Women We Love: Ivory Madison
Posted by Clem Bastow on August 12, 2008
Having posted on the topic of comic books, superheroes and feminism before, it will be no secret to readers of The Dawn Chorus (and even less of a secret to those who know me personally) that I am a massive, massive geek.
But through my time spent reading comic books I felt there was something missing; I wanted a superhero to call my own, a kickass woman who didn’t have to be, well, “boobs up, ass out” to get things done. How fortunate, then, that I recently stumbled upon Huntress: Year One, DC’s six-part series introducing readers to the second woman to wear the Huntress mantle, Helena Bertinelli. Helena/Huntress is a no-nonsense, strong and independent woman with a wicked right hook and an even more wicked wit – she even takes a break, in Huntress: Year One, from beating up Batman to discuss anarcho-feminism with Catwoman. But I was delighted to discover that so, too, was the writer behind Huntress: Year One, Ivory Madison, a writer, feminist, activist and businesswoman.
Ivory is something of a superhero herself – when she’s not writing (and even when she is), she is the CEO and founder of Red Room, an online community for writers (and editors, and publishers, and readers!) that has been hailed as “MySpace for writers” and counts luminaries like Maya Angelou, Amy Tan and Barack Obama amongst its many members. All this, and she is just 29.
With the final issue of Huntress: Year One having just hit the stands this past week, I asked Ivory how she manages to be so unfailingly awesome across so many fields, without so much as a cape or superpowers to assist her.
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When you were growing up, were there particular women in your life who had a major influence on you?
“In real life, no, I don’t think so. But in the world of pop culture and history, that’s where I found my heroes. I’ll never forget the moment in Star Wars, when I was little, seeing Princess Leia roll her eyes at Han Solo’s rescue attempt, grab the gun from him, and start shooting storm troopers. A moment like that, you store those up as a little girl as proof the dominant culture is wrong, and women can be strong.”
And what about in the comic book universe; who were your favourite characters and why?
“Wonder Woman and the original Huntress were the only feminist heroes in comics when I was little, but now there are so many. At the time, all I knew was they were characters I wanted to be. Now I know that Wonder Woman was consciously created by William Marston as a feminist archetype, to show that women could be strong, and that strength could be based on truth and compassion. Like Joss Whedon fifty years later creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marston felt girls were being damaged by only seeing portrayals of girls as helpless victims.
“Of course, I was also always a huge Batman fan and wanted to be Batman above all. But it was always “me” as Batman, in my head. Catwoman was fascinating too, but the female characters who had any power in those stories were typically immoral, sexually manipulative, and the villain.
“The original Huntress was amazing because she was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman and had the best qualities of both characters, creating a sort of healing of the psychologically split society they came from—the height of the American feminist movement in 1977. You have Paul Levitz, now the president of DC Comics, to thank for writing that.”
As a long-time comic book reader, becoming a comic book writer must be something of a dream come true. Had you been mulling over potential pitches for a long time? Also, you initially pitched to DC with a Batwoman rejig. Had Huntress been your official second choice, or did the idea come to you, “Eureka!”-style, once Batwoman was shelved?
“Yes, it was a dream come true to finally write comics, and my pitch was a lengthy Batwoman origin story. For your readers who aren’t comic book geeks, Batwoman is an obscure character I was hoping to reintroduce after fifty years. My Batwoman was a Jewish, lesbian, feminist District Attorney, and in the weirdest coincidence ever, they were about to reintroduce Batwoman anyway… as a Jewish, lesbian, feminist District Attorney. I’d been working on that story on and off for years, and in an instant, the project was dead.
“But you have to roll with the punches. You have to catch your breath and say, ‘Oh. Okay. Hmmm. Well, how about…?’ And once I pitched a Huntress miniseries, they said they wanted to step back and do Huntress: Year One, to do the complete origin story, so I got to write a favorite strong female superhero origin story anyway. I got very lucky. Frank Miller started the Year One concept twenty years ago with Batman: Year One. It was an honor to help shape pretend history, as I like to say.”
