Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: I’m here at Emerald City Comicon 2016 with Jody Houser, who is having a great week.
Jody Houser: It’s been a pretty crazy week.
CB: Congratulations on Faith getting picked up as an ongoing series.
Houser: Thank you so much.
CB: Faith has been huge. I have a bunch of friends who aren’t into comics who messaged me saying, “This is a great book.” You’ve got a lot of attention in the media and the book is selling like crazy.
Houser: Obviously you want every book that you work on to find the audience and to really touch people. But I wasn’t even expecting the reach that this book would have. Previously, the first book I worked on was Orphan Black and that was definitely a license for me that brought a lot of new readers in. high. They’re so devoted to the show. They love it and they’re willing to explore the story in new mediums. That’s always great to see.
But the fact is that Faith isn’t even a known property that people are coming to read about. She’s basically a brand new character. They’ve latched on to her and love so much. That’s a really special thing and I’m happy to be a part of it.
CB: The market needs a character like her. It’s not that she’s a woman or because of her body type; it’s the attitude and approach she takes to the world. She’s so fully fledged?
Houser: I love the fact that she’s an optimist. She’s super positive, but she’s also not naïve. This is a conscious choice she’s making. She’s dealt with loss in her life. It’s not like she’s living a fantasy life completely where she’s ignoring all the bad things that have happened to her. She looks at them and she knows she can make things better. That’s what she set out to do.
There’s something lovely and inspiring about that. We need to have some superheroes like that. I love dark and moody stuff, but you like sunshine too.
CB: She’s transcended all of the terrible things that happened to her. There’s a whole backstory that readers don’t need to know about, but you can allude to it.
Houser: That actually will be referenced a little bit more strongly in the fourth issue. It’s the direction I’ve been going to with this story.
CB: I love how you loop in the ex-boyfriend, too. Again, you don’t need to know anything about it. But if you do, there’s Easter eggs in it.
Houser: This was an interesting balance between trying to make it approachable for new readers, but at the same time cemented as a part of the Valiant Universe, not a standalone book that didn’t really tie into anything. I wanted to make sure it was grounded and real-feeling.
CB: The bit with her secret identity in issue two was wonderful. Are you consciously playing with these clichés and take a different approach to them?
Houser: Oh, one hundred percent. A lot of it is not even making fun of the tropes; it’s experimenting with how they would actually work in the real world. A lot of us have the same reference for superheroes that Faith does, so we think a journalism career and secret identity and glasses make you completely unrecognizable.
Actually having her play with those tropes in the “real world” is fun. Valiant is still a universe where there are aliens and ghosts and magic and sci-fi and everything. For her, that’s the real world. I wanted to play with the logic of how these things work.
CB: There are many little touches of that real world, even when she’s flying over the freeways and there’s reports on the news of her flying over the freeways. Somehow I didn’t expect it to have that little touch of her being connected to the world.
Houser: I live in LA, so as much as I can meet or make reference to LA or gently mock LA I’m happy. I love LA. I’ve lived in LA for over ten years now. But, yeah, I’m going to seed all that in. For me, a lot of it was a few years after I lived in LA, I went back and watched Angel, the Buffy spinoff. There were so many jokes I finally got because they had many very specific LA references. When they make an off-hand comment about a church and I’m like, “Oh, they’re talking about Scientology.”
It’s comments like that. For people who aren’t familiar with the city, it gives it a real world feel. For people who do know this city, I’ve gotten many comments like, “It’s so hilarious! She lives in my house.”
CB: Oh, that’s a thing? You see, I had no idea.
Houser: That actually came from my head. I had two friends who moved to this very nice, fairly large two-bedroom apartment in Van Nuys. I heard how they were paying in rent and I was like, “That’s amazing!” They were like, “Yes, but it’s Van Nuys.” I was like, “But no. You have this great apartment and the rent is so much cheaper there.” They were like, “Yes, but it’s Van Nuys.”
It came from that. There’s nothing wrong with Van Nuys; it’s a little further out in the Valley. If she didn’t have the ability to fly, her coming to work would be a nightmare. It would probably take over an hour back and forth.
