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C2E2 2019: “Unstoppable Wasp” Writer Jeremy Whitley Talks Mental Illness and Representation

By | April 8th, 2019
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

This interview first appeared Saturday, April 6th, 2019, on the most recent episode of the Make Mine Multiversity podcast, which you can find here.

Writer Jeremy Whitley is in his second volume now with the new Wasp in the Marvel Universe, Nadia van Dyne telling stories about science, empowerment, mental illness, hope, and so many other things. The first volume with artist Elsa Charretier ran eight issues, and was recently re-released in a smaller graphic novel format. Now, through the first arc of the second volume with artist Gurihiru, Whitley is expanding the world of the scientists of G.I.R.L. and all their budding relationships. The most recent issue of “Unstoppable Wasp” was even featured in The New York Times, where it was revealed that Nadia, much like her father original Ant-Man Hank Pym, has bipolar disorder. We sat down with Whitley at C2E2 last month to talk about what went in to portraying mental illness in comics, and to talk about his experience writing this book.

'Unstoppable Wasp #5 cover by Stacey Lee

Well we are here to talk about “Unstoppable Wasp.” It’s a really fun, and at times kind of really tragic book. What’s the experience of working on it been like for you, especially as Nadia has really taken off across the Marvel Universe?

Jeremy Whitley: It’s been amazing. I mean I didn’t create Nadia, you know, Mark [Waid] had her, but she had only really been in Avengers a couple of times before we picked her up in “Unstoppable Wasp.” So we’ve really gotten to shape a lot of her character and what matters to her. That’s a great opportunity for me to be able to really define this new character and the sort of trust that entails on Marvel’s part is pretty big. So to be able to come in here and shape this it’s really interesting cause when I got the job I went to Waid, who I know, and was like, “Hey, so, uh, what do I do?” [Laughs] “What’s Nadia like? What do I have to make sure to get right? What do I have to get sure I keep?” And Mark to his credit was like, “Ah don’t ask me that. Just do what you want to do. I trust you to do it right.” And he was like if you want to see my thoughts on it, read these couple of stories here. He had this Hank Pym story he had done for “Age of Ultron” that he was like, “This is kind of how I think about Nadia.” And I read up on that stuff and we went from there. I sent that first issue to Mark and was like “Oh, yeah that’s good. I really like it.” And I was like alright! I felt that was really reassuring.

To get to do some of the bigger stuff we’ve done in the story, both toward the end of volume one, but also in the last few issues that are coming out right now, #4 and #5 of volume two, has been really extraordinary. I feel like we’ve had a chance to tell types of stories that aren’t really out there very much. It’s been incredible to have that chance.

Very cool. One of the really cool things about this book has been the interviews in the back of the issues with female scientists. Can you tell me how that part of the book came about?

JW: Yeah! It came from a conversation that Elsa [Charretier], the artist on the first volume, and I were having where we were talking about wanting to bridge the gap between the superhero science in the book and the kids that might be interested in science that would be reading the book. We sort of went back and forth about how we wanted to do it. Elsa talked about doing Tumblr posts where we talked about historical female scientists and stuff like that. And I was like, “You know I like that idea, but I want it to be in the book. I want it to not be about Marie Curie. Everybody writes a thing about Marie Curie.” I wanted it to be about women who are doing science right now, who like, if somebody reads this book and they’re interested in what their doing, they could like go talk to them on Twitter. It’s an incredible opportunity for girls and women that these people are out there and that they can just talk to them you know? Most of them are, as you can see from the interviews, are very excited about talking about what they do.

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And it’s been great I think. They’re always super excited about being in a comic book, and I’m super excited to get to interview people who have like these crazy, interesting job titles and do jobs that I don’t fully understand what it is they even do. And then to be able to then…I’ve had a couple of chances where we’ve done actual science stuff in the book and I’ve been able to go back to them and be like, “Hey so this is what I wrote. Is this right? Does this make sense?” Having that chance to have a science consult has been really cool.

Alright so let’s get into the heart of the book then, the most recent couple issues, 4 and 5. I think probably left a lot of people crying at the end. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself. You depicted Nadia as dealing with coming to realize she’s bipolar, the fears of all that, and then coming to realize she needs help. How did you decide that that was something that Nadia would probably have to deal with and what sort of research and work did you have to do to be able to talk about bipolar disorder respectfully?

JW: It was something that we had talked about from the first volume of the book. Alanna [Smith, editor] and I had chatted about it at the very beginning because it is sort of on record, he’s self-diagnosed, but Hank has bipolar disorder, and that is a thing that is commonly genetic. There’s a much higher percentage that you’ll have bipolar disorder if your parents have it. So that was a thing that we had always sort of taken into account was a story we could tell and something we wanted to do, but wasn’t the first story we wanted to tell. I think it was important to us that that be part of her personality, but it not be the defining thing about Nadia. I don’t think that’s true of people in real life. I think it was important that we established so much of that early on.

