EXCLUSIVE: WisCon 37—Why Gail Simone is the Most Powerful Woman in Comics

WisConlogoLast Sunday myself and Capeless’ fearless Senior Editor Michael Stock attended WisCon 37. WisCon is an annual feminist science-fiction convention, where fans and academics from across the country congregate to discuss topics ranging from anti-feminist themes in the Whedonverse to Women in Comics and gaming workshops.

Mike and I were asked to present our papers at a panel devoted to Capeless Crusader, moderated by Dr. Keridwen Luis of Harvard University. The videos below include most of my portion of the presentation, though we do want to apologize for some slight camera snafus that result in a couple of rough cuts.

After the videos, you can find the complete annotated text of the presentation, complete with source links.

Please let us know what you think, and don’t forget to check out Michael Stock’s presentation on Caitlyn Kiernan and how she infiltrated comics here.

PART I

PART II

PART III

PART IV (Q&A)

ANNOTATED PRESENTATION

I . INTRODUCTION 

Good morning, and thank you all for coming.

My name is Joshua Epstein, and I am the publisher of CapelessCrusader.org. I’ll be presenting the first half of our talk talk today, but before we begin, I would like to tell you a little bit about who we are and what we do at Capeless.

I started the site about 18 months ago, largely in response to the Wisconsin protests in February of 2011. I realized that the comics I was reading were not offering any solace during a very trying period, and.it caused me to ask what it was about the industry that prompted mainstream books to steer clear of directly addressing social issues as they once did, and also spurred a desire to highlight those books that do shine a light on important issues of the day.

What we do is put comics in context, explaining the larger societal and market forces that influence this industry. Besides myself and Michael, we have a dedicated staff of volunteer contributors who generate analytical and editorial content on a daily basis with the objective of fulfilling that mission.

The topic I’ll be be exploring today, before Mike presents his paper on Caitlyn Kiernan, is how Gail Simone’s sizable body of exemplary work in comic books and comic book commentary, along with her concise use of social media interactions have combined to make her one of the most powerful women in the comic book industry.

Now who here is familiar with Gail Simone?

Excellent,that’s not surprising. Since she came on the scene in 1999, her star has steadily risen. She’s broken ground as a blogger, had a solid early career on The Simpsons, and she’s enjoyed critical success as well as commercial success in her work for Marvel and DC Comics.

Now, neither of those runs with mainstream publishers has gone entirely without incident, but we will get into that in just a few minutes.

II. HISTORY

I’d like to start us off with a brief history. For the purposes of today’s discussion, I’d like to divide Gail Simone’s career into three periods.

The first of these periods is what we’ll refer to as

THE MAVERICK PERIOD

This period spanned from 1998-2002, and begins with Simone’s work as a blogger commenting on creative and editorial trends within the comic book industry.

– QUESTION: Who here is familiar with “Women in Refrigerators”?

  • IF ANYONE ISN’T
  • Simone published Women in Refrigerators in November of 1998. The piece was a list of every woman in comics who, as the introduction states “has been killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her”(1). It has since been updated and revised, but even the original list created a tremendous stir when it was released. She instantly established a name for herself as someone who was not going to accept the ongoing marginalization of female characters and creators in the industry. There have been any number of discussions at this very conference on that particular piece of work, so we won’t devote a great deal of time to it today.

She also published a regular feature on ComicBookResources, widely regarded as the most successful delivery platform for content related to comic culture, called “You’ll All Be Sorry” or “YABS”.

YABScoverThis column was primarily satirical commentary on the nature of the industry, people working within the creative and editorial apparatus of comics, as well it’s media promotion apparatus, really anything to do with comics culture.

The first column, published in October of 1999(2), featured a fictional conversation between writer & artist John Byrne and a writer from what was then the leading print source of comics journalism, Wizard Magazine. The exchange shows Byrne and the writer discussing an attempt by Byrne to revisit Alan Moore’s Watchmen, something that Simone would do herself more than a decade down the line in BEFORE WATCHMEN’s “SILK SPECTRE”.

The conversation is quite funny, and today might almost remind of something you’d find in The Onion.

The piece itself is interesting for several reasons. First, that Simone would later work with Byrne when DC tapped her to pen “ACTION COMICS”, an extremely prestigious assignment. The second is that the article is delivered in the form of a script. The interplay between Byrne and the reporter shows Byrne reveling at those aspects of his personality and process that were being actively pilloried in message boards and discussion fora of the time. She also uses Byrne as an avatar through which she pokes a proverbial stick at publishing trends that were overexploiting the marketplace, such as foil and variant “collector” covers.

