comics is a constant collaboration. For Ann, a huge part of her formative comics experience came from one incredible woman: the inimitable Weezie Simonson. “Louise Simonson, she taught me everything. She didn’t just teach me how to edit comics, she taught me really key things like how to get artists and writers to make better work. To have them walk out the door after they’ve been told they have to redo everything, and have them walk out the door happy. Even have them walk out the door happy thinking it’s their idea,” Nocenti laughed. “She had this amazing zen way and she was such a great editor.”
It wasn’t just Weezie, though. Nocenti worked under some of the most renowned editors the Big Two has ever seen including Larry Hama, Denny O’Neil, Archie Goodwin, and Al Milgrom. “As a young assistant editor and then editor at Marvel Comics, you were learning from masters all around. We got really, really great training as editors,” Nocenti remembered. “So then when you’re further along in your career and you get these editors who’re more like traffic managers, you’d just think, ‘Really? You don’t have anything to say?'”
But when it came to The Seeds, both Nocenti and Aja found themselves in need of a great editor, and it was David who finally suggested Berger. “David and I, we’re both easily distracted people. He’d just start doing covers cos they’re easier, and I went off and did a street art museum in Germany and then worked on a film. And it was sort of like, ‘Oh this comic is never going to happen,’ which was depressing. Then we were finally like, ‘We need an editor.’ David said, ‘Send it to Karen,’ and I was like, ‘Why would she want us?’ I really wasn’t going to send it but then I sent it to her and she was like, ‘Yup,'” laughed Nocenti.
The Seeds will be out in early 2018, alongside a bunch of other books under Karen Berger’s Berger Books imprint at Dark Horse.