GAME CHANGERS: Jeremy Whitley on PRINCELESS

Welcome to GAME CHANGERS, an interview series at Comicosity looking at female protagonists in comic books from the last decade or two (or more!) — and the original creators who brought them to life.

We’ve focused in on a lot of books for Game Changers that highlight women characters with agency that are crafted for more mature readers, but one of the best examples of new strong-minded, female protagonists comes from the all-ages realm: Princeless. Its central hero, the Princess Adrienne, is determined to save herself from every fairy tale trope and expectation that would push her down. We talk to series creator Jeremy Whitley all about how Adrienne came to be, and where her adventures are taking her next.

But first…

 

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Who Is Princess Adrienne?

Full Name: Adrienne Ashe
First Appearance: Princeless #1 (2011)
Created by Jeremy Whitley

Published by Action Lab Entertainment

One of eight siblings born to the King and Queen of a faraway land, Princess Adrienne Ashe questioned the fairy tale necessities and conventions from the youngest of ages. That didn’t stop her from being locked in a tower by her parents to be rescued by a princely suitor when she came of age, however. Guarded by a dragon and approached by many, not-so-stunning challengers, Adrienne thought she’d be stuck there forever — that is, until she discovered a sword underneath her bed.

Then, the only thing that made sense was for her to save herself.

Befriending the dragon Sparky, Adrienne put on a discarded suit of armor and embarked on a journey to rescue each one of her six other sisters from similar fates. Meeting new, excellent friends along the way — such as Bedelia the half-dwarf daughter of a blacksmith, and Raven the pirate princess — Adrienne continues her adventures to this day, never wasting her time waiting around for her prince to come.

 

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A few words from her creator

Matt Santori-Griffith: Jeremy, tell me a little bit about the origins of the book and, specifically, the character of Princess Adrienne.

Jeremy Whitley: It was something I starting thinking about when my wife and I were discussing having kids. Specifically, we were talking about having a daughter. I had been into comics, and it was something that I wanted to share with her.

I had seen all the stuff aimed toward young girls — especially with all the princess stuff being a large portion of what is marketed toward girls — and it really bothered me. A lot of the characters being championed there are not particularly strong characters; they don’t necessarily have any sort of agency. I really wanted something I could share with my daughter that was better than that, characters she could see herself in, both as a strong, young girl and as a young woman of color. She needed characters that were more aspirational like that, rather than just a princess character that doesn’t really do anything, that just sit around waiting to be rescued.

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Interior art by M. Goodwin

So, I wanted to have a character like Adrienne, who rescues herself and does her fair share of rescuing others as well.

MSG: Right away from page one, you’re definitely imbuing the book with politics of race and class, and playing the idea of the adventure story against that of the fairy tale. How do you find that balance in the book overall?

JW: I think I try to keep it even parts fairy tale and adventure story. I guess I don’t see as big a line there as some people would put, except that fairy tales often involve things that happen to people while adventure stories are ones where people do things themselves.

I wanted to create something that was equal parts both. Of course, we have something that has some of the trappings of a fairy tale, with princesses and dragons and all that stuff. But it’s also an adventure story with a lead female, and about girls in general. That’s a genre story that I feel is often missing for girls, that outright adventure story. For some reason, that’s exclusive to boys in a lot of cases.

I use a lot of tropes from both types of story, and I tend to pick out a lot of the issues I have with fairy tales specifically and give those a bit of a jab. There are a lot of things in fairy tales, adventure stories, and comic books that bother me. Rather than being the sort of person that just complains about them, I wanted to put that change out there. At the same time, I do get to complain about them a little as well. [laughs]

MSG: I think some your breakdowns of these classic scenarios is really interesting, like Adrienne’s explanation to the dragon that he’s only there to ultimately get slayed by the champion.

Interior art by M. Goodwin

Interior art by M. Goodwin

JW: I think with a character who is as fun and goofy as Sparky, the ideas that she’s just there to get slaughtered is pretty affecting. I didn’t want to make it just a think where the princess is simply the prince in the scenario, going in hard and killing dragons. I didn’t want her to just become that very common comics trope of a man-with-boobs.