The other major reason that these columns are remarkable,  particularly for writers like myself who focus on social issues in relation to comics, is that Simone managed to touch on nearly every single issue that comics and society face wrapped their various history, including issues that remain relevant in our fandom’s conversation today. When she did a parody version of a 1939 issue of Wizard Magazine(3) headlines included things such as

“wonder woman not invented yet say displease lesbians”

“Japanese vow revenge on US for portrayal in comics” and

“Siegel and Shuster trade Superman for buffet lunch”.

Each of these touches on a specific issue is either faced the industry as a whole or literature and society on the whole throughout the course of comics existence.

Wonder Woman’s role in lesbian counterculture is well documented. Various organizations, including the US government, have apologized to Japanese Asian American citizens for the way in which they were treated during World War II the argument over ownership of characters created early in the life of the industry is an ongoing one with court cases being decided only as recently as this month with respect to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s estates and the ownership of Superman.

“The Simpsons”

simpsonssimoneGiven her demonstrated talent for dialogue and script structure, it is no surprise that she found work with Bongo Comics writing “THE SIMPSONS”. Even there she continued to occasionally focus her wit on the industry as a whole, with one story featuring a street brawl between X-Men writers Grant Morrison and Mark Millar over who was the better writer(4). This period featured work on a number of titles for smaller publishers, and eventually culminated in the begging of the second period in Simone’s career, which we’ll be referring to as

THE MARVEL PERIOD

This period spanned from (May 2002-March 2003) during which time Simone worked for Marvel Comics on a couple of small one-off stories, but primarily made her mark with her work on “Deadpool/Agent X”

deadpool_4What made this book remarkable was that Simone was reaching out through her text to the same people who would eventually rise to her defense. Throughout the run, Simone’s characterization of Wade Wilson and use of bizarre pop cultural references in his fourth-wall breaking asides engaged people in a way that was almost viral, in today’s social media terms.

Simone capitalized on the unique nature of Deadpool as a fourth wall breaking character to deliver commentary and jokes by way of channels that would not necessarily have been available otherwise. It gave her license to make pop-culture references without the underlying implication that they had then become part of mainstream Marvel continuity.

There is an image to be found for just about any obscure pop culture reference with Deadpool making some delightful comment.

This, in turn, creates cross-pollination of different sectors of fan culture. If he makes a Bea Arthur joke, it filters its way out to people who love Bea Arthur jokes and, lets admit it, there are quite a few of those.

The series also marked the first instance of Simone departing a book over disputes with the editorial staff, something which will become a theme as we go on. She returned to the book when it was retitled AGENT X, but left shortly thereafter, when she signed a long-term exclusive deal, bringing us to the third period…

THE DC PERIOD

From 2003 until 2012, Simone was under exclive contract at DC, where she became one of the only female writers working there at the time, until later when she would become THE only female writer working for that particular publisher.

By the time this occurred Simone had honed her craft to the point where she could be trusted to spearhead an initiative to bring further diversity to the DC comics line.

Birds-of-Prey

Her spotlight title, Birds of Prey could easily have been entitled “Lady Asskickers of the DCU”, and was a very solid attempt by the company to create a title to appeal to women readers on every level.

It was also in the pages of this book that Simone demonstrated her ability to script team dynamics in such a way as to show the characters working through complex emotional problems peacefully enter dialogue although being a comic book series there was plenty of the punchy punchy as well.

The success of birds of prey eventually led to Simone being assigned to work on action comics where she working collaboration with John Byrne who if you remember she viciously pilloried in the first YABS column. The run did not last long due to a decision by DC editorial at the time to begin rotating creative teams and many other books it did however lead to Simone being assigned to work on secret six and villains United villains United spun out of the infinite crisis event and allow Simone to develop feature characters such as cat man almost immediately gained a large online following as well as vixen and white tiger among others

At this point, Simone had established her credentials not only as a solid practitioner of the craft, but as a creator with a genuine focus on bringing about a DC Comics universe in which women played a much larger and direct role, both with respect to continuity and profile.

