clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kelly Thompson is one of the best new talents in comic books

Jem and the Holograms.
Jem and the Holograms.
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.

One year ago, the comic book–reading world said goodbye to Kelly Sue DeConnick's Captain Marvel. DeConnick, who had revamped the character in 2012 and given her a new sense of purpose, wrote her final issue, Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps. No. 4 — a comic that dared the hero's fictional compatriots and real-life fan base, aptly also named the Carol Corps., to be strong, to be bold, and to punch holes in the sky.

The issue was devastating in the best way, mixing sadness and hope in a comic book love letter to the character and the fans. What I didn't know at the time was that DeConnick's farewell to Captain Marvel would be my first introduction to one of the most talented up-and-coming writers in the comics industry today: another Kelly, Kelly Thompson.

Thompson co-wrote that final issue of Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps. with DeConnick in 2015.

"I don't know how much credit I can take for the sad beats and all that," Thompson told me during a recent interview, explaining that DeConnick was very involved in all stages of the process. "I mean, I did the breakdowns and the first pass on the script, so I hope a lot of that is me, but you never know."

Kelly Thompson.

With co-writing, it's a little difficult to parse who did what. But since CMCC, Thompson has made it a little easier for us to find her voice in solo ventures like IDW's Jem and the Holograms and the current arc of Marvel's A-Force.

"It’s perfect light entertainment, if that’s what you want," Stephen Burt wrote about Jem for the New Yorker. "But it also has a lot to say about power, about what it means to be girly, or feminine, or to work in a feminized genre, and about what comics, in particular, can do."

One of Thompson's greatest strengths is her sharp sense of humor. It comes through in a way that feels natural for the characters she's writing — something that is far easier said than done.

And then there's the heartbreak.

At the end of CMCC, in pockets of Jem, and sprinkled into the bones of A-Force are moments of sudden grief and sorrow — just like her characters' moments of fun and joy, these fragile moments feel natural and human. And perhaps that's what makes them so powerful.

"What is life but laughing and crying? It’s what we got," Thompson told me. "I want to lighten things up with jokes because I want to make you laugh and then I want to break your heart and then I want to make you laugh again."

I recently had the chance to chat with Thompson; here's what she had to say about her influences, her characters, makeovers, and where her comics are going next. This conversation has been lightly edited.

Alex Abad-Santos: When I read the way you write character interactions, I pick up on a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Am I just projecting?

Kelly Thompson: There’s definitely Buffy. Buffy is one of my most beloved things ever and certainly a touchstone. I think my voice has sometimes been described as "Whedonesque," and I take that as a huge compliment, but at the same time I think I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into that. I can’t ever be Joss Whedon, so obviously I want to do my own thing, too.

AAS: I think it's the banter — Buffy really defined the idea of "witty banter" for a generation of people — and it's probably the easiest reference.

KT: I am absolutely heavily influenced by that kind of witty-banter thing. It’s funny, because I always worry about it — I feel like there’s a fine line there. I think Joss Whedon does this thing where all the characters are witty, and some people feel like that makes them all sound the same. I don’t really agree with that, because I feel like characters who have that same sensibility tend to find each other and then play off of each other.

A-Force no. 5 (Marvel)

A-Force No. 5. (Marvel)

AAS: There's a sense of that in A-Force. They play off of each other, but no two characters sound the same.

KT: Medusa and She-Hulk wouldn’t tell the same jokes and they shouldn’t sound the same, but they’ll still find a repartee between one another in which I feel like I can have their authentic voices and still have them, like, making jokes or whatever.

AAS: Right. One of the best small moments of A-Force is Dazzler and Nico thinking that a world full of Thors would be hot, and Medusa and Captain Marvel being a little more hesitant about the idea. Did you go into A-Force with those kinds of alliances and friendships in mind?

KT: I think it’s a few things. I mean, some of it like that is a little bit aged. I feel like Dazzler is a little bit younger, maybe, or is at least more in tune with the younger sensibility than Medusa and Captain Marvel, who are filling a more "adult" role.

I also think, as we revealed in A-Force No. 5, Dazzler had been sniping quite a bit at Medusa since issue two, and I think we see now that there’s something a little deeper behind that than just, "We’re not really getting along sensibility-wise." She has M-Pox 1.

M-Pox is a disease mutants get from Terrigen Mist. Terrigen Mist activates latent genes in Inhumans and reveals their true nature. Medusa is an Inhuman. And comics are complicated.

