Smash Pages Q&A | Alisa Kwitney on ‘G.I.L.T.’

The comics writer, novelist and former Vertigo editor discusses her latest comic from Ahoy Comics, which she describes as ‘The Golden Girls’ meets ‘Sex and the City’—by way of ‘The Twilight Zone.’

Alisa Kwitney is a name familiar to many comics readers. For many years, she was an editor at Vertigo, overseeing The Dreaming and many other projects, in addition to being the Eisner-nominated writer of comics like Vertigo Visions: Phantom Stranger, Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold and A Flight of Angels. She’s also written number of other comics, including Token for the short-lived Minx imprint and Mystik U. Kwitney is also a well known novelist of books including The Dominant Blonde, Sex As a Second Language, and Cadaver & Queen, in addition to being one-half of the people behind the Endless podcast.

In the new Ahoy Comics series that launches next week, Kwitney and artist Alain Mauricet introduce us to G.I.L.T. An acronym, we come to learn, that stands for “Guild of Independent Lady Temporalists.” The book opens in 1973 before jumping to 2017 and to say much more would spoil it, but Kwitney was kind enough to talk about the book without, we hope, saying too much.

To start, how did you come to comics?

As a kid, I read comics like a fiend, like most of my friends. In those days, you could buy comics at your local newsstand shop, and I would go there with a quarter and buy a comic – House of Mystery or House of Secrets, Shanna the She Devil, Archie comics. Then the comics disappeared, and I stopped reading until I was in college, when I discovered specialized comic book stores and the X-Men. A few years later, after I had worked for a couple of weekly newspapers, I applied to Columbia’s Fiction Writing Program. I learned a lot there, and I read some literary authors I absolutely loved, like Mary Gaitskill, but a lot of the reading I did for sheer pleasure was romance and comics. I joked about it to Stephen Koch, one of my professors, and he said something to me that changed my life: “Never condescend to your tastes,” he said. 

So after graduation, I started looking for a job in publishing—which was what nearly all aspiring novelists did in those days. But instead of just applying at the “Big Five” mainstream book publishers, which was what my peers were doing, I also sent my resumé to DC Comics, and to Marvel, and to Silhouette, a romance publisher.

Where did the idea for G.I.L.T. come from?

I realized how similar The Golden Girls and Sex and the City were—you have one sensible, sarcastic friend; one unapologetic, confident, sex-positive friend; one wide-eyed innocent idealist; and then you have the one who editorializes about everyone else. And I thought about how both shows messed up their endings, in my opinion, because they married off the central character. It’s actually the problem with so many classic sitcoms—you don’t want a sitcom to end with a big resolution that changes everything that went before. You don’t want the last episode of The Love Boat to have the boat sinking and killing off the whole crew. You don’t want The Flying Nun to give up her wimple and stay grounded. You want the ship to sail on, the nun to fly free, and you want The Golden Girls to stay together, bickering and laughing and eternally eating the early bird special.

Then I started to think about whether Bea Arthur’s Dorothy ever regretted leaving her mother and her friends. If she ever wished she could go back in time and change that last episode. And that made me think about how it’s so much harder to think about a change than to actually change anything. And that’s in the present. How much harder would it be to change something in the past?

Last but not least, the book was influenced by my mom, who was, until very recently, the sharpest, funniest, bawdiest, most sex-positive, self-aware senior you could possibly imagine. She always used to say that she wouldn’t need to move to a retirement community because the Upper West Side of Manhattan is a retirement community, and buildings are like vertical villages.

You’ve written comics over the years, but you are also an acclaimed novelist. Why was G.I.L.T. a comic?

I just saw it as a comic. It’s a very visual story—and Alain and I were looking for a longer project to do together, so I saw his art in my head. I knew he would bring so much humor and humanity to the characters and the story. And I really wanted to work with Tom Peyer, who shared an office with me and taught me so much about comics and humor. 

You named one of your main characters Hildy – after Rosalind Russell, I’m assuming. And I feel like screwball comedies and that dialogue patter has always been an influence on your work.

Absolutely. I used to hear all my characters much more than see them, and I watched and rewatched Howard Hawks’ comedies with their rapid-fire, pool balls ricocheting off a side-cushion dialogue. I actually think The Golden Girls had some of that exquisite edginess, too. 

