Tag Archives: women comic artists

A New Mutants Love Story, or why I got into drawing comics as a woman.

New Mutants Rahne and Dani slash by Suzanne Forbes 2017This week the news broke that Maisie Williams has been cast as Rahne Sinclair in Josh Boone’s New Mutants movie.

Rachel Ketchum with a New Mutant cosplayer thanksgiving 1985

With an early (perhaps the first) New Mutant cosplayer, NY Creation Con, Thanksgiving 1985

It had been rumored for a long time, and I had been hoping and praying.

I love Maisie infinitely because of her amazing journey as Arya Stark and her completely rad dignity and coolness growing up in the public eye. There is no one I’d rather see play one of the two characters most important in the world to me.

I feel like the story that matters more than any other to me is in safe hands with Josh Boone. After 33 years, the New Mutants will be on the big screen! Who on earth could have imagined this? Certainly not me, seventeen in 1984, when I read my first New Mutants comic. Why did I read it?

My girlfriend asked me to bring her a comic book at boarding school.

NEW-MUTANTS-18 cover by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz

New Mutants 18 cover by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz

She was going to Simon’s Rock, an elite private school that was part of Bard College. I missed her terribly, so I took a bus from Port Authority to Great Barrington, Massachusetts to visit her.

She had gotten into this comic book series, “The New Mutants”, and she desperately needed me to bring her the next issue.

I lived in Chelsea; I vaguely knew there was a comic book store up on 23rd st., so I walked up there. In the acrid smell of mouldering paper I asked the big unkempt man where “the new New Mutants” was to be found, and bought it.

It was issue #18, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz. SinKEVitch.

As every student of comics knows, New Mutants #18 was one of the issues that broke open the history of comics.

It was part of the revolution in comic art and storytelling that would culminate in 1986’s Dark Knight and Swamp Thing and Moonshadow and Watchmen.

I had seen 1980s comics before, when my boyfriend Paul lived with me and my mom in the West Village when I was fifteen. He brought a duffel bag with Frank Miller Daredevils and the Byrne/Claremont X-Men run. But I didn’t read them, then; just looked at the covers. They were sealed up in slippery poly-bags.

Me and Pam, NYC 1984

So I packed the New Mutants comic in my suitcase along with my long skirts and my bottles. At Port Authority I was drinking Midori from the bottle, calling Pam from a payphone, so excited.

On the bus I took out the comic book. I hadn’t brought anything else to read. I was planning to be a children’s book illustrator or a fashion illustrator back then, career-wise.

I had dropped out of Stuyvesant and was taking adult ed fashion drawing classes at Parsons, waiting to be old enough to be admitted to the BFA program in Illustration. I wasn’t especially excited about becoming a commercial artist; it was just a practical career choice given my drawing ability. Commercial artists had job security.

Most of my energy and ambition in my teens went to finding beautiful boys and seducing them.

Pamela was my dear friend and sometimes lover, the only girl I’ve ever truly been in love with.

Boston 1984 Me and Pam

Me and Pam in Boston, October 1984

She was brilliant, absurdly smart – we met at Stuyvesant when I was a junior and she was a freshman- and in terrible pain. It was just a few months after her first hospitalisation, that day in 1984 when I headed to Simon’s Rock.

She had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, like her father and brother, and begun a lifetime of Stelazine treatment and disability.

I loved her profoundly, intimately, with a depth entirely unlike my relationship with my boyfriend and whoever I was cheating on him with. She was shy, furious, poetic, inhibited, intensely loving. We only had sex when I pulled a boy for a threesome or she was really drunk or I’d given her some pills.

But we were always physically close, always touching. She was queer as fuck, but she didn’t have parents who were like, “being gay is totally normal”, the way I did. She lived in Staten Island with her crazily messed up family, so she spent days at a time in the city, at the safe haven of the apartment I shared with my mom. And then she got a scholarship to this fancy prep school program, and I had to go visit her.

On the bus I opened the comic book, and I met Danielle and Rahne and Sam and Illyana and Kitty and a red-haired girl named Rachel.

Rachel's first appearance, New Mutants 18 by Chris Claremont and Bill SienkiewiczLater, when my friendship with Chris Claremont was known in the comics community, people thought he’d named her after me. But I didn’t meet Chris til 1986.

On my 18th birthday, NYC 1985

You probably can’t imagine, in the 21st Century with a million YA novels about disenfranchised traumatized gifted outsider teens out there, in a post-Buffy pop culture world, what it felt like to read The New Mutants in 1984. It was like coming home to a sanctuary I had only seen in dreams.

I was an obsessive science fiction reader, but I connected with the ideas, not the characters. Larry Niven never wrote about anyone who was my age and full of pain. In the New Mutants and X-Men, Chris wrote about how wounded teens could be at a loss for how to navigate the world and find a bearing with their friends.

