When I initially describe Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless (Action Lab Comics) to people, I explain it as if we got to continue seeing the adventures of Princess Elizabeth from Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess. That story, published in 1980, was quite a feminist gold standard for the time: the young princess rescues her prince, and then when he tells her that she needs to be more feminine, she tells him he’s not that nice after all and goes off on her own.
With Princeless‘s main protagonist, Princess Adrienne, we meet a young princess who has been locked away in a tower by her parents and is being guarded by a dragon. Her father wants a suitor worthy enough to slay the dragon to marry her. But Adrienne finds a sword under her bed and, with the help of her female pet dragon, Sparky, she escapes the tower and sets off to save her seven sisters, all of whom are also locked in separate towers.
On her way, she meets the first-ever girl blacksmith, a half-dwarf half-human named Bedalia. We then get a scene that so simply and concisely explains the double standard of the problem of the sexy female warrior and the strong male warrior that one might wonder how this book didn’t come out before 2012.
Princeless, also illustrated by M. Goodwin, was named the Best Limited Series of 2012 by Graphic Policy; garnered numerous awards, including the Glyph Award for Story of the Year, Best Writer and Best Female Character; and has been nominated for two Eisner Awards for Best Single Issue and Best Publication for Kids.
I got the chance to chat with Whitley recently and here’s what he had to say about the book, who inspired Princess Adrienne and why stories about girls who get to have their adventures matter.
1. I understand that you wrote this book, in part, for your daughter. What did you see that she was missing or lacking in the comic market? Why did you want to change that for her?
I’ve grown up with a lasting love of comics. I’ve lost track of them occasionally, but the books and characters have always been a part of my life. I want that for my daughter too. However, I feel like there is a distinct shortage of books I would feel comfortable handing my daughter these days (at least before she turned 16 or so). Good heroines are few and far between. When you look for ones that are leading books, it narrows the scope more. When you look for one that is appropriate for kids, it gets much narrower. When you talk about one with a lead female of color, the number drops to nearly zero (they exist, they are just very difficult to find).
My daughter is black and while I encourage her to look for role models of all colors, girls need to be able to see girls that are like themselves in media. They need it even more when it comes to seeing them portrayed with strength. And, unfortunately, I think that’s sort of a symptom of this exclusionary tendency in the self-professed nerd culture circles. I would love nothing more than to change that culture, but barring that, I’ll help create another one.
2. How much influence does your daughter have on Princess Adrienne’s style, character and personality?
Well, my daughter is still significantly younger than Adrienne. My daughter is almost two, but I can only hope and dread that she will be as intelligent and hard-headed as Adrienne.
Adrienne’s personality is actually modeled much more off of two other important women in my life: my wife Alicia and her sister Adrienne (for whom the character is named). They are both brilliant, hard-headed, and creative women. They’re also not afraid to like what they like and hate what they hate. Being honest with herself is actually one of Adrienne’s most important qualities.
3. The book hits on the issues of sexism and double standards when it comes to female costumes (often are sexy or scantily clad) vs. male costumes and does so in a way that is such a simple explanation; and it’s actually shocking that this really hasn’t been told like this before: what was (or were) the catalyst for you to point out these issues?
You know. It’s complicated. As a heterosexual man, I’ve found women to be attractive for what is now most of my life. I’ve been accused of finger wagging or giving people a hard time. Honestly, I like beautiful women as much as any man (or woman) and I don’t object to women being sexy, but it comics it’s this strange incongruity. We create these characters who are supposed to be strong and in some cases fiercely independent. They save the world on a daily basis. They exchange blows with the forces of evil. Heck, they fly through the atmosphere and into space. For some reason though, we put them in costumes instead of armor and bathing suits instead of costumes. Don’t get me wrong, strong women can be sexy…heck they can even be both at the same time (and often are) but the thought of an Amazon Princess with a total disregard for the ways of men and a sword and bow in tow running around in her panties is…well, it’s wrong.
If anybody in the world of comics should be comfortable running around in fighting crime in their underwear, it’s Superman. He’s invulnerable. He should have a Speedo to match Namor’s. Until we see that, it’s still a double standard. With my character in particular, I have no interest in making her “sexy”. She’s 16 and much more interested in riding dragons and storming castles than attracting a man. You’d think more super heroines would feel the same way.
4. I have to say, I also love that this is a story about a young girl who gets to go on adventures with other girls; when we see adventure style narratives, they are often about boys (ie. the Hobbit; Lord of the Rings; the NeverEnding Story, etc.) Even Dorothy is the only girl with her gang in Oz. How did the process for this aspect of the story come about?
