Smash Pages Q&A: Magdalene Visaggio

The writer of ‘Eternity Girl,’ ‘Vagrant Queen,’ ‘Kim & Kim,’ ‘Morning in America’ and more discusses ‘Lost on Planet Earth,’ her latest series from comiXology Originals.

In the span of just a few years, Magdalene Visaggio has shown herself to be one of the most original, dynamic and inventive writers in comics. 

She’s written books for different companies from Marvel (Dazzler: X-Song) and Valiant (Doctor Mirage) to IDW (Transformers vs. The Visionaries) and Humanoids (Strangelands). The Eternity Girl miniseries from her and Sonny Liew is simply one of the strongest (and strangest) books that DC has published in recent years and I think the best book to come out of the very impressive Young Animal imprint.

For the most part, though Visaggio has written creator-owned miniseries. That in and of itself is hard to do, but the wide variety of what she’s made is impressive. To name just a few, Visaggio has written three Kim & Kim series, Calamity Kate, Morning in America, Quantum Teens Are Go!, Sex Death Revolution, two Vagrant Queen miniseries. Yes, the same Vagrant Queen that was adapted into the current SyFy Channel TV show.

So much of her work is about change and about the emotional journey of transforming ourselves, growing up and finding a new path, rejecting what’s laid out for us when it would be easier to accept it. In a medium that specializes in stories of transformation and adventure, Visaggio has found a place for queer stories and misfit stories that break so many molds and expectations, crafting something that is different, sometimes startlingly so. Her stories reject grand narratives, hero journeys, chosen one sagas, for something messier, something harder. Something a little more realistic and relatable. They are stories about the lives that we build and shape ourselves, with the emotional and psychological stories far more important than the larger narratives.

Her current project is Lost on Planet Earth, the second issue of which comes out from Comixology today. A collaboration with Claudia Aguirre, the two have worked together often over the years. The book and its themes come out of a lifelong obsession with Star Trek (something we both share), but the story that she’s written is uniquely hers, something that one doesn’t need to be a Trek fan to understand or relate to, and something truly unique. 

Visaggio and I met last year at the Queers & Comics Conference, and we spoke recently about working with artists, the Federation and more, while comiXology provided a preview of the new issue. 

To start, how did you come to comics?

My dad got me my first comic books when I was 7 or 8. It was an issue of Action Comics and an issue of Superman. It was 1991 and Superman has amnesia and is lost in a time warp and is working as a circus strong man in the 1940’s. It was a Roger Stern arc. That hooked me. I made the switch to Marvel pretty quickly after that because X-Men was the thing then.

That was my entry point to everything in comics. My dad was a comics reader when he was a kid and he kind of kept it up. He was a long haul truck driver when I was a kid so if he saw comics in a truck stop, he might grab some. So when I was seven, he gave me a couple he had picked up for himself and it launched my life long love affair with graphic storytelling and sequential art.

As people who follow you on social media know, you love and have opinions about Star Trek.

Do I? [laughs] 

Which is my way of asking, where exactly did Lost on Planet Earth start?

