Deni Loubert: How to Get Girls (Into Comics)

Interview by 
Terri Brandmueller

Indie-comics publisher Deni Loubert didn’t know when she started out making zines in Kitchener, Ontario that she was destined for a pioneering role in the industry. Along with ex-husband Dave Sim, she founded Aardvark-Vanaheim Press in 1977 to publish Sim’s legendary Cerebus, the longest running English-language comic book story in history. After the high-profile breakup of her relationship to Sim, she moved to L.A. and started her own imprint, Renegade Press. She was Managing Editor at WaRP Graphics, VP of Comic Book Development for Full Moon Entertainment, and spent a year at Paramount Studios revamping Star Trek Comics. She received an Inkpot Award in 1987 (given for lifetime achievement in comics at the San Diego Comic-Con) and was inducted into the Canadian Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2010. Loubert lives and writes in New Westminster, B.C.

ROOM: Was it always your dream to publish comics?

DL: God no. I wanted to be a writer and work in science fiction and fantasy. Zines were big at the time [the mid-seventies] and they were a way to get that going. I met Dave [Sim] because I was looking for someone to do a cover and some illustrations. I wasn’t into comics at all. When we started dating he was doing funny animal stuff and it became that typical thing that girls do—it was like how could I help him? I met so many women in comics who got into the industry that way. They were married or going out with a comic book artist, and then kind of found their niche. About the time I started publishing you were starting to see a real influx of women editors who had gotten into it because they wanted to be somebody’s muse.

ROOM: When you started Aardvark-Vanaheim in 1977 how many women publishers were there in comics?

DL: Nobody! Me—that was it. There were plenty of women who were editors, and colourists—who were traditionally women—and you were starting to see more artists and writers, but publishing was the business side, and it was just me.

ROOM: Although it happened more than thirty years ago, your split from Sim and Aardvark-Vanaheim is still news on the Cerebus fan sites. Does that bother you?

DL: People love to tell me what Dave is doing—all these years later and I still can’t get away from him. At least the media has stopped calling me and saying, here’s Dave’s latest thing against women, what do you have to say about it? And I’d have to respond: you know I would really like to have never known about that.

ROOM: He has become infamous in comic book circles because of some of his views about women. Was he like that when you were married?

DL: He’s written some weird stuff about women. But you have to remember that I met him when he was about twenty and going through an immense period of creativity. It wasn’t until later that the bipolar stuff started showing up. He did too much acid, too much drugs and drank too much and became a totally different person when he did that. 

Dave decided as an interesting experiment—he called it the “Summer of Acid”—he would do an acid hit every day and then do a comic book on it. Couple that with the fact we had just gotten a photocopier. So he did an issue where he would draw a picture—this was truly an acid idea—blow it up on the photocopier and then cut it into panels. So each panel was a sixteenth of a drawing with dialogue. It became a game with the fans. You’d have to buy three copies of the book if you were going to do it right. You had to buy two copies to fit the big picture together, because the pages were back to front, and then you had a third copy you kept intact. I have met people at Comic-Cons who’ve fitted the whole thing together and wanted me to authenticate and sign them. He was fucking floating on acid all month. He started losing it and getting angry. By about the second week he was becoming incoherent and hearing voices. Finally one night we had a big fight and he put his fist through the wall. I had to call 911 and have him committed. 

Up until then we were living the life we wanted to live, putting a comic book out every month, signing new artists, going on tours. It was a rock-and-roll lifestyle. When you’re twenty-five and run a successful comic book business and employ ten other artists, you think you’ve got the world by the tail. All we did was comic books—we were one of the few companies outside of Marvel and DC that actually made a living doing it. We had an office and a studio and an apartment in a high-rise. It was the heyday of indie comics, and our numbers went up every month and we thought there was no end to it. We thought it was great, but you can’t sustain that. You can’t have a relationship based on that.

Truthfully, when I look back on those Cerebus days when it was him and me against the world—that’s how we always used to refer to it—it was marvellous, it was what I thought love was about. Those were the good years but when the bipolar started to show up and he started to not trust me about stuff, that’s when it started to change. I long for that sweet boy who told me he was going to be a millionaire by the time he was thirty by drawing comic books.

I did go on to do my own thing but I have to admit that I live in the shadow of all that. I am known in comics as Dave Sim’s ex-wife—that’s just the way it is.

ROOM: But in doing your own thing, you had a big influence on the industry—helping to publish new U.S. and Canadian talent, and helping to get more women involved. After the divorce, you moved to Los Angeles and started your own publishing house—Renegade Press, which ran from 1984 to 1989. What were you trying to do with Renegade?

DL: Superheroes during the seventies really started to dominate the industry and made it hard to do anything else. They were selling these adolescent wet dreams of superpowers and secret identities. What does that sound like? It sounds like boys thinking: “If you only knew who I really was.” They’re living their dream, but it wasn’t my dream. Comics weren’t always all superheroes. Back in the old days—the Golden Age of Comics—there was everything. The industry more resembled what I was trying to do with Renegade. There was detective, there was romance, and there was Rin Tin Tin and everything else under the sun. But television came along and swooped away a lot of the readership, and then newsstands had a hard time selling anything but superheroes.

