“Time to Do Something Different:” Gail Simone
Gail Simone is one of comic fandom’s true success stories. Beginning her career with Women in Refrigerators, a pointed criticism of how male-centric stories offer up female characters as little more than plot devices, Simone’s comedic talents quickly found a home on Comic Book Resources, with the column You’ll All Be Sorry! At once a fan-discussion, peek behind the creative curtain, newsletter, and critique, the much beloved series was a fertile home for Simone’s barbed satire yet true enthusiasm.
That platform launched her into comics themselves, with stints on The Simpsons and Deadpool, but it was Birds of Prey that became her hallmark title. When Simone took over the all-female team, she emphasized both the super- and the -human. Though her rotating cast (primarily Black Canary, Huntress, & Oracle) busted heads harder than their male counterparts, their personalities developed and evolved, so that fans could identify them in a vacuum by their mistakes, desires, and regrets. DC Comics had a book on their hands that was not only female-friendly, but a stunning read simply for fans of good writing.
While growing Black Canary from a veteran ass-kicker to the world’s most dangerous agent, Simone also showed that Huntress might be broken past all hope, and Oracle a.k.a. wheelchair-bound former Batgirl Barbara Gordon, existed in the middle ground between her two friends. Comics seldom saw such rich characterization in superheroes, and it was an achievement the writer gave fans again in her run on the villain book Secret Six.
She also presided over Wonder Woman as its longest-running female writer, a character she now returns to in August’s Sensational Comics featuring Wonder Woman — one of many fresh starts introduced in DC’s New 52 initiative. Another one is the return of Gordon to the Batgirl mantle after decades spent as Oracle following Alan Moore & Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. Once again, Simone bucked common convention to the benefit of the story by making Gordon’s recovery less of a miracle and more of a painful, extended process to return to form.
Interesting stuff, and we wanted to quiz her on the mechanics behind it.
Man Cave Daily: I would say for me and probably everyone else in comics, you are the definitive Batgirl author. Do you ever have problems slipping into that character or is it an extension of your personality now?
Gail Simone: [laughs] I don’t know that it’s an extension of my personality, I wouldn’t put it that way, but I love writing the character of Barbara Gordon and Batgirl. So it doesn’t feel like a chore [laughs] if that’s what you’re asking. And following along on her adventures, creating those, and putting words in her mouth and in her head and everything is just a complete privilege and a joy even though sometimes it’s painful and I give myself nightmares.
MCD: What kind of nightmares?
GS: Well during “The Death of the Family” in particular, Barbara revisiting the Joker was really disturbing. That’s the first time I ever got to really write the Joker. And then when the New 52 ventriloquist issues were happening, I was getting pretty creeped out.
MCD: That’s something I was curious about–you have such a great history of moments that unsettle the reader.
GS: I like things to linger.
MCD: Yes! Secret Six, especially anything Rag Doll ever did. How do you approach that–do you think of something that’s comedically outrageous and then tone it down [to the point where it's disturbing] because you have that comedic background?
GS: Situations are different and I really work hard at the rhythm of an issue of a comic book, so I like things to be as unpredictable as I can make them. Sometimes that means straight-up bizarre humor, sometimes it’s dark humor, sometimes it’s just to give the reader a little bit of a break, even. Some stuff can be quite disturbing and it’s more effective to create a feeling of horror or terror in the reader if they don’t see it coming, or if you take them out and put them back in. That rhythm…I really try to think about the reader when I’m writing, and that’s how those moments come out. What do we need here to kind of manipulate and pull on the emotion of the reader?
MCD: Do you have a method for tracking the rhythm, or do you stop and come up for air to check where you’re at?
GS: I wouldn’t say I have a method because if you look at my work and the different books I’ve done, the tone is completely different for every book. I like situational humor, so some of it will be born out of the situation as well, because I want it to fit the book. The humor in Deadpool is completely different from the humor in Batgirl.
MCD: Let me flip my original question back around: since this is a character you’re very comfortable with, how do you stay fresh on her? Do you ever take a step back and reconsider her from a new angle?
GS: I think as a writer you’re constantly doing that, especially if you want to be telling new types of stories and explore new aspects of the character. I’m trying to fit those pieces together a lot: what have we already covered? What haven’t we covered? What would be interesting here? Just like with other books that I’ve written: Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman…I literally don’t feel like I’ve ever run out of stories to tell. It’s just a matter of when it’s time to do something different. Whatever else is happening, it’s not because I’ve run out of ideas or stories or characters moments.
MCD: You’ve also done a really good job slowly building her up. It wasn’t like: “New 52: now she’s healed!” You made very sure there was a tie back to her time as Oracle.
GS: Not only that, but have we ever told a story in comics about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and what these dramatic events can do to the heroes that are trying to help victims of crimes? I thought that was such an intriguing story element, why waste that opportunity, for one thing? And also I didn’t want her to come out of a chair with a magic pill.
MCD: Was there ever an inclination when you were bringing her back to a classic Batgirl…as much as you’re pulling her towards the PTSD end of things you also have to pull her towards, “Wow! I have this whole aspect of mobility in my life back!”
GS: The thing about Barbara Gordon and Batgirl is she has a core to her character. To me that core is about helping people in whatever way she can do it. It doesn’t matter if she has to do it differently, that is what she’s going to do. The other thing is that she doesn’t like to lose control, and some of these events have caused her to lose control momentarily. It’s always about: she’s a genius, she wants to help people, and she wants to be in control of some kind. These are the cores that follow all the way through whether she’s classic Batgirl, Oracle, or New 52 Batgirl.
MCD: The Bat-family really tends to be defined by their losses, but right up until The Killing Joke, she had a solid life, this was just something she did because of those reasons you cite…
GS: Yeah, her origin is not based in vengeance, one of the few Bat-characters that has that.
MCD: Was that, in part–and I hadn’t even thought about the control angle–why you gave her a psychopathic brother? Is that a different kind of loss that forms her character?
GS: It is a different kind of loss, and I think if you were in a family with that situation, you would be wanting answers all the time: why did this happen? How come this sibling is this way? And I think that ties into her choice for her education and gives her a little bit of understanding and compassion.
Brendan’s other recent interviews include Batman & Robin writer Peter J. Tomasi and the Mad Love of Harley Quinn‘s Amanda Conner & Jimmy Palmiotti.