FlameCon 2018: Writer Leah Williams Talks Emma Frost, X-Men, and More

Leah Williams is one of Marvel Comics‘ brightest and most enthusiastic new writers. Before making her Marvel debut with a Lady Hellbender story in Totally Awesome Hulk #1.MU, Williams penned the 2015 young adult novel The Alchemy of Being Fourteen. She has a story in the upcoming Domino Annual #1 as well as the X-Men Black: Emma Frost #1 one-shot drawn by Chris Bachalo, What If? Magik #1, and a yet to be announced creator owned title.

At FlameCon, I had the opportunity to chat with Leah Williams about her upcoming comics, love for the X-Men, and relationship with fictional characters, especially Emma Frost.

Graphic Policy: Let’s start with a general question. How did you become a fan of Marvel Comics, and what is kind of like your “origin story”?

Leah Williams: I am deeply entrenched in fandom culture and never really stopped once I started writing for Marvel. But the way I really got obsessed with Marvel and the X-Men comics specifically was when I first started working at a comic book shop. I worked there for maybe a year and half to two years, and in that time, I just spent all day, every day reading comics and studying them and thinking about them. It was transcendent.

GP: How has your fandom influenced your writing?

LW: For me, they’re never separated. Being active in the fandom is a way that, I think, gives me an advantage as a writer because it allows me to keep this ongoing and current knowledge of what people are saying and what they’re feeling and where there’s a lack of their favorite character and the kind of stories they’d like to see.

GP: Most of your books for Marvel so far have involved the X-Men corner of the universe. What draws you to the mutant side of the Marvel U?

LW: What I find most fascinating about X-Men comics is how flawed they are. It’s the same thing that draws me towards Peter Parker as well. The fact that they make mistakes, and they learn from those mistakes, but they’re always trying to do better. They don’t come out the gate being correct and right in every decision that they make. And I think that it’s seeing those kind of flaws in our heroes that makes them more compelling because it does humanize them.

With mutants, in particular, my obsession largely spawns from the fact that you have characters like Beak or Maggott or the gross mutants, who in a different body of work would exemplify genre conventions of body horror. They’re disfigured and grotesque in other works. But because they’re mutants in X-Men comics, they get to be the heroes. Their disfigurement or what would inhibit them in a different genre is their power. I roll hard for that. I think it’s great.

GP: So the X-Men have been used a metaphor for LGBTQ themes since at least the 1980s. How have your experiences as a bisexual woman set apart your writing of the X-Men versus a straight person writing them?

LW: I can tell there’s a difference in what I bring to the table as a writer and as a bisexual woman than the existing canon. For example, the way I depict different characters is informed by different life experiences. That’s true of all the Big Two comics in general. As characters get handed off down the line, when they pass hands, they take on new qualities and different aspects. So, I’m excited to be part of the fresh blood at Marvel now when we’re getting to do some really exciting stuff. It’s just thrilling.

GP: Speaking of exciting stuff, you have an Emma Frost one-shot coming up. It’s part of X-Men Black, which is focusing on the villains. Do you consider Emma Frost to be a hero, villain, or antihero, and why?

LW: I think she exists in a moral grey area. To me, I’m a flagrant Emma Frost apologist. She can do no wrong, including blowing up [Firestar’s] pony. She had her reasons. At the same time, she has this brutal heart, and she’s deeply compassionate, radically so. That’s what informs her actions. All she ever wanted to be was a school teacher, and people often forget that about her. It’s one of those things where she’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way.

Being able to tell a story with her is (I don’t know how to do a sports metaphor.) that I picked up the ball and ran as far as I could with it. And it’s deeply exciting.

GP: So what can fans expect from your Emma Frost story?

LW: It’s a love letter to Emma Frost. It is going to be cathartic, and it’s going to show Emma at her best.

GP: What has been collaborating with artist Chris Bachalo been like?

LW:  He is amazing and so humble. When my editor Jordan D. White said that he had a line on a good artist, I replied by sending him a whole bunch of “eyes” emojis. Then he was like, “Are you sitting down?”

I was, but when he told me it was Chris Bachalo, I burst into tears and had to go lay down and breathe for a minute. It was during the time when we were outlining, but then I started to see the script come alive in Chris’ style and artistic voice because his work is so meaningful to me. It is so formative. Working with him has been incredible. He’s very kind and an all around awesome guy.

GP: You also have a story in the Domino Annual coming up. I really enjoyed your Domino and Emma Frost story in Secret Empire: Brave New World. There’s a line in there I still remember, “Being a hot girl is weird.”

LW: That’s another thing. In each script, there’s something where I think there’s no way they’re going to let me get away with it, but they do. It was that line, and it was super exciting.

