BY DENNIS R. UPKINS
Originally published at 30UpTV
Broadcast journalist Corey Graves said it best. There are trailblazers and there are earth scorchers. Gail Simone is definitely the latter.
Like many of you, I was introduced to Gail through her run on the DC Comics series Birds of Prey, and became an instant fan of her writing. However, watching her put herself on the line time and time again to stand up for marginalized people and diversity in comics and media, I became a huge fan of the woman behind the pen.
As my fledgling writing career began to garner momentum, Gail and I found ourselves continuously crossing paths in many mutual circles and a friendship was born. Today I’m honored to consider Gail, family. Whether it’s striving to do better in terms of women’s equality, not compromising one’s voice, or simply scripting a fun sophisticated epic, I’ve learned a lot from Gail and I hope I’ve been a blessing in her life as well. I could tell you that Gail is as spectacular as the larger than life comic book superheroes she pens, but that goes without saying. However, I will provide an example by sharing a story about Gail that I’ve never shared with anyone, including Gail herself.
Some years back, I co-modded an online multicultural comic book forum, and my buddy Vi, a young bright Black woman, lamented how she loved comic books, but the industry and most spaces were very hostile to women of color. A day or two later, an ecstatic Vi messaged me. She told me that from out of nowhere she received an email from Gail Simone who was gracious enough to explain to Vi that she and others were working behind the scenes to address the issues and to do better for comic fans. I was floored. With the exception of possibly being tipped off by fellow redhead Jean Grey, I have no idea how Gail learned about the forum or the discussion. What I do know is the fact that Gail was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to speak to a fan, address her concerns, and let that fan know how valued that fan is, illustrates the genuine class act that Gail truly is and why I consider her family.
I recently caught up with Gail for a one-on-one interview where we discussed everything from comics, writing, diversity, being an earth scorcher, why Lion Forge is the comic book company publisher to watch, and much more.
Upkins: There’s the old adage that well-behaved women seldom make history. You’re essentially a testament to that. For the most part, your career was ignited from an act of defiance. You wrote a much needed piece that called out misogyny in the medium and the impact of said piece opened doors which ultimately resulted in you becoming one of the premiere names in speculative fiction. That must be surreal for you?
Simone: That’s very kind, Denny. The thing is, I was born on a farm with nothing, and was told most of my life that I could never make a living becoming a writer. It becomes part of your DNA, that constant drumbeat that you’ll never be good enough, you’re nothing special, you shouldn’t even bother dreaming.
So, I have these two things hardwired into my DNA, that I’m grateful for every moment I spend getting to tell stories for a living AND that I’m fully willing to throw it all in the trash if I have to compromise my principles in doing it. It’s nothing that praiseworthy, it’s just a bratty stubborn streak.
Like most jobs, you get tested, you make errors, choices are given to you where the road isn’t clear, but I think your gut is a fair indicator of what the right thing to do is, most of the time. And I do feel lucky that the Women In Refrigerators AT LEAST named a trope that seemed to permeate adventure fiction on all levels. It was never my intent to tell people what stories are ‘off limits,’ it was just to say, ‘doesn’t this seem a little tired to you?’
It was never even intentional activism, it was a frustration I had to voice, and the wonderful thing is, people of all genders got it, they had the same uncomfortable feeling. So that was worth the constant hate mail and rage that was sent my way. None of that meant very much to me, still doesn’t.
Upkins: Wonder Woman, Superman, Atom, Batgirl, Birds of Prey, Red Sonja, Deadpool. What’s it like knowing you’ve helped define so many iconic superheroes with a number of key story arcs?
Simone: Okay, this is going to sound corny as hell, and I’m sure some of my freelancer friends are rolling their eyes right now, but it just feels like a debt I was glad to pay. When I was a kid, life could be really rough. But I could count on Batgirl and Wonder Woman and all these other lovely heroes to give me hope and creativity and inspiration. Batgirl, I honestly have no idea who I would be as a person if I had never discovered her as a child, it was that formative.
So I take custodianship, however brief it may be, of these characters very seriously. If they are in disrepair, I want to fix them, or at least restore some luster, as best I can. When people love a character, I think they know when their caretaker loves those characters just as much.
Upkins: What characters or titles would you like to pen that you haven’t had the opportunity to do so yet?
Simone: I have what I think could be a huge Spider-Man story. I have a Batman story I know would be adapted to film. I want to write Godzilla, the Avengers, the Marvel family. There’s quite a few still on my list, and that’s just in comics. There’s lots more from outside that realm.
