Feb 6, 2012

Interview: PRINCELESS Writer, Jeremy Whitley

Our guest today, ladies and gentlemen, is Mr. Jeremy Whitley, writer of PRINCELESS. PRINCELESS is the story of a young black princess named Adrienne, who get stuck in a tower by her parents so that she can be saved by a prince who will then be heir to the throne. But Adrienne has a strong, independent streak, and she refuses to play damsel in distress. So she decides to take matters (and her dragon) into her own hands.

Here's my review of the first issue. For the interview, it's after the jump.

All right. One of the things I like to do on the Cube is to spotlight creators as much as the creations, so I'd like to start by asking how you started doing   comics and eventually getting to the point of publishing PRINCELESS.

Well, I took sort of the long route to getting started on writing comics. I loved comics as a kid but in late elementary school my family moved to the foothills of North Carolina where there wasn't really a comic shop around. Over time I sort of forgot about reading comics, though I kept my love of superheroes and all things comic booky.

Any particular favorites?

I was pretty standard Marvel when I was younger. Spider-Man and the X-Men were really my favorites. Mostly X-Men, though I had a huge attachment to anything symbiote-related. It gives away my age, but MAXIMUM CARNAGE was very big at the time.

That was my favorite video game growing up.

That game was huge for my brother and I. It caused many a fight over the SuperNES. I remember it was the first video game I ever bought as a gift used, for my brother, for Christmas, from Blockbuster.

On a side note, please do go on.

In high school I decided that writing was what I wanted to do. I went to college for English and Creative writing, but my program had a fairly strict "no genre fiction" rule. So all through college I focused on play writing, a little non-fiction, but mostly that big vanilla-colored box of literature generically labelled fiction.

So your writing was focused on "fiction," do you mean grounded stories with little fantastical elements?

Yeah, mostly. Though, to be honest, my stories were much higher on the fantastic elements than most of my classmates. Everybody seemed to be writing to be published in The New Yorker. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I just prefer to have a little more fun with what I write.

Yeah, I can see that — people tend to look for a formula and then follow that theoretical formula in the hopes of achieving success, no?

Exactly. That has never been my forte. Of course, a BA in English and Creative writing resulted in a glorious career at the local video store where I kept trying to figure out what I wanted to do. One of my regulars at the video store was the guy who ran our local comic book store, Mr. Jon Newman. If you've ever read (Mark) Millar and Tommy Lee Edwards' 1985, Tommy actually based the "comic book guy" from that story on Jon. Looks just like him.

Hah, I'll keep an eye out for it.

Anyway, it was through him that I found out about Joss Whedon's new BUFFY comics. My wife is a die hard Buffy fan and if they were continuing the story, I knew I had to pick them up. So I found myself back in the comic book shop.

Where were you at this point?

This was Ultimate Comics of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Now, Jon is that thing that I tried to be at the movie store and I like to hope that every comic book store has, a man who reads a lot of books and isn't afraid to recommend something to your tastes that you might not have seen. I mentioned that I had always been a big comics fan and that the last thing I had really read was THE AGE OF APOCALYPSE. Jon put two and two together and directed me to a large stand of Joss Whedon's ASTONISHING X-MEN. I took the first trade and read it cover to cover twice the first night I had it. The next day I went back and bought the second trade and every individual issue that had come out to that point even though I didn't really have the extra money for that. (I also later bought the trades of AOA, because I had never been able to get my hands on a copy of X-Men Omega, the finale to that event, so for years I didn't know how it ended.) So I became a regular at the store. I subscribed to ASTONISHING, BUFFY, and I started picking up issues of this big event they were doing called CIVIL WAR. Man, was I hooked.

Wow, it's all blending together for me. I'd forgotten that BUFFY was the same time as CIVIL WAR.

Within a few months, it had turned into one of those fifty-dollar-a-month comic habits.

Fifty a month! How did you manage?

Well, not very well to be honest. I could afford it, but we were not in the best of situations moneywise at that point, so I really shouldn't have.

Is this when you decided that you had to make comics to keep up the comics hobby?

I'm not sure if I thought of it like that. I came up with this idea for a comic I wanted to make called THE DREAMER'S DAUGHTER.