CB: There’s a wonderful scene issue of Faith flying above the freeways. It feels like LA. I’ve been there many times. It looks like the roads I’ve been on.
Houser: That was a great thing. I don’t think I sent Francis Portela any references for LA specifically. I try to be a little bit specific on the locations in the script. You know, like she works in Mid-Wilshire, so she’s flying over Mid-Wilshire when she goes to work. And he did a great job building real world references. Everything looks right to me as someone who lives there. And then Andrew Dalhouse, who did colors, gave it that bright, sunny feel.
CB: It looks very SoCal.
Houser: I love that. I feel like the classic superhero book is in New York or a New York substitute thing. It’s fun to do. Occasionally there are superheroes popping up on the West Coast, but it’s a lot of fun to make that part of the story of the character who herself is so sunny and polite. It really fits her personality too.
CB: It’s almost as if she carries this whole larger world around her. Her coworkers have their own quirky aspects, but she’s almost reflecting on them in a way, you know? She’s positive herself. It’s this feedback loop that she’s in.
Houser: I love her coworkers. I love having these different types of geeks because they’re working at a pop culture website, so most of the people she’d work with have at least some overlapping interests. That’s going to be a really fun thing to play with, particularly in the ongoing. We get to see a fair amount of the Sublime staff in four issues, but I want to make sure they’re really fully-fledged characters.
CB: It sounds like you’ve really thought through this world. How much guidance did you get from Valiant and how much were you able to bring yourself?
Houser: Oh, there was a lot of back and forth, especially for the initial miniseries. This is the thing I really like about Valiant; because their line is so small, it has a curated feel to me. They’re very conscious of choosing really strong artists and writers and colorists. Everyone who is a part of the team, they want to make sure it’s the best quality possible.
So, A, I’m super honored to be working because of that. But, B, there’s a lot of making sure that the story is right. We were actually going back and forth on the outline for the miniseries for several months to make sure it was nailed down exactly in the right place, filling that perfect spot in the universe. The results show that that wasn’t a bad approach.
CB: You have the backstory and that’s all wonderful. But it’s all very focused on its own thing as well. Like everything from Valiant, Faith feels very thought through.
Houser: I love that. I think shared universes are fun and that’s one of the great attraction to comics. Until more recently, and primarily things that are based on comics, we haven’t seen stuff like that. Again, it was a universe created specifically for comics. That’s one of the great strengths of the medium for a lot of publishers. And playing with that’s a lot of fun. You have your own little corner of the sandbox, but you can pull toys from other corners.
CB: You’re given a lot of freedom to play in your sandbox.
Houser: Yeah! it’s a good ride. Obviously you want to make sure everything ties in. You never want to be screwing up something someone else is working on.
There’s going to be a lot of fun stuff happening in the ongoing series. I’m looking forward to seeing people’s reactions to certain things that I’ve been wanting to do for a while.
CB: Now have you been surprised by the reaction to Faith as a lead character? She’s seems to capture people’s attention.
Houser: Just the number of stories I’ve heard of people telling me that they cried seeing the cover or they showed it to a friend of theirs and the friend cried. I mean, that there’s such a visceral emotional reaction to her even existing. And at the same time, the fact that people are continuing to read the book because inclusion is important, but you also need to make sure that there’s a strong enough character to back it up.
You might be able to bring in new readers to check out a character, but if there isn’t a substantial story, if they’re very flat, if they’re just there to represent a group of people and not themselves, I don’t think people are going to keep reading.
CB: You aren’t writing her as a feminist icon; you are writing her as this character and the implications of her feedback to that.
Houser: Honestly people have told me that they feel the book is really subversive just for being about her living her life, existing as a person. It’s sad that people actually feel that’s a subversive thing, just like letting her be a character. To me, that’s the only way I would want to write a book or really anything.
CB: It’s strange to me. I have a sixteen-year-old daughter. She’s a little overweight. She’s got all the normal things that a sixteen-year-old with that set of issues has to deal with. I often feel like aren’t characters in fiction anywhere who represent who she is. All the body and the geek stuff, it’s all side to just the wonderful person at her core.
