Geek Talk: An Interview With Devin Grayson

Devin Grayson began writing comic books back in 1997. Her comic book work include USER, MATADOR, BLACK WIDOW, BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS, THE TITANS, and NIGHTWING. She’s written the novels BATMAN: RISE OF SIN TZU, SMALLVILLE: CITY, and DC UNIVERSE: INHERITANCE. She is currently working on the comic adaptation of UGLIES - a science fiction novel is set in the future, where everyone is made "Pretty" by cosmetic surgery upon turning 16. She is also a part of the WOMANTHOLOGY project, a large-scale anthology comic involving past, current, and future female talent in the industry.

Devin was gracious enough to allow the Fellowship to ask her questions about her current projects, recent events in comics, and of course Nightwing.

The Fellowship - What are your thoughts regarding the lack of female character/creators in the new DC controversy?  Why do you think the other major companies aren’t asked the same question?

Devin Grayson - I don’t know about a lack of female characters, but as one of the available female creators overlooked, I was gratified to see readers take notice. I think it’s a valid conversation. The reason DC was specifically targeted and Marvel (really the only other large, mainstream comics publishing house) was not is because DC had been doing better…the relaunch reduced the number of involved female creators from 12% to 1%. Since the main vocalized intent of the relaunch was to “bring a new energy and excitement” to the books, interest new readers and have “the stories [be] told for today’s audience,” having 99% of those stories created by teams of males sent a conflicting message to the female readership; it looked like a backslide into the same old guys doing the same old thing. Add to that some explicitly misogynistic content in a few of the re-launched books, and DC ends up with a legitimate PR problem on their hands.

Adding an interesting counterpoint to this discussion, at the same time all of this is happening, Womanthology is created. Renea de Liz—a freelance artist without a tenth of the resources available to a major publishing house—finds well over 150 amazingly talented female creators to feature in her purely charity, KickStarter-funded anthology (more on that later). Over 150 females agree to work for free and over $100K is donated by people interested in seeing the work of these women come to light while Dan Didio suggests at San Diego Comic-Con that there aren’t any worthwhile female creators to be found (his exact quote, in response to being asked why he wasn’t hiring more women, was: “Who should we be hiring? Tell me right now! Who should be hiring right now? Tell me.” You can easily hear the edge in his voice on any number of MP3s available online). Only he knows exactly what he meant by that, but it sure sounds like he was saying that DC had already hired the only two worthy females in the biz and there were no more to be found. 

Now, the reality, of course, is much more complicated. There are actually several female editors and administrators at DC and the two female creators who were involved in the relaunch—Gail Simone and Amy Reeder—are top notch. Over all, though, the numbers are disappointing and don’t speak to inclusion. You can see a good snapshot of the breakdown here: I don’t think the decrease in female creators was a conscious decision on DC’s part by any means, but it does speak to an underlying mentality of the guys in charge. Hopefully it’s something that they’re thinking about more mindfully now.  Marvel, meanwhile, published Girl Comics in 2009, an unfortunately named, continuing special event project that features approximately twenty top female creators in each issue. And as you can see in the breakdown linked above, perhaps in response to DC’s troubles or perhaps independent of them, Marvel has been actively working to diversify their talent pool, legitimately shielding themselves from similar criticism.

The bottom line is, listen to what people say, but put more stock in what they do. It does matter.

TF - LGBT people in relationships are showing up in more mainstream comics these days. For example, I feel that the relationships of Northstar and Kyle in the ALPHA FLIGHT mini-series, Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer in BATWOMAN, and Wiccan and Hulking in YOUNG AVENGERS are shown in a positive light. What are your thoughts?

DG - Kate is getting involved with Maggie? Seriously? Sorry…back to your question…I think it’s great and I think a lot more needs to happen (for example, it would be nice if every lesbian in the DCU hadn’t dated one another). There are a lot of queer and queer-friendly people involved in the entertainment industry (myself included) and it’s wonderful to finally see more diverse and positive reflections of the community showing up in more and more popular culture media. I’m an outspoken advocate for the community and always try to include LGBT relationships in my writing. It’s doubtful that mainstream superhero comics will ever be the poster child for inclusion (we’re still working on women and people of color), but there’s no reason they couldn’t be. So here’s hoping for a whole lot more more! 

TF - Would you work for the major companies again, for someone more independent, focus on more novel work or any/all the above?

DG - All of the above! Right now I’m having the most fun with prose work and would love to do more novels, licensed publication or otherwise. But I’m up for anything if it’s a good match of what I can bring to the table and what’s needed.

TF - You are a part of the Womanthology project. Can you describe what you are contributing and what this project means to you?

