Forget Metal and Doomsday Clock and whatever Infinity crossover Marvel is kicking off—writer Tee Franklin and artist Jenn St-Onge’s Bingo Love is a true comics event. First published as part of a massively successful Kickstarter and released this week—on Valentine’s Day, no less—to wider audiences by publisher Image Comics, Bingo Love is the story of Hazel Johnson and Mari McCray, queer women of color who meet in 1963 but are kept apart by family and society until decades later. Franklin and St-Onge cover a staggering amount of ground, from Hazel and Mari’s teen years in intolerant families, to their eventual marriages to men, to a near future where the two women, now grandparents, discover that there’s no time limit on finding your own happiness in life.
Beyond the story on the page, Franklin has worked tirelessly to see Bingo Love through to publication, carving a niche for herself as a queer disabled Black woman in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by straight white able-bodied men. Along the way, one of Franklin’s most fervent boosters has been writer Gail Simone, herself one of the most prominent women in modern superhero comics, and a trailblazer on books like Deadpool, Birds of Prey, Secret Six, Batgirl, Wonder Woman and, most recently, her creator-owned series Crosswind with artist Cat Staggs, which is headed for television development. In celebration of Bingo Love’s publication with Image, Paste got the two creators together on the phone while Franklin prepared to head out on her first book tour. As you’ll find below, the two have a lot to say about their friendship, the challenges of forging your own path and paying it forward for future creators.
Bingo Love Cover Art by Genevieve Ft
Gail Simone: Hello Tee!
Tee Frankling: Hi baby, how are you?
Simone: I’m good! You’re embarking on an adventure shortly. That’s amazing.
Franklin: I know. I’m literally packing right now.
Simone: How long are you going to be away from home in total?
Franklin: In total? Probably about two and a half weeks.
Franklin: Yeah. I’m still trying to understand what’s going on.
Simone: That’s awesome! Your life is going to be full of Bingo Love for these few weeks at least.
Franklin: I know. You called it! You so called it.
Simone: I tend to be right about these things. [Laughs]
Franklin: Yeah, I am never taking your word for granted, ever again. Ever. It’s so surreal. I’m going to California, and Portland, and everywhere. It’s a little too overwhelming for me.
Simone: It’s going to be amazing. I was kind of wondering, first of all, and people ask me this question too, and I really don’t know the answer in your case: when did you know that you wanted to write, and that you wanted to write this story in particular?
Franklin: Oh boy. I didn’t know I wanted to write at all—I didn’t know I had the writing chops, per se—it was a lot of peer pressure from Alex de Campi. [Laughs] She literally put me on the spot. There was this tweet for the Elements anthology, and she quote-retweeted it and was like, “Hey Tee, you need to do this!” And I’m like, wow, you just called me out in front of thousands of people. Okay, I’m doing it! That was really it. That was how I got into writing, and literally a few months later, Joshua Williamson, when I went to interview him, he’s like, “Yeah, you want four pages?” What is going on? You guys are peer-pressuring me a little too much here! But I’ll take it! Okay, I’ll write.
Simone: You got recruited. That’s sort of what happened to me too. I didn’t intend on it, and I just kept trying, kept doing it. But what was really remarkable about you, that first short story that you sent, you were like, “Oh, I wrote this story, it’s going to be in Nailbiter. Could you take a look at it and maybe edit it for me, you know, let me know what you think.” And I read it and thought, Oh my god, this is amazing, how did this happen so quick with you? It takes a lot of experience normally to know what to do with a comic page. It really does. To have you take four pages and make the job out of the gate—
Franklin: How do you think I felt? I remember I gave you three stories, and was like, I have this one, this one and this one, and I don’t know which one to pick. You were like, oh, I’ll be your editor. And I was like, you want to be my what? Gail wants to be my editor? Okay! How can I turn that down? It was a no-brainer. Yeah, sure, whatever you want. Tear it up if you want, have fun! I’m not going to tell you no. And you came back with minor changes—I remember the first thing you said to me was, “What the eff is wrong with you, Tee? I love this, this is brilliant.” I skinned somebody alive and it’s brilliant? Yes! That was just the best ever. I didn’t think I’d be able to do four pages. I don’t have a lot of confidence in myself when it comes to writing.
