A Chat With…Marjorie Liu
She was the one that got away: but for a scheduling conflict, Astonishing X-Men writer Marjorie Liu would have been gracing this year’s Singapore Toy Game and Comic Convention (STGCC). But I was fortunate enough to land the next best thing: a phone interview with the 34-year-old, who recently made history by penning the first gay wedding storyline in mainstream comics, in Astonishing X-Men #51.
I had been hoping to interview Marjorie since we met at the San Diego Comic Convention back in July, and she was kind enough to take time out from her busy schedule for me. And death threats, the otherness and family dynamic of the X-Men, and conveying the soul of a story were all on the table during an hour-long phone chat from her home in the American Midwest.
You started out as a novelist, but was it your long-term goal to get into writing comics?
I loved reading comics. I didn’t actually start reading comics until i was 18, but I fell in love with them instantly. After that, there was a part of me that certainly had a deep love for the characters themselves. It wasn’t actually until I’d say, law school, that I really imagined myself or began to visualise the possibility…I suppose a better way to say it would be, fantasised about writing comics, one day. But that seemed very, very far away, and to be honest, writing novels was a much stronger impulse inside of me, and that definitely overruled any desire to write comics. But once I started writing comics…I went for it like crazy, because it did answer part of that old dream. A dream that honestly, I didn’t think I’d be able to fulfill in any meaningful way. But to have the opportunity to be able to at least put my foot in the door all those years ago was fantastic, and what has unfolded from that has been truly, truly a dream come true. And I thank my lucky stars, and I hope that I can not, you know, screw up (laughs)
But was it always your desire to be a creator?
Oh yes. I’ve always loved telling stories.
I guess you get asked this all time, but what’s the key difference between writing novels and writing a comic? And which do you prefer?
Oh gosh, I don’t prefer one over the other. Some days, maybe it’s easier to approach a novel than it is a comic [or vice versa] but at the end of the day, what you’re really focusing on is telling the best story you can. They’re different animals. A comic is 20 pages, and half the burden is on the shoulders of the artist that you work with, so you’re part of a team. Yes, you are writing dialogue, yes you are “the writer”, but the artist is as much of a storyteller, and I would argue, probably the more important part of the storytelling team. Because the artist has to convey the soul of the story in a comic, and that is not an easy job. If you have the blessed opportunity to work with someone who’s very talented, it’s like watching magic happen. It’s a really beautiful thing.
A novel, on the other hand, the burden is entirely on you. You bear the burden of creating the soul of the story. It is up to you to immerse the reader inside this world that you are creating. You have to do it through your words, your prose, and so the burden is heavier. But on the other hand, it’s also very exciting and liberating, because everything spins out of you, this is purely your creation. There’s something very, very wonderful about writing a novel and immersing yourself in it, losing yourself to the story, in ways that I don’t always find with the comics. I also get immersed when I’m writing comics, but I write part of the puzzle and then I hand it off. In a novel, it’s all on me. When I immerse myself in storytelling in a novel, the emotions run higher. The intensity runs deeper. They’re very different experiences, I have to say.
So is storytelling in a novel more demanding?
Yeah, storytelling in any capacity is demanding. I put probably as much pressure on myself with comics as I do with the novels, but at the end of the day, I spend a lot more time with my novels, just because they’re longer and more intensive. So it is more demanding in some ways, just because of what’s required of me, because it’s solely me.
You’ve done mostly characters from the X-Men. Is there anything about them that particularly appeals to you?
Everything. I’m trying to think about how to put this in a way that won’t come out as one giant cliche but…the X-Men always felt like this cool, very dysfunctional, very romantic family. When I first saw them on the X-Men cartoon, and then when I started reading the comics, they were this group of misfits with all these complex histories and disparate personalities, thrown together, forced to work together under these life-threatening, crazy situations. Aliens attacking, mutants attacking, disease, other dimensions: crazy, crazy things. And yet at the end of the day, they’re saved not so much by their powers, but by their friendships and their loyalties to another. That for me, the heart of the X-Men, those bonds of friendship, were always what attracted me to the characters.
And everyone has their favourite character, the ones that speak to them. I’ve always been fond of Jubilee, Wolverine, Gambit..everyone has their core that they love. And now having been in comics longer and having had deeper exposures, I’m deeply in love with Black Widow and X-23. I will readily admit, I am biased [towards] characters that I’ve written, and I can’t help myself…I have immersed myself in the imaginary aspects of their lives, so I feel a great deal of affection for them in ways that I might not feel for other characters. But yeah, it was the heart of the X-Men: that loyalty, that friendship, that derring-do, the soap opera of it. All of it just really, really drew me in ways that I could never quite shake.
