“The Formula Is Your Friend”: An Interview With Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson got her start in the comics industry writing for Comic Book Resources during the website’s heyday. Along with her column She Has No Head, Thompson was writing novels and making Heart in a Box, with Meredith McClaren, when she got her big break, writing a reimagining of the 1980’s TV show Jem and the Holograms. What could have been just another in a long line of comics revivals of old intellectual property in the hands of Thompson and Sophie Campbell became something dynamic and innovative, which got written up in The New Yorker for the ways that the series addressed and dealt with questions and gender and identity. The series showed Thompson’s skill at combining complex thoughtful issues with humor, at playing with genre tropes, and above all, writing well for artists. Jem was some of the best work of Campbell’s exceptional career, and after she left, Thompson worked with artists including Emma Vieceli, Jen Bartel, McClaren, Jenn St. Onge and others.

Thompson followed that project up by writing, well, a lot of comics for different companies including Archie (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) and Dynamite (Nancy Drew) but primarily for Marvel. In the past few years she’s written runs of Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps, Deadpool, Hawkeye, Jessica Jones, Mr. and Mrs. X, Rogue & Gambit, Star Wars, Uncanny X-Men, and West Coast Avengers among other titles. The sheer volume of books Thompson writes is impressive, but the fact that she’s managed to carve out a space for her own voice to shine through from project to project at a major company is impressive. The fact that I read a Jem comic at all – let alone reread it multiple times – is entirely due to the talent and skills of the creators, and I think the run of Hawkeye that Thompson wrote stands as one of the best superhero comics of the decade. This year she’s writing a new Sabrina series at Archie, a new Black Widow ongoing series at Marvel, Star, a spinoff miniseries from her ongoing Captain Marvel run, along with a few other titles every month. We spoke recently about how she works, humor, and not having a work-life balance.

Now the first time I “knew" you was when you were writing the column She Has No Head at CBR, but other than what’s in your bio I don’t know your backstory. How did you come to comics?

I was a graphic design major at a University and taking comic book classes at night on the sly from the guy that owned the local comic book shop and was the creator of an indie zine. So I was basically cheating on “acceptable art discipline” at “acceptable college” with a “less acceptable art” at an after hours comic book shop class. Eventually I stopped wasting everyone’s time at the University and just transferred to SCAD to study sequential art. I graduated SCAD a few years later and immediately took a day job at a high-end architecture firm that had nothing to do with anything I loved – like a coward. I worked in my spare time on comics and novels and even dabbled in poetry, but it was years before I really started pushing and trying to make a real life out of writing.

Were you always interested in making comics, then? I don’t want to say that writing about a comics was a way to get into the comics industry or a stepping stone, but was making comics always the goal for you?

As far back as I can remember I was interested in not just writing, but in publishing. Like as a kid I wouldn’t just write a story, I would write it and make it into a book with a die-cut construction paper cover and an illustration inside. I was always also interested in art, but from pretty early on I knew I didn't have the patience or interest to be a painter or something like that. But in my teens when I discovered/re-discovered comics I fell in love with that merging of art and words. I knew I’d found “my thing” and there was no going back. I was in.

Were you also drawing bar codes and company logos on them as a kid?

Ha! I wish. I’ve always wanted to publish, but I’ve never been good with money. All my problems are so clear now! 

Jem and the Holograms wasn’t your first work, but it was your “big break.” How did that come about?

I had written a graphic novel called Heart In A Box that Dark Horse had picked up. Meredith McClaren, my co-creator was drawing it (and inking it, and coloring it, and lettering it, she did it all!) and it was hard to wait for it to get out there – comics take a long time! And so I was really itching to get started, I knew I was really ready and I reached out to a few female creators I’d made good connections with and asked them if they’d keep an eye out for me if they saw any opportunities they thought I might be a fit for, or if they knew anyone I should talk to, that kind of thing. They were all very kind, but Kelly Sue DeConnick especially made a couple key introductions that led directly to me getting the opportunity to pitch Jem. She introduced me to Sarah Gaydos, then at IDW, who thought I might be interesting for Jem so she passed me on to John Barber. And Sophie Campbell and I had become good friends over and I knew, if Sophie was willing, that this might be our chance to work on something together. So we went in as a team, and we did a killer pitch, and we got it. It was incredible. And such an amazing experience for your first real “industry book.” A real dream. But I mention the Heart In A Box stuff, because that was key. Even though the book wasn’t out yet, I could show IDW like 90 pages of finished gorgeous comic pages and reassure them that I knew how to write comics, that I knew what I was doing. I don't know that we get the gig without that reassurance. Well, Sophie probably does, but not with me as the writer! [laughs]

Jem got a lot of press, including a very thoughtful dissection in The New Yorker. When that happened, obviously you’re in shock at first, but was your response, yes, people get what I’m doing?

