Joe Corallo: Rachel Pollack – The ComicMix Interview
Over the past year I have been working on raising awareness of Rachel Pollack’s run on Doom Patrol. She’s not only one of two trans women to ever write at DC Comics, she’s also the only woman to write Doom Patrol.
When I was given a slot here at ComicMix to be a weekly columnist, I used my second column to talk about Coagula. Once DC Comics announced its plans to launch the Young Animal imprint helmed by Gerard Way and how Doom Patrol would be the flagship title, I wrote about my excitement and made sure to discuss Rachel Pollack’s contributions again. Months later I took to Geeks OUT to praise the importance of Rachel’s run to queer comics history. Most recently, I wrote up a piece last week on how Rachel Pollack has been forgotten by the comics industry at [insertgeekhere].
After a year of writing pieces on the subject, I finally got the chance to interview Rachel Pollack this past Saturday on her career in comics. Here is the transcript of that interview.
Rachel: Well first I’ve read comics since I was a kid. So I’ve been reading comics all life, which is a very long time now! I’ve always loved comics. There have been these periods where I would grow out of it so to speak and then the comics would get better and I’d come back to it you know? And then with Doom Patrol I never read the original, and I forget how I came to read Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. I really don’t remember exactly how I came to read that except that it wasn’t Vertigo yet but it was associated with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman which started before Vertigo so I was aware of it as part of that group. When I read it I was completely knocked out by it. I loved it. This is so incredible. A work of genius. And that’s how I came to read Doom Patrol.
Joe: You had gotten started on Doom Patrol after Grant was off the book. How did that come to be?
Rachel – What happened was I went to a party with people from DC with my friend Neil Gaiman and he introduced me to Stuart Moore. I mentioned my appreciation for Doom Patrol to Stuart and he said Tom Peyer is here at the party I should talk to him. So I told Tom I love Doom Patrol. It was the only ongoing superhero comic I was interested in writing at the time, if it was ever available. Tom told me Grant is actually leaving so why don’t I do a sample script and send it to him. And so I did that. He liked it enough to hire me.
Then I did that prank where I sent a letter to the letters column of Doom Patrol. I had to wait ages for Tom to get around to reading it. I wrote in this voice as a young fan. It read something like, “Dear Mr. Peyer, Doom Patrol is great! Grant Morrison is the most fabulous writer in the world. He’s a super genius! If he ever dies or gets sick can I write it?” And Tom finally reads it and calls me and tells me he loves it and to write more of these. Then in Grant’s last issue we’ll announce that you’ve gotten the job. So I wrote more letters and in the second to last one I wrote, ”I really wanna write Doom Patrol! I’m getting kinda angry here! I have friends. Don’t think I’m just a kid. You wouldn’t wanna have your head shoved in the toilet would you? Or sugar in your gas tank.” And then in the last issue of Grant’s run I wrote, “Gee Mr. Peyer I’m really really sorry about that! I got kinda carried away. The thing is I already told my mom I would be writing it and she told all her friends already. And so then Tom responded with, “Well what can I do? She told her mom. I have no choice! Rachel Pollack is the new writer of Doom Patrol!”
In that same issue I wrote this essay praising Grant Morrison in my serious writer voice. It just seemed to me it was so obvious that it was a joke and yet all of these people thought it was real! Some were really angry thinking I got this job just by writing letters. Others thought if they wrote letters they could write a comic. I was shocked that people could be so silly, you know?
Then I went to some other party at DC and I met this group of people. One was from the New Yorker Magazine and one was from the Village Voice and they asked you didn’t get the job from writing letters? I was like oh my God you people are nuts! So if you never heard that story that’s how the letters came to be.
Joe: When you started writing on Doom Patrol Tom was still editor, Richard Case was still doing layout work, and Stan Woch was still on the book as well. So basically you were one of the only new elements to the book. How was stepping into the role of writer with so much of the prior team on board at first and how did you start making this run of Doom Patrol your own?
Rachel: I was actually really thrilled that Richard Case was staying on for my first story arc. I love his art. I guess they were hoping that the transition would be smooth. I kind of did my first story as a homage to Grant’s beginnings. His first story was Crawling Through The Wreckage and I called mine Sliding Through The Wreckage. Tom had said to me Grant wouldn’t give any information. I think Grant wanted the series to end after he left. I’ve never had this confirmed but it was always my impression. Like how Russell T. Davies believed the BBC should let him kill off Doctor Who. But they didn’t.
