Interview: The Unstoppable Wasp’s Jeremy Whitley

The Unstoppable Wasp

Jeremy Whitley grew up with comics. His father would walk with him to their local comics shop where he fed his love of comics and “Marvel Masterworks” trading cards. But as an adult, he found it difficult to recreate that same experience with his own daughter due to the lack of positive female role models in the medium. “I wanted my daughter to have comic books she could love the same way I’ve loved mine. Not to mention, I’m a little leery about the princess culture and what it actually teaches girls.”

Rather than sit idly by and complain, Whitley created the indie comic Princeless, a comic featuring princesses that take charge of their own lives, instead of waiting around to be rescued. The all-ages book found an audience with girls and their parents, and was a critical hit, receiving multiple Eisner nominations.

The success of Princess caught the attention of mainstream publishers, and Whitley quickly found work writing such titles as My Little Pony and Secret Wars: Secret Love, before landing a full-time gig writing Marvel’s The Unstoppable Wasp. (One of 2018’s Best Graphic Novels for Kids –Ed.)

The book is a celebration of girl power, science and the power of positive thinking. Even more impressively, after an apparent cancellation by Marvel, the book is back in print, with a new art team but the same unmistakable plucky spirit.

Heroic Girls: I recently witnessed a comic book miracle. The Unstoppable Wasp came back from “indefinite hiatus.” How did this happen?

Jeremy Whitley: I am happy to say that that is entirely due to the love and support of both fans and librarians. While the book didn’t have the best number in comic shops, once it was collected and available to libraries and book shops, the numbers jumped up. Our focus on girl superheroes and STEM and our fun and positivity really spoke to our target audience and they responded. I think having a good base in real science and our interviews with real female scientists included with the trade really helped the book to find a home. And to Marvel’s credit, they saw how much people cared about the book and brought it back.

Heroic Girls: For people who might be unfamiliar with the character, can you tell us who “The Unstoppable Wasp” is, and how she is different from the Wasp they’ve seen in the movies or old Avengers comics?

Jeremy Whitley: Well, as with many things in the movies, the comics are slightly different. As with the movie Wasp, The Unstoppable Wasp is the daughter of the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym. However, her mother is Hank’s first wife, Maria and not Janet Van Dyne — the original Wasp and (in comics) Hank’s second wife.

Nadia’s mother was kidnapped before she was born and she was born into a program called “The Red Room”. People who have watched the movies will remember this as the program that trained Black Widow from a young age to become an assassin. Nadia began on that same track, but the people running The Red Room recognized Nadia’s capacity for science and invention, and put her on track to become one of their own mad scientists. She has, until recently, been raised in an underground bunker to do mad science, but now she has escaped and has decided to become a scientist and superhero in her own right.

The other big difference is that in the comics Hank Pym is not an old man and therefore Nadia is also not a 20-30 something like her film namesake. Nadia is a teenager.

Heroic Girls: Let’s talk a little about your art team Gurihiru. They are definitely coming from a different place than the Jack Kirby, male-dominated Western art style that historically has defined comics in the US. What do you think they bring to the Nadia’s story?

Jeremy Whitley: Being from Japan, Gurihiru have been part of the world of comics and manga for a long time as women without it ever having been unusual. They also have very different influences than a lot of older American artists, but many of the same ones as the current generation. Having come in after Elsa Charretier on the first volume, it’s been interesting. Elsa has been making American comics for a while, but is French and came up in much more of a French tradition. She has a lot of background in design and we talked a lot about the clothes and styles of the girls and women in the book. I did very much the same with Gurihiru when they came on. It’s been a big deal for us that each character has their own sort of style and is instantly recognizable on the page. I love that our characters all look distinct without needing to have wings or superhero outfits to do it.

Heroic Girls: You have used Nadia to promote girls in STEM fields. How do you achieve the balance of messaging and entertainment?

Jeremy Whitley: Comics and science have a long history together. As I like to point out, Marvel Comics was born from a scientist shooting himself and his family out into space. From Spider-Man, to Ant-Man, to the Hulk — science has always been a part of Marvel Comics. Unfortunately, during the golden age of science comics there were relatively few female protagonists and even fewer who were scientists themselves. In the last five years, there’s been a renewed concentration on creating female let comic titles — but most newer characters aren’t as grounded in the science side of things. I think that even though its seen as revolutionary because our leads are female, what we’re doing really hails back to the beginning of comics. I think it’s easy to include science and be entertaining, they’ve been doing it for years.

The biggest difference in what they’ve always done and what we’re doing is how we choose to use the space around our comic. We wanted to make sure that girls reading our comics didn’t see this extraordinary science and think that it was just something superheroes could do in comics. We wanted to introduce our readers to real women working in science, so we included interviews with actual female scientists in the back of every issue so our readers can check out what sort of real science they’re doing out in the world right now.