I read an interview with Cliff Richards, your collaborating artist, in which he said that the ‘Year One’ Helena/Huntress had “no sex appeal”, in that she is obviously beautiful, but her depiction is about mood and power rather than, well, totally hot babes. Was that something you were intent on from the word go?
“Well, that was funny when Cliff said that. I love Cliff, he’s a brilliant artist, and he did used to be the lead artist on Buffy comics so he understands strong female heroes. But for many visual artists, they equate porn-like body objectification with sexiness, a series of symbols like body language and clothing—it’s a whole visual language of women’s objectification, like hieroglyphics for sexism—and that objectification is equated with sexiness. So even if a woman is drop-dead gorgeous, super-smart, super-strong, super-interesting… without the visual language of sexism, many artists and some readers don’t perceive the female character as ‘sexy.’
“Helena is a dark, bitter, stoic, Catholic mafia orphan raised by assassins. She’s not a bikini-clad, mall-going flirt. I tried to achieve a mafia film noir mood and look throughout the story. I was constantly reminding Cliff to make her look grown-up and serious. The minute we started communicating directly with each other he was very interested in understanding my vision and respected it totally.
“I’ve talked to other writers about working with artists who completely disregarded their wishes about creating feminist comics, and I am convinced I was the luckiest writer in the world—Cliff was helpful, kind, and totally committed to drawing my vision of the Huntress. Many artists refuse to cooperate, or feel threatened by this type of feedback. Not Cliff, he’s warm and mature and very interested in learning how to draw in a feminist way. I really want to work with him again.”
I also read an interview with you where you said (re: drawing Helena) “no arched backs”; where do you think the whole tits-and-arse-blast look in comics came from? Because I don’t think it was always that way; the Golden Age heroines were beautiful, but they were still getting shit done!
“I told Cliff, ‘okay now, no T & A’ and he’s Brazilian, and he wrote me an email back saying, ‘I so sorry, but what is it this means, please explain me this ‘T & A’?’ So, I explained sexism in comic book art.
“I asked for no arched backs, no butts sticking out, no fighting poses that look like porn or sex poses, and no fighting posture or body language that isn’t exactly as you would draw the fighting posture or body language of a man.
“No pouty lips. No ski jump noses. No gnashing teeth unless it’s scary, not sex-kittenish. No heavy make-up or mannequin-perfect faces—make the faces have depth like the men’s faces with complex planes and wrinkles and realistic features. No skin-tight clothes—make the clothes drape away from the body like the men’s clothes. No breasts that look like they are stuck on—draw chests as you would on an elderly woman or man, as part of the body.
“Cliff was very accommodating and supportive, but we were also under time pressure and he wasn’t used to that type of art direction, so we got it done mostly that way, but didn’t get it done that way consistently throughout the entire series. I can’t wait to work with him again, now that I understand the process better and see what he can do. When we were signing comics together at Comic-Con in San Diego, he kept catching himself drawing Huntress and laughing with me, ‘Oh, no baby noses! Must make grown-up nose for Huntress!’”
At the same time, I sometimes feel that the solely “comics = bad/sexist” coverage sometimes overlooks the really awesome things being done in comics (like Huntress, Birds Of Prey, etc); do you ever feel that it would be better to give some airtime to the positive representations of women rather than another column about Power Girl’s boobs being drawn too big on the cover? I think sometimes the mainstream media neglects to realise how much women are a huge part of the comic world – in the same way that female gamers now outnumber males, and how so much web content is female-created.
“It’s never wrong to criticise sexism. I don’t think we should do it less, until it’s gone. You know, I’ll be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy. But the flip-side is that discussing what is feminist and who is writing and drawing non-sexist comics, entertainment, and games, is hugely important because it’s depressing to be focused on what’s wrong all the time. It’s empowering to focus on what’s right. But when such a tiny percentage of creators of comics and people in the business of comics are feminists, I wouldn’t want to focus on the good stuff happening to the point where it obfuscates the huge problem underneath.
