Kelly Thompson is one of Marvel's top writers - juggling Captain Marvel and Mr. & Mrs. X, while also being deeply involved in the big picture planning as one the vaunted few 'exclusive' writers at the House of Ideas.
... but how did she get there?
We've known Thompson for years, even before her comics debut - as we will get into with her later, she once wrote about comic books online. In fact, you probably read her work.
Thompson spoke with Newsarama about breaking into the comics industry, establishing herself in comics journalism, and her path to writing comic books.
Newsarama: Let's start off slow - what are you working on right now? What’s literally on your desk?
Kelly Thompson: Scripts for Captain Marvel, Sabrina, and Mr. & Mrs. X, also proofing passes on two other things for Marvel. Plus R&D for a big pitch for something new at Marvel, and 10 pages for a very cool thing that I can’t talk about. Several creator-owned things I’m desperate to get to are also bouncing around there in the background yelling at me to pay attention to it.
Nrama: You are currently one of Marvel's top writers, but I know you best from our time together writing for CBR. You wrote for CBR from 2009 to 2015, most notably with the "She Has No Head" column. How do you look back on that part of your career?
Thompson: I look back on it as a valuable part of turning me into the writer I am, and also a necessary step to making the connections that helped me jam a foot in the door of comics…but also sometimes I cringe. Like anything, hindsight is 20/20…and especially in the sense of working in comics, you see how the sausage gets made (and how hard it all is) and I have some regret about how hard I was on the industry sometimes.
Comics can let you down a lot and so it’s easy to get frustrated, but I wish I’d been more generous and given more benefit of the doubt now that I’ve seen behind the curtain.
Nrama: Do you feel writing about comics like you did helped inform your actual prose and comic writing?
Thompson: In my view there is no better way to learn about comics than reading tons of comics both good and bad and then forcing yourself to examine why they are good and bad in the form of writing reviews about them. It taught me more about comics than any other one thing I did, including going to school to study them.
Nrama: I know comic books keep you busy right now, but could you see yourself doing more non-fiction/op-ed/journalism writing at some point?
Thompson: Probably not. I fell into op-ed and writing reviews totally on accident. I really enjoyed doing it for a time and it taught me so much, but it’s definitely not my passion, writing fiction is what I always wanted to do - and what I have always done. If comics keep me less busy I’ll definitely be pivoting back to novel writing (I’m trying to do that anyway in tandem with writing comics - but I’m failing badly!) and more TV and film stuff. Or at least that’s the plan.
Nrama: During that time at CBR, you had a day job as an office director/manager. What was your life like then, in terms of fitting in writing?
Thompson: Yeah, I worked in high-end residential architecture starting as a receptionist and then office manager right out of college in Los Angeles and just sort of moved up that ladder - eventually working as an office director in NYC for a very cool boutique firm. I was laid off during the recession…2009 I think it was? I worked again as a consultant for a new incarnation of that same firm later – but that was my last “straight day job.”
There was nothing particularly special about how I did the day job thing. It paid the bills and I spent almost all my downtime writing – comics, novels, and rants on my blog – which eventually turned into writing for CBR and Comics Should Be Good (also Lit Reactor, Publishers Weekly, and a few other places). I think the remarkable thing about how I broke in - how I worked while having a day job - is that there’s nothing remarkable about it. It’s how almost everyone eventually gets there, you know? Paying the rent with X, Y, or Z (or all three!) while you try to figure out how to make your passion pay for it instead.
Nrama: This is all going on while you have a Sequential Art degree from the Savannah College of Art & Design. What comics work did you do in college, after college, but before 2015?
Thompson: Well, ironically I didn’t do any comics outside of school while going to SCAD. But I went to the University of Arizona for two years before I transferred to SCAD and while there published my first comics – two shorts in two volumes of an indie book (zine?) that the local comic book shop – Captain Spiffy’s - did. My stories were awful as almost all first work probably is? I worked on some indie comics stuff after I graduated but I never published it as I began the shift to writing only. Though I would later do some journal web comics when I started blogging, which was a fun experiment. The only other comics work I published before 2015 was a short – drawn by Stephanie Hans, so it looked incredible – for the charity project Womanthology.
Nrama: So all this is going on, but you found time to write two prose novels - Storykiller and The Girl Who Would Be King. I've met a lot of comic writers who did a prose novel before jumping full-time into comics. Where did they come from, creatively?
