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Meet the woman who's taking on the sexism of the comic book industry and winning

Kelly Sue DeConnick
Kelly Sue DeConnick
Pat Loika via Flickr
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

"Is this the hill you want to die on?"

That's the question Kelly Sue DeConnick asked during a conversation with a fan at Vulture's Female Fandom panel at New York Comic Con on Friday. DeConnick, self-described as big in hair and small in stature, is the inspiring avatar of feminism of the comic world. She's best known for turning Marvel's Captain Marvel, a character previously known for being sexy window dressing on The Avengers, into a hero whose courage and leadership stemmed from her experience as an Air Force pilot.

DeConnick was advising a young woman who complained that a male comic book troll at her local comic book store would challenge her to nerd pissing matches — for example being asked if she knew when Captain America's birthday fell — whenever she came to pick up her comics. Captain America's birthday was the hill this guy was willing to die on. And there are plenty of unnamed men like him.

Even though there has been a push in recent years for more female characters and more female heroes with solo series, and even though the female readership in comics has been growing steadily, there are still pockets of animosity and resentment from men who consider themselves comics gatekeepers, men whom the industry has traditionally catered to. DeConnick, alongside Marvel editors like Sana Amanat (Ms. Marvel) or the legendary Gail Simone (Batgirl, Secret Six) at DC Comics are role models female comic fans can turn to when faced with this adversity.

What makes this doubly puzzling is that comics, as long as they have existed, have (though the industry far from perfect) been stories about outcasts, often read by people considered outcasts (until very recently). They have been about understanding and appreciating outsiders. Yet, the bullied become the bullies — and turn this supposed safe space into a place where they have to prove their worth.

"No one gets to make you feel less than," DeConnick continued, asking the young woman —now in tears — to come up on stage for a hug. "No one gets to make you feel that they can decide what you can like. Nobody."

This is not a revolution

Captain Marvel Marvel

Captain Marvel #1 (Marvel)

"I'm always surprised at how the book [Captain Marvel] comes up as being a paradigm-changer. I don't think of it as that different," DeConnick wrote to me over email last month, explaining the thought process behind Carol Danvers a.k.a. Captain Marvel, and the praise that the book has received.

"With a couple of minor exceptions, I don't think about the fact 'this-is-a-female-hero' — you know? I just … write the person," she said.

DeConnick says she's writing a person, plain and simple. That a female character being treated like a human is considered groundbreaking speaks to the dearth of well-rounded female characters in the comic world. The overt sexualization of female heroes, still occurs today (see: Marvel's Spider-Woman cover) and the comics industry has a history of treating their female heroes like sex objects first.

That's why women (and men) have responded passionately to Carol Danvers. At each comic convention across the country, you'll see plenty of women and girls (and even some men) in space captain uniforms, dressed up as DeConnick's Danvers, honoring the character they love.

And to get a chance to see DeConnick speak, they wait.

At Vulture's Female Fandom panel, the line was bulging at the seams around 45 minutes before the start at the panel. On Sunday, when DeConnick and her female colleagues at the Women of Marvel panel were slated to speak, some fans were there two hours early.

"She's the reason that I love Captain Marvel. And the funny thing is, it's not the type of series that I would have found on my own," said Amanda Bryman, one of DeConnick's diehards who waited more than an hour. Bryman says she found DeConnick through Tumblr and Twitter and didn't know much about the character, except that she had a lot of "bad stuff done to her in the 80s."

One of those things that happened to Danvers was a storyline featuring a bizarre incest rape, where Danvers, at the time known as Ms. Marvel, was taken prisoner in different dimension, abused by a villain named Immortus, and found herself eight months pregnant. Her teammates think it's swell that she's having a baby. And it all ends in one garbage fire of a plot.

When DeConnick took the helm of Captain Marvel in 2012, Danvers' storyline underwent a core-shaking shift and became an exploration of leadership and whether Danvers could take over the original Captain Marvel's title. DeConnick showed a damaged human being that had issues with her confidence, fear about making the right calls, the courage to make sacrifices, the fortitude to lead the Avengers, and the determination to honor the original Captain Marvel.

In short: She became a person with faults and merits — a given when it comes to the comic industry's male characters, but a rarity for female characters. Visually, there was a drastic shift, too, with Danvers trading in her skimpy, ribbon-garnished black bikini for a space commander's uniform.

"She's becoming a huge force in the Marvel Universe," Bryman told me. "And she's not a 'female superhero.' She's just a superhero."

Though Captain Marvel never became a gigantic hit, the editorial team at Marvel stood by it and the book's fans have molded DeConnick's activism and Danvers' character into a movement called the Carol Corps — an intelligent community that stands for fairness, equality, kindness, and empathy. The Carol Corps provide the safe space free from the trolls that, say, try and ask you when Captain America's birthday is. And the Carol Corps is one of the biggest backers of Marvel's recent push for diversity and solo books for the company's female superheroes.

Carol Corps/Kamala Korps with DeConnick at a comic convention (Pat Loika via Flickr)

Marvel's increased diversity and increased awareness of its female characters have also had a positive effect on readership. Ms. Marvel, a reboot of Danvers' original title and comic, now follows a teenage, Muslim, Pakistani-American girl named Kamala Khan (who has her own movement called the Kamala Korps). Written by the talented G. Willow Wilson, and edited by Sana Amanat, Ms. Marvel recently went into its sixth printing (a first printing is like a first edition; a sixth reprinting signifies massive success) — virtually unheard of for a comic, let alone a female-led comic.

Marvel, with its rich roster of female characters and creators, has made comic books accessible for women who were used to seeing female heroes serve as high-functioning blow-up dolls and throwaway story lines. And women are coming back to comics — according to a survey of attendees at Emerald City Comic Con this year, a little more than half identified as female.

"What you're seeing now — the influx of female readership and female creators — this is not a revolution, it's a restoration," DeConnick told the panel on Friday. "Girls have always read comics."

The beat goes on


Danvers taking on the big bad Thanos (Marvel)

Last year at New York Comic Con, DeConnick said something that has been seared into my brain. People had been talking about DeConnick during the convention, but I hadn't seen her speak yet. And when the tiny woman with raspberry hair put her lips up to the mic, the place went still.

"I am willing to make other people uncomfortable, so my daughter won't have to," DeConnick, said to deafening cheers.

On Saturday, almost a year to the day later, DeConnick was the veteran, no longer the new, surprise superstar. The number of people in the audience seem to have doubled since the year before, and the number of female editors, writers, and artists on stage doubled too with a few fresh faces.

There were also new comic books too. Ms. Marvel didn't exist a year prior. Neither did Storm's solo series, nor were the Black Widow and She-Hulk books. New titles featuring Marvel's female characters were also announced. Nicole Perlman who co-wrote the summer hit Guardians of the Galaxy is going to give Gamora, one of the Guardians, her own comic book and Ms. Marvel's Wilson is going to write an arc on the all-female X-book.

The spotlight wasn't just on DeConnick, who sat relatively quietly on one corner of the stage, sharing the spotlight and the moment with her fellow female colleagues. But that was as it should have been. Bit by bit, the industry changes (though there's still room improvement). And she's there to see it change. Last year, she made a stand, or in her words, declared her "hill." On Sunday, she was reassured that there would be many who would fight right alongside her.