Ever picked up a comic book with a badass woman on the cover, only to read it and find that a dude was running the whole show? Well, Valiant Comics is here to dispel any notion of that happening with their roster of women-led comic series. And we could not be happier!
WWAC got a look behind the scenes of Valiant Comics’ recent releases, Punk Mambo #1, The Forgotten Queen #3, and Livewire Volume 1 with a chat with writer Vita Ayala (Livewire), editor Heather Antos (Livewire), and editor Lysa Hawkins (Punk Mambo and The Forgotten Queen) about representation and unapologetic female characters who love throwing punches.
Including diverse characters is only one step in the process of inclusivity in comics. What does it take to create a truly representative character and story?
Vita: I think what helps get really representative characters in stories is having a more inclusive environment in terms of who’s making the stories. I don’t just mean the creators, but the editorial staff, the production staff, all these people coming together, having very different views of the world will help, in the long run, getting a character, or a story, to be much more open, and much more representative.
Heather: Everyone who makes a comic is a real person with flaws and history, and it is super important to make our characters have that too. There’s no such thing as a perfect character, just as there’s no such thing as a perfect writer, artist, or editor. And, I think, having our characters make real world mistakes, with real world consequences and owning up to that, and facing that, and not always making the right decisions, is what makes these characters real, and diverse, and relatable.
Lysa: It makes an authentic character, and that’s what everybody strives for. To have an inclusive atmosphere, as Vita was saying, in editorial, you have to want to have it, to produce it, and if you do, you’re going to be able to have that come through.
Vita: To be comfortable enough, behind the scenes, to talk to each other, and to bring up any issues that you have. If I’m working on something, and someone goes, ‘I don’t think that actually sounds like something that someone like that would say’, I’m happy to go with the conversations, and being comfortable enough to do that is really important. Because well-intentioned stories that miss the mark happen all the time, but you can really tell when the people that were making them were able to work together to make the final product as good as possible.
Heather: Vita can attest to this too. They and I will sit down, and we’ll get fiery, head-to-head, having these conversations and really working it out. With our experiences on Livewire specifically, asking, who is Amanda as a character? I think we’ve created someone like super cool because of that.
Vita: Yeah, I agree. You’ve come up with stuff that I wouldn’t even have thought of, or look at it a certain way just because of your experiences and I think that, at the end of the day, that helps make, not just the character of Amanda, but the world around her, much more three-dimensional.
Having written these series and going through such learning processes, have you had those moments where you think you might need to double-check something or send it to sensitivity readers to get something right?
Vita: Yeah, definitely, on any project, whenever I have feedback like that, it does make me re-evaluate — even stuff that I can’t change from before — and trying to figure out ways to make the character consistent with this new mindset. But, it’s really valuable, it’s really important, and when I do have the time, or the resources to have someone come in and do checks, I’ll go, ‘hey, could you check this over because you have a much more close eye on certain things than I do across the board. Even if it’s my own creator-owned stuff where I have to do it out of my own resources, I think that’s super important.
Passing the Bechdel-Wallace test is the most basic measure of representation of women in fiction, but so much media is still failing. What are Valiant books doing to go beyond the basics?
Heather: It’s more than just having a woman and passing the Bechdel-Wallace test. It’s about making them real world people with flaws and not idolising these characters and putting them on a pedestal, in a way that makes them untouchable. I think one of the most important things we’re exploring right now with Amanda McKee in Livewire is the fact that she made a mistake, and to some extent, refuses to admit that she made a mistake. And we’re seeing her learn and grow with that, which is an extremely humbling and a meaningful experience for everyone.
Lysa: Valiant right now is putting out three very strong, superhero women books, and they’re not actually superheroes, they can be one day, but just not yet. But, they’re extremely strong and they don’t need a man. These women are not waiting for a prince or a hero to rescue them. If anything, they’re going to do the rescuing of themselves and everybody else.
If you take Punk Mambo, she is extremely unlikable. She does not care! She doesn’t necessarily want to help you. She does, but she doesn’t do it willingly. Which makes her incredibly fun. You never know what’s going to come out of her mouth — she’s completely unpredictable. It’s exciting. And, she’s real! That’s why I like her.
Vita: What I try to do just in general, as much as I am able — and I’ve been very well supported by Valiant — is just introduce as many characters that the person will be interacting with — like Amanda will be interacting with — and make them women, or non-binary people. Just because it’s a tendency to default to male — that is not a malicious thing that people do all the time, I think that really we’re just conditioned. So, whenever I go to introduce a new character, I go, ‘does it have to be a dude?’ No. In fact, I’ve trained myself at this point, I go, ‘do we ever have to make it a dude?’