GP: Do you play off that line of dialogue at all in your new story at all?

LW: It’s a part of her character because Domino is open about these things. She’s playful. She’s flirty. The Domino Annual is going to be very exciting because there’s a sexiness to it. While she doesn’t talk about the reality of being that insanely hot, you still get to see her in these different scenarios and different outfits and running around town getting stuff done.

GP: That sounds like a lot of fun. You’re also a doing a Magik What If? story. What attracts you to writing characters that people might consider to be morally flawed or antiheroes? I kind of sense a theme in your upcoming works.

LW: I roll hard for female characters who I don’t think are getting their due and need to be developed so much more. I was actually approached to write the Illyana Rasputin one-shot by my editor Annalise Bissa, who is amazing and a huge fan of the character. In her words that she straight up put in the actual press release, Illyana deserves better. That’s what were doing in the one-shot to show the world where she never joined the New Mutants. It’s when she gets out of Limbo and never joined the New Mutants.

GP: What have been some of the challenges of creating your own reality in this story because Marvel does the different Earth designations for the What If stories?

LW: Specifically, with [Magik], we had to think about kind of long term consequences because it becomes a butterfly effect. We change this in this world, well, how will it effect different kinds of things? We had to account for readers’ questions they would have while reading it and try to anticipate the questions they would have and answer them proactively so we could get on with the worldbuilding of this different universe. It’s a very practical technique. It’s a logistical thing.

GP: Do you have any favorite What If? stories from the past?

LW: I can’t think of anything specifically off the top of my head, but have you ever read the What The–?! stories?

GP: Yeah, when Marvel was making fun of their own stuff MAD Magazine style.

LW: Jordan D. White just introduced me to those, and that’s my current obsession. They’re super goofy. And there’s this panel where Angel is strapping down his massive eight foot wings to his body. And he’s like, “This’ll be fine. No one will notice this when I go out.” Then, you see him put on a jacket and walking out, and he’s got like camel humps under his jacket that are taller than his head. It’s the funniest thing.

GP: Most of your comics for Marvel have been one shots. What has been a challenge of doing this versus a miniseries or an ongoing?

LW: It’s all been fun so far. It’s all been wildly thrilling. The backup story “Super Hot” in Secret Empire Brave New World  had its own challenges because it was four pages. Working with those kind of constraints has the same kind of exhilaration as completing an obstacle course where if you can pay respect to continuity, represent the characters authentically, have all the necessary plot elements you need to have in there, and make it visually appealing and compelling in four pages that’s an adrenaline rush to let off.

The most difficult thing, for me, that I’ve worked on is the Emma Frost one-shot because working on it was terrifying. From the moment Jordan D. White asked me to write it, I knew what was at stake and how incredible it was. While I was writing it, I was terrified the whole time because it was the first time I realized that loving a character is not enough. Being a fan of a character is not enough. You write these stories. You have to stay the course. You have to stay true to your outline, and that kind of thing.

The reason why it was scary for me during the Emma Frost is there is nothing rational about the way I feel about Emma Frost. It is a blind devotion, and realizing that while I was writing her was so scary. I was like, “I’m gonna fuck this up.” I’m gonna mess this up so bad, and they’re never gonna let me do it again.

At the same time, I felt honor bound as someone who loves her so much to do as much with her as I could in the space I had available. God bless Jordan D. White, he’s letting me.

GP: When did you fall in love with her? When did you know that Emma Frost would be so influential to you?

LW: I honestly don’t know. It’s been a long time coming for sure. It’s gotten really pronounced in the last few years, I’m not sure why. I’ve always had a respect for her, but it didn’t become irrational and crazy until I had started writing for Marvel a couple years ago and was doing a lot of research. I read her origin story and read the solo miniseries.

GP: With the terrible covers.

LW: Listen, they’re Trojan horses. People give comic covers a lot of shit for being male gaze-y. You gotta keep in mind they’re Trojan horses.

GP: I like that because people have been talking about the J. Scott Campbell cover for your one-shot.

LW: Exactly. People are gonna pick up this book who don’t know anything about Emma Frost and are picking it up because she looks sexy on the cover. But what you’re gonna get is an intense character study.

So, it was reading the original solo miniseries with her and learning her background and how she set out on her own, the tragic family dynamic, and she was a stripper. All of it. I love it.

GP: I have one last question. You’ve teased about doing creator owned work. Do you have any more info on that?

LW: The only thing I can do is build mystery hype about it because it hasn’t been announced yet. I am working on my first original comics series, and I am calling it X-Files, but lesbians and magic. It’s cyberpunk, neo-noir in an island setting. It’s one of the most wildly indulgent projects I’ve ever worked on.

You can find Leah Williams on her website.

Follow Leah on Twitter.

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