The story in #18 was disjointed, haunting, full of bad dreams and traumatized teens on the run.

Rachel’s confusion about the timeline felt like my mornings after a blackout. Dani’s night terrors matched my own. The ending was terrifying, dark as hell.

When Pam picked me up at the bus stop the first thing she asked was if I had her comic. “What IS this??! What the hell IS this??” I babbled at her. She told me she and her new friend Mery had just started reading it recently, but were obsessed. Ah, Mery- I would have been so jealous of how Pam loved her, if she hadn’t been so fucking cool and easy to love herself. We talked about the New Mutants a lot that weekend, the three of us.

When I got back to the city I went and bought all the New Mutants comics there were- all 18 of them- and that led me right into the X-Men comics.

Of which there were 184 issues, plus Annuals and a couple of cross-overs.  Getting my hands on those was a project. The X-Men led me to the rest of Marvel, and then within a year I found the TItans and they led me to DC.

In the Fall of 1984 I drew cartoon versions of the New Mutants and the Hellions featuring Pam and Mery guesting as “Scallions”. (I have no idea why the idea of them being onions was funny, but for some reason it was at the time.) Then I started…drawing the New Mutants.

New Mutants core four 1984 or 1985 by Rachel Ketchum

By Christmas I was making up pages with them. And I had decided that Rahne and Dani were definitely going to fall in love, even if the writer didn’t know it yet.

My mom, always completely supportive of my obsessions and ambitions, had gone to comic stores all over Manhattan with a list of X-Men back issues I needed.

There were stacks of comics under the tree with all the science fiction paperbacks. I gleefully tore open the wrapping on each one, incredulous- “You found #146?? Ma!!!”

I never cared at all about their condition; I just wanted to read them and look at the art.Early New Mutants drawings by Rachel Ketchum 1984 or 5

My older friends came home from college for the holidays and I showed them all my new comic drawings. All I could talk about was comics. All my letters had been about comics.

Someone said, “Hey, you should do this for a living”. “Somebody has to draw them, right?” someone else chimed in.

I actually have a photo of me from that night. I had enough life experience at seventeen to recognize a moment when the forces of the universe gather around you and give you a push.

I was reading a copy of Playboy my friend John gave me because it had Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics in it!

 

When I turned 18 in January and matriculated at Parsons my entire career and educational plan was laser-focused on becoming a comic book penciller.

New Mutants page attempt prob 1985 by Rachel KetchumRahne and Dani slash by Rachel Ketchum prob 1985character study Dani 1985 or soWhich was not a popular idea in art school, then. I was pretty much treated like a crazy person for wanting such a low-brow career. Mainstream awareness of comics was a year or two in the future, when Dark Knight broke.

The amazing woman who ran the Parsons Illustration Program, I think her name was Debra Diamond, was friends with Art Spiegelman and Gary Panter, and she was cool with the alternative comics in RAW.

But superhero comics were considered unbearably lame. Genre comics were just not something real artists talked about.

It was a job you did as punishment, when you couldn’t find something else in the world of illustration! Something more remunerative and more dignified and less laborious.

Rahne and Dani page pool prob 1986 Rachel KetchumAlthough my teachers thought i was crazy for wanting to do comics, they loved how hard I worked and how I could draw like hell.

I signed up for every figure drawing class available, with the toughest teachers, and took night classes from comics professionals around town. I found the comic artists I loved and followed their work obsessively; my longboxes were labelled and sorted by penciller, not book. José Luis García-López. Steve Rude. Gil Kane. Alan Davis. Paul Smith. John Romita and JRJR. It was a litany of men, but I was confident i could be as good.Rahne and Dani by Rachel Ketchum 1985 and 1986

I bought every book my teachers recommended and spent hundreds of hours studying Burne Hogarth and George Bridgman (Andrew Loomis was out of print in those days, pages photocopied from library books passed around between comic artists like contraband).

I started out terrible and I got better fast. I studied perspective like a maniac. Even though I wanted to tell stories about superheroes in love, I expected to have to draw a lot of buildings. The Marvel Universe was based in New York, after all.Rahne and Dani by Rachel Ketchum probably 1986

In 1985 and 1986 I was chipping, doing heroin only on the weekends, and during the week I just went to school and drew.

Dani by Rachel Ketchum probably 1986I threw myself into the work like a demon. I wanted to draw comics more than I had ever wanted anything in my life. I think wanting it so badly is a huge part of why I didn’t die in those years. So was the saving grace of the New Mutants, the X-Men and the Teen Titans.

Loving something the way I loved those comics, changes you, I’m convinced. It’s a source of strength.

Having my mom back my dream 100% mattered enormously – soon I had my huge drawing table and lightbox set up in the living room!