Even if she doesn’t blame Medusa personally, it’s easy for that kind of thing to get in your head and make you mad at someone — especially when you’re repressing it and not talking to anyone about it.

AAS: Dazzler (a.k.a. Alison Blaire) breaks my heart. She's almost died a lot. She was kidnapped, and her DNA was synthesized as a mutant steroid of sorts. And now the M-Pox. Geez. Cut her a break? Can she live?

KT: There’s a lot going on with Dazzler. We’re going to be exploring that and peeling that stuff back.

It’s particularly funny that Jem happened and then Dazzler was on A-Force and that became something that I got to do. I have to say, having written Jem for a while, I feel like it definitely helps with Alison a little bit. Alison is a little bit less all-ages, especially right now.

I guess that team of the little friendships they’re developing, they’re in part due to having shared opinions, and they’re in part not sharing the opinion with someone else. You know what I mean? Dazzler looks around and she’s like, "Stupid Medusa. I’m mad at her because of this thing that has nothing to do with her and has everything to do with her." Then again, maybe it’s just Nico and Dazzler really think a couple of Thors would be hot.

AAS: Dazzler is sort of the superhero version of Jem, not that Jem isn't her own kind of superhero. What do you get to play around with in A-Force that you don't get to in Jem?

KT: Other people have vested interest in these characters, and so there’s just a lot more freedom to tell resident stories with characters that other people don’t have dibs on. You know what I mean? I think Jem is this cool book that I can play with superhero ideas a little, but, I mean, not really. They’re not fighting crime. They might solve some mysteries maybe, but not really.

We did get some supervillain in the sense of Dark Jem and stuff, but there’s not a lot of action. There’s not a lot of punching. There’s not a lot of that thing. You can deal with some of the identity stuff and some of the emotional baggage of living double lives and things, but it’s still not superheroes. A-Force is, like, clear, classic. I mean, A-Force No. 5, let’s punch some dragons.

AAS: One of the common things I see in Jem and Dazzler is the way you portray the idea of performance, and makeup and looks, as this kind of battle armor for survival. Can you talk about that?

KT: I like it as this idea of armor, and I also like it that [Jem] is so female-positive just by the nature of all the female characters. It’s just so in that female world, which you don’t often get in comics. We’re just running full throttle with the hair and the makeup and the clothes and everything. It’s just accepted that that’s what happening. It’s very matter-of-fact to be wearing stilettos and all these insane colors and everything.

AAS: And it twists the idea that of how we react to hair and makeup in real life — that woman are constantly judged for their appearance. They wear no makeup, and they're deemed sloppy. They wear too much, and they're called fake.

KT: I’m with you. There’s definitely so much judgment of women, like if you don’t wear makeup, you don’t care. If you do wear makeup, you’re a whore. It’s like, where’s the middle ground? I tend to love the makeup and the hair and the clothes and all of it in Jem as a metaphor for superhero, for secret identity, for becoming something else, for being able to be something else.

AAS: I feel like the word "empower" has lost its impact of late. But I'm struggling for a better word right now.

KT: To me, there’s agency in it, I guess. They’re making all their own choices, and they don’t care if anyone likes it or not. They’re just their own women, and that’s it.

Jem and the Holograms (IDW)

Jem and the Holograms. (IDW)

AAS: And no one is punished for it. Is this a bigger musing on pop music? Are you a giant fan of pop stars?

KT: I feel like as a writer, and I think a lot of us feel this way, I’m not unique, but there’s a lot of stumbling around in the dark, looking for the light switch.

Creating a character who lives in that world, it just naturally happens that you end up talking about those things and making a comment on those things. I remember I was working on this outline for a novel. I suddenly looked up at my boyfriend, and I was like, "Oh, my god."

I was like, "These themes are working out perfectly. I didn’t even do anything and there are all these themes about these high school things and hiding and assimilating and conforming."

All of a sudden this is really working out, and he was like, "Yeah. Because you did the work. You figured everything out. You knew who your characters were. You knew what this villain was and you did all the back work, and so now it’s slotting into place."

AAS: Shifting gears back to A-Force. What can you tell us about this upcoming arc, besides the amazingness that is Dazzler-Thor [an alternate universe version of Dazzler who has the powers of Thor]?

