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The Horror of Gender Politics: 'Hex Wives' writer Ben Blacker talks the pressures of working on a DC Vertigo title, the battle of the sexes, and more

Comic Books

The Horror of Gender Politics: ‘Hex Wives’ writer Ben Blacker talks the pressures of working on a DC Vertigo title, the battle of the sexes, and more

“Things are going to explode.”

Hex Wives is more than just a story about witchcraft and curses. Mixing beautiful art and gender politics, the story is a high octane comic that is has filled with emotion and violence. Writer Ben Blacker spoke with AiPT! about his new book.

AiPT!: What was the inspiration behind Hex Wives?

Ben Blacker: It was a few things. It’s a story I have lived with for…four or five years. And, I think the spark for it was I caught an episode of Bewitched on TV. I loved Bewitched when I was a kid. I would stay home sick and watch it in syndication. And I had such a crush on Elizabeth Montgomery, and I still do. I was watching this episode, where it was sort of a typical Bewitched episode, in which Samantha had to get dinner on the table because Darren was bringing Mr. Tate home, and this is all she was worried about. And, her mother, Endora, came over and told her that she was wasting her time, and that she had married beneath her. And, so the first time in watching this, I was like, “Oh my god, Endora’s right. Witches are superior to humans.” Samantha has all of this power, and she’s acting as a suburban housewife, which clearly does not suit her. She may love her husband, but that’s an awfully big compromise to make, to not be who she really is. And so, that sort of got me thinking about witch troupes, and how they are really about women’s power and very often about the way that men try to control that power.

And around this time, I started having a lot of conversations with my wife, with my women friends, with my family, about the things they were going through day to day. At work, or in relationships, or wherever, where there’s just these insidious ways in which men try to control women. And, very often they were small, and sort of intrinsic to the patriarchal society. And frequently, the men didn’t know they were doing these things. And, that was upsetting and disturbing, and made me really angry. So, it was that kind of gender politics was something I really wanted to explore, and the only way I know how to do that is like, I was the biggest Buffy fan, so you learn how to write through metaphor by watching that show. And so, I was like, well this witch thing, and this gender politics conversation I want to have sort of go hand in hand, so that became Hex Wives. It was always a comic to me. It never felt like a TV show, it never felt like a movie. I felt like comics were the place where I could explore those issues but also tell the story I was really interested in telling.

The Horror of Gender Politics: 'Hex Wives' writer Ben Blacker talks the pressures of working on a DC Vertigo title, the battle of the sexes, and more

DC Vertigo

AiPT!: Right, I’m glad that you brought up the gender politics of it, because it’s kind of in-your-face. You have a centuries-long battle between the genders, and then you have the men sort of imprisoning the women?

BB: Mm-hmm.

AiPT!: But, in the book, I like how it there are lots of shades of gray in it. Sometimes the wives don’t come off very well, and I like how Gabriel — you can almost understand where he’s coming from in a sense. Was it intentionally written with the shades of gray in it?

BB: No, but I think that is the natural empathy of a writer. To understand why the men are trying to control them, why they are brainwashing the women, and making them act as these ’60s style housewives. I had to dig deep on them, and understand their fear, and why they would do this now, as opposed to the centuries they’ve spent battling and killing the women who are only reborn at the time?

So, I think as a writer, I have to see both sides of it, but I certainly don’t have to take a side. Because, it’s pretty clear to me that the men are the bad guys. It’s no mistake that they are sort of good looking, youngish white men. Those are definitely the people who are doing the terrible things out of fear of a changing world.

AiPT!: It’s really funny that you brought up Bewitched. Isadora and Nadia, they’re a couple of bad asses. How would they stack up against Buffy and Samantha in a hypothetical battle?

BB: That’s a good question. Well, you know, Samantha was very powerful. She just had to sort of wiggle her nose and could make someone disappear. So, I think she’d be unbeatable. That’s like putting someone up against Darth Vader. They’re tough to beat. I think Buffy might be tougher, because she was very physical, and that was part of the design of Isadora, who is sort of our main character; each of the witches, they can do a lot of baseline spells. Like floating stuff, and flying, and stuff like that, which they discover over the course of the first issue. But, each one also has a magic specialty, for lack of a better word.

