It’s been over three years since breakout character Naomi McDuffie was introduced into the DC Universe in her own eponymous series miniseries from co-writers Bendis Michael Bendis and David F. Walker and artist Jamal Campbell. Much has happened for DC’s new “mega-power” since then, including stints appearing in Young Justice and Justice League, and perhaps most significantly a live-action series on the CW developed by Ava DuVernay and Jill Blankenship. The character’s story is only just beginning as Naomi Season 2, the long-awaited sequel to the first Eisner-winning miniseries, arrives today, with Bendis, Walker, & Campbell all returning to continue the story they began and unravel the mysterious origins surrounding Naomi.
The Beat had the chance to chat with the creative team ahead of the release of Naomi Season 2 to discuss the impact of the live-action CW series on the miniseries, the exploration of mental health, and the influence of the late/great Dwayne McDuffie.
Taimur Dar: The development of the Naomi TV series since the character first appeared in comics has been incredibly fast compared to other comic characters. I know you’ve been privy to see behind-the-scenes of what Ava DuVernay and her team were doing with the show. Was there anything they did that you liked that you were able to incorporate for Naomi Season 2?
David F. Walker: That’s an interesting question. Brian and I have talked about this before too. We’re making a comic. They’re making a show. We’ve now hit this point where because Naomi doesn’t have this much mythology both in TV or the comic, we don’t want to be going down the path that they went down. We even had this conversation the other day as a group and I said that this is the thing that’s great about comics. We’re not limited by a special effects budget or whatever. We’re only limited to the insanity that Jamal can bring to the page. I don’t want to speak for the others but when I’m watching a TV show that’s based on a comic or another property, I want that show to be its own show. And I want the comic to be its own thing. I’ve never been the sort of person who wants to see a verbatim rehash. Looking at the show, they’ve done some amazing stuff and Kaci [Walfall] is an amazing actress.
Brian Michael Bendis: My biggest takeaway is that it’s a really good, healthy environment that they’re making the show in. My Jewish guilt can go very far if we created a character and then all of a sudden there’s a TV show and the TV show set is a nightmare and everyone hates each other, I would feel bad! That’s not what I wanted. That’s not why we did this. Ava and her team seem to have a beautiful setup. I haven’t even visited but from what I’m hearing it’s just a wonderful experience. We’re having a wonderful experience on our end and now it gets to trickle down to hundreds of people getting to express themselves. That’s just fantastic.
I’ve been spoiled with this a couple of times before. I walked away from Spider-Verse and Jessica Jones feeling that was good energy. That’s what you want in the world, people feeling good about what they did. It’s happening again, what a blessing. And while we’re doing it. That part is crazy! David knows from Day 1 I’ve full-on embraced how nutty it is that we’re making the comic while the show is still on the air versus what normally happens like Miles [Morales]. We had eight years of comics on the stands before they started their thing. That’s a way big bit of difference! This experience got me totally jazzed. It’s the weird feeling I thought it would be. And weird good.
Dar: As David mentioned, TV shows unlike comics are limited by an effects budget so obviously there are going to be some changes from the source material. The character of Zumbado in the show for instance looks very little like he does in the comics. For the art on Naomi Season 2, Jamal, I’m curious if you approached things differently knowing it could potentially be adapted for live-action?
Jamal Campbell: Not at all. [Laughs] I got into comics wanting to draw comics. When I designed Dee, I designed him to be this big, hulking Jack Kirby-esque monster of a man. That’s something unique to comics and I don’t want to pull that out of it because then you lose what makes comics special and what makes this comic in particular special. Like David said, what they’re doing is an adaptation. They will take whatever we do and twist it and make it what they feel is best for the show. That’s their job and our job is to make something that inspires that. I don’t want to half-ass the art or make any concessions in what I’m doing because that just amounts to less overall from what they can pull from and what readers can enjoy. I feel like my job is just to make the craziest, biggest, best, and most impactful thing that I can do and everything else will trickle down from there and make things better.
Bendis: I think this is the 3rd anniversary of me telling Jamal that, “This is not how this works! Nothing ever happens this way!” I can’t stop saying it, but it’s so crazy.
