Magdalene Vissagio Is Shaking Up the Comic Book World

Magdalene Visaggio is going places. After earning accolades for writing cult hit sci-fi comics such as Quantum Teens Are Go and the Eisner Award-nominated Kim & Kim (both of which feature queer and POC protagonists who aren’t obsessing over their identities), Visaggio hit the mainstream with a bang. Her resume now includes writing superhero stories for the “Big Two” (Marvel and DC Comics) and becoming a member of the DC Writers Workshop “Class of 2017.” Visaggio spoke with Bitch during Flame Con in Brooklyn about career whiplash, dealing with harassment, and finding hope for the future.

I want to dive into the hypervisibility you’re “enjoying” right now. You are one of the first trans women to work with the Big Two after coming out.

Yeah, I think Rachel Pollack might have done it? But I don’t know her career other than her Doom Patrol work.

I think you’re the first to be published at both [after coming out]. So how does it feel to occupy that specific niche in queer comics history?

It’s very strange. I try not to think about those “milestones.” I joke about it sometimes too. After I got announced on Visionaries at IDW, I was like “another trans milestone—the first trans woman to write a comic book miniseries for IDW based on obscure ’80s Hasbro toy line Visionaries. Come a long way, baby.” But it’s something I try not to think about because it gets in your head, and you feel all this pressure. It’s hard because I actually have a lot of pressure, and it’s not self-imposed. I have people saying to me, “You need to know the position you’re in. You need to be aware of what this means and what you get to do with this and the opportunities this opens up for other people. You have to be careful about how you do everything because you don’t wanna fuck it up for other people.” And that’s all true, but I can’t worry about all that. Because then I’m gonna fuck it up for everybody by doing shitty work.

And it’s really hard not to let that stuff get to you, because I get hit with it fairly frequently. There’s a few specific people who are always trying to hammer that home to me, especially with regards to the harassment stuff that’s going on with Milkshakegate. They have been trying to get me fired from DC and Marvel by drudging up an old tweet of mine. Marvel called me and were like, “You’re not in trouble, but you need to walk that back a little.” [They didn’t want me to] actually walk it back, but explain and contextualize it. [“Cherry Bomb” begins playing on the sound system] This is my favorite song ever, so I’m going to be distracted.

Kim & Kim

That’s fair.

So I had some friends who were coming to me [after I explained it] saying, “I can’t believe you did that because part of the reason you’re in the position you’re in is because you’ve got this radical persona online.”[They were] basically [saying], “Don’t be a sellout because you’ve gotten this far by not being one,” and “You’ve got to ask what you want to accomplish with your work.” Some of these people have very specific things they want me to accomplish, and I’ve got to explain that my goal is—inasmuch as I have a goal larger than just “have a career and live”—I want to provide trans kids and teenagers with reflections of themselves in the media they consume, so they don’t kill themselves. Anything that gets in the way of that is a bad thing, and anything that helps that is a good thing.

I have this platform at Marvel and DC, which means I’m already trying to work in that direction. But if I spend all my time being this bomb-throwing anarchist on Twitter, then that gets undercut, and there’s a very valuable resource that I then can’t provide. Twitter is not a big platform relatively speaking compared to, you know, being able to write X-Men comics. But I’m trying to do some graphic novels for the Raina Telgemeier set. That’s my goal, and the pressure is immense. But I really would love it if people would let me have [my own] career goals instead of telling me what my career goals should be. The only way I can ignore it is by reminding myself why I’m doing this.

You’ve been in the industry for around a decade now, right?

I’ve been writing comics. I don’t know if that means I’ve been “in the industry.” I’ve been doing self-pub in one form or another since 2006.

And in the past couple of years, really, has come this massive breakthrough [for you]. Does that give you whiplash at all?

Really in the last year and a half. Yeah, I really don’t know what to make of it. The harassment stuff keeps coming up because it’s super relevant to that question. I can’t keep up with it, so I don’t really know. I know intellectually people pay attention to me, but it’s [another] thing to internalize that people are paying attention to me. Part of the kerfuffle that I got involved in over that old tweet came [from] me not being super aware of the fact that my audience was at X scale.

In the last few weeks I’ve leveled up again with [the DC workshop announcement], so I’m still kind of reeling. There’s profoundly more eyes on me than there already were, and that was with a cult hit under my belt. I’m getting all this attention because I’m going up very, very quickly and I sort of don’t yet know how to make heads or tails of it or to use it responsibly, so I’m still sorting all of that out.

Magdalene Visaggio

How have you been dealing with all of the backlash that you’ve been getting? Because you’ve been getting it from comics trolls and from the “Make America Great Again” folks—

And TERFs.

Have you been noticing any crossover between those groups?

Uh, well yeah. The TERFs are radical feminists who are definitely allying with the #MAGA people left and right because they [have] very similar goals. The comics trolls are mostly #MAGA people. Not all #MAGA people are comics trolls, but it seems like all comics trolls are #MAGA people because I think they’re all sort of pulling from the same pool of disaffected white dudes who feel like they’re losing something. In the case of #MAGA, it’s social power generally; in the case of the “Diversity & Comics” crowd, they’re worried about losing their influence and connection to this medium that they’ve been reading their whole lives.

