BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY: An Exclusive Interview with Writers Julie Benson and Shawna Benson!

BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY stands out among the DC Rebirth titles. It’s the only one to feature a team comprised solely of women, and these heroines – Batgirl, Huntress, and Black Canary – offer readers three refreshing and totally unique perspectives. The chemistry among the trio crackles off the pages with their witty banter and sharp attitudes.

The series is written by Julie and Shawna Benson, a writing duo who happen to be siblings and know a little something about how to create a compelling sisterly bond. The Bensons also know something about genre pop fiction, coming off the CW show THE 100 as staff writers. Shawna and Julie split their time between TV and comic book writing, and have graciously taken a break from their busy schedule to sit down for an exclusive interview with ComicsVerse.

In the interview, we discuss numerous aspects of the Bensons’ career, their approach to writing, and the creative decisions made for BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY. They talk about their first arc, including how they came up with the shocking identity of the new Oracle. They also drop several intriguing hints about their upcoming “Blackbird” story arc, which sees the arrival of a sinister new villain, and a surprise visit from one of Gotham’s greatest heroes. Finally, Julie and Shawna offer ComicsVerse readers important advice for how to break into the comics industry.

Read on for the full interview!

ComicsVerse: How did you become involved in writing BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY, and what were some of the challenges involved in transitioning from television to comics?

Julie Benson: Yeah that’s a tricky one, isnt it? Well we got into comics mostly because of our relationship with Geoff Johns. He and I were talking about how he was gonna be starting Rebirth, and wanted us to pitch on Birds of Prey because he’d been following our career. I was friends with a lot of these comic book writers and artists online and through social media, and so, just being a fan myself, over the years we’d developed those relationships. So it was the right time. We’d been writing on [CW’s] THE 100 for a season or so, so it was the perfect time in our hiatus and we pitched on it and we got it! It was a labor of love though because once they said Birds of Prey you’re like “Oh, I’ve got 1000 ideas, so where do we narrow it down to? Where do we start?”

Shawna Benson: In regards to how was it to move from TV to comics, it’s weirdly not too different. The format of writing is different and that part was a learning curve, a learning process, but it was pretty easy to pick up. The way that we write, I write half we each take half of whatever that piece is, whether we’re writing a screenplay or we’re writing a comic script, and then we just divide it up. We each write our half and then we swap, we re-write each other, and swap again until basically we’ve polished it to a place [where] we’re really happy with it. We won’t really know who wrote what anymore, and it’s kind of intentional because we try very hard to blend our authorial voices into a singular voice.

READ: ComicsVerse recently sat down with cartoonist Michael Deforge to discuss his upcoming work: STICKS ANGELICA!

CV: I find that one of the biggest challenges in writing with a partner is making everything feel cohesive, but it seems like you guys have developed a very fine-tuned writing process.

SB: Well it was something we definitely had to find for ourselves, because a lot of different writing teams write in different styles that work for them. For us, we’re fortunate in being siblings, that we already start from a base that’s fairly similar in terms of knowledge of certain types of subjects and pop culture. All those kinds of things are infused in our mutual education and admiration.

JB: It doesn’t hurt that we were born on the same day three years apart.

SB: When we work on the story, we sit down together and we read it out, we figure out what every single page is going to look like, what all the storylines look like, so when we split it up, each of us know almost exactly what we’re writing — with some wiggle room for improvisation and creativity, but at least I know that whatever I’m writing is gonna match up with whatever she’s writing, and if we don’t [match up], then we know we made a big mistake early on.

CV: I really enjoyed the “Who is Oracle” storyline, and it struck me as a difficult task of, how do we come up with who the new Oracle is going to be? Because that’s a big deal for fans of the original character, and going into this new iteration of the character, I’m curious about your process for deciding who the new Oracle was going to be?

JB: Well the good news is we weren’t alone. It was kind of a group effort for that first arc. We had Geoff in the room, we had our editors, Mark Doyle, Chris Conroy, Dave Wielgosz. So we all kind of sat together and brainstormed — almost like a writers room — for the first session, and Shawna and I went off from there and did our thing, but it was definitely a group decision and we knew this was a big deal, making a new Oracle. How do we do this and not stomp all over the history of what Barbara was? That was really important to us as fans of Gale Simone’s run and Chuck Dixon’s run and Duane Swierczynski’s run. We walked the fine line of making sure that we were paying homage to who [Oracle] was and what she stood for and how it’s made her who she is today, and how this new Oracle is also a fan of hers. It just felt like the most natural way to tell that story… if I could have been anybody in the DC history, I probably would have chosen Oracle, because [it’s such] a cool job. What an amazing thing to be able to help everybody as they’re out in the streets. Obviously, Gus (the new Oracle) grew up the same way we did, of being a big fan of Barbara and being Oracle. So picking up that mantle was… definitely out of love. So we wanted to bring it from that center, and everything kind of came from there.

