Super Leadership: Chatting with Comic Book Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick

Kelly Sue DeConnick has some pretty special powers: not only is she the writer behind today’s Captain Marvel and Avengers Assemble series for Marvel Comics, but she’s also the curator of a super cool, super-heroine T-shirt collection. In honor of the women of Captain Marvel, Kelly Sue is donating her curation commission to the Girls Leadership Institute –– and we couldn’t be happier to have such an extraordinary supporter! We interviewed Kelly Sue to learn more about her support for GLI, her love of superhero comics, and her thoughts on what it takes to be a real-life heroine.

GLI: How did you hear about the Girls Leadership Institute? What made you want to support our work?

KSD: I think I found it after I read Rachel Simmons’ Curse of the Good Girl and I googled her name to learn more. That led to the Girls Leadership Institute.

Why did I want to support you work? Because… because I think you’re doing something special and I want as many girls as possible to have access to your programs. Because I want a more positive experience of coming into womanhood for my daughter than the one I had.

GLI: Why do you think it’s important to support girls’ emotional development and leadership skills?

KSD: I think girls and women are crippled by cultural messages –– sometimes insidious, sometimes subtle like a sledgehammer –– that tell them their value is primarily in their appearance, that their bodies and sexuality are not their own, that they have a responsibility to be pleasant and affable above any genuine expression of what they really think or feel, and that they’re somehow in competition with one another to be Top Girl/Helpmeet Supreme/Most Desirable. Anything that can be done to counteract those messages makes for not only healthier women and girls, but a better world, because it frees girls to use their talents unabated. Better art, better politics, better business: better world.

GLI: When did you become involved in comics? What hooked you?

KSD: I started reading comics when I was a kid on a US Air Force base overseas and we didn’t get American television.

My first work in comics was sort of comics-tangential –– I was writing reviews for a site called that I co-founded with Warren Ellis, Matt Fraction and Peter Rose.

What hooked me on comics? That’s kind of like asking what hooks people on books or music. Stories. Our brains are hard-wired for stories. They feed us.

I suspect you’re conflating super-hero comics, the genre, with comics, the medium, and you mean to ask what hooked me on super-heroes, yeah? In the US, we tend to think of that one genre as defining the medium, but that’s not the case and (if you’ll permit me to lecture, just for a second) it’s a perception worth fighting against, as it severely stymies the industry. I happen to love super-hero comics, but can you imagine if people thought all movies were horror movies or all books were romance novels?  How many people would go to the theater? That’s what’s happening to comics right now.

Okay, end of lecture.

So what hooked me on superhero comics? Hard to say. Possibly just the hook of long-form serialized storytelling (think about soap operas or even ancient mythologies like the Greek or Norse cycles), possibly simple power fantasy… Maybe the morality play elements? Probably some combination of the three.

GLI: What do you think we can learn from comics? What messages do comics send girls?

KSD: Well… it depends on the comic. There are probably as many ways to answer those questions as there are books. And even assuming we’re only looking at superhero comics, we’re talking about at least 70 *years* of stories.

Look at the 1990s: at the same time that there was a preponderance of stories wherein women were little more than sexy lamps, there were also books like Stormwatch and the Authority.

There have been periods in comics history when efforts were made to write female heroes that had personalities, power and agency. I’m thinking especially of the 1940s and 1970s –– not coincidentally times in our history when women were making big cultural strides toward equality. I think we might be in another moment like that now.

I don’t require that all female characters be role models. I do want women who are the protagonists in their own stories. I want supporting women characters who have motivations beyond romance. I want women who are more than plot devices, rewards or decorations.

In short, I want good writing.

GLI: What message would you like to send girls with your new collection?

KSD: You are the protagonist of your life’s story. You are the hero.

GLI: What do you think it means to be a heroine?

It means having the courage to stand up for what you believe to be right and just, it means acting out of compassion, and it means standing up for others. It means sacrificing on behalf of others, too.

There’s a bumper sticker aphorism that I quite like ––

“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”

There’s a lot of what I believe defines a hero in those 8 words.

GLI: What qualities make superheroes and super-heroines strong leaders?

KSD: I don’t think it’s the “super” part that makes a strong leader — in fact, a lot of superheroes have demonstrated themselves to be terrible leaders. But someone like, say, Captain America — Steve Rogers is almost an ideal of leadership to me. He’s humble, he sees himself as an agent of his convictions. He puts himself on the line to protect and serve, and his confidence and charisma inspire others to follow.

You can purchase these superhuman tees here, follow her on Twitter here, or check out Kelly Sue DeConnick’s blog to learn more.

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