I was so lucky to be at Parsons, where traditional drawing skills were still valued and where technical perspective and anatomy were still taught.

Chris gave Danielle a horse, and I was like, great!! I can draw horses! Then he had her attacked by drunk bros and nearly raped. I was enraged, and I drunkenly sent Marvel a telegram to express my feelings.

There were precious few women artists working in mainstream comics in 1985. Maybe even less than now.

Glynis Wein was the colorist on the New Mutants, and Cindy Martin had drawn Star Wars, as had Jan Duursema, who’d also done a variety of superheroes at DC. June Brigman had created Power Pack with Weezie. Mary Wilshire had done Red Sonja. Marie Severin was on Special Projects at Marvel, drawing Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies for Star instead of superheroes. Trina Robbins was working for Marvel’s Star imprint too, drawing Misty, a grown-up Millie the Model. Wendy Pini and Colleen Doran were doing popular and much-loved independent work, but I wasn’t interested in creating my own characters or the tiny reach of the independents. I wanted to be in the big leagues.

Comics Journal 99 1985In ’85 there were some women on the production and editorial side, Weezie and Ann Nocenti and Bobbie Chase and Jo Duffy and Carol Kalish at Marvel, Jenette Kahn and Karen Berger at DC. Jan Mullaney had co-founded Eclipse., and Cat Yronwode was editor in chief there.

Heidi MacDonald had put Chris on blast in the Comics Journal, and would soon take on Alan Moore. She’s still fighting the good fight. But in 1985, wherever I went in New York, whatever comic store or con I went to, I was the only woman.

In 1986 things started to change for women in comics. Mary Wilshire did several issues of the New Mutants, after Bill left, then got the Firestar mini-series.

Lynn Varley colored Dark Knight. Ann and Weezie were writing superhero stories. Mindy Newell wrote a Lois Lane mini-series. Cat and Trina’s book, Women and the Comics, got mainstream press. Trina became the first woman to draw Wonder Woman.

And comics as an industry was exploding.

Rahne and Danielle by Suzanne Forbes Rachel Ketchum 1986New comic stores were opening all over the country, some of them even clean. The mainstream press was starting to write about the writers and creators who were changing the industry.

Storylines were getting darker, wilder, more mature. No one had done a mainstream comic with queer people in it, but John Byrne had wiggled around Shooter’s prohibition on gay characters with Northstar, and I believed the time was coming when you could show young lesbian mutants in love.

Which I just kept drawing! There was no tumblr, no deviantart, no Ao3; as far as I know I was the only person drawing New Mutants slash art in the 80s.

In February 1986, at a Creation Con at the Roosevelt Hotel, I met Chris Claremont.

I was working at a booth for my friends Chris and Gary who had a comic store in the Meatpacking District. I was walking back to the ballroom in one of my Betsey Johnson bondage dresses.

I recognised the man sitting on the floor writing in a stenographer’s notebook; I had seen his picture in the Comics Journal. It was during a period when his writing was being dragged hard in the comics press (all two of it), both for its excesses and its problematicness.

“Whatcha writing?” I asked him brusquely. “X-Men plot.” “Is it any good?”

Rahne and Dani 1986 by Rachel KetchumHe gazed up at me, unruffled. I sat down with him on the carpet. and told him I wanted his job. I was nineteen and like JIm Kirk I feared nothing. I razzed him about the bdsm references in the X-Men. I was pretty problematic myself in those days.

Chris was thirty-four, and we became not quite lovers but passionate friends. He believed in my work. He treated me as a person he believed could work in comics. “I don’t think of you as a fan, I think of you as a nascent pro”, he said.

Rahne and Dani slash art by Rachel Ketchum prob 1987His huge apartment in Riverdale was such a refuge, such a heaven for me. He gave me stacks of X-Men and New Mutants scripts, Marvel paper to draw on, walked me around the Marvel offices, which were a short walk from my house. In the summer of 1986, hanging around Marvel in my flowered Fifties dresses, wearing Keds and with huge skateboarding bruises on my knees, I was a unicorn.

One time we sat in the hallway with Bill Sienkiewicz and I taught Bill the basics for drawing a horse.

New Mutants meeting prob 1986What a time. I had a new boyfriend, a serious artist, who loved comics as much as I did, and he was so supportive and excited for me. Every week we went to the comic store and got all our new books and sat down to read them together. He wasn’t jealous of Chris, or Pam. Everything was in place, but that’s not how life always works.

With Pam, summer 1986

I didn’t get to draw the New Mutants for Chris.

rahne and dani in their undies prob 1987 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesThat summer I went to San Diego Comic-Con for the first time, at Chris’s suggestion, and although Chris looked after me as much as he could, everything fell apart.

