Far too often, pop culture creators gear their work toward an assumed audience: 18-45 year-old white, straight men. But nerds come in all genders, races, and orientations. On this episode, we celebrate the release of our Nerds print issue by highlighting our favorite nerds who are pushing to broaden the idea of who consumes comics, TV shows, and films.
Comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick joins us on the show to discuss how she pens innovative series like Bitch Planet and Pretty Deadly. Writer Vanessa Willoughby shares her perspective on Black nerdom, part of the print article “Geeking Out: Four Writers on Nerding While Black.” We also hear high praise for the crime-fighting Kamala Khan, the first Muslim superheroine to headline her own series at Marvel.
KELLY SUE DECONNICK INTERVIEW:
VANESSA WILLOUGHBY ON RACE AND NERDERY:
THE GREATNESS OF KAMALA KHAN:
This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by Girl Develop It, a nonprofit organization that exists to provide affordable and judgment-free opportunities for women interested in learning web and software development. Through in-person classes and community support, Girl Develop It helps women of diverse backgrounds achieve their technology goals and build confidence in their careers and their every day lives.
Find out more at GirlDevelopIt.com.
Thanks to Aya de Leon, Veronica Arreola, and Taneka Stotts for calling in to share their favorite nerds! Music from this episode comes courtesy of musician Chilly Willy. The illustration featured on the full show is the Nerds issue cover art by Yoswadi Krutklom. The Black nerds illustration is by Shannon Wright.
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Cheryl Green of Storyminders transcribed this episode. We're proud to make Popaganda accessible to people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing.
SARAH: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I'm Sarah Mirk.
This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by Girl Develop It, a nonprofit organization that exists to provide affordable and judgment-free opportunities for women interested in learning web and software development. Through in-person classes and community support, Girl Develop It helps women of diverse backgrounds achieve their technology goals and build confidence in their careers and everyday lives. Find out more at www.girldevelopit.com.
Hello everyone. This is Sarah. As you can hear from my scratchy voice, I’m a little sick. It’s that time of year when the world is wet and gray, and everyone seems to be getting a little sick. When winter sets in, I just want to hunker down with a good book or movie or video game. It’s a good time to focus down on my favorite things, to stay inside and drink too much tea and get cozy. [music] Basically, winter is the best time to be a nerd. I have every excuse to sit around nerding out on something while it’s too cold to go outside. And that’s good, because the newest print issue of Bitch is all about nerds. The nerds issue is gorgeous; the print team here at Bitch redesigned the magazine starting with this issue. When it lands in subscribers' mailboxes, you’ll notice it’s got some beautiful new design details. I won’t go into the specifics so that it's still a surprise for you, but…I just love it. Plus, as always, the new issue is packed good writing. We’ve got articles about science fiction, technology, and women who want to go to Mars.
On this episode of the podcast, we’re nerding out, too. We’re highlighting stories of favorite nerds. The show includes a perspective on race in Star Wars films, we discuss the power of representation in the new Ms. Marvel series, and talk with fascinating comic book writer Kelly Sue Deconnick. Even if you don’t self-identify as a nerd, I think you’ll like these stories, and maybe we can convert you.
Also, we asked several Bitch contributors to call and tell us about their favorite nerd. You’ll hear three of those lovely nerdy voicemails throughout the show. Here’s one right now. Let's kick it off with Aya de Leon.
AYALICE: This is Aya de Leon, and I have to say right at this particular moment, my favorite nerd is Melissa McCarthy from Spy. I saw the movie on my way back from the Binders conference in New York. I saw it on the plane was literally, I was in the middle seat and was laughing so loud I think I pissed off the men who were sitting on either side of me. It was so funny. For anyone who hasn't seen the movie, she's in the CIA, and she's the person talking in the ear of the super-spy. And she's kinda co-dependent, and she's definitely very plus-sized and wallflowerish. But then, she gets sent on a mission and brings all of her nerdiness to that process and busts out of her nerdy shell. And oh my gawd, that movie was so funny and so feminist and so fat positive. So yeah, I also love those reversal stories where the nerd has to be pushed out of their sort of comfort zone, behind the screen, on the phone, in the background. So anyone who hasn't seen it should! And that's the spy nerd that I want to report on for today.
