Gabby Rivera on Writing a Queer Superhero
Author: Edit Team
March 4, 2017
Gabby Rivera, whose debut novel Roxane Gay described as “[f]***ing outstanding,” has recently begun working in a new genre: superhero comics. This month, Rivera made her comic book writing debut with Issue Number One of America, Marvel Comics’ first solo series to star a queer Latina superhero.The action-packed first issue, illustrated by Joe Quinones, reintroduces us to the beloved dimension jumping, no-holds-barred heroine, America Chavez, who Entertainment Weekly has called “the superhero people need right now.”
Rivera published her first novel, Juliet Takes a Breath (Riverdale Ave Books), in January 2016. Juliet Takes a Breath follows the story of Juliet Milagros Palante, who leaves the Bronx for Portland, Oregon, after coming out to her mother. Mic listed the novel as one of 25 essential books to read for women’s history month, and Latina called it the “dopest LGBTQA YA book ever.” Her short fiction has appeared in Aster(ix), Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City, OMG I’m Gay, and The Best of Panic! En Vivo from the East Village.
Rivera also works for Autostraddle.com and is a Youth Programs Manager at GLSEN. She recently spoke with Lambda Literary about writers she loves, writing America as a queer woman of color, and punching holes into other dimensions.
What inspired your passion for writing?
I mean, I’m not sure. What makes any of us do the things we do? Like, I was and am a chubby, nerdy goofball. Writing was something I could always do on my own, without having to compete with anyone else or live up to their expectations.
All I’ve ever really wanted to do was make people laugh and write things that are fun to read. When I can bring those things together, it’s like one of the few times that I feel like this grim, chaotic, and yet totally wondrous world can’t get the best of me. I feel powerful and vulnerable when I write, you know?
Are there any particular authors that you love?
Reading Erika Lopez’s Flaming Iguanas as a teenager was the first time I realized that you could be a smart ass and tell stories. Watching Tomato, a wild, motorcycle-riding, bisexual latina crash and burn her way across the United States was so impactful on my growth as a writer (and a human). Lopez didn’t hide the messy bits, nor did she shy away from the sexual and crass aspects of moving through life. And the entire story is so irreverent and fresh, in ways that many stories about women of color aren’t.
Also, I mean Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is quite literally one of the greatest love stories ever written. Please stop your life right now and go buy that book.
And just in general, here’s a list of some of my favorite writers: Roald Dahl, Gabriel García Márquez, Cherríe Moraga, Cristy C. Road, Roxane Gay, R.L. Stine, Daniel José Older, Nayyirah Waheed, Ariel Gore, The Hernandez Brothers, Octavia Butler, and Shonda Rhimes.
Did you read a lot of comics growing up?
No, I read a lot of Baby-Sitters Club and the Fear Street series by R.L. Stine. Trashy teen thrillers were my fave. But as I got older, I started reading more and more graphic novels. I especially love Watchmen, Blankets, Black Hole, and Cuba Mi Revolución.
What skills as a novelist do you bring to the table as you begin writing comics?
Most of the time I live in my daydreams. I’m 34 years old, and I walk around the office at my bomb day job 100% doing what I gotta do but also wondering what it’d be like if I could just hop clouds to get to work. I’m that person who gets yelled at by their girlfriends for not listening hard enough when they’re talking because I’m imagining what they’d look like as pumpkins or dragons. And like, wouldn’t it be more fun if we didn’t have to be serious adults?
Comic writing is a way for me to channel that daydreamy weirdo side and create art.
I’m bringing myself to this table. I plan on sitting here, eating my arroz con pollo, watching Celia on Netflix, and writing my brown ass off. That’s the other thing–this opportunity with Marvel is a gift. I get to upgrade my writing/scripting skills and learn how to write for an entirely new genre. That’s one of the most exciting parts about all of this: the learning and nerding out.
Were you shocked when Marvel reached out to you to write America?
Hell yeah. Wouldn’t you be?
Writing a novel is a singular and in some ways a more freewheeling activity. I would imagine writing a comic book, especially one that is set in a large, already-established universe, would require a great deal more collaboration–as you are working with illustrators, letterers, colorists, and assorted Marvel editors. I always imagine writing a comic book to be almost like directing a movie.
How has this process been for you so far?
Working with Wil Moss and Charles Beacham, the editors of America, is fun and thoughtful. They’re super supportive of my creativity and fresh ideas while making sure to guide the narrative in a way that keeps it connected to the Marvel universe. I appreciate them and the whole Marvel team so very much.
In some ways it’s hella exciting, especially when I get to see Joe’s cover mock ups or drop into the Marvel offices, but in other ways it’s pretty normal. Lots of email chains and phone calls and learning cool and funny things about your coworkers, you know?
So Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay and now yourself, have written for Marvel. Have you touched based with any of these other long-form writers on what do to expect as you begin to play in the Marvel sandbox?
Yes, I’m a huge fan of Roxane Gay and she’s spoken highly of Juliet Takes a Breath. I did in fact recently reached out to her for advice but then got super shy about it cuz you know…she’s incredible. So now, I’m going to definitely reply to her email and ask her all my questions.
What is it about the character of America Chavez that speaks to you?
Girls that like other girls and can punch into other dimensions are literally my favorite people.
What aspects of the character do you plan on highlighting?
I plan on exploring America’s vulnerability and desire to connect with something greater than herself. She’s also going to focus on further developing and expanding her powers.
How do you think your queerness will inform your take on the character?
I think there’s a lot about me and my experience that will inform America’s character, more so than my queerness. Queerness isn’t a thing that falls onto people the same way, ya know? My particular brand of queer, brown, chubby weirdo seems to suit America’s voice and journey. She’s carefree but tough and a little aloof. I think my journey navigating a harsh heteronormative, racist, fat-phobic, and pro-bullying/anti-compassion type of world will further add elements of authenticity to America’s story. Also, I like to have fun and build community and love on people, and those are the things I really want to focus on in America’s story.