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Rainbow Rowell talks bringing back Marvel’s Runaways and writing fat representation in YA

“I want to bring Gert back, and I want her to be fat. Still.”

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

When Marvel announced that author Rainbow Rowell would be bringing back Runaways the beloved early-aughts comics series about a diverse group of teens who learn their parents are supervillains, which is soon to become a live-action Hulu original series — the buzz was deafening. Rowell’s YA and adult novels are steeped in comic book lore and a deep understanding of modern fandom, making her the perfect author to make the crossover into comics — and she writes awkward, prickly, fascinating characters who are impossible not to like, making her a compelling pairing for this material in particular. And with the first issue out on Wednesday, now you can check it out for yourself.

At New York City’s BookCon this June, Rowell sat down with author Emma Straub to discuss her plans for Runaways, the importance of representation in YA literature, and the double-edged sword that is the internet. Below are excerpts from their conversation that have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On bringing Runaways back to life

Rainbow Rowell

I am a Marvel comics reader, very loyally and exclusively for many years. Comics are an important part of my life; they just always have been. So three years ago, when I was here [at BookCon] for Fangirl, I talked to Nick Lowe at Marvel. He read Eleanor and Park, and he said, “We would love for you to come to Marvel and write a one-shot or something.”

I was feeling like I had nothing to lose. Like, I already don’t work for Marvel. The end result would be the same. So I said, “My favorite comic is Runaways, and I would really love to bring it back. And I want to bring Gert back, and I want her to be fat. Still. Don’t bring her back to life skinny! ‘She lost a lot of weight in the afterlife.’”

And he was like, “Yeah, that sounds great, let’s talk about that.”

And I was like, “What?!” Like, I literally just told you this is my favorite comic and it’s canceled and I’d like to bring it back, and he’s like, “Yeah, sure, that sounds good, you should do that.”

I’m working with an artist called — called. Named. I call him Kris Anka! ‘Cause that’s his name. He is stupendous, like the best. And I mean really the best, because some people are good comic book artists, but Kris actually makes people very handsome, with cool clothes, which really makes him the best.

So starting in September, I’ll be the ongoing writer for Runaways. And if people buy it, I will continue to write it. And it’s the sort of thing I can do while I write books, so I’ve already written the first six issues.

Emma Straub

When you bring back a series like that, does it give you the license to reinvent certain things, or is that something that the fans would have torches out about?

Rainbow Rowell

I think comic book writers and artists have a lot of freedom, actually. A new team comes on and they shift things up. But that wasn’t really my agenda, because that’s my favorite book. What I wanted to change was, I’d like them not to be dead. Big change for me is bringing back a dead person.

For me it was more about, I love these characters. It felt like the sort of book that should have gone on for years and years. I just wanted to tell stories with those characters. I wanted to just bring them back, hopefully in a way that older fans like me will recognize. But I’m definitely writing it so that you guys can just pick up the first issue and would not be lost.

If you wanted to go back and read the best comic book ever to catch up, you definitely can. And it’s not Spiderman, so you wouldn’t have to be like, “I’m going to spend the next three years reading old Spiderman comics.” You can read every Runaways comic in a long weekend, and it’d be a great weekend. You wouldn’t have to talk to people. It’d be the best weekend ever.

Promotional artwork for Rowell’s upcoming Runaways series.
Marvel via Entertainment Weekly

Emma Straub

Entertainment Weekly posted character introductions, and they look so fabulous.

Rainbow Rowell

That wasn’t me, but Kris made them look wonderful.

Emma Straub

It is a very enticing introduction, where you’re like, “And there’s a dinosaur?”

Rainbow Rowell

And there’s a dinosaur! You know, at the time it was created, it’s a very diverse book. It’s mostly women in the group; there’s one — this is a hard thing to say — there is a queer character, there may be more than one queer character; there are people of different races, people of different religions. It was really a joyful book to find however many years ago, when it first came out.

