By Jarrod Jones. Raven: Pirate Princess is good swashbuckling fun. It’s about Raven Xingtao, rightful heir to her father’s pirate fleet, betrayed by her brothers, locked away from her destiny. It has elements of revenge, camaraderie, love, passion, all the stuff you want in an adventure epic. Raven, with its will they/won’t they romantic intrigue, is also pure YA bliss. But if you take a step back and look at the types of people populating Raven, you’ll see this Action Lab series has more on its mind than just bounty and reverie. For Eisner nominee and Glyph Comics award winner Jeremy Whitley, Raven is his path to creative and personal growth.
Raven is populated prominently by queer and PoC characters. Its a young adult book that actively encourages all readers to flip through its pages and discover that the world around us can also be found in high adventure. That comics aren’t limited by representation, but strengthened by it. And as a white male writer, that means Whitley keeps his heart and mind open to ideas and concerns that may not immediately be obvious to him.
“I have a team of what are frequently called sensitivity readers, but I refer to as the ‘Queer Ladies Alliance’,” he tells me. “They’re people who are fans of my work who help me out by reading through my work when I know I have an issue that might be particularly problematic. These folks range from other writers to artists to reviewers to fans that I’ll chat with whenever I’m dealing with a story in which I know that there are things I don’t know to look out for.
“Beyond that I think the hardest part is listening to and accepting criticism,” he continues. “Just because you didn’t mean to do anything wrong doesn’t mean you didn’t screw up. You can either argue over it or you can learn from it. If your first response to critique remains ‘Nyuh-uh’ it’s hard to go anywhere.”
As he gears up for the June 13 release of the fifth volume of Raven — while his series with artists Christine Hipp and Xenia Pamfil faces an uncertain future — Jeremy Whitley took time to speak with me about Raven: Pirate Princess, representation in comics, and the importance of self-promotion in today’s industry.
1. The ‘Princeless’ line, from which the character Raven originated, has been going on for over seven years. It has since matured into the ‘Raven’ books, alongside young people who’ve been reading the book all along. Was it always meant to be this way? Or has your approach to the series changed as you’ve grown older?
Jeremy Whitley: I think there has to be a sense of escalation with a book series like this — both within the individual books and between them. Princeless is an all ages book that addresses issues of representation that I think are very important to all age groups, but particularly to younger ones. Raven deals with types of representation I strongly feel need to be seen by a young adult audience.
My hope is not only will the audience reading it now be able to work their way up as they’re ready, but in the future kids will be able to keep following the series from discovering Princeless at a young age to finding Raven when they’re ready. It’s also been about gaining fans through Princeless and listening to what they have to say about what they would like to see represented and discussed in comics.
2. You’re currently working with artists Christine Hipp and Xenia Pamfil on ‘Raven’. What’s the dichotomy between you three like in terms of collaboration? How much of these characters are informed by the art team?
JW: Oh, the artists are always extremely influential on the books. Whether it’s about working with an artist and getting a feeling for what they’re really good at drawing or giving them just a hint of what ought to be in the background and letting them work on the details. If there’s anything I’ve learned from the last seven years of making Princeless, it’s that good writers play to their artists’ strengths and they don’t quibble over every pen stroke. I still have my things that I’m crabby about (skin tone, body shape, etc.) but I love developing books with artists. It makes the books so much better and, honestly, I feel like artists do better work when they love the work they’re doing.
3. One of the things about ‘Raven’ that stands out to me is its sense of humor. This is a funny book. What media were you consuming in your formative years that may have contributed to this?
JW: I’ve always loved funny stuff. Honestly, I’m a big believer in the idea that likable and funny characters lends extra gravity to dramatic situations. I think I was pretty heavily influenced by Douglas Adams, Piers Anthony, movies directed by Rob Reiner (particularly The Princess Bride and When Harry met Sally), and cartoons like Animaniacs. I also always loved the X-Men, which I feel like across the line shares that fascination with the inner lives and down time its characters that I enjoy exploring in my own work. Sure, “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is great, but I love a good “X-Men playing baseball” issue.
4. ‘Raven’ is definitely one of the more action-focused books aimed at young adults out there. Here, violence tends to have ramifications — characters spend time nursing their wounds, and are seen after a burst of fighting walking around with bruises and cuts. Fighting also tends to alter inter-personal relationships, which makes the book feel more grounded. Is this approach to violence a conscious decision when you plot out ‘Raven’?
JW: Absolutely. I often say that my first qualm about Princeless as a series is that I gave Adrienne a sword in the first issue, but she can’t actually stab anybody. That’s a hard thing to get around. In Raven, as a young adult book that was already heavily invested in romantic love and its effects on interpersonal relationships, I wanted violence and anger to have just as real ramifications. When people get hurt, they remember. When they get stabbed, they need stitches. When Ximena gets attacked by Raven’s brother in the second volume, it nearly kills her. It takes an actual miracle for her to come out of it in one piece. I think it makes everything matter more when there’s a real feeling of vulnerability amongst the characters. Nobody is ever out of danger for long.
5. On that tack, what do you make of violence in comics today? In common superhero fare, fighting seems to occur naturally, and consequences are rarely an issue for characters. How do you approach violence in different genres, different tales?