SARAH: In the Nerds issue of Bitch, four Black women write about race and nerdery. The article is called Geeking Out: Four Writers on Nerding While Black. Writer Joshunda Sanders introduces the four perspectives by explaining: “From Scooby-Doo’s Velma to Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nerd girls have always been white by default. Even well-known Black nerds, a.k.a. blerds—from Steve Urkel to Neil deGrasse Tyson—are men. But finally, Black women who also happen to be nerds are having their moment. Writer and showrunner Shonda Rhimes and filmmaker Ava DuVernay have led the charge to create more complex Black women characters onscreen; in the STEM world, Black women are pioneering; and online, Black nerds are connecting like never before and seeking inclusion and agency in science, comics, gaming, and elsewhere in pop culture, where we are still too rarely represented.”
Writer and self-professed book nerd Vanessa Willoughby focused her piece for the article on being a science fiction fan. Let’s listen.
VANESSA: When it was announced that Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o had been cast in the next J.J. Abrams Star Wars installment, Black fans were ecstatic. Yet when early sketches of her character hit the web, these same fans were a little ruffled by the drawing. Instead of an elegant, otherworldly humanoid or light saber-wielding Jedi, Nyong’o’s character was a CGI, bandana-wearing, green-skinned alien.
Nyong’o’s Star Wars role exemplifies how Hollywood superficially honors diversity without having to actually show it onscreen. Black sci-fi fans have realized there’s a fine line between visibility and tokenism, that many “diversity” attempts are often conditional, and that casting Black women is viewed as an inconvenient afterthought.
Star Wars joins other popular franchises for a sloppy treatment of race and racial identity that feeds into the alienation of Black fans. When Marvel Comics announced that instead of Peter Parker, Miles Morales, a Black Hispanic teenager, would serve as Spider-Man’s alter ego, fans generally embraced it. Yet documents from the Sony e-mail leaks show that gatekeepers were adamant that Spider-Man could not be a Black actor. In the Hunger Games series, Katniss has “olive skin” and black hair, and many readers hoped the Girl on Fire could be a woman of color. Not only was the movie part given to a brunette, Jennifer Lawrence, but racist moviegoers complained about Black actors in the film, including Rue, the small, quick-witted girl character explicitly written as having “dark brown skin.”
Actress Zoe Saldana has carved out a space in sci-fi; but with the exception of her role as Lieutenant Uhura in J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot, she voices alien or other nonhuman characters (blue skin in Avatar, green in Guardians of the Galaxy). To some, it’s a sign of progress that Saldana is now a go-to actress for female sci-fi roles. Saldana herself told Time, “Eighty percent of what’s out there is told through the point of view of a male. I can sit down with so many filmmakers for so many projects and play so many actors’ girlfriends or wives. But in sci-fi, I can play Gamora.” [music] It’s great that Saldana is breaking through glass ceilings, but that doesn’t mean her success is necessarily opening the floodgates for a plethora of Black actresses seeking sci-fi roles. And relying on one actress to fill a diversity quotient is not only lazy but dangerously counterproductive.
On television, viewers were delighted to see Black actress Nicole Beharie in an autonomous, intelligent, and kick-ass leading role on FOX’s Sleepy Hollow. Yet as the seasons went on, writers sidelined Beharie’s leading lady in favor of Ichabod’s wife, a white woman named Katrina. For sci-fi viewers, this sent the message that even when a Black woman is an integral part of a show, her white counterpart will always outrank her.
Even sci-fi that’s considered more “feminist” falls flat. Joss Whedon, routinely cited as a sci-fi/fantasy director who consciously writes well-rounded women characters, typically filters narratives through the perspective of a white woman. The majority of his shows—such as Buffy, Dollhouse, and even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—do not have Black women as the main protagonists. Black girls and women who watch these shows may enjoy the refreshingly multidimensional female characters, but rarely do they see themselves reflected back, instead treated to familiar stereotypes like the Token Black Friend or the Sassy, Strong Black Woman.
