Welcome back to another spotlight interview.
During our practice of social distancing, we are still able to talk to comic pros and bring those conversations to you. The discussion we are bringing you this time is with comic writer Stephanie Phillips.
Stephanie has burst on the comics scene in the last few years. She wrote an original graphic novel that was backed on Kickstarter called Kicking Ice. From there she has written Devil Within at Black Mask Studios, Descendant and Artemis and the Assassin at Aftershock Comics, and The Butcher of Paris at Dark Horse Comics. She also had a story in the DC Comics anthology Crimes of Passion.
She has a few of new series that have been announced, including A Man Among Ye from Image Comics , Red Atlantis from Aftershock, and a new comic starring Taarna from Heavy Metal.
We had an entertaining conversation ranging from dealing with life in the world of coronavirus to her career and writing process.
The completed audio recording is below, but we transcribed some of the most important parts for you as well.
Pop Culture Squad: Thanks for being here. I want to say to the listeners that this interview was supposed to happen in person at ITHACON45 where we were both going to be guests, but obviously that and all other cons have been cancelled for the foreseeable, but hopefully not too distant, future.
On that topic, before we get to your amazing comic books, what can you share about how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted your life, both in comics or not if you want?
Stephanie Phillips: Yeah, I mean I think it’s a really weird time for everyone, in most industries, but I think we are just going to see a lot of different changes to the way comics work. Thankfully, I know that we are all going to keep making comics, I have had some hopeful calls with publishers; people are willing to just kind of forge ahead and work things out. Make new trails if we have to, but those of us in the industry, I know we are kind of here to stay. However we keep making comics, I know we will keep making those. I know things are really messy and frustrating right now, but we are going to keep kind of making stuff, creating things because it’s kind of what we do. I think at the end we will have at least really good content to share with the world.
PCS: That is pretty much were everyone is, trying to hold on by the edge their seat so we can make it through.
So, returning to comics. I became aware of your work with the Kicking Ice Kickstarter. It seems that the decision to tell that story in a comic medium has been a big springboard for you for a lot of different opportunities. Do you feel that is true?
SP: Absolutely. I have always loved comics; so, the decision to kind of make that story visual graphic novel format was a very easy one. I think you know, hockey and sports in general is a cool visual format; so, why not?
It, kind of, played into something that I knew a lot about and obviously artist, Jamie Jones, knew a lot about, and it kind of blended those two together. From there, it kind of snowballed into obviously making Devil Within and Descendent, and so on. So, a lot of good opportunities came from being able to make that which, on its own, was a really cool experience, getting to work with the Women’s National Hockey League. It blends two my favorite things, hockey and comic books.
PCS: Awesome. If you can share with us, there are current things that are in press. We have one issue of Artemis and the Assassin, and I think we are still waiting the last issue of The Butcher of Paris. A Man Among Ye is coming in May. So, what is the status of those?
SP: So, from what I can tell Artemis is going to be, they think, only pushed back four weeks. Of course, that’s somewhat out of Aftershock’s hands. They are going to do the best they can. I know that Aftershock is a really good group of people who really want to be conscientious about the local comic book shops as well. So, I think there is a lot of hesitancy to just say, “We’re all going digital,” which I really appreciate, and I agree with that decision to kind of just delay things. I do think that’s that best decision.
Then, A Man Among Ye. I had a conversation I had with Image (Comics) this afternoon. That’s still on track. I mean, the biggest problem is printers aren’t really up and running. We are still adhering to all deadlines, like they are ready to go for whenever everything opens back up, and hopefully, by May, we will be able to put something out. If not, it may be slightly delayed, but we have been given confirmation that it will absolutely get out into the world. Perhaps a little later than we thought, but it will still be there. So, that’s good.
PCS: And obviously, the last issue of Butcher of Paris is whenever people start shipping, right?