At the Marvel 25th Anniversary Ball I sat with Chris and Stan Lee,  and a young artist from Eclipse got drinks from the open bar for me after I was carded.

Later, blind drunk, high on pills and coke someone had given me in the bathroom at Dave Sim’s party, I was violently, anally raped in my hotel room by an inker.

That Friday in New York my amazing boyfriend died of an overdose, though I didn’t find out til Sunday night.

I came back to New York out of my mind with fresh PTSD and whatever shot i had at keeping it together long enough to actually work in comics was gone. It wasn’t ever much of a shot, then; I had an appointment with an addict’s bottom and the timeline just got sped up a lot. Chris held me while I cried hysterically during a Christmas party that winter.

“Take a taxi”, he’d say, and I’d take a cab all the way up to his apartment in Riverdale and we’d sit on the floor talking X-Men while the cats paced around us. Things I said showed up in the book, thrilling me. He kept giving me scripts. But I lost touch with him and everyone else once I became a daily heroin user, a year or so later. Pam was in trouble, on disability, heavily medicated, experimenting with cults.

By the time I got sober, in January of 1989, Chris wasn’t writing the New Mutants anymore.

New Mutants sample page Rachel Ketchum 1992He left the book in 1987, and what it became was…nothing that meant anything to me. I still wanted to work in comics, despite everything, even though the scene was changing fast.

It was a harrowing, exhausting process to break into the industry from St. Paul, where I’d gone to treatment. I was constantly travelling to the cons and being constantly sexually harassed.

That hadn’t changed at all. It was horrible, and some of the editors were fucking pigs.

The first Marvel editor who gave me a sample script mailed it with a letter on Marvel letterhead. The script opened with a splash page of a dead girl, and the letter commented explicitly on my physical appearance. Another (married!) editor asked me, in front of the San Diego Marriott, if he could masturbate in front of me.

There were so many more women around, though, and women were getting work as the full-time pencillers on monthly books. More comics were being published and sold than anyone had ever thought possible. I met people who helped me, people who backed me.

Rest in power, Kim Yale!!

There were men around who were clearly, obviously committed to helping women get work. Virtual hugs, Rob Simpson! I met a woman writer, Sarah Byam, and we became friends. I met a woman inker named Pam Eklund! I met Jill Thompson, who had Dave the Thune painted on her leather jacket! I never, ever considered giving up.

Rachel Ketchum aka Rachel Forbes-Seese with first Star Trek 1993 - EditedIt took three more years, before an editor gave me a chance. In 1993 a woman editor, Margaret Clark, hired me to draw Star Trek The Next Generation #72.

And then a TNG Annual, and then the prize of prizes for a comic artist: the regular penciller gig on a regular monthly book, Star Trek The Original Series.

I did an issue that was inked by Pam Eklund, at my suggestion; it may still be the only mainstream comic ever pencilled, inked and edited by women.

In 1995 Chris had been doing some work for DC and we sat together at the DC table at the Chicago Comic-Con, signing comics, our faces blown huge up on a wall of monitors. It was good to see him.

And I was a pro, just as he promised, just as I promised Pam.

star trek tng annual 5 p6 suzanne forbes rachel ketchum 1994Not very many people get to have their life’s ambition come true when they’re only 26.

Even now, less than twenty women have ever been full-time monthly pencillers for an ongoing book at one of the Big Two. I’m proud to be one of them.

The industry collapse that happened in 1995 didn’t change the basic character of the business. There are a few more big companies where you can kind of earn a living now, yet things haven’t really gotten better for women working in comics. Sadly, what safety there is for women is mostly the ability to name and share the names of bad actors in the system and protect themselves pro-actively.

But things have gotten a little better for queer and trans visibility in the stories themselves.

Shan, Karma of the New Mutants, is canonically a lesbian and even crushed on Kitty!* Northstar married his boyfriend in the X-Men! When DC refused to let Batwoman marry her longtime girlfriend, the creative team walked. Wonder Woman and John Constantine are canonically bisexual, at least right now. Iceman is gay! The new Aqualad is gay! And that’s just the beginning.

The comics I imagined, where teenage mutant girls can love happily even if the rest of their world is insane, seem within reach. If creators can just keep fighting the toxic forces around them and their own demons to tell those stories. I couldn’t; I had to leave comics. Today, drawing real people is the best way for me to tell stories. Teaching drawing is the best way to honor my teachers and the work I put in to become a comic artist.

But today, at least I can tell my story, and the story of how much I loved superhero comics. How they saved me.

How much I loved the New Mutants, in the 80s.

* Here‘s a beautiful piece about queer-girl subtext in the X-Men and New Mutants by Sigrid Ellis. In it I learned that in 2002 Chris wrote a series called Mechanix, where Kitty actually comes out as bisexual!