Upkins: As a writer, I’ve always found your talents as a storyteller to be superb. Who do you credit as your influences?
Simone: That means a lot, coming from you, Denny. Bless your heart!
It’s a funny thing, but many of the biggest influences are musicians, rather than prose or comics writers. I’m hugely inspired daily by Kate Bush, David Bowie…I love George Harrison’s plaintive seeking of higher answers. Their lyrics often permeate my thoughts even while writing, say, a fight scene. In comics, Steve Gerber was a huge influence, I think he brought ‘weird’ to superheroes in a way that had rarely been approached, years before the British Invasion.
Upkins: Having penned so many different titles in various genres, is there a strategy or a course of action you implement to ensure that you write the best story possible?
Simone: My initial response to this was, ‘Good lord, no, it’s a minefield at the best of times,’ but I think upon reflection, there’s some key stuff that works over and over. As a reader, I want to be surprised. I want a fair play reveal I should have seen coming, but didn’t. I want characters that are not transparent. It doesn’t matter if it’s adventure, humor, horror, or even erotica, if there’s no SURPRISE around the corner, I feel like we’re not really doing our job, and the reader is less involved.
Upkins: One thing I’ve always appreciated is that you strive to include a diverse cast and progressive/multicultural themes in your work? Why is that such an important mandate for you?
Simone: I wish I could look at myself and say I have some epic-level empathy or understanding, but I know I absolutely don’t. I don’t have particularly good listening skills or any of the things that truly enlightened people tend to have.
In fact, I think it took me a while to even realize how far from enlightened I was. When I came into comics, I had this agenda in my mind like a thunderbolt, “I’m going to create and promote as many cool female characters as I can because the representation is so bad.”
And I thought I was being, you know, wonderfully noble. But then I started going to conventions and you see what true diversity actually looks like. I’m from a tiny town with no diversity, I cannot possibly express how much it meant to me to have people in my signing like who were ACTUALLY diverse in gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, country of origin, people who had mental or physical disabilities. And we all shared this ridiculous vocabulary, we all fucking loved comic books to our bones.
That made me realize my initial goal was far too shallow. It couldn’t be just, oh, let’s create some new female characters, probably white, straight characters, that was just a different pit to shovel into endlessly.
It just comes down to, I want comics to be for everyone, and just as important, I want everyone to have a comic that feels like it’s FOR them, a subtle difference, maybe. I want the gates swung open. There are lots of people who have done far more than I have, and I think you see it at every convention now…the audience doesn’t look like the casts in comics of twenty, thirty years ago. It’s far, far more diverse.
Upkins: Do you often get pushback from editors and publishers for said diverse/progressive content?
Simone: I used to, I had great editors on Deadpool when I got started, and we raised sales and fan/critical reaction hugely. But they got promoted and the new editor was just awful. He said my Deadpool, which was literally FULL of shooting and action and boners, “had too much estrogen.” That’s a direct quote, someone actually gave this genius a job.
So that kind of thing happened, I remember a bit of pushback on making a character gay very early on. However, I have to say, DC was really advanced about that at the time, in particular. I don’t remember them ever pushing back about diverse characters, even things like the first Transgender character in a Batman-universe book. They were behind us, and I am very appreciative of that.
Upkins: As minorities, you and I have endured more than our share of bigotry in the industry. In your opinion, why are these issues important, more than just politics, and worth addressing?
Simone: I am no scholar on the subject and I can’t even imagine what it’s like for a person of color with the viciousness of troll culture out there. But it seems to me that it’s basic humanity and trying to stay true to what the books are actually ABOUT, which is supposed to be looking out for each other, trying to use what you have to do better.
I have a story that means a lot to me, a father came to a con here in Oregon with his little daughter, I think she was probably eight or nine? They had a daddy/daughter thing where they would read comics together, and she read my Batgirl with him, and she came across Alysia Yeoh, the trans character mentioned earlier.
She asked him, “Daddy, what’s ‘transgender?”
And he explained it to her, and he told me, because she had known that character, and liked that character, that he knew she would never bully a trans person. I mean, it’s not a perfect world, things go wrong. But that was one of those beautiful moments that won’t go away.
PS. I met them both again years later, and he was absolutely right.
Upkins: You have a very special rapport with a most loyal fanbase. What do you credit for that?
Simone: A lot of my day is spent in genuine wonder that people want to read my stories and listen to my jokes on twitter. I get the best end of this deal. Everyone says they love their readers, my reaction is a little bit, “oh my god, I love you so much” mixed with, “holy crap, what’s wrong with you?”
