Interview with Cameron Stewart, Batgirl co-writer and artist
As the new co-writer and artist on Batgirl, Cameron Stewart is currently the toast of DC. The redesign of Batgirl’s costume that he and Babs Tarr created has gained a massive fan following, as evident by the mountains of fan art and cosplay of the new look seen on various social media platforms. In Singapore for the Singapore Toy, Games and Comics Convention, Stewart discusses Batgirl and the upcoming Fight Club sequel comic, for which he is doing the interior art.
Do you feel the pressure of taking over the Batgirl book from fan-favourite Gail Simone and did you speak to her after getting the job?
I did actually, I spoke to her shortly after I was offered the job, kind of reaching out and getting her blessing, it was kind of the incoming writer paying respect to the outgoing writer. I didn’t really ask her too many questions about the book itself but I just wanted to make sure it was a smooth transition, a nice handover and Gail was very nice and very complimentary. We have great respect for her and the contributions that she’s made to the character and we’re doing our best to…even though we’re often going to be doing our own thing that’s actually going to be quite, quite different than what she was doing, we still want to respect what she’s done, so we’re sort of moving on and building on top of what she’s done, taking it in a different direction.
Whenever a character that’s been around for a while gets re-designed, there are bound to be readers who aren’t onboard. How do you go about redesigning an iconic character like Batgirl?
For me it was just about looking back over the history of the character. Batgirl’s been around for almost 50 years, she was invented for the television show in the 60s and she’s had different incarnations and so for me, it was about getting to the heart of what was iconic for that character, I think that even now in 2014, Yvonne Craig is still the iconic vision of Batgirl that we have so it was really going back to that and realizing that there’s a reason why that’s the iconic version and why that’s had endurance. So it was a matter of going back to that, picking out what I like about that costume and sort of coming at it from the approach of “if this character was being created in 2014 for the first time, how do I take the elements that are so successful in this iconic version to update it and contemporize it and make it modern?”
Tell us more about the re-designed Batgirl costume.
I was offered the book, DC contacted and asked if I would be interested in taking over Batgirl as writer and as artist. They wanted to offer me the whole thing to do, just on my own. My very first question to them was “can I redesign the costume?” Me taking on the job was conditional on them, me getting to redraw the costume. Because the New 52 armoured thing…it’s not me, it’s not my taste, I didn’t really want to draw that. There’s nothing really wrong with it, it’s just not me. I was like “I’d like to draw something that’s more to my taste” and suited the vision I had for what I wanted to do with the story. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do with the story yet but I knew what I wanted the tone to be. The tone was definitely going to be something that was light and fun, upbeat and positive because everything prior to that had been very dark and grim, violent and in the rain.
Death of the Family…
Yeah, exactly, that’s not me either. Particularly for something like Batgirl, I wanted it to be positive and happy. So the costume has to reflect that and so I thought that that black-and-gold armour-plated thing wasn’t the right look for it. And I wanted to make something that was convincing for a 21-year-old girl to make herself. It’s something that I felt like a 21-year-old girl would actually want to wear. So I went to a bunch of fashion blogs, going through [them] and looking for those elements that related to the Batgirl costume but were reflected in contemporary fashion. So I was able to go and find things like…I wanted to use a slim leather jacket, leggings and Doc Martens already made yellow boots, that was a thing that already existed and that was perfect, that was like “yes! There’s no way that I can’t use that.”
How did all the clasps come about?
I was looking for just kind of a different spin on the costume and to my knowledge, I don’t think anyone’s ever done snaps and I like the idea. As I was saying, in the story, she kind of loses everything in a fire and she has to start over. She moves to this new part of town that’s like the hip, trendy area of Gotham and she’s building the costume herself out of necessity, so I wanted things that were real-world. So I was noticing on the jackets like snaps, I just thought it would be a fun idea to have the cape just be something that she could put on and take it off immediately and almost be able to wear the jacket on its own without the cape on. It was a thing that I just had as a fun idea and it turns out that it’s one of the things that people really responded to, everyone loves that idea.