“Also, I care about feminists more than women per se in comics and entertainment. For example, Greg Rucka is one of my favorite feminist comic book writers and was a great inspiration for getting me over to the writing side of comics, and Joss Whedon is one my absolute heroes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s amazing now knowing them and seeing them at Comic-Con. I’m still starstruck around my heroes. This year at Comic-Con I met Lindsey Wagner [iconic star of the seventies series Bionic Woman] and sounded like an idiot and literally knocked something over I was so excited.”
When I first saw Huntress appear in an issue of Birds Of Prey (I picked it up as a “get back into comics” mission after a long break) I was instantly captivated; it was like, “Wow, who is THIS?” That moment more or less coincided with Year One turning up in my local shop, and then I was hooked! Are you hoping that Year One will have the same sort of effect on new readers (as well as reminding existing fans why they love her)?
“Oh, I hope so. I love Huntress. Her history, her toughness, her darkness. I’m already getting email from fans around the country saying Huntress: Year One got them back into comics, which means the world to me. Also, the full-time comics fan-boys who have rated it the best miniseries of the year, many of them obsessed with comics and not particularly concerned with feminism, those reviews have meant a lot to me, too. You get a lot of feedback in comics, so get ready for it if you’re going to become a custodian of superhero legends… the characters belong to everyone who loves them and they act like it.”
The final edition of Year One has just come out; are there any plans for a monthly Huntress?
“I heard some fans started a petition to get DC Comics to have me do a monthly title, which was funny because DC’s not against it, but the truth is that I have an eighty-hour-a-week day job, and several unpublished other writing projects I’d like to get published, so I’m working with Vertigo (the graphic novel imprint for DC) about possibly doing a literary graphic novel. I’d love to do a Huntress monthly, but not right now. If sales of the book version of Huntress: Year One do well in January, they might want to do one, they might not, and I may or may not get asked, but I’m a DC diehard all the way and will write more Huntress someday.”
You’re a major Batman fan; is the dark knight the ultimate goal as a comic book writer?
“Yes. That’s the central reason I love comics, my insane, deeply personal over-identification with Batman. I think I am Batman, always have, from nursery school on. I don’t think that condition is in the PDR [Physician’s Desk Reference] but I’ve met many people who have it. I wrote a one-shot (one issue out of continuity) Batman and they bought it but haven’t published it yet. I’d love to write more Batman.”
I have always been a huge Batman fan, and I know a lot of female Bat-addicts – surely there’ll be a bunch of new ones thanks to The Dark Knight. What do you think it is about Batman/Wayne that seems to appeal to female readers, as opposed to the other comic heroes?
“I think women, especially little girls, have a sense that they are one way publicly, but have this deep and dark secret power to be truly great, to be powerful, to make a difference, but they have to hide it. That’s part of the appeal of Batman, and also of Samantha Stevens on Bewitched.
“But with Batman, his day job isn’t housewife, it’s international playboy and mogul, something not available to little girls. Even more appealing. And when girls imagine they are men, all of the gender baggage disappears. Perhaps it’s emancipation, perhaps a little bit of self-loathing or self-annihilation. There’s no paradox to a male superhero, which is easier than being a female superhero.
You also run Red Room, an online community for writers. What was the inspiration behind launching the site?
“I’m a writer and many of my friends are writers, and I’d started an earlier group called the Red Room Writers Society to create the kind of support and structure we needed to finish our writing projects and succeed.
“Now I want to reach out to writers and readers on a global scale. Writers need websites to promote themselves and their work, and a place to live their lives online where they can find readers, friends, colleagues, and mentors. That’s what redroom.com is about. I don’t want anyone to “not know where to start” in becoming a writer. I want them to start at Red Room and we’ll help them. We have incredible authors like Amy Tan and Salman Rushdie who have joined Red Room, and mid-list authors, and journalists, and aspiring writers. They are all part of the solution, part of the community.”
People can also be involved in the site as ‘readers’, but do you hope that it will inspire people who have always dreamed of writing to finally pick up their own pen?
