Kelly Sue DeConnick's biggest hit comics right now both star women who could kill you with a pinky finger, but otherwise have very little in common. One is her popular run on Marvel's Captain Marvel, a.k.a. Carol Danvers, a former Air Force pilot who attains superhuman abilities through exposure to alien technology. The second is Image Comics' Pretty Deadly, a dark, mythological western, with haunting art by Emma Rios, built around Death's mysterious daughter, named Deathface Ginny.
Both are critical favorites, but live in very different creative organizations. Captain Marvel is work-for-hire, and a story that must fit in various ways with Marvel's larger universe and publishing calendars. Pretty Deadly is entirely creator-owned, in its own strange universe, and unbound by anything but DeConnick's and Rios's imaginations. They require different approaches to narrative and workflow, and they're not DeConnick's only projects, which also include Marvel's Avengers Assemble, and Dark Horse Comics' Ghost—not to mention her two young children with fellow comic book writer Matt Fraction.
Of her role as one of comics' most buzzed-about writers, DeConnick says "it's important to show up every day. You don't wait for the muse to write—you don't get to do that." Here's how she attacks the varying demands of her very creative job like the business that it is.
"If I'm stuck on something, and I sit at the computer looking at the blank page, the answer will never come," she says. "I will sit there for hours torturing myself with what a hack I am, and fantasize about what other jobs I could get, and doing this loop of typing out something, and I hate it, and then I delete it, and then I go check Tumblr, and then I go check Twitter, and then I come back, and then an email came in, so that’s a good excuse, I have to go answer that, that’s really important for me to do right now. And I can do this loop forever and ever, and nothing actually gets done. But when I throw my hands up, and I’m like alright, you know, I’m done, and I go for a walk, or I go take a shower, or I go drive to pick the kids up—I wonder why I don’t spend all of my time doing those three things, because it’s only then that somehow I can get into that head space where I’m just imagining, and not trying to force. And that’s when it’ll be like, oh, here’s this connection I didn’t see before, and now I have to pull over and write this down real quick before I forget. So it’s usually at the point where I think, well, I’m doomed, and everyone is going to find out that I actually don’t know what I’m doing, that it comes."
As a writer for two of Marvel's well-known properties, DeConnick has to balance her own pure creative impulses with the needs of a decades-old franchise and a chain of editorial accountability. "I try to write from a very authentic place, and I try to have a sense of ownership. Even if I don’t own Captain Marvel or Avengers Assemble, I try to write it like I do," she says. "I’ve only really been told no once. Other times, I’ve been given notes that I maybe over-answered, and I wasn’t happy with the result. But I think that’s actually on me, and not on my editor, for not defending my choice."
She says that a blessing and curse of working in comics is that most titles publish every month, so there's another one coming in 30 days and you can't get too precious about any single story. "My husband has a post-it note up on his computer that’s a line from Ed Wood—'You’ll just have to do better next time.' Yeah, you’re just gonna have to do better next time, so learn from this."
Even when DeConnick has editors, they're far away and managing a million unrelated projects. So to keep herself on task, she forces herself to file hourly reports. "Sometimes if I’m having trouble feeling like I accomplished anything, I use this piece of software called Day One. It’s journaling software, but I have it programmed so it pops up on my desktop once an hour and asks me what I’m doing. It’s my cop, you know, so if I'm surfing the Internet, I'll write 'Well, I was surfing the Internet.' Sometimes I’ll go a couple days and not feel like I’ve accomplished anything because I didn’t get done what I thought I was going to get done, and then I'll go back and look at it and see 'I answered this email that dealt with that,' or 'I sent that contract off, I did the lettering pass on this, I contacted this letterer to see if they were available to work on this project.' That stuff doesn’t feel like work to me, because it’s not turning in pages. So I can look back and go, oh, I did a ton, you know, and that helps. Because I have to keep my confidence up in order to produce, and that is a way of helping me feel like a grownup and accomplished—and I got my children fed."
Having one partner be a self-employed creative can make it difficult enough to structure a work and family life—having two is potential chaos. But DeConnick and her husband Matt Fraction (also author of many mainstream Marvel books as well as his own creator-controlled work) have figured out how to make their shared predicament a strength. "It's tough, but we treat it like a business," she says. "We are in business together, we are partners, but we are also business partners. We have a corporation, we have semi-annual meetings, formal meetings, where we sit down, and the first thing we do, for each of us, is make a list of all of our projects, things that are backburner, things that are active, things that are dropped. We go back to the previous meetings list and see what’s changed, what we’ve decided we’re just not dealing with, what’s dropped off the list, what are new things on the list, what’s moved up on the list, what the status is of each of them. And then we go through together and set six-month, one-year, five-year, and 10-year goals. We look at the meeting that was six months ago, and the list of the goals that we set six months ago, where are we on those? It’s cheesy, but I highly recommend it. And we write off our coffee—we usually go to a coffee shop, but every once in a while we'll get a meeting room at a hotel or something for just the two of us. It makes it feel like no, this is formal. It’s the same reason my husband gets dressed to go to work every day. His office is downstairs, but he dresses to go to work."