So once I had my first pass at the costume, then it became clear that because I’m also working on Fight Club too, that I didn’t have the time to do Batgirl entirely on my own. We started looking for another artist that I wanted to work with and I’d still sort of be the “showrunner” if you like, the person in control of everything without necessarily doing it all on my own. So I took the design that I’d done and once we settled on Babs Tarr as the artist, I gave her that design and I said “this is what I’m thinking of for the costume. What do you think of this?” and she was like “this is great – but – how about we do this?” and she took a second pass at it and she kept it pretty much as I had it but she added all of these extra design elements to it. It was her that put the snaps on the gloves to mirror the ones on the shoulders and she added the seams on the jacket and the things around the collar, I had just a straight zipper but she added like a little belt around the collar with a snap there and the detailing on the belt, all of these things that I don’t necessarily know if I would have thought of by myself. Because she’s a woman and she knows better than I would what a woman would wear, she was able to kind of add these little details, these little touches of flair that really make it. Her contribution to the design is invaluable, I don’t think it would’ve been as good if she didn’t put in her own thing.
There’s an element that she could pull off the cape, turn the jacket inside-out and just wear it on the street…
Exactly, yeah. We run a tumblr site that’s got a lot of fanart and cosplay pictures and one of the things that we see is people posting fashion tips, like outfits that are inspired by the costume. Not cosplay, but it’s kind of like clothes that are inspired by that outfit and we kind of like that idea that it doesn’t necessarily have to be superheroic, that it can be something that’s just fashion that people could wear in a real-world setting.
There have been many fans speaking out about representation and diversity in comics and you have engaged in these discussions on social media platforms.
I have, yeah.
Is it easier for readers of both genders to accept men writing female characters?
Well you know…this is the thing that I really was concerned about when I was offered the book because Gail is extremely popular among women, she’s a very popular writer among women, she’s a very outspoken feminist voice and that is really necessary. When they offered it to me, I was very conscious of that. It was like I’m taking the book away…I’m going to be the guy who’s taking over the book that I wanted to aim at women, and what makes me qualified to do this? When it came time for me to find other people to work with, especially artists, it was absolutely vital for me that I worked with a woman so I was only looking at female artists to work with and I think that that’s kind of interesting because even though it’s myself and my partner Brendan writing it, we’re coming with the story and I’m doing the layout drawings but still, with Babs’ artwork and Jordie Bellaire on colours, our story is being filtered and ultimately presented for women, which I think is really a great thing and essential for this book.
As for the question of men writing female characters and vice versa, I think it’s valuable that men learn how to write women in comics and so while I am a man writing a book than I am intending for a female audience, I am fortunate that I’m very surrounded by a lot of amazing women in my life: I have my girlfriend, tons of smart women and I use all of them as a sounding board. So I’m giving them scripts, asking for advice and they’ve helped already, they’ve pointed out things and they go “don’t do this, this is not the way that woman would act” or “this is not a positive thing to say for a woman” and it’s made me very conscious of those things so I think it’s…I don’t necessarily feel that only women should write women or people of a certain ethnicity should only write characters of a certain ethnicity. Those groups are absolutely necessary and need to be in comics and I hope that there’s more and more opportunities for women and people of other ethnic groups to be part of the industry but I also think that it’s valuable that a white man such as myself is able to empathise and understand from another perspective. That helps me personally, not just as a writer, it’s better for me as a person to be able to step into that position and learn how to write this stuff.
Fight Club is in part a critique of consumerism and yet consumerism is very much a part of geek culture, so how do you reconcile that?
I don’t know, I don’t think that…are you talking about the Fight Club comic? I don’t know if that’s going to be like a comic book for collectors in a way that other comic books are. We’ve talked about doing variant covers and things like that so maybe it will be that way. With that project in particular, I’m trying not to think of anything like that. I’m only trying to execute Chuck’s vision for it and anything that happens after that…Fight Club has a history of being misinterpreted by its audience. There are a great number of people who are fans of Fight Club who think that Tyler Durden is the good guy and that’s totally wrong. You can never really know how an audience is going to interpret the work and whether they’re going to embrace it and whether they’ll respond to it in a way that’s “correct” or “incorrect” or whatever. We can only do what we want with it and hope that the message gets through. If it’s an anti-consumerist thing and people are buying ten copies to collect and share and trade and whatever I mean I don’t know, I don’t know what you can do about that.
