Kelly Sue DeConnick and Christopher Sebela Talk Captain Marvel, Ghost, Bitch Planet and More!

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Chris Sebela discuss collaborating on Ghost and Captain Marvel, and others like High Crimes and Bitch Planet!

Back in January we named Kelly Sue DeConnick as the top comic book creator to watch in 2014, and so far, the only thing that Kelly Sue has failed to do is disappoint. Pretty Deadly keeps taking us down the rabbit hole (no pun), Ghost launched with a creative high note, Captain Marvel is likely about to do the same (for the second time), and DeConnick has one of comicdom’s most anticipated books, the creator owned Bitch Planet on the horizon.

For Dark Horse’s ongoing reboot of Ghost, DeConnick is joined by fellow Top Comic Book Creator’s to Watch alumnus Christopher Sebela, the co-creator of High Crimes and the upcoming Dead Letters as co-writer. In this exclusive interview with DeConnick and Sebela, we touch on their evolving partnership, what Elisa Cameron is up against in the new series, whether fans should worry about continuing delays, and more. We also touch on the ways that both Pretty Deadly and Dead Letters changed from their beginnings, whether Carol Danvers will stay “cosmic” in Captain Marvel, the fate of High Crimes, the start of the Alien/Prometheus “Ridleyverse” over at Dark Horse, and how these two prolific writers manage to juggle their full professional calendars.

Den of Geek: I don’t want to give too much away about the end of Ghost #1, but I’m going to ask you too. How are the closing panels from that issue going to influence Elisa going forward? It seems like desperation is at the wheel right now [for her], is that fair to say?

Kelly Sue Deconnick: Heh. You referring to the fact that she’s just made a pact with a devil?  Yeah…that’s going to come back up.

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Christopher Sebela: Those closing panels kind of say everything about Elisa, about where she’s at emotionally and personally. She’s got all these abilities, all this power, and none of it is any use at quieting the voices in her head wondering who she is, where she belongs. Desperation is her co-pilot, and it’s not going to be very helpful.

Is there anything, specifically, that you had to leave out of In the Smoke and Din (due to time and space constraints) that you’re eager to explore now that this is an ongoing series?

Deconnick: Well…I was going to kill Vaughn, but I didn’t have room to give him a proper death so he got spared. That’s not exactly on the checklist for the new series, but it’s the only thing I can think of that got cut for space from ItSaD.

How has the collaborative process evolved from the stuff you two did on Captain Marvel and what you’re doing with Ghost?

Deconnick: I was in the drivers’ seat on Captain Marvel, Sebela’s in lead post here. We do broad plotting together, then he scripts and then I redraft. It’s the same basic structure we’ve used before, but with one or two restructuring exceptions, my hand is lighter here. I’m trying to fight all my natural control freak tendencies and let Sebela shine.  

Sebela: What Kel said. With Captain Marvel it feels so much like her book that I just came in, did my job and tried not to break anything in the process. With Ghost, she let me take the lead on it, which on one hand is a huge compliment and gratifying, and on the other is super terrifying. But she’s been there to hold my hand and fix my mistakes, so our collaboration is going swimmingly as ever.

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What are the benefits and drawbacks to working with a co-writer?

Sebela: The benefits are huge, because you have someone else in on the script with you, someone who can call you out when you’re not making sense or when you lose the path a bit, someone to bounce ideas off of. That stuff is my idea of fun. Plus with a co-writer like Kelly Sue, it’s a friendly challenge to up your game. Like playing a game of one-on-one with whoever is a really talented basketball player these days. Even though you know you’re gonna get crushed, you still want to get as many points up on the board as you can and come back better next time.

Drawbacks-wise, sometimes it’s hard sharing control of the ship sometimes. I got into writing because I can go sit in a room for several hours a day and have a thing, a real live story, when I come out. But any kind of writing, if you want it to be good, you’re going to have to take notes from friends or editors or co-writers, so the trick is learn that it was never a drawback at all. (Also there is no spoon).

With so much work on your plate, should Ghost fans worry that there will be further delays, or is it smooth sailing ahead?

Sebela: It’s all smooth sailing ahead. Team Ghost is already two arcs ahead of where we are right now in the release schedule, so despite the hiccups, we’re planning on showing up every month from now on. Sorry for the wait, we think it’ll be worth it.

With Dead Letters, you’ve said that the “skeleton” of the book is the same but that the “organs and the meat are all moved around or been swapped out for different parts”. Is it a struggle to let go of certain elements, or do you have to leave everything vulnerable when you’re working out a concept with a collaborator?

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Sebela: Well, it’s a struggle, but it’s a struggle you learn to let go of pretty fast if you want your story to work and if you want to get better as a writer and a collaborator. So you have to lay everything on the table. Telling a story with someone else is a lot like a romantic relationship, there’s a whole dance where you figure out how you and this other person — be it another writer or an artist — work best together. You butt heads over some things, you fall perfectly in sync with others, all to try and create something bigger than yourself. It’s a scary thing to do at first when you’ve only been used to writing alone, but for comics to reach that platonic ideal, you have to be open to the process or you’re doomed.

