Interview: Shea Fontana and Agnes Garbowska Go Time-Traveling with ‘DC Superhero Girls’
We know Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn from comics and movies, but what were they like as teenagers?
That’s the basis for DC’s Super Hero Girls line of graphic novels, chapter books, animated shorts, games, and toys. In the world of Super Hero Girls, the female DC characters are all students at the same high school, which makes for some interesting personality conflicts.
We had the opportunity to talk to Shea Fontana and Agnes Garbowska, the creative team behind the weekly digital comic DC Super Hero Girls: Past Times at Super Hero High. As you might guess from the title, a time-traveling field trip goes awry, and of course it’s Harley Quinn who throws thing off—by pocketing a dinosaur egg during a stopoff in prehistoric times. That turns out to have had some serious repercussions in the present time, and she and Batgirl have to travel through time in a malfunctioning school bus—which drops them off in unpredictable eras—in order to set things right. In Chapter 8, which is out today, the Super Hero Girls have brief encounters with teenage Amelia Earhart, teenage Emily Dickinson, and other figures from the past.
If you want to jump into the series, DC is offering the first two chapters for free until January 31. To get them, go to their digital comics site and use the promo code PASTTIMES2017.
First of all, let’s talk about the story so far and this week’s events. Can you set the scene for us?
Shea Fontana: In past issues the girls have been on this history field trip with a time machine with their prehistory teacher, Miss Belle, and they have gotten lost and broken their time machine. Now in this chapter Batgirl and Harley are on a quest to get back to their right time, and in that quest they meet Amelia Earhart as well as Emily Dickinson and other people throughout history. So this issue is more current history, where in the previous issue it was dinosaurs.
Why did you pick Amelia Earhart?
Fontana: I was trying to think who Batgirl would think was the coolest person, and I think it was Amelia Earhart. Batgirl and Amelia Earhart both have a bold, heroic spirit; they’re both about breaking barriers and following their dreams even when they are told not to.
And so Emily Dickinson was a good match for Harley?
Fontana: Emily Dickinson was the person I wanted to meet. The story is that they are mistakenly meeting these girls, so it’s not someone that Harley intended to meet, but Harley being kind of a big personality, and Emily Dickinson being a big personality in a very different way, I think it was interesting to bring those two together.
What sort of research did you do for this story?
Fontana: We wanted to show the historical characters as teenagers so they would be the same age as the girls who are meeting them, so we were going back and researching where they were at that time when they were 15, 16, 17, and what they were doing and getting into that time period.
Garbowska: I had fun doing the research, just making sure I was making the characters look time appropriate. Every time they went into a new time period I had to research the characters and what clothes people wore at the time.
Fontana: One thing I found out about Amelia Earhart when she was a teenager: She was specifically researching high schools to go to because she wanted the high school with the best science department. I thought that was really cool—this was the 1900s and she was already going after her dream! We couldn’t fit it into the book, but I thought gosh, she’s even cooler than I knew!
The characters in the Super Hero Girls books are obviously younger than their mainstream counterparts. What changes did you make to make them younger?
Fontana: From a writing standpoint, it was really getting into the DNA of the character and seeing what makes this character tick while taking away their backstories. A lot of the girls in our cast are not even superheroes or supervillains until later in their lives [in the adult comics]. We wanted to strip that away: If you are born a superhero and you’re going to be a superhero by time you’re a teenager, what makes you tick? With Wonder Woman we really look at her leadership skills. As an ambassador she fights for peace. She’s not fighting for the fun of it, she’s trying to make the world a better place. Someone like Harley—who is one of my favorite characters to write because she is so fun and bold and this incredible personality and she’s so witty—every time she speaks she has a joke for you. We were trying to get some of the darker background out of the characters and see what they would be like if they were 16-year-old girls in high school around their friends.
Garbowska: In the art I focused a lot on keeping the essential mannerisms the characters are known for. Harley is very fun, whimsical, she doesn’t stay still even when she is standing—she always has a silly pose—while Batgirl is a serious character. If she is standing next to Harley Quinn she is more serious, while Harley may be doing something funny in the background.