Houser: I was on a panel yesterday and we were talking about when you have the action movies where there’s like one female character and she has to represent every possible experience that a woman can have, you can’t do that. I mean, you can’t put that on a character and have them still exist as a person. One person can’t represent everything. At the end of the day, Faith just has to represent herself. And by doing that, she will represent lots of other people.
CB: She’s got this wonderful self-confidence. Did you read any of the original Harbinger comics?
Houser: I read all of Joshua Dysart’s run. I haven’t read the ‘90s run.
CB: It’s interesting how Faith is treated in the early Valiant issues. The difference between those comics and the newer series shows in some ways the evolution of comics. You are probably aware; she called herself Zephyr in those stores, but all of her friends called her Zeppelin.
Houser: Especially for a character like this and for people who are excited to see someone who looks like them for the first time, you don’t want to turn them into a laughingstock. That’s just cruel.
CB: It comes across as very cruel.
Houser: That reflects more on the characters who are treating her like that than the character herself. But also it can reflect on the writer, too. If the writer clearly doesn’t have respect for other people, you have to question if that’s just part of the story or if that’s some of the writer’s viewpoint leaking through. And obviously, it’s not always that. But you have to frame that very carefully as a writer. That’s just not where I want to go with the story.
CB: It’s a little shocking. It’s a little like casual racism when you read something from the 1940s or something.
Houser: And we’ve evolved. We’re better that that now. Well, we’re more aware of it now.
CB: We’re better than that. There’s a need for more female-centered comics
Houser: Ms. Marvel was just given to the President by the editor just a few weeks. That’s amazing.
CB: I can’t ask you much about your DC series, but are you excited to play in that sandbox?
Houser: Yes. The fact that Gerard Way is doing this line that calls back to the very early Vertigo stuff, the darker, the weirder edges of DC, that’s a lot of fun. And getting to write about these characters, that’s amazing. I don’t know if you saw the promo art by Tommy Lee Edwards with the bat signal in the background. I was a little verklempt at that. I’m like, “I’m writing a DC book. People are going to see the bat signal. That’s amazing!”
CB: That has to be thrilling.
Houser: It’s just a cool character. I can’t say too much about her yet, but I think people will find her very fascinating. She’s completely different than Faith. it’s always fun to write very different books because then you are stretching yourself.
CB: Do you find any of these characters as being reflections on you as a person?
Houser: Faith is, in a lot of ways. Almost every reference that she’s made to things came from me. The only thing I specifically researched was Star Trek profanity because I didn’t know of any fictional profanity from Star Trek specifically. I found some words in a sci-fi novel series. Faith’s parents probably would have had those. She would have read them in her younger years. But all of her other references to Buffy and various comic books and everything, that’s all me.
CB: When you were in webcomics, is this where you dreamed you would be at this point in your career?
Houser: I was mostly writing webcomics after I moved to LA to pursue screenwriting because I feel like anyone in LA can say, “Oh, yeah, I’m working on a screen play.” I wanted to have something out there that proved I was doing work on a regular basis. I was putting stuff out there for people to read.
For me, it was always an exercise in discipline and also a calling card. I could be like, “Oh, look, there’s a thing that I made. It’s actual digital evidence that I’m working on things.” I loved doing that. I didn’t think it would necessarily lead to a professional comic work because they were all strip comics. They weren’t like an ongoing story.
I drew them, so it was all based on my complete inability to draw, which is a really cool writing exercise because you’re very much limited by what you can portray on the page. You have to work around that and the build the characters. I had to build characters who generally didn’t move or change facial expressions much because I would reuse the same piece of art for five years.
The funny thing was I’ve been reading comics since I was a kid. I love comics. I didn’t necessarily make the connection that I was writing a type of comics and I loved comics and maybe I should pursue other comics work. It took me a while to get there. I started doing anthologies. And that lead to bigger and bigger things.
CB: It was more the discipline of getting the writing done. You and your mythical ten thousand hours of writing.
Houser: I’m not sure. I started writing when I was eight. I take that back. I started writing when I was seven. I decided I wanted to be a professional writer when I was eight. I put in a lot of those hours pretty early on. I did creative writing in undergrad and I got my MFA in creative writing.
I’ve put in a lot of hours. Hopefully that means I’ve gotten better.