Of course a time travel story shows the many differences between now and 50 years ago. To see how some things haven’t changed much at all, but others have changed in some significant ways. In ways comedic and otherwise. Was that part of the interest in and excitement for this idea on your part?

People are people, and you only need to stroll through the ruins of Pompeii and take in the graffiti (“everyone writes on these walls except me”) to know how little humans have changed over the centuries. But each decade has a flavor, and the early seventies was such a delicious blend of hippie idealism, burgeoning hedonism and the beginnings of a real sense of impending disaster. 

The opening issue and how it begins and ends made me think of La Jetée. Well, sort of. I don’t know how much of that was intentional.

I did not know about that French film before now, and I am really looking forward to seeing it. In general, I get antsy watching French films, which do so well at capturing the quirky nuances of existence, but leave me feeling a bit lost and existentially morose. I think you can’t write about a grand old NYC building with occult connections without giving a nod to Rosemary’s Baby, both the book and the film. There’s no devilishness in my story, but I resonate with how that story combines social satire and dark humor and uses the magical as a means to explore the psychological. 

You made the book with Alain Mauricet. How did you two connect and how did you come to work together on G.I.L.T.?

Alain and I have been trying to work together since 1973. Well, okay, not really, but since 2015, when DC Comics paired us up on the first incarnation of Mystik U, and then fate sent us in different directions. But Alain and I never stopped talking and plotting and bonding over our mutual love of campy horror, dark humor and the avocado and vomit color palette of the seventies. 

Even though this is our first long project together, Alain and I have spent seven years kibbitzing about plots and characters, kvelling about vintage Mad magazine and Kirby heroes and House of Secrets covers, and kvetching about the Brilliant Ideas that No one Else Seems to Think Are Brilliant. Mostly, we fall into a classic grumpy/sunshine pairing, like Dorothy and Rose from The Golden Girls, Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, or Ted Lasso and Beard. Our catchphrase: “I loved that page…but I had a thought.” 

It’s been a few years since we last saw a comic written by you, though many of us still remember Destiny: Chronicle of Deaths Foretold, Flight of Angels, and other work. Is there any particular reason? Or was it just a question of the right project and publisher, coming together?

Well, I did write Token for Shelly’s Minx line and a Stephanie Brown storyline for Convergence and Mystik U, along with some other short projects, so I wasn’t entirely AWOL from comics. And I had an idea for a Vertigo comic that turned into my two YA novels, Cadaver & Queen and Corpse & Crown. But for a while, my comics ideas weren’t finding a home, and my prose ideas were getting contracts, so I focused more on writing novels. I think it took having Alain as a steady collaborator and a publisher who was actively looking for humor and shared my sensibility to make me start percolating with comics story ideas. 

A lot of comics readers likely know your name – or maybe this is me showing that I grew up in the ’90s and was a Vertigo reader – but you are one of the people associated with the imprint. I know that you’re sort of discussing/reliving that period as part of the Endless podcast and do you want to say a little about the podcast who people who might not know about it?

I do the Endless podcast with Lani Diane Rich, who is new to the series but sharp as steel about what makes story work and a veteran pop culture analyst to boot. So there is this great dynamic of me returning to the stories and characters and recalling what it was like to work on them, and Lani coming fresh to the Sandman saga. We’re reading the comics from the beginning, and then we’ll start watching and commenting on the Netflix series when it comes out. 

I can’t help but think of G.I.L.T. as a bit of a departure for you in some ways, but it reminds me a little of the work of two people – your late father, the novelist Robert Sheckley, and the late Kit Reed, who I know you studied under at Wesleyan. I don’t think that either could have written G.I.L.T., but I feel as though the concept would have appealed to both of them.

That may be one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. I used to write humorous short science fiction stories in high school and college, and I’m not even completely sure why I stopped. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I was, and am, a huge fan of my father’s work, and of Kit’s writing. They both used humor as well as science fiction to say a lot about society and people, and they were both excellent craftspersons. I have no higher praise.

Just to close, how do you describe G.I.L.T.? How do you describe it? What’s your elevator pitch for the book? 

The Golden Girls meets Sex and the City—by way of The Twilight Zone.

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