CV: I admit I was a bit surprised when you find out that Oracle is just this dude. He’s a fan, he’s just a total fanboy. I was not expecting that twist.

JB: I know, everyone had their theories, and again it was [a question of] who would get away with something like that? Taking the name, which obviously ticked Barbara off… but who could get away with that more than someone who is doing it from a place of respect and love and admiration? [Someone who’s] just trying to fill shoes that had been empty. So we wanted to have fun with that character.

SB: And there was a lot of discussion and debate in the early stage of this, about what was Oracle going to be, male or female, and all of the other attributes that we wanted to imbue in that character. And I think there’s still a lot to unravel about that character. I mean we really only just barely introduced him into the world, so there’s a lot of speculation [about] what can be expected as to who and what this guy really is. And we’re really excited to still be able to get to tell this story and explore his history and background and who he really is in greater depth as we go forward.

CV: Huntress is on a mission of vengeance, but she’s not totally cold and cruel. She has an emotional center. When you discover the identity of Fenice as her mother, that was a pretty big deal for Huntress. I’m curious if you can tell me a little bit about the conception of that storyline, and what further implications the revelation of Fenice being her mother might have on Huntress in the future.

JB: Yeah that was one of our first pitch documents to the [editors] when they asked us to pitch. That was something we really wanted to explore with bringing Helena back. Greg Rucka had done a really fantastic BATMAN arc that was Helena Bertinelli-related called “Cry for Blood,” and it told her backstory and there were some interesting things in there that we thought we could maybe try to do and tell a little differently, and [DC’s] Rebirth was really about a re-exploration of some of these characters, of finding their roots and bringing them into the present. We wanted to explore that, and we got really lucky that… the door was wide open. We had some room to play there, and that allowed us to think about what had been established for [Helena’s] backstory and imagine that differently. In the original version, her mom died: Well what if her mom didn’t die? What would that mean? What would that look like if she thought her kids were dead? We wanted to do a story about a character being reborn. What does it make Helena if she doesn’t have that [need for] revenge? Who is she? And so that’s the fun that we get to have now moving forward. This revenge stuff is over. Who is she as part of the team? What does she bring to that? We can kind of play with her a little bit more and bring some of the fun back that we had in GRAYSON with Dick, so it’s been really fun writing her moving forward.

READ: Want to know more about the Bat-member of the Birds of Prey? Find out more about Babs with our review of Batgirl #7!

CV: You’ve done some interesting things with Barbara and Huntress. Black Canary is sort of the straight man in the comedy act. You know, she’s there to kind of make fun of everyone else and steer them back on a normal course, kind of jabbing at them wherever possible. She plays such a great role in that sense, but we haven’t learned as much about her in the story so far, and I’m curious if you can say anything about how the “Rebirth” approach might next affect Black Canary.

JB: Well she’s gonna be directly affected in the next few issues and really gets her own story. Especially, I think it’s in issue 9, we get to play with a little bit of her undercover as we [introduce] this new villain, and we really put Dinah back in the spotlight. She did sort of take this middle referee mode with Barbara and Huntress cause we were so focused on telling their story. So giving [Dinah] this story in the next arc was something that was really important to us.

CV: The last issue that came out was an opportunity to focus more on the character intimacy. It seemed like an opportunity to re-focus from the plot onto the character relationships?

JB: Oh yeah, that was a fun one. That was the Valentine’s Day one.

SB: That’s something that is a hallmark of the BIRDS OF PREY title going back a very long way, the character interplay, the character dynamics. How these characters relate to each other when they’re not out kicking ass and taking names. But this [issue] was about re-establishing that this [series] isn’t gonna be non-stop action and non-stop plot. It’s [also] about these women and how they relate to each other, and through their relationships, where they are in their lives, one of the things that we discovered very early when we were talking about working on this book, was that all three of these women — these very strong powerful women — have these interesting mother issues. Barbara’s mother had left her at an early age. Dinah’s mother, it’s kind of nebulous as to what’s happened to her, and then of course Helena’s mother, [whom Helena] thought had died at an early age, and so we thought we could pull these three together in a really strong sister bond — which we happen to know something about. [The Birds of Prey] don’t really have maternal figures in their lives and so it [falls] on each other to be those maternal figures.