SP: Exactly, yes. That’s been printed. So, we are just waiting to kind of get that out to distributors. Again, I’m not too well versed in what Dark Horse is doing, but I think I have gotten that their kind of waiting to hopefully to be able to release the physical copy before doing any digital work.
PCS: Ok. Let’s talk about Artemis for a second. Where does the inspiration for a story like that come from? Because for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, and go find it, it is, from my prospective, a combination of this psuedo-sciencey, super time-traveling assassin related to an actual historical assassin. So, where did that come from?
SP: So, I knew I had this idea for a while about these time-travel assassins, and time travel is something that is really exciting to me because I like historical fiction. So, getting to play in almost a never-ending sandbox is kind of awesome. I knew I wanted to do that, and when I really found and starting researching Virginia Hall, it solidified even more. Virginia Hall, is such a really cool historic figure. She literally is one of the… I’m sorry she is not “one of”. She is the most decorated spy in US history, and a lot of people don’t know her name. Granted this book is not really historical non-fiction, I don’t think there is a lot of record of what Virginia Hall did during her time travel experience, but I still think it will get her name out there.
There is some of her backstory built into it that what a cool figure she was, as a spy, as a member of the resistance in World War II, the French Resistance, and having her part of the book, I think is my favorite element. Getting to do the research and things like that was great, but what was really fun was putting her against kind of our created figure of Maya. Having our completely fictional world of Maya blended with Virginia’s very real world I thought it was really cool mashup of the two of them.
PCS: Awesome. That is great. We’ve talked before your affinity for historical, or at least historically related fiction, and you have two back-to-back stories that are kind of mostly located in WWII, is that coincidental, or is that a special point for you in history?
SP: It’s really not. I think that is definitely coincidental. Virginia Hall, being a part of Artemis is a jumping off point where they met in the World War II era, but from then you don’t see a whole lot more of WWII until the very end of the series, or the first arc. It’s where she is, but I’m not focusing too much on the world of World War II outside of anything pertaining to Virginia Hall in this issue.
PCS: Ok. Cool. Let’s move on a little bit to A Man Among Ye. So, first of all, what a great team on that book. Why pirates? Why Anne Bonny? And, what is the story about?
SP: Our story is definitely more of a legend kind of approach or mythical approach, verses a historical one, which is a slight departure for me, but I am really fascinated by the era of piracy. The story is actually set in the waning days of piracy, when you have the Crown basically say, “OK, we really had enough of this. We are just going to pay people to stop being a pirate and come settle down, give them some land and be a farmer.”
So, pirates were starting to disappear. There wasn’t much of a place for them, but you just had this really devoted group to this lifestyle that wanted to keep being a pirate at any cost.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read, historically, were kind a piece of that movement, but also kind of just adding in the extra layer of this legend surrounding these two female pirates. There is some written record of them. It is very minimal, which is almost more fun to play with because what you can find on them is really larger than life.
They are these stories that are just like really more like folktales of these two female Pirates and the kind of escapades they went on and how they interacted with people. There are conflicting accounts of if the two had a relationship or maybe the two killed this person or whatever, and it was a lot of fun to play with that and create this much larger than life character in Ann Bonny, which I think Craig (Cermak) on art work just really nailed Ann’s betrayal and made her kind of fit that. She does come to life in the book in a way that I don’t think it’s going to be out of a history book, but here is this much larger than life historical figure, that is kind of more out of the myth then the history side of her stories.
PCS: So, why do you think that is? In terms of Ann and Mary, the legends are amazing, and they are so much more even then I think the rest of the pirates. Yes, there’s all these things that make some sense about pirates, but with the female pirates, do you think because they are female there was a difference in terms of the way their legends grew?
SP: I think, in part, definitely, because some of the legends have to do with them kind of asserting the fact that if they killed a man, they want to make sure that the man knows he was killed by a woman. So, there is definitely some legend that involves in that aspect of it, but I also think pirate ships are kind of collection, like we see that a lot in pop culture, of just a motley crew of people that are kind of like your rag tag pirate crew.