Okay, I love Star Trek. I know it backwards and forwards. One of the things that has really fascinated me has been the omnipresence of Starfleet in society. I was reading about this episode Journey’s End from the last season of Next Generation, which was written by Ron Moore who did Battlestar Galactica and he’s always been one of my favorite Trek writers. He was one of the main guys behind Deep Space Nine. He made this amazing point about this episode, that it always really bothered him that Wesley Crusher was supposed to be in the first season, the Mozart of mathematics. A once in a thousand years mind. And he wants to put on a uniform and say yes sir and take orders. What’s great about Journey’s End is the way that it builds on his existing history to push him in a different direction and have Wesley say, I was going down my father’s path, I was doing what was expected of me because I’m in a Starfleet family. You run into this all the time. All of the maquis by the second season of Voyager are basically Starfleet. It seems to be all anyone wants to do. Jake Sisko was expected to go into Starfleet and had a very hard conversation with his father about it. You see uniformed members of Starfleet sitting on the Federation council. You see how human centric Starfleet is. I know this isn’t what was intended, but this is a reading of text you can get – that Earth in particular and the Federation overall is dominated by its military, and its military is dominated by humans, its government is dominated by humans. It seems like this very genial military dictatorship. I know it’s not, but it’s a very militarized society.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been fascinated by in-universe criticisms of the Federation. In Deep Space Nine there are a number of exchanges between non-human, non-Federation characters about how assimilationist the Federation is. Quark’s nephew Nog, this quintessential Ferengi, joins Starfleet and becomes pretty human. He loves root beer and they use root beer as an analogy – it’s cloying and sweet and bubbly, but the most insidious thing is that after you’ve had it enough, you get to like it. Quark and Garrick use that as an analogy of how the federation rolls in. Bajor gets its independence from the Cardassians and then the Federation shows up and says we’re going to provide military support for your government and then you’re going to join the Federation. That’s explicitly what Sisko is there to do. You get into this in Discovery. In the very first episode, T’Kuvma, the Klingon messiah, gives this really eloquent speech about how the Federation just expects that everyone is going to join them everyone is going to have their culture steamrolled and homogenized into something nice and human. That’s why his rally cry was “Remain Klingon.” It compares the Federation to the Borg. When you get into Picard, you get a sense of a much more reactionary society than it usually is presented to us as. I started off wanting to explore that reality. What it’s like to live in that sort of world if you’re the person who decides they don’t want to participate in that project that everyone’s supposed to be involved in.

Having thought about this for most of my life and read the first issue, I thought about how the original series was very much a Cold War analogy in many ways. Lost on Planet Earth seems to be saying, the Cold War reshaped society in so many ways that we’ve mostly broken away from, but here’s a queer, outsider critique of that kind of society.

I didn’t grow up on the original series. It’s the show I know the least. It didn’t come on when I was at home when I was a kid, so my primary reference for Star Trek will always be the Next Generation era. Which I think makes it more clear because in the original series, we don’t see that much of what the federation is doing. The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 are very much about how we’ve won, we’re at peace, we’re extending our influence out. We’re on board with it because we’re seeing it from their perspective, that they’re on this heroic mission. It makes sense to us as Americans because in the 90s we were like, we won history and now we’re going to bring the rest of the world into our ambit where we can make the world better for everyone. The Federation thinks they’re making the world better for everyone. But when you have that monolithic perspective, there’s going to be misfits and outcasts. It’s definitely a misfit story. It’s definitely a queer story. 

I was reading one review where I realized I’d written about my own experiences in Catholicism in seminary, and my emotional process of stepping away from that. There’s a path you’re supposed to be on. That path gives you direction and a degree of drive, but also social acceptance and social influence. I was very attracted to the idea of giving up my agency. I don’t have to worry about what I want to do with my life once I join because they’ll tell me what to do and where to go – and then it’s just a question of how to apply my gifts to it. I was really interested in that because I hadn’t had direction in my life. I didn’t know how to give myself direction. It was nice having my future laid out for me. Stepping away from that was something I really mined emotionally for Basil’s journey away from her destiny and towards her choice.

It’s interesting to hear you describe it like that because one of the central themes that runs through your work is this rejection of monoculture and a rejection of the choices that are laid out for us.

That’s definitely a theme that has emerged in my work. It’s not something I set out to do. Like I said, this book started out as me wanting to talk shit about the Federation. I wrote a few different versions of this book and the first couple were just that. Basil moving from set piece to set piece so someone could explain something to her. There was no there there, so I had to dig deeper. I saw in Basil this element of choice. Going back, that’s what Element Girl was about. That’s what Vagrant Queen was about. That’s what Kim & Kim was about. So much of what I do is about turning away from the path you were expected to go down. I think it’s pretty obvious why that’s a big theme in my life and why that keeps cropping up. But it’s weird because agency was something I didn’t feel like I had for so much of my life. I felt like I had no choices. I was moving in a direction that was preordained for me or I was just drifting. I was floating in the gray haze of it all. It’s been nice getting to do this work because its been productive for me emotionally. I know it’s been helpful for some of my readers who have found these themes very resonant to them in their own lives. I’ve got another thing I’m working on where I’m much more obviously approaching choice and agency as a direct theme but I’m approaching it from a character who gives it up and lets herself fall under the influence of people because she doesn’t know what else to do with her life. It’s about how to extricate herself from their expectations and find her own way because she doesn’t even know what she wants. I think that’s psychological territory that anyone can relate to, but I think that’s a very queer story and I’m very happy to go down that road.

