So much innovative thinking in comics has come from the work of writer Gail Simone, but this seems almost equally balanced with amount of sound common sense she continues to bring to the table in conversations with fans online and in interviews. It’s this dual approach that has been so beneficial to the medium, questioning the why and how of comics, as well as making direct observations about how storytelling works, that makes Simone such an influence on the future of comics.
And she doesn’t just theorize and talk about comics–though if she did, that would still be awesome–she creates great stories with her collaborators that feel fresh, new, and accomplished by putting these observations to work.
One of her most recent series with artist Cat Staggs, Crosswind, published by Image Comics, is an outrageously fun and also meaningful comic about “respect and who gets it”, as Simone says below. It posits the supernatural body-swap of a Detroit hitman and a Seattle housewife with significant dramatic consequences for both. The comic is the result a process of innovation, combining elements that hadn’t necessarily been combined before, a trait you’ll also see in Clean Room and many other comics that Simone has worked on.
Gail Simone sat down with us at New Jersey Comic Expo a few weeks ago and shared the following insights about her work, the craft of writing, and dealing unpredictable life events in the midst of pursuing a career as a writer.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I wanted to star by asking about Crosswind, since it’s been one of my favorite works of the year. When you conceived of the idea for the story, did you think of a highly realistic style for the artwork, or did Cat Staggs bring that in and develop it?
Gail Simone: Cat and I used to see each other at cons, and we’d always say “We have to work together”. And that went on for years. Until I finally approached her with the idea for Crosswind, and I didn’t actually know that she was a huge fan of crime stories and police procedurals. From there, it’s just spun into this beautifully dark, amazing book.
Cat developed the style, but I did want it to look like something that was crime fiction. Because we do have a kind of fantasy element to it, so I call it a “crime fantasy” because of the way in which the switch happens. But I didn’t want it to look like a fantasy. I wanted it to look very real and grounded. Little did I know that Cat could really bring that to it, and create the whole tone of it, which is just perfect.
HMS: The style is some of the most realistic you’ll see in comics, from Cat, and the combination with that small fantasy element is a combination you wouldn’t necessarily assume could go together. But when they are put together, something really remarkable happens.
GS: Well, I also think that there are perhaps only two artists who would even be capable of drawing this book, and of course, Cat was the first choice. Partly because the acting and the body language is such an integral part of the book and she does such an amazing job. She was telling me recently that she has these lists of gestures that she refers back to a lot. And both of us have to do a lot of things we’re not used to doing, creating dialog for characters who are not in the correct body. Sometimes the script looks weird, or I mislabel something, so we’re constantly keeping each other straight on which is Cason and which is Juniper. It’s only going to get worse in Season Two.
HMS: Oh, wow, there’s going to be a Season Two! That’s amazing news!
I had the same issues when I tried to write reviews about this comic. I had to start writing “Juniper-as-Cason” and “Cason-as-Juniper” to try to describe things. And then I realized even that was confusing.
GS: It is. Imagine working with the script. It’s a challenge.
HMS: As a writer, does that make it one of the more complicated scripts you’ve written?
GS: It has been one of the most complicated in terms of keeping dialog straight and conveying to the artist where we’re at. But I’ve written plenty of complicated scripts!
HMS: One of the things that really reaches me about the comic is that there’s not really heavy-handed moral judgment being dealt out about what the reader is seeing and hearing. There’s a kind of distance there, allowing the reader to interpret what is happening.
For instance, Juniper has a tendency to be a wall-flower. She isn’t a character who is going to be discovered to be wonderful all along, as someone who just needed proper recognition. There’s a certain amount of critique that can be applied to her for being too passive, too quiet. And Cason, who one might feel more inclined to judge for his violent lifestyle, is also presented without particular moral judgment. Which may allow his positive qualities to become more visible.
GS: The story, too, is a lot about respect. Who gets it. How they get it. Who gets it automatically, whether they deserve it or not. And who has to work really hard to earn it. So, there’s that as a theme through the whole series. When we introduce the idea of the body switch, people may jump to certain points in their mind. But the whole idea with Crosswind is that they are switching their entire lives. One’s a smoker, and one isn’t. Is that a physical addiction or a mental addiction? What happens when that person’s in a body that’s never smoked before?
It’s about how you’re viewed by the world, and how you view yourself. It’s not about body parts, though there is a little bit of that. It’s about how you would negotiate in someone else’s world.
HMS: It’s about how disorienting that would be.
GS: And scary! People laugh about “Freaky Friday”. This isn’t funny. How would you like to have your complete being ripped out of one situation and placed into another? And someone’s trying to kill you on top of that? It’s scary shit.
HMS: I agree. The tension in some of the scenes is so extreme.
Now, you’ve chosen two characters who are extremely different for this “switch”, but it seems like there’s a bigger truth here. Even if you switched with your next door neighbor, you’d be horrified. There would be shocking experiences and differences.
GS: Oh, yes. And when we get to Season Two, the switch is very different. We still follow Cason and Juniper’s story, but there will also be a different switch that happens.
