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Jen Van Meter: The Powells.com Interview

Jen Van Meter writes comic books, which is quite possibly one of the most amazingly cool jobs that anyone can have. Her multi-volume hit series Hopeless Savages, from Oni Press, was nominated for an Eisner Award, otherwise known as the Comics Industry's equivalent of the Oscars. She also writes for Marvel, has a deeply hidden desire to write for the Hulk, and brought new life to a little character you might have heard of named Black Lightning (DC Comics).

In honor of the second annual International TableTop Day and Geek Week, I caught up with Jen to talk about geeks, geeky stuff, and what being a geek means to her.

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Heidi: What's the geekiest thing you've ever done or participated in?

Jen Van Meter: It's such a funny word, "geeky," because — given what it meant around me when I was growing up — I can't think of anything I've done that's geekier than becoming a professional comics writer.

But I think it's come to mean different things in different communities and contexts; what's sticky about it for me is the sense of having a driving personalized passion for some aspect of pop/sci-fi/fantasy/gaming culture that extends somehow past casual consumption or enjoyment. It's hard to pin down because there are so many ways to be that passionate and to express it, I think.

But here's my gut answer to your actual question: When I started graduate school, I was thrown into the teaching pool pretty quickly. I wasn't much older than many of my students, I was very shy about public speaking, and I didn't feel a great claim to much authority up in front of the room at first — I was intimidated. At the time, the role-playing game we were spending the most time with was White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade; my character was all tough and mean and wore leather and got into bar fights and wasn't intimidated by anybody. So on teaching days, I dressed like her. I didn't tell anyone, but for about a year, I worked up the nerve to go teach by secretly cosplaying this fictional character.

Heidi: I love that. I used to play an elf named Selenium. I spent a month crafting a magic bow with a +2 to hit.

Van Meter: I love character names. I once made a space opera pilot named Cinemax Odion that I thought would be sort of short term — played that character for years, and now the name never sounds weird or silly to me.

Heidi: You began to go into what "geeky" means to you. Do you want to elaborate on that further?

Van Meter: It's so fraught now, isn't it? My childhood sense of it being a shaming word — the sort one group used to distance itself from another — seems thankfully, mostly gone. Those "geeky" kids who spent lunch hours teaching themselves to code on the school's one computer, or who obsessively followed Doctor Who on PBS late at night, who met up to play role-playing or board games instead of going to the dance, or who read all the comics — those ways of investing yourself have largely been vindicated by where technology and pop culture have gone in the last 30 years, haven't they? So many of these interests that used to seem rarified, arcane — they've moved into really central places in the dominant culture, and the communications technologies we've developed help people who used to feel isolated by their passions find their fellow travelers so much more easily.

So in the wake of that, there's this weird moment now where "geeky" and "nerdy" have become positive shorthand for so much: for deeply loving some one thing or activity, for knowing a lot about something, for being into a whole bunch of things loosely affiliated with "geekiness" — but there are still a lot of people who feel the sting of the old negative brand, whose sense of who they are was shaped by doing their thing despite it. So there's actual cultural debate now about who "gets" to call themselves a geek or a nerdthere's actual cultural debate now about who "gets" to call themselves a geek or a nerd. It might sound silly to people who aren't really invested in it, but it's identity politics and gatekeeping like we find in almost any community, and it can get very cruel and embittered when it comes up. It's not much different from the music scene, where there's always been that tension of who's a "real" whatever-it-is and who's a poser or a fake, or the religious schisms that have occurred over minute points of doctrine: who claims membership in a group and why they do it, this is stuff that really deeply matters to people.

For me, the word really comes down to passion for this thing — whatever it is; dressing up as a cartoon character you love and going to a convention where you can hang out with others doing the same, it's driven by the same passion that has people putting on the jerseys of their favorite players and all going to the game together. And the people who showed up years ago in the rain when the team was on a losing streak, sometimes they're hostile to the people who weren't born then, or who didn't feel they belonged but do now, or who've responded to recent popularity of the game — but that freedom to claim, "I'm a passionate lover of this thing I love," can't really be withheld, can it?

Heidi: Thankfully, no, it can't. Speaking of passions and shifts in mind-set, you were on track toward a PhD prior to what seems like a complete about-face into comic book writing. What drew you toward that particular art form, and what was your journey like getting there?

