At this week’s New York Comic Con, DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint will host a panel to discuss its new line of titles. Featuring high profile and outspoken talent including Zoë Quinn, Ben Blacker, Tina Horn, Dan Watters, Kat Howard, and Rob Sheridan, all of whom will be present at the panel, these creators and their artistic collaborators are working together to build a new “socially conscious” era of DC Vertigo, producing titles that seek to explore the political anxieties facing American readers and the world at large today. Recently, these creators sat down with the Beat to discuss their upcoming titles and preview some of the exciting discussions they hope to have at DC Vertigo’s NYCC panel.
Last month, DC Vertigo released Border Town #1. This high octane series by Eric Esquivel, Ramon Villalobos, Tamra Bonvillain, and Deron Bennett seeks to explore the complex intersections of race and identity in America’s divided current political climate. The story visualizes that division through the town of Devil’s Fork, Arizona, which happens to not only be a border town near the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, but also a town that exists right by a leyline between our world and another. A bold and bright statement of a book, Border Town #1 was released to huge fanfare and a swift announcement of a second printing, showcasing the hunger for comics that seek to explore the issues of our time.
“I’ve seen the insidious ways men in power (and not in power) have tried to control or diminish my wife, my women friends, my mothers, sisters…”—Ben Blacker
Asked about how it felt to follow up Border Town as DC Vertigo’s next regular series launch on October 31st (Halloween, conspicuously), Hex Wives writer Ben Blacker said that it’s “like having to tell jokes after Bob Hope (this is a very hip, contemporary reference).” But where Blacker’s answer projects humility, the concept for Hex Wives radiates confidence. The series, drawn by Mirka Andolfo, colored by Marissa Louise, and lettered by Josh Reed, focuses on a coven of witches who have been brainwashed into becoming “subservient, suburban housewives” by a group of men—and the fallout that happens when the witches start to reawaken. A story in the vein of Bitch Planet and The Handmaid’s Tale, Hex Wives aims to tackle the malevolence of the patriarchy head on– an apt target for criticism in the era of #MeToo.
Speaking to the inspiration for Hex Wives, Blacker said that “a lot of the gender politics I’m interested in exploring is that arbitrary labeling of what male and female roles are [and] with which a certain segment of (especially) American people still are enamored [with]. The idea of a ‘simpler time’ or (yes) ‘going back’ to ‘traditional values’ is all code for ‘men being in charge and women knowing their place.'” Blacker named Bewitched as a primary inspiration for his series, stating that “Samantha Stephens is this incredibly powerful witch who’s worried about getting dinner on the table for her ad-man husband? That’s insane. Her mother was totally right: Samantha married beneath her.”
Additionally, addressing the elephant in the room, Blacker said that, as a man, he feels “really nervous and ambivalent about writing [Hex Wives].” While his elevator pitch of Bewitched meets The Stepford Wives enamored him and, as Blacker said, “I’ve seen the insidious ways men in power (and not in power) have tried to control or diminish my wife, my women friends, my mothers, sisters, and on and on,” he also knows that “as a white man, there is no way I could completely honestly tell this story.” Beyond being an “empathetic writer (and, you know, person),” Blacker has surrounded himself with “smarter creative collaborators” whom he listens to intently.
As he tells it, the first arc for Hex Wives “started with conversations with my wife, hearing her experiences and understanding them and how they affected her. The process continued by asking for as many women’s voices on this book as DC could help me find, and they gave me incredible collaborators, starting with editor Molly Mahan and assistant editor Maggie Howell. (Molly named the book!). Molly and Maggie were not only open to sharing their experiences, but they have unbelievably precise story-sense and have been integral to making the book not only honest but a compelling horror story. And then artist Mirka Andolfo and colorist Marissa Louise came on board, and their influence shaped the book to what you see now.”
Of Mirka specifically, Blacker mentioned that their first conversation made him a bit nervous, as Mirka told him that she “‘likes to draw sexy ladies.'” He wasn’t sure that he felt comfortable with “exploring the sexuality of the characters, but Mirka’s influence emboldened me to try some scenes that are both sweet and sexy and creepy and weird.”
“I know how it feels to be ostracized for being my true self, and criminalized for the choices I have every right to make. “—Tina Horn
And on the subject of sex and sexuality, few are more qualified to speak out on the topic with nuance than Safe Sex writer Tina Horn. An accomplished journalist and non-fiction writer who describes her work as investigating “sex work, queer identity, kink communities, and cultural criticism,” Safe Sex represents a new frontier for Horn’s exploration and advocacy. This series, to be released in 2019 with artist/colorist Michael Dowling and letterer Steve Wands, follows a group of sex workers through a futuristic dystopia where they will be forced to fight for “the freedom to love in a world where sexual pleasure is monitored, regulated, and policed by the government.”