On writing a fat teen heroine in Eleanor and Park

Rainbow Rowell

The diversity in our world is true and exists and is real. This isn’t always true, but I come from a pretty white part of the country, and yet I do not come from a completely white world. My life is full of people of different races and from different backgrounds. My life is certainly full of people with different body shapes, which everyone’s are.

I sometimes feel that when people make the decision not to have any fat people in their television show or their movie, they’re really making a decision to alter reality. So we all of us grow up in a sort of altered reality, so that when you do see a fat person for any reason — and this has gotten to be a little bit better — but it used to be that if there was a fat person for any reason on a show, I’d be like, “What’s she doing? Did she come here to teach us a lesson about how to treat fat people? I hope she’s going away soon. Kind of hurts my eyes to look at her.”

The weird thing is that everyone thinks they’re fat. But you’ve had that reaction, of like, “Well, that person’s too fat to be on TV,” or, “That person’s not pretty enough to be on TV.” But you don’t walk around your world — I hope — going, “Ugh, what are you ghouls doing here? Your forehead is too long! Your breasts are too far apart! I don’t want to look at you!”

I think when you do not write the truth of the world, you are choosing not to do that. And then you’re kind of choosing to tell a big lie that makes everyone feel bad about themselves. So I do think as YA writers, now you’re lying to teens and children. You’re making the choice as to how you want to portray the world to your readers, and how accepted you want your readers to feel in the world.

I did not come into this life to lie about what the world looks like and what’s possible. Certainly, you know fat people who fall in love. Right? You know me. We all do! We all know fat people who have full lives and have children and husbands and wives and jobs. It should not be that revolutionary for there to be a book about a fat girl who falls in love.

I got the weirdest comments about that. People were like, “Thank you so much for not making her lose weight.” Like, when did she have time? What a strange situation, for her to be like, “Well, I’m gonna do Pilates in the room I share with all five of my siblings. I only eat protein, which is easy, because we’re starving.” Of course she didn’t lose weight! “I have two goals: Escape from my stepdad and lose 50 pounds.”

On writing the self-reflexive romantic fantasy of Carry On

Rainbow Rowell

I had been consuming Chosen One stories nonstop since I was born, and I had so much to say about chosen ones and how I don’t think that’s actually a great lot for a character.

I also knew that I wanted to write their relationship [the love story between the main characters] in a really full way. Often in a fantasy, you get the nice moments of Han and Leia kissing, and you hold those moments. If you ship two Harry Potter characters, you know every moment they’re together on the page, and you blow on those embers. I really wanted to write a fantasy where the love story was as important as everything else, as it is in life.

Emma Straub

What I loved about your choice was that it alludes to the fact that there are so many options when you’re writing, always. That you have to choose to have a character go this way or go that way, but there’s always another version that could have existed where the character goes the other way.

Rainbow Rowell

I think fanfiction taught me that. Because when you’re reading fanfiction, you’re resetting a lot. You’re seeing the same characters in different situations, in different stories. When you’re reading fanfiction, you’re not like, “Wait a minute, now they work at a coffee shop? I’m lost.” You’re like, “No, I get it, go.”

That taught me, as a reader and a writer, how flexible the brain is. Comic book readers, I think, are the same. Comic book readers are not like, “Wait a minute, who, what? Spiderman, now he’s not —” You get it!

These stories that touch us, I think the characters are more important. So I really trusted that people would be flexible enough in their brain to get what I was doing and follow me, and I think that was true.

On the connection and isolation of the internet

Rainbow Rowell

I was very into fandom at that moment [when writing Fangirl]. I was reading a lot of fanfiction, and I was thinking about how if I had been a teen now, fanfiction would have been my life.

And that also, it would have altered who I became, because I have very severe social anxiety. So if I had had the internet as a teen, I would have had so much more connection and less loneliness. But I think I also would have had a much more difficult time actually venturing out and doing what we’re doing, because I was so alone that I had to do that. So it was really thinking of the tradeoffs of being a teen now, and how wonderful the internet is, but how it brings connection and isolation both.