What was that about?

It took place in an America where there had been a second civil war between whites and blacks. America had been divided into two countries that were in an uneasy ceasefire the story centered around a biracial girl who lived in the black country and was recruited by her government to become a spy because she could pass for white.

Is race a really important topic for you? PRINCELESS is of course centered around a black character, and now you're describing to me a story that revolves around race relations.

It is. I grew up in a family where half of my aunts and uncles are half Mexican, so I've always been pretty sensitive to the issue. Of course, my wife is black so when we started dating and talking about getting married, it became a pretty deeply entrenched part of my life. My wife and I have always had an unspoken agreement that we talk about race. We don't treat it as taboo. We don't try to pretend that we don't know or care each other's races. It's an important part of who we are, and our daughter isn't going to have much of a choice but for it to be part of who she is.

And as part of that discussion, what you go through as being part of those races, I assume.

Exactly. It's important to understand and acknowledge how we are shaped and affected because of our race, and it's harder to find a place in the world where that's more evident than literature and as an extension, comics.

I (obviously) get that. Oddly, I avoid talking about it on the Cube because I actually dread the possible flamewars. So by extension, how do you feel about the fact that the comics culture is predominantly white-centric?

I think it's weird. I think that it's bizarre how this many years after Milestone we can still have such a white-centric comics world. Black characters and often creators are pushed towards the margin as are female characters and creators. And it's not as if there aren't black or female or black female fans.

It does seem like 99% of their attempts to be more "diverse" really just mean "with more black characters." And more often than not, they're stereotypes. Does this offend your wife at all, or does she just let these things roll off her back? And you, as well?

I wouldn't say it offends her and maybe that's the real problem. She's used to it. She expects it. If there is something really awful or ridiculous than she's not above going on a rant, but her answer has been mostly to withdraw from active fandom and only pay attention when something she really likes comes across her desk.
I probably get much more on my high horse about it than she does. I remember actually having an argument with another fan who was black in which I was ranting and raving about the lack of diversity in comics and he said "Well, they're creators. They create what they want to create." And I said, "Well what if everything they ever create is white and male" to which he responded "Then you get the Avengers."

I get that. I came across Matt Fraction's Iron Man issue with Filipino superheroes, with a scene set in the Philippines, and I really wanted to throw that out the window once I read it. But how do you push diversity? Everyone criticizes "diversity for diversity's sake," but for my money, what else would it be for the sake of? It's not like it's a bad thing to be doing things for the sake of.

True enough. It just seems that for some reason people don't know how to write black characters without stereotyping. For the life of me I can't figure out why Storm is not as popular as Wolverine. She's so damn cool! Yet we keep going back to Wolverine and Cyclops and occasionally Storm shows up for a few issues and disappears. That's my real dream as a comics creator: to write a really good Storm book.

If it's any consolation, she's most likely the most popular female character in Marvel's stable. Granted, that may be like being the tallest dwarf...

Exactly! The fact that Marvel has so many female characters (and really good ones from a basic and conceptual standpoint) and that they have yet to establish a brand on par with Wonder Woman is really a travesty. I'm willing to bet a good ninety percent of people who own something with Wonder Woman's picture on it have never read more than one consecutive issue of Wonder Woman. DC has done everything they can to destroy that brand, yet here she remains.

You would think they would push the living hell out of Ms. Marvel, considering that she has, you know, the word "Marvel" in her name. Not even that she's the best female character they have (that'd be Storm), just that marketing her would be so easy.

Right? Yet somehow they keep trying to make Invisible Woman become a thing.

So we are straying from the topic (though this is interesting). Whatever happened to THE DREAMER'S DAUGHTER?

Well, I needed someone to illustrate it. My wife wanted to do it but she didn't think her art was up to par (though her art is awesome, as anyone who follows our webcomic can attest). So, I posted some fliers and put and add on Craigslist, where I was contacted by my now friend and Firetower Studios co-founder Charlie Harper. He was interested in illustrating the book and asked me to come out and meet with him at a weekly artist meetup he attended at a local coffee shop. We worked on the book for about a year, but a lot of life happened. Charlie had a kid. I moved a couple of times. We both changed jobs at different points. Eventually, we just conceded defeat on that book. I still have twenty some issues written on my trusty comp, just waiting for...something.

