An Interview with Jeremy Whitley – The Return of Unstoppable Wasp

Co-written with K. Tilden Frost

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Unstoppable Wasp Volume 2 Issue #1 Cover – Art by Gurihiru

The first time Kay and I bumped into the work of Jeremy Whitley was when GeekMom’s Karen Walsh sent Kay’s now-10 year old an autographed copy of the first Princeless trade. She absolutely loved the adventures of Adrienne, and was absolutely speechless when we got to meet Whitley at AwesomeCon. By then, we’d become familiar with Whitley’s work through the Unstoppable Wasp series. There was so much to about Nadia Van Dyne, from her determined, optimistic outlook on life outside the Red Room to her passionate engagement in the sciences. It was heartbreaking when Wasp was canceled; there are so few mainstream comics to share with middle grade kids, especially girls.

After all, Wasp is a gorgeous comic that embraces a diverse cast of girls in STEM, bringing in girls who are Black, Indian, queer, disabled, and sometimes more than one at once. At the same time, the book holds an intense discussion of trauma and its after effects, what it feels like to lose a parent you never knew, and how to create your own life after being controlled by an external force without ever for a second feeling like a morality tale.

These are the kinds of comics I’ve been clamoring for – not just for me, but for kids like Kay’s girls. After hearing about the conversation he and Kay had at the convention, I wanted to have a longer conversation with Whitley about the topics they’d touched on only briefly in Artist’s Alley – middle grade comics, Princeless, Raven, and what he hoped to see in comics going forward. When we heard that Unstoppable Wasp was getting a second volume, it seemed like the perfect time to have a conversation about the comic, and that last piece in particular.

Jeremy, thank you so much for taking the time to discuss the return of Unstoppable Wasp with us. Kay having changed her twitter display name to “K, Agent of G.I.R.L.” the minute it was announced that it would return is proof, I think, that what Nadia has done for readers is larger than people expect, and in many ways deliberately, though not cynically, engineered. It’s always a pleasure to talk to creators and hear about how things work internally, especially for something that has affected readers the way Unstoppable Wasp has.

Unstoppable Wasp Volumes 1 and 2 trade paperbacks

1. How do you feel about having the chance to return to Unstoppable Wasp?

I couldn’t be happier. This book meant a lot to all of us that worked on it on the first go round and we were really sad to have to see it go, though I was eternally grateful we got a chance to send it out on our own terms with issue 8. When Alanna (my editor) called me to say they wanted to bring it back, I was thrilled. I know the book garnered a much larger following in trade and after its cancellation, but I wasn’t sure if those were numbers that Marvel would necessarily see the value in. As it turned out, it made enough of an impact for them to not only want to bring it back, but to specify that they wanted me writing it and they wanted us to make the same book we had been making. Not every great book finds an audience and once most of them are gone, they don’t get a chance to come back. It means the world to me that we got that chance.

2. I couldn’t find anyone asking for Unstoppable Wasp as written by another creator for a solo series – for Nadia, it was you or bust. How does it feel to be so strongly associated with a character you wrote solo for eight issues?

It feels amazing. I remember very distinctly when I first got the series, I asked Mark Waid (who created her in Avengers) what I should be sure to do and know about Nadia. While he gave me an issue he wrote about Hank as a really rough idea of how he saw Nadia, his advice to me was “Do your own thing. Don’t feel like you have to do exactly what I’m doing. Make her your own.” and that ended up being what I set out to do. I wanted to give her a voice that wasn’t like any other character I saw in comics. Obviously there are echoes of Kamala Khan, but I made this decision that Nadia would know nothing about superheroes other than her family and would instead idolize people for the work they’d done in the sciences. And while I think Mark started this trend, I wanted Nadia’s personality to be a reaction to her time in the Red Room, not as a person who came out violent and broken, but as a person who hated that world and longed to be the opposite of what they had trained her to be.

3. Mark Waid’s Ant-Man & The Wasp miniseries will wrap up around the time that Issue #1 of the return of Unstoppable Wasp. I haven’t seen his role as creator (alongside Alan Davis) discussed much, and which leads me to something I’m very curious about – you’ve said that after you read her Free Comic Book Day introduction story, talks started with Tom Breevort and Mark Waid about what you might do in a solo series. What was your interpretation of the character as presented in that initial story?