Simone herself said in an interview on Newsarama’s “Word Balloon” podcast “…my whole thing is about diversity in the DCU and about it reflecting our world today…” (5)

As a result, she was tapped to take on a task which has rarely been attempted Successfully in modern comics, which is the revitalization of the Wonder Woman franchise.

Wonder Woman 

wondy

Wonder woman is a tricky character to get right. Many creators have tried, but very few have actually succeeded. With the notable exceptions of Brian Azzarello’s current run and George Perez’ run in the 1980s, very few Wonder Woman solo titles have achieved both critical and commercial success. Gail Simone’s run on the book did well critically, but did not achieve the commercial success that DC comics were looking for.

–  On leaving the book, Simone reflected on stories from fans whom she’d met both online and at conventions. She told of tales from

“…women who used Wonder Woman to explain about might for right to their daughters, people who used Wonder Woman as an example to get out of abusive relationships, I’ve had several people tell me Wonder  Woman helped them through chemotherapy, or to come out to their family and friends. Last month, someone told me that my Wonder Woman stories have helped get him off an extremely dark path of depression when he needed it most, and now he’s much, much better. Award-winning novelist and Wonder archivist supreme Andy Mangels told me a story about a woman who actually trained to become an astronaut after being inspired by classic Wonder Woman stories.” (6)

It is evident from her comments thst Simone obviously had a tremendous amount of respect for Diana and what she means as a symbol of empowerment.

There is a wealth of feminist literature relating to the importance of wonder woman as cultural icon feminist icon as a symbol of women’s empowerment in popular culture.

Simone obviously had a great deal of respect for the character and was disappointed that her run didn’t achieve more success. At the conclusion of her run, DC comics decided to hand the character over to veteran comics and TV scribe J Michael Straczynski in an attempt to rebrand her as a younger hipper version before eventually rebooting the title as a part of their NEW 52 initiative. As a part of that event,  Simone was assigned to write Batgirl, a character she has described as her entry point into comics and her first love.

There was a great deal of hubbub surrounding Gail Simone’s initial run on batgirl. As a part of the launch of the new 52, the editorial decision was made to take Barbara Gordon (who for several years had become a symbol of empowerment for women with physical disabilities) out of her role as Oracle and leader of the birds of prey, and returned her to her more culturally recognizable role as batgirl. Simone took her out of the wheelchair that she had spent several years inhabiting and sent her back to the rooftops of Gotham. The circumstances behind Barbara Gordon’s rehabilitation are still being explored in the pages of batgirl,  and the book has consistently dueled with Wonder Woman lfor top 25 slots and the title of top-selling female driven book in the industry.

It is here that the story of the DC Era begins to get truly interesting. As a result of shifts in the editorial team Simone, came into disagreement with new group editor Brian Cunningham for reasons that are still as yet unclear, despite months of attempted ferreting buying the comic journalism community. Simone was relieved from book as well as birds of prey terminating a relationship DC comics at the conclusion of her exclusive agreement

When the announcement was made by email(7) and press release that Gail Simone had been released from her duties with DC comics and it became apparent that Simone had not received advance notification of this outrage from her substantial fan network was considerable. The book had been the fourth-best selling title from DC(8), and when Simone announced her firing on Twitter, Capeless’ own DC News Editor David Jetter called in”the Tweet heard the comicverse” (9)

And it is at that point that we now find Gail Simone at the peak of her powers in terms of influence as a creator within the comic book industry as Rich Johnston at bleeding cool magazine wrote:

“effectively made herself bulletproof. What can her editor do, fire her? We know that doesn’t work. And Gail will also be working safe in the knowledge that she had a ton of offers from other publishers when she announced she’d been fired. (10)

This brings us to present day, where we find Gail Simone at the peak of her powers as an influential creator in mainstream comic books.

III. Fan Engagement through Social Media

Fan Community Engagement

Gail has never forgotten her roots as a message board rabble rouser, and has continued, throughout her career, to engage fans, not only of her comics, but those of books and creators around the industry, in both polite conversations and intense verbal jousts.From the outset, Simone has been a “fan’s creator”. She is not someone who entered the industry at an early age, but was a fan and commentator first. Before she wrote comics professionally, she was a hair dresser for 15 years. Her early satire voiced many of the concerns of the fan community of the day. Since that time, she has established

Social Media

In order to understand the way in which Gail Simone was able to drive the events surrounding her termination and subsequent reinstatement, it is important that we understand the way in which social media functions and how content is both delivered and promoted.