We got incredible press – and IDW really promoted us wonderfully. We were on the cover of Previews – something that is surprisingly rare to get to do as a creator – and here I was for my first published work, getting that cover. It was awesome. But yes, when The New Yorker writes about your comic, you do have this great moment where you feel like the work you’re putting in, the thought you’re putting in, it’s not being lost. People are understanding it and appreciating it and it MEANS something to them. That’s everything.

How much do you think you benefitted from one, having an incredibly artist like Sophie who’s all-in with you, but also being able to write for someone. Because you were pitching and then writing something for Sophie to draw.

Having Sophie was truly everything. I don’t think any of the incredible stuff that happened with Jem happens without Sophie on board – probably I don't even get the book – but certainly we don't get the praise and response we got, without her. Hell, I don’t even know what my career looks like without Sophie on that book! Sophie pours herself 100% into her projects, it’s why she’s so careful I think about what she chooses. I think I also do that, but as a comic book writer you naturally find yourself spread over more projects than a comic book artist who can typically only commit to one project at a time, so it’s different. Sophie not only thinks about everything, but she really pushes her collaborators to do the same. Just because you want to be as good as Sophie. You want to live up to the standard she’s setting.

How important do you think that was? I think that a lot of writers need to not just write, but collaborate with an artist. Because that process is so important.

Yeah, it’s huge. You can’t overstate it. Collaboration in comics is such a tricky thing too because you can have a great writer and a great artist and they can NOT be a particularly great fit TOGETHER and then you get a lesser work as a result. And sometimes you don’t know that until it’s too late. Sophie and I were good collaborators overall. I think we did a great job of compromising just enough that we created the best book we could, while also keeping each other reasonably happy. But we definitely did not always agree. I’m far more rigid about structure and things that “have to happen” for the narrative and generally Sophie – as an artist at least – is more free, less structured. I tried to lean into what I knew she was interested in as much as possible and she tried to not be annoyed with me. It was really tough for her when I made her draw a Ferris Wheel AND a motorcycle though. Those were dark days.

One of my favorite projects of yours is Hawkeye. I love David Aja’s run, but I don’t think you get enough credit for that book and just how smart and funny it was.

Thank you, that’s really kind. Hawkeye truly was a dream for me from beginning to end. I’ll be chasing that basically perfect experience for the rest of my career I think. Which is not to say I’m not enjoying my other collaborations and characters – I have been incredibly lucky overall on that score. But Hawkeye was genuinely perfect from day one. It just WORKED.

How did a Hawkeye book centered on Kate happen? 

I had been pitching something called Hawkeye Investigations, which is basically what our book became, for a while to editor Sana Amanat, and she was just waiting for the right moment that she knew a Kate Bishop book might work. We got the “let’s do it” maybe nine months after we’d started talking about it? Sana brought in Leonardo Romero first – he came on and he just got it, effortlessly. Jordie Bellaire came on and we explained the book to her and she goes “Noir-y Miami Vice. Got it. Done.” Joe Sabino nailed the letters even though we were doing some weird stuff. Julian Totino Todesco totally ran with those vintage inspired dime store novel covers – gorgeous. Michael Walsh came in as our alternate arc artist and just slid into our already fine-tuned machine without missing a beat. It was incredible. And really, all that credit has to go to the editors – Sana Amanat and Charles Beacham put together the team and it just sang from day one. It was a beautiful thing. 

Whose idea was it for Todesco to do those covers? Because I loved your writing and Romero’s art, but I think about those covers, about Jordie’s colors, and it was one of those books greater than the sum of its parts.

I think Sana was the first one to suggest the pulp novel/dime store covers approach. And we all loved the idea from go. Of course when Julian starts turning in a really perfect take on that you love it even more. It’s great to hear people talk about Hawkeye being greater than the sum of its parts. That’s certainly how it felt. Not that it wasn’t lots of work and occasional struggles, but it all came together really effortlessly overall, everyone was bringing their A game and were really loving both the job and the thing we were creating. 

I do think Marvel should have given you another issue or two to wrap the book up in a bow. 

Yeah, we were a little compressed at the end there – but we’d gotten an extra arc already from what we’d been promised, so I was just happy to get those last five issues. 

Did you conceive of the series as a limited run series? Is that how you think about a lot of the projects you have that aren’t miniseries? Especially when you’re working for the big two today?