And Isadora’s is a capacity for violence beyond her physical limitations, which man, we get to see that in the first seven pages of the first issue, and Mirka (Andolofo, artist on Hex Wives) just went crazy drawing some of the stuff. It’s absolutely beautiful and horrifying and violent. So, I think when it comes to a physical altercation, I think Izzy would be hard to beat.

The Horror of Gender Politics: 'Hex Wives' writer Ben Blacker talks the pressures of working on a DC Vertigo title, the battle of the sexes, and more

DC Vertigo

AiPT!: Yeah, you’re right, in those first few pages, the backstory is really, really violent, but beautifully drawn. It’s really fun to watch.

BB: Yeah, a lot of that was I had scripted things here and there, like here’s an idea for this, or here’s where I need it to land. But, mostly, I think I had a description that was like, “Horrible violence ensues for four panels,” and Mirka just man, she went crazy, and it looks so cool.

AiPT!: Aside from being violent and bloody, how would you describe Hex Wives?

BB: I think it’s a horror novel, I mean it’s a horror story about gender politics. It’s about the horror of gender politics. As much as it can be violent and bloody, I think what’s really the horror story in it for me, and we get this through these first six issues especially, is the sense of unease. The sense that everything looks right but isn’t. I looked at a lot of, or re-watched a lot of, my favorite horror movies, like Where’s My Baby?, The Stepford Wives, and Get Out. These movies where the world seems a little bit off, and there’s something so scary to me about that. And it’s such a relatable kind of horror. It’s such an immediate kind of horror, because there are no monsters there, you know what I mean?

AiPT!: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And that kind of goes along with one of my questions. It’s definitely a horror book. There are witches, and they have their magic powers, but I never thought it was scary. But I think it’s the sense of unease that you talked about. You kind of answered this already. What made you go in a creepier direction instead of a scary one?

BB: Well, other than what I just said about that’s what’s really scary to me, I think there’s limitations to the medium. Horror’s really hard to do in comics, because you can’t do jump scares, right?

You can do disturbing imagery, which you’ll get to see in some upcoming issues of Hex Wives, in which Mirka, she pushed it so much further than I thought she would, and it came out real creepy and gross. But, the thing that plays best in, the kind of horror that plays best in comics is tone. The best horror comics have strong and creepy tones, and so I felt like that was really the thing to lean into.

An interesting thing happened. Because Mirka’s Italian, and I’m American, and I was using these frames of reference that were from the American, America in the 60s, where it’s supposed to look like Mad Men or Bewitched, or even Brady Bunch households.

And neighborhoods. I would describe these things, and Mirka wouldn’t have the same frames of reference as me, because the suburbs in Italy don’t look like the suburbs in Middle America. So, I would send references, I would send art and stuff, and the translation process of her taking that stuff in, and then doing her version of it, gave everything that sort of off kilter and uneasy quality that was exactly what I was looking for.

BB: So, the horror worked even better than I could have anticipated, because it was a simple fluke that the artist is Italian and doesn’t have these American frames of reference.

The Horror of Gender Politics: 'Hex Wives' writer Ben Blacker talks the pressures of working on a DC Vertigo title, the battle of the sexes, and more

DC Vertigo

AiPT!: One of the other things, I think my favorite thing about Hex Wives is how emotionally strong the characters are. We were talking about how creepy it is, and it’s uneasy, but there are also really strong moments of humor, and the second half of the book is very sad.

BB: Yeah.

AiPT!: How did you manage to juggle all these emotions in it?

BB: I’m a human person. You know, I don’t like to watch or read anything that is just one thing. There’s nothing that bothers me more than a drama, or a horror movie, or something that is totally without humor. Because people have humor, people crack jokes. People say funny things, often at the most inopportune moments. And, that I have six different voices among this cover of witches to play with, means I get to have six different points of view on the situation that they’re in. Even though they’ve all sort of been brainwashed, even though they’re all being held captive, and are bought into the narrative that the bad guys are giving them, they still have themselves. They’re still themselves underneath all of that. And so, Nadia is sort of going to be a little gentler, and a little more serious. And Izzy is going to always be a little bit on the edge of freaking out, because that’s who she is. And, Becky, who was my favorite character to write, is always gonna have a joke or some reference to make about what’s going on. And all the tones represent all of the different characters and I think the sadness that you talked about is really a simmering anger. The book started as a very angry book, and that’s still there, and hopefully, what is reading as sad, or is reading as even resigned to their situation, is in reality, an anger that’s ready to come out within these first six issues.