I think that this was a place that collect people who didn’t fit into a lot of traditional ways. So, you have two women that didn’t traditionally fit into the role of a woman at the time period, at least in the case of Ann and Mary. They really found their kind of secret hide-a-way on a pirate ship, which is then also conflicting because a lot of crews didn’t want to sail with a woman.
It was absolutely bad luck to have a woman on board. So, we have two women that both are kind of getting rid of any stigma involved with being a woman during the time period, but also saying, “Screw you sailors that don’t want to sail with us. We are just completely do whatever we want.” They take to this life of being a pirate, which is kind of awesome to see them do so. It’s definitely an adventure story more so then historical using the basis of these two women that had so many legends surrounding their life. We are playing with a lot of those legends in the story.
PCS: That’s awesome. That’s really cool. So, another factor in the fact that we didn’t get together at Ithacon, fortuitously, there has been additional news about your upcoming work that we would have not have talked about then. You are going to be writing Taarna for Heavy Metal Magazine. So, I know things that far out have to be hush-hush, but what can you tell us about that?
SP: So, I can’t tell too much yet other then it will be appearing Fall 2020. It will be its own stand-alone comic series, and it’s basically going to be for both segments of readers in my mind. So, for anybody who knows Taarna and is familiar with the Heavy Metal Universe, there are a lot of old faces, familiar names, and those kind of things in the book, but it will also be an almost new beginning for Taarna.
If someone is not familiar with this, and still wants this badass female warrior on her flying Pterodactyl, they still can have this jumping off point to read and learn about Taarna. She has been a lot of fun for me to write; so, I’m excited in Heavy Metal # 300, there is kind of a prologue to our run at Taarna. There will be a prose piece that I wrote. It is a short fiction piece about Taarna, and the five-issue series opens at the end of the prose piece. It will give a little bit more of a backstory about what is going to happen in the actual series.
PCS: So, your series is actually going to be a separate publication, is that right? I that what I am understanding?
SP: Yes, exactly.
PCS: That’s different for them too, isn’t it?
SP: It is. I believe they are doing more of that. They announced that they have a writer and actor they have been working with, and they are doing a new series with him as well. So, Heavy Metal did change creative ownership recently, and, I think, they are making more of an initiative to do this, which I think is great. I love Heavy Metal. I know the name. My favorite find is always old Heavy Metal issues, because I love the cover art so much.
PCS: That was another question I had for you. Did you watch the Heavy Metal movie?
SP: Yes, I have seen the movie.
PCS: How long ago was is that you watched it? Because when it came out, I remember it coming out, and I wasn’t allowed to watch it. I had to wait to I got older so I could go rent a VHS copy of it.
SP: So, I wasn’t alive when the movie originally came out. But I have been watching it more recently. I think the movie does a really good job of giving you that feel of like the universe that Taarna is set in, just the imagery and things like that. I’ve got a copy of it in my Amazon account just to go to every once in a while, specifically the Taarna section, but it’s all fun.
So, I’ve been just going back to that quite a bit and looking at the style and getting the feel for the world and how she interacts, which her interaction is pretty much, “let’s kill something with my big giant sword.” Which is awesome! That is something I don’t get to write as much. I have been doing a lot of historical, very grounded, historical fiction.
PCS: I think Artemis is going to take a different path from that.
SP: Yes, Artemis is probably the biggest departure, but again still grounded in some of those elements of reality. Getting something with Taarna, where we will never see Earth, at least in my initial run, is again a pretty big departure for me, but it’s been a ton of fun. It has reminded me of the old Conan and things like that which are some of my favorites, and I have been rereading Jason Aaron’s run on Conan: The Barbarian recently. I think is a lot of fun to read those and immerse yourself in a world of just barbarians and warriors with swords and weird, different species of aliens and stuff. Yeah it been really where of all my attention has been at the moment, finishing up and really jumping into Taarna.