Nadia’s original appearance in “Free Comic Book Day 2016 – Civil War II” – art by Alan Davis

I liked that Nadia was perseverent and determined, but not in the gritty Wolverine type of way. Nadia was a character who had never had anything to aspire to before finding out who her father was, went out into the world to meet and join him, then had that ripped away from her as she sat on his doorstep, but for her quitting was never an option. If her father was dead then he would need somebody to carry on his legacy, so she literally moves into his house and takes over his job as resident Avenger science hero. There’s barely even a pause there. That’s what ended up developing into her voice as I moved into writing the series. She was a character who couldn’t be stopped.

4. As you were expanding and developing the character of Nadia Van Dyne for the Unstoppable Wasp title, what intrigued you about her character, and what has kept you interested in continuing her story in the new series?

I like the idea that Nadia is dangerous. She is potentially one of the most dangerous people in the Marvel Universe. She’s trained to kill both with her hands and with science. She’s incredibly resourceful and very difficult to dissuade if she gets an idea into her head. But she’s also the sweetest and most unassuming person. In fact, nothing makes her feel worse than hurting people.

One of my favorite moments in the first series was in issue 7, when she hits Janet, because it’s such a perfect meeting of the two of them doing everything wrong. Janet knows everything Nadia has been through and she knows as someone who has been a victim of domestic violence that you shouldn’t physically grab a survivor when they’re in a moment of emotional trauma, but her need to help Nadia overrides that knowledge and Nadia has been hardwired to react with force. The fact that, in the moment after, they both blame themselves is extraordinarily telling of both characters, as is the fact that Janet tries to deal with it by talking about it while Nadia deals with it by running away.

Unstoppable Wasp Issue #7

5. Who is this series for, and who is the type of reader you want to connect with most?

Honestly, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I hope something in the book connects with everyone. I know that probably won’t be the case. What I’ve really set out to do is reach young fans who may not always be able to read 10 or 20 books a month, but still love superheroes and (hopefully) love science. I like to keep an eye to making Unstoppable Wasp adjacent to as much of the Marvel Universe as possible without needing a list of required reading. She is, after all, an Avengers legacy character with roots that go all the way back to Stan and Jack, so it’s important to me that she interact with the rest of the universe in a way that might intrigue readers to go check out those other books, but isn’t gatekeeping against those who haven’t.

6. What plot threads are you most interested in picking up going forward?

OH, A LOT OF THEM! As the solicits have made clear, I’m bringing back A.I.M. with Monica Rappaccini at its head, who made an oversized appearance in the first issue of Unstoppable Wasp. I liked the idea of fighting science with science in this chapter of the book. Beyond that, I wanted to pick up some character things that we only really had the chance to plant seeds for in the first volume. I want to follow up on the relationship between Shay and Ying. I had some character work lined up for Priya that I wanted to delve into. I want to spend more time with Nadia and Janet together, which is a relationship I love. Beyond that, there are a lot of things around Hank’s past and present that I’d like to bring into Nadia’s story.

Unstoppable Wasp Issue #8

7. Elsa Charretier left the original series after issue six, but the artists for issues 7 and 8 (Veronica Fish for #7, Ted Brandt and Ro Stein for #8) continued in her general style. This in and of itself was a departure from her Free Comic Book Day introduction, where she was clearly an adult, although young. Gurihiru’s style seems a bit more youthful, with the Nadia emphasized as a teenager in the preview art. Was it a conscious decision to craft the new series with a more youthful visual style? And what do you think Gurihiru brings to the series as a whole?

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I love the sense of joy and excitement that Gurihiru bring to everything they do. My first Marvel gig ever (starring Misty Knight and Danny Rand) was with Gurihiru, but I was a big fan of theirs from the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics at that point already. Joy and excitement was always something I wanted to having in the book and I think Elsa brought a lot of that. I think part of the difference between how I’ve written Nadia and how Mark writes her is that for his stories she’s usually in the context of the Avengers, so she’s the lone teen in a group of adults and desperate to be taken seriously. In G.I.R.L. she’s generally the one in charge. She’s the one with the resume and she finds real genuine joy in collaborative science. I want that joy to be evident through the art and I think Gurihiru’s work embodies that perfectly.

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Unstoppable Wasp Volume 2 Issue #1 Preview Page – art by Gurihiru
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Unstoppable Wasp Volume 2 Issue #1 Preview Page – art by Gurihiru
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Unstoppable Wasp Volume 2 Issue #1 Preview Page – art by Gurihiru

8. Is this series picking up pretty directly from the new status quo of G.I.R.L.’s establishment at the end of the first series, with Janet serving as a mentor and benefactor, or will it be going in a different direction?