JW: I think it’s a genre by genre thing. Some of it depends on the characters and some of it depends on the audience. I recently wrote a mini-series called Thor vs. Hulk: Champions of the Universe for Marvel and I remember commenting that this would be my first comic about two big guys hitting each other. I tried to make sure I drew a clear line between the action violence of the superhero fight and the haunting violence that characters like Hulk have to deal with afterwards. It’s also a book where Thor frequently looks for alternatives to violence. But then sometimes you’re facing down a giant evil alien and you just gotta hit it with a hammer. At this point in the story at least, nobody in Raven is god- or goddess-like, so the fights have real consequences.
6. ‘Raven’ is a very inclusive book in terms of diversity. You once said that you “think it’s important for any writer who wants to represent other types of people to be open to having a dialog with those people, especially if that person expects that audience to show up to support their book.” What steps have you taken to ensure that your own book’s representation isn’t tone-deaf?
JW: I have a team of what are frequently called sensitivity readers, but I refer to as the “Queer Ladies Alliance”. They’re people who are fans of my work who help me out by reading through my work when I know I have an issue that might be particularly problematic. These folks range from other writers to artists to reviewers to fans that I’ll chat with whenever I’m dealing with a story in which I know that there are things I don’t know to look out for. Beyond that, I think having an editor on everything has made a big difference. I think one of the biggest mistakes that rising comic writers make, me included, is thinking that being a good writer means you don’t need an editor. Whether they’re fixing your comma splices or giving you a valuable second pair of eyes on your script, an editor can be a life saver.
Beyond that I think the hardest part is listening to and accepting criticism. Just because you didn’t mean to do anything wrong doesn’t mean you didn’t screw up. You can either argue over it or you can learn from it. If your first response to critique remains “Nyuh-uh” it’s hard to go anywhere.
7. You’ve expressed online a certain frustration in getting people to read the ‘Princeless’ line of books. Creators spend a good deal of time pushing their own content online when they’re not already selling them by hand at conventions or actually creating them. How essential is the “carnival barking” aspect to being a comic creator in today’s over-saturated market?
JW: I think that self-promotion is absolutely essential. There are comic shops that are looking for unique things, but most shops are looking for sure things. It is unlikely that any of my creator-owned books will ever outsell Batman, Spider-Man, or even Ninja Turtles in single issues, especially based of a partial page add in Diamond Previews. However, the more directed you can make your barking, the more action items you can provide for people who care about the success of your property, and the more you can think about where your audience actually is — the more effective you can be. Some of it is just a matter of being up front with your fans about what a book is and what a book needs to continue being what it is. I think Raven is a good test case for this.
Raven: Pirate Princess is in essence a spin-off of Princeless, but at the same time it has a unique fanbase, especially one in the LGBT community. There is some crossover here, but while numbers have remained constant for Princeless, numbers for Raven had been declining. So, I created a post that talked about the fact that Raven‘s numbers were low and declining and about the fact that it needed support if it was going to continue. I profiled a diverse array of characters, I included information on the LGTBQ+ aspects of the book, including highlighting a few of the relationships inside it, and I took it to Tumblr — where I know for a fact that I have a very large LGBTQ+ following.
It turned out that it was just the kick in the pants people needed. I was right that people had been interested in and wanted to read the book and they certainly didn’t want it to go away, so they jumped online an ordered some comics — in some cases entire runs of the series to date. I can (and have) yelled myself hoarse on Facebook and Twitter about this series and never received anywhere near that sort of response.
8. How has Action Lab worked at furthering your brand?
JW: Action Lab has been very supportive and has done a great deal to work on partnerships that help promote Princeless. From working closely with the Pop Culture Classroom Organization to getting the first volume into Scholastic’s book fairs and book clubs, it has helped Princeless get the recognition we’ve striven for. They also played a very large part in the negotiation that will hopefully lead to an upcoming movie from Sony Pictures. We’re always looking to do more, but that has done a lot to help us get to this point.
9. Take one look around the industry today and you’ll see all sorts of different voices making comics, a far more diverse assortment than what’s been available before. Which creators are you reading these days that you believe are critical to facilitating this sea change?
JW: G. Willow Wilson, Kelly Sue Decconick, C. Spike Trotman, Gail Simone, Marjorie Liu, Tee Franklin, Greg Pak, Rob Guillory, Fiona Staples, Gene Luen Yang, Sorah Suhng, Kelly Thompson, Jamar Nicholas, Jamal Igle, Kwanza Osajyefo, Magdalene Visaggio, Tini Howard, Emily Willis, Ann Uland, Chris Sebela, Gurihiru, Joëlle Jones, Becky Cloonan, Whit Taylor, Christopher Priest, Sheena Howard, Vita Ayala, Nilah Magruder, Marguerite Bennett.
10. Favorite pirate movie, please.
JW: Well, I kinda have to say The Princess Bride, though it’s debatable how centered the piracy is. I’ll go with backups that are also equally debatable in Castle in the Sky and Stardust. Who doesn’t love a good sky pirate?
‘Raven: Pirate Princess Year Two Book 5: Get Lost Together’ hits stores June 13. You can purchase the comic digitally via comiXology.