“Sure, or to contact their favorite writer through the site, or to find other like-minded readers to start a book group, to gain greater insight into the topics or creative work they find interesting. To find friends, to write book reviews, whatever they want. But you’re right, many are secretly aspiring writers and we want to inspire and empower them to achieve their dreams.”
In a lot of ways the web is opening up career avenues for women – for me, I’ve combatted the ‘boys’ club’ that takes all the story commissions by publishing my own stuff online. Do you see it as a sort of new frontier?
“Just as many women start their own small businesses instead of trying to make it in a male-dominated larger business, women are finding the internet a friendly place to self-publish. The problem is filters, you have to have filters to establish quality. I believe that having an established publishing entity, such as a print newspaper or book, is not the only way to create effective filters.
“Search engines are filters because if your writing appears high up in a search on a topic, many people must have read it, linked to it, and so on. If you create a collective blog, as you’ve done, your ability to find peers and collaborate is a filter. Not every blogger can do that.
“It depends what your goal is. If you’re a writer who wants status in the mainstream writing community, there are certain flaming hula hoops your poodle is supposed to jump through. If you are primarily concerned with sharing information and touching people’s lives, you have more options to self-publish or publish online or for free.”
On a day-to-day basis, how do you find the time to do everything you do?? “I like when I get asked this question, because it makes me sound really dynamic, but the truth is that I barely have time to do the one highest priority thing: my job as CEO of Red Room. My writing comes second. Of course I also have my relationship and family to squeeze in there, but I’m very lucky. I work with my fiancé, so we’re both at work all the time and get to be together. Our house is a few blocks away from the office, so we don’t have any commute time. And I’ve put my other interests, like singing, politics, and law all on hold until we’ve built a meaningful and enduring cultural institution over here. Someday I’m going to relax and just write for the rest of my life.”
What would be your advice to young women who are interested in getting involved in comics, whether as writers or artists?
“There are three aspects of being a writer that I identified when I was coaching writers, and I call it ‘The Red Room Method’. You have to separate your Writing, Editing, and Marketing. They are three completely different activities and different skill sets. You can get good at all three, but not at the same time. And trying to do them all simultaneously will paralyze you.
“My advice in general about writing, whether it’s comics or not, is to be completely vulnerable and take huge risks in writing crazy stuff and not stopping to edit until you’re all done. In the first draft, you have to take risks. No one has to see it. Don’t edit. Don’t worry about the ‘market’ for it. Just express yourself. Explore.
“At the end of that process, when you have nothing else to say, then look into editing it appropriately for whatever genre and market it’s best suited to. Then face submitting it or self-publishing and promoting it. Each stage you completely finish (Writing, Editing, Marketing) gives you the confidence to reach the next stage. In the writing stage, don’t try to control your project or characters; that works about as well as trying to control your life or the people in it—it doesn’t work.
“My advice about breaking into mainstream superhero comics is pragmatic and all about marketing, because you’re writing as a business for a genre and format that is highly structured.
“First, read three books about how to write comics: Denny O’Neil’s book about how to write comics the DC way, Page One (which has sample scripts in it), and Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics. Don’t think you know better. Follow instructions.
“Second, go to Comic-Con or a local comic book convention and find the editors who are in charge of the books and characters you want to write, and pitch them a brief, one sentence elevator pitch. Ask politely for their email or their card so you can pitch them a couple more or follow-up on that one. You can also find a comic book writer or artist to ask for advice and introductions. The key is to only approach writers, artists, and editors who you genuinely like, understand their work well, and who you can realistically imagine will like you and your work.
“Third, write practice scripts, edit them carefully with help if possible, and pitch them to someone you’ve established a rapport with from the convention. If they don’t like it, ask them what they do like, what they do want, so you nail it the next time.”
What are your goals and hopes for the future?
“My greatest hopes for myself are that I make a significant, positive impact through feminism and creating support and information available to the next generation of feminists, that I stop being so driven and relax and enjoy life with the people I love, and that I write all my stories down and they don’t just live in my head and in drawers around my house forever. I’m sure you know what I mean!”