Campbell: Really, it was just a natural progression. From Season 1 I dove straight into Far Sector. And from Far Sector I dove straight into Naomi [Season 2] so I never really stopped drawing. I’m always trying to push myself to be better and tell the story in a more pure way. Since Season 1 issue 1, I’ve been building on that through issue to issue and series to series. I’m at this point where I understand the character and relationships and action. I’m more involved in the development in the story so I can attack it like I wasn’t able to attack it in Season 1. I think that makes better art in general because I’m more passionate about it. I can seed things in that will pay off in later issues. It just overall makes a stronger comic.
Walker: It’s the water that they drink in Canada!
Bendis: Also Jamal is contributing to the story on a deeper level this time around. There are things going on in the story that Jamal had a hand in as well.
Dar: I know Brian is a big TV viewer and often recommends shows that he adores. During the pandemic, I fell in love with Ted Lasso, and particularly the most recent season hit a chord with me because it deals with mental health and therapy. The first issue of Naomi Season 2 opens with a therapy session and much like Ted Lasso, it’s an uncomfortable experience for Naomi. It’s great to see a deeper exploration of mental health in media in these last few years so I’m curious how you approached this topic?
Bendis: I’m happy to report that we were pre-Ted Lasso in the therapy sessions. Therapy was a big part of the first series as well. One of the cool things about it is revisiting her therapy after being in Young Justice and Justice League. That’s a therapy session! Things have changed. It’s a great way of her being in a very normal situation but you could feel just by the way she’s sitting there [that] a lot has changed since the first season.
I am delighted and thrilled that the stigma that revolves around mental health issues has been forced away. I know there’s a ways to go in some areas but compared to where I was at her age and where kids are today and how they can own their shit and explore their anxiety without feeling shame about it. I know that’s not everyone’s truth but overall for those who don’t know if you’re younger and you’re able to express your anxiety to your friends, that’s a lot different than the world that David and I grew up in. I love to explore that. I think that Ted Lasso and quite a few things are celebrating and want to lean into it. That’s how we’ll get better. This world is very complicated and it’s getting more complicated. We’re being enmeshed by algorithms that are messing with our mental health. We have to help each other and the only way we can do that is by talking about it.
Walker: I agree. Brian and I have talked together and known each other for a very long time. Every now and then I’ll post something on social media and two minutes later my phone rings and it’s Brian and he’s like, “What’s wrong?” He knows me that well and I like to think that I know him fairly well. As Brian said, we come from a generation that didn’t talk much about mental health. We need to normalize this as much as we can and not just subsisting on a steady diet of your emotions that you never fully digest and just sit there inside of you and fester. I do think that type of honesty is part of the appeal of Naomi as a character.
It’s interesting now especially during the pandemic, I hear a lot of people asking, “How are you doing mentally? How are you holding up during this? What are you doing to get by?” I’m a writer and I need therapy. If you’re saving the world, you really need some! Part of what Brian and I have talked about and Jamal as well is, part of what we’re doing with this comic is, we’re trying our best to write for a generation other than us. Especially Brian and I because we’re a bit older than Jamal.
Walker: We want something that younger people can relate to, and that can be pretty difficult. But if all we did was set out was to make another comic that was appealing to middle-aged fans, then we’re not doing justice to the medium or the creators who inspired us when we were younger growing up and made us want to make comics. This isn’t to be said in some sort of egotistically way but I want to make comics that inspire other young people to make comics. Brian and I had a lot of conversations in the early days of Naomi Season 1. I was stuck in a more dark place and Brian said, “No, this is for young people who don’t understand the hero’s journey. This is for people who aren’t cynical and beat up like you.” Because I am the cynical one.
Bendis: One day I’ll tell you what he’s talking about. Some of David’s pitches were, “And then Naomi murders everyone! And then Naomi’s parents are murdered!” And I’m like, “Or…?” [Laughter] It was only one conversation but I know it stuck with you where you were that day. And that’s alright! We all go through those. I’ve done it. I’ve published them!
