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Part 2: The Mary Sue Discusses Women In Comics With Dark Horse Comics’ Editor In Chief

The Mary Sue Exclusive

Yesterday we brought you the first part in our two-part conversation with Dark Horse Comics’ Editor in Chief Scott Allie. We discussed their Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, Tomb Raider, and just some of the phenomenal talent they’ve got behind them. Today we focus on Greg Rucka, Hellboy, diversity in the industry, and literally judging a book by its cover.

TMS: You recently returned from ComicsPRO, where we heard Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson call women the “fastest growing demographic” for their company, and perhaps all of comics. What are your thoughts on that?

Allie: They certainly have been—I’m not sure where it’s at right now, as we don’t have those stats. I agree with a lot of what Eric said about growing the audience, but obviously I don’t agree with all of how every last one of us should do it. Buffy has been an incredible way of bringing new readers into comics shops, bringing in a lot of readers who didn’t have much interest in comics, but once they got here they found that they had a lot of affinity for it. It makes sense that a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would find something in other comics. Umbrella Academy worked the same way. So many retailers told me they’d never seen so many teenaged girls in their stores. Manga got girls going into Barnes and Noble looking for books, but Umbrella, and Gerard [Way’s] outspoken love of comics, turned a lot of young women into comics readers—and whether that means Batman readers or X-Men readers or Invisibles readers, I am honestly just happy to get more new bodies into comic shops. I think Tomb Raider will contribute to that, I think Halo and Mass Effect will.

It makes sense that women represent a huge growth opportunity because there’s been so many obstacles for them, coming into the art form, for so long, and little by little that’s changing. I didn’t used to appreciate that. When I was a teenager, in my small town in Massachusetts, we got our comics on a spinner rack at the newsstand. And by “we” I mean me and Rebecca Guay. She’s a fine artist and illustrator, a Magic the Gathering artist and a comics artist, with whom I grew up, and she was my main comics pal in Ipswich. The guy at the news store let us raid his back issue bins—I use the term loosely—before he sent them off for returns. So with my best-comics friend being this young woman who could draw better than anyone I’d ever met, I didn’t realize that girls didn’t read comics. This was in a day when boys weren’t very public about reading comics, so it was mostly just Rebecca and me in that town. When I started going to comic shops, I started to see the male leaning, but a lot of my earliest comic shop experiences were at Million Year Picnic in Harvard Square, which was very female friendly, if I recall. But once I hit college, bam, the only comics fans I knew were guys. And I started going to those types of stores where women would feel unwelcome …

But it’s not just women. It’s minorities of all kinds, that are marginalized in various ways. After Image Expo, when there was so much talk about how there are no minorities in comics, I read a great piece by David Walker, a Portland writer, saying, “Hey, no we’re here, don’t overlook us!” It’s valid and good to point out that there’s not enough representation, but it detracts from the people who are here, if you suggest there’s none. I know some of the non-white folk and the women on that stage at Image Expo felt weird being told they weren’t there. We need to acknowledge how much diversity there is if we want to welcome more in. After Image Expo I found myself defending Image a lot … after Comics Pro, I guess not as much …

TMS: Do you think having these women, and others, creating content for Dark Horse encourages more women to pick up your products? Or do you feel the stories themselves speak louder?

Allie: That’s part of it—having women and other underrepresented groups doing the work invites the audience. But what I feel strongly about, and the reason I’ve made it a goal to hire a lot of female editors and assistant editors, is that by having women in the office, it influences the work we do, and over time, comics overall will be a more inclusive place, and it’ll be easier for more and more women to read. It’ll evolve naturally.

When I asked Sierra Hahn to edit Kull a number of years ago—Kull, from the creator of Conan—I thought this would help evolve the narrative in those books. The Conan work I did with Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord—I’m really proud of that, it’s great work, and I love how Kurt writes women. There was a bit of a blowup when he created a character whose origin involved rape—a female character, you know, inevitably … Some people were pissed, and it was a learning moment for me. I had stopped watching Law & Order SVU by then, a show I really enjoyed for a while, but week after week of rape-driven plots just beat the hell out of me. I was sick of rape as a plot device. I believe most artists, if I can use the term, intend to show how horrible it is—except guys like Rob Zombie, who use it to titillate. But even when you’re using it as a plot device to show how terrible it is, the fact that you’re the seventh TV show doing it that week just desensitizes the audience to it, and normalizes it. So I took the message to heart, when some readers reacted negatively to that storyline in Conan. I tried to learn from it. And I thought that putting someone like Sierra at the helm of a Robert E Howard property would help to evolve what these stories were about. And it might force the freelancers on the books—whether they were male or female—to think differently about what they do. And having as many women in the office as we do helps break down the “old boys club” quality that comics bullpens have often had. In our department, almost every other office has a woman in it. It impacts the books we do, and it evolves the art form and the audience.