So does that notion of family appeal to you in your personal life as well?
Well, not the dysfunctional part, but there’s something to be said about the X-Men as outsiders. I think everyone to some degree feels like an outsider. (pauses) As a kid who was sort of…for me…I was a kid who grew up half-Chinese, and I always felt like a very integrated person as far as my sense of self. But yet, I’ve always had a small sense of otherness, you know what I mean? And the X-Men are sort of the epitome of otherness, and that is appealing in many ways to many different kinds of people. For those who feel like they are different, who feel like outsiders, whatever your story is, the X-Men, not just being mutants, but embracing their otherness in ways that are constructive and beautiful is very, very appealing as a creator and a reader.
When The Losers creator Andy Diggle was in Singapore recently, he said that the X-Men still best represent heroism, because the original metaphor of them standing against bigotry has not changed. Do you agree?
Yeah, I do agree. I don’t think that message has been lost, but I think it’s good as creators and as people who are immersed in the X-universe to remind ourselves occasionally, that the X-Men [may be] heroic in the epic sense, we-saved-the-world blah blah blah. But they are also heroic on a deeper, more profound sense, in that they are examples of heroes who are themselves and who embrace themselves and who embrace each other for who they are. You can be freakish, you can have a bubble for a head, your skeleton can be on the outside of your body, you can be be like gelatin, whatever, but you are embraced for your differences, and you can become a hero in your own right. The X-Men do provide a very beautiful message, in ways that I think is unique within the superhero genre.
Speaking of being embraced for your differences, I wanted to ask about the gay wedding storyline. Talk us through the process of how that decision was made. Was it an idea that you had, or was it something that the team came together and decided to do?
I came on the book and we talked about this, about where to take the characters and how to advance their relationships and storylines. [We talked about] how to take Northstar and Kyle to the next level, and marriage was definitely on the table from the beginning, and not just for the heck of it. I think most couples, when they’ve been together long enough, at a certain point in the relationship, usually marriage comes up. And that seemed to be an interesting direction to take Northstar and Kyle: what would it be like for a normal human man to be married to a superhero?
We’ve seen aspects of that in Superman and Lois Lane, but Northstar and Kyle each have their own lives and are two very distinct personalities. Kyle has not come out unscathed, he’s been put in danger quite a few times while being in Northstar’s life, and Northstar isn’t exactly easy to be around. Kyle doesn’t have powers, so what is it like for him watching Northstar go out and fight people and not be able to help him? What is it like being the person who’s left behind? We drew analogies to the spouses of police officers and soldiers, who have to stay behind while their loved ones go out and fight wars and fight crime. It’s stressful on their relationship, it’s stressful on both partners. So we thought it would be an interesting way to explore their relationship, taken from that context.
But was this also a case of the X-Men breaking social barriers again, or was it simply about keeping up with the times?
That’s a hard one to answer. Gay marriage is legal in New York, and it’s becoming legal in more places in the United States, it’s certainly legal in Canada. It wasn’t like we were doing something completely shocking and new, but I guess given the context, it was sort of a quote, breaking of a particular barrier. We wanted to tell the best story possible [and] we wanted to evolve their relationship. The X-Men have been about social equality and civil rights, and if these two characters wanted to get married, and if we wanted to tell that story, then so be it. I guess for some people, it’s unfortunate that it hadn’t been told before.
What was the fan reaction like?
It was overwhelmingly positive. I did get a couple of death threats. The initial death threats were about the gay marriage, and then after that, it turned racial very fast. So I don’t know what this person was really angry about, I don’t know if they were really angry about the gay marriage or more angry about the fact that I was part Asian, I’m not sure which pissed them off more. But fan reaction has been great. This issue meant a lot to a lot of people, and it was really beautiful and really humbling to be part of that and to see what it meant to people. I know I keep saying this, but it was incredibly, deeply humbling, and very, very moving.
You’re almost 10 issues into your Astonishing X-Men run. How’s it going so far? And is there anything you can tell us about your plans for the characters?