Do you plan on going back to it one day?

Yes. I may rewrite the whole thing but someday that book will happen. I just really need the right artist.

DUY'S NOTE FOR ARTISTS: You can address samples to Jeremy Whitley at jrome58@gmail.com. It's not a "contest" though, so no guarantee that he'll pick a "winner."

Anyway, I stuck around for the artist meeting Charlie was going to and met a guy named Jason Strutz. Jason was working on some of his own stuff and I found a picture in his portfolio of Queen Titania from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. It reminded me of another idea I'd had for a story, and I went home that night and wrote up a comic script based on that idea. That became Firetower's first published book, THE ORDER OF DAGONET. Jason and I are still working together and have been running from convention to convention selling THE ORDER OF DAGONET.

We're up to six issues available for sale on www.firetowerstudios.com and through Graphicly, including a printed trade of the first four issues. (Duy here. It's also on Amazon.) The book revolves around a group of modern day celebrity knights how have been recruited to fight the mystical creatures of the world of faerie as they return to modern England. Basically our fate is in the hands of Ozzy Osbourne, Elton John, Ian McKellen, and so on.

I do notice that you like to stick pop culture references in your work.Do you ever worry that this would date the work?

I try to keep the references timeless and in character. If the character would say it in the time the character is in, then I feel I'm golden. Most of the stuff in PRINCELESS is either timeless enough or enough out of time that I think it will either feel right or fade into the background.

And that brings us to PRINCELESS. How did this project get started?

PRINCELESS actually had one false start and if you look hard enough on the internet, you can find some of the original artwork. Needless to say, the book did not immediately take off and my artist (who has a relatively successful graphic art career) decided to focus on his art. So I ended up toting around a big pile of number 1s to conventions that year, one of which our booth neighbor Dave Dwonch got for a copy of his book, GNOME. A few months after Heroes Con, Dave sent me an email saying how much he loved PRINCELESS and how it was the sort of book he always wished he could be involved with. My response, having no artist and no possibility of getting an issue 2, was "Guess what? You can!", at which point he had me write up a pitch and took it to the new comic company he'd just founded with some of his comic book–making buddies, Action Lab Comics.

Ah, so that's why there are two company names on the covers.

Yep, Firetower is my independent press and Action Lab are the big boys who actually helped put together to Princeless you see today. They found me a fantastic artist in M Goodwin and Dave and Action Lab co-founder Shawn Gabbourin actually handle the editing duties on the last two issues Dave handled the lettering as well.

Now, how did you get the idea for PRINCELESS? You've covered that the race aspect is because of your and your wife's backgrounds, but what about the story itself?

It goes back to when my wife and I were talking about having kids. I had always wanted to have a daughter and I wanted to be able to share the love I have of comic books with her. Looking around though, most of the girls in my wife's family had never picked up comic books. They had not reason to, there was nothing for them there, nothing they could relate to. I didn't want my daughter to feel the same way. I combined that with the thing that some of those girls have that really creeps me out, the princess culture. I'm really bothered by the fact that so many of the heroes that we provide our girls are helpless, hopeless, and their entire futures hinge on some guy waltzing in to rescue them.

The Disney stereotype.

Yes, Disney. Now Disney is not all bad, there's a lot to like there. In fact, I take a bit of inspiration from the Disney movies I grew up with when it comes to vocabulary in PRINCELESS. I don't shy away from big words or big concepts, because I remember most of the lyrics to "Prince Ali."

Mighty is he?

Just an excerpt: Prince Ali! Fabulous he! Ali Ababwa! Genuflect, show some respect! Down on one knee! Now, try your best to stay calm, Brush up your sunday salaam, then come and meet his spectacular coterie.

They seem to be making a concerted effort to move away from that, but it's difficult to shake off things like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

Jasmine was a step in the right direction as was Mulan, but even in an extreme case like Mulan, she's still so obedient and so much about family and duty. I wanted a character who was out for herself and girls like her.