It started with deciding to make Sparky a girl. I felt like that was an obvious decision at the time, because it created an almost sisterly bond between the two rather than making Sparky a male authority figure. From there, I decided that I didn’t ever want to put myself in the position where Adrienne would end up having to be rescued by a guy. Girls don’t need that. Plus, it gives me a chance to create more fantastic female characters and I will never get tired of that.
5. How did you come up with the story? Why did you want to tell a story about, specifically, a princess and not a superheroine or an average young girl?
Well, I wanted to meet girls where they live (and where I hate), in that pepto-bismol frilly pink aisle of the Target. I have to say, when my wife was pregnant I walked down that aisle a time or two and thought, “Is this it?”. When I have a daughter she’s going to like and aspire to be one of these characters who is locked away and forced to wait for a man to save her? My wife has a little cousin who is absolutely brilliant, but hit this phase where all she could talk about were princesses and frilly dresses.
I thought, okay, if this is what my daughter wants then that’s okay. I won’t force her to be something she isn’t. But I always want her to know that she has a choice. So, even a princess can go on adventure. She can rescue herself. She doesn’t need a prince. My hope is that girls who love princesses will pick up this book and realize that they don’t have to wait around. They can go be awesome right now. And girls that aren’t into princesses – they can know that it’s alright to be who they are and to like stuff that’s on the blue aisle better than the pink aisle.
6. Devin reminds me of Hiccup from How to Train your Dragon. Devin is also a great representation for boys who might not be considered “masculine” enough by their family, peers or society; is that something you consciously wanted to create?
Interestingly, I hadn’t seen How to Train Your Dragon until quite recently. I really enjoyed it and I feel like they were trying for something very similar with Hiccup as what I wanted with Devin. Devin is a smart kid with a lot of talent, it’s just not a talent his father is at all interested in. Devin is a poet, a designer, a thinker, a creator, and an excellent speaker. All of these would be excellent qualities for a king to have, but his father is interested in having someone that he knows can ride into battle and lead his troops. In his father’s experience, that’s what kings need to do.
So, where Adrienne tends toward action and adventure, Devin tends toward what art traditionally considered to be feminine traits. His father doesn’t like it at all and his mother doesn’t know what to make of it. Of course, as a guy who took hell for leaving football practice early to get to play practice, I sympathize a lot with Devin.
7. Are you at all surprised by the accolades, award nominations and love for this book?
If I said I didn’t hope it would find the audience and accolades, I’d be lying. But I have to say, when we put the first book in Diamond and it came back with about 600 orders, I had my doubts. We’re still an indie publisher and we could always use higher numbers, but the book keeps finding more audiences and more people that love what we’re doing.
I have to say, I’m actually surprised by how overwhelmingly positive the general tenor of the reviews are. We’ve gotten in very nearly every major comic book review site. With the exception of an early cynical review from Major Spoilers, everything has been massively positive. Positivity…on the internet…who would have guessed? Anyway, the Eisner nominations are still an unbelievable honor to me and the three Glyph awards put me on cloud nine. I look forward to being a part of those awards again in the future.
8. What can we expect from Adrienne and Bedelia in the next volume?
More specifically, this volume is going to follow their quest to rescue Adrienne’s older sister, Angelica. Angelica is the most beautiful princess in all of Asheland… and she knows it. Her and Adrienne have never seen eye to eye and that’s not a trend that’s about to start when Adrienne tries to pull her away from her romantic fairy tale of being rescued by a prince.
9. I hope that Princess Adrienne is a story that will continue on for many more volumes. What is your hope for her in the future?
My hope is exactly that. I’m planning out at least 7 volumes and I’d like to go longer than that. Honestly, if I could keep writing this story forever, I’d be quite happy with that outcome.
Also, I’d really love to get this story into other media in the future. A Princeless cartoon would be a huge thrill!
10. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I really hope people enjoy the book. Also, if you want your shop to carry it you have to let them know to order it for you. If stores don’t know to order it, they may not carry any copies and that would be a shame.
People can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or as @jrome58 on twitter or they can follow the tumblr which is princelesscomic.tumblr.com. Action Lab’s website is actionlabcomics.com if they want to see what we have coming up. All of the issues so far (6 including the short stories) are currently available through Comixology, Comics +, iBookstore, Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. They can pre-order the new issues from Diamond now through their local comic store. They can also order the previous volume through the action lab website or on Amazon (though they’re currently sold out). If they want to carry Princeless in a story they can contact me directly or order through Bookmasters.