Neil the Horse is the one most people remember me for—it was beautiful. A comic book about a singing and dancing horse that had the score to the song that they were doing in the issue printed in the centre spread so you could play it on the piano. Arn Saba (now Katherine Collins) wrote a song every issue and choreographed it, and it works.  Who the hell else does that kind of stuff? Ms.Tree was a hard-boiled female detective. It was fun to do this chick who was a private eye, and we’d make jokes about the high body count in each issue. Silent Invasion was another one that was off-the-wall. I loved the art, it’s what sold me on it, but the story was weird and wonderful—1950s paranoia and flying saucers done in angular black and white drawing with heavy, heavy brushstrokes. It was a mystery but the bottom line was we were being invaded by aliens and didn’t know it. Wordsmith was the one Harlan Ellison told me he read our stuff for—it was sort of a Walter Mitty thing set in Toronto about a pulp fiction writer. It was beautiful, and so intelligently written.

ROOM: So you were looking for the art and the stories?

DL: I was looking for something different. Comics don’t have to be superheroes. Comics as a medium are a really great way to tell a story. Flaming Carrot was a Dadaesque story, completely out of left field about a guy who had a head that was a carrot with flames coming out of it and flippers on his feet, and he’s a detective, sort of, who always has beautiful women hanging on his arm, and you never really quite know what’s going on. It got made into a movie (Mystery Men, 1999). And we did Vicki Valentine, which was kind of an homage to the old Katy Keene comics, where fans sent in their dress designs and got credit in the book. In Vicki Valentine, we had paper dolls in the back.  

We also did Renegade Romance comics. It was a response to what certain readers wanted. And though there were women who were into superheroes, there were a lot, like me, who weren’t, and we really wanted something else. Every year, for about four or five years, we’d be sitting a Bar-Con, which was where you drank after Comic-Con. Talking with ten or fifteen really well known artists and sooner or later someone would say “it’s too bad no one does Romance comics anymore.” And so I finally said, I will publish it. If you guys each do a story, I’ll do an anthology, and so that’s how Renegade Romance got started. They’re fun.  

In comic books, more than any other entertainment medium you can go and talk to the people who do the thing you love and you can have a conversation with them about what they are doing and what you think of it. It’s very much part of the industry. I’ve always loved that part of when you’d go to Comic-Cons and sit down at a table, and fans would say I love Ms.Tree, and you’d say oh, what do you love about it, and get into a conversation about the characters, the development, where the stories were going to go. 

It really was a labour of love. I tried to run Renegade like a co-operative and since I wasn’t that great of a businessperson, at the end of five or six years we were losing money on every single book. The reality is, if you want to make a living, and you want your artists to make a living, you’ve got to find a way to make it pay. Unfortunately, because of the kind of work we were doing, most of my titles had a hard time finding a home after Renegade. It was painful to close Renegade, but while I was doing it I still consider those the best years of my life.

ROOM: After Renegade closed you worked at Paramount Studios. How did you end up in Hollywood?

DL: Paramount came to me and said we want to re-examine what we’re doing with Star Trek comics, so come and help us work on them. So I spent a year with them devising a new approach—creating a bible, getting sign-off from all the actors, finding an editor and artists. Working on the Paramount lot was magical. I had a little office outside what was called “The Vault,” which contained all the Star Trek memorabilia and every picture that was ever taken on set. Then I moved on to Fox and worked in development but realized one day it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. You kind of have to leave it after a while because it becomes incestuous. Around this time I got a call from Image Comics about their start-up but said, I don’t want to run another comic book company, it hurts too much when it doesn’t work out. So that makes twice I’ve turned down really successful projects—the other was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

ROOM: Ouch! You are one of the founders of Friends of Lulu, an organization that promoted the readership of comic books by women, and their participation in the industry. How did you get involved?

DL: It was at San Diego Comic-Con in the early nineties. Trina Robbins [comic book artist and historian], Heidi MacDonald [writer], myself, and the usual suspects, were talking about women in comics and how do we get more readers, how do we reach out and connect.  It was an annual event on the Sunday of Comic-Con when all the women in comics would get together and have brunch as a counterpoint to all the guys who would get together and get drunk the night before. The same conversations kept coming up. How could we take this group of women in the industry, and by this point we were including fans too, and form an organization where we could communicate with each other and make it more inclusive and not so scary for women to get involved? For example if you wanted to be a writer, who did you go to for mentoring? Nobody knew any of that. Friends of Lulu grew out of those Sunday brunches. While the men were jealously guarding their secret hero stuff from each other, the women in comics tended to be more collaborative and were trying to help each other get up the ladder. And to put to rest the idea that women were just the bimbos who do colouring.