I don’t know why it happens, I’m just glad it did. It’s hard to feel blue with 148,000 people making you laugh.
Upkins: How did you connect with Lion Forge? From the looks of things you all seem to have some exciting stuff in the works?
Simone: The editor at the time was a reader of mine, he contacted me about doing an adaptation of a huge film series in comic form. I wasn’t the right choice for it (I know nothing about cars), but we had a nice chat.
A few months later, they called me back to ask a much bigger question…would I oversee their entire shared universe line?
SO that was mind-boggling. Lion Forge is a company from St. Louis, it’s full of that midwest feeling of hospitality and welcoming and family, the owner and chief creative officers are both African American, the company is about diversity down to the deep tissue, and their motto is identical to what I have wanted forever, “Comics for everybody.”
It’s a lovely feeling to be able to talk on the phone with the CCO AND the owner and they’re there, they’re not worried about upsetting some parent company. They care, and they’re smart and passionate and it’s such a remarkable joy that I wish ALL companies could take note.
It’s a thrilling superhero line, but it feels like it was created TODAY, not in the 40’s or 60’s. I love it. I’m writing a huge event book first, called SEVEN DAYS, featuring all our characters in the challenge of their lives. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever written, and that’s just the start.
Upkins: Perry Moore and Dwayne McDuffie. Two fellow earth scorchers and personal heroes who sadly left us far too soon and we lost both of them within days of each other. Moore was a mutual friend of ours. What are your memories of these two men and your thoughts on their legacy?
Simone: Okay, I was not expecting this question. I always think the pain of losing these two guys is going to go away over time. It hasn’t. I still want to cry every time I see their names.
Perry was a brilliant writer, a passionate advocate for lgbtq characters, and the producer of the Narnia books. He looked like a movie star, he took the air out of a room when he entered. And he was one of the most dedicated fans of my work I have ever encountered. He wrote a novel that he said was inspired by my activism, about a gay superhero.
He just glowed, he just had that light in him. He told everyone I was the best writer in comics and when he talked, he made me BELIEVE it, somehow. But he suffered from depression and took his own life. I think about him all the time. Depression is a cheating, lying bastard.
You probably knew him better than me, Denny, I only spent time with him by email and at cons.
This is still hard to talk about, I can only imagine what it’s like for you and his closer friends.
Dwayne, I don’t even know where to start. Okay, Dwayne was one of the first writers I ever really took notice of as a kid. Every story he wrote had some central truth in it that I desperately needed to hear, that I wasn’t learning at home or in school. And he could do anything; comedy, superheroes, horror, whatever. I think the industry had no idea what to do with a guy like Dwayne, who took no shit and had the talent to make his own seat at the table. Animation seemed to appreciate him more.
But it’s 100% accurate to say I wouldn’t be a comic writer without him.
I know I’m running long, but this is who Dwayne is to me, this is the impact he had.
My son had a sheltie as a kid, a supersmart dog who barked a lot. The dog had black fur on his chest, with a white lightning bolt of fur in the middle. Static Shock was my son’s favorite show, so we named the dog Static. I was still a hairdresser.
I found Dwayne had a forum. I sent him a photo of the dog and my son and he was delighted. He sent a bunch of graphic novels and Static comics for my son. I wrote on his forum a bit, mostly in awe.
Somewhere along the line, I started writing a comics parody column, sort of poking loving fun at various comics issues. Dwayne saw something in me I did not see in myself. He would read them and make little suggestions, always improvements. He would correct style and punctuation errors.
Later, when I got offered work as a comics writer, he was there, helping me and guiding me. He never asked for a thing, he wouldn’t even let me say thank you. And he kept checking in on me. When I was asked to write my first animation script, he was utterly invaluable with notes and help. It changed everything, he kept telling me I could do it, he knew I could.
There’s a lot more. It’s hard to talk about. I was asked to be on the board to select the Dwayne McDuffie Awards selections and I was proud to do it, I felt him all around the process. But ultimately, I felt that that honor should be passed to someone else, someone new and fiery, because that’s what Dwayne would do.
Yep, still tears.
Upkins: Speaking of memories careerwise, any special ones that come to mind?
Simone: I have a lot, more than my fair share. I was asked to speak about the intersection of disability and sexuality in popular fiction at the White House, I was asked to speak on female representation at the United Nations. Stan Lee himself gave me the very first ever Stan Lee True Believer Hall of Fame award in London. I’ve been all over the world sharing my love of comics with people, sometimes without even speaking the same language.