PCS: Cool. Are there writers that you look up too or inspire too in either in comics or other forms?
SP: Um. So, at least in comics, I would say my true right now, that I will jump at anything they write, I love Jason Aaron and Conan really solidified that.
PCS: I am a huge fan of that series. I thought that series was incredibly well crafted through his twelve-issue run. I’m a big fan of Jason’s as well. The way he brought that through and approached telling that long form tale in so many different individual vignettes yet telling you the whole story at once was just incredibly done.
SP: Yeah, it’s great. Like I said, I am rereading it because I’ve been re-buying some of my physical copies as digital because I got an iPad recently. I guess this is the only thing I can thing to do on my iPad is put comics on it. So, I’ve been rereading that run, and I mean it’s great. I like everything else that Jason Aaron has done. I like Garth Ennis, who is excellent, and also, probably someone who does historical fiction or even non-fiction at times. It’s hard not to bring up Garth.
Outside of comics, I really like Eric Larson and Dan Simmons. They are two that I think are probably read the most of. Eric Larson does non-fiction history though it reads very much like fiction, and Dan Simmons will kind of do a blend of sometimes history and horror or some form of non-fiction. I love both writers. They are definitely an influence on what I do even though I am doing comics and not novels.
PCS: So, that’s fine. You’re a writer. You know? It is who you are. Is that what you wanted to be? Is that where you were planning to be?
SP: No! I planned to be just an academic actually. Before comics, all my publications are academic peer- reviewed publications that are hidden behind paywalls and technical journals, and that’s fine. But, I wanted to be creative. I don’t think anyone becomes an English major because they love technical documentation. I mean, that kind of thing pays the bills, and I definitely appreciate it as a form of communication. I love communication studies, but I became an English major in the same way I think a lot of the wide eye humanities majors did. That is like Shakespeare or whatever literary, or whatever your literary poison was; so, I really took to writing.
I took a little time off from my PhD. Just, at some point, it was like I felt like I never gave myself a break to examine any other option for myself. I took some time off, and I’ve been kind of around comics a lot and going to conventions. I knew people that owned comic shops and kind of spiraled from there. Someone said, “Well, you should right comics” and I was like, “Wait a minute.” Like I needed permission.
Hearing that just set me off, and I decided to give it a try. I think I went home that night and I tried. I’m just going to write a comic. I opened my computer, and I thought I don’t know what that means. So, it was a lot of research. A lot of networking. Making connections. Learning trial and error.
Thankfully I trained in my PhD and masters around technical writing. I think the scripting of a comic is very similar to technical writing, because I have to explain. If I made up a species of alien in my mind, it lives in my mind right now, but for that artist to draw it, I have to be able to explain in detail in a way that makes sense to this other human being. It’s all very much a form technical communication which just for a different reason. It’s really became something I love doing and just kind of kept growing until now it is really my main career.
PCS: Which is awesome! I think you are an excellent writer beyond that it’s a joy to watch your career grow.
SP: Oh. Thank you very much.
PCS: How does the technical aspect that you were talking about in terms of translating what is in your head to what you want to see on a page? How does that work in terms of the artist’s vision and is there a lot of communication? Do you find you have to go back to it, or do you encourage that type of thing? Some people, they hand in a script, and they don’t want to hear about until they see it in print.
SP: Right, Right. No, I am very much the opposite. I want it to be a dialogue, and I treat the script more like a letter. This is my initial letter to the artist. Here is everything that is happening in my brain pan. Make all the changes, adjustments that you want, and you need, and luckily, I am working with amazing artists.
I’m not here to say how this page has to look, or draw things out for them, because they are incredible story tellers and I trust them to that. I still need to lay things out and set a structure for the story and the characters and explain. I guess I look at it a little like a blueprint, like we are all working from a blueprint to build a house. As long as this house is getting built, if some of the windows change to stained glass windows, great! That is awesome.