As someone whose “professional and personal life are devoted to queerness, sadomasochism, fetishism, group sex, sex toys, erotic fashion, explicit performance art, [and] sex tech,” Horn hopes to explore all these themes and more throughout Safe Sex while critically examining “the stigmas that leads to sex cultures being so forbidden in the first place.” As a sex educator who wants to promote “understanding” and make up for “the lack of pleasure-based comprehensive sex education available to most of us,” through Safe Sex, Horn is “excited to show people what sexual undergrounds are really like, how lifelong friendships and families can be formed from a common love of leather or porn. This is my first time using sci-fi, action-adventure, romance, and horror to explore these ideas and I can’t wait to see what people think!”
Moreover, when asked about promoting a book like Safe Sex while women’s bodies are under judicial threat and America stands perilously close to confirming a judge who has been accused of multiple counts of sexual assault to the Supreme Court, Horn spoke candidly. She said releasing Safe Sex in this moment “feels totally necessary…as a long-time sex worker, as a kinky person, as a polyamorous person, as a queer woman, I know how it feels to be ostracized for being my true self, and criminalized for the choices I have every right to make. Then again, as a white person, I know that I benefit from privilege every day…trans people, people of color, street-based sex workers, to name a few — have been dealing with dystopian circumstances for longer than many in the mainstream have cared to acknowledge.”
Horn mentioned those who have compared Safe Sex to The Handmaid’s Tale, expressing her belief that “dystopian satire can paint a picture of an uncannily familiar society where the absurdist heat is turned up juuuust enough that readers are shaken out of their complacency. Dystopias like Safe Sex should chill you to your core as you contemplate how awful the circumstances are for the characters you grow to care about. Then, the real social project is making you wake up, look around, and empathize with the people who are already carrying that weight in real life.”
“Slow-burning environmental, societal, technological, and structural problems are converging into the perfect storm of an ‘apocalypse of greed.’”—Rob Sheridan
In addition to titles focusing on the immediate issues of women’s rights, DC Vertigo’s High Level and Goddess Mode are examples of titles in the imprint’s lineup that seek to examine problems that are already encroaching upon society, but will hold even more devastating consequences for humanity if they are allowed to continue to go unchecked. High Level writer Rob Sheridan minces no words when he says that “There are a number of seemingly disparate but ultimately interconnected disasters we’re careening towards as a people right now. Slow-burning environmental, societal, technological, and structural problems are converging into the perfect storm of an ‘apocalypse of greed.'”
The conceit behind High Level‘s story has been shrouded in secrecy and Sheridan says that he’s intentionally cultivating that sense of mystery. All he’d say is that High Level “starts humbly, in an old hollowed-out Gravitron in the sweltering badlands of former middle America, with a girl named Thirteen who empties septic tanks for a living with her robot sidekick Ezra.”
Of his intent though, Sheridan is much clearer. Through creating High Level, which will launch in 2019, alongside Omega Men artist Barnaby Bagenda, colorist Romulo Fajardo, Jr. and letterer Nate Piekos, Sheridan and his compatriots aim to connect “the dots from a post-post-apocalpytic future back to 2018,” using a “character-driven sci-fi adventure story to explore how these themes play out hundreds of years from now if we continue on this path; not as a dystopian scolding but as a cautionary fable of revolution.”
Asked about his collaboration with Bagenda and how the artist’s experience rendering lush futuristic worlds informs the storytelling of High Level, Sheridan said that “What makes Barnaby such a perfect fit for High Level is his ability to craft convincing, detail-oriented worlds by focusing not just on the characters and the action but in the atmosphere surrounding them.” Sheridan spent the better part of a year crafting the mythos behind High Level, but knew that he wanted to avoid the trademark Star Wars story crawl. Thus, in order to “throw you right into” the world of High Level without the need for exposition, it was a godsend that Barnaby, like Sheridan, is a designer who can do “so much world-building in the margins” and build “environments so rich with purpose that they can take on all those extra pages of visual storytelling.”
The ultimate effect of Sheridan’s confidence in Bagenda’s world-building is that he feels free to let “the written dialogue focus on plot and character, so it doesn’t fall into the trap of devoting entire pages to Star Trek techsplaining. I say that lovingly, as The Next Generation is one of my favorite shows of all time, but that’s not the type of story we’re telling here. Barnaby and Romulo make it all so much easier to balance complex world-building with an action-packed, character-driven adventure tale.”
What if your augmented reality was “suddenly tampered with for ominous corporate intrigue reasons?”