READ: ComicsVerse just published an exclusive preview of AQUAMAN #18, hitting the stands on February 28th!

CV: I like that. That makes a lot of sense. So what can you tell us about the next story arc, the “Blackbird” story arc. I know it looks like there’s gonna be some love triangle stuff going on there?

JB: Yeah a lot of people have sort of come to that conclusion, which is interesting, because so far, as I’ve been reading in NIGHTWING, he’s got a little bit of a new interest himself in Defacer, so I’m surprised people are thinking we’re gonna have catfighting in our book. I hope, if we’ve proven anything thus far, it’s that [with] this team the blood is thicker than water, and our girls are not gonna be fighting over any man any time soon.

SB: For the “Blackbird” story, one of the things that we talked about with the editors is, the Birds of Prey didn’t have what we would call an iconic villain or archenemy figure, and that was something that we wanted to try and introduce into the cannon. So Blackbird has kind of been our version of the Joker for these women. It’s a character that we hope that we will be able to use going forward, and that will have a legacy for herself; a really, really powerful foe for the Birds. The Birds are all about family… [for them] blood is thicker than water, as Julie said. To them, family is above everything, they are stronger together, and Blackbird is kind of the antithesis of that, and that’s really where the conflict comes from.

JB: Yeah, I can’t tell you how excited we are about [“Blackbird”]. We gave [penciller] Roge Antonio this basic idea of what she should look like, and got back some sketches of what he envisioned her as, and we were just like — yeah, you knocked it out of the park. [Blackbird] was so cool, very David Bowie, androgynous-looking crazy villain. It’s gonna be so much fun, and yeah, Dinah [will] maybe do a bit of a solo act [in this arc]. We’re just getting so much action and we’re really digging in to what it means to have a metahuman power. It’s been really fun.

SB: Yeah and this also gave us the opportunity to finally bring in characters that are not core to the book but are important figures in the lives of our characters, like Dick Grayson and Oliver Queen, and these are guys that are kind of extended family. So… in issue 8, bringing Nightwing into the story is a lot of fun, and there’s obviously an interesting relationship dynamic that comes as a result of Barbara and Helena’s history with Dick, but I don’t know that it rises to the level of something like a love triangle.

CV: To circle back to the love triangle thing *laughs*. That’s all we wanna know. Is there gonna be a love triangle or not, come on *laughs*.

JB: They definitely talk about it.

SB: Yeah its definitely talked about.

JB: Yeah but there’s no catfighting.

CV: I expect for these three there would not be any catfighting.

SB: Right, so first of all it would be a knock down drag out brawl, and people would get really hurt.

CV: You know you could do that for an entire issue and fans would love it.

SB: *laughs* But over a guy? Ugh.

JB: *laughs* Yeah it would be over something really important.

SB: Yeah, like the last slice of pizza.

JB: Pizza!

CV: That’s what happens after the end of the last issue right? They all had a little too much to drink, they started fighting over the last slice. That could be a thing.

SB: I think that is a fair assessment of how that evening goes down.

CV: I mean, what’s the use of super powers if you can’t use them to fight over the last slice, come on.

SB: I think I just realized what I’d want my super power to be. Endless pizza woman.

CV: Endless pizza woman! I am definitely quoting you on that.

SB: Eating pizza and never gaining weight.

JB: Yeah, that’s it.

SB: That’s my super power.

CV: So to look more at the basics of writing this thing, what would you guys say are the biggest challenges writing and what would you say are the elements with which you have the most fun writing?

JB: I think it’s the same answer probably everyone else gives. You feel like 20 pages isn’t enough and you’re trying to cram so much story, and coming from “The 100,” our show is non-stop action and reveal after reveal after reveal, and so for this book I think the first arc took maybe a little too much time trying to tell its story. Which is why [for] the “Blackbird” story, we’re really going to try to get that [done] in three issues, and [in general] do more two or three issue storylines so we can just bang through more story, but that being said, that’s one of the challenges, we feel like we never have enough real estate — you just always want another page, and then, of course, the reverse of that is if you gave us another two pages we’d be like “Oh this is too hard, it’s too much work.” So I think the challenge for us is playing in our sandbox and trying to understand how the characters work within the DC universe, meaning there’s a lot of conversations we have of “Oh can we borrow this character? Can we bring this person in?” And you really do have to pass it through the higher-ups because they have so much going on with every character in every book that it’s nearly impossible to keep cannon in your book without tripping on somebody else, but then the fun of [writing] is getting the chance to just create a new character [like Blackbird] and not worrying about whether or not she’s gonna show up in some other book.