I remember a line early in Sex Death Revolution where you described magic – “you’ve got to know yourself. Every single dark corner that proves you’re a garbage person.” There are so many ways to read that, but that’s a story of depression and pain and trauma – and the difficult, often painful process of change

Sex Death Revolution came out of my experience immediately after I started my transition. The sense of watching your old life slip away – and you don’t really know what this new life is. It started out about the emotional process of mourning for lost futures and it ended up going in a fairly different direction, but it’s very much about locating your core self in the midst of everything. Because there’s so much garbage floating around that you don’t know how to navigate.

There are themes and concerns which run through your work, but each book you’ve made is very much defined by the artists you collaborate with, and you seem to be good at writing for and with artists.

Honestly, I don’t write for artists – I write for myself. I tell artists up front, if you have a better solution to get this page to where it needs to be, do it. I’m a very spartan scriptwriter. I try to avoid giving more than just what they need to get the job done. Unless I have a very specific image in mind, I’m just going to say: “Jill and Bob continue talking. Jill looks increasingly uncomfortable.” An artist will translate that into whatever kind of paneling and sequence works. I feel like the way to explain what you were saying about how the work is defined by the artist is that I try to give my artists space to work. I don’t want this to be “my” book. I want my artists to be my partners so that it’s “ours.” I think the best place you can see that is to see what Sonny Liew did on Eternity Girl. You can’t script pages like that! You can’t write pages like he drew. I would give him a script and he would find ways to include recurring images and call back to previous moments and find ways to use panelling to escalate tension. There’s one example in particular where it’s a rooftop confrontation and he see the characters in relation to each other in space, we also see these inset panels showing one of the characters faces at that time so you get this much richer sense of their emotional experience visually. That’s one of the reasons I love comics because time is a function of space and that means you can manipulate time in really interesting ways that feel native to the medium. You can decompress as much as you want, zeroing in on every single movement, or you can blast right through it. It’s all up to you. I think Sonny uses time in fascinating ways that did so much to elevate my script. And I can say that for every artist I’ve worked with.

You’ve worked with Claudia a few times over the years as both an artist and colorist.

Claudia is my comics wife. I’m going to work with her forever. I love collaborating with her. She’s never been the flashiest or most experimental artist, but she is intensely aware of her characters acting. That’s the thing that I love about working with her. Her figures are so visually expressive. She knows how to do heavy with a light touch, which I why I like working with her on projects where we’re going to be doing heavy things but we’re going to be smirking at it the whole time. I like that she’s able to impart that humor to it. She excels at wardrobe and design. She’s probably my favorite collaborator because her ability to take exactly what I wanted and do it exactly the way I wanted it to be – but better. And she’s a workhorse. She turns around pages on time and turns around great work on a dime. She’s such a pro. And she’s an absolute sweetheart, who I adore. We started growing together as professionals and I want to work with her forever. 

This isn’t your first Comixology book, so how did this book end up there?

They pay pretty well. And there’s an immense amount of editorial independence. The only publishers that I’ve worked with to date when I’ve gotten that kind of freedom were Black Mask and DC’s Young Animal. One of the big reasons for going with Comixology with this book was just not being sure where else it would fit. I’m very much aware of how much of my audience is not traditional comics readers. I went, okay, what if I removed some of the barriers for entry? You don’t have to go to a comics shop, it’s not four dollars issue, it’s tailored to who my readers are and what they enjoy. I’m not writing for them, but I know my audience. I like to keep my bridges open and Teenage Wasteland was just a disaster project for a number of reasons that I’m not going to get into, but it was a really bad experience. I wanted to make sure that Comixology knew that I was still open to this platform and doing this kind of work with them. Comixology has treated me pretty well and I don’t like burning bridges. Why not pursue as many outlets as I can and as many strategies I can?