As for comics themselves, one thing I am proud of, is that creators of different characters have expressed trust in me writing them. Mike Grell for Skartaris, Keith Giffen for Ambush Bug, the family of Wonder Woman’s creators, lots more. Nothing is more meaningful than when a character’s caretaker/birth parent says, “Here, take them, we trust you.”
Upkins: Now it’s no secret that your work has been, how do I put this diplomatically, columbussed and used in many of the animated/live action adaptations. Sometimes you’re acknowledged and other times, not so much. Now to be fair, I get it. If you’re going to appropriate, appropriate from the very best. That said, I’m sure you have thoughts about this. Lots of thoughts.
Simone: Heh. Well, okay, yeah, a lot of stuff from my work ends up directly in films. The one that bugs me a bit is the Dark Knight movie with Bane in it, whichever one that is…that entire plot he has, that he becomes a protector of the daughter of an immortal warlord, that was directly from my writing of him in Secret Six (different warlord, same exact plot). At the time, someone had to point it out to me, and I had no idea that you could request credit or payment or both for IDEAS, not just characters. That still sorta rankles.
The Deadpool movies have both used my name right in the films. I thought that was nice, and there’s an extended section where they actually talk about Women In Refrigerators on camera. DC did a Suicide Squad animated film where the plot device was straight from my Secret Six.
And there’s a LOT more coming, at least a couple big budget blockbusters.
I don’t have a lot of beef, DC has compensated me, the tv shows especially make a point to credit me in different ways. And I am working with director Jill Soloway as a consultant for the Red Sonja film. Hollywood knows who I am, I have value to them and I think in general, they want to acknowledge that influence. It’s gotten much better, to the point where it’s hard to keep up with all the projects coming up that feature my work in some way.
Upkins: In your estimation, how has the comic book landscape evolved in the last few years? In what direction would you like to see it go?
Simone: I want comics shops to be healthy. Comics will mutate and absolutely SHOULD be in as many venues as possible. But the front line is comics shops, and they’re being obliterated by piracy, rent hikes, and other factors, it all has to be addressed.
Other than that, I want more THE WALKING DEAD-style hits, books that bring in readers who weren’t reading, say, Spider-Man.
Upkins: You’ve penned episodes for Justice League Unlimited, Batman: Brave and the Bold, and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Is writing for film and television full-time something you would entertain down the line if the opportunity presented itself?
Simone: It’s unlikely I would ever give up comics. I love them to my fingertips. I would make them on a tree with a pen knife, if I had to. But I do have some things coming up that could be hugely time consuming. I love a new challenge, but I never want to stop making comics.
Upkins: Being an outspoken pioneer, does that responsibility ever feel like a burden at times?
Simone: I feel like so many people have that burden as well, but much heavier. In the end, I have a LOT of privilege. I’m straight, I’m cis, you know, I don’t want to pretend my ‘burden’ is somehow more difficult, because the reality is, it just isn’t. There is a special kind of individual who loathes females in comics just because they do, that’s never fun to encounter.
Upkins: What sage advice would you give to a young Gail Simone?
Simone: A lot of the people who advise you to give up your dreams had dreams of their own, once.
You don’t have to be like them.
Upkins: Speaking of sage advice for aspiring creators and storytellers, what words of wisdom would you share with them?
Simone: I say bring your principles with you. No one wants to be preached to while reading Batman. But acknowledging a wider world is saying, “I do not accept that this world that I love, this universe that I am so deeply entrenched in, has to stay mired in amber since 1940.”
Also, if your plot is dragging, have Spider-man web some dude.
Upkins: You recently alluded to a major project on social media. Are you at liberty to share anything yet or do we have to stay tuned?
Simone: There’s always some new cool thing and I do have a lot of Hollywood stuff in the hopper, which is both breathtaking and terrifying. But I can’t say yet what this particular thing was, sorry, Denny, you snoop!
Upkins: Can’t blame a gumshoe for trying. What other forthcoming projects should we keep an eye out for?
Simone: I’m very proud of SEVEN DAYS, as I’ve said. I’m writing the FLASH for DC right now, and DEATH DEFYING DEVIL for Dynamite. I have several comics things in the works including some creator owned stuff with brilliant artists.
I am writing stories for the Dungeons and Dragons setting, the huge smash HUMBLEWOOD.
And I am working on a couple big budget films and some tv stuff, it’s ridiculous.
It’s still the same thrill, no matter what the format. I love to tell stories.