Right now, we’re in this particular arc that will be finishing in isue 56. We’ve been dealing with Karma’s story, another character that I love. I wanted to delve a little bit more into her past and her mental state, especially in light of what happened during the wedding arc. She who possesses others was herself possessed and used, and I wanted to explore how she comes back from that in a way that makes her feel stronger and more sure of herself within the X-Men.
I don’t know how much we can say about that, but there’s going to be an arc [where] we’re going to be focusing on Warbird for a little bit, but not to the exclusion of the others. Warbird’s going to get a chance to shine in the coming run, and we’ll be playing with a little bit of her past, a past that was explored briefly in Jason Aaron’s run on Wolverine And The X-Men, where we see some of her past on the Shi’ar homeworld. And we’ll see more of Northstar, Kyle and Karma. Until my outline’s approved, I really don’t know how much I can say about this, but I’m really looking forward to this next arc.
(Note: At this point, the Skype connection conked out, so the rest of the conversation was done over chat. All emphases from here on are Marjorie’s)
I spoke to Nicola Scott some time back, and asked her why there seem to be so few women working in comics. She felt that there aren’t as many women interested in writing and drawing superhero comics as men are, and that they are better represented in the indie stuff. Do you agree that that is the case?
Whenever I’m at the Women of Marvel panel at SDCC and NYCC, it seems to me that most of the women in the audience (when we take a show of hands) LOVE superheroes and would LOVE to draw and write for them. I definitely think it’s easier to break in on the indie side as there are more options for getting your foot in the door, but also, I have a sense that women are – and I’m making a generalization here – skilled at adapting to barriers that are erected before them. That means making your own opportunities. If there are more women in indie comics, it might not mean they don’t love superheroes…it just means that they love telling stories, period. And they found a way to tell those stories outside of the big two mainstream publishers.
I wanted to ask as well about strong female characters, of which you’ve done plenty. Does gender matter when it comes to painting a strong, definable character? Or is there some a key defining trait that both strong male and female characters share?
I’m always asked about what it’s like, or how, or why I write “strong female characters.” And it always seems like such an odd question. I don’t think male writers are ever asked to scrutinize their male characters, or especially their female characters, as much as women are asked to scrutinize THEIR female characters — specifically for traits such as “strength”, in that broad, non-physical sense of the word. I mean, gender shouldn’t matter when it comes to painting a strong, definable character — except that it so often DOES matter, because gender is so often used to the DETRIMENT of a character. Gender becomes an excuse to rely on stereotypes. You see so many female characters, for example, who are used only to further a male character’s story — either by their death, rape, abuse, or some other tragedy. Gender certainly matters in that situation, right? I think, when writing any character, it’s very important to be self-concious in what we’re doing, especially when it comes to gender. Or rather, the tropes associated with certain genders.
Do you mean avoiding certain gender stereotypes? Like say, the damsel in distress, the shrew, the nerd, the jock, etc
It’s not so much a matter of avoiding stereotypes, as much as being thoughtful about the characters we’re investing in. The “strong female character” has become as much of a stereotype as the damsel in distress, but what does that mean? Who is this strong female? It’s not enough that she’s strong. As for the damsel in distress, it’s not enough that she’s in distress. Yes, I suppose I’m saying that we should avoid stereotypes if all we’re going to do is paint with shallow brushstrokes. But everything can be turned on its head. Everything can be made into something rich, complex, and interesting. As a writer, you just need to be concious of what you’re doing. You need to work, thoughtfully.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers, whether of comics or novels?
Advice? READ. Read a lot, everything, as much as you can. No class on writing will ever teach what you need to know if you don’t read. Because, see, writing is as much instinct as it is craft. If you’ve danced all your life, you know the moves by heart, you know when it’s wrong. Same with reading and writing. If you’re a voracious reader, the bulding blocks are there to make you a writer. Because inside you are hundred and thousands of stories, whose rhythms and tones you’ve ingested. All you have to do next is write, and write, and write — until you find your own voice, and your own rhythm and tone. It might not be for everyone, but I think it’s a good place to start from.
And lastly, can we expect to see you in Singapore any time soon?
One day. Maybe next year? I hope I can make it. Everyone who attends STGCC LOVES it.
Besides Astonishing X-Men, Marjorie Liu has worked on Dark Wolverine, Black Widow and NYX, and is also a best-selling novelist well-known for the paranormal romance series Dirk & Steele and Hunter Kiss. You can find out more about her works at www.marjoriemliu.com, or follow her on Twitter @marjoriemliu.