In Vertigo's crime comic The Kitchen, writer Ollie Masters is telling a story about three women proving they're just as capable as men — it just so happens that they're proving it by doing something bad.
Set in 1970's New York City, The Kitchen is about three women who take over the family crime business in Hell's Kitchen after their husbands go to jail. Set in 1970's New York City, the comic has plenty of well-rounded male characters as well, and their reaction to these three tough women mirrors the conflict of the women's lib movement of that era.
While Masters focuses on tough female characters, he's surrounding himself by a list of accomplished female creators as well, working on The Kitchen with artist Ming Doyle and colorist Jordie Bellaire, and featuring covers by Becky Cloonan.
With the series marking a milestone in The Kitchen #5 — and heating things up for a husband-wife showdown now that the men are out of jail — Newsarama talked to Masters to find out more about his inspiration for The Kitchen, how the characters have evolved as he's been writing them, and why he believes working with a team of female creators brings a different sensibility to a comic whose main characters are women.
Newsarama: Ollie, how did you come up with the idea behind The Kitchen, and how did it end up at Vertigo?
Ollie Masters: It came from me reading about Irish gangsters in '70s New York. I really wanted to do a story in that setting but needed a different angle on it. Something to make it stand out from the normal gangster story. When I thought of the wives taking over the gang from their husbands, it just seemed perfect and something I hadn't really ever seen before.
It ended up at Vertigo because I'd met my now editor Will Dennis at a convention in London. We got along and afterwards I sent him a few stories and The Kitchen was the one that stuck. I'm really happy this book did end up at Vertigo and with Will. He's a guy I really respect and Vertigo has published two of my favorite crime books ever, 100 Bullets and Scalped, as well as some of my favorite non-crime comics, and I'm really proud to be a part of that.
Nrama: It's been interesting to see, over the course of the first five issues, that there's a real balance between the male and female narratives. Has there been a conscious effort on your part to make sure this book represents women — even criminal women — in a more realistic and positive way, but not so heavy-handedly to lose the realism for the male characters as well?
Masters: Yeah, it has been really important for me to do that. While the male characters are important to this story, this is all about Kath, Raven and Angie. It's their story and everyone else are essentially supporting characters.
I wouldn't say that the book represents anyone in a positive way — they're all criminals after all – but I do hope it's at least balanced, and to certain extent realistic in its portrayals of everyone, male or female.
Nrama: We've gotten to know a lot of characters over the first five issues. Who's emerged as surprises for you as you've written their voices and gotten to know them?
Masters: Yeah, Angie's great to write. She's the most honest out of all of them; there's no bullshit with her.
But I think Raven has surprised me the most in how she developed as a character. I don't want to give anything away but she's definitely changed as a character since I first started writing her.
Nrama: Over the first five issues of The Kitchen, there have been these different levels of moral ambiguity. Each character takes a little different approach to how "bad" they are. Was that something you wanted to explore, or did it evolve that way as you wrote each character?
Masters: It's definitely something I wanted to explore. Most criminals, even hardened criminals, set these limits to what they'll do and pretend like that's a moral code. A hitman won't kill women and children and thinks that makes him a moral person, but he's still killing people. I guess it makes life easier to live. "I'm bad but I'm not that bad."
And in The Kitchen, we have three women who, while living on the edges of crime their entire lives, have never been actively involved. So it's been interesting to explore where they set their own limits, how they differ from each other and how they change as they get more actively involved in the criminal life. You may say there's a line you would or wouldn't cross but you don't know for certain until it's right there in front of you.
Nrama: How would you describe Kath, Angie and Raven right now, as The Kitchen #5 ends? And how have they evolved since the first issue?
Masters: I think all three of them have become much less naive. They know exactly what they're into and have fully committed to it, rather than in the beginning where they saw it as a temporary thing.
I think their dynamic as a group has changed as well. In the first issue, Angie was just along for the ride, barely even speaking, but now she's the gang's enforcer, almost as feared as Tommy in Hell's Kitchen. Raven is slowly overtaking Kath as leader and proving herself to be more than capable of doing it, but Kath is in a kind of in limbo. She started this whole thing and pushed everyone to follow her, but as Raven begins to become recognized as the leader, she finds herself unsure of her place in the gang.
Nrama: Why did you think the setting — both the time period and the city — fit with the themes you were exploring?