MSG: Another really funny scene along these lines is the one where Adrienne first meets Bedelia and gets to pick out her “Woman Warrior” armor. How did that scenario arise for you?

JW: That’s one of the ones that was the most fun scene to write. When I was putting it in, I was convinced that I was going over the top and too far, that people weren’t going to enjoy it. But that seems to be one of the ones people love the most.

I just wanted to poke some fun at things that I actually really like. I like Xena. I like Wonder Woman. I used to like Red Sonja a lot less, but am warming up to her with the current run.

It’s nice to be able to hold those two things in your mind at the same time: that you can like a thing and still be critical of it. I think it’s important with things like strong female characters in popular media, to be able to say, “OK. This is a step in the right direction, but it still needs to be better.”

I think there’s a tendency for people to fall on one side or another of that issue. It’s either terrible or… it’s a little something! I wanted to be able to say this stuff is ridiculous. I’m openly mocking it, but I’m enjoying it. You get an interlude there where Adrienne is running around in the Wonder Woman-esque armor. She’s able to pull stuff and get into some hijinks, but it’s not a long term solution type of armor.

Interior art by M. Goodwin

Interior art by M. Goodwin

MSG: So, that’s the scene where she meets one of her best friends, and in the latest volume you introduce another companion. Can you talk about Adrienne’s relationship with both Bedelia and Raven?

JW: Bedelia spawned entirely out of necessity and then became a much more fully formed character. I knew that I was going to drop Adrienne into the Blacksmith in this scene, because at the end of volume 1, issue #2, she loses her pants when she falls off a balcony. She’s wearing armor that doesn’t fit.

So, I needed someone for her to talk to, and Bedelia was a fun, cheeky girl-behind-the-counter. As I started writing her, it became more obvious to me who she was, that she was the one making a lot of the armor, though she couldn’t take any credit for it.

Bedelia is an interesting character because she’s been the victim of a lot of mental abuse and been taken advantage of by her father, a drunken Dwarf blacksmith who doesn’t actually do any of his work. Bedelia has been the one keeping them afloat, doing the work under his name. She decides to take off with Adrienne after the Blacksmith burns down. At that point, the consequences of sticking around outweigh any sort of reward, so she decides she’s going to finally go on the adventure she’s always wanted to go on.

Bedelia in this case is a little bit of a fan girl. She’s always been interested in stories about women warriors and she knows who Adrienne is. She knows who Raven is before we meet her. And she’s always very excitable about these things. She gets a lot of the ideas for the armor she’s made from watching plays and those sort of things. She’s fun and goofy, but at the same time very hard-working.

I created Raven for a different reason. A couple of years ago, Princeless got chosen by Action Lab for a Free Comic Book Day story, and I didn’t just want to republish a story that we already had. We only had 9 pages to work with. I wanted to tell a story that was quintessentially Princeless to give the people an idea of what this book is in only nine pages.

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Interior art by Rosy Higgins and Ted Brandt

I wrote this story where along the way, in between rescuing two sisters, where she passes this other tower where a girl is being held. She stops by and asks if she’s in need of rescue, so Adrienne decides to dive in and help out. But Raven is a bit more than Adrienne is ready to take on, because she is not a princess in the strictest sense. She’s the daughter of the Pirate King, leader of all the pirates in the seas, and she’s quite capable herself. She’s been groomed for a long time to take over that mantle of the Pirate Queen.

But things didn’t quite turn out the way she expected, having gotten locked up in a tower by her younger brothers, who would not have been getting the title and decided to plot against her. This is still unfolding in the current issues. Raven is very bold and determined. She has a lot of skill, knowledge, ability, and agility.

In Adrienne’s case, she wins a lot of the fights she’s in through luck or sheer determination, rather than having a history of training or skill. But Raven has been training to do this sort of thing her entire life. She’s sort of what Adrienne thinks she is. [laughs]

MSG: There’s an interesting dichotomy in the book between her commitment to rescuing her blood family, and building this other family that she actually spends her time with. Can you share the idea behind some of the family structures you’re building?