I haven't seen the latest ones (Princess and the Frog and Tangled). My friend is annoyed at me because she actually worked on those movies and I never saw any of them. Whoops.

I always feel compelled to tell people that I was writing Princeless well before I ever heard about Princess and the Frog, Tangled, or Brave, all of which it shares elements with, and those movies all have serious positives, though I am a little irritated that for some reason the one black princess in the Disney world has to live in 20th century New Orleans while the white Princesses all live in faraway magical worlds.

I'll make sure to note it, although I'm sure it doesn't matter. Using an African-American character is important, regardless of the surrounding context in the mainstream culture.

True, by why can't a black girl have a real castle? It's just not fair.

How does this work though? It seems that you can't use a non-white character without ever hitting on the issue of his or her being not white. Does that add a wrinkle to telling a story with a non-white character?

It does. I handled it by pointing out her nonwhiteness right off the bat and then proceeding to not make a big deal of it when it came to the story.

I loved that, by the way. That's the scene I keep telling people about when I'm describing the book.

Part of my answer has also been that Adrienne is black and shares secondary characteristics like naturally kinky hair but she is not African-American or African,meaning that there is no cultural baggage that comes with a history of oppression, which is actually kind of important to me from a fantasy reader standpoint.

Yeah, it's a different earth altogether without the same history.

Because, as I was printing out with Princess and the Frog earlier, there seems to be this concept that people of color can't exist in a fantasy context. And that's not just black people, not a lot of Filipino people in Tolkien either.

Or anyone, really. And let's just make it clear: females. They're not really characters in these old stories.(And oddly, when they try to rework it so that the girls are in these stories, like with Eowyn in the LOTR movies, it comes off as very forced)

Well, I was actually going to say that ever since the first time I read The Lord of the Rings in sixth grade, Eowyn has been one of my favorite characters. At least up till the end where everybody else goes off to have awesome adventures and she just settles down goes back to being a good little girl. That bothered me even then. Maybe that says a lot about me.

Oh, I never read the books. It just stood out to me in the movies, this overwhelming feeling of "That's not supposed to happen." Of course, I felt that about the 15 of the 17 endings too... and those all happened...

Yeah, she really kicks butt in the books, then in the end she gets married and settles down. Boo to that. Mot that I don't like being married and having a kid, but really.

So how did the creation of PRINCELESS progress, and how did you decide to split it up into however many books it'll end up being?

Well, the way I was writing it to begin with, we were going to have a number of issues focusing on Adrienne's attempt to rescue each sister. Action Lab proposed splitting them up into miniseries so that anyone can pick up the new number 1 and just start where we do. It's something that I'd seen work very well for comics like HELLBOY and THE STUFF OF LEGEND, so I went for it. Plus it gave me a limit where I had to finish each story. I'm bad about allowing my books to ramble on and bleed together.

So PRINCELESS is a project you plan to keep going for years? We can call Book One the Secret Origin of Princess Adrienne?

Yeah, the current story revolving around the rescuing of the Ash sisters is set to run 24–25 issues, so it will probably carry on for a few years at least.

That's cool. It ended on such a cliffhanger, too. My niece was asking me when the next one was.

The next one is slightly up in the air right now, but the plan is to definitely have the next mini going this year. I already have it written and it's nearly edited, so I'm excited to get it into production. After that's done I'm perfectly amenable to writing more adventures for Adrienne if people are still reading.

I definitely have the trade on preorder. I was only able to manage to get the first issue, and only after a lot of drama involving Diamond and lateness. It would almost definitely be easier to get the trade.

The trade should be much more widely available, whether people are looking at Amazon, the comic book store, or hopefully even in the book store.

So PRINCELESS is a subversion of that whole fairy tale convention — and it's gotten very favorable reviews. Have the sales figures been backing that up?

To the best of my knowledge yes. It's certainly the best selling book I've written, not that that's saying a lot. Our Diamond rep says that for the indy market the numbers are quite good. I happen to know that Action Lab has at least made their money back, so hopefully I won't be putting them out of business any time soon.

That's good to hear, because my niece loves this book. And of course,you have a target audience of all ages. Not "primarily for kids" — all ages. How do you find writing that? Is there a balancing act you have to do?