Thompson: The Girl Who Would Be King was my first novel. And it’s the story of two girls with superpowers. And at the time that I wrote it…I started around 2005 I think…superheroes were just not the hotness that they are now – and certainly they were not being explored much in novels. So I thought it might be interesting to explore them in novel form. Also, I knew I couldn’t handle the drawing tasks and I had no money to pay an artist, so making it a comic was pretty out of the question. I eventually (years later) got really close to a big publishing deal for The Girl Who Would Be King but we ultimately failed.
Later, in 2012 I ran a Kickstarter for the book – pretty early days for Kickstarter – and it was a huge success. It really helped break things open for me in a bunch of ways – I got a manager, it eventually got optioned for film which provided some much needed cash for my struggling freelance life, and we got a big review on io9 that helped drive attention to it - it became a sort of cult success. The Storykiller Kickstarter was in 2014 and while the Kickstarter was wildly successful (more than double The Girl Who Would Be King’s take) and I know the book is stronger in most ways, it just never took off the same way The Girl Who Would Be King did. You never know with these things.
Nrama: But this brings us to your first major comics work - 2015's Jem & the Holograms with Sophie Campbell. How'd you get that break, and how do you look back on it?
Thompson: Well, while Jem & The Holograms made it to print first, and it was certainly “bigger,” when I got Jem my creator-owned OGN Heart In A Box with co-creator/artist Meredith McClaren had already been picked up by Dark Horse and we were about 90 pages in when I was pitching for Jem. It released digitally a few months after Jem started coming out, and in print in the fall…and I have a lot of feelings about that…so let’s just move on! [laughs]
I was very lucky when it came to Jem. Both in terms of Kelly Sue DeConnick having recently made an introduction for me to Sarah Gaydos at IDW, and in the brilliant Sophie Campbell being willing to partner with me on a pitch. Sarah got us on the short list to pitch to John Barber, the editor, and then eventually we won the day. It was huge. I was so excited and terrified. It felt like a really big way to fall on my face, but also a chance to really announce myself as someone that could do this. Fortunately for me we got the latter. When I look back, it’s amazing to me that they took the chance on me. They had a big chunk of Heart In The Box to look at to know that I knew what I was doing…but I was still a huge unknown risk for them.
Nrama: Soon after, you made your Marvel debut co-writing the Secret Wars era Captain Marvel & The Carol Corps with Kelly Sue. There's a lot to unpack here, especially with you now writing the new Captain Marvel ongoing. But first, what was your working relationship with Kelly Sue like?
Thompson: Yeah, it’s bizarre to have had Carol Danvers be my first experience at Marvel and then be getting another shot at her now – when things are so big for her. It’s very exciting and I feel honored to have that responsibility. My hope is certainly to do her – and her fans – justice, and hopefully create something that new fans can love too.
Working with Kelly Sue was great – I was a huge fan and I think – especially in retrospect that partnering new writers with veterans is a great model that really helps shape and strengthen that new writer while also helping with quality control of the book you’re “test driving.” All co-writes are different but for that one it was very much me listening to what they wanted and needed and trying to impress them with what I could do.
The concept was Kelly Sue’s, they handed it off to me to break it down into issues summaries and then later detailed “beat sheets.” Notes coming at me throughout that process. Then I wrote a first draft and then Kelly Sue came in and would do her revision (which I like to call “sprinkling that magical Kelly Sue dust”) – to make it sing.
It was a tremendous working experience. I learned a ton. And I was hyper aware I was auditioning for more work - Sana Amanat (our editor) literally had my “Hawkeye Investigations” pitch in her hands while I was writing that book – so I knew very much what was at stake.
Nrama: How was it coming into something so continuity-laden as your first Big Two project?
Thompson: Kelly Sue and Sana and I joked about that a lot. That it was definitely like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. There was also a lot of “if you can do this you can do anything” which made me feel like it was a good trial by fire. If I could survive it – even better, do well in that scenario – that they would trust me with more.
Nrama: What was your appraisal of the business of comic book writing at this point?
Thompson: I think, gosh...I was so new…it’s hard to even relate to that Kelly. Yet it was only four years ago! So much of those early days is trying to figure out how the machine works…how you can fit yourself into that machine, how you can be a part of it. What you can add to it, and a little bit how you can survive it.