Well, we pick up on the plot pretty directly, but we also acknowledge that Nadia has had a lot happen in her life since then. She’s been an Avenger. She nearly lost Jarvis. She helped save the world in No Surrender and she’s recently joined the Champions. We talk about all of that pretty early, so people don’t need to have read every issue she’s been in since Unstoppable Wasp ended the first time, but we also won’t pretend it didn’t happen. If the last comic book you read was Unstoppable Wasp #8, however, you should be able to jump right back into #1 without a pause.

9. Why do you push so hard, and write so heavily, for middle grade and young adult comics for girls? What do you think of the new lines from the Big Two that are more clearly targeting this age group?

Princeless Book One – art by M. Goodwin

I started writing Princeless seven years ago largely because I wanted to share comics with my daughter and there was nothing out there I felt like I could share. I have no urge to claim other people’s work as my own, but it’s pretty clear when you look at the dates that Princeless was a forerunner to a lot of (frankly more popular and better funded) books that have come later. Frankly, nothing could have made me happier. I love that I can share books like Ms. Marvel, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, and Lumberjanes with my daughter. I love that I can give her graphic novels and she’ll disappear into a corner to read them. I sometimes get a little touchy that certain companies hire people from outside of comics to write their middle grades aimed graphic novels when those of us in comics have been encouraging them to reach out to these markets for years, but I remain confident that a rising tide lifts all boats and if those lines are a success, it’s better for all of comics.

Raven the Pirate Princess Volume 1 – art by Rosy Higgins and Ted Brandt

I know a lot of fans my age (and older) feel a certain ownership over some characters and resent when changes are made, but I think if a company the size of Marvel or DC spend so much time concentrating on the 30-40 somethings that they don’t grow a new audience, we’ll have no one but ourselves to blame when comics die out. I continue to believe that the future of comics is in young, female, and queer audiences that have been underserved by the comics community as a whole.

10. What research, not necessarily just scientific, do you do to write Unstoppable Wasp?

Honestly it’s probably the most research I’ve ever done for a book. I try to make sure I represent the science, the different cultures involved, the Marvel Universe, and New York in the best way possible. It’s easy to say you want to write a book whose cast actually represents the diversity of somewhere like New York, but I’ve made it a point to have people whose cultures are represented consult on their stories before they come out. And the science, oh the science. I think it’s one of the hardest things to believably do to write from the perspective of a character who is smarter than you. Nadia is very clearly smarter than me. So sometimes just figuring out what’s going through her mind requires tireless research. Thankfully, doing the Agents of GIRL column in the back of the book means I know a lot of scientists who are happy to make sure my science makes sense.

11. The Agents of G.I.R.L. features at the back of each issue helped humanize women working in STEM for readers, and that focus was a big draw for the series. How did you make contact with these interviewees, why was this feature a part of the comic, and will you be able to continue with them in the new series?

First of all, that was an idea Elsa and I came up with together. She had originally wanted to do a tumblr of historic women scientists that ran alongside the book to promote the book. However, knowing that I had friends who were scientists, I thought it made a lot more sense to profile them. It’s easy to research Marie Curie, but there’s not really a feeling for me that any girl reading a comic book in 2018 can just be her. I wanted to focus on women who were doing science right this moment and who young girls could actually reach out and talk to if they wanted to. I asked Alanna and Tom (Brevoort) if we could scrap the usual letters page and give this space to these profiles and they were only too happy to go with it. We wanted to make sure that if we were saying “we promote women in STEM in this comic” we weren’t just talking about “super-science” but that we provided this link between the far-fetched stuff in the comic and the real possibility of working for NASA that a girl in middle school right now might have.

As for how we made contact, I started off with a few friends of mine that I’d made from Twitter. Women whom I knew were scientists, read comics on a weekly basis, and knew my work and trusted me to treat their lives and stories right. Once I had those model interviews out there, people started recommending friends and colleagues, we had people write into the Marvel to suggest themselves and others, and in some cases I had women walk right up to me at conventions and tell that they had an awesome job in science and we set up time to talk about it. It’s a truly awesome experience and responsibility.

AND OF COURSE WE’RE DOING IT AGAIN! It grew to be one of my favorite parts of my job. I actually had a really cool opportunity in that a friend and fan of the series told me that if we started doing the series again, he had a whole list of awesome female scientists to introduce me to. It just so happens he told me this a week after I found out the book was coming back. I am really thrilled with some of the amazing women I got to talk to.

And I should say, the interview that’s in our first issue is really near and dear to my heart.

Unstoppable Wasp – Agents of GIRL Interview Issue #1

12. In Issue #8, you have Nadia discover the well-known moment when her father slapped his then-wife Janet Van Dyne, a moment that loomed over his character ever since. The moment was handled with sensitivity and grace, but I wonder what made you decide to go there at all? What was in your head as you decided how both Janet and Nadia would react and interact in that moment?