How do you maintain your level of productivity while keeping your sanity with so many projects on your plate? How do you push past creatively lean times? How do you prioritize among all of these projects?

Deconnick: Well, I do not keep my sanity. That ought to be abundantly clear.  I wrote a bit about my “work life balance” here. I guess the answer to the “creatively lean times” question is that you just have to work anyway? I know that’s frustrating because people want there to be a short cut. There is no short cut. You’re a pro, you show up, you work. Some days it’s not very good. You have to work anyway.  Too bad. The hummingbird just works harder in the rain, I’m afraid.

Sebela: You learn to go without sleep and how to push your body to its coffee saturation point without tipping over the edge. You learn your limits by breaking them, and it’s easy to get tunnel vision about it. But either you collapse or you learn your limits, you draw back to a position where you have enough time to do everything you want to do professionally and still have time to enjoy the life it’s affording you. I’m still learning how to do that, I’m still very much the overeager, say yes to anything guy, but I’m getting better at carving out some sort of balance.

Deadlines are an amazing incentive to push you past the lean times, whether official ones from an editor or the ones you loosely schedule with your collaborator on the creator-owned book. Sometimes you sit down and you’ve got nothing, and maybe that’ll play for a day, but you’re just one bit in a long chain that is comics, you have people waiting on you. In the end, you can’t be too precious, you just have to work, even on your worst days, and hope, if nothing else, you can pick out a few golden bits from the trash you beat your head over.

The one upside to having a lot of books to work on is that prioritizing becomes a lot more fluid. If I’m stuck on Ghost, I can jump over and make notes on the next issue of High Crimes, or if I’m stuck on High Crimes, I can work on something else. As long as my fingers are typing, or I’m writing longhand, as long as something is happening, you can’t get caught up in that swamp of “oh god what do I doooo” that feeds creative blocks.

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What’s your creative process like? When you’re developing a new idea is it a solitary thing or are you bouncing ideas off of friends, family, and colleagues early on? Also, how fully formed is an idea before you take it out into the world in search of a collaborator and a publisher?

Deconnick: Every idea is different. I keep notes, and I do research and I talk to people, but the real planning for me comes when I make the map of the book and that’s a very solitary affair.

How fully formed is an idea before you take it out into the world in search of a collaborator and a publisher?

Deconnick: Well, I only have Bitch Planet and Pretty Deadly as ground-up projects to speak from, but in both instances, the book is very much a product of the collaboration. With Pretty Deadly, Emma and I had the vaguest notions of what the book would be when we started developing it and it changed radically. With Bitch Planet, it’s still on target to be roughly what I thought it would be but the tone has shifted.

What can you tell me about some of the influences that inspired Bitch Planet and what are some of the cliches from the women in prison exploitation films that you want to flip on their ear?

Deconnick: I think Bitch Planet is just me wanting to steer into the curve. Like, if my rep is cranky feminist, oh YOU JUST WAIT. I ain’t yet begun to grump.

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I don’t know if “flip on it’s ear” is accurate exactly, but, like how do I do the obligatory shower scene?

I don’t profess to be an expert in “women in prison” movies so maybe you can expound a little bit on the inspiration for the book and where that came from and that whole genre of films.

Deconnick: The idea first came up when I had been invited to pitch some – I think literally I was invited to pitch some schlocky TV movies. I was coming up with ideas and it didn’t go. But so many of the ideas that I had written down when I was brainstorming, I was like, “I love all of these. Screw it. I’m keeping all of these.” There happened to be a rep helping me with it, like making sure it was a legit offer and everything. And he said, “Yeah, you should develop some of this stuff. Do a spec strip or whatever.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

I kept that list and sort of added to it. I maintain a morgue and I maintain sort of an idea list, so I kept that stuff on this list. And then I met Valentine De Landro at Fan Expo in Toronto and just immediately liked him. I loved his work so we were talking about what we could do together and I sent him this list. He wrote back and he was like, “You know, I’ve got to say, this Bitch Planet is the one.” So I said, “Let’s do it.”

And I remember – I talked about this a little bit because of Pretty Deadly but like I have this special place in my heart for revenge movies. I think I just sort of came into the world with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. There is nothing about power fantasies that any man can teach me. I understand power fantasies. I’ve always kind of looked like a child, you know? I know what it is to feel like you’re not there or you’re impotent in the world in a larger sense. And I think that’s why I’ve always been so loud. It’s a sensatory thing. And those movies like Avenging Angel, Female Prisoner #701, Scorpion, and all these fantastic revenge films and exploitation films just speak to me. There is a visceral joy in those films for me.

