When Black Mask Studios announced its 2016 slate, the Internet roared in excitement at the breadth of style and representation in the books. And among the most talked about was Kim & Kim, a new buddy concept comic co-starring queer women, written by Magdalene Visaggio. Visaggio sat down with Comicosity for an in-depth look at the upcoming book, the origins of its protagonists, and how trans disclosure is handled in the book.
Matt Santori: How did Kim & Kim start out for you, both in concept and in bringing it to Black Mask Studios?
Magdalene Visaggio: OK. It’s sorta complicated?
Kim & Kim sort of covers a lot of territory I’ve been wanting to explore for a really long time. I’ve always wanted to do something with like “Han & Chewie,” space-based freelancers who live in their ships and travel the stars making money. My dad was a long-haul truck driver so I’ve spent a lot of time on the road in this kind of itinerant setting, and it’s always really fascinated me, this big subculture that exists underneath us all.
And I’ve always wanted to sort of recapture the Kerouac boho beat mood, with a story about wandering gyrovagues eking out a living out there on the road. So Kim & Kim is hitting that note for me in a lot of ways.
I started putting the book together back in early 2015, and I really quickly latched onto the idea of doing a book about two best friends in space. The bounty-hunting thing was always just an excuse to send them on adventures; I toyed briefly with making them gonzo journalists, but I’d been reading a lot of Transmetropolitan and I didn’t want to ape that book.
But my big priority was about doing a story where the key emotional component is this intense, ridiculous, genuine friendship. I wanted to capture how vital and important these relationships are, especially between women. And I happened to forge one of the closest friendships of my life with my editor, Katy Rex, while working on this book.
We brought it to Black Mask for a lot of reasons; they’ve got a really progressive, punk rock vibe and ethos, and they seemed like a fantastic fit. I mean, they’re the publisher that did a book about a zombie rock band fighting the Westboro Baptist Church. They’re the pub who decided to launch an eight dollar, eighty-page #1 for Young Terrorists. That’s insane. So I figured if anyone could find a place in their editorial strategy for this weird-ass book, it’d be Black Mask.
MSG: The initial solicit and press for Kim & Kim #1 was very determinative about the queerness of the book. Talk to me a little bit about your feelings on the landscape of queerness in comics Kim+Kim is entering, and what this book can address that you feel is unspoken so far.
MV: I don’t know the queer landscape of comics inside and out – I don’t have the money or time to keep up with every book on the shelves – but queer representation is certainly not something that’s super amazing right now. And while we’ve had some spectacular queer-centric books – Steve Orlando’s Midnighter comes immediately to mind – it’s always something that’s pretty rare, for a title character to be LGBT.
So as a mainstream audience mass market comic starring two queer women, one of whom is transgender, Kim & Kim is definitely unique in the comics market right now.
I’ve talked a lot lately about how hugely important queer representation is – representation kind of period, really, and trans representation in particular. It’s so so so so important to give trans kids and trans teens and really anybody out there who is struggling with this mess in their souls to see people out there who are being trans and living their lives and kicking ass. The fiction we reads informs our vision of the possibilities of the world around us, and our own possibilities, and when all trans kids see are sex workers who get murdered, or “pathetic transsexuals” who are clearly deluded or used for comic effect, we’re not seeing a future that means anything. I wanted to address that.
And by normalizing trans and LGBT identities in fiction, frankly, we help normalize it for the real world. By increasing exposure and visibility, we help promote understanding. I hope, anyway.
So Kim & Kim is really self-consciously queer; I’m not sure any of our core four – Kim, Kim, Saar, and Columbus – are straight in any meaningful sense. Meanwhile, Kim Q and Columbus Cross are both gender rebels; Columbus really plays with androgyny and femininity, and Kim Q is outright trans. All the legit heterosexual relationships in this book so far play out in the background – the Kims’ parents, for instance, and there’s this running joke of a couple in a failing marriage are continually interrupted during very serious conversations by Kim Q crashing into their table.
Kim & Kim is for everybody, but in a really special way it’s a queer-ass book for queer-ass kids.
The relative dearth of out queer creators in mainstream comics definitely hinders queer representation across the board. I can think of very few other openly trans people working in comics right now, which means there are few opportunities for authentic transgender voices to be heard in the industry. I’m really grateful to Black Mask for giving me this opportunity, and as a trans woman who is fortunate enough to get to write comics for money, I definitely feel an obligation to work to make trans people a bigger part of these fictional worlds I have the privilege of being able to help create.
MSG: How has the process of working with artist Eva Cabrera and colorist Claudia Aguirre been in designing Kim and Kim, and the world they live in?
MV: I try to be pretty hands off. I give my descriptions and offer my suggestions, but Eva and Claudia really run that show. We should loop them in. Eva and Claudia are a blast to work with, and they’ve become two of my closest friends over the course of this. Team Kim is pretty tightknit.
