On Wednesday, Marvel NOW released the first issue of chronicling the all-female mutant team of X-Men: Storm, Rogue, Psyocke, Jubilee, Shadowcat and Rachel Grey. I spoke to series editor Jeanine Schaeffer about the development of the series, the difficulties of breaking into the mainstream comics industry as a woman, and drawing the female form.
How long have you been an editor at Marvel? Has there been anything like this before?
Next month will be my five year anniversary! Oh, how the time flies!
As for the precedent for female-lead books, we’ve got great ones on our slate right now, like Fearless Defenders, Captain Marvel, Journey Into Mystery and Uncanny X-Force, but there really is a great precedent for them, too. Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Birds of Prey, just to name a few. I think sometimes female-lead books struggle to find an audience, not because they’re not great books but because there’s an idea about comics “counting” in the superhero world, and anything that doesn’t fit into that criteria doesn’t always find its footing. I feel lucky to be in comics now because of all the amazing groundwork that’s been done by creators and editors in the past to make sure that books with female leads DO count, and that they get a chance to find their audience.
Since I’ve been here it’s been an on-going conversation at Marvel to make sure we do the same. Axel Alonso, Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley have been hugely supportive in not only giving us the resources to make these books, but have made it a priority. And it’s all why now I think we can make an all-female team book and just call it X-MEN, and not make it about the fact they’re women.
How did you become interested in a career editing comic books?
Let’s see, I think this is all very convoluted, as most stories of getting into editorial probably are *laughs* The short answer is that I started reading comics when I was young (X-Men comics, of course!), and as some comics fans do, I became convinced that I would someday work on them, too. And I really liked editing in general. I went to school for creative writing and literature (and vocal performance, but maybe not relevant?), and I did a lot of beta-reading for friends in my spare time (and by spare time I mean, most of my time, with going to work in between) and I wondered if it was something I could do professionally.
I will say, too, seeing women’s names on comics was a huge eye-opener to me. I think I assumed it was all dudes, even when I was younger, so seeing women writing and drawing and editing and heading up companies – in particular women like Jeanette Kahn, and Karen Berger and Shelly Bond at Vertigo, who seemed to be the coolest women I had ever heard of in my life – really made me think, oh, I can do this, too!
Is it more difficult to break into major houses like Marvel or DC as a woman than it would be go to an indie press or edit graphic novels or something similar? (And would you be able to estimate the ratio of men to women at work?)
Oh, man, I have no idea what’s harder! I would imagine it’s just different levels of difficult, but I’ve only ever experienced the process at Marvel and DC. And to be honest, like I said above, I’m so lucky to have started when I did. I started at DC Comics about nine years ago, where women like Jeanette and Karen and Shelly were such huge personalities. Not to mention the history of women working at Marvel, like Flo Steinberg, Marie Severin, Louise Simonson just to name a few.
So while I’ve encountered barriers and bad situations that I know are down to me being a women, like I’m sure every woman working in this industry has, the women in comics community is so tight right now. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but it does feel like, as a woman, you have somewhere to turn, you know, even if you’re just starting out. Am I way off topic? [laughs] At Marvel I’d say we’re pretty much half-and-half when it comes to women working in the offices.
Can you describe the process of your work? Like, if you have input on the creative side, how much input, if you have anything to do with marketing, etc.?
Input-wise, it’s different for each project. Sometimes creators come with ideas totally fully formed, and it’s my job to do what I can to help them do their best work – be a sounding board, provide feedback, pull them out of the rabbit hole, that sort of thing. Sometimes windows will open up where the editor might see that it’s the right time for a specific type of project, or a project with a specific character, so we’ll reach out to the person or team we think will best execute that idea, and work with them to make it their own. But it’s also part of my job to make sure files get where they need to go, that everyone has scripts, that cover concepts are going out, that sort of thing.