But I think that’s really important because there are tons of these interactions that Amanda will have with all kinds of other characters, and I think that contrasting her with other women makes it interesting. I think also that one of the most important relationships that she has is with Nikki, one of the Secret Weapons kids, and I love the way that they interplay with each other. We can do that with the secondary characters that come in and out and give them all their own backstory.
Like Heather was saying before, we sit down and hash out a bunch of stuff and in the second arc of Livewire, there are a lot of very important characters that are all women. Even though you won’t know a quarter of the stuff that goes into their background and who they are, that stuff is there and it informs how they are written on the page.
You have all this background information on these side-characters, so they’ve got their own lives, and that’s stored somewhere?
Vita: For me, I try to do that as much as humanly possible just across the board, whenever a character is going to have more than a single line. I want to know who they are because, one of the things that makes it easier to write just in the long run, if a character will appear for more than just one scene, is to know how they will react to a given circumstance. And in order to know how someone will react, you have to know who they are as people.
What makes unapologetically powerful women like those featured in Livewire, Punk Mambo, and Forgotten Queen such compelling characters to write?
Lysa: I am enjoying working with Tini on The Forgotten Queen because she’s just evil. The character is not a hero at all — she’s just straight-up ancient evil. So, you can do anything with that and not care.
And working with Cullen [Bunn] on Punk Mambo is a dream. Because he really listens and he understands where this character is going. She is an amazing character and it’s just going places. Every time you see her, you never know what to expect, so it makes it a thrill to turn the page. Is she going to punch you in the face? Or is she going to save you? You never know!
Heather: I think that’s something super empowering about working with Livewire, especially where she currently is in her journey as a character, because she is having an internal battle with herself, and coming to terms, and accepting responsibility for her actions that almost, for me, has made me self-reflect a lot as a person, and the relationships that I have with those closest to me. What would I be willing to do in this situation? If I were in Amanda’s shoes, how far would I be willing to go, and would I make the right decision, would I make mistakes? I don’t know.
So, there’s something very empowering about the level of vulnerability that not only Amanda is conceding in her story, but also that Vita can see while writing the story. It’s a super-powerful, kick-ass story that has a lot of internal, emotional conflict in it that you don’t get in a lot of books.
Lysa: When you see these super-powerful characters have flaws, they become so relatable. It might not be your flaw, but it might be something close enough that you think, ‘oh, gee, I get this character’. And once you can relate to a character that way, you can actually learn and grow and that character can pull you up as they’re pulling themselves up.
The fun thing about Punk is that — and I’m not going to give too much away — she is, much like Amanda, on the road to redemption. She’s got to learn something about herself by the end of her mini-series that is very powerful and will put her in a better place.
Vita: For me, it’s kind of like, exciting, but it’s also really scary, partially for the reasons that Heather brought up. You’re having these conversations with yourself even as you’re trying to speak to this other person, but also because these characters — all three of them — don’t just have physical power but they’re also the emotional core, of not just their stories but of huge sections of the universe. How do you navigate them and the problems that they have to face in a way that they come out being sympathetic?
Livewire is one of the most powerful characters in the entire universe, how do you make her human? Am I going to screw this up and make her not relatable? How much of myself do I put into her to show that she’s one of us? It can be really scary.
Like Lysa said, while working on this book, I’m sometimes like, ‘What would Amanda do right now?’. You know what, she’s a nurturing, caring good person, but she also takes absolutely no crap. That is nice, and that’s something I can channel now.
Do you ever talk to your characters?
Vita: Yeah, absolutely. When I’m up till 2am and I’m trying to figure things out, I’m like, ‘Amanda, come on!’.
I’ll actually end up re-writing a scene, or even half of an issue, multiple times, before I even turn in the first draft. It’s not that I literally hear Amanda speaking to me but I think, ‘okay, she has these three choices, what’s makes the most sense?’
And because Amanda’s the kind of person who, in her mind, she’s like Root from Person of Interest—she can go through all these scenarios one after the other, and choose the right one—she’s just that smart and that quick.
So, I’ll write them out, and I’ll be like, ‘okay, this is the one that makes sense’, and ‘this is the one she would choose, and for this reason’. So, it’s not like literally having a conversation but I’m kind of trying to put myself in her mind in that way.
The new Livewire series has a lot of punching in it. Was it a conscious decision to have an action-packed series for a character with technology-related powers?