One of our first projects was a book [How to Get Girls (into your store), A Friends of Lulu Retailer Handbook] that I did with Neil Gaiman, who was at the beginning of his career, and was a big supporter of Friends of Lulu. His book at the time, Sandman, had a huge female following. He was very hip and he started coming to our meetings and talking about this problem of girls not feeling comfortable in the shops—you felt like a weird person coming into a comic shop at that time if you were female. He generously offered to work with me on the book, and lent his name which helped us get the book out there. It was written as a guide for retailers—what they had to do if they wanted women in their shops, but it was the stupidest of things: take the frigging posters off your windows; make it more girl-friendly; don’t stare at a girl when she comes into your shop; try and put some stuff that girls might enjoy at the front, so they don’t have to go all the way to the back of the shop in order to find it. It was really basic stuff a lot of it, but believe it or not you had to tell them this. It did well, and it sold out, and it’s been re-published several times. 

Friends of Lulu (it dissolved in 2011) isn’t around any more but I think it did a good job opening things up for women. Unfortunately, it dissipated the way a lot of volunteer organizations do, but the New York chapter was the most successful and the L.A. chapter held on for quite a while. Like a lot of these things, in the beginning we had lots of people who were willing to do the work and then later on not so much. We put on talks, put out books, held workshops, tried to do a different project every year to promote women as readers and as professionals in the industry. We saw it as a place where women could find work, find connections, find a mentor, and maybe offer to be a mentor. 

ROOM: I’m assuming Lulu was from the Marjorie Henderson Buell comic Little Lulu? Lulu was always trying to get into the boys’ clubhouse, but was kept out with a big “No Girls Allowed” sign.

DL: That’s right. But we didn’t say “No Boys Allowed.” We worked in an industry where women weren’t heavily supported. Talk to any woman who worked in comics, especially in the seventies and eighties, and it was hard. I had to go down to strip clubs in Mexico to put together deals some times—it was a boys’ club and you had to be one of the boys.  

ROOM: What are the major changes you’ve seen in the industry over the years?

DL: The industry now is very different than it was then. Marvel and DC are just little, tiny parts of some huge international conglomerate. Making comics are just a cheap way to hang onto the license so they can make movies and sell Underoos. They don’t really care about the comics and that’s not who Marvel was when I was doing comics.  

ROOM: Is it better for women in the industry?

DL: Every year I go to the graduation ceremony at Ken Steacy’s Comics and Graphic Novels program at Camosun College and last year the graduates were ninety percent girls. Everyone has to produce a comic book for their course work and only one person was into superheroes. Most of the students had something very personal that they wanted to write and draw as a comic book. So comics have come a long way from when I was doing comics. The ninety percent girls just amazed me, and the fact that none of them wanted anything to do with the fantasy fulfillment that superheroes are all about.

ROOM: Why do you think there has been such a steep reversal of interest?

DL: Exposure. All this stuff is available on the web now, and in libraries and bookstores. Anime and manga has been a big influence, too. Comics have become more and more these days something that twenty and thirty year olds read, more than kids.  

ROOM: What about graphic novels?

DL: I don’t know why people have latched on to the idea of graphic novels. Most people think of comic books as graphic novels now, not that monthly periodical with an installment that you continue to read kind of like a soap opera. Now it’s it this square-bound, 64-page, self-contained story.

ROOM: What would you say to anyone interested in going into comic books today?

DL: Online has become the place to do it. If you are a young woman who has an idea for a comic book, and you are wondering what next, I say: Go and do it yourself. The technology is there to connect you in ways that we couldn’t dream of when we were conversing with each other in the letters pages of Marvel and DC comics or trying to put together a comic book company in Kitchener, Ontario. You just didn’t know how to find anybody to help and now you can, and I think it’s amazing.

ROOM: You’ve come full circle in that you are writing again.

DL: I’ve been blogging and doing book reviews, but I’m kind of excited about the idea of writing again. I got hired to do six, what they call “billionaire” romances. Oh my God, there’s a formula and it’s like writing Harlequins but it’s getting me back into writing and reminding myself I can do this. And making me think about what I would do if I was doing it myself. And then remembering, wait a minute, I am a publisher, I can do this myself.  

ROOM: So you are writing and thinking of going into publishing again?

DL: What’s funny is, I was talking to my old publicist in San Francisco who does social justice work now, and also writes detective books under a pseudonym. And we thought, we could do this, you could do detective books and I can do romance. And were like, yeah, we can do this. I came from the conversation thinking I know publishing, I know writers and could get a stable going, set up virtual tours, do podcasts. Oh my God, I love this idea!  

Terri Brandmueller is a journalist and poet currently working on a book about family secrets and internet genealogy. She holds an MA in Media Studies and her writing has appeared in publications in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. After 15 years of exile in Brooklyn, NY, she is back in her beloved Vancouver.

“It's Canadian, feminist, and one of my favourite things ever.”

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