When we got the chance to come back and do the second volume, Tom Brevoort said to me specifically, “If there’s a story you want to tell this is the opportunity to tell it. It’s not often that books come back. This is a good chance. Don’t put anything off and count on some point down the line telling the story.” So we kind of sat down and hammered it out and figured out what we wanted to do. I did my own research and reading up on stuff and figuring out what this should look like early on. But then as I was writing it I did a lot of consulting. I have an actual psychologist in the special thanks, as well as, Chris Ceary, whose an actual professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University. Those were I think my first sort of touches. We talked to some people who actually deal with having bipolar disorder themselves, or have friends and family members who are caretakers for people who deal with it on a regular basis the way our supporting cast will have to. We wanted to make sure we got that perspective right and it wasn’t just clinically correct, but that it felt like the experience and that people reading the book who have bipolar disorder, who have experience with it, will recognize that in the story. That Nadia can be that kind of representation for people is important to me.

So I did a lot of talking to them and doing small edits to make sure everything came across right and then a lot of panicking in between finishing it and it coming out. I wanted to make sure that people didn’t feel like we were approaching it unfairly or anything like that.

Picking up on that last thread, what has the feedback and aftermath of these couple issues been? From fans? Or perhaps fans struggling with mental illness? Also one of the really prominent aspects of the book is that you have queer characters right up at the front. What has been the feedback from some of your queer fans who are getting to see you Shay and Ying’s really cute relationship?

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JW: It’s been, in both cases, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been really interesting for me with the storyline with bipolar stuff that there’ve been a lot of people who both relate very strongly to some element of the story and feel seen and feel excited about seeing this sort of representation even if it is something that makes them cry. It’s definitely, and I feel like I’m patting myself on the back when I say this, but it definitely made me cry as I was writing it. I feel like some heavy and important stuff. I’ve had people approach me afterwards and say like, “I read this and I think I maybe might be bipolar.” That’s an incredible opportunity to have that sort of affect on somebody that they see themselves in this to an extent that they’re like, “I’m gonna go look into this.” That’s been my dividing line on it. When people come to me it’s like, “Yeah you should go talk to somebody who is a psychologist about this. Thank you for coming to me and letting me know this happened, but like I am not, and can’t, and don’t want to give you advice, other than go talk to somebody who knows what they’re talking about.” Which is cool. [Laughs]

I think having a chance to develop Shay and Ying’s relationship too has been a really cool thing. They’re both characters I created in the first volume and it’s nice to see them have a chance to live and grow and come into their own in the story. We’re doing some actual cool stuff with that relationship in the next issue. In issue #6, part of what we’re doing is Shay’s taking Ying to introduce her to her mother.

It’s getting serious. [Laughs]

JW: A little serious yeah. It’s fun to get to write that. A lot of my favorite stuff in comics that I liked as a kid was relationship stuff between the characters. Downtime stuff when they’re not necessarily fighting a big evil. To have that sort of opportunity to write those stories, again, there’s the representation there. But also these are relationships with characters that people are drawn to and love. The number of people who get super excited tweeting about the comic and their relationship and how cute it is touches my heart. [Laughs]

In your opinion, why is it important that we get to tell stories like this?

JW: I think it’s important to be able to tell stories where different types of people get to be heroes. I think that’s the reason that characters like Spider-Man catch on and last so long. That’s something that, at the time he came about, there wasn’t a wealth of nerdy, teenage kids who were superheroes. It was something that people saw themselves in uniquely. I think the same is true of Kamala Khan and a lot of characters that we’ve worked with over the last few years.

It’s important for everyone to be able to see themselves and see other people as heroes. I think there’s a tendency to hate and fear what we don’t understand as Charles Xavier would say. To be able to see other people, both being different, but also being real and heroic and stuff like this is important. Maybe not as important as being able to see yourself and stuff, but I think that’s something that I’ve picked up. It’s good to be able to see stories of other types of people and to be able to understand them a little better.

Well thanks for taking the time to do this. Issue #6 comes out April 10. Nadia has a lot of pieces to pick up, relationships to mend, and so forth. Is there anything you’d like to tease about that issue and where we go from here or other things you have going on other places or at Marvel?

JW: There’s nothing I can tease too much about future stuff at Marvel. Hopefully by like San Diego [Comic-Con] I’ll be able to tease more stuff. As far as Nadia and the crew, I’m really excited about issue #6. It’s sort of a downtime issue after the big stuff that happened in #4 and #5. There is definitely an aspect of Nadia trying to fix some of these friendships that have suffered from this. Especially the relationship between her and Taina who is rightfully bothered by some of the stuff Nadia did in issue #4 and #5. But we also have some relationship stuff with Shay and Ying and we’ve got some pretty cool fun developments coming with Priya in this next story as well. I’m really excited about issue #7, which Nadia is having her first ever birthday party. We’re gonna see Nadia finally interact with some of the more extended Pym family tree.

“Unstoppable Wasp” #6 hits shelves this Wednesday, April 10th, 2019.

//TAGS | c2e2 2019

Kevin Gregory


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