Talkin’ Princesses and Comics with Jeremy Whitley

I remember sitting down to watch Disney’s Cinderella with my wife and kids. I grew up in a house of boys, so I had never seen it before, but my daughter, Olivia, who was about two at the time, was excited to watch it, and being the good father I like to think I am, I sat down on the couch and watched. The movie ended, my daughter who was entranced by the movie sat there smiling, my wife turned to me and asked me what I thought. I looked at her, almost horrified, and told her that I didn’t want Olivia to watch this movie, EVER again!

Cinderella does nothing in that film to help herself out. Nothing. She just sweeps and cleans while her stepmother and sisters mistreat her. Never once a complaint, she just keeps her mouth shut and does all the housework. Her fairy godmother, this magical being that has watched over her and can use magic to do basically anything she wants, decides to help poor Cinderella out and give her a makeover. Seriously. Not help her out with her stepfamily that has tormented her and basically forced her into slavery for years. Nope. She gives her a dress so she can go to the ball and meet the prince, a man she knows NOTHING about. The prince falls in love at first sight because… well because Cinderella is hot, she is in love with him because he is handsome and rich. The ball ends, she runs away before the mans he supposedly loves and wants to marry sees her in something other than her magic designer clothes. The Prince then sets out in search of this mystery girl he wants to marry. This girl he knows nothing about. She could be some crazy girl who spends all her time singing to birds and knitting sweaters for mice for all he knows. Oh wait… that is exactly what she is. The moral of this story, at least from how I saw it, is that if you are pretty and quiet and do as you are told a rich man will marry you and solve all your problems. That is not a lesson I wanted to teach my daughter.

I started a campaign to introduce my daughter to female characters that she could look up to. Princess Leia, Mulan, Lucy Pevensie from the Chronicles of Narnia, Hermione Granger, all of which are woman who are brave and strong, capable and intelligent, and most importantly, woman who can save themselves. Walking through the floor at New York Comic Con, I passed by the Action Lab table, looking for a book to bring home for my daughter (she loves comic books). That’s where I saw PRINCELESS.

What a great book! The story of Princess Adrienne, a young woman, locked in a tower, guarded by a dragon, waiting for a prince to come along and rescue her. Strong, intelligent, outspoken, Princess Adrienne decides she doesn’t need a prince to rescue her and frees herself from the tower, enlists the aid of the dragon that had guarded her, and sets out on a quest to free her sisters who are trapped in towers under the same conditions. This was EVERYTHING I wanted my daughter to read. A hero not afraid to take matters into her own hands, that doesn’t need to conform to her society’s expectations on how females should behave, that isn’t afraid to be herself.

There are currently FIVE volumes for sale of PRINCELESS and an ongoing spin-off series, PRINCELESS: RAVEN THE PIRATE PRINCESS, which is an absolutely awesome story about Raven, the daughter of the Pirate King, freed from the tower by Princess Adrienne, and on a quest to take back what is rightfully hers, which is command of the Pirate fleet. She is a swashbuckling rogue, feared along the seven seas as the dreaded Black Arrow, Mulan and Han Solo mixed together and drawn to life in amazing art by Ted Brandt and Rosy Higgins.

I recently got a chance to speak with Jeremy Whitley, the writer and creator of PRINCELESS about comics, the challenges publishing face in today’s market, and his favorite Disney Princess.

LETS START AT THE BEGINNING, WHEN DID YOU DECIDE THAT YOU WANTED TO MAKE COMICS AND HOW DID YOU BREAK IN TO THE INDUSTRY?

I went to the University of North Carolina for English and Creative Writing.  I had always loved comics, but since my family had moved to Western North Carolina and our only nearby comic shop had shut down; it had been really hard to get a hold of them.  I wrote mostly prose fiction and plays while I was in school.  A few years later I discovered the Ultimate Comics that was only a few miles away from UNC and bought a couple of comics.  Suddenly I was hooked again.  After reading comics for a while, I realized that there were people writing these in much the same way I had been writing plays.  I decided to figure out how to do that.

I got hooked up with my friend and illustrator, Jason Strutz, through a local creative meet up.  I had written a few scripts but nothing had been produced yet.  Jason read one of the scripts and asked if he could take a crack at illustrating it.  I was happy to have him do so and before I knew it we had our self-published book
THE ORDER OF DAGONET and we were taking it around from convention to convention.

CAN YOU WALK ME THROUGH YOUR PROCESS? HOW DO YOU BREAK AN ISSUE AND HOW DO YOU WRITE THE SCRIPT? DO YOU WRITE A FULL SCRIPT OR DO YOU WRITE MARVEL STYLE?

