On Saturday, at Tidewater Comicon, I had the opportunity to do the first interview with writer Tini Howard about her upcoming espionage, sci-fi thriller Skeptics for Black Mask Studios. The comic is set to come out later this year and features art from Devaki Neogi (Curb Stomp). We also talked about how she broke into comics, her upcoming work on the Barbie: Starlight, and there’s even a surprise cameo from a Marvel character near and dear to both our hearts.
Graphic Policy: I know you broke into comics through the 2013 Top Cow Talent Hunt. How did that come about?
Tini Howard: I was a finalist in the contest in 2013, and my Magdalena: Seventh Sacrament comic debuted in December 2014 on the same day as Secret Six and Bitch Planet. I was in the company of my heroes. Magdalena was my first work for them, and I was pitching various things for Top Cow. As everyone in the industry knows, we kiss a lot of frogs. Then, I got to do Poseidon IX in September 2015. In the meantime, I’ve been doing anthologies like Secret Loves of Geek Girls.
A friend of mine, Chris Sebela, once said, “Your first in year in comics you do one book; the second year, you do three; and in year three, you do ten.” And my third year is crazy because I’ve got a lot of comics coming out. It’s a been a slow ride. Your first book hits Previews, and you think, “Oh, I’ll be doing Batman tomorrow.”, and that’s not how it works.
GP: So, you have The Skeptics coming out from Black Mask later this year. What can Black Mask or general comics readers expect from the series?
TH: I’ve been pitching The Skeptics as X-Men: First Class meets Project Alpha and James Randi in An Honest Liar meets Grant Morrison’s Kill Your Boyfriend. I’m a huge Grant Morrison fan and love the energy in things like Kill Your Boyfriend , Sex Criminals, and Saga, and the idea that this girl and this guy are on the run together. It’s a dynamic that I love.
Skeptics focuses on that and features two teenagers in Washington DC in the 1960s. There are Russian reports of superpowered individuals, and two teenagers are selected to appear as an American superpowered equivalent in order to prove that the Russian threat is also false. It doesn’t go that way, and hijinks ensue.
Our two main characters are named Max and Mary, and they’re from very different worlds. Mary is a hardworking academic and an American girl while Max is a British criminal. He’s very skilled with sleight of hand and fast talking, and Mary is incredibly intelligent and often underestimated because she’s an African American student in the 1960s. She uses that to her advantage. But it’s cool because she’s very much a good girl. It’s like Kill Your Boyfriend where she’s learning how to be bad and be unafraid to get one up on people. This is while Max is learning to be a better person. They work with a professor of theirs to hopefully disprove the Russian threat.
GP: Your lead character is an African American female scientist in the 1960s. Did you have any real life scientists you were inspired by when creating Mary?
TH: There are actually two female scientists in the series. There is Dr. Santaclara, who is South American, and she is inspired by a family member of mine and also Sophia Loren. We end up with a lot of sexy scientists, like Tony Stark, but there aren’t a lot of women like that in comics, and that’s what we have with Dr. Santaclara, their professor.
And then we have Mary, who is a psych student, and I did a lot of research into academia in the 1960s. You watch a lot of things like Mad Men, and there’s an assumption that a lot of non-white people were relegated to background roles or tragedy stories. In my research, I found out Harvard had its first African American female graduate in the 19th century. It’s stuff you don’t know. I come from a super white background, and my history books didn’t teach me that. The research taught me about women in academia, who were working hard (And I don’t want to say were included in academia because they were pushed out a lot.) back then, and you don’t see them in these kind of stories.
I didn’t want to tell this super aggressive Civil Rights story because I don’t feel like it’s my place. I feel that there are people, who are way more suited to tell that story than me, but, at the same time, I wanted to tell a story about someone who was doing her best, was an intellectual, and was a real person.
GP: I’m a big fan of Devaki Neogi and really enjoyed her work on Curb Stomp. Why was she the perfect artist for this project?
TH: She was my first and only pick, and I got her. I had been friends with her on social media for a while and saw she had some availability. I loved her work on Curb Stomp, and her beautiful covers for another Black Mask book, Kim and Kim that I can’t wait for Mags [Visaggio] to share. Devaki also has a background in fashion illustration, and The Skeptics is a book that isn’t high action. It’s not a superhero book. There’s a lot of quiet tension and not a lot of punching and flying.
I wanted an artist, who was really good at depicting tension, expression, and fashion. Because I love the period, and the mod and preppy styles of the time. Mary is gorgeous with A-line skirts and big curls. Max has all these mod suits, and Dr. Santaclara is this Sophia Loren fabulous woman. Devaki and I have a Pinterest where I pin all these Sixties fashion photos. We get really excited about it.
Devaki was the only artist I had in mind while developing the series, and Matt [Pizzolo] got her because he knew her from some work she had done at Black Mask before. I am excited to work with her. Her style can be this classic comics illustrative style, and it looks just like I dreamed it would.
GP: About Black Mask, why were they the perfect publisher for The Skeptics?
TH: So, I developed The Skeptics not knowing where I wanted it to go. I instantly realized that it didn’t have what a lot of publishers wanted because it’s weird, tense, and historical instead of being a high action, sci-fi book that they’re interested in.
Black Mask is different. I’m a huge fan of a lot of their books, like We Can Never Go Home, which has a lot of quiet moments. I submitted via the open submissions policy and was very lucky. Matt was able to look at my pitch from the slush pile and got back to me very quickly about publishing it. It was a slush pile success story.