And because I am an unapologetic contemporary feminist there are aspects of those films that are problematic for me. And there’s some practices from those films that we do a lot in comics. We have a history in comics of presenting these salacious images only so that we can wag our fingers at them, you know. “Oh, this terrible bad girl. She does that because she’s into it.” And, okay, she’s not real, honey. We made her do that so you could then judge her for it, you know. That’s fine as long as we recognize what we’re doing. I’m only not okay with it when we pretend that it’s not what it is. So, you know, if we pretend that we are not participating in this in some way – that we pretend that we’re not objectifying these women – that these characters have some sense of real agency of their own.

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So I was thinking about those movies and how much I like them and also how there are parts of it that I hate and parts where they make me very angry that the women are abused and made into meat. I tried to figure out whenever I find myself in that gray space where I have very mixed feelings about something – like when I was doing Osborn: Evil Incarcerated for Marvel, the spark of the idea for that was learning about this prison that’s off the coast of Seattle. It doesn’t exist anymore, actually, but it was this special detainment center where – I read this headline that said: “special prison off of the coast of Seattle houses 300 male predatory sex offenders and one female.” And I thought, “What did she do?”

I started looking into what that story was and what I learned was that this prison was a real place and a lot of these – the gender of the sex offenders was critical to the story. What I learned was a lot of these offenders had actually completed their sentences and they were still being held there. The part of me who is a card carrying ACLU member was horribly offended by this. That is unconstitutional and un-American and goes against everything I believe. The part of me that is a mother of small children was like, “Oh, predatory sex offenders locked up on an island. Lose the fucking key!” Very strong opposing views. And that is rich, rich soil for fiction. And so these movies that I so love and I so enjoy and I have parts of them make me so angry and I hate so much – that was like, okay, there’s questions that I can ask here.

There’s questions I can ask of myself and things to explore here and things to turn over and see how it tastes and how it holds together. What are my feelings about this? Why do I like it as much as I do and why do I not like these parts as much? And if I take out the parts that I don’t like, do the parts that I do like hold up on their own? Can it be exploitation if the women aren’t exploited? Can it still be titillating if we give the women agency? I don’t know. Let’s figure it out. Let’s see if we can do it in a way that is fun and still feels like that kind of thing, but isn’t abusive. Or if we do include those things is there a way that we can do it self-consciously? Is there a way that we can do it with commentary? So I’m excited about it and I want it to be a fun book and I want it to be a funny book. I take a lot of heat for talking about feminist issues as much as I do. So as long as I’m gonna get called a bitch, let’s just own it.

Is it a prison planet type of storyline?

Deconnick: Yeah, it’s a gang of five women who are busting out. So, yeah.

With the new Captain Marvel #1 you’re taking Carol cosmic, can you talk about that decision and whether this is a permanent switch or not? Will we see Carol in New York in the near future?

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Deconnick: It’s not permanent, but neither is it a jaunt.

With Pretty Deadly, you’ve spoken about the move away from a more standard western to something that has all of these supernatural elements, how did that evolution take place and did you or Emma Rios instigate or nudge the other one more toward that change?

Deconnick: I honestly couldn’t tell you — the monsters just would not go away.

Also, did the tone of the dialogue evolve as well? There’s this dreamy, lyrical sound to the book — would that have been in place had the initial foundation of the concept survived?

Deconnick: That’s just how it came out? The very first thing written — a year or so in advance of everything else — was the ‘like the bud about to blossom fears the sun’ line. I guess that set the tone for the rest of it.  

I have to say that the stories in the back of Pretty Deadly — specifically in #1 and #2 — are quite lovely and intimate and uncommon. What inspires you to be so open?

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Deconnick: Honestly? Probably 13 years in AA.  

Was High Crimes always intended to wrap up after 12 issues?

Sebela: Yeah, High Crimes was always a limited series. It’s a finite story, and the ending’s been in place since before we shook hands with Monkeybrain. 12 was the number Ibrahim and I came up with that would give us enough room to tell the whole story the way we want to tell it and not wear out our welcome in the process.

With Aliens vs. Predator, you’re a part of a large Ridleyverse. When it was revealed that the Star Wars license was leaving Dark Horse it was said that they were “preparing for this eventuality”. Do you feel like this world is part of the Star Wars replacement strategy and if so, is there any added pressure?

Sebela: Honestly, I haven’t really thought about it in those terms. I’m pretty busy dealing with the pressure of me as a kid watching these movies and geeking out, me as a fan of the movies and the comics, and me as a writer who gets to play with all these things that are big signposts in the culture. If I threw that possibility into the mix, I might snap.

I think this project happened because Prometheus came out and re-opened up all these worlds for review and speculation and wondering. The movie threw a deck of cards worth of new ideas and questions out on the board and it’s only natural to want to explore how much this opens the universe up, and how closely it might tie it all together. That feels like the driving force of this project. It’s definitely mine.

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Kelly Sue DeConnick and Christopher Sebela, thank you very much!

Don Kaye also contributed to this interview.

Ghost #2 is available on Wednesday March 12th from Dark Horse Comics and Dark Horse Digital. Captain Marvel #1 is also out on March 12th from Marvel, Pretty Deadly #5 comes out on March 26th from Image, and Dead Letters #1 debuts on April 2nd.