If one were to go solely on prime-time shows like The Big Bang Theory, a viewer might believe that nerds and/or geeks are still embodied by the same tired stereotypes: white, male, socially awkward yet intellectually brilliant. But if you look elsewhere you’ll see a different story. Online, Black girl nerds have used social media not only to find community but to achieve the sort of validation and visibility mainstream media denies them. Harry Potter fans have used racebending as a way to reimage the beloved trio into characters that look more like them, namely with Hermione, whose physical descriptions in the book are limited to her big, bushy hair and oversize teeth. Black cosplayers routinely racebend by dressing up as characters canonically written as white.
Characters like Storm from X-Men, Martha Jones from Doctor Who, and Kendra Young from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are loved and remembered so fiercely because they are some of the few; but they are not the norm in sci-fi and fantasy casting. Black female fans want to see an accurate and nuanced portrayal of characters that look like them. By using social media and the free-flowing exchange of ideas within fandoms, these fans are fighting back against the one-note offerings of Hollywood. Black characters in these genres have gone from nonexistent to a rare commodity, mainly included to provide the illusion of an equal playing field. The community of Black girl nerds relentlessly and continuously challenges the status quo by carving out their own space at the table, refusing to settle for the notion of “good enough.”
SARAH: That was writer Vanessa Willoughby. You can read three more brilliant perspectives on race and nerdery in the whole article, Geeking Out: Four Perspectives on Nerding While Black, in the Nerds print issue or at Bitchmedia.org.
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today, we’re talking about our favorite nerds. A few weeks ago, I posted a photo of some new comic books on our Instagram and our Facebook and asked Bitch’s followers what their favorite comics are right now. Many people kept saying the same title: Bitch Planet.
Bitch Planet is a comics series set in a near-future. People who are convicted of “anti-social” behavior are stamped with the label “non-compliant,” and the government shipped through outer space to a prison planet. The story revolves around the women who are incarcerated on this planet, exploring their back stories and their struggles for dignity in the face of corrupt authoritarian power. It comments on current realities of prison and patriarchy, all with a vibe and feel that riffs on 1970s prison exploitation films.
That series, Bitch Planet, is written by Kelly Sue Deconnick. She is also the brains behind several other beloved series, including a surreal western called Pretty Deadly. That series feels like a classic western that’s colored by mythology and magic. Pretty Deadly centers on the daughter of Death and is woven of storylines that deal with violent duels and stunning moments of compassion. Kelly Sue Deconnick was nominated for an Eisner Award for her work writing the series. That’s a huge deal in the comics industry, and this month the sixth issue of Pretty Deadly hits newsstands.
Kelly Sue, thanks for joining us on the show.
KELLY: Well, thank you so much for having me.
SARAH: I think you are a lot of people's favorite nerd, [chuckling] or at least one of their favorite nerds.
SARAH: Something that is constantly surprising and amazing to me is how many people have tattoos of your work.
KELLY: Yeah! It's not less surprising or amazing when you're me.
SARAH: [laughs] There's this whole phenomena of people getting tattoos of the little logo from Bitch Planet and C that stands for “non-compliant” tattooed somewhere on their body. How does that feel to see that?
KELLY: Humbling, incredibly humbling. I really try to keep my ego in check by remembering that that isn't about me. That particular thing isn't even really about my work. We are a….I mean, look. I'm super happy that people have used the book as an entrée into having this dialogue with themselves, but it's not about the book. My friend, Dan Curtis Johnson, said, “You don't get that tattoo because you're a fan of the book. You get that tattoo because the book is a fan of something in you.”
SARAH: Oh, that's nice. Yeah. So it's sort of a symbol of saying hey, I'm non-compliant in society. I don't fit into society.
KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I don't fit in the box that was issued me. I'm too fat, I'm too Black, I'm too brown, I'm too shy, I'm too outgoing, I'm too sexual, I'm too religious, I'm too any of these things that women in particular–although it's not exclusive to women, certainly–but women are in particular are asked to conform to these very narrow standards. Like, please be one of these six types. And when you are outside of that in any way, then you're asked to pay a price for that. And I think what that symbol says is yeah, I don't fit in my box, and that's OK. I'm fine with who I am.
