For more than a decade, Kelly Sue DeConnick has worked as a leading writer in the world of comic books, most notably on Captain Marvel and Bitch Planet. Through her career, DeConnick has found that the best way to inspire, lead, bring people together, and motivate those who need a push is to make them uncomfortable. In this 99U talk, she shares her “Five Steps to Becoming a Professional Discomfort Provider.”
Kelly Sue DeConnick began her comics career writing the English adaptations of Japanese comics. After seven years and more than 10,000 pages, she transitioned to American comics with 30 Days of Night: Eben And Stella at IDW and Osborn: Evil Incarcerated at Marvel. Today, DeConnick is well-known in the mainstream market as the force behind Carol Danvers’ reinvention as Captain Marvel (the book that gave rise to the Carol Corps) and as the first female writer of an ongoing Avengers title in Avengers Assemble.
In 2013, DeConnick debuted on the independent scene in a big way with Pretty Deadly, a brutal mythological Western co-created with Spanish artist Emma Ríos. Hot on the heels of that critical and commercial success, Image Comics announced DeConnick’s second independent venture—a riff on women in prison exploitation films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, titled Bitch Planet and co-created with Toronto-based artist Valentine De Landro. Despite the polarizing title, Bitch Planet dropped in December of 2014 to both commercial success and the best reviews of DeConnick’s career.
So, I write comic books, like this. Or this. Almost universally when I say comic books you’re thinking this. If you’re my age there’s probably something deep in your lizard brain that associates comic books with convenience stores and jolly ranchers and Christopher Reeve as the alien superman whose powers may have come from the stars but whose real strength came from his humanity. If you’re younger, you might trigger to the mythological resonance of Sandman. Or to the social critique embedded in the Watchmen. Or to some dark and important comic book film about our national goth years, like the Dark Knight. And that’s fine, that’s great, despite my snarky tone I know that Batman’s pain is real. The goth pain is real. I do, I understand, I promise, I swear on my Omnibus edition.
But there is a thing that I have noticed. A thing I saw happen in a fancy Hollywood meeting that I was in recently. When someone started to say, she wanted to make reference to my comic books, but she stopped herself, apologized, course corrected, and said, graphic novels. Graphic Novels. Now, there’s a part of that that I do understand and agree with, correcting the impulse to conflate genre with medium. Superhero stories are a genre. Comics are a medium. Comics, the medium, can be used to tell any kind of story, even those that we like to define as literature and refer to as graphic novels, but there is something in the impulse to apologize for comics that wrangles me. The implication that they need to transcend their disposability, their pop proclivity, in order to have resonance or meaning like, comics can’t matter, or effect change only graphic novels can.
The dismissal of the potential of the popular art dismisses the potential of the populace, and it ignores our history. It ignores the power of the tract, the pamphlet, the broad sheet. Ignores the fact that when the CIA wants to teach the Contras how to over throw their government they make them comic books. When you want to start the Spanish-American war you send in a the yellow boy. There’s something about this that is also a selfish concern of mine because precisely what that impulse seeks to deny about comics is the very thing about them that I find so liberating. It’s very similar to the way that I have to write in a crappy little spiral notebook. I can’t use one of those fancy notebooks because I just get paralyzed by that.
If I’m using the same notebook that Hemingway used, I need to write the way that Hemingway writes. Or at least be that disciplined, and I’m not. But, if I’m writing in the same spiral notebook that I used when I was eight, I can manage that.
So when I was approached for this speaking engagement because of the kind of comic books that I make the suggested topic was this, how to make art that causes positive social change, and I was paralyzed. This is the speaking topic equivalent of one of those fancy, heavy Hemingway notebooks. I was flattered but paralyzed.
Particularly as it was driven home to me that these talks are intended to have a practical thrust, less inspiration, more perspiration. Some how to points and action items that created professionals such as yourselves can take home and employ in your own work to create specific outcomes. If I was being asked to teach in 20 minutes how to make art that causes positive social change, I would first need to be operating from the assumption that I know how to make art at all, let alone art that causes positive social change, and that assumption would make my head explode. For one thing, that way of working, that results oriented reverse engineered that kind of thing runs exactly counter to the way I work and the only way I’m able to work. And more importantly I knew that if I knew how to make art that causes positive social change, believe me, I would have done it before coffee this morning!