It was, like many things, conceived as an ongoing, but always prepared for the axe. I would have written a thousand issues of it if I could – there’s no limit to great stories for Kate Bishop, especially in that terrific setting. But yes, with modern comics you always have to be ready to wrap things up at the end of an arc. I think most of us “mainstream” comics writers think in arcs at this point. Sure you have a document with the grand plans that you’re hoping you’ll get to build toward, but the arcs need to stand on their own. I fear that you get less layered and complex, and certainly less good “slow burn” stuff that way, but it is what it is!

You’ve written about loving Archie Comics when you were little, but for a project like Sabrina, what is the process of finding her voice. Because I think of so much of your work as being defined the main character’s – or characters – voice.

I have gotten a nice reputation for being good with character voices and I’m really excited about that because I care about that A LOT. It’s something that matters a lot to me to get right, and something that often bothers me as a reader. But in comics especially it can be tricky to nail that down simply because comics go for decades with so many different approaches to the same character and so many different creators adding their own flourishes. The literal process for me is doing a lot of reading, or re-reading, so that I feel comfortable in that world in a way that feels natural and sort of matter-of-fact. And then I tend to just write snippets of dialogue here and there as I’m thinking about the story. It helps me find the quirks and the things that I think I specifically can bring to the character as well as fleshing out what I’m trying to SAY with the character. Fortunately with something like Sabrina, when you’re doing that research, even with all the different takes, there’s something sort of quintessential about her personality and her story – and if you can tap into that, you’re golden.

For Sabrina, this isn’t the old TV show or the new TV show, it’s not like the old comics, what was the process of figuring out not the plot of these series, but the tone and approach?

We had a pretty clear directive that they didn’t want the tone of the TV show for our comic, because the show was hewing pretty closely to the excellent and much beloved Chilling Adventures comic – so we didn’t want to step on that at all. My approach was more of a Buffy approach – something light and fun with good comedy mixed with some good dark supernatural stuff. High school and horror have always been excellent bedfellows so I’m always happy to lean into that. And the sort of sassy and sarcastic protagonist dealing with things above their pay grade is right in my wheelhouse. I feel very comfortable there.

I think that “sassy and sarcastic protagonist dealing with things above their pay grade is right in my wheelhouse. I feel very comfortable there” is very true. Is that a little bit you? Or the ideal version of “ourselves” that we often write?

Yeah, I think it probably is a little bit of me. I’m definitely street level and not cosmic, that’s for sure! And sassy/sarcastic is just a survival mechanism at some point. But so much of who we are draws from the things we ingest – from our youth, from our family, media, politics, everything. I guess I take in a lot of sassy and sarcastic material.

Could you walk us through working on the book or putting together an issue of Sabrina?

I write pretty tight scripts, although I definitely tend to loosen up once I’m more comfortable with my co-creators. But even when writing tight scripts I always go out of my way to let artists know that I want their collaboration and feedback, I know that they know best when it comes to visuals, and I’m always excited to see what artists bring to a project. In the case of Sabrina, Veronica and Andy bring a lot, they have great instincts. So after script it goes to Veronica and Andy for layouts. I review layouts –the editors do as well – and call out any problems we see. They move to pencils/inks. I think with Veronica and Andy the next thing I see are basically finished inks. Then colors, which sometimes I see and review and sometimes not. And then I get a pdf with the first pass on the finished book including lettering. I give any notes on that for changes or mistakes and that’s about it.

How standard is that process across the industry, in your experience?

I think for me it’s very standard book to book, company to company. But every writer – and team – is a little different. For example, I know not all writers review and give notes on layouts, it just depends. For most of my Marvel books we also do a lettering pass – this would come before the proofing pass. Sometimes it just feels like a formality and sometimes, if the artist made A LOT of changes, it’s a super valuable and necessary step. It’s never been necessary on Sabrina though.

As far as writing tight scripts, are you thinking a lot about the page designs and layouts, or are you leaving that mostly up to the artists? I think of so much of your work as defined by your collaborators. What for example is in a Sabrina script because Veronica and Andy Fish are drawing it?

I try not to get THAT involved, though like any creator (and reader) I have preferences – styles and formats I like and don’t like. But I want the artists to bring themselves to it and find OUR collective vision, rather than them just executing “mine.” So too much specificity is just getting in their way – and I try to respect that line. I absolutely believe artists have helped define my career, it’s why I’m so picky about the artists I work with – a book is only as good as your weakest link. And it’s also important I think to note that everyone on a team can be great, and it can still not quite work, either just not being a good fit with one another or the book just tonally not quite coming together. But I try really hard to write things that artists want to draw – and to write to what I know their strengths are – the latter becomes easier--and even a bit automatic--as you work together.