I write a full script.  Generally my process for writing scripts is to have a very rough outline that I spent a lot of time developing during showers and long commutes.  Then I start writing the script and entirely throw most of that planning out the window as soon as I get in the groove.  I like to keep one eye on my destination, but let the characters write the story for me.   Usually I try to pull control back in my direction a couple of pages before the end, knowing I have to find a place to wrap the issue up.  I usually still end up writing the first draft long and then going back in and carving away at it to make sure it isn’t long-winded.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A COMIC CREATOR?  WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU HAVE LEARNED OR PERHAPS A MISTAKE YOU MADE THAT YOU WOULD SUGGEST ANOTHER CREATOR ENTERING INTO INDEPENDENT COMICS DO DIFFERENTLY?

As a writer it is up to you to set expectations with your artist.  It’s then also up to you to ask them how you can get there.  The art part of comics is the hard and time-consuming side.  That’s not to say that writing is easy, just that most artists can only draw one comic at a time whereas most writers can balance several comics.  Aligning expectations is one of the most important parts of making comics.  When you work for a company, the editor will usually do that.  If you’re on your own, then you have to be doing that.

IS THERE ANY ADVICE YOU CAN OFFER TO A CREATOR LOOKING TO BREAK INTO COMICS IN TODAY’S MARKET?

I think the biggest thing I have learned is that comics are a community unlike several of the other meaner artistic communities like film and TV.  Most people in comics are good people and genuinely welcoming.  Overall there is a strong feeling of rising tides lifting all boats.  That means that, as long as you’re polite, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask established pros for advice, to ask them to read your work, give you a pull quote, or even occasionally introduce you to someone who might have answers to questions you have that they might not know.

Comics seem to attract a largely introverted group of people and it seems the key to being successful at comics is being extroverted.  You have to talk about yourself and your work.  You have to engage with fans and other pros.  If you don’t, you’ll hit a ceiling.  If that ceiling is fine with you, then no worries, be comfortable there.  But sadly you can’t quietly sit in the corner with your comics and wait for somebody to notice you.

TELL ME ABOUT PRINCELESS.  WHERE DID YOU FIRST GET THE IDEA FOR THIS STORY?

I was thinking about being able to share comics with my (at the time unborn) daughter.  I was looking for a book with a strong female protagonist who was a woman of color, like my daughter would be, and was appropriate for kids.  I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I started looking at what the younger girls in my extended family WERE into.  And princesses were a big recurring theme.  So I figured if I wanted to reach that audience, I should try to go where they are.  So I took those princess story, so many of which bothered me in their messages, and turned that princess I saw into the kind of princess I wanted to see.  More importantly, the kind of princess I wanted my daughter to see.

PRINCESS ADRIENNE IS SUCH AN ENJOYABLE CHARACTER, SMART, CAPABLE, OUTSPOKEN, SHE DEFIES HER FATHER AND FREES HERSELF FROM HER TOWER AND SETS OFF TO RESCUE HER SISTERS.  IS THERE A PERSON OR A CHARACTER THAT INSPIRED YOU TO CREATE SUCH A COMPELLING CHARACTER?

It started out that Adrienne was based on an amalgam of my wife Alicia and her sister Adrienne, after whom the character is named.  Funnily enough though, the longer I work on it the more she begins to remind me of my daughter.  Which I guess means I’m raising her right, since this is the kind of character I wanted her to look up to, eh?


OUT OF ALL THE PRINCESSES, MY FAVORITE IS RAVEN, THE PIRATE PRINCESS.  I LOVE THAT SHE IS SOMETHING OF A ROGUE, YET AT HER CORE A GOOD PERSON.  SHE RECENTLY RECEIVED HER OWN SOLO ADVENTURE SERIES FROM ACTION LAB.  WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO SPIN OFF THE SERIES TO GIVE RAVEN HER OWN BOOK AND CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE MORE OF HER ADVENTURES PAST THIS SERIES?

Well, Raven was originally created to be a way into the main series.  We got a spot in the Free Comic Book Day comic for Action Lab and I wanted to tell a story there where readers could pick it up having never read an issue of Princeless and get what the story was about.  So I had this character of Raven who was awesome in and of herself, but she was just entering the story so it could be presented in a way where the new readers could pick up what was going on without having to read everything that came before.

The fact is, after I wrote that story, I just wanted to keep telling Raven’s story.  So we expanded that story out into its own volume of Princeless.  At the end of that volume, Raven goes her own way.  At that point, I found that I still wanted to follow her.  I wanted to know and tell more about what was happening with Raven.  So I started working on her series, which is actually an ongoing series.  I really love Raven and the slightly more teen bent of that book lets me explore some of the things that I haven’t gotten to play with in Princeless.  It’s pretty exciting and I don’t see it stopping any time soon.


WHICH IS YOUR FAVORITE PRINCESS TO WRITE?