Unstoppable Wasp #8

That was a hard one. I knew from Mark’s introduction of Nadia that her attachment to a specific idea of who her father was would be pretty central to a lot of her interactions. Nadia saw Hank as infallible and I knew that was an assumption that needed to be challenged. We all have to realize our parents are just human at some point. I made the decision in the Avengers story I wrote with Mark leading into Unstoppable Wasp that I would have Janet decide not to tell Nadia about Hank’s faults and she would ask Jarvis to do the same.

The thing that really drove that scene for me was that we get to hear and see Hank deal with the aftermath of that scene all the time. We very rarely get Janet’s perspective on it…which I think is a big problem. I think it’s important that we listen to victims and let them tell their stories and all anyone ever wants to talk about is what a blow that story was to Hank.

That scene and particularly Janet’s dialog there is the longest it’s ever taken me to finish what is essentially a two page beat of a comic book. I ran the dialog by multiple people who had survived some sort of assault or domestic violence, because I wanted to make sure both that Janet’s view of herself and her life were realistic, but also provided a healthy example to Nadia and to readers. As for how it affects Nadia, I wanted to make sure Nadia has this clear picture in her head of Hank’s mental health and the things she may have inherited from Hank as she goes forward.

13. Bobbi Morse (Mockingbird) and Janet van Dyne (Wasp) have shown up as mentor characters in the original series. The scene with Bobbi where Nadia geeks out over her scientific work is one that so strongly resonates with female readers whose more internal accomplishments are overshadowed by external ones, the idea of being visible without being seen.

Unstoppable Wasp #1 – art by Elsa Charretier

I’m reminded of this clip from Mayim Bialik, who both has a PhD in neuroscience and is an actress from The Big Bang Theory, where she is asked if people expect her to do calculus ‘at the drop of a hat’ because of the role she plays.

It’s the defeat in her voice as she pushes back that kills me. Especially when I compare it to the scene you wrote.

With the impact these characters have on Nadia and the audience, do you intend to continue with those characters, and are there other Marvel girls or women you intend to bring in for similar roles?

Both, honestly. Mockingbird is brought in by Janet in issue 8 of the first volume to be the lab mentor for the GIRLs. Janet is more than happy to run the business and be a mentor for life stuff, but she also recognizes her limitations on the science side and wants to make sure the girls have someone looking out for them who knows the bajillion ways they might blow themselves up. So Bobbi will still be fulfilling that role in the new series as well as having a unique relationship with Ying (who is also a chemist and trained super-spy, like herself). We may have some other science ladies come in to have science adventures too, but Mockingbird is here to stay.

14. This one is from our ten year old: will there ever be a full-fledged Unstoppable Wasp and Moon Girl team-up? (She says pretty please.)

I would love for them to team up again. Honestly, I’d love to get all of the young science heroes together. Could you imagine: GIRL, The Champions, Moon Girl, and Squirrel Girl? That would be a dream come true for me!

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It would be a dream come true for me, too; the more comics I can find that feature young girls finding all sorts of ways to be strong, the happier I am. Knowing that Whitley put such intention and deliberation into moments that strongly resonated with me as a reader – the budding relationship between Priya and Ying, the moment when Janet grabs Nadia and Nadia’s reaction, the conversation about Janet being abused all those years ago – feels like an incredible gift.

It’s also relieving to see that Whitley sees the same future for comics that so many of us do, in its audience and stories. Fewer and fewer people may be picking up single issues at their local comic store, but more and more of us are buying books in trade. We’re frequently choosing the ones that feature girls, queer characters, disabled characters – characters outside of the typical straight white cis male mainstream. Writers who embrace those futures, especially ones like Whitley who work so hard to bring marginalized creators onto their teams as well, are always welcome on my bookshelf.

Preview page from Unstoppable Wasp Volume 2 Issue #1 – art by Gurihiru
Preview page from Unstoppable Wasp Volume 2 Issue #1 – art by Gurihiru
Preview page from Unstoppable Wasp Volume 2 Issue #1 – art by Gurihiru

And while Whitley is very clear that you don’t need a reading list to go into this new Issue #1, if you want to catch up on the previous adventures of Nadia Van Dyne, you can find them here:

And for those of you who want to join K as an Agent of G.I.R.L., Jeremy has graciously provided this official badge from Marvel Comics. Let’s make sure that no one can ignore the wave of fans for Nadia Van Dyne, starting right now.

Image courtesy of Marvel Comics, thanks to fan demand courtesy of you.
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