In the late ‘90s, a group of comic book fans established a website called Women in Refrigerators. The unorthodox title references a moment in a 1994 issue of Green Lantern when protagonist Kyle Rayner returns to his apartment to discover that one of his enemies has murdered his girlfriend and stuffed her remains into a refrigerator. Using this example as a launch point, the website documented numerous cases throughout the history of comics in which female characters are killed, maimed or otherwise depowered purely for the sake of getting their male counterparts riled up. One of the primary authors of this list was Gail Simone, who would go on to become a pioneering female voice in the comics industry, an enterprise frequently criticized as the ultimate boys’ club. Since her early days spent shaking the status quo and instigating serious discussion about women in comics, Simone has brought her significant talents to numerous mainstream books, including Birds of Prey, Secret Six, Batgirl and Wonder Woman.
In anticipation of her latest project, a Dark Horse-published Lara Croft series that bridges the recently-rebooted Tomb Raider game and its forthcoming sequel, Paste corresponded with Simone via email about her famous list, getting started in the industry and why Lara Croft has endured as a character for so long.
Paste: Prior to accepting the job as the Tomb Raider comic book writer, how familiar were you with the videogame franchise?
Gail Simone: Oh, pretty familiar. I’ve played most of the games and was a huge Lara Craft fan. I actually wrote a short animated feature for Lara, for a series of cartoons called Tomb Raider: Reloaded. Mine featured Lara as a twelve year old. It was a blast. I love the character.
Paste: How did the series come together? Were you given a general outline of what the story beats should be leading into the game’s sequel, or were you allowed to pitch or contribute your own ideas about the story’s direction?
Simone: It was more back and forth than that…videogames change as they go along, just as films do, so there has been a lot of welcome fluidity between the game-makers and Dark Horse. They have been tremendously respectful. I had a big story I wanted to tell, they had a massive game to make. We lined up the docking ports and the air lock held, as it were.
Paste: Comic books based on videogames are nothing new. A frequent complaint, however, is that such books feel far too tethered to the game and end up sacrificing good storytelling in favor of an adherence to the game’s universe. How do you walk the line between staying true to the Lara Croft character and the game’s tone as established by the creators as well as your own personal interests and idiosyncrasies?
Simone: That is a complaint I understand; on the other hand, no one wants to read a Tomb Raider comic without Lara kicking some ass. I will say that the game is incredibly primal and told on this very claustrophobic island. That was utterly compelling as a game, but I think would lead to impatience over the course of twelve issues, so we got to mix some classic Lara globetrotting in there as well.
Paste: If a reader was to approach the series because they were a Gail Simone fan as opposed to a Tomb Raider fan, do you feel as though he or she would still come away satisfied?
Simone: Definitely. Lara is close to my heart, and that makes all the difference for me. If you loved, say, Birds of Prey or Secret Six, I think there’s going to be plenty here for you to enjoy. If you haven’t got a clue who I am, but love Lara Croft, that works too.
Paste: The first Tomb Raider game was released back in 1996. Since that time, Lara Croft is now recognized as perhaps the most successful videogame heroine of all time. What do you feel has made Croft such an endearing pop culture icon after all these years?
Simone: The female characters I love mostly do not apologize for their gender or for being action heroes. They present themselves as fully-realized and as tough and determined as their male counterparts. Lara brings a wonderful humanity in the new game — she’s often scared, hurt and remorseful, but she’s also the one who climbs the radio tower or sneaks up behind the guard with an Uzi. She’s just the best. You can’t not love her.
Paste: Much like comic books, videogames represent a medium that has gone through a long, arduous road to being considered legitimate, thought-provoking art. This uphill battle has certainly been helped by the likes of more cerebral games like BioShock and Portal. What are your own personal experiences and thoughts on gaming culture?
Simone: I’ve talked about this a lot, and I feel that despite all the next-gen graphics, it’s story that is making the biggest difference. When you have this much gaming firepower, the gamers no longer accept lousy translations, bad plotting, rotten dialogue and cliché characters. They want good writing. And when you play Tomb Raider or something like that, there’s a storytelling artistry that is a delicate art on its own. Which is why I am so fortunate to be friends with the game’s writer, the brilliant Rhianna Pratchett. She’s helped me stay on target with the game continuity, while I try to bring some extra dimensions to Lara in the meantime.
Paste: Having written a comic that was based on a videogame, is the prospect of writing an actual videogame narrative something that potentially appeals to you (like Paul Dini did with the Batman: Arkham games)?