Van Meter: I've been a comics reader since before I was technically literate — the form has always been a part of my life. I didn't know much at all about how they got made until I was in my 20s, but I was an avid and passionate consumer. When I started having writing ambitions of my own, though, I always imagined it would be prose. I fell sideways into writing comics by going to conventions as a fan and having friends who worked in and around comics — I was around writers and artists in social settings and learning about how making comics worked. Then I took the chance and ran with it when it was offered to me: Jamie S. Rich, then an editor at Dark Horse, suggested I pitch him a short story, and every step of the process was thrilling and fascinating. I fell as in love with making comics as I had been with reading them; I think it's the collaboration that, for me, makes it so compelling. At every stage, I'm working with other people to create this story that then requires the reader's collaboration as well — it's kind of magical.

Now I have to back up. Sometime midway through high school, I met a college professor who also wrote fiction, and as she talked about her life and what she liked about each side of her career, I thought that sounded like exactly the life for me. So that was my plan, and it stayed my plan through getting my BA, getting married, and eventually getting my master's at the University of Oregon. It was while I was working on my doctorate — Literature in English and Folklore & Ethnic Studies — that I started to realize that I might not be temperamentally cut out for an academic career. I was a good scholar and I think a pretty good teacher, but not a great time-manager, and I was starting to question whether I could work well in that environment and still do other things I wanted to do, like start a family or continue writing.

I had started to get work writing comics right around the same time I was proposing my doctoral thesis, and truly, madly loving both kinds of work, when a couple things happened in close succession: We bought a house in Portland, which meant I was committing to looking for a teaching gig in a highly competitive region rather than keeping myself free to move wherever the job might be, and then, very shortly after we moved in, my mom fell ill and passed away. The two things, and then our decision to have a baby not long after, it all kind of swirled together and made me realize what I really wanted to be doing, and that chasing that really mattered.

What's funny is that the kinds of things I worked with as a scholar — people's personal narratives, folk tales, theories developed for talking about art and culture — it all winds up rolling back into the things I write for the funny books, all the time. I remember being afraid I would come to feel I had wasted those years of grad school, but not a day goes by when I don't actively use the things I learned there. I'm still a terrible time-manager, though.

Heidi: I suppose it's possible that you might not have even realized this is what you wanted to do without that experience. You spoke about the collaboration that happens when writing a comic, and I've often wondered, does the story always come first, or is it sometimes the other way around? I know that when you're writing, the characters often "come to life," so to speak, and can lead you in directions you didn't expect. Does a similar thing happen for the artists as well, that you then work with in your writing?

Van Meter: That part can happen in so many ways. Most of my experiences have been with some version of work-for-hire, in which the publisher, say Marvel Comics, owns the characters; I might be asked to pitch a story for a particular character, but the artist is generally chosen by the publisher after the story idea has been accepted. It's my job, then, to do everything I can to open doors of communication between myself and the artists involved so that the sharing of how to do the story can happen. Sometimes, I'm asked to write a script not knowing who the artist will eventually be — those are the hardest, because the script becomes the only place I may have a chance to really connect with the artist. The collaboration is still there, though — every conversation with an editor is about making the story better, making it do all the things you want it to do. And then making the script is sort of like writing a modular recipe — some things are very specifically measured out, but, if I'm doing it right, I'm leaving a lot of room for the artist to interpret the ideas her own way. That said, for those characters, everyone on the team is working with a preexisting character and all the renditions of it that have come before, so you're collaborating, in a sense, with all these other people as well.

With my Hopeless Savages books at Oni Press, I pitched the idea and then the publisher has helped me find artists who were a good fit and who wanted to be a part of it; there, I get a lot more time and interaction with the artists, but the narrative is still coming from me. With those books, though, I've thrown out huge pieces of story or script and gone back to the beginning if I felt like there was a way to tell the story that was better for the artist in question.

Right now, I'm working for the first time on a book that was conceived, plotted, and pitched by the artist and me together — it's also with Oni Press. My artist pal, Kyle Latino, and I came up with something we really wanted to do together and took it to them with some art — effectively a little "trailer" comic. This one has been the most amazing collaborative experience I've ever had because he's right in there with me talking about who does what and why, and also contributing artist's concerns and ideas at a much earlier stage than I usually get to engage them. I'll say something about a scene being necessary but running on too long, and he'll show me how he can shorten it by showing something in one panel that I'd thought would take two pages. I'll be writing a script the way I always would, but I'll be doing it with his participation at every step. It's really very exciting.