DG - With pleasure! My contribution is a ten-page story titled “Mook & Me,” about a young, high school-aged hero and one of the (similarly aged)  supervillain henchmen he fights. I choose to work with a young woman in Athens, Eugenia Koumaki, who will be making her professional debut here, and whose work is amazing. You’ll actually only see the last six pages of our story published in the book, but the first four (and the whole story) will be available multiple places online. This was done partly to help market the book and partly because I misunderstood my page count instructions and wanted to make sure that all of Eugenia’s work got shown! ;-P

Participating in Womanthology has been a very satisfying experience. It feels so good to be part of a project that highlights the work women can do in this field in a positive way and that was created from a place of pure artistic passion, generosity and… friendliness — and that totally kicks ass, as well. In her own words, Renae set out to “showcase the powerful and unique voice of all women who create comics.” To that end, Womanthalogy includes established pros, total newcomers, and everyone in between. My eleven-year-old step-daughter, Moira, was even able to contribute a drawing for the kid’s section! The book also includes great tips for anyone interested in working in the field, moving tributes and intimate interviews. It’s gigantic, gorgeous and jam-packed with creative genius. I’ve seen the digital galleys and I’m blown away—I can’t wait to hold the actual book in my hands!

There are so many qualities that make Womanthalogy important and unique. From the onset, the project was dedicated to charity; no one involved has accepted payment of any kind and all proceeds will go directly to Even the corporate entities that have offered support—from the full publishing responsibilities taken on by IDW to KickStarter rewards offered by ThinkGeek—leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. And anyone hoping for tales of cat fights amidst the ranks will be sorely disappointed. Every contributor I’ve interacted with—including the donors—have been effusive in their praise of the project and completely supportive of one another. We even ran message boards that allowed the less experienced of us to approach the more experienced to share advice and ideas.  If all this great stuff had gone on behind the scenes and the book had come out okay, it still would have been totally worth it. But the fact that the book is legitimately one of the best things that will be published in 2011 is the icing on the cake.

I’m honored and delighted to be part of this publishing event and excited beyond words about what I’ve seen come together. The book is currently scheduled to come out in early December and is the basis of my entire holiday gift-shopping list. I honestly can’t think of anyone who won’t get something out of it.

TF - You are working on the graphic novel adaptation of Scott Westerfield’s UGLIES. What attracted you to the story? What challenges have you faced in doing an adaptation?

DG - I was approached about doing Uglies by two separate friends at the same time; an editor friend in New York (Joan Hilty, who worked on USER with me) and a writer friend in LA (Doselle Young, who deserves the credit for many amazing behind-the-scenes creative hook-ups). I wasn’t familiar with the story at that point, but if those two people both thought it would be a good match for me, I was definitely gonna check it out! When I did, I immediately fell in love with the material. Though the books are often described as dystopic YA future sci-fi novels, the stories couldn’t be more timely or more human. The questions about beauty, identity and freedom that Scott explores in these books are hugely engaging. I was excited by the opportunity to work with him and legendary Random House editor Betsy Mitchell, and when I found out that the plan was to retell the story from the sidekick’s point of view, that utterly cinched it. I have a special place in my heart for sidekicks, and Shay was already my favorite character in the series. Our graphic novels are told from her point of view (as opposed to Tally’s, the protagonist in the books), so although we cover most of the events and all of the philosophical underpinnings of the books, our stories will work as accessible stand-alones for new readers while offering Scott’s (numerous and ardent) fans a new perspective on the beloved series. 

The greatest challenge was probably the sheer length of the scripts. Del Rey gave us a very generous 160 pages per graphic novel, and has licensed two of the four books. Though I’ve written prose novels longer than that, I had never worked with that kind of scope in graphic novel format before. Nor, I’m willing to bet, had our awesomely talented artist, Steven Cummings, who as I write this has reported on Facebook that he has 141 pages left to go on the second graphic novel! 

TF - You have mentioned on your Facebook page that you are also have a book series that are trying to find a home. Can you talk a little about that?

DG - Not too much, because the proposal is currently being reviewed by a major publishing house, but I will say that it’s a story—meant to be a series of novels—about a girl who can see ghosts. It has a large, colorful cast of characters (including mages, ghosts, vampires and werewolves!), all of whom are very dear to me. At its core, it’s a story about what it means to be mortal and how we find our sense of purpose and identity in today’s complicated, hyper-connected and yet profoundly isolating world. But there’s lots of humor and suspense and danger in it, too, not to mention a little romance.

TF - Is there a comic book character that you haven’t written a story for that you want to? Is there one you want to write again? You have mostly handled the Bat-family during your time at DC, is there something about those characters that makes them more interesting than others?

DG - Concerning characters I haven’t had the chance to write, not really. I’ve been extremely fortunate in that I was able to write the characters I was most interested in early on and regularly in my career. I actually got into comics specifically to write about Batman and Nightwing and the rest of the Gothamites and loved every minute of being able to do that. I guess the qualities that draw me to them are their humanity (there’s not an unsympathetic character in all of Bat-dom) and their complex relationships with one another. Super powers are fun, but most of the time I find them unnecessary. I like telling stories about people, especially passionate people, and Gotham has those in spades!