SARAH: Yeah, it's interesting, this series. So the first volume of Bitch Planet comics just came out this fall, the first collection of Bitch Planet that you can go and buy at the store. And I think it's interesting how the series has evolved where it's focused on the stories of women who are incarcerated on a prison planet, and basically, none of them are people you typically see in mainstream comics. A lot of them are queer and just have all different body sizes and just have really interesting character design that's nothing like the norm, like the muscular, strapping kind of bland people you often see in superhero comics. When you were setting out to write this story about women in prison, is it surprising to you that so many people identify with that? Or does that make sense to you because you're writing about people who are marginalized, and all kinds of people can identify with that?
KELLY: It was definitely intentional, but I think that the thing that is sort of the underlying truth of the book is this is this absurd world where you get sent to a prison planet for being, for not fitting in your box. But no one is compliant; no one fits in their box. This ideal woman is a myth. So, that's why when you do see the compliant woman, the compliant woman is a hologram. She's always drawn in pink lines.
SARAH: But she acts as like a prison guard, enforcer in the prison. She's sort of over-seeing what's happening as the compliant woman.
KELLY: Yeah, she's a hologram. But you also see her on the world. You also see her on Earth. She's most of the women that you see on television.
SARAH: And it's interesting with this series cuz it has really strong stories and a really strong plot moving through it as these women sort of try to maintain some dignity in the face of authoritarian power structures. But there's also an educational component to it. On the back page of some of the issues, you had a discussion of like what is intersectional feminism? And I was struck by that, and I was wondering how much you see this series as sort of trying to introduce people to ideas and feminist theories and perspectives and frameworks, and how much you want people just to be sucked in by the plot?
KELLY: Well, I think it's 50/50. I think the plot and the story make up the bulk of our pages, but I think if you ask the people who buy the book why they buy the book, it's as much for the back matter as it is for the story pages. But what we did want to do was we wanted it to have the feeling of a zine. We wanted it to be….We refer to the back pages as “community pages,” right? And we want it to be a place where people can come together and kind of share not just their frustrations but their successes and find each other and find community, and also find the solace that comes from knowing that you're not the only person who feels these things.
SARAH: Yeah, so I mean this first collection collects the first five issues of Bitch Planet. What's striking about it, as you said, is that it's such an overtly feminist comic that's really focused on the stories of all female characters. And the comics industry has not had a great history of including women, especially not including characters who are women of color. I've been wondering, was this a hard sell for this storyline? Did you come up against resistance from comics executives or collectors?
KELLY: Well, that's the beauty of working at Image Comics. I never had that conversation. Never. My pitch to Eric Stephenson on Bitch Planet was something along the lines of Valentine De Landro and I are playing with this idea of a women-in-prison exploitation riff with a gladiatorial kind of sport, and we're tentatively calling it Bitch Planet. But that's just a working title; we could change that. And that, I think, was the entirety of it. And I expected like you know, “Right me up a one-pager on it!” or “Talk to me when you've got it!” I don't know what I was expecting. I was expecting him to come back and say, “Hmm. Tell me more,” you know? But instead, he came back and said, “I would very much like to publish something called Bitch Planet. And that was it.
SARAH: That seems so exciting and also rare to have that level of trust from a publisher.
KELLY: You know, I think that that is–We had a proven success with Pretty Deadly. But that's one of the beautiful things of when you're in with Image is they don't police you. They don't look over your shoulder. They see the book when you upload it. And in fact, I called at one point, I called and spoke to Eric because I was concerned about some of the nudity in Pretty Deadly. Female nudity is nothing uncommon in comics, but male nudity is still kind of a thing, and some people won't carry the book. I just wanted to sort of make sure I didn't catch them off guard and get myself in trouble. So I called and said, “You know, hey, I don't know if you want to see this art ahead of time or what, but we have some frontal male nudity in the second issue of Pretty Deadly. And I just don't want you to run into any distribution problems.”
SARAH: So you called them up and said, “There's a bunch of dicks in my book. Is that Okay” [laughing]?
KELLY: [laughs] That's exactly it! Just one dick. It's just one dick, but it does appear from a couple of angles, I think. And yeah, and Stephenson's response was, “Yeah, I published Howard Chaykin. You're not gonna shock me.”