It’s interesting because if you go through and look at their tweets, they’re not all a bunch of hateful bastards, but their tactics are terrible. I don’t want to validate their claims at all, [but] there are levels where I get where they’re coming from. Comics really are different than they were 25 years ago and have evolved in these massive ways. If I’d read comics for a specific reason, and comics [are] moving away from that kind of storytelling, I’d be mad. If comics tomorrow [were] like “yeah, we’re canceling Squirrel Girl, we’re canceling all the social justice books, we’re canceling all the minority heroes—it’s just gonna be tits and asses and big giant guns,” I’d be very angry about that. And I’d be like, “well, comics [are] moving in a direction I don’t like.”

It’s frustrating to deal with it because everything is so polarized right now, so even comics is having this insane kind of infighting that’s so reflective of the general culture. What we first saw with Gamergate was the first volley of this really vituperative culture war. Everything’s so vociferous, everything’s so loud, everything’s so angry. And that spread to the larger culture. That’s [not] where it came from, but that was the training ground for the tactics that were employed by Donald Trump and his ilk and now by the “Diversity & Comics” people. There’s definitely crossover because they’re all coming from the same set of grievances and the same tactical schools.

How do you navigate all of that getting thrown at you?

Well, I used to fight back a lot. I argued with a lot of people about [that]. Like, Dan Slott was telling me this, Scott Snyder was saying it, and I didn’t want to believe them. I was like, “I wanna fight. I don’t want to let this pass.” I’m a very proud person, and I don’t like it when people say shit about me and I can’t answer it. I want to answer everything. You can’t do that. There’s no convincing them because they’re not making an argument, they’re just harassing you. Like, the only thing to be gained is a frustration level.

So I started taking everyone’s advice. I block. People come at me, they get blocked immediately because I don’t have the time to deal with it, I don’t need to deal with it, and “dealing with it” only makes the problem worse. And the beautiful thing is that by blocking everyone, fewer people have access to my account, and so fewer asshats can screengrab tweets of mine and make them into memes, which has happened a few times. It’s so petty. I had people bitching at me, mocking me, because I was sad that Silver Surfer got canceled. I was just disappointed that a book I liked was ending! And they made it into capital-A, capital-T A Thing, you know? So after I started laying down the block hammer, everything settled down. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not an interesting target because I don’t poke back, or if they can’t access my account, or if it’s just that they’ve gotten bored with me. I don’t miss it, and I’m glad that it stopped.

Quantem Teens comic book covers

I just read the last two issues of Quantum Teens last night, and it ends on a very hopeful note for the future(s). Is that your general outlook? Do you try to make it your default?

I definitely try to. The science fiction I grew up on was Star Trek, and even though my go-to Star Trek is Deep Space Nine—the most pessimistic one—it’s still a really hopeful show. I want to think things get better. Even if it’s not socially better, we can improve things for ourselves, we can develop and grow, [and] we can find peace in our lives. And I thought [that] was really important with Quantum Teens because the book is built around these two unhappy kids who don’t have anything in their lives they feel they can rely on except each other, and who are looking for an escape, something that lets them break out of their existence. Just on a narrative level, I thought it was very important to give them a future because these two kids felt like they didn’t have one and spent the entire book in pursuit of one. I really came to love those kids in a profound way that I have a hard time believing I’ll ever love any of my characters. And it just felt cruel to not give that to them. So beyond the social outlook, it was my affection for those two kids. I wanted them to be happy.

There’s obviously a lot of you in that book. There’s a lot of you in Kim & Kim and all of your indie work. I know there are a lot of rails that you’re on at the Big Two, but can we expect to see a lot of your personality, your personhood, in your work at DC and Marvel going forward?

I hope so. It depends on the opportunities I’m given. The thing about working for DC and Marvel is, you mentioned rails, and that’s rails. You have very strong editorial oversight, but they have larger plans for characters that, at this point, I haven’t been able to participate in forming. So I have a thing coming up [that] I can’t say [what] it is, but they had a very specific character [and] a very specific set of circumstances that led to them being in a very specific place. And what I did in to get them from A to B to C was up to me. I turned around a story that I think is very personal to me, but also has a larger commentary on where we are right now as a society. It’s a 20-page superhero comic and there’s not a next issue, it’s a one-shot. But it’s still me [in that] it reflects what I believe. I’m always really eager to bring in trans characters, especially now that I’m having those opportunities. So there will be trans characters in at least two Big Two upcoming books that I’m working on. That’s definitely part of myself that I’m bringing in because it’s an experience that is almost never represented in comics.

I have a big project that’s coming out next year—everything should be announced in the next few months—that’s one of the most personal things I’ve ever put on the page. It’s all about suicidality and coping, which I deal with on an ongoing basis. I haven’t been suicidal in about six months, but it’s a thing that’s always hovering around possibility. And I wanted to do a book that was about getting through it and getting to a place where you feel like you have hope, like you have a future. [Having a future is] a theme I deal a lot with in my work, and realizing that even though everything is shit, that doesn’t have to dictate you.

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

by Samantha Riedel
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Samantha Riedel is a freelance writer and editor living in Massachusetts. A former editor at The Mary Sue, her work has also appeared on Them, The Establishment, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency, among others. Samantha subsists on a balanced diet of estrogen, pro wrestling, and comic books. Prolonged contact may cause irritation. Follow her on Twitter @SamusMcQueen.

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