I guess the other group of characters I really love are the X-Men. I got to work with the young versions of them in the X-Men: Evolution comic, but I’ve only had the chance to write one story about them as grownups so far. Again, the fact that they have such long and intricate relationships with one another is a real draw.

TF - Here are a couple of questions from my friends on I am #1 Nightwing Fan Facebook page:

“Regarding your run in Nightwing, do you believe that you accomplished your goal of telling a cohesive story from start to finish? If it wasn't for editorial decisions and the events that crossed over with the main series, would you tell your story differently?”

DG - Great question! I definitely do not feel like I was able to tell a cohesive story—I think it was pretty clear, and I know I’ve said in interviews before, that my final storyline got ramrodded by a crossover event. When I was told I would no longer be continuing on the series, I think I had about three issues to try to wrap everything up. That might have worked, except that the story I was in the middle of telling was about Nightwing maneuvering the police department, organized crime and the supervillain contingent (via Deathstroke) into a successful ploy to protect Bludhaven. I can’t imagine a worse ending to that story than to have Bludhaven blown up—that means Dick failed, and that was not at all where that story was supposed to go. I had broken the character down—admittedly, maybe too much—but was in the process of building him back up and giving him a huge win…except that win was never published, and was in fact turned into a huge loss. So yes, my story was entirely incomplete. I’m very disappointed about that, and wish I could have properly finished out the storyline, but it’s a reality of working in mainstream comics that all of us have dealt with at one time or another. I made two huge mistakes on that book. The first was working in long story arcs. If you have time to develop and pay them off they can be great, but it’s smarter and safer to think and work in smaller chunks.

The second mistake was the now infamous rape scene. I’ve publically apologized for it before, but will take this opportunity to do so again. Rape--and sexual violence of any kind, for that matter--is an issue that has deeply and personally effected millions of Americans (and one can only guess at the global numbers)--I know that, I've lived it too, and I know better than to make light of it (which was never my intention). Fiction can be a very powerful medium for healing, but only when the time and space is available to take issues on in their entirety. That didn't happen in Nightwing--that's not what that story was about-- and I deeply regret stirring up issues for people without contextual follow-up. There are certain issues--and rape is certainly one of them--that many people simply cannot read in a metaphorical context. For a better handling of the issue, you can look at some of my other work, like USER. But I do understand why people were angry, and I do regret that scene. Many people did not understand it the way I intended, which means I failed in that instance of my writing.

TF – A final question from the Nightwing Facebook page: “Are you reading the current series written by Kyle Higgins? If so, what do you think of his handling of the character?”

DG - I’ve spoken with Kyle—who’s a really great guy—and read an early draft of his script for issue one, but in general, I don’t follow books of characters I’ve written. It’s a little like hanging out at an ex’s house—you’re curious and hope they’re doing well, but long visits can get awkward. ;-P

TF - What do you think of Nightwing’s transition to Batman and back? Should he have become Batman in the first place? Whom would you choose?

DG - As I mentioned above, I wasn’t reading the book when this happened recently, but I did read Knightfall and found it very frustrating and odd that Bruce asked someone other than Dick to wear the cape and cowl in his stead. I now know why that happened (an editorial decision to tell a timely and fascinating story about a Batman who killed), but I guess from a  purely character-based point of view—which is how I always approach these thing—it doesn’t make sense to me to have a scenario in which Bruce doesn’t at least ask Dick first. And based on my understanding of Dick, it’s hugely unlikely that he would say no to a direct and urgent request like that from Bruce. Or in a scenario where it was unclear what had happened to Bruce, it makes sense to me that one of Dick’s first thoughts would be to protect Batman’s legacy. So yes, it seems logical to me that he would spend time as Batman, and also that he would happily surrender the cowl back to Bruce or eventually pass it on to someone he considered a worthy successor.

TF - Do you think it is Dick’s destiny to become Batman for good, or will he stay Nightwing?

DG - For me, Bruce Wayne is Batman, period. I have absolutely no problem with the idea of Dick filling in or taking over for him for a period of time, but no, it wouldn’t be healthy for Dick the person or Nightwing the character to exist only to fulfill that role. Now, psychologically, I think it would be easier for Dick to become Batman than to live in a world without him, but I also think he has a strong enough sense of identity to understand why he couldn’t keep that up forever. And since he has been personally involved to one extent or another in the training of nearly every Bat-acolyte in existence, I can’t think of anyone in a better position to eventually choose a successor. But he is the heir apparent, and it wouldn’t be smart, fair or just to go around him.  

TF - And just a side note, Phoenix Jones (the real life superhero) posted this on the #1 Nightwing Facebook page...

“I read all of the Nightwing comics and have read them to my son. My suit is also modeled after his design.”

DG - I noticed that! You can see the similarity in the chest plate. Be safe out there, Phoenix!

WOMANTHOLOGY is currently scheduled for a January 2012 release. UGLIES will be out February 28, 2012.