KELLY: Well, all right! Off we go, then! One part of me is like, “Oh, really! Is that a dare?” So yeah, I mean they've been amazing, and there was never–And in fact, the woman who does–this woman named Tricia, who works at Image–who does our kind of like backend stuff like handling all the technical aspects of once we upload the book, she makes sure that it becomes a book. She is a huge fan of the book and always gets really excited for it to be uploaded and is really invested in the story. They're incredibly, incredibly supportive.
SARAH: One thing I love about the story of Bitch Planet is who it centers on. I don't think I'm giving anything away to say that the first issue feels like the whole narrative is going to be centered on this one middle class white woman who's innocent–sort of–but is incarcerated in prison on this prison planet. And then the narrative shifts, and it turns out the story's not actually about her. And that was such a shock to me because usually as a viewer, even when they're stories that include lots of people of color, lots of queer people, or people who aren't often seen in our pop culture, the narrative still centers on that white, straight, middle class, “I'm innocent! I don't belong here!” kind of voice. So it was cool to see that narrative shift.
KELLY: Yeah. I get why that's done, but I don't like it. I think the message that's inherent in that is that the culture that this white woman is the–or white man, depending on the story–is our Trojan horse into, is somehow other, you know? That it's, I don't know, less American or less–depending on the context of what we're talking about–that it's somehow not us. And nope, these are all, these are our stories. You can identify with anyone in this book [chuckles]. They're all human beings. You can find something in them that you relate to, and it shouldn't be so difficult to see that, you know?
SARAH: Yeah. I mean, the other thing I just love about the series is the way that it really comments on current realities. There's so many things in the book that feel like oh, that's happening right now. I can see that there's like sort of constant, upbeat, perky attitude from media about how you should look and how you should be and a lot of shaming around your body. People have TV screens in their homes at all times that are telling them how to do and how to be. How often do you see stuff in real life and say, “Ooh, I've gotta put that into Bitch Planet?” Or is there anything from the real world that you dropped in?
KELLY: When I was trying to figure out how we would teach the rules of the game, the sport–Duemila or Megaton–how we would teach it to the prisoners.
SARAH: Which is a sport that they have to play at sort of like an Olympic, gladiatorial, Hunger Games, horrible-style sport that the women who are incarcerated wind up taking part in, during the series.
KELLY: Yeah, and it's loosely based on an old Italian sport, actually, but the structure of it and some of the things about it that I find problematic come from American football, the NFL. But I was trying to figure out, well, what narrative device would we use to teach the rules both to the reader and to the women themselves. And we came up with we're going to do it in a two-fold way. One, was we have this infographic, this two-page spread that kind of lays out the field and where the judges sit and how to score. So that would be an easy thing to refer to. But then we also did a video. So there's a video that's playing on a big screen that the women are watching that's explaining how the sport is played. And I did a YouTube search just looking for a football 101 kind of thing, and I found a video that is almost word for word Haley and Kaley, who are the two hologram characters, the sort of bouncing Hooters waitress-dressed girls who are sensibly explaining to other women why they should watch this sport, making the assumption that of course you couldn't possibly just genuinely be interested; you must be doing it to impress a man. And that was an actual video that I found, which was both heart-breaking to me. The woman who made this video, I wanted to make her spaghetti and explain, “It is okay for you to just like what you like,” you know? And at the same time, I also was just livid with her at this. The way that she was framing this was that if you know enough about this sport to make it look like you're actually interested, men are gonna find you irresistible.
SARAH: Yeah, that's the video in the comic. The women who are incarcerated are forced to watch this video about basically like here's the rules of the sport so you can understand it so you can connect with your boyfriend or with guys more. You would never play this sport. You wouldn't be interested in it for yourself, but here's the rules so that your boyfriend can understand it. And that's the way that we come to understand what this game is that they play.
KELLY: To help him understand, if he's having trouble. Or you can fool a dude into thinking that you're actually into this thing that they're all clearly into because we also make assumptions for men.
SARAH: That almost sounds like the fake geek girls meme [chuckles].