Definitely. I fall kind of into that gap anyway. I like to keep things at a level that people feel comfortable sharing them but they don't have that scrubbed clean feeling. I like for things to feel a bit edgy. My biggest challenge has been writing fight scenes involving a sword where no one ever gets stabbed or bleeds on panel.

One thing I really liked about Princeless is that you keep digging at the conventions of the genre. Everyone can tell you're having fun with it, such as the "Warrior Women Wardrobe" scene. Have these things always bugged you about superhero comics?

They have always bothered me, but it seems even worse in recent years. Not to dig up an overused example, but Harley Quinn had a fantastic costume and now she looks like a crazed hooker.

I always gave Diana a pass though, seeing as how she's invulnerable anyway — and for whatever reason, I never thought she looked sexified. I think she looks more so now, with the choker and everything.

I just never understood what amounts to a one piece bathing suit as as battle armor, though I seem to remember over the years she has had some pretty badass armor.

Diana doesn't need armor though. That's always been my reasoning. Same reason Thor has bare arms... although I of course wouldn't want to see Thor in short shorts.

That's the only sure way to stop this costume discrimination: make it equal across the board. For every woman you draw wearing a battle bikini, you have do draw Thor in short cutoff jeans.

Here's a question: since the race issue is very sensitive to you, what made you decide to make the king a very unlikable character? It seems to me that you have essentially taken what could be a racial topic and then shifted it around to make it a gender topic.

Well, honestly the King is not all bad, though he does have some entirely reprehensible opinions, We'll learn over time that he's a complicated man. My only real goal racially with PRINCELESS is representation. I want a character with brown skin and brown eyes and natural hair that black girls can look at and see that there is a hero that looks like them. I don't intend for PRINCELESS to be about racial issues otherwise, but gender issues are front and center.

Yeah, you've made this world one where the contributions of females are not only unappreciated; they're looked down on. So yeah, gender issues.

I think that's something that's much easier for young girls to relate to. While I wish it weren't the case, that's something they are going to deal with. They'll have to deal with little boys telling them they're "just girls" from an early age.

Absolutely. I've always found that racial discrimination is learned, but gender discrimination seems to be — well, I wouldn't want to say it's ingrained, but it's certainly more ingrained...

So that's where Adrienne stats is a world where everything about her life is predetermined because she's a girl and she makes a decision to change her lot.

So you want young girls to be able to relate to Adrienne. Does this also extend to wanting them to see her as kind of a role model?

Absolutely. I think Adrienne is a great role model. She's far from perfect sometimes, but she thinks for herself and has the guts and brains to make her own destiny.

And certainly I'm sure that you would have a really cool feeling reading these stories to your daughter.

Let's hope. Right now she just keep trying to close them and rip out pages when I open them.

What kinds of features can we expect to see in the TPB, if any?

Well, the trade paperback is going to have one really cool special feature in the form of a crossover with the hit Image fantasy comic SKULLKICKERS.

Yeah, that was my next question. So let me say it before you answer it: "What can you tell us about the Skullkickers crossover?"

It's a short story written by Jim Zub (author of Skullkickers) and illustrated by M. Goodwin. It will appear in the PRINCELESS trade and in one of the upcoming issues of SKULLKICKERS.

Did you have any input on it at all, considering it stars Adrienne?

I didn't do anything on it directly, but they ran the script past me and I'm very happy with it. Maybe someday Jim will let me return the favor.

Can you give us a quick overview of the plot?

Well, it's about the perils of being short in the world of action fantasy...but that's all I can say.

Haha, and we should leave it there and wrap up. Any last words for the readers about PRINCELESS and what else you may be doing?

If you like PRINCELESS keep an eye out for other great original stuff coming out from Action Lab as well as a number of other projects I'm working on for Firetower Studios, not the least of which are our daily webcomics. We do five new comics a week for your viewing pleasure. Also, the first issue of THE ORDER OF DAGONET is free on Graphicly right now! You can check it out now! Also, if you're in the eastern US, keep an eye out for me at the conventions this year. I and the rest of the Action Lab gang will be out and about.

Thanks for the interview, Jeremy! Goodnight!

Thank you for having me. Goodnight.

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