Similarly to Sheridan, when designing the epic cyberpunk world of Goddess Mode, Zoë Quinn said that while she aims to avoid sci-fi design tropes like floating screens, she understands why they’re prevalent throughout visual mediums, “because otherwise you have to get into the technobabble beep boop Star Trek jargon no one wants to spend ten pages on in a 22-page comic book.” Thus, the path forward for her, artist Robbi Rodriguez, colorist Rico Renzi, and letterer Simon Bowland became a matter of “cutting a Gordian knot of letting readers know everyone’s low key a cyborg with augmented reality bits integrated into their everyday life, establishing some minor basic rules, and moving on with it with natural dialogue because it’s so integrated into daily life that it’s not a big deal to anyone other than nerds and the characters super into that stuff.”
In previous interviews, Quinn has described Goddess Mode, which launches in December 2018, as a story about “trying to be a person who has to balance themselves between having a life and fighting an overwhelmingly unfair and asymmetric power struggle they didn’t opt into with other people who got the same bulls*** deal.” Thus, Goddess Mode‘s lead character, Cassandra, was born. Stuck with the thankless job of performing maintenance on a godlike A.I. “that administers all of humanity’s needs,” Cassandra suddenly finds herself caught in the crossfire of “a group of super-powered women and horrific monsters locked in a secret war for the cheat codes to reality.”
Essentially, Quinn says as she describes the god A.I. that governs her series’ world, “think about how many people know or discuss how WiFi really works. You get the gist, all the reader really needs to know is what they’re seeing through a character’s eyes, what the most basic and general ‘rules’ are with how it functions, and how that could impact stakes for if that was suddenly tampered with for ominous corporate intrigue reasons (because c’mon, it IS a cyberpunk story).”
Finding purchase at an intersection between “magical girl manga and cyberpunk,” as Quinn describes its inspirations, Goddess Mode is the perfect encapsulation of the writer’s creative interests. Already an accomplished storyteller and public figure in the world of gaming with a non-fiction book to her credit as well, Quinn decided to make Goddess Mode her first foray into comics because while this story needed a medium that could communicate “a lot of dense information visually,” Goddess Mode is first and foremost a “character driven and static story…something more interactive like a game would be an impediment, and a format like video is just way outside my budget or skill range and didn’t really appeal to me.”
Quinn continued on to say that she has “I’ve loved comics forever and I’ve always wanted to make one, but figured that meant I’d have to go the fully indie webcomic route and couldn’t do this book for a few more years worth of improving my drawing, so I’m thrilled that I lucked out with DC Vertigo giving me the chance to do this wild and visually dense character-driven story I’ve wanted to tell for years but didn’t think I’d get the chance [to] for many more.”
“[Lucifer‘s] got plenty to do with where we’ve ended up as a culture—the instability, the self-defeating and self-devouring cycles that our systems seem to have worked themselves into.”—Dan Watters
Not to be outdone, in addition to DC Vertigo’s main line of titles, the imprint recently launched a new line of “Sandman Universe” stories. These series each take inspiration from Neil Gaiman’s, Sam Kieth’s and Mike Dringenberg’s legendary The Sandman series and aim to expand upon the fantastical world of the Dreaming. The writers of two of those titles, Lucifer‘s Dan Watters and Books of Magic‘s Kat Howard, will both be present at Friday’s panel to discuss their respective books.
Unlike other upcoming DC Vertigo titles, Lucifer, which launches on October 17th, carries the weight of history on its shoulders. Not only does this take on the religiously-inspired lead character spring from The Sandman, but DC Vertigo’s Morningstar has had several ongoing comics series since The Sandman and even a TV show dedicated to his adventures. As such, when Watters was first approached to writer Lucifer, it felt like “something of a daunting prospect.”
However, Watters said, because there were not just one or two but a number of different takes on Lucifer, he unexpectedly felt some pressure lifted from him. Watters, a huge fan of the original Lucifer comics run, said that he didn’t “want to retread that ground, partly as that’d be a bit of a futile exercise, and partly because I know I can’t do what those guys do better than they’ve already done it.” Instead, in building their take on the Devil, Watters and his artistic collaborators, Max Fiumara, Seba Fiumara, Dave McCaig, and Steve Wands looked at each version of Lucifer that already exists to “work out the core elements that keep Lucifer recognizable” so that they could then find things to “strip back to for our own version so that both new readers and fans of previous incarnations start with a solid grounding.”
Ultimately, that parring back and rebuilding has resulted in a Lucifer story that is very much built for our time. The premise goes as follows: Lucifer is a “blind, destitute old man, who lives in a small boarding house in a quiet little town, where nothing is quite what it seems and no one can leave…Meanwhile in Los Angeles, a policeman who may have brain cancer is tasked with a mission of divine importance: find and kill Lucifer.”