I would have eradicated racism and sexism and homophobia and while I was at it, decree that every single movie out this summer would have had a hell raising, heart pumping AC/DC score!
But I don’t know how to do that and so I can’t teach you. But, I am in a business that is overwhelmingly dominated by superheroes, and superheroes are in the business of hope. And as the first woman writer of an ongoing Avengers title, I know that heroes even the really gothy ones, don’t limit themselves to fights they know they can win. So I started to try and think of what I, as an intersectional white feminist comic book writer, was qualified to teach, and this is what I came up with. How to make people uncomfortable. Because making people uncomfortable is a thing I do know how to do. Moreover it is a thing that I think I can break down few in something akin to practical steps. And because honestly if I have any gift, which is entirely debatable, but if I do it is this, I am able to make people uncomfortable. And make a living at it.
So, here are on my crappy notebook piece of paper. Five steps to becoming a professional discomfort provider. That I recommend. Now I hasten to add that these are not the only ways to make people uncomfortable. But they are the ways that have worked for me so I recommend them.
So, number one. Lead with your heart. I have a fine arts degree. I have a BA in drama, which, considering how nervous I appear right now, is shocking everyone I know. But I was once given an acting exercise that I’ve never quite been able to shake. I was taught to analyze character based on what part of the body that character led with. So the exercise is literal. You take the character’s personality thrust, you translate it to a body part, and then you adapt your stride to lead with that body part.
So, a head strong character leads with their head, and a character who leads with their heart leads like this. A beautiful woman might leave with her face. A proud woman like that. There have been times in my life when I’ve been hell bent on leading with my jaw. Times a lot recently when I’ve led with my middle finger. But when I do my best work I am leading with my heart. I am open and vulnerable and I’m riding what is to me a capital truth. The goal is to proceed with courage, unaffected by the concern for results or the fear of judgment. Now it’s not easy to access that courage, though it does get easier with practice, but when you do you find your way to a level of honest, incredibly uncool, messy humanity that makes people wildly uncomfortable. This is your goal.
Number two. Find your people. I believe that the point of art, even and especially cheap and disposable pulpy art like comics, which by the way, I should hasten to add I believe occupies the same part of the aforementioned lizard brain as melodrama, myth, and commedia dell’arte rather, and dates back as far as the cave paintings of Lascaux. I believe the point of art and fiction is to connect us to ourselves and to other people. It is to foster empathy by demonstrating that we are non of us particularly unique or singular in our experience of the world art can make that a bomb. There is comfort in the revelation that even though we feel in our bones that our pain is unprecedented, if we recognize it Mary McCarthy or in Ibsen, or in Batman, then it is likely that others do too. Art and story and myth are the veins, the arteries, the lifelines that map out our connections to one another and weirdly, though togetherness itself is uncomfortable, people are much more willing to be uncomfortable together. So I urge you to seek out the artists, the colleagues, the friends whose work and whose presence pushes you to be vulnerable, because these are you people. And as you begin to find your uncomfortable audience, make sure that they find one another, which brings us to our next pro tip. Foster community.
So uncomfortable is contagious, but so is courage, and so is enthusiasm. So because I am an incredibly subtle person, I write a book that’s called Bitch Planet. My friend Valentine DeLandro draws it. It is. Super subtle. The short pitch is Margaret Atwood meets Inglourious Basterds. It’s a dystopian science fiction tale where women who do not conform to patriarchal standards are cited for non-compliance and sent away to an off-world, work farm commonly called Bitch Planet.
The book is an angry satire, born of a desire to vent my spleen and if the word feminist puts your toes into embarrassed little fists, you might find it off-putting, but it is easier to be uncomfortable together, so in an effort to keep from alienating everyone, Val and I provided places for our non-compliant readers to find one another. Community pages in the back of our books, signal boosting in our social media feeds. And then this happened, the fourth issue of the book hit the shelves four days ago. Issues one through three have all gone to second printings. There are now only three, but there were when I put this speech together, only three issues out, which is about 80 some odd pages of this comic in the world. And I had at that point already lost count of the number of people, men and women to my surprise, who’d found something and someone to connect with in the non-compliance symbol so much that they’ve chosen to have it permanently affixed to their bodies.