Fontana: One of the things that Agnes is so great at is making the characters look like teenagers. The only reference we have is adults, and she has done a great job of getting that teenage feel.
Garbowska: Thanks! It’s really easy—the writing is quite amazing! I do have to stay on model. You just look at the body language, how do teenagers stand. I’m very lucky, I go to conventions and a lot of my fanbase is teens, so I get to observe them, how they stand, how they shake hands. I really like working on teen and kid books, so for me it comes very naturally. I just remember what it was like for me and my friends and I apply that to the books—certain things with eyes and smiles and hands. I just try to have fun with it!
Can we talk about the Batgirl/Harley relationship in particular? Clearly Harley sees Batgirl as a rival. Is this a thread that runs through all the books? Is this the first time they have cooperated?
Fontana: This is the first time we have gotten to see Batgirl and Harley alone in a story. It’s really fun to explore what the relationship is. There is that bit of self-consciousness that Harley has around Batgirl because Bagirl is awesome, the coolest girl at school. She doesn’t have any innate superpowers, she can’t fly, but she uses her brain to make herself a superhero. This is something Harley does as well, but it’s harder for Harley to see it in herself. It’s an interesting dynamic: Batgirl is a bit more stoic, more serious about being a superhero; Harley comes off as fun, but that smile is just to hide some insecurities she has with Batgirl. So they have to mend this rift and come together, realizing they are of course better when they work together than they are when they are on their own.
Who is your favorite character to write and to draw?
Fontana: I love writing Harley. She’s so fun—she’s kind of the girl that I wish I could be. She’s super outgoing, and I’m a writer that stays at home all day. I wish I had that confidence that Harley has—she always has a great joke that makes people laugh. I like her because she gets all the punchlines—she brings levity to every situation.
Garbowska: Harley is also my favorite character to draw. She’s one of the characters that I hardly ever put in a standing pose—there’s always something off about the way she stands and moves. I love drawing Wonder Woman as well—she is a very strong leadership character—but Harley is a lot of fun.
What sort of comics and stories did you enjoy as a kid, and what elements are you bringing to the DC Super Hero Girls comics?
Fontana: I didn’t grow up reading comics, but I did have Batman: The Animated Series and Lois and Clark. I grew up in a small town and we didn’t have a comic book shop, so it was very difficult to get my hands on comics, but I had TV and I could get into the comics world that way. I was definitely a huge reader growing up. I loved the Little House on the Prairie books. That kind of all-American knowhow goes into some of the DC Super Hero Girls. Independent girl characters have been a theme throughout my career.
Garbowska: I was introduced to comics in grade school—I think I was eight or nine years old—and I fell in love with them. I immigrated from Poland, and I struggled with English. Comics helped me to read. I wanted to know more about the stories, and the pictures helped with that. The X-Men books, Rogue and Gambit, I was in love with those, then Supergirl when her run started later on. My mom was very happy—”She’s reading!” It helped me with school, because when I started reading comics I wanted to read harder things, more trades, more longer stories, I was buying more books. It was comics that helped me to build up the courage to read other books. And it’s also what made me want to draw.
What do you like about these particular books?
Fontana: I think it is really empowering for young girls to see female superheroes who are like them, who are relatable. They are just kids too, but they are in high school. They are pretty young, they are getting to know the world, and it’s fun to bring these characters to this young girl audience that hasn’t had a lot of young girl heroes they can read comics about. It has been really fun to work with the DC Super Hero Girls.
Garbowska: I think “relatable” is the big thing with these characters. Every time I talk to someone who is a big fan, they pick a character they can relate to. They can see themselves as one of those characters. I think when they read these books it gives them empowerment. [The Super Hero Girls] do make mistakes, they learn about friendships, which is something the readers are dealing with too. I think because the characters go through these things, [the readers] can relate to them.
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About Brigid Alverson
Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.
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