Simone: Some people never do, and you still have to do it regardless sometimes.
Franklin: Right, and you’ve definitely told me that. It’s still not sticking. Maybe one day. I did 16 pages before Bingo Love. It’s all I had, it’s all I’d written and published, 16. So I don’t know Gail, I’m telling you, overwhelming anxiety is through the roof. And people love it, people want more, and I don’t get it.
Simone: This is the perfect example of, if you don’t see it, create it. When you sent me the PDF for Bingo Love and I sat down and read it, I thought to myself after, how in God’s name did this woman create this graphic novel, with no experience basically, and have it be the best thing I’ve read all year. And everybody who’s read it practically is in tears by the end. Not only is it romance difficult to write and have it not be cliché and predictable and yadda yadda yadda, but to write romance that all ages can basically read? That’s another thing.
And to write it as a queer romance, with women of color, women of different body styles, it was just all these things that people spend so much time saying cannot be done. I was just astounded and so happy this book exists. I’m so happy it exists for you and I’m so happy it exists for the readers who are going to get their hands on it. I really have felt from the first time I read it that it’s going to be a book that people loan to people and not get back. So they’re going to have to go buy another copy for themselves. [Laughs] So I think it’s really important, and it’s going to touch a lot of people. And yeah, there’s going to be haters, but so what?
Franklin: I wanted, definitely, for all ages [to be able to read it], because as a youth, I didn’t have this. Growing up, the library was my safe place. There was nothing I could take home without my mom knocking me with a frying pan. There was nothing I could do or bring into the house that wasn’t Christian. It was, “No, that’s a sin, this is a sin, I’m going to beat you like they beat Jesus!” This was my life, so the library was my safe spot. If there was a book like this that I could have read when I was younger, I don’t know. I love my kids, I really do, but maybe I would have held out hope that there was someone I could be with and not just rushed head-on into a marriage.
Simone: Maybe not followed the path that was laid out for you by other people.
Franklin: Yes, yes, so I just really wanted to have an all-ages story, so parents can read it with their kids, the kids themselves can read it, grab it from the library, because I know that, even now, libraries are the safest space for some youth, and they can’t have this book at home and they can’t bring this book to their parents. I’m glad that people at home, and especially the youth, that they’ll be able to read this and just hold on to some sort of hope. And I did not think this would happen. I wanted to pitch so many things, and I kept getting shut down. It was always, You’re not going to sell enough, or You’re a Twitter personality, you can’t write, so we’re not going to give you a chance.
I remember coming to you and asking for your advice, because you went through it as one of the trailblazers as a woman in comics. You went through your own stuff. And you came out and you’ve touched so many people’s lives. I know you’re not a woman of color but you’re still a woman in comics and your advice—I guess I need some more advice from my fairy comic-book mother? [Laughs] On how to keep those people, those Negative Nancies who say this book isn’t going to sell, and to quiet them, to get them out of my ear. They get under my skin, and I listen to them a lot and think that they’re right.
Bingo Love Interior Art by Jenn St-Onge
Simone: I know, and I’ve had years of people telling me that things aren’t going to work. A comic with a female-led cast isn’t going to work, let alone three that don’t gossip and fight with each other, it’s just not going to work. Or Wonder Woman comics being really about womanhood isn’t going to work. When you have a clear vision on something that hasn’t been done before, you’re going to get that. And the sooner you accept that, the more it will help you. I learned early on that if you’re not getting a certain amount of backlash, then you’re not doing something new. People resist and fight against things that are new that they haven’t seen before, especially if they make them uncomfortable. But fiction is a safe place to tell these stories and to reach out to people and maybe affect them and make a difference in their lives.
And with Bingo Love, what I love about it, is that you didn’t shy away from the fact that this might not be easy, and there is a struggle, and there is hope that you can have happiness and the life that you want, even if the decisions are not easy and other people resist and say horrible things to you. You still deserve the life that you want and that makes you happy. And that’s such an important message for everyone, that is going to resonate with a lot of people. And I don’t think that sales are going to be a problem. [Laughs] You’re going to have people who flip you crap because it’s different and it makes them uncomfortable, and I say good, and that’s kind of the attitude that you need to take on so it doesn’t stop you from doing the things that are different that you have in your head that haven’t been done before.