TMS: The desensitisation is obviously a big issue when it comes to rape tropes and I don’t think most people realize that all it takes sometimes is another voice, woman or not, questioning its use before someone realizes, “Hey, this might not be necessary.” And that’s what bugs me when people say hiring women or minorities is just to fill a quota, having different people around actually helps everyone produce better work.

Allie: Absolutely. The goal is not to fill a quota. It’s to reflect reality. We’ve been given a little bit of a hard time, you know, by a handful of people online, literally a few, that BPRD doesn’t have more female creators involve. Despite everything else I’ve said here, I don’t think myself a hypocrite for saying that I haven’t made an explicit effort to hire women to write or draw [Mike] Mignola’s books. I haven’t made that a specific priority. I’ve looked for the right people to work on the books. A few times that’s led me to women, but I’ve not made it a quota. Nor have I done that on Buffy—it’s just that on Buffy, the pursuit of quality has more often led me to women. Is that because of the themes of Buffy? Or is it about what Buffy needs to be, creatively? I don’t know. It only occurred to me recently, when the diversity thing kicked up after Image Expo, that the first two comic book seasons of Buffy—real comics, all of them—were drawn by a black man, and the current season is drawn by a woman. That wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t a decision we made before we hired our talent, but it’s appropriate.

However, when hiring for editorial staff, I do make it a priority to bring in women. When you’re hiring writers and artists—when I am, anyway—I’m hiring them for what they’ve done, assuming that they will continue to do work of that calibre. When I’m hiring a young assistant editor, I’m hiring them on a hunch. I don’t really know what they’re capable of. I’m guessing, based on whatever factors I can take in. So it’s easier for me to let gender play a part. I’m not going to hire a less talented female penciler over a more talented male penciler, because I’m not looking to fill quotas—I believe I can judge those talents with some objectivity. Whereas with a potential assistant editor, I’m guessing, it’s way more subjective, and it feels like an appropriate place to take a hunch and say, We need another voice in the mix.

TMS: Greg Rucka and Toni Fejzula are working on the new series Veil, which sounds very interesting. Tell us a bit about this story and its lead.

Allie: This is not a book we can speak about at length … there are some surprises in it, and it’s hard to say much about what’s in the book without flirting with spoilers. Over lunch one day, Greg pitched me a few ideas, but he lit up when he talked about this one—I don’t know that he realized that he did, but I’m telling you. But then he did notice that I lit up like a Christmas tree, and we knew this was the one. Greg is one of the great comics writers of the day, he’s done great things with female characters, and it is not lost on me that our first issue has a scrawny, elfish, naked, doe-eyed woman on the cover looking very much like a victim. I don’t think he’s done a character like this before. That is, he hasn’t done a character like what appears to be on that cover, nor has he done one like the one who’ll be revealed in the upcoming issues.

TMS: They do say “don’t judge a book by its cover…” that can be a huge deterrent to women when it comes to comics.

Allie: Yeah. And we were a little worried about that on Veil #1. We knew the image we wanted, and we managed it as closely as we could to get the right vision, but we knew that that image could be read the wrong way. I think Toni hit the right note. Greg’s women don’t tend to be cowering, shivering waifs. Veil won’t appear like that by the end.

TMS: At GeekGirlCon a few years back, our Managing Editor Susana Polo led a spotlight on Greg. Hearing him talk about his female characters, and how people talk to him about his female characters, was eye opening. It was a moment of, “Greg gets it, why doesn’t everyone else!” Some people think only women are capable of writing good female characters and that’s obviously not true.