SB: I mean, for us, we’re very passionate about story being born out of character action, that decisions have consequences, choices have consequences, that action is derived from character, that you don’t have a blanket action scene. The one exception to that is the fight at the top of issue 7, which was intended to be kind of like a typical fight in progress, where it wasn’t directly tied to the narrative, but it was there to illustrate that these three are working together as a team really well, but those are the things that we try to balance and that’s a challenging thing to do, to make sure that… we’re being consistent, that it’s coming from a truthful place, that we aren’t giving character’s motivations that don’t belong to them or that feel out of place with what we know about those characters. So all of those things are really, really important to us for this book.

READ: Dive into the Bensons’ world with our review of BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY #6!

CV: That sounds like the struggles of a lot of writers. It’s a very familiar story.

SB: I mean that’s the trick of storytelling. That’s the same in TV and comics and movies and novels. That is all fairly common. I think the one thing we do think about a lot more [with BATGIRL AND THE THE BIRDS OF PREY] than with anything else we write is the legacy of this book and these characters and everything that’s come before. We wanna be respectful of… the writers and artists who came before us and we have great, great respect for Gale Simone and for Chuck Dixon and Christy Marx and any and all of them that worked on this book in the past. It means a lot to us to now be part of that group of people. It’s incredibly humbling to be a part of that legacy and also [part of] the Bat-Family. I mean, what an amazing depth of story for the town of Gotham that we get to explore. That’s so much fun.

JB: That was why [in issue #7] we raised the question of what’s the Gotham real estate circle like? What does that really mean? And it was just such a fun, fun thing to think about and extrapolate on – like what are the type of places you’d go to? Oh, the one where Batman beat someone up and left a hole in the wall.

CV: The people are sort of tailing Batman’s wreckage all around Gotham.

SB: Yeah, I mean that’s a good deal, right? I mean, the women also left their share of carnage… living in that town must be really, really surreal all the time like “Oh, Batman, he’s fighting outside my window. Hey there Bats, how you doing? Nice to see you. Need any help? No? Ok good.”

CV: You know now that you’re describing it that way, I’m kind of thinking about it as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead approach to Batman.

SB: I desperately want to write that book. That’s one of the things Julie and I talked about when we pitched this book – I was like, I so wanna write a joke Gotham book. You know, that guy who’s a plumber that lives in a walk-up in Gotham. He’s the man on the street, the guy who had to live in this surreal [place] with vigilantes and metahumans causing mayhem all the time.

CV: So I just have one more question for you guys, and I think our reader-base would appreciate this question. What advice would you be able to give to any aspiring writers or artists who wish to break into the comics industry? And this question is only slightly selfishly motivated.

JB: *laughs* Well I always think the first answer is write and don’t wait for somebody to give you permission to write your comic. Write your comic now. There’s no one stopping you from writing it. Self-publishing is so much easier these days and I know that that means create your own – cause that’s a whole different world that we haven’t yet explored, [but] that we look forward to doing. I think writing for [DC and Marvel] or writing for Image or any of those [companies] isn’t necessarily the route everybody should be looking at. You should be looking at, what is the story you wanna tell? What is the comic you wanna write? And then write it, and see if there’s interest from anyone else, find [yourself] an artist friend; and yeah, it’s hard because you kind of have to pay the money up front, but I would just say the answer is always be writing. We did the same thing in TV, we were always writing specs, we just had material ready, so that when the moment does arrive, like it did with us, we were ready. We had samples, we had ideas. We had talked about: “What kind of comic book would we ever wanna write?” So it’s all about being ready and I think not waiting for permission.

SB: And creating opportunities for yourself. I think it’s sometimes very challenging for artistic people, whether you be a writer or an artist, to get out there and be in the public and meet people and network — and I hate that word, but it’s important. You have to build your own community, you have to meet up with people or find people that you appreciate and respect what they do and they respect what you do, and be there to support each other. That’s really important. We still have a writers’ group that we’ve been in for a couple of years with some other writers, and that is an important support system for us to get feedback and checks and balances and see how their careers are going versus ours. Not in a comparison sort of way, but just sort of a — how are we doing this? How are we all managing our lives and helping each other out.

JB: More than anything it gives us deadlines.

SB: Yeah that too, it gives us deadlines. You need that.

CV: Deadlines are very important.

JB: Especially in comics.

SB: That train doesn’t stop moving. That’s the one thing, just like TV. Once the train is off, it’s going. It’s like trying to change the tires on a Nascar car as it’s going around the corner. You have to just keep moving.

Our thanks to Julie and Shawna Benson!

The “Blackbird” story arc begins in BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY #8, in stores on March 8th!

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