HMS: Wow, I am so looking forward to seeing where that goes. Can’t wait.
To ask you more general questions about writing, when you are working with high fantasy versus working on things with a more realistic element, do you prefer to keep projects separate in time since they are very different? Or do you switch off?
GS: I prefer to have completely different projects than each other going at the same time. Because sometimes your mindset is in one area, and not another, or you get stuck briefly in one spot, and then you can switch gears. Almost 100 percent of the time, when I switch gears, and come back, I have solved the problem I was having with the project.
And I don’t get bored that way. I know that some creators get known for one thing, and I think that’s probably a little easier to market. But I tend to get bored, and I like to explore new things all the time. Trying to do things that have never been done keeps me going, and enables me to stretch and see the possibilities. Because one thing I do believe is that comics should not be limited. We don’t have to worry about special effects budgets, or many of the things other mediums have to worry about. I don’t want to be too comfortable. I think that writers should always be uncomfortable. It makes the work better. It really does.
HMS: Does that include not necessarily knowing how things are going to get from A to B until you figure it out?
GS: Not necessarily. I mean, for instance, we’re doing “Freaky Friday” vs. “Goodfellas”. This hasn’t been done before. Let’s see how this is going to work. How are readers going to respond to it? It’s not that we don’t know where the story is going. Or, for instance, I’m going to do this horror book where the lead character is female, and the type of horror will be different from what we’re used to seeing in comics. Let’s see how we can stretch the artist to bring these things across. Why not? We’re not limited, so let’s give it a try. That’s where the risk is. That’s where uncomfortableness is.
HMS: It’s a conceptual limitation, not an actual limitation at work.
GS: Yes. The same thing happened with Red Sonja. When I started really thinking about the character and who she could be, and the fact that we could take these really modern feminist themes and put them in a barbarian comic, that was really exciting to me. We need to push things all the time. We need to think about doing things in a way that hasn’t been done before.
HMS: I was going to ask, if we had time, about Clean Room, the horror book you mentioned, since again, we have subject matter that’s quite different, but a kind of horror, and then an art style which we wouldn’t really associate traditionally with horror, and when combined, they create something really startling. The contrast is similar to Crosswind in that way.
GS: When we were looking for artists for Clean Room, that’s what I wanted. I wanted someone who could do the realistic scenes realistically, but when you get into the Clean Room, things needed to look completely different. And we needed and artist who could carry that off. John Davis-Hunt did great. And when Walter Geovani took over, he was amazing as well. We wanted the Clean Room to be kind of stark, so when things happen in it, that pops. I wanted the room itself to be sterile, to contrast with the stuff that’s going on in there.
HMS: To ask you a little more about your writing lifestyle, do you have an ideal amount of work you try to take on or balance, or a goal for what works best for you?
GS: For me, I always have multiple projects going. And I also have multiple projects going in multiple mediums. And that’s the way I like it. But that is strictly a personal thing. There are lots of people who need to do one project at a time, see it through, then move to the next one. I don’t do my best work that way. I need to be a little bit on edge to be able to do my best work.
I was on a panel with someone recently who said they follow the same routine every morning before and during work. I wish I could be that way. That sounds fabulous and it works for this person. Part of it may be that when I started writing, I was a hair dresser running my own salon, so I had to write when I had time. Any time that I had time. I also had a family, and a young son going to school, who needed me as well.
When I had time to write, I would sit down and write. So, when people tell me they don’t have time, I say, “Really? You don’t have time. Let me tell you about time.” I had a twelve hour day in the salon nearly seven days a week, and I still wrote. So, now, if I don’t feel on edge, I don’t work well. I have this almost bordering on unhealthy need to be on edge all the time [laughter].
HMS: Do you usually have deadlines looming?
GS: I always have deadlines. This is the publishing of serialized stories, so I always have deadlines. I try to stagger things as best I can. I add a little bit of time for illness and things, but things happen. Last year, my mother-in-law had terminal cancer and I was her only caregiver for over six months. These things happen. There’s not much you can do about it. I tried not to get too stressed out about it and my work because life happens.
I’m not saying that this is the only way to work in comics, but it’s the way that works for me. I didn’t even have my own office until last September. I had a small bedroom in my house, with people running around it constantly. And last September, when my mother-in-law became really ill, and we needed to separate things out, I got an office. It’s been a great thing. I should have done it earlier. So, my office now has three locked doors you have to go through, including hallways. I have a “fortress of solitude” with only a skylight. No distractions!
HMS: That is definitely a Gail-cave!
GS: It is. It used to be an old hair salon, so it’s really tacky. Brown paneling, wild carpet, and then on top of that, legos, Funkos, and artwork. It’s really funky, but I like it.
HMS: That’s the important thing.
Huge thanks to Gail Simone for taking the time to talk to us during a full signing schedule a convention!
Crosswind Vol. 1 is out from Image Comics on February 28, 2018 and we highly recommend that you read it. Crosswind #6 comes out on January 3rd, so not long to wait!