JW: As most people do, Adrienne feels some amount of obligation to her family despite them not particularly treating her well, and them not particularly “getting” her. It’s interesting — particularly in the second volume where Adrienne goes to rescue her sister Angelica — that it becomes obvious that Adrienne doesn’t even particularly like her sister. They don’t really get along. If she had thought to wonder, she might question why she was rescuing her sister.

But the idea of wondering why, or questioning that her sister might want something different than she does, never really entered her mind. Adrienne is very single-minded like that, and feels that obligation to go after them. But at the same time, she’s building this other family of like-minded women who are in the same spot as her, and who want to do something that previously hasn’t been an option for them.

Interior art by Emily Martin

Interior art by Emily Martin

A lot of folks have that second family that’s closer to them, and understands what they’re about, why they do the things they do. In college, that was definitely the case for me. There were more people who were into the same things and understood what I was talking about, and were willing to go out on a ledge with me on ideas. They shared a lot more with me in deep similarities than my own or their own families did.

MSG: You’ve had a different set of artists with each volume of the book. How did you pair up with each one?

JW: M. Goodwin, who I worked with on the first volume, is just fantastic. The art on that volume is just great and was initially exactly what I was looking for. I had been paired up with her by editor at Action Lab, Dave Dwonch. He had picked up the first issue of Princeless I’d done with a friend a few years back. We had only gotten to one issue, and it hadn’t really worked out.

Dave really liked the idea and said it was the kind of book he really wished Action Lab could be doing. I was like, “I don’t really have an artist anymore, so if you want to set me up with somebody, you can bring me onboard.”

After the first volume, M. had to move on. She’s got her own creator-owned project she’s working on. She really enjoyed it, but she had her own stuff she wanted to do. Now, she’s teaching art in Asia.

Then, Dave connected me with Emily Martin, who is now the ongoing artist for the series. Dave had been holding her in reserve as someone he really wanted to do a project with, but never really had anything for her that she wanted to do. When Princeless became available, I got to see some of her sketches and fantasy art style. And I really liked it. She got brought on to do volume 2 and is currently working on volume 4.

Art by M. Goodwin

Art by M. Goodwin

And then after we did the short story for Free Comic Book Day, we decided we wanted to do an extended story with Raven, as the 9 pager leaves off in the middle of issue #1 of the current series. I went looking for someone to do it, and went on Tumblr looking for a new artist. Rosy Higgins and Ted Brandt approached me there and showed me some stuff. I had never met them before and didn’t really know their stuff, but when they sent me some sketches of the characters, I was like, “OooooKAY. Yeah, we’re going to do this.”

They’ve finished up the current volume, and I have some other unannounced stuff I’m going to be doing with them. So, they’re definitely going to be around if you’re enjoying their work.

MSG: So, what does the future hold for Princeless?

JW: There’s a short story about Adrienne’s sister Angoisse in one of our short story collections. She’s the middlest sister of the group and is somewhat desperate for attention. In Volume 4, Adrienne goes to rescue her in a tower in the swamp, but when she gets there, she discovers that Angoisse may have already been possibly rescued, but is still in her tower.

There’s some odd things going on in this volume. I think people are going to enjoy it. In addition to our usual dragon, we have swamp creatures, goblins, and zombies. It’s going to be a good time.


“Princeless is such a phenomenal series because it provides inspired role models that are not bound by old-fashioned gender norms. Both boys and girls love reading these stories that challenge societal expectations while including a massive dose of adventure. Plus, who does not love a pink dragon?”

Jessica Boyd, Comicosity

 

Where can I read more?

  • Princeless Book 1 (2011): Save Yourself
  • Princeless Book 2 (2013): Get Over Yourself
  • Princeless: The Pirate Princess #1-4 (2015)

 

For a full list of Comicosity’s Game Changers, please visit our index.

 

 

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