As far as structure, you often open an issue with a scene and then the rest of the issue is a flashback, and at the end of the first issue we’ve caught up with that opening scene. What do you think that allows you to do and how can it be helpful and useful especially on a first issue?

Yeah, I do like that technique when it fits the story – which, for detective stories like Hawkeye and Jessica Jones, where the plot should fit together like a puzzle, is surprisingly often. I also just personally have an incredibly short attention span when opening a new comic – if I open a comic to a wall of words I “nope out” almost immediately. So I do find myself trying to write for people like me a little bit – starting with powerful images and a strong hook, and sometimes that means starting not at the beginning. I’m a big fan of not showing EVERYTHING, which doesn’t always go over well with editors (or readers). I want readers to be doing some work rather than being spoon fed every bit of information. In comics, unlike TV, film, and even novels, we don’t have the room to show you every little thing. We’re supposed to be giving you enough so that you can fill in the blanks between panels and pages. It’s part of the beauty of the medium.

You’re very good at ending an arc or a miniseries with maybe not a cliffhanger, but something of a tease, which I’m sure annoys the hell out of a lot of people. I’m thinking the end of your first Sabrina series, Nancy Drew, the end of Hawkeye, I could go on… Now you’re returning to Sabrina, so do you feel the need to immediately address and deal with that?

That’s pretty unnatural for me and definitely learned. There is absolutely a formula to a “20-Page Monthly Comic” that’s part of an ongoing series. You can break the formula of course, but for the most part it’s there to help you because readers have certain expectations. A comic book is such a unique reading experience because it’s just a fraction of a full story but it also has to stand on its own as an enjoyable read. It’s really a razor’s edge to balance that correctly – and the formula is your friend. BUT you get some of the best stuff by breaking the formula.  

Specifically to Sabrina and Nancy Drew, I have feelings. We did NOT want to end Nancy Drew that way unless we were sure we were doing another volume. Artist Jenn St-Onge was especially sensitive to that. So we only put in that ending once we were quite sure that another volume was happening – and then it didn’t. Insert “Wah Wah” sound here! It’s possible we will still do that book down the line, but the damage definitely feels done. I hate leaving readers hanging like that. See also, my two novels. Yikes. With Sabrina we approached it the same way, I had a slightly different ending set up and ready to go, but then we learned we were doing more, so we went ahead and took the risk. And yes, we WILL be picking up on all those loose ends right away in volume two. 

I wanted to ask about balance because this year we’ve seen a few books from you: Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel: The End, Deadpool, Jessica Jones, Sabrina, Star. And we’re not that far into the year. How is your work-life balance?

Oh, my work-life balance is a nonexistent nightmare. Do NOT be like me, kids. I think, like a lot of people, it’s hard to say no to projects as a freelancer, both because you get offered a lot of cool stuff that you’ve been dreaming of your whole life, but also simply because you don’t know when the phone will stop ringing. Or, email will stop pinging to be more accurate.

I think the last few years I probably average about four books a month? Right now I’m doing six – and it’s definitely too many, especially with other non-comics work I’m trying to juggle. The problem is, the mix is tricky. Three books a month is really not enough. But four is a pretty good happy medium for money/time. Five is a stretch on time, but you’ve got more pocket money. You just have to weigh your priorities I guess? I’m very bad a prioritizing my health and well-being, which can easily lead to burnout and misery. So, yeah, be better than me.  

Thompson's workspace

You wrote a column many years ago – 2015, let’s not think about how old we are – about how humor was one of the things that was key for you in comics and other media. I’m curious how much humor plays a role in how you write, and in how you define and understand character? 

It’s funny you asked me this – I was just re-iterating to someone the other day that the two ways to engage me in fiction is to make me laugh or to give me a really good mystery hook. I think as a result I always try to integrate those things into my work. I do think humor especially helps a writer to find the form of a character. I’m writing Captain Marvel right now and Carol has a sort of “dad joke” sense of humor. She thinks she’s pretty funny, but it’s not really her strong suit – in a sort of charming way. I’m also writing this Star mini-series for a new character I co-created that debuted in Captain Marvel. And I was really at a loss with her at first. Like, I’d developed her enough to be the villain in a Captain Marvel arc but I didn’t know her well enough to do a deep dive exploring the character. So I was struggling a bit to find her. Then I wrote this scene where she’s joking about a bar smelling like ham and questioning why on Earth it smells like ham – and she just suddenly popped for me. I finally got her on all the levels I needed to in order to write her story. So yeah, funny is still everything to me. At the same time, it can’t be EVERYTHING in a narrative because people have wildly different senses of humor, so relying in that can be deadly.