Simone: I am very excited by the possibilities. I was asked once to create a game universe for [Acclaim], and I did. I created this huge game world, only to have the company shut down mid-writing. I hope to take advantage of some of the game writing opportunities I have been offered to make up for that.
Paste: Going back to your own personal origin story, when did you first become interested in comics and what were the titles that drew you in?
Simone: I grew up on a farm in the boonies, miles from the nearest town, and the nearest town wasn’t much. We would find comics not at a comics shop—I didn’t know such a thing existed—but at garage sales and the like, and I would read them to pieces. It really fed my love for fantasy. Still does, as it happens.
Paste: When did you decide that writing comics as a living was what you wanted to do with your life?
Simone: I kind of got drafted. I was making comics parody pieces on the internet, and editors and creators started to notice. It wasn’t by design; I actively resisted for a long time. I thought it was taking jobs from real writers, whom I pictured as mythical creatures, like trolls or leprechauns.
Paste: In the late 90s, you helped establish the website Women in Refrigerators, which famously documented multiple instances of female superheroes/characters being killed, raped, beaten or generally traumatized as merely a catalyst for the male character to take action. What were the expectations for this list when it was first put together, and how do you feel about the way the list has reverberated throughout both the comic book industry and the broader pop culture landscape after all these years?
Simone: Mostly weird. Sometimes proud. I know it’s made a difference, because I have heard about it in meetings with Hollywood people and game people, people who have no idea I started the website and came up with the idea.
It’s frustrating because it gets misapplied so much; it was never meant to say nothing bad should happen to female characters. But I’m also proud because a lot of writers told me they had no idea they were using this trope so often until it was pointed out to them.
Paste: When you eventually worked your way into writing for mainstream comic book publications, were there any significant responses from higher-ups (writers, artists, editors, etc.) regarding the list?
Simone: I think some are wary, still. I think some think I am judging their every move. But it’s nonsense: people are judged by the entirety of their work and character, if they are to be fairly considered at all. I don’t really think about it. I know what I want to achieve in comics. I want as wide and diverse an audience as possible. I believe in that. I believe that is a worthwhile way to spend my creative life. If people have a problem with it, there’s not much I can do about that.
Paste: Often you are put forth as the prime example of a leading female creative voice in comics. Combined with your contribution to Women in Refrigerators, this has made you into quite the feminist figure. Does that sort of designation ever get tiresome (to clarify, maybe you’d like to be appreciated for the fact that you write great comic books rather than you’re a woman who writes great comic books)?
Simone: Well, if that was all I was ever considered, sure, it would bug me. If I was only asked to write female characters, if I only had readers who wanted me to talk about that stuff, yeah. And there are only so many things you can say on your eleventy billionth “Women in Comics” panel.
But I do find that there are a lot of people out there, many of them aspiring creators, of all genders, who still need to hear that message, that it’s okay to be who you are and want to make comics, or even read comics. You don’t have to be a certain gender, sexuality or ethnicity. I know hearing that message from people like Dwayne McDuffie helped give me courage to try. So I feel like we are a ways from being able to stop worrying about it.
Paste: On to lighter material, you’ve gotten the chance to write many great, iconic comic book characters over the years. Was there one in particular who you really sweated over getting the voice of the character right? How did you eventually move past this?
Simone: I would probably say I gave the most worry to Wonder Woman. She’s so crucial to so many people, and every new writer comes in and reinvents her and then leaves a year later. It’s very difficult for her fans. So I wanted to write a Wonder Woman who was made up of all those past elements and add a sense of humor. I sweated about getting it right for months, but then when I finally sat down to write, she came out fully-formed and shining. She was a pleasure to write…I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to write Wonder Woman and give her a sense of humor.
Paste: In regards to writing habits, when you are given a character or title to write, how much planning, in terms of story arc and character development, do you do in advance?
GS: A lot, I try to have a few months just figuring it all out, I like to know a character backwards and forwards.
Paste: Over the years, many mainstream comic book writers — Ed Brubaker, Brian Michael Bendis, Scott Snyder, Grant Morrison, just to name a few — have found great career-highlights in the world of creator-owned comics. Is that an avenue you could see yourself going down? What kind of stories would you to tell?
GS: Well, with co-creator and artist Jim Calafiore, I created the most successful straight comics project on Kickstarter, Leaving Megapolis, which we own in full and had a blast doing. And I have more coming soon. It’s well past time and I can’t wait for people to see what’s coming. It’s funny, sexy, violent and wrong, and I couldn’t be happier.