In 2016, crime novelist Chelsea Cain dove into superhero comics for the first time with the Marvel series Mockingbird. Focused on lesser-known Avengers member Bobbi Morse, Mockingbird was prematurely canceled after only eight issues, but Cain and artist Kate Niemczyk used those chapters to craft one of the most entertaining and unabashedly feminist superhero comics of the decade. Unfortunately, not everyone greeted it with enthusiasm. After the final issue’s cover featured the protagonist sporting an “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda” shirt, the Male Nerd Internet went into a meltdown. Cain was bombarded by social media abuse until she left Twitter, swearing off a comics fandom that had become toxic.
But now she’s back, and her agenda is more feminist than ever. Cain’s newest comic, Man-Eaters, reunites the Mockingbird creative team to tell the story of a world in which hormonal fluctuations cause young girls to transform into violent, monstrous cats when they menstruate — and face severe government repression as a result.
“What is scarier to our culture right now than women? Adolescent girls are particularly scary because we don’t know how we’re supposed to feel about them,” Cain says. “This whole monster allegory felt like a very apt way to explore our fear of female sexuality and women in general.”
Why cats? Well, Cain notes, our culture has very parallel ways of talking about both women and cats. Both are variously portrayed as adorable kittens, sexy pussycats, and/or inscrutable sphinxes.
In recent years, there has been an uptick in calls for more diverse representation across pop culture. Cain emphasizes, however, that the best way to tell new stories that reflect the real world is not just to emphasize female and/or non-white characters, but to have diverse creators behind the scenes as well. Cain, for instance, has a young adolescent daughter who has recently become aware of how male-focused the comics industry can be. Cain has channeled the rage of that realization into Man-Eaters, and her daughter has had quite an influence on Maude, the book’s teenaged girl protagonist.
“As a comic geek family, we’ve raised our kid going in to the store every week to get comics, and then there’s this terrible moment where she’s started to go through puberty and suddenly she became aware of all the misogyny in the comic store,” Cain says. “Seeing her start to see how women are portrayed on all those comic covers on the wall, seeing her see that all of the store picks that focus on particular creators are all pictures and names of men. Seeing her see that makes it very real. I really wanted there to be something for her, that might reflect her rage. Man-Eaters is a very funny comic, and I hope it’s an exciting comic, but it’s also a very angry comic, because there’s a lot to be angry about.”
Cain continues, “When we talk about representation in comics, we require more than seeing people like us in the comics. We want to see through the lens of that experience. That means the art and the writing. Choosing what pictures appear in what panels is incredibly powerful; it shows what that character thinks is important and therefore what is important. A big mission for me is to show a world that resonates for people who maybe don’t see their world reflected, show them things they can relate to. I think everybody should experience other points of view, but in comics we have this industry where one point of view is much more dominant than any other.”
Though she’s “scared to f—ing death” of another harassment campaign — one reason it took her almost two years to write another comic — Cain said the Mockingbird experience instilled her with a sense of responsibility, “as someone who had the opportunity as a female to tell a female-perspective story.” To that end, Cain and Lia Miternique founded a production company called Ministry of Trouble, which developed Man-Eaters for Image Comics and may develop even more comics down the road. On top of that, Cain is already working with Kelly Sue DeConnick (Bitch Planet, Captain Marvel) to develop Man-Eaters for television as well.
With Man-Eaters, Cain has created an even more feminist comic this time around. She delves deep into the blessings and curses of female bodies, which is illustrated hilariously by Niemczyk in the first issue’s opening sequence as Maude daydreams about a superhero named Tampon Woman.
“With Mockingbird, I was accused of having a feminist agenda,” Cain says. “I was always like, ‘Yeah! Of course I have a feminist agenda.’ I’ll see your outrage and raise you a Tampon Woman. What do you got, internet?”
Man-Eaters #1 is on sale Sept. 26.