Masters: I think '70s New York, despite (or probably because of) being a scary and crime-filled place, was a time of excitement. There was a feeling that something new was happening and anyone could be involved. Especially in music where you had punk showing up, you didn't need to know more than three chords to be in a band at places like CBGBs, and hip hop emerging on the streets of the South Bronx. People were putting on their own parties and inventing a whole new type of music to represent themselves because no one else was representing them or giving them an outlet.
It was a time of new things and people who felt (and were) underrepresented in society making themselves heard. So a perfect time for three mob wives to take over their husbands' gang!
Nrama: As expected, things are heating up between the husbands and wives, and although the story is character-focused, there also seems to be a larger picture at play here — with women striking out on their own just during and after the women's lib movement of the '70s. Is that among the themes you're exploring in the series, and how much will these women's experiences echo the real-life experiences of that era?
Masters: I don't know how much they echo real-life experiences but it was definitely a theme in the series.
This is a story about three women proving they're just as capable as men; it just happens that they're proving themselves to be just as good at doing something bad.
Nrama: How much do you think the "times have changed" since the late '70s, as far as the sexism-based challenges and perceptions Kath, Raven and Angie are facing, compared to now? How would their story be different today — or would it?
Masters: I think we have come a long way since then and that really makes me hopeful for the future, but things are nowhere near perfect yet. In theory, we've become a less sexist society but in practice a lot of people still haven't moved far away from a mindset similar to the '70s.
I'm not sure how different The Kitchen would be now... I'd be tempted to say it wouldn't, as criminal circles aren't known for their progressive attitude to gender roles. But maybe now women have better job prospects compared to the '70s, Kath, Raven and Angie wouldn't have had to resort to crime to get the respect and recognition they deserve.
Nrama: The Kitchen #5 included the girls making a hit on some other crew's truck. That sure seems like something that might come back and hurt them later. Is that a fair assumption, that we haven't heard the last of it?
Masters: I wouldn't want to give anything away.
Nrama: #7 has been advertised as taking place during the blackout of 1977 in New York City. What prompted you to include that real-world event, and how much do the events of the issue tie into (or even symbolically mirror) the blackout?
Masters: I didn't want to put real world events into the series just for the sake of it. That can feel forced in period stories. But for a comic set in '77 New York, you just couldn't ignore the blackout.
It also ties into an important plot point in #7. The blackout highlights the chaos that's engulfing the girls in that issue.
Nrama: #8 is the conclusion to the series. But will there be room for more in the future?
Masters: This story is self-contained, but I'd love to come back to this world again, either exploring the character's pasts or seeing what happens to them afterwards, and the cultural shift from '70s New York into '80s.
There are also parts of '70s New York I didn't get a chance to explore in The Kitchen that I'd love to come back to if I had the chance, either in The Kitchen or in something else.
Nrama: Anything else you can tell us to look out for, in upcoming issues?
Masters: Things are going to get a lot worse as their husbands continue to try and take back their gang, so expect a lot of blood and a lot of heartache.
Nrama: Let's talk about the art team's contribution to the comic. How much has Ming Doyle's and Jordie Bellaire's art informed the way you're writing the characters?
Masters: They've turned Kath, Raven and Angie into tangible, real people. When I write them, I write them as people I know and that's completely down to Ming and Jordie's art. Ming has a perfect grasp of emotion and character in her art; you can't help but believe in the characters and Jordie has done the same with her colors.
Nrama: How much are you involved in the choices for Becky Cloonan's covers?
Masters: Some a lot, mostly very little. I had a few ideas which we used, but Becky had such a great understanding of the characters and is such a great artist that I didn't need to be that involved.
Nrama: Was there a conscious decision on your part, and the part of your editors, to include female creators on this comic?
Masters: For me there was, but it wasn't an all-or-nothing situation. I really liked the idea of having female creators on the team, because of what they could bring to the story — I guess a different sensibility to mine — and because I think we need more representation from all walks of life behind the scenes. It's all good for a straight white male like myself to try to put more diversity in my work, but I only have my experiences and interests to write from. We won't have real diversity in the actual finished products until we have more diversity in creative teams.
That being said, with this comic, while I had that in mind, it just came down to picking the people we thought would be absolutely perfect for this book, and happily we ended up with a female heavy creative team.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell fans of The Kitchen?
Masters: I'd like to thank everyone who's been supporting the book. This wouldn't be happening if there weren't people out there willing to take a chance on it.