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The politicization of superheroes in 'The Final Girls': An interview with Cara Ellison and Sally Cantirino

Comic Books

The politicization of superheroes in ‘The Final Girls’: An interview with Cara Ellison and Sally Cantirino

A rich new hero comic exploring sexism, racism, and the politicization of heroes.

If you like superheroes with a side of politics, The Final Girls could be your next favorite read. Written by Cara Ellison, and with art from Sally Cantirino, the ComiXology Originals series is set in a world where the most popular superheroes are dead, leaving just a few heroes to contend with the world’s ongoing crisis. (Fun fact: Ellison is making her creator-owned comic book writing debut). Taking a more serious and mature look at heroes, the title willfully tackles a dynamic story where sexism, racism, and the politicization of heroes is very much real.

With all five issues out this week (March 30), I had the chance to ask Ellison and Cantirino about the new series, including how they blend a variety of themes (i.e., the effects of capitalism on superheroes), focusing on regular life with superheroes, and crafting a story specifically for digital release, among other topics.

The politicization of superheroes in 'The Final Girls': An interview with Cara Ellison and Sally CantirinoAIPT: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions! Cara, this is your first comics work, what made ComiXology the right fit for this project?

Cara Ellison: They were willing to invest in unusual projects that other places might not have been open to what we wanted to do!

AIPT: There are interesting themes blending with a new superhero world, can you talk a little bit about the inspirations for the series and how you finalized the story?

CE: I’m really interested in the idea of capitalist systems of power intersecting with ‘superpowers’ and how capitalism would seek to monetize those powers. How would Clark Kent pay his rent without the 60,000 journalism job he would definitely lose in this economy? It’s not like Superman can beg for money for the ‘Super’ job – wouldn’t people turn on a Superman who invoiced? How would he have a place to live in New York without a job? These were interesting problems I guess I started to think about, and in thinking about them I started to think about how sexism and racism possess more insidious powers — the power to psychologically ruin someone. You could be the strongest woman in the world and still be subjected to the humiliation of the public eye.

You can still be subject to bad treatment from your hero peers. You can still be part of a social fabric that abuses you. There is no higher power to answer to in these worlds than other heroes themselves. So all these themes and how you might seek justice are woven into the story.

AIPT: How is The Final Girls a different approach to superheroes? As a follow-up, what can superhero fans expect to find in your series?

CE: Generally I try to tie in how politics deeply affects the heroes of this story, and their lives are deeply tied to how humans understand them and politicize them. Superhero fans might find an interesting angle in The Final Girls to do with what justice might look like when the answer ‘beat the crap out of them’ has failed to work or produce justice.

Sally Cantirino: My first introduction to superhero comics were the DC and Vertigo ones from the late 80’s and early 90s — things like Shade The Changing Man, Doom Patrol, Flex Mentallo, The Invisibles, Watchmen. I started with books that took a very meta approach or critical approach to the genre at the time, books that sometimes had artists doing things visually outside the standard look for the genre. I think I brought that influence and that part of my artistic DNA to the series.

'The Final Girls' Cara Ellison Sally Cantirino

Courtesy of ComiXology.

AIPT: I’m always fascinated by titles, and The Final Girls feels incredibly original and also tells us something. Was that always the title for this series?

CE: Yes. The Final Girl is, of course, the term for the sole survivor of a horror movie. She survives. That’s what life is about. Everyone is the Final Girl of their life. Everyone wants to be able to get through their horrors and make it to safety. This year and last year the title only became more meaningful. We all hope we can Final Girl our way through.

AIPT: The characters in The Final Girls are very human and relatable. What goes into crafting realistic characters in a narrative (and this goes for Sally Cantirino if she’s available to answer, as character acting is such a huge part of this!)?