Dar: On the subject of creators who inspired you, it seems fitting to discuss the late/great writer Dwayne McDuffie. It probably goes without saying that his influence can be felt in the character, best exemplified by the fact that her last name “McDuffie” is a tribute to him. I know David got the blessing from Charlotte Fullerton, Dwayne McDuffie’s widow who is a fantastic animation writer in her own right, to use his last name for Naomi. I make it no secret the tremendous impact his work has had on my life and I’ve been incredibly fortunate enough to develop a friendship with Charlotte and be involved in her efforts to promote and continue her late husband’s legacy. What specifically from Dwayne and his work do you feel influence this book and character?
Walker: For me personally, it’s not so much his work. It’s a long list of stuff that he’s worked on as both a writer and editor that was great. To me it was really him as a person. I was fortunate enough to get to know him. Just going back to what I was saying earlier about trying to welcome young people in. When I met Dwayne, which was 20-something years ago, he already knew who I was from my journalism days. And I was like [goofy voice], “Hey Mr. McDuffie! It’s great to meet you!” And he was like, “Yeah, I know who you are. Come on, walk with me.” That was his thing. At conventions, he would say, “Walk with me.” And then you would walk and he would sort of hold court. He made me feel like I belonged and that there as a place for me even if I didn’t feel that there was a place for me in the industry. That’s what I bring to this whole thing and I bring it to my life and career. What I bring to the character and this particular book is that there is a place for you. Nobody can tell you that you don’t belong here.
I remember him giving me this advice that, “You can work towards being this kind of writer or you can work towards being this kind of writer.” It was that sort of writer who looks around at what isn’t there and who’s not being represented and figures out a way to bring them into your story. That’s a huge part of where I’ve gone. Part of how Naomi came to be is Brian and I talking about what are we not seeing in comics not just for ourselves but for younger people. If I’m noticing it then you know other people are noticing it. And maybe nobody’s articulating it because they can’t quite figure out what they’re not seeing. But the moment you see it, you have do something about it.
I’m all about character. I tell people all the time I don’t care what your idea is or how much world-building you do, if you don’t have a really good character then you have nothing. That’s a huge part of what I took from Dwayne. If you look at Static Shock/Virgil Hawkins, that character has something. Not just the Milestone characters but even Ben 10 that he worked on that really had a huge impact. The Justice League animated show, the way he did that show brought those characters to life in a way that has taught me over and over again that if you’re going to make a really good Batman story, you better write a really good Batman. It’s all about the characters.
Bendis: I also want to add on that I go through waves where I feel like [with] a lot of our pop culture we are taking in so much content now. So much is being produced and we’re taking in so much that a lot of beautiful things and beautiful people are being lost in time or forgotten about. I just literally wrote an introduction to an EC compilation for Dark Horse where half the artists’ names aren’t known anymore. The names that are known are big names like Johnny Craig. We’re at a place where some of this is flitting away. Not that that was what happened with Dwayne at all. We are literally standing on Static Shock’s shoulders with introducing Naomi. There couldn’t be a more direct line. What better way could we establish that than full-on tipping our hat to him. David made that happen. We get to express where we know Naomi fits in the pantheon of things and [Dwayne’s] influence on things. That’s a great thing about the TV show. Once a week I see one of those Instagram factoids, “Did you that she’s named after Dwayne McDuffie?” So his name stays and continues. That makes me happy because as a culture we’re still screaming Jack Kirby’s name. He’s the most important thing in pop culture and people still don’t know his name. So I think it’s our obligation to keep beating the drum.
Walker: As long as I’m alive, I don’t want Dwayne McDuffie’s name to be forgotten. And not just Dwayne. If we’re going to talk about Milestone in general, it’s all of those creators whether it’s Denys [Cowan] or John Paul Leon who sadly passed away recently. Humberto Ramos did some of his early work for Milestone. There was such amazing talent working at Milestone some who are still working in the industry and some who left the industry. Even when I was watching the new Spider-Man movie and Damage Control shows up and that was Dwayne and Kyle Baker. Two people who have had such a tremendous impact on me. Kyle doesn’t believe it and doesn’t even respond to my emails to him. [Laughs] I just think there’s a lot to be said for history and understanding who did what and the people who laid the foundation.
Published by DC Comics, Naomi Season 2 #1 is available in stores and digitally today.