So Grant wouldn’t give much information. The only information Tom had for me was that Robotman would be left and Dorothy, there had to be somebody in bandages (that’s what Tom wanted), and the Chief would be a head without a body. This turned out to be a Grant Morrison joke. Because Grant did this one off issue of a dream where the Chief lost his body and was a literal talking head, but I just went with it. I gather, like I said I never got the information from Grant, that he thought it was absurd. I thought it was hilarious. Since Tom said we need someone in bandages I introduced George and Marion, a couple in bandages. Then I introduced Kate Godwin but that was seven issues in. My first issue was 64 and issue 70 was when Kate Godwin appeared.
Joe: How did you go about creating Kate Godwin, a.k.a. Coagula?
Rachel: I was told that the current artist needed a break and I should do a one off story that could be done with a different artist. And I wasn’t pleased with the idea because I always tended to think in large story arcs. So I had to think of something and I came up with this ridiculous villain called Codpiece. And then somehow I just decided without even really thinking about it to introduce this transsexual lesbian superhero.
At the time I was involved in transgender activism and someone asked me if Kate Godwin was based on me and I said to answer the question, she’s based on a couple of friends of mine. But it wasn’t this big decision like I was trying to have this crusade. I just thought it was a cool thing to do.
The theme that had been emerging in my run was people having issues with their bodies and accepting their bodies. I always thought that was implied in Grant’s run. Dorothy was ugly, Cliff had a brain in a robot body, the Chief was in a wheelchair, Rebis was in bandages and so on and so on. I just made it more explicit. George and Marion were the first characters I had the idea of having accept themselves. And there’s a scene in that issue, the Codpiece issue, where George and Marion are heading to town and they ask Cliff and Dorothy if they want to come and they both make excuses. Dorothy says how can you stand it having people stare at you all the time? George and Marion say they have two choices: either they can go enjoy themselves and have people stare at them or they could stay home all the time and hide. George and Marion would rather go enjoy themselves and have people stare.
Codpiece himself was freaked out about people not liking him because he thought they would think he had a small penis which was all in his head. The first scene of that issue shows Codpiece’s origin. He’s in high school and he asks this girl why won’t you go out with me? She doesn’t want to say because you’re an asshole so she says because you’re too small. He’s wounded from this exchange and takes it as her implying he has a small penis. It becomes a fixation of his. And we see this over the years even though there is no evidence of this.
Then we get to present day where a prostitute says to him if you’re worried about being too small why don’t you wear something? He responds by developing this ridiculous codpiece costume. My idea was that it’s a parody of the ridiculous weapons in comics in the 50s and 60s. Like how Green Arrow would have a quiver on his back that would somehow contain boxing glove arrows and rocket arrows and so forth. So Codpiece had a boxing glove weapon and so on. Apparently some people thought I was attacking the fans. That I was somehow judging the fans as inadequate in the sense of their masculinity. Weird!
I guess it was in contrast to him and to some extent Dorothy and Cliff that I had this character come in, a transsexual lesbian. It was also because of a friend of mine, to go back to my earlier point. Her last name was Chelsea Godwin. She had asked me if she could be in the comic because she always wanted to be a superhero so I was sort of thinking of doing something for her. And Kate came from Kate Bornstein who was this brilliant transgender activist and performer. So I was paying homage to my friends.
Kate became a regular character. And a thoughtful character. A lot of people connected with her. Some people didn’t obviously. I didn’t get a lot of criticism that I was being too much of a trans activist, but rather that I was being too much of a feminist. That I was forcing feminism down their throats is what some people said. Some also said I was being too obscure. That was in the early issues. I was following Grant’s tendency to be obscure, but I perhaps took it a bit too far. As time went on there was more structure to the stories, but by that time we had already alienated some readers.
Joe: Do you have a favorite moment from working on Doom Patrol?
Rachel: Well I just really loved doing it. I loved telling these stories that were so outrageous. I loved the characters. We came up with some interesting ideas. I liked the character False Memory which was another single issue story.
There was one thing that happened shortly after we introduced Kate. We got a letter from a young transsexual reader from England who stated that she was wanting to kill herself, but never dared and because of the character of Kate Godwin she was able to come out to her friends. She was finally able to tell people because what we were doing made her finally feel that it was possible to have a life being herself. It was very powerful. We may have saved someone’s life. It was amazing. I wonder how that she’s doing now. It was a long time ago. Hopefully she continued to move in a positive direction.
