Felicia D. Henderson on The Punisher, Mental Health, and Bringing More Graphic Novels to the Screen

Felicia D. Henderson (Photo by Matthew Jordan Smith)

Felicia D. Henderson has not been writing comics for some time. Since her runs on several DC Comics titles between 2010 and 2011, Henderson has returned to the screen where she has firmly established herself as a creative powerhouse in the industry. She recently signed a multiyear deal with 20th Century Fox that will have her developing several new projects for Fox TV and she will be a consulting producer on the fifth season of Empire. Henderson is the creator of Soul Food, Showtime’s longest running African-American themed drama, and is also the co-executive producer on Netflix’s The Punisher. She’s worked on several other monumental television shows, including The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Moesha, Gossip Girl, and more. She’s also writing a feature film that she plans to direct, is involved in several community organizations, and champions many causes.

But despite this busy schedule, comics are never far from her mind. Growing up, health issues made it difficult for her to have an active childhood, so Gotham City became her escape. In an interview with WWAC, she spoke passionately about how, as an adult, she got to live her dream of writing comics when Dan Didio gave her the chance to work on a short story within a Justice Society of America’s giant volume. From there, she went on to write several issues of Teen Titans and also Static Shock, a character whom she strongly relates with. She even got to create characters of her own for some of these stories.

Cover of Justice Society of America 80-Page Giant (DC Comics, January, 2010)
JSA Giant #1 (DC Comics, 2010)

Though Henderson isn’t writing comics right now, part of her deal with Fox involves adapting more graphic novels for the screen, which means she’s always hunting for meaty titles to bring to a new audience. Because of Fox’s relationship with BOOM!, she’s been eyeing their books, as well as many of the indie comics she enjoys reading. She’s been a long time fan of Girl Genius, but an earlier attempt to option it for film fell through. She’d love to see a story like Vertigo’s My Faith in Frankie on screen, and again, her enthusiasm for comics shone through as she described the plot of a young girl with an imaginary friend who turns out to be not-so imaginary as the girl gets older and takes an interest in dating.

Seeking or writing stories with female leads was not on Henderson’s radar initially, but given the social climate these days, her outlook has become more focused. At San Diego Comic Con, seeing and meeting so many fangirls like herself, Henderson cannot stress enough the importance of ensuring that there are more women creating comics so that girls and women have access to more content made for and by them. “I see you; I want to write for you,” Henderson said. “I want to see comic books that get specific about celebrating diversity and inclusion. I just want to see the normal world as it is and I want every creator to just do it.”

She’s been attending SDCC fairly regularly since a good friend and comic book geek introduced her to the event about 16 years ago. She had the chance to pay that forward this year by attending the convention with her two nieces, aged 13 and 17, and her mentee, aged 28, as well as a dear friend. This was a first for each of them and the opportunity to see the convention through their varied perspectives was an incredible experience for Henderson.

Since Henderson first visited SDCC, she’s seen it change and grow quite a bit, and is particularly fond of the ever expanding panels that take place. One of her favourites was Milestone Media’s The Black Panel, which she described as “raucous and interesting and unapologetically political.” She was involved in the panel herself in 2011 with the relaunch of Dwayne McDuffie’s Static Shock, but hadn’t been a panelist again at SDCC until this year, as part of a panel called, “‘Crazy’ Together: The Future of Mental Health and Pop Culture.”

The panel was organized by the founders of Beyond Thought, forensic psychiatrists who are challenging the inaccurate portrayals of mental health in pop culture. Now in its second year, the panel focus is largely on comics, television, and film, but hopefully, as the panel grows, they will also include media such as video games, where stigmatizing portrayals also persist.

As co-executive producer on The Punisher, Henderson spoke about how depictions of trauma and PTSD informed the characterization of Frank Castle. Though the ultra-violent show has received its fair share of criticism, its depiction of mental health issues and PTSD across several different characters works hard to break the stigmas surrounding mental illness, and especially the conflation of mental illness and evil.

Henderson was drawn to the character developed for the TV series because “he makes us explore the question of who would we be?” if placed in his shoes. Trained to kill without remorse for his country only to have to watch such violence turned back on him, “who would any of us be in that situation?”

Henderson explained that showrunner Steve Lightfoot made a point of avoiding adapting Frank Castle directly from any of his comic stories, making a very clear and deliberate distinction between the Frank Castle of the comics and the Frank Castle of the television series. Aside from Henderson and one other, none of the writers on the show were comic writers or fans. Instead, Lightfoot dropped a stack of 20 or 30 books— memoirs and personal accounts from people who have served in the military—on the table. Watching documentaries, speaking with experts and vets—some of whom appear in the show’s therapy sessions both to add authenticity and because, Henderson said, “they deserve to be part of the conversation”—was a life changing experience for her.

Despite the disconnect from the comics, the writers were not forbidden from reviewing the original source material. Celebrated story arcs were reviewed and there were a few nods to Frank Castle’s origins. For example, in episode eight, as a callback to his original status as a Vietnam vet, Henderson wrote a scene where he cooks phở. In other cases, new characters created for the show were given iconic names from the comics.

Surprisingly, the idea of writing a Punisher comic following her experience with the show had not occurred to her, but now the possibility has piqued Henderson’s interest. “I actually really miss writing comic books,” she said, “But it has to be the right book.” Whether that ends up being a run on The Punisher for Marvel, or if she works on an original story of her own, we shall (hopefully soon) see …

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Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.