KELLY: And it was so heart-breaking. I've been so tempted a couple of times to link to the video. It's not that hard to find, but I don't want to mock this woman because I feel like she is a victim of what she's been told to value, and I don't want to come down on her. At the same time, like…
SARAH: What are you doing [laughs]?!?
KELLY: Girl! Girl! What's up?! You know?
SARAH: Well, let's talk about your other series, Pretty Deadly, which the sixth issue just came out this month. I believe today is maybe the release date for it. That's exciting [chuckles].
KELLY: Yeah! It came out yesterday.
SARAH: Yesterday! Well, congratulations on the sixth issue of that series. That has a totally different feel from Bitch Planet. While Bitch Planet is more a riff on 1970s prison exploitation, women in prison films, Pretty Deadly is sort of, in my mind, a remix of classic westerns with a kind of mythological, magical, surreal bent to it. Can you tell me about wanting to write a western and why you chose this to be a western and how you feel about the series now that it's on its sixth issue?
KELLY: Boy, I love this book. But I love it the way you sort of love a difficult child, you know? This book fights back. It's a really hard book to write. It's a challenging book to read, although I love that part of it. We originally wanted to do a very straightforward Sergio Leone kind of western, and then it never quite felt right. It never really gelled. Like way back in the way back, when it was just notes, this was the story of Jenny, a sharpshooter in a Wild West show. Sissy was the Josie Wales dog that I gave her to spit on, just to give her somebody to talk to. But we really kind of wanted to see if we could do a woman-man with no name, you know?
SARAH: Mm, kind of a Clint Eastwood character who's a bit of a vigilante.
KELLY: Yeah, and a cipher, a not so much a protagonist as a sort of force of nature around who the rest of the world has to bend, you know? Like a High Plains Drifter or Pale Rider, like that kind of man with no name. And so that was the place we started, but it just never felt right. And it didn't start to feel right until we kind of let the monsters in, until the–
SARAH: The literal monsters.
SARAH: Not like [chuckles]….
KELLY: When we found that, then everything else, well fell into place overstates it. But then everything started to feel right. And interestingly, I was a little sad about that because I felt like we had gotten away from our original intentions, even though I loved the book. It's like eh, you know, but we'd wanted to do this Leone thing. And then Charlie Houston found this quote for me. An amazing, lovely fan did a needlework piece that I have right next to my desk now. It's got this landscape with this giant moon, and it says, “'The myth is everything'–Sergio Leone.” And the larger quote says something like, “Nothing matters but the myth. The myth is everything.” And so in the end, we felt like we had actually done Leone. We'd circled around to it, but we'd come at it from a direction that we hadn't expected.
SARAH: So telling a western with a mythological framework to it.
KELLY: Yeah, which I mean, when you think about the man with no name, that's very much the case. I just had never put my finger on it.
SARAH: Mmhmm, yeah. There's a real mythos around that person. They can just be sort of a hero form.
KELLY: Yeah, he feels like he rode in from nowhere. He's there for justice, you know?
SARAH: Mmhmm. Yeah, you mentioned that this is also a hard series to write, and it's a hard series to read, a little bit; it's challenging in part because the series is really inventive and doesn't follow a lot of the typical comic book story arc systems, I guess is the best way to say it. A lot of times, if you just jump into reading the first issue, you can feel overwhelmed or like what's going on? I don't know what's happening here.
KELLY: It is not the hero's journey.
KELLY: Like you cannot map this.
SARAH: Right. And then by the end of maybe the first issue or a few along, it just starts to grow on you. If you just roll with the world, you'll eventually pick up what's going on and sort of fall into it.
KELLY: Yeah, all the pieces are on the table by the third issue, and in the first arc they've all come together by the last page of the fifth issue. But you know, we always say it rewards a re-read.
SARAH: Yeah, and I think it kinda feels like coming into a story in the middle or stepping into a different world where you don't understand the rules exactly or exactly what's going on. You just have to kind of go with the flow for a while.
KELLY: Yeah, it's very immersive.
SARAH: Mmhmm. And why is that why you decided to write the story? Why be more avant-garde with your approach to the narrative when you're also pushing boundaries in forms of art and character representation? Why also tweak with the narrative in that way?
