Barbara Kesel: Trailblazer for Women In Comics
Updated: Jan 24, 2020
Barbara Kesel has been a writer and editor over her long career. She blazed the trail for other women to follow, and was an early female influence across the comic book industry.
She has worked at DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Image Comics, CrossGen, and Dark Horse Comics. At DC Comics she revitalized the Hawk and Dove title, which is still loved by fans to this day. At Dark Horse, as an editor, Barbara was recognized in 1996 with a Harvey Award for Hellboy: The Wolves of St. August in the Best Graphic Album of Previously Published Work.
I was her work at CrossGen though that made me a huge fan. While at CrossGen she served as the head writer and is well known for writing Meridian, featuring a young, female heroine named Sephie. Meridian was always one of my favorite titles from the publisher along with Sigil. I'm still holding out hope that maybe one day we will get to see the CrossGen characters return.
Getting the chance to talk with Barbara was a tremendous honor and I can't wait to see what she's coming out with in the future.
Comic Lounge: So it's been a while since you've written comics, what have you been up to since then?
Barbara Kesel: HA! I’ve done less work since CrossGen for a lot of reasons, mostly that I haven’t wanted to do “just” comics—I invested a lot of time into different kinds of projects or companies and have spent time as a consultant or doing my own business plan workups for companies. Then my dad died, 2008 happened, those plans crumbled, so I headed back west and tried to focus on mainstream comics again. I’m not comfortable depending entirely of freelance income, so I’ve held a number of part-time jobs that brought in regular income from non-publishing sources to balance out the ups and downs of freelance life.
I HAVE been doing a LOT of writing: just things you haven’t seen yet, will never see, or are lazing about on some artist’s desk in addition to what’s made it into print. There have been many series pitches that haven’t made it to market (MANY), projects that are still wandering around lost, and some that will come out in the future.
Right now, my biggest project is working at a new startup, where I’m involved not only in character and story creation, but company structure and strategy. All I can say outside of my NDA is that we’re building an app that combines new tech and comics stories. I was the entire creative department for several months and now I’ve been joined joined by an artist and our first new creations are taking shape.
Comic Lounge: Do you have any plans to write comics in the future?
Barbara: You betcha.
Comic Lounge: You've been both an editor and writer, do you think your time as an editor helped you as a writer and vice versa?
Barbara: They’re different arts, and sadly, I can’t edit my own work as easily as I can other creators’. It’s nice to be able to know what makes each of the jobs difficult, but having any other job, any other insight, helps you to be a better writer or editor. Also reading a lot.
Comic Lounge: You were apart of CrossGen when it first formed, what was it like working on a comic book company from the ground up?
I wasn’t there quite at the beginning—very much had been decided already—but I was early enough to be able to meddle with the plans and rework some of what they wanted to do in the creative rollout. I was the first writer hired and was supposed to head a team of them, the joke being that I had nothing to do with hiring all but one of the writers (Waid).
Comic Lounge: Meridian and Sigil were two of my favorite titles from CrossGen. Have you ever thought about those characters or wanted to tell new stories with them?
Barbara: Oh, I WISH. Meridian is my favorite creation (don’t tell the others!) and I tried to go out of my way to craft the stories to the strengths of the twelve or so different artists. (While Josh Middleton designed her, Steve McNiven was always the heart of the series to me, and I was so frustrated when our management botched the opportunity to keep him on.) It was proof that the kind of story I wanted to tell in comics could be done. I’d gone for years hearing an endless refrain of “girl comics don’t sell.” Meridian had a lot of vocal fans. All those CrossGen properties were picked up by Disney’s Touchstone imprint and are now languishing in the Mouse Vault.
Comic Lounge: Do you think there could ever be a chance that CrossGen could be revived, similar to Valiant?
Barbara: Who knows? Marvel revived a few for a short time and did some nice work. On a practical business level, though, it seems unlikely that Disney would sink a lot of money into reviving the four-year IP of a failed company. It would take someone who loved one of the titles and had clout enough to bring it back, or someone in legal deciding the trademarks were worth protecting. I wish they’d at least reprint what exists in trades, or make them available online.
Comic Lounge: What would you say, would be a good entry job in to the comic book industry?
Barbara: There’s no “one size fits all” answer possible here—are we talking writing/drawing? Editing? Sales? Package design? Just do the kind of work you want to be doing and get noticed. Want to write? Write! Self-publish, contribute to anthologies, work for small presses. If you want to work for one of the companies, take any entry-level job they offer to help yourself learn the business from the inside. Find out if they need help at a convention booth. Work or volunteer for a convention. Is the goal ANY job at a comics company or a specific type or work at ANY company? Working for a convention can put you in touch with ALL the players—is just meeting them the goal?
Comic Lounge: How do you feel about how far the comic book industry has come since you first got in the field?
Barbara: It is SOOOOOOOO different. We have comics readers who never touch a physical comic. Comics are in libraries, not hidden inside textbooks. There is comics art that never exists in solid form, just as energy. People on the street know who Green Lantern is. I used to be the little sister of all the pros, and now I’m the age of their mothers. Packages used to take days or weeks to arrive; now we get it as soon as the artist finishes touching up the files. And I now have to share my private empty convention bathroom with hundreds of other women.