I’ve always tried to make myself unavoidable. That’s one of my strategies. I want people to not be able to ignore me. I tend to pitch hard and pitch frequently because I want to make comics. I have a million ideas and a million pitches and you keep sending them out until you find a home for them or until you conclude that this just isn’t the time for it. I just want to tell stories.

Right now you also have Vagrant Queen: A Planet Called Doom coming out. Why did you decide a sequel? Because the first miniseries was a perfectly self-contained story.

I never anticipated that there would be more Vagrant Queen. When I sold that book I had just done Eternity Girl and I wanted to do something that was low concept, a fun space opera where there’s no weird metaphysical shit going on. At the time I was in the early planning stages of Doctor Mirage, which is another heavy metaphysical story. I wanted something lighter. We concocted this goofy one off. They wanted to do another volume so I spent a lot of time thinking about Elida. Her emotional life. How she’s always running from the roles that other people want her to take. I had to do something about that catching her and watching her have to on some level embrace that role to navigate the crisis she’s in. If there’s a third volume, there are long term consequences to that decision. I’ve got a third arc plotted out so we’ll see if that happens.

It’s been interesting to see the TV show because Jem Garrard, who adapted it, clearly saw so much happening within and around the characters and events of the comic.

Jem is such an insightful writer. She has done so much to expand out from what’s present in the text. It all feel very natural, like it’s a part of the world that we presented but she has a bigger canvas and can show more of it. 

I obviously haven’t seen all the episodes yet, but while there’s a lot that isn’t in the book, there’s nothing in there so far that doesn’t feel like the book.

When I first read the pilot I was very struck by how much it sounded like me. How much she nailed the voice that I like to give things. I don’t want to say snark, but that kind of world weary sneer that’s still fun. A refusal to treat things as sacred. She so nailed the voice. There were lines where I thought, I must have written that line, but no, she did.

Any word on a second season?

I don’t know. If a decision has been made, they haven’t communicated it to me. Frankly, it’s been such a wild ride that even if there isn’t one – I got a TV show! I got to sit in a spaceship I made up! That was a staggering experience. How many people ever get to say that?

I wanted to ask – because I liked the book and both of you – is there any chance you and Marley will finish Marilyn Manor?

I honestly don’t know. I’ve spoken with Shelly [Bond] about trying to find another home for it. We all share the rights. The book is written. That was a cursed book. The development process was really long. We went through a couple of artists before Marley. Then Marley got pregnant and that slowed down production to the point where the first issue dropped, we didn’t have a time line for issue #2. That was when they were like, this isn’t worth it, and pulled the plug on the whole line. It’s one of the strongest, weirdest, most wonderful things I’ve ever written. I think we accomplished a ton in four issues and I just wish they’d let us finish it up and put it out as a trade. Just to have that work be out there. It’s a strange, unique story that I’ve never seen done anywhere. I’ve never seen anything like what the three of us managed to make happen. So we’ll see, but I hope so. I am so proud of that work.

It was a fabulous first issue.

It gets weirder and better! It builds off the seed of weirdness you get in the first issue and spirals into this chaotic exploration of fame, attention seeking, having an audience, and living your life as a broadcast. So it’s about social media. It’s about my extremely complicated and painful relationship with twitter. Not just the toxicity that comes at me, but the toxicity that it breeds in me. The attention seeking. The need for validation. The need to dog pile on people, to quote tweet and dunk on people. So many things that I realized were eating at my soul. It fuels this self-destructiveness in myself so I decided to turn that into this externalized story about a young woman who is in a position where there’s tons of attention on her that she’s trying to navigate in increasingly destructive ways. I think its one of the strongest things I’ve ever put to paper and it’s something Shelly and I want to find a way forward on.

As you were saying that, I kept thinking about how many of your stories are allegories of your own life.