Joe: You also worked on other books at DC including New Gods. Can you tell us about that?
Rachel: Yes! I was really thrilled to write it! Tom Peyer had gotten the job to write that, but he wasn’t that wild about it, so he asked if I’d be interested in writing with him and I jumped at it. Jack Kirby’s New Gods I think about in the same way as Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. It’s a work of genius, you know? Even more, New Gods to me was so powerfully from Jack Kirby’s subconscious. You know, Kirby is known for his art primarily and New Gods was known to be kind of primitive in the writing, but actually it was so powerful on this raw level that it didn’t matter that the dialogue would be clumsy at times. An example was there was one issue with this character who was a revelationist, Glorious Godfrey, and at one point Darkseid appears and Godfrey says to Darkseid that they have to manipulate these people and Darkseid says he likes him because he’s brash but that he’s the revelationist, but “I am the revelation, the force at the core of all things.” You could tell Kirby meant it. It wasn’t just some throwaway comic book line.
So I was thrilled to work on that comic. Then Tom dropped out and I was writing it by myself. I was never thrilled by the artist though. With Vertigo I would always have some say in the artist but with the mainstream DC they insist on having these artists and he just did tits and ass all the time. It infuriated me. I used to joke with people that I would have quit if they didn’t fire me!
What happened with the comic was I got a letter from the editor saying the current artist was fired. I was happy. I really didn’t like him because of how sexist he was in his style of art. Then the next letter I got was you and I are fired too!
Apparently John Byrne had decided to take over New Gods and got rid of everybody. The same way he took over Doom Patrol after me, after a gap. With Doom Patrol too he wanted to sweep away everything previous and go back to what he perceived to be the true Doom Patrol before Grant Morrison.
Joe: How did you end up leaving comics?
Rachel: Well to be honest my stuff wasn’t selling that well, so things got cancelled. Doom Patrol got cancelled because sales went down below a certain point and the irony is not that long after that sales point would have been great because the sale of comics at the time were declining so rapidly. But compared to the previous sales from Grant’s books and Sandman, they cancelled it.
And actually my editor on Doom Patrol at the time, Lou Stathis, had died which was very sad. He was a wonderful man, and he had been my champion at DC. In fact, he said to me one time they wanted to cancel me and he told them, “Look, if Vertigo isn’t going to publish Rachel Pollack then what’s the point?” He thought I was doing daring things that no one else was doing and that’s what Vertigo needed.
When he had died Axel Alonso had been the assistant editor on Doom Patrol and of course now he’s the editor-in-chief of Marvel. He wasn’t interested in the kind of things I was doing. He was interested in war comics and other genres and didn’t want to continue Doom Patrol at that time as sales were below a certain point.
I had done some other things at DC too. I did a one off issue of The Geek with Mike Allred that I enjoyed a lot. I also did a one off issue of Tomahawk. It was funny, they enjoyed taking these older characters from the 50s or so and doing revisionist stories with them. I was asked what would I like to do and out of my subconscious came Tomahawk. It was never my favorite as a kid. I had read it though, and obviously in my subconscious I wanted to do a story about the whole European attitude to the forest and the Native Americans as the original idea was be frightened by the forest and be frightened by the savages.
Then Stuart Moore started the science fiction imprint Helix and I got to do Time Breakers which I had a real great time doing. I had wanted to do a time paradox story for a long long time and this was my chance to do one. It was so much fun!
Joe: Once Time Breakers was over was that it with you and comics?
Rachel: I forget if it was Time Breakers or New Gods. The stuff I was doing didn’t sell well enough and they were no longer interested in ideas from me. It was unfortunate. I loved doing comics. Hopefully there will be more. Some possibilities for doing something in comics again. There are one or two things I’m currently interested in doing.
Joe – Your whole run of Doom Patrol is on Comixology and has been for a couple of years. How does that work for you?
Rachel: It doesn’t. I know nothing about it. No one told me about it. I really don’t know. I have no idea how that happens. I assume that if DC was making some money on it that they would be paying royalties no matter how tiny to myself and the artists.
Joe: So you haven’t received any money from Comixology?
Rachel: I never even received official acknowledgement that my comics are there. So I know nothing about it. I would have thought that somebody would say something.