AiPT!: Awesome. A little bit off topic — Hex Wives is going to be on the Vertigo imprint, and Vertigo has a long and illustrious history. Do you feel any added pressure writing under Vertigo?

BB: Oh, so much. So much pressure. I feel like this is the first comic I’ve done that anyone cares about. And that is a lot of pressure, knowing that people are going to read it. I hope they read it. Mostly I hope they buy it, because I just want to work with this team forever. Yeah, Vertigo 25 years ago, changed the industry. They showed us that you could put out comics that were for adults, and that had mature themes, and that could tackle big ideas, and they didn’t have to have people in capes. And I think the books that we see, the really popular books that we see now, everything from The Walking Dead, to Saga, to Paper Girls … And those are some of my favorite books, are the direct result of the initial Vertigo books. Swamp Thing and Sandman, like all of them. They were hugely influential, both to the industry and to me as a writer.

So, to follow in those footsteps is…it feels like a big responsibility. Like, this isn’t a book that I can phone it [in]. I have to give all my notes. I have to give the script 100%. I have to be part of the process every step of the way, from choosing  artists, to cover artists, to getting the lettering right in the last pass, or getting the dialogue right in the last pass. Stuff that can’t be copped out, because I want Hex Wives to deserve to be part of the Vertigo legacy. That’s important to me.

The Horror of Gender Politics: 'Hex Wives' writer Ben Blacker talks the pressures of working on a DC Vertigo title, the battle of the sexes, and more

DC Vertigo

AiPT!: You’re off to a great start, but I can’t imagine how daunting it is. Vertigo’s legacy casts quite the shadow.

BB: Yeah, it’s also, I will say, all of the books that are part of the relaunch, the Sandman stuff, but mostly the originals, from Border Town to American Carnage, they’re all so good. And I’ve gotten to read all the first issues of them, and that’s a lot of pressure to be part of this group of incredibly talented people who are passionate about telling the stories that they’re telling.

Border Town, I don’t know if you have read it, I think it’s such a good book, and to have to follow them is like some local comedian having to go on after Jerry Seinfeld or something.

AiPT!: Yeah, I’ve read Border Town. I actually live in a border town, so it’s very well written and relatable.

BB: Oh wow.

It captures the feel of that, of a border town, I really think. And then, American Carnage, I don’t know if you’ve gotten to read it yet, it’s so good. I think that’s the next out of the gate, and like Bryan Hill, I’m sure you know already, is an amazing writer. But, this is, again, a story that he’s clearly passionate about. And that’s what all these new Vertigo books have, and it’s what Hex Wives has, it’s what all of them have, so I’m lucky to be part of this group, for sure.

AiPT!: Cool, cool, cool. My final question is, I know you can’t give away too much, but what can the readers expect from Hex Wives going forward?

BB: Well, things are going to explode. You can only try to contain this power for so long before shit gets crazy. These women are going to remember who and what they are, and when that happens, the guys who have been trying to control them are out of luck. After that, I think I’m getting to do some fun stuff where I looked at books like fables, and Starman, and novels, where I could sort of do longer arcs and shorter arcs, and one off issues. And so, getting to do one issue origin stories for each of the witches in the coven has been really fun. I’m looking at horror movies that I loved, and sort of reframing them from the point of view of the villain and saying, how can we make the villain the hero of this story? And that’s going to be the origins for each of the witches. That’s been a fun exercise, that’s been fun to review that stuff, and we’re going to get some cool guest artists to come do those one off issues. But, look, I’m proud of the work we’re doing, the stories.

I feel like as long as they’re exciting to me, then hopefully they’ll be exciting to other people. So far, so good.

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