CE: Personally I prefer the heroes in my comics to get invested in the foibles and mundane parts of human life much more than I really like to see them kick the crap out of aliens. I honestly would read a comic that is purely about Peter Parker trying to wash the dishes using webs without Aunt May noticing than a story about Peter Parker’s grudge against the Green Goblin, mainly because I think the human problems are what provide stakes in a story. When you have to ‘save the universe’ the stakes get much, much smaller, because humans don’t really have the capacity to understand what that would look like – it’s too big, it’s too hefty, it’s too far away from us. What about saving a community? Saving a family? Saving your dog?

One of the reasons that John Wick is so efficient is because you are really pissed off about that dog dying. How dare you kill the dog!! So I think the key is to keep the stakes human. To keep the stakes personal and close. The more personal and close the stakes are, the more painful it is that they might not achieve the solution. Aunt May knowing that Peter uses webs to wash dishes because he is a man-spider is kind of a painful weird secret to have to tell someone – we innately understand that. So keep the story personal level, and make it really painful, and you’ve got the center of your story.

Sally is really really good at character expressions and bodily expressions, so the way that Sally impacts the personal narrative is really profound. That’s why these themes land – it’s in the characters themselves and how they respond and react to what is being said.

SC: (Thank you Cara!!) When I design characters, I think about their relationship to their world, their surroundings, their backgrounds– for example, Ko wears lots of layers to put armor between her powers and the outside world, and tends to fold in on herself protectively, because her powers are based on contact and touch. Osua’s got her Clark Kent glasses and jeans and t-shirts when she’s not in scrubs, she’s happier out of the public eye. On the other hand, Scathach is rarely seen out of her superhero look and Ash has to keep herself looking put together as well. Power is really into himself, he wears his own merch and jerseys, Claymore also stays mostly in his superhero outfit– they don’t have the baggage that comes with hypervisibility that women do, they’re happy to be recognizable public figures. All these things figure into how I think about their design, their wardrobe, their body language.

'The Final Girls' Cara Ellison Sally Cantirino

Courtesy of ComiXology.

AIPT: Did your approach to the work change knowing it would be read digitally?

CE: Yes – you can’t have giant images or any information out with panels if you want the comic to be read easily, so a lot of the comic is designed to be read in a more rigid sequential structure than a traditional paper comic. This was challenging for everyone involved — in particular me, as sometimes I had to say what I needed to in much fewer lines to fit in panels. Usually a little overrun is allowable, but not in digital – it would just be cut off. So you have to stay in constant communication with your collaborators to make it work. Sally and Joamette worked really hard to make it flow well.

SC: There are things you can do in print, like full bleeds or splash pages, that don’t work in digital. Going in I was given guidelines, and it’s like- okay, you can’t do double-page spreads (thank god), you can’t get too whacky with your panel shapes, you have to imagine someone might be reading it on a phone screen or small tablet. It forces you to simplify your page design and compositions, and think about alternate ways to make a moment feel big or dramatic.

The Final Girls

Courtesy of ComiXology.

AIPT: Each cover is quite something in the five-issue series and each is done by a different artist! What went into designing and developing these covers with the various artists?

CE: We sent the scripts along to the artists (all artists we really really wanted to work with!) and let them choose a moment from the script they wanted to pick out. We really let them do whatever they wanted as they are each extremely accomplished. I think they worked so well – each one is such a Mood that I am tempted to just repost each of them every time I have an emotion. The emotions there each certainly speak to some of the pandemic experiences I’ve had in the last year, which have alternately been lonely, filled with annoyances, anger, joy and — with Sally’s cover — a whirlwind of feelings and memories.

AIPT: Do you have any other projects on the horizon you’d like to talk about?

CE: I’m still working on several unannounced videogame projects, but I have some other writing projects in the works too, if only Father Time would let me kick him out of the way more often!

SC: I have a monthly horror comic out with Vault called I Walk With Monsters, with Paul Cornell, Dearbhla Kelly, and Andworld Design — the last two issues of that come out in April and May.

You can purchase The Final Girls on ComiXology as of March 30.

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