Already a best-selling book author, Chelsea Cain stormed into comics with an Eisner-nominated run on Marvel’s Mockingbird that landed on Amazon’s best-seller list. It also infuriated a legion of internet trolls due to the now-infamous cover of issue 8 (plus the second collected trade paperback), where Bobbi Morse gazes out at the reader wearing a shirt that reads,”Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda.” But although Cain’s take on Vision was canceled at Marvel before it could even be released, she’s not leaving comics. She’s gotten the band back together with a new creator-owned book at Image. Man-Eaters, sees a return of the team from Mockingbird: artist Kate Niemczyk, colorist Rachelle Rosenberg, letterer Joe Caramagna, plus cover designer Lia Miternique, and tells the story of a world where the onset of menstruation can cause a teen to turn into a giant, man-eating cat. I got to ask Cain a few questions about her ardently feminist-facing series, which comes out this month.
When did you come up with this concept?
I came up with the concept in pieces. 1984. At my dad’s house in Panama City, Florida, watching the 1982 version of Cat People on HBO. 2012. Reading an Atlantic story about toxoplasmosis. 2016. Post-Mockingbird—trying to figure out how to … respond. I wanted to write a comic book about female adolescence, a narrative with a strong female point of view. The kind of comic book that my 13-year-old daughter would love—something as angry and precocious and bad ass and feminist as she is. I wanted to write something without flinching.
Is the collaboration process with Kate Niemczyk any different now that you’re working on a creator owned book?
It’s actually a very similar process. I was over-involved with Mockingbird, or at least more involved with art direction than I think is common for those kinds of work-for-hire super hero projects? I treated it like creator-owned. So Man-Eaters feels really comfortable in that sense—I know how to give Kate feedback and think about the creative pieces. I her far fewer notes on this project. On Mockingbird we were both new. And we went back and forth a lot. I think it shows—in a good way. I’ve gotten better at communicating what I want the first time. And, you know, breathing. And Kate has gotten better at nailing it. Even if it’s not what I envision it’s too good to change. I do miss the Marvel editorial staff. There’s no editorial staff at Image. The comic is delivered to them ready to go to the printer. That’s a lot to be responsible for. I’m the last defense. I was reviewing a printer proof of issue 2 last week and was suddenly like, shit, that character changes shirts. He’s wearing one shirt. And then a few panels later he’s wearing another shirt. We fixed it. Which involved Kate (in Poland) and Rachelle (in Wisconsin) patching and getting us new files within a few hours. Someone would have caught that sooner at Marvel. It should have been caught sooner. And that’s on me. It’s my responsibility. I’m Stan Lee.
I like the sound of that.
I’m very into your the world building being done in the artwork via t-shirts, billboards, and more. I know there was a little of this via book titles, etc. in Mockingbird, too—is that more from your end or Kate Niemczyk’s?
That’s me. I love a comic that’s re-readable, so I try to layer a lot of in-world ephemera that can be appreciated by a close reader, or just someone who has an extra minute to kill on the toilet. We have a lot of fun with that. Most of it is a combination of me, Lia Miternique (our cover designer and production coordinator and my publishing partner at Ministry of Trouble) and Rachelle Rosenberg, our colorist.
And following that—this world seems to have a whole generation of staunch feminists—is it meant to be less sexist than our actual present?
Less sexist? No. It’s a world where women are required by the government to register their menstrual cycles, where girls are taught they they are—literally—dangerous, and that puberty might result in them slaughtering their families. It’s a world where estrogen has been added to the global water supply in order to shut down women’s bodies. So, is this world feminist? It’s meant to be a—metaphorically—accurate representation of the current climate. Menstruation is treated as monstrous. Womanhood is a kind of witchery. And the transition from girlhood to womanhood is presented through a cultural lens that is terrifying.
Maude is a feminist. She wears a pussy hat. But she lives in a world where government agencies detain teenage girls, and the public huddles in shelters in fear of angry women. It’s the individual verses the institution. Maude’s identity doesn’t matter unless she puts her body on the gears of the machine and makes it stop. That’s where we are, right now. That’s why I’m doing this.
How literally are we meant to take the conceit? On one hand, I couldn’t help but be preoccupied with thinking about all the physical side effects of adding, essentially, birth control to drinking water, but on the other hand, girls are turning into giant cats.
First of all, there is already birth control in the water. That ship has sailed, my friend. Women flush a ton of estrogen into the water supply. (Biggest culprits are soy and dairy products and animal waste and farm fertilizer—all big estrogen polluters.) In Man-Eaters, the government puts estrogen and progesterone in the water in order to stop girls from getting their periods and therefore stop them from transforming into werepanthers. You know, like fluoride. So, it’s a public health initiative. Obviously this creates some other issues. Women who want to have babies have to go to government-run fertility clinics. Boys have to avoid tap water and instead depend on bottled water brands like “Estro-Pure,” and its sparkling cousin, “Estro-Pop.” And of course, it’s an imperfect science. Sometimes the water additives aren’t enough to prevent transformation.
But in terms of narrative, it’s all metaphor. Does that help?
And can you tell me if/how the book will tackle what this kind of hormone therapy means for characters who aren’t cis?
I think it’s really important to tell stories from a lot of different points of view. This is a story about what it’s like to be a cis gendered female coming of age in a culture that consistently reinforces the messaging that periods are shameful, that our bodies are shameful, and that womanhood—and the biology that goes along with it—is something gross and not for polite company. It’s about rejecting that narrative and making something powerful from it. You don’t have to have a uterus to be a woman. Anyone who thinks that hasn’t been paying attention. But let’s not get lost or distracted here—this is a specific story, about a specific experience—the way that all good stories are. And if I’m doing my job well, I think that anyone can relate to it. I think that someone who is trans knows full well what it feels like to struggle with being defined by biology and by the social messaging that makes us all, at one point or another, feel like monsters.
Have you already planned out the end of the series, or are you taking it more one arc at a time?
I have the first 12 issues planned. That’s what I’ve signed up for—one year. We’ll see if I can hack it. Comics is hard. People can be mean.
I might just chuck it all and move to Australia.
Man-Eaters comes out September 26, 2018, and you can even get it with a glittery variant cover.