KELLY: You know, it was a tantrum, quite frankly. And I had both come out of years of doing traditional comics work, very corporate comics, and they're great and we love them and we learned a lot there. But you know, there was a very narrow structure with which you can work, and there are expectations, and clarity trumps all. You are asked to explain everything as you go. What the reader is coming to those books for is not an experiment. And that's fine. Please don't hear that as a judgment. But after a couple of years of that, we were like, fuck it! We're gonna do this the way we want to do it. This is our book. We're in charge. We may not get this chance again.
SARAH: When you say, Emma, that's Emma Ríos. She's the artist on the series.
KELLY: Yeah, my co-creator. So that's the thing sometimes people don't understand about comics is so I write the script, and Emma draws the pictures in the simplest sense. But the story is a product of the two of us. It's very much the two of us.
VERONICA: Hey, Bitch. This is Veronica from Vivalafeminista.com. And one of my favorite nerds growing up was Michael Evans from the show Good Times. I always thought it was awesome that this little African-American boy was walking around with a law book and telling everybody what was up. And as I got older, I realized how radical his nerdiness was. I'd like to think it rubbed off on me. So he's one of my favorite nerds.
SARAH: This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by Girl Develop It, a nonprofit organization that exists to provide affordable and judgment-free opportunities for women interested in learning web and software development. Through in-person classes and community support, Girl Develop It helps women of diverse backgrounds achieve their technology goals and build confidence in their careers and everyday lives. Find out more at www.girldevelopit.com.
Today on Popaganda we’re talking about favorite nerds. When I talk to some people about wanting more racial and gender diversity in comic books and film and TV, sometimes people say, “Why does that any of that matter? There are such bigger issues in the world.” There are, yes, pressing life and death issues in the world, but pop culture really does matter. Our pop culture, and that includes comics and TV and movies, shapes how we see ourselves and what we see of the rest of the world. One case in point about why good representation matters in pop culture comes to us courtesy of Marvel comics.
Last year, Marvel revamped its long-running Ms. Marvel series with an all-new heroine. Since she debuted in 1977, the crime-fighting superhero Ms. Marvel had had a couple identities. But the best-known one is a blonde, white woman named Carol Danvers. Now, last year, writer G. Willow Wilson passed the do-gooder helm to a Pakistani-American teenager from New Jersey named Kamala Khan. The fictional Kamala is charming and very sweet and very smart and also, Marvel's first Muslim character to headline her own comic book. And fans love her. The first issue of Ms. Marvel, which came out last October, was the #1 best selling comic book that month. The issue went on to win the prestigious Hugo Award for best graphic story.
Writer Alice Nuttal wrote about Kamala Khan in the nerds issue of Bitch. She recommended Ms. Marvel on the Bitchlist in the issue as one of her favorite nerds. Alice also writes an indie webcomic herself. It’s called Footloose—not Footloose like the film, it’s more of a “Buffy meet Mean Girls” kind of adventure. I called up Alice where she lives in the UK to talk about why Kamala Khan has become such a beloved character.
SARAH: So Alice, can you tell me about the character of Kamala Khan? Just what is she like to you as a reader and a comics fan? How would you describe her?
ALICE: I think Kamala Khan is, I think she's one of the best representations of a teenager girl writing, well, not just in comics, in a lot of literature. Because she's very believable. She's very nerdy, very passionate, kind of has that awkwardness that we all go through when we're teenagers. And she kind of tries to do her best, often makes mistakes, and she's just incredibly well written and a great, well-rounded character. So that's why I wanted to write about her, why I kind of picked her out as one of my favorite characters.
SARAH: So I know there's lots of superheroes and super-heroines. How does Kamala Khan feel different to you? I mean, I know there's some superlatives around her: she's the first Muslim character to headline her own comic book series from Marvel. But as a person and a character, just how does she feel like she stands out from the crowd of superheroes?
ALICE: I think she kind of stands out because I suppose that the thing is that diversity, the fact that she's being kind of held as a young woman of color superhero, a Muslim superhero. The fact is that through her character, we see how universal and relatable she can be as well. I think the fact that the comic series itself is kind of completely gone against the whole stereotype that if a story is about a character who's marginalized, then it's only relatable to people who are marginalized in the same way. I think stories like Ms. Marvel show that telling a good story is the central aspect, and a good story can be told and diversity can essentially enrich that story as well.