If that sounds a little grim and metaphorical, that’s because it is meant to be. As Watters says, “Lucifer itself is not intended to be a reassuring book, nor one that looks to provide any answers.” The book is very much a product of the new era of horror—an era that Watters describes as entering a “golden age” because it reflects “where we’ve ended up as a culture—the instability, the self-defeating and self-devouring cycles that our systems seem to have worked themselves into.”
Citing Lucifer’s characterization in The Sandman, Watters pointed to Lucifer’s central thesis in that story: “despite absorbing all the blame, he has never corrupted anyone; he’s never cared enough to. The corrupted have merely accumulated around him.” Watters says that that element of Lucifer’s character has “never felt more relevant than today—the consistent searching in the newspapers for, if not a scapegoat, a simple and easy culprit to blame for the horrors that seem to be becoming daily and commonplace before our eyes, rather than accepting that the disease is within us, has been accruing for a long time, and to meet the eye of our own ugliness. And not blink.”
“I don’t have any interest in ignoring the world I live in when I write.”—Kat Howard
Similarly, when discussing Books of Magic, which launches on October 24th, writer Kat Howard was more than willing to tie her “Sandman Universe” title into the overarching “socially conscious” theme of DC Vertigo’s current lineup. She said that “I’m a writer who lives in this world, who is telling the story of a boy who lives in this world. And sure, Tim has magic, and maybe that sometimes helps him deal, but one thing that’s very important to me is that the real world aspects of the comic are reflections of the world we currently live in.” Emphasizing the point, she continued, “so yes, I see [Books of Magic] as a socially conscious comic (even if that’s not the main emphasis) because I don’t have any interest in ignoring the world I live in when I write.”
Like Lucifer, Books of Magic also finds itself concerned with legacy. Originally a four-issue miniseries written by Gaiman and drawn by John Bolton, Books of Magic eventually went on to have a 75-issue ongoing series of its own. However, this new Books of Magic—which will be drawn by Tom Fowler, colored by Jordan Boyd, and lettered by Todd Klein—is a fresh take that sees lead character Timothy Hunter returning to his roots as a young boy “destined to become the most powerful magician in the universe.” And while those stakes might sound grandiose, Howard grounds things by describing some of the changes he’ll face in this story as “normal school things—a bully, a girl he has a crush on, a new teacher, nightmares, a cult that’s trying to kill him…”
During our conversation, Howard, a newcomer to comics with Books of Magic but more than a bit experienced in writing genre fantasy novels, compared and contrasted her experiences with each medium. In her words, “part of the difference is not so much being able to tell a different sort of story about magic, but a way to emphasize different aspects. For example, with Tim, I’m very interested in exploring what it’s like for him to be able to choose magic, and develop his skill in it. And because I have the great work of Tom Fowler on art and Jordan Boyd on colors, we’re able to do things like visibly show the strength of Tim’s magic—both when it succeeds, and when it doesn’t. It’s a way to bring the reader closer into the story, and there’s a particular joy for me in being able to see the spells unfold on the page. There’s a level of detail available in a visual medium that isn’t in prose, and it’s really fun to work with that.”
“The real social project is making you wake up, look around, and empathize with the people who are already carrying that weight in real life.”—Tina Horn
Ultimately, the new wave of DC Vertigo has a heavy burden to bear. The creators building its stories have collectively chosen to tackle some of the most divisive issues of our time at a moment where speaking out is often met with Twitter abuse, interminable live-streamed rage rants, and even death threats. In spite of all this, however, the panelists who will be present at this Friday’s DC Vertigo NYCC panel sound ecstatic about the worlds they have built and are ready to share them with legions of excited readers.
On Goddess Mode, Quinn said that she is “so excited to show you what we’ve got. Rico and Robbi have been doing some stunning work, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.” Similarly, Watters said he wishes he could “gush” about the work the Fiumaras and McCaig have been doing on Lucifer, “so it’d only be fair if we were allowed to unveil a few [pages] in New York…”
Perhaps most excitingly though (because who doesn’t like free things)—Blacker teased that each attendee at the DC Vertigo NYCC Panel would receive the full first issue of Hex Wives. Praising his artistic collaborators, Blacker cryptically teased the significance of one specific panel of “the housewives looking out at this enormous fire that surrounds their neighborhood” that “Marissa (and Mirka) made…the most important one of the book’s first arc.”
What does it mean? Come to room 1A21 of the Javits convention center on Friday, October 5th, from 11:15AM-12:15PM to find out.
Alex is the New Media Editor of the Comics Beat. He is also a freelance comics editor with previous credits at First Second, Top Cow, and Papercutz. He primarily covers DC Comics and Magic: the Gathering.