GP: What elements of the 1960s are you going to focus on in the themes, designs etc of The Skeptics?
TH: Well, it’s a Cold War story, for one. I’m very interested in academia. I’m originally from DC so that setting is important to me, and the first issue features certain DC landmarks like Ben’s Chili Bowl. It’s big for DC people, but a lot of people might not know it. There’s some influence from Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys with the mystery solving. Our main characters are always creeping around solving mysteries. The Skeptics has that 1960s pulp paperback feel.
I teasingly have called the year in press materials “1960X” because it is an alternate history book. The president is Nelson Rockefeller. I did an alternate history for a lot of reasons. I didn’t want people to say, “That couldn’t have happened, but still wanted it rooted in reality so I went that route. It’s definitely set in the early 60s; more early seasons of Mad Men than the later seasons.
GP: You’re also working on Barbie comics. How did you get to work on Barbie: Starlight for Papercutz?
TH: I got that job the way lots of things happen in comics. You have a friend, and they’re looking for someone to fill a spot. The editor, Beth Bryan, was putting together a team to do Barbie, and three people had suggested me. I was really honored because I told my first stories with Barbie. My favorite drag queen is Trixie Mattel. Barbie has also had this great reinvention lately where she’s focused being for all girls and removing a lot negativity people have towards the brand.
Barbie Starlight is great. I can’t talk too much about the plot because it ties into the upcoming Barbie Starlight movie, but it’s fun, and there are spaceships. We get to do Barbie in space. And while doing research for it, I found out some of the first Barbie comics were done by Amanda Conner. What great footsteps to be in!
GP: Amanda Conner on Barbie? I gotta track those down!
TH: I know! I saw some of the art, and it’s gorgeous. I love Barbie, and what I’m able to do with her. It’s been a lot of fun, and I watch a lot of Life in the Dreamhouse. I definitely would like to work on some of the other toylines too.
GP: What is the difference in your creative process when working on something licensed or work for hire , like Barbie or Top Cow, than on your own creator owned work?
TH: With license work, there is a licenser that licenses the comics rights to a publisher. And with work for hire, if I pitch to Top Cow, and they love it, they don’t have to get an okay from anyone else. If I write a pitch, and they accept it, I can work on it immediately.
If I write a pitch for Barbie, and my editor at Papercutz loves it, she still has to go to Mattel and see if they like it. That’s one difference in the creative process. You’re not just trying to impress an editor because I’ve had projects where the editor enjoys it, and the licenser doesn’t it. It’s a case of who you’re trying to please thematically. Often, work for hire is a little more flexible because it’s their character, and even if you give them an off the wall idea, it’s theirs to do what they wish. They’re not beholden to a licenser. So, I could do a story about cyborg mermen fighting a sea monster.
GP: I’ve seen some of your critical work for Teen Vogue and Paste. How does writing about comics help with your comics writing?
TH: One thing I’m careful to do because the line between comics journalist and comics creator is very fuzzy is that I don’t write reviews. I just vomit some of my relentless positivity about certain books. For Paste, I write about comics that look good to me, or I got to interview David Baillie from Red Thorn.
GP: That is one sexy book. I’ve got to catch up on it.
TH: Red Thorn is fire. Half the questions I asked were about were about why everyone is so hot. Is it Meghan Hetrick’s fault, or is it yours? I get to talk about creators of the books I like. I get to make lists around theme, like my favorite Robins, or my favorite books about sex or religion.
But I’m careful not to promote work about companies that I write for. That’s something some people choose to do. It’s self-imposed and imposed by the higher-ups. It’s a conflict of interest. It’s not a fair to promote a company’s work on a website when I’m getting paid by the publisher.
My work isn’t “critical”. I’m just sharing the love. Good comics criticism is so valuable, and what you, Emma, Matt, Ashley, and the people at Comicosity do is so valid. If I were being critical of a creator owned work while I’ve got my creator owned book coming out, I think that looks shady, like, “Don’t buy theirs, buy mine.”
Occasionally, I’ll do observational pieces, like about female writers writing male characters, that got a lot of traction, such as Becky Cloonan on Punisher for Marvel. It’s something I am passionate about and want to see more of.
The only critical work I’ve done is the “boring” kind. I wrote an essay on Dick Grayson for an academic book about Robins. It’s critical work in an academic sense. But I don’t know do reviews or “comics criticism”
GP: I have one last for fun question. I’m a huge Jessica Jones fan and know you are too. For some reason, if Marvel gave you the opportunity to write Jessica Jones, what kind of story would you tell about her?
TH: I have a serious Jessica Jones pitch in my head at all times. It would be great if there was this story where Luke was feeling insecure because Jessica seems like she’s on the phone all the time, or doing something she doesn’t want him to know about. But she’s actually secretly reopening Alias Investigations. I have a dream team of who she hires, like the X-Factor Investigations crew, because that’s one of my favorite Marvel runs.
My dream book is Jessica Jones working with Monet, Rictor, and Shatterstar. And they would call Layla Miller to help because she’s in college, or maybe she’s an adult now. Either this book, or a Daughters of the Dragon comic where Dani and Danny and Misty’s daughters are all grown up. Heroes for Hire is my everything.
Find Tini on Twitter.