Franklin: That is sound advice. I’m not going to lie, I felt really vindicated when they announced a second printing. Ah, in your face fools, told you! But it’s really funny because now I’m getting emails from editors saying congratulations and I’m like, didn’t you just say not too long ago that it wasn’t going to sell?
Simone: Sometimes people have a hard time taking that risk. You took that risk. You took it to Kickstarter because that’s where it needed to go to get it done. The risk was all yours, and now the reward is all yours.
Franklin: And speaking of Kickstarter, I know you did Leaving Megalopolis there. I have been going through Hell with this Kickstarter. I love it, I’m so grateful. I was so shocked, funded in five days. It was really extreme, but getting these books out to everybody has been the biggest pain in my backside forever. It is so stressful! So when you did your Kickstarter, did you go through a fulfillment center or did you send the books out yourself?
Simone: Well, actually, Jim Calafiore, my co-creator and partner, did a lot of that. Because I was writing so much that I couldn’t spend the time doing the business-y stuff like you had to. So I was blessed in that way. He actually got one of his local comic stores to allow him to store the pallet at their store, and he brought in pizza and beer and they stuffed envelopes. We did Surviving Megalopolis through Dark Horse so we would not have to do that. If I were to do Kickstarter again, I would definitely do a fulfillment center or something else. If you measure up the time it takes, the time it took away from Jim to actually create his art, and for me to write, it’s huge. People who support Kickstarter, we love them all, we’re so grateful we have these products out here that allowed us to keep the copyrights and own them and everything, but people don’t realize just how massive an undertaking it is.
Franklin: Yeah, seriously. I remember I had four huge pallets, over 5,000 books in my garage. I think I have a little bit under 3,000 left I need to ship out. It’s like I’m drowning in books. They’re going to come alive and eat me.
Simone: Between the time we did our Kickstarter and we were mailing stuff out, postage had doubled. And we didn’t account for that either, and people don’t realize that can just happen, and throw you off too. It’s really, really difficult Tee, but look what you have at the end of it. You have a product that you own that people are going to read and love forever and there’s going to be more of, it might even make it to the screen, and you have all those rights.
Franklin: Yes, it’s the best thing. I will say that. I’m telling you, when I came to you and was like, “There are these two companies who want it and I don’t know who to go to,” you were like, “Image.” You said it so matter-of-factly: “Image.”
Simone: Yeah, it’s just really important that you retain the control, because it has such a clear vision, you don’t need anybody interfering with it. And Image is so professional and so good at doing this stuff that we don’t want to do. [Laughs] It really takes a lot of pressure off.
Franklin: Well you know we just moved and I just came across pictures of when we first met, when the girls were just little, little, little ones, in Baltimore. When we first met you, the children were just these tiny little things and now they’re annoying teenagers. [Laughs]
Simone: They’re still beautiful!
Franklin: They are, bless their little hearts. But I never thought—I remember when I first introduced myself and you were like, whoa, I love your hair. And this is forever ago, and now I’m like, Gail is donating tiers to my Kickstarter, she’s editing my books—what happened between these few years that just turned everything around? It’s so wild.
Bingo Love Interior Art by Jenn St-Onge
Simone: Well I am just so happy—you deserved it. And there are not very many people who could take that on and see it to completion. You know how hard it is, but you actually did it. A lot of people just cannot do it, or if they do it, the end product isn’t the quality of yours. So it’s just a remarkable thing you did and you should just never doubt that.
Franklin: If I didn’t have amazing people like you and Kelly Sue [DeConnick] and Shawn Pryor, [Erica Schultz]…I was able to use [them] as a sounding board, and a lot of creators don’t have professionals like you in their corner.
Simone: That’s true, but a lot of people don’t have the courage to show their work either. They might do the work, but they don’t have the courage to show it and to figure out what to do with it from that point. There’s a lot of stuff in there that you did that a lot of people don’t do.