Joe: Does DC own the rights to all of your comics work?
Rachel – No. Time Breakers is owned by me and Chris Weston. I guess that’s the only one. Every other one I worked on was with existing characters and properties. It’s the only creator owned comic I had published.
Joe: Any plans on possibly reprinting it?
Rachel – Well there are some possibilities. Nothing definite yet. Chris and I are hoping to get it reprinted. Chris took it on himself to get the rights reverted from DC which didn’t cost him anything, it was just time consuming. They had to give over some files and other things to us. They were very nice about it, was just a matter of getting them to do it.
Joe: Looking back on your Doom Patrol run would you say it was ahead of its time?
Rachel: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Certainly afterwards Vertigo became less involved in superhero stuff. I do think it was too radical for some people. A lot of people found it hard to get. A lot of comics fans have this idea that the writer should disregard everything beforehand and write something new, which particularly male writers tend to do. Without really thinking about it I wanted to follow up on some of the things that Grant did.
Some people thought I wasn’t enough like Grant, and other people thought I was too much like Grant and then they’d say I wasn’t a good enough Grant. They thought I was imitating him, but I wasn’t good enough. In fact what I was doing was my own take on things, but inspired by what he did. A lot of people didn’t want that. They didn’t like the feminist positions I was taking. They felt it was weird for weird’s sake. Certainly Grant did the same thing. Invisibles was very weird. More so than Doom Patrol, but people still liked it. What can you do, you know?
Joe: Currently DC is relaunching Doom Patrol starting Wednesday September 14th with Gerard Way writing.
Rachel: Which is exciting! Just a few days!
Joe: You’re already a fan of Gerard Way?
Rachel: Yes. Without knowing it or remembering it was him at the time, I read Umbrella Academy. I really liked it a lot. Then you told me he would be writing Doom Patrol and planned on bringing back the weird, I reread the Umbrella Academy stories after that. I love them. I’m really excited he’s writing Doom Patrol. Then he got in touch with me which I was delighted about. E-mail exchanges. I really like his approach. Wanting to bring back the weird. Not just Grant in Doom Patrol, but all the British Invasion stuff, like Peter Milligan’s Shade The Changing Man. I’m excited that Young Animal will be like the old Vertigo. I read the eight-page preview of Doom Patrol too and it’s great fun!
Joe: You mentioned a couple of comics projects you’re interested in before. Are you looking to get back into comics?
Rachel: Yes, yes. There’s an anthology project that I hope to do one or two stories in that I’m very excited about. I was also approached by someone I know who is launching a line of comics for women readers and I was asked about contributing to it. I’m planning on doing a story for it that I had in mind for a long long time so I’m hoping that it’ll work out.
Joe: Do you feel your contributions to comics like Kate Godwin are important to this generation of queer comics fans?
Rachel: I can tell you for a fact that they are. I went to a literary festival in Winnipeg recently kind of expecting that no one would know who I was since I haven’t written stuff on that subject since the 90s in my more activist years. It turned out that when I got there that to my surprise I was kind of a hero and one of the main reasons was Doom Patrol. A lot of young people doing webcomics were there and they were all Doom Patrol fans. They were all thrilled that someone had done this back in the 90s.
I recently did an interview for a website highlighting trans women and they included an article they had about trans characters in superhero comics. They had some previous attempts at trans characters on the list, but stated if you’re looking for a good example of a trans superhero look no further than Rachel Pollack. I was very honored. A new generation has been finding my work and viewing me as a role model. It’s been very exciting for me.
Joe: Before we wrap things up, anything else you’d like to add?
Rachel – I hope people read the new Doom Patrol coming out. Gerard has some great plans for the book and if you’re a fan of my run there will definitely be surprises in store for you. You’re gonna love it!
Oh, and one thing that I’d like to end with is that I’m glad I got to do some stories based in mythology for Doom Patrol. They were some of my favorites. There was the Teiresias story which I loved doing. And the last story I got to do involved Kabbalah which was something I had been interested in for some time and it turned out to be the perfect ending to my run. It’s interesting that things happened that way. I loved that I got to have a 15th century Kabbalist be one of the characters! I’m sure many Rabbis would be horrified.
Joe: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about your comics work, and I hope we get to see new comics work from you see!
Rachel – Thank you for reaching out! It was very enjoyable. I had a good time.