What was your impression of Fight Club after seeing the film and what attracted you to the comic book sequel?
I saw the film first, like most people I think, and I loved it. I saw it in ’99 when it was released and was absolutely blown away by it. I saw in the credits or read in a magazine article that it was based on a novel and I went and bought the novel right away. I read the book and I loved the book as well. So that just set me on the path of being a Chuck Palahniuk fan. I kept up with his writing over the last 15 years. I haven’t read everything he’s written, but I’ve read probably about 80% of what he’s written, and so I’ve just been a really big fan of his and when Fight Club 2 was announced as a comic, I was interested. I didn’t even think that I would anything to do with it but I thought “that looks interesting.” Not ever would I have expected to hear it as an actual thing. I thought it would be interesting then I found out that it was going to be published by Dark Horse, or might have been published by Dark Horse, it wasn’t definite yet and I have a history with Dark Horse and so I started actively pursuing it and saying “I think I really want to do this book. I think it would be a really interesting thing, I’m a huge Palahniuk fan,” and I think too that it wasn’t like…you see this happen a lot where it’s like [on the cover of the book] “Stephen King”, but it won’t be Stephen King, it would be Stephen King and there would be another writer under it that Stephen King maybe had one conversation with and the writer went to write it. I wasn’t interested in doing that. When I found out that this was Chuck Palahniuk writing the book himself and that it would be me and Chuck, only, that’s what really excited me about it.
I thought that because Fight Club is such a huge pop cultural phenomenon, such a huge part of pop culture, that I just wanted to be a part of it you know, I thought this would be an amazing thing to have in my résumé, something I could do and it might be one of the bigger things that I do, even outside of the comic landscape. I mean, the work that I’m doing on Batgirl or anything else, the chances that it will cross over into so-called “mainstream” pop culture is kinda slim. But Fight Club will be. Fight Club will be in bookstores everywhere and it will be “the new Chuck Palahniuk book” and so I think in terms of exposure and the circulation that will have and the number of people that will see it, it’s probably going to be much bigger than anything else I’ve done.
Did you work closely with David Mack on this title?
Not really, no. David’s doing covers so we’re not working like super-closely together, maybe we’ll have a conversation about what covers might be and what the interior work is, but David’s David, he does his awesome work and I completely trust him to do what he’s going to do and have it be amazing. I moved to Portland, Oregon for the summer so that I could be near Chuck and everyone else on the team because everyone else is in Portland, so I went there for the summer and we were able to get together and have a bunch of creative meetings. Unfortunately, David was never there because he was travelling around and so on so we haven’t yet had that opportunity to sort of like actually sit down and discuss that. Maybe we will this weekend!
Is there the possibility that Fight Club 2 will be adapted into a film?
I don’t even know. The thing that’s interesting about Fight Club 2, having read the script, whatever you think a sequel to Fight Club is going to be, whatever you have in your head, it’s wrong. It is not what it is. It’s something that I think almost can only be a comic. If they ever talk about making a movie out of it, it will probably have just a basic similarity to it because it really goes off in these very unusual directions. I can only say so much but it’s almost metafictional, it’s kind of a comic on the cultural response to Fight Club as much as it is a sequel to the book. I don’t even though if they can make a movie out of it.
What was it like travelling to Vietnam to research The Other Side?
Amazing, one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. I wanted to do that because I had no real concept of it and I felt like doing that book would be really important to be accurate with it and to get a personal experience with it that I wouldn’t have. I felt like just watching a bunch of Vietnam War movies and Google Image Search wouldn’t do it, so it was very important for me to actually travel there and have first-hand experience. It was incredible, I think it made the book a lot better than it actually would’ve been otherwise, it was great.
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