I love them adding their own take and interpretation, and yeah, I love the collaboration element. Craig who, I’m doing A Man Among Ye with, we probably talk on the phone about once a week to go through things, but we text everyday as he is working on characters or things like that. The same with Francesca (Fantini) doing Artemis and the Assassin, you know we text and talk to each other constantly. so the communication element is really big for me, but also just I love the collaboration
I love having someone else that’s involved in this. Editors and artists. Yeah, it’s, always a lot of fun and I mean that goes all the way to letterer. I love talking with Troy (Peteri) about stuff. We were just picking caption colors for Jack Rackham, in A Man Among Ye, and even something like that is awesome. I’ll ask, “Troy, what do you think is best here?”, or letting Troy do cool things with the sound effects.
PCS: So, let’s talk about Troy for a second. In the first issue of Artemis, Virginia shoots somebody, and then as she is running away, there is this “clack, clack, clack” sound effect. I thought maybe she has heels on. I didn’t understand, and then the reveal is that she has a wooden leg. That was fantastic, and that played so well reading this.
SP: Yeah, Troy is great because Troy and I just work together so much that there is a way like, you know, a short hand. If I know Troy’s lettering the scripts, I don’t even have to think about it. I know that Troy knows what I mean, and I know that he will kind of read everything and make sure it all makes sense when he goes back and letters page one. He makes a lot of really smart choices. Something like you were saying, I don’t think a lot of people pick up on. The stuff that Troy is doing, like the tiny little nuances of what he is doing are sometimes really cool from font choice, to balloon color, and things like that. He is great to work with.
PCS: One of the things I enjoy about comics is the collaborative nature of it. If you pay attention, you can see how every contributor makes their mark and puts their place on it. For example, if we can go back to Butcher of Paris, Jason Wordie’s colors make that book. I’m sorry. I love it. His colors are fantastic. Have you seen what other book, Undone by Blood, he is doing with Aftershock? His colors make that book just so amazing. I’m enthralled with his work lately.
SP: Yes, I saw his work on Donny Cates’ book God Country, and I tried to hire Jason on other projects before Butcher. He’s got, thankfully, kind of a full schedule, so when Butcher came up, I was like, “We will wait. Jason, whatever you need, but you need do to this book with us.” We made it work. We put it in, and it’s perfect.
PCS: That’s great. So, let’s finish up with this. What is your pop culture jam? You said you read comic books, what is the thing you go back to and say “this is the thing that makes me happy?”
SP: Um, Indiana Jones.
PCS: Really? Excellent.
SP: Yup, I can watch that and have watched it all day long.
PCS: Even the fourth one?
SP: Ha! Ha! Wait a minute. That is blocked out of my memory. Ha! Ha! So….
No, just the original. Yeah, that is one of the things, when I’m stuck or feeling just not very inspired one day. It is just one of those things that I pop in Indy, and just be like “This is why I make comics and art, so…”.
PCS: I saw someone ask recently why isn’t there a Marion Ravenwood comic book?
SP: I know, that would be awesome. That would be so cool.
PCS: Well, I think that is all I had, but this has been amazing. Thank you so much, and we look forward to reading all your new books.
SP: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.
Stephanie can be found on Twitter at @Steph_Smash or on Instagram at @snapcracklesteph.
Her professional website is stephaniecomics.com
You can find Stephanie’s work in your Local Comic Shops when they are open. You can also find them on Comixology or on Amazon:
Kicking Ice By Stephanie Phillips, Jamie Jones, Marissa Louise, Doug Garbark, Troy Peteri, and Lee Moder
Devil Within By Stephanie Phillips, Maan House, Dee Cunniffe, and Troy Peteri
Descendent by Stephanie Phillips, Evgeniy Bornyakov, Lauren Affe, and Troy Peteri
Butcher of Paris by Stephanie Phillips. Dean Kotz, Jason Wordie, and Troy Peteri