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Interview: Shannon and Dean Hale and Victoria Ying

Today we have a treat for you: An interview with the creative team behind DC’s young-readers Wonder Woman graphic novel, Diana: Princess of the Amazons, which just came out last week.

Shannon and Dean Hale are a husband-and-wife team with dozens of prose books and graphic novels to their credit. Together they wrote Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack, as well as two Squirrel Girl novels, and Shannon is the creator of the best-selling graphic novels Real Friends and Best Friends. Victoria Ying is an up-and-coming artist whose middle-grade graphic novel City of Secrets will be published by Viking in July.

A preview of the book follows the interview.

What is your personal history with Wonder Woman?

Shannon: For me it absolutely started with the TV show, with Linda Carter spinning around and she turns into her Wonder Woman outfit and starts picking up 1970s bad guys and tossing them into cardboard boxes. She was always the quintessential hero for me. I loved superheroes, but there were so few women in those stories. Wonder Woman was precious to me. Dean and I have four kids, and when we had our twins we needed a minivan. We bought a black minivan and for Christmas, Dean got me a 4-foot diameter Wonder Woman emblem to put on the hood.

Dean: My mom and I watched the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman show every week, and also Superfriends. I liked her better in the TV show because I thought they didn’t give her enough to do in Superfriends. I read the comics on and off, but when she cropped up again in Justice League Unlimited, she was awesome in that.

Victoria: For me it started with the animated series. She and Hawk Girl were the only two female characters, but she was definitely the leader. I was really connected to them. That was my real introduction to the world of DC. I wasn’t a big comics reader at the time—I was really into manga more than traditional print comics—but having the exposure to the animated series drew me to those characters and got me more interested in the traditional DC and Marvel comics. 

What’s the biggest challenge of writing about her for young readers?

Shannon: We didn’t want to turn Wonder Woman the superhero into a kids’ character so much as say “Who was she as a kid?” One reason we were drawn to her story is her childhood is so fascinating. In the movies we got this glimpse of Themiscyra, Diana living on this island with warriors, and she’s just a kid. That was fascinating. So we said “Who are the characters of Wonder Woman we know, and who might she have been 20 years ago?”

Dean: We did that to some degree when we wrote the Squirrel Girl books: We had a character who was older, and we said “Let’s reverse the clock. What kind of kid would turn out to be this person?” And then tell a story about one of the elements that turned out to be that hero.

Shannon: We are not trying to change the character or simplify her. We want to stay true to who she is but take a few years off of her and say “What are some incidents that sparked in her past that led her to become Wonder Woman?”

Victoria: There is so much Wonder Woman media out there, it was such a cool time to approach the character. I worked with Lauren Faust at Sony. She did the reboot of the My Little Pony series Friendship Is Magic and is doing the DC Superhero Girls show. Her artwork is so bold and simple. For this book there’s great Jim Lee drawings, Alex Toth, and on the other side, Lauren’s great character designs. Having the freedom to do that with this character was really fun. It didn’t have to look like Jim Lee drawings but younger; I got to stylize her and make her approachable for a new audience, do it in my style and whatever I thought was appealing to the audience we were aiming at.

How do you make Diana relatable?

Shannon: Whether we’re writing a superhero or not, I think every character has relatable human emotions. How we connect with characters is through emotion. We can read about characters that have completely different lives than us, completely different contexts and relationships, but all of us have felt hope and betrayal and have felt alone and weird and left out. The purpose of story is to create a situation where it makes a reader feel something, and when they feel something the same way the character feels it, they connect with the character. So even though no reader has grown upon an island where they are the only child and there are only warriors, it’s easy to relate to a girl who doesn’t have any friends her age and who feels  forgotten by her mom, now that she’s not young and adorable. That’s something a lot of kids this age feel.

This graphic novel has a lot of wordless panels. How do you explain that to the artist?

Shannon: The basic unit of a graphic novel is a panel, the way that a sentence is the basic unit of a novel. I don’t know any way to write a graphic novel other than panel by panel. With the script we write “page 1, panel 1,” and we describe what is happening in the panel with any dialogue, so when there are wordless panels, they have been written because we have described them. It would be cruel to just write a bunch of dialogue. Of course you try not to overwrite that; you want a brilliant artist like Victoria to come in and interpret and add.

Victoria: The great thing about working with Shannon and Dean is they really were able to communicate in each panel the idea of what was happening, and the specifics were left to me. The way the descriptions were written in wordless panels, it was very clear—in this one she is feeling this, in this one she is embarrassed—so it was easy to communicate that feeling without too much clutter. 

Did being freed from continuity make your job easier?

Dean: It freed us, especially at the beginning, to brainstorm widely about the core of who Wonder Woman is as opposed to worrying about being wrong about specific things.

This story takes the narrative of a lot of children’s books, the lead character trying to prove themselves, and flips it. What interested you about that situation?

Shannon: I think Dean and I are always a little subversive. We really love looking at genres and tropes and turning them upside down. And I hate the whole “You have to prove yourself” trope. It does feel like something a villain would tempt someone into doing. Who hasn’t felt like they don’t measure up? If there’s a way to prove to other people that you do, you are going to jump at that bait. It was plausible that Diana would jump at that, so there was some pleasure in turning that around.

Wonder Woman is iconic and means different things to different readers. what was most important to you?

Shannon: For me, one of the most important aspects of Wonder Woman is her sense of right and wrong and her fearlessness once she knows what’s wrong and when to jump in and fight for the right without hesitation about how she might be perceived or her own safety or what she wants. One aspect of writing a young Wonder Woman that was appealing is it isn’t always clear to a person with less experience what is right and wrong, so it’s more complicated for her to get to that point.

Dean: There are so many different versions of her, but the one I like is the one that feels,that emotes in all ways: She will show joy, she will show happiness. You will see emotions in the other superheroes, but it’s often just dread or vengeance. That can be interesting too. 

Shannon: Emotionlessness is equated with strength

Dean: You can be powerful and still be sad, still be happy and I think that’s a more real experience that people feel, especially with kids, you can feel sad, you can feel alone—what I don’t want is for people who feel that way to believe they are powerless that the only way to achieve power is to eschew emotion. The best way to tell a Wonder Woman story is to have kids see themselves in this character, knowing who she becomes, with the idea that “This is me, and she became something great.”

Victoria: I wanted to bring both the iconic look of her and also to explore that vulnerability. I like that in characters. It makes them feel more real when they have real emotions. That’s what I was trying to get across. 

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Brigid Alverson 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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