Heroic Girls: How important is it to represent science well when you are writing fantastical science fiction for children?

Jeremy Whitley: Very important. I do make up plenty of stuff, but I think having the fictional science makes it even more important to get the actual science right. Especially since, now that I’ve been interviewing them, I have a lot of friends who are scientists. I remember bad science taking me out of fictional stories in the past and I don’t want a misunderstanding on my part to affect the ability of the story to reach everyone. Also, I don’t want kids walking away from the comic thinking they’ve learned something new and then finding out I was wrong about it.

Heroic Girls: The Unstoppable Wasp has a very calculatedly diverse cast, with multiple PoC and queer characters. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of representation in relation to the title?

Jeremy Whitley: Yeah. I always try to have diverse casts, but honestly this one was easy. The book is set in New York, which is a very diverse city. I wanted to book to be reflective of the diversity of the city. Nadia understands the important of having different voices and different experiences within her team, so when she goes recruiting, she finds the people she needs. Nadia and I have missions that work very well together in making the book and in making her lab, so it was pretty simple. Honestly, there are so many groups of people in New York City that it would be great if we could have a bigger team.

Heroic Girls: Nadia is definitely rooted in the Marvel Universe, but the book also seems like a bit of a throwback in that she the greater Marvel Universe is brought in to serve Nadia’s story, rather than the other way around. Is that a fair assessment?

Jeremy Whitley: I would say so. I mean, with Hank for a father, her history immediately goes back to comics published in the ’60s, but Unstoppable Wasp is not a book that’s steered by events. We don’t want you to have to read eight other books just to know what’s going on when you pick up Wasp. We recognize that this book might be the only book in the Marvel Universe someone reads, but what we hope is that it’s the FIRST book in the Marvel Universe someone reads. If they enjoy this, they can jump into Champions or Avengers or Ms. Marvel and already know a little bit about them and their world.

Heroic Girls: Overall the book is super fun and lighthearted — much like Nadia herself. But you’ve also touched on darker themes as Nadia has to deal with issues regarding her father’s spousal abuse and the abuse she suffered herself at the hands of her handlers in the “Red Room.” How important is it to have these moments of gravitas peppering what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward science-fiction adventure series?

Jeremy Whitley: It’s very important. As you’ve said, Nadia is happy and lighthearted. That would be one thing if everything was easy for her, but the fact that she’s had hard times makes her excitement and brightness all that much more important. Nadia is someone who has had a lot of her life taken from her and has made a conscious decision to live what life she has to the fullest. I don’t expect our readers to have lives without any sort of struggles and Nadia will have to face her own. Perhaps she can inspire them through this as well.

Heroic Girls: The comics industry is starting to make more books for kids and more books for girls, but comic book shops are not even on most girls radar. How is your target audience finding your books?

Jeremy Whitley: I think more comic shops and conventions are starting to actual realize that young girls are part of their potential audience, which is at least making it a little easier for girls to put those shops on their radars, but I think the answer is two main institutions have allowed us to reach younger female readers: bookstores and libraries. With the dawn of writers like Raina Telgemeier, we’ve seen more and more books stores stocking graphic novels aimed for young girls. On top of that, there has been an increased recognition in library circles of comics as a way to bring reluctant readers into reading. They’ve been increasing the size of their graphic novel collections and stocking books that will appeal to a larger audience.

Heroic Girls: One of the core ideas of Heroic Girls is that by providing better and more varied role models for girls, pop culture can have a positive impact on the real world. Looking over your body of work, is it safe to say that you share that belief?

Jeremy Whitley: No doubt. That was part of my motivation for creating Princeless in the first place. I was looking to create a comic with a heroine whom my daughter could see her self in. Adrienne is a princess, but she is also a warrior. She doesn’t need a prince to save her.

Unstoppable Wasp as a book had largely the same mission statement. We had Nadia and Janet (the original Wasp), but we also introduced a cast of other girl geniuses that reflected the real world population of New York City. We have Taina (our Puerto Rican engineer and robot maker), Shay (our African-American physicist), Ying (our Chinese chemist), and Priya (our Indian American botanist). The group reflects both a diversity of experiences and a diversity of expertise. Everybody is a bit different, but they have two shared passions: science and saving the world.

Heroic Girls: How did writing books aimed at girls or featuring female protagonists become a controversial political statement?

Jeremy Whitley: You know, that’s a heck of a question. I started doing it because I didn’t see anything else like it in the market and I wanted it to exist. I honestly never believed that there were people doing their best to fight back against this kind of progress, just an industry that didn’t thank/realize how much of its potential fanbase it was missing. As it turns out, there are a number of people (mostly men) in the industry who seem determined to buy and subsequently hate comics that are not created for them. I’m still a little unclear on who is forcing these poor men to read books that they clearly aren’t going to like from the moment they see the cover, but somebody ought to do something about that.