With creator-owned work, I've heard a lot of artists talk about characters coming to life as they are working out how to draw them, and for me, seeing character designs is a huge part of a good project taking shape — that's when the characters get real, when you see how they sit, how they moveseeing character designs is a huge part of a good project taking shape — that's when the characters get real, when you see how they sit, how they move, whether they wear glasses. You start to get to know them. I'll give a lot of biographical information to artists so they have a lot to work with at that stage, but getting those first drawings back is when I know who they really are.

Heidi: Have you ever met a character you didn't like and had a hard time writing for?

Van Meter: The characters I build from scratch don't give me that problem unless I'm trying to shoehorn them into a story or situation that's not right for them. But in work-for-hire, sure, I've been asked lots of times to pitch stuff for characters I didn't know well, didn't much like, or didn't find interesting initially. There, my first job is to learn more about them and pitch the story that gives me a way in to feeling for them. It can be tricky, but it's much easier if I remind myself that even a kind of ridiculous villain loaded up with unfortunate 60-year-old social biases is the hero of the story she would tell about herself. That doesn't make it easy, but I do have tricks for getting over that hurdle, and I usually wind up in love with the character by the time I've scripted 10 pages. What's harder in licensed material is working with characters I love to read about but whose voices don't necessarily come naturally to me as a writer — I can lose hours trying to figure out the problem with snappy retort for Spider-Man that just doesn't sound quite right.

Heidi: Was there a real family that was the inspiration behind Hopeless Savages?

Van Meter: Not really. They're nothing like my own family, except at the very core, where there's a foundational assertion that family is there for you and you try to be there for family. Since I wrote the first book, I've met some families who've inspired me to keep at it, and growing up I knew some people who inspired facets of some of the characters, but these stories really began with a friend of mine and me talking about kids we had known with hippie parents who had named them things like Cinnamon Rainbow. Given when we were beginning our teaching careers, it seemed a shame we weren't seeing more students with punk names like Debris or Bitter — that got me thinking about icons like Sid Vicious and Patti Smith, and imagining them in nonpunk settings, like back-to-school night or a PTA bake sale, and one thing led to another.

The other thing about the Hopeless Savages characters is that almost every one of them is in one way or another a fantasy version of some piece of my own experience; I'm fairly shy, and for good and bad, I tend to avoid conflict, so there's a way in which all these characters reflect traits I admire in others — being willing to make a scene when it matters, being prepared to get into trouble for a good cause, being nervy in a way that I'd sometimes love to be.

Heidi: What's new on the horizon for you?

Jen: We've got another volume of Hopeless Savages in the works, which I'm super excited about; the artist, Meredith McClaren, is a phenomenal talent and I can't wait for people to see what she's done. I'm writing a new series for Valiant — The Death-Defying Dr. Mirage with artist Roberto de la Torre — that will be on sale starting in September. I've got a couple single-issue stories coming from Marvel, including "Savage Wolverine #18" with a Portland artist, Rich Ellis. What's on my desk right now is a new project for Oni with my artist-pal Kyle Latino and some early-stage work on a couple other ideas. It's a pretty exciting time for me — a lot more variety in my workload than in recent years.

Heidi: What have you been enjoying reading lately?

Jen: At the very moment, I'm rereading several of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels — I'm writing a little appreciation for a mystery magazine, so my break from writing and other work is going back to some of my favorites. I'm also doing some research reading: 19th-century planned communities, 20th-century company towns, social movements associated with some specific childrearing philosophies, charismatic cult figures... a whole bunch of stuff. I've got a huge stack of comics I haven't gotten to in a box near the bed — there's a ton of amazing stuff out right now, and I owe myself several days or weeks of catching up, honestly.

Here are some comics and other books I'm into at the moment as well, in no particular order:

Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
The Joyners in 3D by David Marquez and R. J. Ryan:
Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes
Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios
Down, Set, Fight! by Chad Bowers, Chris Sims, and Scott Kowalchuk
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson
Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera
Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

And because I'm super proud of my husband's work as well:

Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark and Stumptown by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth

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Heidi Mager does marketing stuff for Powells.com. Off the clock, she spends much of her time wrangling a kindergartner, chasing after her toddler, feeding her husband bacon, and attempting to avoid doing housework.


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