Franklin: For those who are going to be reading this, what advice would you give them to follow through and complete? I love when you give tips on Twitter. Even now I still highlight your threads and save them because I know I can screw up sometimes. What kind of advice would you give them?
Simone: Well, it’s pretty simple advice in terms of: figure out what you have to say that no one else has, that no one else can do or has done, and see it through to finish. And get it out there for people to see. All the steps in between, you can go online and get lots of advice and figure out your own path, but you still have to start, and to finish, and so many people drop out between those two things. It takes a lot of guts, it takes a lot of determination and a lot of stubbornness and a lot of shutting out the voices telling you that you can’t do it, and knowing that you can do it and you are going to do it. And it doesn’t matter where you’re from or any of that anymore. If you have something to say, especially that’s different and needed, then do it. And if you have to do it online or go to Kickstarter, however: beginning and end.
Franklin: And definitely start small.
Simone: No one does an 80-page graphic novel out of the gate, Tee. [Laughs]
Franklin: This is true, this is so true. I know I go into my long tweet threads and sometimes it goes place and sometimes it doesn’t. Because I know it’s hard for marginalized creators to actually get in the door—not everybody can get an offer from somebody like Joshua Williamson to say, hey, here’s a four-pager in Nailbiter, it’s all yours. Do you think that if creators who have books, like how Kelly Sue is giving some creators who might not get a chance to create stories [a spot in Bitch Planet], do you think that maybe if those creators who want to be allies and want to help other creators, if they actually started to give them spots in their books for a short little page here and there, to allow them to play in their toybox, it would help?
Because come on—it’s like 95% straight white people in comics with a few drips and drops of marginalized creators here and there. I think it’s time that the tide changes and we start adding more creators of color, disabled creators, queer creators into comics. We can write about superheroes and Vikings and mermaids. Why can’t we have marginalized creators telling these stories? I think the creators who actually have books and can get people in the door, can give us chances, a few pages. How do you think we can make that happen? To convince creators to give people a four-page, or a two-page backup, or something. Because I want to see more people like myself succeed.
Simone: Of course. And any industry is going to benefit from opening the doors and broadening the content and the perspective and the way of doing things. The problem with the bigger publishers is to come to them and ask them, “Hey, can we have two pages out of these?”—it an be really hard to get through. What I love is the anthologies that happen, that pair a creator who people recognize with a creator where people maybe don’t recognize their name, and get their name out there. The Womanthology book got a lot of people jobs, inside and outside the industry, and I think stuff like that tends to be really effective. You have something in print that you can point an editor or a publisher to, and it makes a huge difference for a lot of people. Any time something comes up where there is an extra page somewhere, take advantage of it, but it’s so difficult with the Big Two [Marvel and DC Comics] in particular. I really suggest people go for anthologies when they can.
Franklin: Right, I’m sure the Big Two is hard, but an Image book or Dark Horse or BOOM! or somebody, I feel like there should be more chances than there are. If Joshua didn’t give me my four-pager, I don’t know if Bingo Love would have happened.
Simone: It’s really, really important to find ways to get your work seen for sure. I know a lot of us talk about it and do what we can to make it happen, but I’m not sure where to go from here.
Franklin: I know I’m going to have to figure some things out and practice what I preach and give other people a spot in the story. If Image—hi, Image, if you’re listening—if I’m able to do Bingo Love 2, maybe I’ll have somebody do a story. I definitely want to see how I can get people to do a little short. Now that I’ve got one foot in the door—I’m not fully in, still got the bad leg out—because I know we’re so talented and we have these stories and I want to give someone an opportunity like Josh did for me. And how you did for me, to edit my first—you edited my first published story! I had an A-team: Juan Ferreyra was the artist and Taylor Esposito was my freaking letterer. It’s wild and amazing and I just want to give that opportunity to someone. It can set your career off, obviously. You know me Gail, I’m one of the loudest mouths out there when it comes to inclusion in comics. I’m going to spout and talk stuff, maybe do a challenge. I’m going to figure something out, damn it!
Simone: You will, I’m sure!
Bingo Love Interior Art by Jenn St-Onge