Allie: Obviously I agree, but I wonder specifically what you mean by “Greg gets it.” Only because I really wonder what you think about this. I follow you on Twitter, and I mostly agree with all the stuff you say on there—but there are women, feminists, that I listen to, and don’t always agree with—because there’s a wide variety of opinion, of nuance, even among people who basically agree. And I see people who I think should essentially agree, telling each other they don’t get it because they disagree about details, or about extremes. I find myself disagreeing a lot with the male feminists I see on Twitter, who express impassioned opinions that make no sense to me, that give me a knee-jerk reaction to want to step away from the conversation, for a variety of reasons.

I love how Greg handles female characters in genre fiction. I love Kelly Sue [DeConnick’s] and Gail [Simone’s] take on this, I love Joss’s … I think there are a lot of different ways of looking at this issue, and we aren’t required to be in lock-step line with one another. Bt hopefully a lot of us are contributing in a positive way. Like I said about Mignola and [John] Arcudi and our Hellboy books. I love how we present women there. Very happy with that. We’re not confronting the issue with the vigor of Kelly or Greg, but I hope that doesn’t mean we don’t get it.

TMS: By “Greg gets it” I mean, when writing a story he doesn’t go “how can I make an awesome female character?” or “what makes an awesome female character?” he just aims to write well-rounded, real characters, regardless of race. There’s no checklist, “has to physically kick ass, has to never show weakness, etc.” And that’s what a lot of people think there is.

Allie: Yeah, and I hope it’s all evolving in that direction, to where that will be the natural place people go. It’ll be less the online debate and more the way things are in genre fiction.

TMS: Talk to us a bit about Kel McDonald’s Misfits of Avalon project. We’ve mentioned it on our social media accounts when we heard about it, as it seems directly in our readers’ paths.

Allie: I may be wrong, but I believe Mike Richardson met Kel at Portland’s Stumptown Comicfest a couple years back, and he responded really strongly to her work. Rachel Edidin had shown me Kel’s work previously, and I’d met her at shows, but it was when Mike met her at a show, and then Rachel brought her around the office, that things took off. Kel’s stuff has so much personality and warmth, and it shoots right for the heart of this growing demographic we were talking about. It’s still a little bit before the first volume comes out, so we haven’t been pushing it too much yet, but you’ll start seeing more of that soon.

TMS: Besides the ones we’ve already discussed, is there a title you’d like to recommend to our readers they might be missing out on?

Allie: Well, as important as Joss [Whedon] has been to my career, nothing has been more defining for me than my work on Mignola’s books. Hellboy is firing on all cylinders with Hellboy in Hell, as we hit the 20th anniversary, but B.P.R.D. is the one that’s there every month, has been for years. There’s the Abe Sapien monthly now, which I’m writing. But back before Buffy, back before the female audience was really growing for us by leaps and bounds, I was always surprised by how much mail Mignola’s books got from female readers. Women love Hellboy. I had all sorts of theories for that, but the two I’ve settled on are this. Women love really high-quality work, so Hellboy satisfies there … but the other thing Mignola does that I love, and John Arcudi does too, is that they just write the women like people.

Joss is a feminist—I’m happy that there’s conversation around ideas like that, but I’m comfortable saying he’s a feminist. He tackles women’s issues, to some degree, in his work. Mike doesn’t. John doesn’t. In Mike’s best characters, you see certain great qualities and certain weaknesses across the board, regardless of gender. Liz and Kate aren’t sexed up. Nobody is boy crazy. The stories don’t necessarily always have female characters, but when they do I think they do well by the Bechdel test—and they do it without trying. It’s just the way we write the characters. And I like that.

Once again, here’s a look at the fantastic art Dark Horse has provided us (exclusives marked as such). Thanks so much to Scott Allie and the DH crew!

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Jill Pantozzi is a pop-culture journalist and host who writes about all things nerdy and beyond! She’s Editor in Chief of the geek girl culture site The Mary Sue (Abrams Media Network), and hosts her own blog “Has Boobs, Reads Comics” ( She co-hosts the Crazy Sexy Geeks podcast along with superhero historian Alan Kistler, contributed to a book of essays titled “Chicks Read Comics,” (Mad Norwegian Press) and had her first comic book story in the IDW anthology, “Womanthology.” In 2012, she was featured on National Geographic’s "Comic Store Heroes," a documentary on the lives of comic book fans and the following year she was one of many Batman fans profiled in the documentary, "Legends of the Knight."