The most effective means of measuring social media influence developed to date, be it for a personality or organization, is known as Klout.

Klout is it is a online tool that takes the measurement of a personality or organization’s influence across variety of social media platforms, calculating a score from zero to 100. To put this in perspective, someone myself, who runs a relatively niche commentary site has a Klout score that hovers between 60 and 65.

A major publisher such as DC, aided by a dedicated social necks that, while not extraordinarily effective in managing their brand image, does maximize the virality of their postings through time-targeted posting and paid post promotion will have a score of between 90 and 92.

Gail Simone’s score, which hovers around 78, briefly climbed as high as 85 during the height of the controversy surrounding her dismissal.

Twitter

There are only two Klout-connected platforms through which Simone interacts with her network. The first is Tumblr, an image-hosting site recently purchased by Yahoo for 1.1 billion dollars as a result of its place as the market leader in cute cat pictures and images of Deadpool on a velociraptor, the other is her primary platform, which is Twitter.

The platform is unique in its focus on brevity, an aspect which.many users circumvent through a variety of means, but Simone has used to generate posts that, due to their brevity and pointedness,  have the ability to br amplified in their reach.

Simone has also shown mastery of social media community development, “signal boosting” the events surrounding her dismissal and subsequent rehiring. To do this, she simply did nothing more than let her network know with a brief statement. Due to her extraordinary reach, she briefly became a top ten trending topic in the United States, something that DC struggles to achieve even with great effort during social media campaigns.

This is because while the publisher has built a network of influential creators, its followers are largely siloed into their respective sectors of DC fandom. Owing to her appeal across a variety of sectors as well as her ongoing efforts to promote diversity in the DCU, news of Simone’s termination was being spread by people with no affiliation to the comics community.

Finally, Gail has never forgotten her roots as a message board rabble rouser, and has continued, throughout her career, to engage fans, not only of her comics, but those of books and creators around the industry, in both polite conversations and intense verbal jousts.

IV.Creators Driving the Industry

If there is one unifying aspect of Simone’s career, it is that in every phase, be it blogger, creator, or social media maven, she has made things into conversations.

From day one, dialogue has been what’s made Gail Simone’s work truly remarkable. She has an extraordinary feel for how people talk to each other and how the structure and emotion of those interactions lead to certain outcomes and responses.

Through her well-earned and carefully cultivated influence, she was able to force action on the part of her employer, which is emblematic of a shift in power from publishers to popular creators. The virulent response in the wake of her firing demonstrated her value in the marketplace, forcing the publisher to respond by both returning her to her previous post and rewarding her with a high-profile new release in The Movement.

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FOOTNOTES:

1. WIR – “THE LIST”: http://lby3.com/wir/women.html

2. CBR – “YABS: WHO FIXES THE WATCHMEN”: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=13186

3. CBR – “YABS: FROM THE TOP”: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=13814

4. COMIC BOOK DATABASE – “SIMONE HISTORY”: http://comicbookdb.com/creator.php?ID=125

5. NEWSARAMA – “WORD BALLOON PODCAST: GAIL SIMONE HAS ALL THE ANSWERS”: http://wordballoon.blogspot.com/2008/10/gail-simone-has-all-answers.html

6. CBR – “ROBOT SIX: WONDER OF WONDERS “: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2010/03/05/wonder-of-wonders-3510/

7. CBR – “ROBOT SIX: THE BIG DEAL BEHIND GAIL SIMONE’S FIRING FROM BATGIRL”: http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/2012/12/the-big-deal-behind-gail-simones-firing-from-batgirl/

8. ICV2 – “Top 300 COMICS ACTUAL–NOVEMBER 2012”http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/24568.html

9. CAPELESS CRUSADER – “GAIL SIMONE RELIEVED OF WRITING DUTIES FOR BATGIRL”: http://capelesscrusader.org/2012/12/10/gail-simone-relieved-of-writing-duties-for-batgirl/

10. BLEEDING COOL – “DC PUT GAIL SIMONE BACK ON BATGIRL”: http://www.bleedingcool.com/2012/12/21/dc-comics-put-gail-simone-back-on-batgirl/

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Josh Epstein

Josh Epstein is the Publisher for the Capeless Crusader website. He’s a lifelong comic nerd, and “Superman” is the first word he ever read aloud. He is also an actor, singer, and resident of a real-world Smallville.

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