That’s tough.  Adrienne and Raven are the easiest for me to write, but I’ve done my best to make them all interesting and quirky enough to be fun to write.  I can always tell when I’ve done something wrong, because writing suddenly stops being fun.


PRINCESS HAS RECEIVED HIGH PRAISE IN THE COMIC COMMUNITY, AND WAS NOMINATED FOR TWO EISNER AWARDS IN 2012.  YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU LEARNED THAT YOU WERE UP FOR SUCH A PRESTIGIOUS AWARD?

Disbelief, honestly.  I mean, at that point I had jokingly said to my publisher that I would not be interested in going to San Diego Comic Con unless “I got nominated for an Eisner or something” but then it happened.  It’s really a hard thing to understand when somebody tells you, because you get notified a few weeks before the formal announcement.  They want to double-check all the information with you and make sure that everything is correct for publication.  So, the only place you see it is that email and you think, “well, clearly this is some kind of mistake and when the list comes out my name won’t really be on there” then there it is. It’s pretty insane. 

ASIDE FROM YOUR WORK ON YOUR ONGOING TITLES, YOU ALSO SERVE ON STAFF AT ACTION LAB.  CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES AT ACTION LAB, THE CHALLENGES A COMIC BOOK PUBLISHING COMPANY FACES IN TODAY’S MARKET, AND WHAT GREAT NEW PROJECTS DOES ACTION LAB HAVE IN STORE FOR FANS IN 2016?

Honestly, I’m probably the least hard-working person on staff at ACTION LAB these days.  Most of my focus is on the writing side.  For quite a while I was handling a lot of the PR and promotions side, but when Jamal Igle came on, he took that over.  My current title is “Head of Educational Initiatives” which mostly means that I work with librarians, teachers, and con planners to figure out how Action Lab can help them with comics’ education.

As for challenges, when you’re talking about a market where the vast majority of business is done by two companies and on really good months, five companies – it’s hard just to get noticed.  I can jump up and down and wave my hands non-stop and it will never have the amount of impact that a thirty-second TV spot for Marvel or DC has.  So it has to be about consistency and building a fan base.  You just keep making good product and keep talking about them and people begin to notice what you’re doing.

I’m probably not the best person to ask about upcoming books in 2016, but I know we have a new book of Princeless starting up at the beginning of the year, more adventures from Raven and her crew, and a ton of great all-ages titles like Molly Danger, Actionverse, Midnight Tiger, Nutmeg, Awake, Vamplets, and so many more! 

I HAVE A FOUR YEAR OLD DAUGHTER AS WELL, AND IF YOU ARE LIKE ME, YOU HAVE WATCHED ALMOST EVERY DISNEY MOVIE THAT WAS EVER MADE, MULTIPLE TIMES.  WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DISNEY PRINCESS MOVIE?

Oooh, tough question.  I admit that some of my favorite Disney movies are not focused on princesses (ie Mulan, Aladdin, Wreck it Ralph).  I honestly do love Brave, Frozen, and The Princess and the Frog.  They all have some pretty great messages, which are unusual when it comes to movies about princesses. 

ARE YOU A GAME OF THRONES FAN?  IF SO WHAT HOUSE IN WESTEROS WOULD YOU BELONG TO?

I am, though I have to admit that I’m not always the biggest fan of some of the individual stories in the show.  I’m a sucker for the Starks and Martells.  I am definitely not a Martell though; I’m not nearly charming enough.  Frankly, I’m probably a northerner.  I’d bet on either Stark or Forester.  Though, saying Forester probably reveals that I’ve played the Game of Thrones video game from TellTale games.  It’s quite good if you haven’t played it.


YOU ARE STRANDED ON A DESERTED ISLAND.  YOU CAN HAVE ONE MUSIC ALBUM, ONE MOVIE/TV SHOW/ AND ONE BOOK TO READ.  WHAT WILL IT BE?

Music: The Arcade Fire – Funeral

Movie: The Princess Bride

Book: Y: The Last Man


WHAT IS ON YOUR CURRENT “MUST READ” LIST?

Lumberjanes

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

Black Canary

Rat Queens

Ms. Marvel

Captain Marvel

Nutmeg

Awake

Bitch Planet

Sex Criminals

Velvet

Gotham Academy

Zodiac Starforce

Doctor Strange

ARE THERE ANY UPCOMING CONVENTIONS OR EVENTS YOU WILL BE ATTENDING YOU WOULD LIKE OUR READERSHIP TO BE AWARE OF?

Next weekend I have North Carolina Comic Con right here in Durham, NC but that’s my last one for the year.  After that it will be a few months before I’m back on the circuit.  I intend to use that time to write all of the comic books.  ALL OF THE COMIC BOOKS!



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