Now it is a weird thing to have something that you have had a hand in creating become a tattoo phenomenon, but my ego stays in check because as proud as I am of this book, and as much as it means to me, I know that what Dan Curtis Johnson said is right. You don’t get that tattoo to celebrate something in the book, you get that tattoo because the book celebrates something in you, which brings us to point four.
You must Listen. The act of active listening is difficult, and its practitioners are rare, because though listening is a gift to the listened to, it is a gift of intimacy that invites vulnerability and makes both parties incredibly uncomfortable. So, of course, I think you need to do it. I think you need to do it well and often. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Chuck Palahniuk at a party a couple of weeks ago, because I live in Portland and that’s how we roll, and we butted heads gently on the topic of subjectivity. Now I’m not entirely certain honestly that we disagreed, so I’m a bit nervous at the prospect of misstating his position because he works out a lot frankly, but I believe his thesis was that we can never hope to transcend our own experience because it is the only authentic source we have.
Everything we use, we filter through our own experience or imagination and we can never truly see through the eyes of another person. And while, yes, that is indisputably true just as it is indisputably true that we both enter the world and leave it alone I also believe that as creators it is our job to try and transcend ourselves in the mean time. As the people that make the maps that illustrate our connections we have a calling to attempt to both embrace and rise about our own experience, to listen with our whole hearts and imagine how the world must look from another perspective. And as I said, I am not certain that Chuck and I actually disagreed because he does write many, many books whose protagonists are not ornery, genius Portlanders. So, don’t come after me Chuck.
Point number five. You must Seek to Be Uncomfortable Yourself. To make others uncomfortable and still get paid, you must lead by example. You are in the privileged position of demonstrating that it won’t kill you. It hurts, be assured it does hurt. We live in an age of comment threads and you are an artist. That means you will be misunderstood, often deliberately by people who fear you and by people who mean you harm, and they will put words in your mouth, and when it’s not their mistake it will be yours, but Avengers don’t limit themselves to fights they know they can win, you won’t die, and on the other side of discomfort is growth. So as we wrap this up I’m going to tell you a story that puts my feet into little toe fists.
When I was writing my 2012 run of Captain Marvel, I created a group of women called the Banshee Squadron. The Banshees were based loosely on a group of male characters called the Howling Commandos and more closely on the women Air Service pilots of World War II. Diverse representation is a critical hallmark of my work and yet, when I was creating the Banshees, though it occurred to include black women in the squadron, I did not. I knew the history of the real wasps, and I knew that Jackie Cochran had turned down the black women who applied and so I, a liberal leftist intersectional feminist, given the opportunity to rewrite history in a story line that was all about rewriting history, I repeated Jackie Cochran’s crime.
Now I can’t explain that. I would love to excuse it with something about historical accuracy, but the same story line featured wasps who were clearly trained for combat. When wasps were not trained for combat and who were fighting giant robots which it may surprise you to learn is not based on actual events. So somewhere in my programming it was more believable and more comfortable to buy into giant robots rising from the ocean floor then to confront the politics of race. It embarrasses me to tell you this.
Every time I tell this story I am ashamed. I am uncomfortable and I have to fight the urge to excuse and spin and scream I am not a racist, but maybe part of not being a racist involves acknowledging that I come from a position of privilege in a culture that is historically racist, and I don’t get to not be a racist without rigorous self-examination and correction on my part. This is important. Doing the right thing is not a passive act. You do not get to be a good guy just because you figure you’re not a bad guy, you follow? I am not a mutant, not a superhero. I hate being uncomfortable, I hate it every time, but I am better for it, my work is better for it, and if I had to boil my job down as an artist to define exactly what it is that I am paid to do, it would probably be this, to be uncomfortable and to make you uncomfortable too. So I hope I have done that. And I hope it serves you as well as it has me. Thank you.