The initial character design work was actually done before Eva and Claudia joined the team. I developed the book originally with artist Moriah Hummer, who was laid all the groundwork for the Kims’ overall aesthetic, although her Kim Q was more of a skater punk and her Kim D was a lot more glam. She designed Kim Q’s signature pink haircut, for example.
The world Kim and Kim live in is inconsistent and functions as needed in the story; the key things that matter are Kim and Kim themselves, the people in their lives, and the Contessa, their interdimensional flying van. Eva and Claudia play with the Kims’ wardrobes a lot which is a really important part of their characters, and how the Kims dress really strongly reflects their personalities.
This book is a travelogue in a lot of ways; I think we visit something like four or five planets over four issues? I want each location – the city of Caspardan on Vessus Secundo, the city of Qui-Ho’Olo which is deep underwater in a psychedelic ocean of pink and blue, the crushing cold of the lost planet Never-Look-Back – to feel like a place with a history and a live outside this story, and Eva and Claudia are super talented at making these places feel real. I think in particular that’s where Claudia really shines; she excels at texture and lighting.
MSG: The first issue makes Kim’s identity as a trans woman an upfront, matter of fact part of her identity. Tell me about your thoughts on the “reveal” going in, and what you’ve tried to mirror or avoid in developing that moment.
MV: This is such a delicate subject. Disclosure is super complicated to manage. As a writer, I want to have really well-developed characters who aren’t defined by their gender identity or sexuality – but that stuff is still relevant to their character, and if you don’t disclose, people will assume cis and straight. Because that’s how privilege operates.
Basically, the audience needs to be told, and you need to be super upfront about it. Leaving any ambiguity lets people argue that it isn’t so – but as a writer you can’t just shoehorn it into conversation.
So, with Kim & Kim, the moment of disclosure comes in the form of a private conversation between friends discussing existing and past relationships. Nothing is explained, because in the context of this scene, nothing need be explained outside of Kim Quatro’s transgender identity existing. I didn’t want the disclosure to be a Big Reveal, or a shocking secret. It’s a part of her identity, and to get Kim Q’s frustrating relationship with her dad (which is a big part of the first issue) you need to know that she’s trans; it also plays into everything else about her – how she negotiates femininity, how she relates to her body, how she operates in the world. You need to know she’s trans to understand her.
But trans rep is such a frigging minefield and I get why people are worried about doing it right. Even I worry I’m screwing it up; I have another book in development where there are two transphobic incidents in the first ten pages, both of which have as one of their goals disclosing to the cisgender audience the character’s trans status in an unambiguous way.
Being trans in real life and in fiction is a matter of controlled disclosure, which sucks because it starts by assuming the controlling power of the cisgender audience. It’s about who is doing the looking, who is being disclosed to, and who gets to give their approval. You kind of have to acknowledge the cis audience and respect them. It comes down to the ways in which being trans is as much about being performative for everyone else as it is about being your Truly True Trulio self.
The whole thing about writing trans for a mainstream audiences is that being trans doesn’t mean the same thing for the cis audience as it does for me. Will they think I’m being preachy? Do I need to engage in Trans 101 stuff (which too often translates into “As You Know, Bob” conversations) – all of this factors in.
MSG: The lead characters have an existential feel to them, to be sure. Their angst stands out, particularly in regard to Kim’s relationship with her father. In developing their personalities and philosophies, what were some of the ideas you had about their core natures and how they relate to each other?
MV: Both of the Kims are operating in someone’s shadow, and both of them are running from their own pasts and familial expectations. Kim Dantzler was trained as a probate necromancer, but turned her back on it to chase after an adventurer life. Kim Quatro was raised to be the heir of a bounty hunting empire – but broke with her father to set out on her own. And this contentious, frustrating sense of personhood is at their core: neither one feels like they can ever get out from underneath the expectations of others – and the end result is that they cling to one another in this huge way. Each is all the other has got.
I’ve mentioned this book’s similarities to Broad City, in that it’s about best friends who are just trying to figure out how to be grown ups. I wanted to really capture and communicate the sense of wasting your twenties, of not really always being able to follow through on your big plans, of being ambitious and energetic but not really knowing where to go with it. The Kims are always flying by the seats of their pants, scrounging up a living and hanging with their friends, despite wanting to do so much more and knowing that they aren’t getting there. They’re both kind of terminally irresponsible.
Kim D in particular represents this; she’s the one out there trying to make a life and a career for herself, trying to play out her ambition and her sense of authenticity but mostly feeling stuck. She’s just waiting for an opportunity to show up and prove herself – but she’s totally terrified of failure. The Fighting Kims is her business venture, her big play to succeed (and emulating a favorite aunt, incidentally), but it’s not getting anywhere.
