Ask Chelsea Cain about her return to comic books, and she’ll tell you not to call it a comeback.
It might seem as though Cain has been away for a while. It’s been almost two years since the polarizing cancellation of her humorous “Mockingbird” series at Marvel. Some fans of the series thought Marvel had jumped the gun; detractors and the online trolls with whom Cain said she had to deal for every issue thought the ending was something to celebrate.
Cain used “Mockingbird’s” final issue as a moment to voice on Twitter that the comic-book industry needed more heroines like the one-time S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and spy in “Mockingbird,” and more women writing them. Cain also let it be known she was taking a break from social media.
At the time, Cain said on her website that a large portion of comic book readership was “sexist jerks with Twitter accounts” and that “ordinary abuse” against her on social media and “the base level of crassness and sexism” were her reason for going offline. The moment was a precursor to the current Comicsgate movement, led by those who believe that comics’ recent pushes for diversity are too political and voice doubts about comics-industry newcomers like Cain.
But just because Cain stayed silent for a while didn’t mean she was done writing superheroes.
“The whole narrative that I quit comics or was driven away — it’s never been true,” Cain told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “It’s a story the Internet made up. I regret that it’s taken me so long to correct it.”
Cain was also writing her first creator-owned series at Image Comics, “Man-Eaters,” which arrives in print and digitally from Image on Wednesday, giving her another chance to work with the “Mockingbird” creative team, including artist Kate Niemczyk. The comedic, monsters-themed take on female adolescence allowed Cain to dive into a story that she completely controlled, a refreshing creative experience as her time with Marvel was ending — and as she recovered from the social-media criticism she had been facing.
“Mockingbird” wasn’t Cain’s only painful Marvel experience. Before it was canceled, Cain and her husband, Marc Mohan, were hard at work co-writing a new Marvel “Vision” miniseries. They had almost completed writing it when Marvel announced earlier this month that it was canceled and would not see print. It was explained to her only as the company’s taking the character in another creative direction, she said. (A spokesperson for Marvel Comics confirmed that account.)
It was another heartbreaking Marvel moment for Cain, a best-selling author who got into comic book writing specifically for the chance to write in Marvel’s vast universe.
“I was drawn to comics because I wanted to tell Marvel stories,” Cain said. “All the comics I grew up reading were written by guys and drawn by guys. There were some awesome female characters. But always through a male lens. And I loved those comics, and I loved those characters. I thought it would be really cool to have the opportunity to look at the [Marvel Universe] through a lens closer to my own.”
Few things went exactly how Cain thought they would during her time writing for Marvel. Even the now-famed eighth and final issue of “Mockingbird,” with the titular character wearing a shirt that says “ask me about my feminist agenda,” was a compromise. Cain wanted the shirt to say NC (noncompliant), the title given to prisoners in a Kelly Sue DeConnick-written Image Comics series (whose name is unprintable here). DeConnick gave Marvel and Cain permission to use the term, but Marvel eventually overruled the idea, according to Cain, going with a backup idea that would eventually become just as popular.
Cain said that if the comic book industry was as serious about inclusion as it claims to be, there’d be more challenges to the “notion of canon” that she feels still has an influence on major decisions.
“When you say that everything that has ever happened in a Marvel comic book is canon — 50 years’ worth of work, made mostly by white men — you’re giving their lens a disproportionate weight, and I can tell you, they’re wrong: No woman stands like that in real life,” Cain said, of the overly sexy poses of some female characters in superhero comics. “So really [my work] has always been an exercise in disrupting the patriarchy. Guilty as charged.”
Cain admitted that “Man-Eaters” takes on a new significance in her post-Marvel career. (She told the Daily Beast she’s “dead” to Marvel.)
“[I] liked the idea that I could put together my ‘Mockingbird’ creative team, and have final decision-making power creatively,” Cain said. “And they said I could put glitter on the cover of [issue] No.1. It was mostly the glitter that sold me.”
Cain said “Man-Eaters” will focus on teenage girls, whose lives are going through such upheaval at puberty that they’re sometimes “feeling like a monster” — a feeling that the series makes literal. The main character is Maude, is a 12-year-old Thai-food and board-game lover with a detective for a father.
“Her world is very similar to our own, except that when girls get their periods they turn into killer werepanthers. That’s the setup,” Cain said. “Ultimately, it is about the power of transformation and the humiliations of middle school and how embarrassing dads are.”
While published by Image, “Man-Eaters” will also be a part of Cain’s new production company, the Ministry of Trouble (founded with partner Lia Miternique), which she hopes will help tell more stories through a perspective she feels is still lacking in comics and other media.
“I want to help girls and women tell stories in spaces that are more typically dominated by boys,” Cain said.
Asked whether her Marvel cancellations were a victory for online voices against diversity in comics, Cain can’t hide her disappointment.
“This was a comic with a female writer, female artist and a female colorist that didn’t fit into Marvel’s ‘creative direction,’ so, yeah, we lost,” Cain said.
But Cain doesn’t see her Marvel experience as all negative. She speaks fondly of new Marvel editor in chief C.B. Cebulski and everyone with whom she worked on “Mockingbird” and “Vision,” calling them a “really talented bunch.”
Moving forward in a comics career that for the foreseeable future will have fewer capes and masks, Cain said the goal, as it always has been, will be to inspire.
“Now I am less scared. Or maybe just more resolute,” Cain said. “I would rather be a role model than a cautionary tale.”