SARAH: Yeah, that's a good point cuz it's something that writers get pushback who are pitching stories for TV or film or for comics if they're not about characters who are white and super–in the eyes of executives–mainstream, then sometimes a story can get shot down, often saying, “You know, this just won't appeal to our audience, or this won't appeal to mainstream audiences,” which is code for 15-40 year old white, straight guys. And it doesn't have to be that way at all.
ALICE: Right, definitely not. I've been to quite a few comic conventions this year, and I've seen so many Ms. Marvel cosplayers, from all walks of life and everything. That shows that she has this kind of, she's gripped the comic-reading community, and not just again, appealing to a completely white audience.
SARAH: When you're talking about Ms. Marvel to people who haven't read the comics, can you tell us about a specific scene or a specific moment or a story arc where you feel like her character really shines through?
ALICE: There's a story arc in one of the recent comics where she's kind of meeting a guy that her parents just set her up with, and she's sort of imagining that she won't have anything in common with him at all. And it turns out they play the same computer game. They're both completely involved in that, one of their favorite things, and they have that in common. And it just, I just love that moment because it's Ms. Marvel's nerdiness kind of shining through.
SARAH: Yeah, I think she's such a fun character because she does normal teenage things as well as a lot of superhero things. I know there's lots of superheroes who are trying to lead normal teenage lives, but I feel like in the writing of Kamala's story, she really does do a lot of normal teenage things as well as try and save the world every once in a while.
ALICE: Exactly, yeah. I mean I also love the fact that she's a fan fiction writer. And from what we kind of pick up with her talking about her fan fiction, she's a pretty successful one. Her stories get to be quite popular, and essentially, she's an Avengers fan and kind of carries that over to when she meets various members of the Avengers. She will kind of happily and without any kind of embarrassment just completely nerd out at them. And it's always very, very funny, but it's not belittling in any way, which I really like. I think often you get teenage girls interests are kind of played down and played as not really serious, and the comic doesn't do that at all, which I think is just a fantastic thing.
SARAH: Kamala Khan celebrated her one-year anniversary of her own comics series this fall. You can find the Ms. Marvel series in any comic book store.
Taneka: Hi, my name is Taneka Stotts. I can't remember the exact moment it happened, the spark that went off, or the eureka moment that ignited my interest. I just remember her, a Lieutenant in space, and I was a brown-eyed girl glued to my television after school craving more than just The Addams Family. I wanted to be lost in space and at least beyond outer limits. I didn't know it yet. I just wanted to see a representation of me but out there. And she was it. So I was soaked in every moment. Back then, there was no high-definition, but she was 3-D in my heart. Even if her screen time was minor, it mattered more than I understood. After all, she taught me that while Tribbles were trouble, they could also still give love. So I mirrored her the best I could, imitating fiction with a dress my never forgave me for cutting up. I didn't just want to be like her; I wanted to boldly go where my family couldn't afford to send me at the time: space camp. You see, the magic of Hollywood was not new to me. The existence of sets, props, and television cameras were there to make us all believe, but it was her appearance that sold me on a future I didn't yet understand, proving that we were all more than just a mass of conflicting impulses. Right, Michelle? I'm sorry. I meant, Lieutenant.
SARAH: As nerd culture has become increasingly mainstream culture, there have been a lot of important discussions about who’s excluded from being part of nerdy pop culture. [music] The way race, gender, and power work to make the imagined audience of comics, film, and TV a homogenous white dude, rather than the diversity of readers, listeners, and movie-watchers that actually exist is super important to recognize. This show is meant to reflect the reality of nerddom. There are so many people and characters who are making great work that I want to celebrate and really dig into. As the cold and rainy months set in, I’m excited about having a whole bunch of new stuff to nerd out on. Be sure to check out the Nerds print issue of Bitch, and thank you so much to Aya de Leon, Veronica Arreola, and Taneka Stotts for sharing their favorite nerds in our voice mails on this show.
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