Vita: It was. When I first sat down to really talk about the series, that was when Joe Illidge was still with Valiant, and we talked about her physical journey, as well as her emotional journey, and I think one of the things that was keeping her from internalizing the true magnitude of the consequences of her actions is that she is so powerful. She doesn’t understand what it is to not have that kind of power. She almost couldn’t put herself into that situation.
So, literally taking away her powers — she’s a warrior, she’s still a very physical person, she’s not powerless — but taking away that connection that she has to everything really helps emotionally, to bring her to a place where she can truly understand what’s it like to be at the mercy of something like that. So, that was a very intentional move we made.
But, spoiler alert, there’s going to be more Livewire, she’s going to get her powers back!
I was also watching a lot of stuff about the army and breaking people down and how you get people to their base parts, and I was like, ‘alright, that has to happen’. And I don’t see that happening if she can control all this technology—she has to be at this place where it’s just her versus everything else.
But, as we go on in the series, her powers come back, and she does incorporate what she’s learned into how she deals with solving problems, and with relating to other people, and how she can’t just make these sweeping moves anymore, because there are real consequences. So yeah, I think it was an important step that we had to take. There is a lot of punching though, for a start!
I want to put this out there too: I wanted to show—and this was important to me personally, and Joe was supportive at the time, and Heather is too—I wanted to show that Amanda’s not just her powers. She’s very capable without them—she’s very smart, she’s very strong, physically, and she has trained from a very young age to be someone who uses their body as well as their mind to solve their problems. I think, sometimes, that gets lost because she can snap her fingers and turn off the United States but, what happens when you can’t do that? Well, she’s scrappier. She has to rely on her wits and her fists a little bit.
Livewire reminds us of Storm in some ways. She’s got powers but she’s also very scrappy and often her most powerful moments are when she’s not able to access her abilities.
Vita: ‘Lifedeath’ is actually one of my favourite X-Men storylines of all time. To me, though, I liken Amanda a lot, in my own mind, if I had to compare her to someone, it would actually be Wonder Woman, which I know sounds crazy. To me, Diana is as effective even when the gods take her away super-strength because she’s still very skilled, and very intelligent, and she’s also very compassionate. And Storm has those things too, but to me, Livewire is holistically this warrior who was raised from a very young age to hone her body as well as her mind. I think she’s pretty cool!
What led you to bring Punk Mambo back now?
Lysa: People were clamouring for her! All last year, every convention I went to, they were like ‘when are we going to see Punk?’ And I couldn’t say anything because I was working on it!
People seem to really appreciate her. She’s only been seen a handful of times throughout the Valiant Universe but wherever she pops up, there’s a following.
So, we’re answering the call. So far, it’s been received really well — people are excited about seeing it. And it looks beautiful! I’m excited for you. You’re going to love it!
Vita: She’s got pink hair! What’s not to be excited about?
Lysa: And the best thing about it? She wouldn’t care. At all!
Talking about characters who are unapologetic and evil; there are some disturbing elements to that. But is it kind of fun to just cut loose and enjoy the fact that these characters don’t have to obey rules?
Lysa: Absolutely! That’s always fun. Because they don’t have to follow any protocol whatsoever.
Heather: There’s an unwritten rule that superheroes can’t kill X, Y, and Z, right? When you’re working with the bad guys where rules don’t apply, it’s a lot more fun. It’s like, the devil wakes up in the morning and thinks, what corner of the world do I want to put some hell into? [laughs]
Vita: For Amanda, I have to constantly figure out why she would follow the rules, that is my burden to bear. [laughs] She could literally do anything, so why would she? To me, that’s a fun problem to have.
Lysa: For Amanda, I think that she wants to be a hero. She sees herself as the hero — she wants to do good. She’s striving to be better and to do the right thing, she just trips herself up because she’s so powerful that it’s often difficult to do that.
Vita: Yeah, absolutely. And that can be fun, figuring out, now that she knows she can’t just wave her hands and do whatever she wants, how will she solve this thing, whatever the new problem is, without overstepping her personal boundaries that she’s made because of what’s going on? That is fun too.
We love the passion and enthusiasm the Valiant team have for their female characters and that push for representation both on the comic page and behind the scenes is definitely something we at WWAC like to champion. Plus, we can’t help but love how Vita, Lysa, and Heather have pretty much thrown the rule book out the window so they can give their characters full reign to express themselves.
On a side note, we at WWAC also love Faith, so we had to sneak in a little question about when we will next see our favourite geeky psiot back in action. Here’s what Lysa had to say: “I’m the editor of Faith as well, and I can’t tell you! But I’m working on it. Have faith. Have faith in Valiant and have faith!”
We’re keeping the faith here, Lysa!