KT: It’s going to be a bit rough for Dazzler and Nico because you can see Nico is being mind-controlled at the end of the first issue [of the arc], which is never a picnic. The end of No. 6 feels really dark, but listen, it’s a superhero book. The whole team can’t die, but it’s going to look pretty grim.

This next arc — it’s a very breakneck pace. It happens fast over very little time. It’s pretty intense. I mean, Countess is a really strong villain, even though she’s a new villain, so she creates a lot of havoc really fast.

AAS: If you kill Nico, I am pretty sure I won't be able to forgive you.

KT: Nico is very powerful. Someone else being in control of her is extremely dangerous for everyone. It’s a very dangerous arc for our characters, and it’s the kind of stuff that I hope pushes them together even closer by the end, which then sets up Civil War II, which is all about tearing families apart.

AAS: A-Force is sort of your big splash into the Marvel universe. What's been the biggest challenge?

KT: It’s amazing. Can I tell you initially I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it? I mean, obviously I was going to, but I was very worried, because it’s a pretty high-profile book and I feel like I wasn’t really a high-profile enough writer.

And I had never written Medusa before. And Dazzler — I don't know if you’ve seen this. I’ve talked about this before a little bit, but I actually didn’t like Dazzler. I like Rogue, and Rogue and Dazzler used to have beef when I was a kid, so I was team Rogue.

AAS: I totally understand irrational allegiances. Team Emma Frost forever and ever.

KT: I never really thought I liked Dazzler. But I started doing the research and getting to it especially because where she is right now, where she’s a little bit darker, there was just a lot of really rich stuff to look into with her.

And, man, I fell in love with her. I really did. I mean, I created a freaking Dazzler-Thor just so we could have more of her. It totally took me by surprise. I mean, when I initially I knew the team, I was like, "Ugh, can I cut Dazzler and put someone else in?" I was whining and being a little brat.

It turned out so good, and it’s such a good mix of characters. I really love it. I’m extremely lucky, and I’m having an extremely good time. But I think in this ensemble, this is a little tricky to write, just because I see people on forums or something referencing some super obscure thing about one of these characters, and I’m like, "Guys, it’s a cast of six. I don’t have time."

AAS: The people who love these characters really love them. They know everything about them.

KT: I don’t have time to read every single appearance of each one of these characters. There’s just no way to do it. You just have to do the research you can and read what you can. You obviously will come with some knowledge already, and then you do the best you can with finding the voice and making it your own.

Listen, I get it. They’re traumatized. Dazzler has been mishandled for a very long time. She gets these starts and stops, which happens with a lot of characters, but they’re very die-hard, and I appreciate that. I’m just very mixed about it, because the excitement you see fans have is incredible — reading a posting about a Dazzler-Thor that you and Ben Caldwell created and seeing people freak the fuck out is awesome.

AAS: Fandom sometimes has a way of consuming and critiquing comic books that doesn't always flow with the way comic book issues are produced.

KT: I think one of the biggest problems — and I used to complain about this in comics and with creators a lot when I was doing more commenting and reviewing — I used to complain about it all the time when a story wasn’t finished and people are like, "How can you judge it yet? It’s not finished."

I’m like, "Yeah, but it’s a medium where we get it in pieces. We have to talk about it in pieces."

It makes it difficult, but what are you going to do? You can’t just wait six months until the story is over. That’s not the way we’re fed the story. It’s not how it works. It’s like a TV show; you ingest it in pieces. The pieces have to stand on their own and yet also work to a greater whole.

As a creator, that’s really hard, because I’m writing Dazzler being extra snipey with Medusa in issue three and people are like, "You know, they used to be friends, and I don’t think they talk to each other like that, and blah, blah, blah."

I’m like, "Well, you’re going to find out in two more issues that Dazzler has M-Pox."

It’s a very conflicting thing. You want to build layers and you want to create that kind of depth to your storytelling, and at the same time it’s really easy for people to jump to conclusions of seeing things they don’t like and judging it, because they’re not going to get part two of what’s going on there for two more months. It’s tough, but it’s a really good job. I’ll take the tough bits.

AAS: Last question. In your head, who plays Dazzler in the A-Force movie?

KT: I don't know. If rumor is to be believed, it’s Taylor Swift.

Taylor Swift is an interesting lady, but my Dazzler has a lot more punk-rock edge to her. I don't know. … If you go back in time, it’s probably, like, Debbie Harry. Maybe. If time travel is available, I think Debbie Harry is the best choice.