Marvel is a relatively small company, too, in that the publishing arm (editorial, production, pub ops, sales, etc.) all basically fits into the square footage of a tiny one bedroom apartment (maybe with an eat-in kitchen), so we’re all constantly bouncing idea off each other, and making sure everyone is looped in. We do quarterly retreats, too, both in house editorial and sales retreats, as well as larger writer retreats.
Was there a particular reason to decide to do an all-female X-Men series now?
It just felt like the right time, both in house and in the larger comics landscape. Brian Wood had done an awesome run on the previous X-MEN incarnation, and his team was mostly women (four women plus Colossus), a fact that wasn’t strange to the characters because they work together all the time. So we started chatting about what we could do with an all-female team, shopped his pitch around to people here (like X-Men Senior Editor Nick Lowe and Editor in Chief Axel Alonso) and they told us to go for it! Man, when you get that window, you just jump through, no looking back!
Comic books were, historically speaking, marketed to men – what role do you think female characters played in the early days? Were there certain tropes/archetypes of these characters?
I remember reading somewhere when I was doing research for Girl Comics, I think it was in a Trina Robbins book, that there was a time in the 40s where there were a TON of women reading comics, and companies made comics specifically for that audience. Granted, they probably weren’t super hero comics, because that wasn’t the perceived fantasy for women, right? But still, there was an acknowledged audience of women, and I don’t think it had a detrimental effect on the industry in general.
But yeah, super hero comics were geared towards men. They were power fantasies for men – if only I could fly/beat the bad guy/smooch up on the girl. So that probably left the women to be relegated to more subservient roles, that of the damsel in distress or the temptress, in that they were only there to advance the story of the male hero.
Can you pinpoint a shift in this?
Again, I wish I had more of a working knowledge of this stuff so I could really answer. What I thought was cool, in doing Girl Comics research, was finding the women who were super heroes in a time when super hero comics weren’t thought of as being for women. Miss America, Miss Fury, Sheena, Batwoman (who debuted in the 50s), etc.
Have you seen that picture of The Avengers’ male characters drawn in the style of women? What was your reaction to that?
First of all, I do know what you’re talking about without clicking, which is good because when I tried to click it was blocked at work! So when I get the call from our IT security guy, I’m blaming you guys! I mean, it’s funny cos it’s true, right? It’s absurd, seeing all those dudes posed in come hither poses in the middle of a battle (honestly, Black Widow’s whaaaa? face is the best part about it). The issue, really, is that there are a lot of guys who draw what they want to see, which, you know, to each his own. But it’s that same reason why we need to constantly be on the lookout for more diversity in our creators. Because if everyone is coming from one point of view, you’re gonna get the same stuff over and over again, and it might be stuff that won’t, or can’t, speak to a larger audience.
And it’s a hazard of working in mainstream comics. I’ve definitely worked on books that, looking back on, I wish I had spoken up about the way a woman was portrayed, or the way a woman was drawn. And in some cases, I wish I had even noticed! Those are the worst ones. But I keep them in mind and just try to do better the next time.
How has the development of female superheroes, specifically, changed over the course of your career, if at all?
I think the change is actually more general in that I think the conversation has become ever-present, and it’s causing people to actually examine the process of handling female characters. Because there can’t be change if people don’t acknowledge that a change is needed. I believe that the first step is getting over that knee jerk reaction of, “My female characters are fine! It would be the same if it was a man in their place!” and examining the situation in context, from outside your own limited point of view, and that’s definitely happening.
I admit, I’m not super up on superhero comic books, but as a kid I definitely went out of my way to read the Betty and Veronica double-digest comics rather than Archie comics (betraying my lame childhood enjoyment of Archie comics, clearly.) Do you think this new series will have the same effect on young female comic book aficionados, where they’ll switch over? And is that something you’d want?
You were not lame! You were correct! Betty and Veronica were awesome! And I really hope that young women will read this and think it’s cool, maybe have the same reaction I did – that there are super heroes who looked like me, who had actual lives and motivations that I could understand as a girl.
Is there any message you guys are trying to send to these girls by putting this all-women superhero team together?
You can fly, you guys.