I think that’s true of everybody who is writing original work. It’s harder to do that – but it still happens – if you’re writing Spider-man. There’s only so much you have control over because it’s this IP controlled by a big company and there’s editorial plans and you have influence over but no say over. I think you’d be hard pressed to look at any comics creator’s creator owned or independent work and not see that. I think it’s more obvious for me because I’m so very much an open book. My heart is on my sleeve. I like to talk about myself. I’m not going to pretend I don’t. [laughs]

Yes, but you used to be on this theological path and so much of the work you’ve made is about crafting stories about people finding new paths, these emotional guides about characters stepping away and finding themselves that people can see themselves in.

I think that if you’re writing a story that nobody can see themselves in, what have you done? I write stories for people to see themselves in, but that’s because I write stories to see myself in. I don’t think people are all that different. We’re all unique, but there are billions of people. I don’t mean that to devalue you. That’s part of why I feel confident in doing this really personal work because it means that I get to do something that is rooted in genuine emotion and experience and complication that other people have gone through. Trans stories are the same – and that means that I’m able to make work that other people can locate themselves in. At the same time, the emotions in the stories are not unique. Anyone who’s ever stepped away from a life path. Anyone who has 180’ed. Anyone who has a moment of self knowledge at thirty which changed what they did going forward can relate to these stories. People who have complicated relationships with their bodies. People who have complicated relationships with their pasts. People who have complicated relationships with their parents. There are so many things that are these really universal experiences that come together in trans stories. As a trans person, that’s my angle on those experiences, but those are universal experiences. I keep saying is that I’m trying to tell different kinds of trans stories instead of just the same one. Part of what makes that a fruitful experience for me is that I get to plumb all these different levels of experience that haven’t gotten this kind of literary treatment before while at the same time elevating the parts of this experiences that are relatable to everybody. I’m writing queer stories and trans stories that hopefully anybody on some level will be able to connect with. 

I think about Quantum Teens Are Go, which I would have loved at say, fifteen, and it’s a very queer story, but it’s also a great story of teenage angst that I think almost anyone at that age can read and see themselves in.

It’s about two teenagers who hate their lives. That’s my favorite of my books. I’m closer and more intimately involved with Kim and Kim emotionally, but I love those kids in Quantum Teens in a way that I have a hard time articulating. I think it’s because they took so long to let me in. I was writing the third issue when I was like, oh my god, I understand them now. I finally got how much of this was them trying to bust out of their lives. I knew that intellectually, because I wrote the book, but they finally told me how they were feeling. That was a fascinating experience, having characters who kept me at arms length for so long.

Do you typically plot out the narrative, but the characters and their emotional journey might not emerge until later?

[pause] I was about to say that’s how I prefer to work, but that’s not really accurate because its always a surprise when that happens. I do set out an emotional journey that I bake into the premise but the story does frequently take us elsewhere emotionally. Lost on Planet Earth doesn’t tell the story I set out to tell. I had five issues plotted out and I wrote two of them, but the book demanded I move in new directions and so Basil’s journey is not one that I expected. I didn’t realize where she was going to end up until I got there. The cool thing is that neither did she so I was there with her making those choices with her and letting her emotional state tell me where to go. That was a really fascinating experience. Quantum Teens was less that. As much as the story follows the plot beats that I wanted, I was so focused on Nat and Sumesh as a unit, as them against the world, instead of them escaping the world. I was so fascinated by the sci-fi weirdness that I really struggled to figure out why they wanted this the way they wanted this. That took time for me.

It didn’t contradict the plot you’d written but it gave you a deeper understanding of what happened and what it meant.

It was always going to end the way it ended. The ending means something different from what I set out to do. I set out for it to be a launching into a new adventure. They have the freedom and power to do what they want. Instead it became, they’re now free to live their lives together the way that they want. They’re free to make their own destinies. He leaves her a time machine with a note that says, come find me, but don’t rush – we’ve got plenty of time. They were always running and hiding and its breakneck trauma – and they can just be happy now. The four page epilogue was new material created for the trade. Me and Eric made a decision that we didn’t want to continue it because it was such a great ending. But I really wanted to know they were okay. 

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