Kim Q, on the other hand, is the spoiled rich kid who doesn’t really she’s not just slumming anymore. She’s never had to have ambition, and mostly she approaches all of this as a game. Which she can get away with, because’s she a wild, talented daredevil. She depends on Kim D to keep her grounded, because left to her own devices, she’d probably get herself killed in a bar fight she started. She wants to have adventures and feel like she’s worth something, and she’s kind of obnoxious and self-centered.
MSG: There are definitely pre-existing relationships alluded to throughout issue #1. What is your process for developing these backgrounds and characters that have never lived outside of you and imparting that kind of fullness to the reader?
MV: I think I do what a lot of writers do. I start with a name and a basic idea, and then I start doing character sketches. How long they are depends on the characters, and I’ve been doing longer ones lately as I’ve been spending a lot more time developing background. It’s actually really cool, because you start with these little details that start to connect with one another.
Ok, so for Kim Q, I decided that she’d be the kid of an important bounty hunter, mostly because I wanted one person on this shitty little bounty team to actually be kind of experienced with it. So later, when I’m developing antagonists, I realize that she has this big conflict with her dad, which means she has a conflict with his team – and she used to be on that team. So it goes to reason there are probably some personal grudges in there. And the character of Saar developed kind of around this idea.
So yeah, I discover these relationships between the characters as I go, and in these character sketches, little other stories start to appear. Old incidents, grudges, friendships, relationships, who’s had sex, yada yada. You have to know who you’re writing about before you start.
Not that this stuff doesn’t change over time. Kim D’s backstory was significantly enriched once I realized that she wasn’t just some rebellious kid, but that instead she was after something very specific in her life. Originally, yeah, she was just someone who thought the trade she was raised in was stupid so she left. But that made less and less sense for her as a character; she was the sensible one. She had to have a reason for doing something like that, something that made her take a bold leap like this, and I found that reason in a familial relationship that’s kind of the centerpiece of issues #2 and #3.
Basically, I don’t want anyone in this book to be a cipher; everyone has a past, everyone has a personality, everyone has motives. Buuuuut you can’t just have people walking around proclaiming their past to everyone. I’ve always loved Harry Turtledove novels. He does these alternate history books that are such ridiculous fun for a history nerd like me. But the characters are always going around having lengthy discussions about the specific historical changes that Turtledove happens to want to communicate. Sometimes you need to get specific – but nobody talks like that.
So, there’s a scene in the first issue where Kim Q is arguing with Saar about an old conflict. He wants to help them out a jam, but she’s nursing these really heavy resentments that make it so she can’t accept his offer. And the dialogue goes something like:
“Come on, Kim, we used to be friends.”
“Yeah, but when it came time to choose you picked my father.”
“I picked the Catalans!”
“It’s the same thing!”
There’s a lot of content in these four lines, but at no point do they start rehashing the old argument, or debating what went wrong. They’re just talking about this thing that happened in the shorthand of people who need no explanations.
MSG: The fantastic, sci-fi quality of the environment seems really well balanced with this sense of the familiar, like Kim’s guitar and the “Mystery Machine.” How are you thinking of the setting? Is it past, future? Is it space? Is it other dimensional? What’s your thinking on “place”?
MV: I have no idea when or where this book takes place, and honestly I’m not sure any of them know, either. I think at some point in the past (nobody is entirely sure when), time and space sort of broke, and the end result was this bizarre agglomeration of dimensions. Distance and duration don’t exactly mean what we think they do, and every time and place is accessible if you know the way.
Basically, the rules of this world are “whatever kind of story I want to tell, there’s probably a dimension where it works.”
The book is basically a sort of fantastic modern day. There are flying space vans and shape shifting octopus people and orbital death platforms, but there are electric guitars and real-life movies get referenced. It’s not a wholly fictional place; it’s situated in our lived experience but it’s explicitly unreal. It’s not even properly science fiction; it’s just fantasy that plays with some sci-fi tropes.
One of the most formative stories I’ve ever been exposed to is FLCL. I watched it a few times in college, and never since; I probably haven’t watched it in a decade. But it has stuck with me in this really massive way and has been a major factor in my storytelling. FLCL embraces absurdity and juxtaposition, and has no problem doing a thing because it looks or sounds cool or fun. I mean, you can trace Kim Q’s bass guitar directly to Haruko.
One of my big hangups as a writer is that I tend to get really stuck on logistics, you know, on calculating so that everything stays together in this really precise logical way.
And logic is good! But I would get so caught up in developing all these logistical questions and answers that I’d lose the thread of the plot. So Kim & Kim is a big exercise in deciding that what mattered more than anything is my characters’ motivations, not the rules of the world they live in. The rules are there to serve the story; the moment they stop serving it, they go out the window.
Don’t expect me to say anything like this if you get me talking about Star Trek though.
MSG: Any other thoughts or teases you’d like to leave readers with?
MV: Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes.
Call your local comic shop today! Friday is the final order cut-off for Kim & Kim #1. The issue arrives in stores and online this July from Black Mask Studios!