STBC: Over your career, you’ve written a variety of diverse and different characters from Hulk and Thor, to Wasp and Rainbow Dash but you are perhaps best known for your work on works such as My Little Pony, Princeless and most recently Rainbow Brite. What led you to the rainbow colors and childlike campiness of these Kids Comics?
Whitley: I’ve always been a big fan of comics. I grew up on comics in the late eighties and early nineties with a dad who was also really into comics and introduced me to that world. As my wife and I were getting ready to have a daughter, I started looking at the comic stores I frequented and thinking [about] what sort of books I would like to share with her.
At the time, there wasn’t much of anything coming out that was aimed for kids. On top of that, my wife is a woman of color and so, of course, would be my daughter. There were even fewer books on the market with a woman of color as the lead. Those that did have them the character was often sexualized or the book was inappropriate for a younger audience.
I wanted books she could read and enjoy and would get the sort of messages I wanted from them. I couldn’t find them, so I started making them. “Princeless” was first, along with the eventual spin-off series “Raven: The Pirate Princess”. During the time I’ve been doing those series (seven years for Princeless now) the comics industry at large has moved in a younger and more diverse direction and these other opportunities have opened themselves up to me.
Even when I write stuff that’s not specific to a younger audience, I try to keep in mind what it is that drew me to comics in the first place: fun. I like comics that are fun and engaging and show me a better world with people who fight evil to save the day. Even when I’m writing Avengers or Vampirella, I try to make it a book that anyone can pick up and enjoy.
STBC: What is your experience with Rainbow Brite, and why is it important to you to write this comic?
Whitley: I think I was pretty solidly in the target audience for Rainbow Brite age-wise and my parents weren’t the type to tell me I couldn’t play with things that were designed for girls. Being honest, I loved the show, I had the bedsheets, but most of my knowledge of Rainbow Brite had faded. I was approached by Dynamite Editor Kevin Ketner, whom I’d worked with before, and asked if I’d be interested in pitching the book. I told him I would think about it and see if I could come up with anything I thought was good because I wasn’t sure what I could add to that world. When I finished talking to Kevin I did a lot of reading up, watched some of the show, and I still wasn’t sure what I would do. I got in the car to drive to the coffee shop where I was going to do some writing.
By the time I reached the shop, I had an idea. Rainbow Brite, as a property and as an animated series, had all of these interesting elements but there were also a lot of blank spaces that hadn’t been filled in and were begging for more detail. The most notable was “Where did Rainbow Brite even come from?”. She didn’t have an origin. She showed up fully formed and we were missing a lot of information about her world. If I could work to fill that in and add elements of the classic show as we went, it would end up being a completely different story that I thought would be compelling. Hallmark and Dynamite agreed with me and that was when the gig was born for me.
STBC: Personally, I love cartoons and media related to cartoons of all kinds, as a writer, how important do you think cartoons are, not just to kids but to adults?
Whitley: If I’m being completely honest, half of my favorite tv shows (both now and all-time) are animated. Avatar: The Last Airbender, Legend of Korra, Steven Universe, Craig of the Creek, Animaniacs, Batman: The Animated Series – I firmly believe that these are some of the best pieces of media in the modern world. That’s not even taking into account the films of Studio Ghibli and Disney – a number of which I would champion over most live-action “masterpieces.” I think the distinction is given much more importance than it deserves and most people who scoff at cartoons are doing so largely out of either ignorance or a desire to sound more sophisticated (which is in its own way, ignorant). Cartoons are an important part of our lives and as kids, they shape the sort of people we will become. I firmly believe that if adults were forced to watch a little more Rainbow Brite or Steven Universe they’d have a little more empathy and [the] world would probably be a better place.
STBC: Why did you choose to Include the new character Willow and why did you choose to make her a POC?
Whitley: When you’re relaunching a franchise with a history, I feel like you’re split between two important obligations: the obligation to respect the original creators and audience and the obligation to appeal to and serve a new audience. The original Rainbow Brite cartoon is (like most cartoons from the same time) overwhelmingly white. Especially considering how much of Rainbow Brite’s screen time is dedicated to ideas of inclusion and empathy, the series does very little to work with actual diversity. While it was important to us to produce a book that gave fans of the original a Rainbow Brite that they could recognize, we wanted to add more diversity to her world as well. Considering the fact that we were telling her origin by placing Wisp (the future Rainbow Brite) into the real world, that felt like an excellent opportunity to add some of that real-world diversity into the mix. Willow is a friend of Wisp’s in the real world who is part of the adventure that leads Wisp into the world of Rainbow Land. She may some other roles to play as well, but those things will take a while to develop.
STBC: In a comic book landscape full of dark reboots, gritty storylines, and deconstructionist ideologies, what is the importance of a Hero who truly fights to bring color and light into the world?
Whitley: I think it’s incredibly important. We live in a time, not just in comics, but in the real world where so much thinking is black and white. Either people are for us or against us. They are our friends or our enemies. That’s very much an adult thing and it’s something that I think kids often naturally reject until it’s forced on them. There’s a world full of color out there and I want Rainbow Brite to be the champion of that world and to fight against that black and white style of thinking. In a world of comics full of death and shock violence, I think having a comic that champions empathy is a pretty powerful message.
STBC: What were your biggest influences in writing this comic?
Whitley: Is it weird to say…me? In discussing this first issue, I’ve talked to a few readers about how Wisp’s childhood and sensibilities largely reflect my own as a child. She’s not particularly well off. She’s a latchkey kid with a busy working mother. But she’s loved. She has a support network with a great friend in Willow and Willow’s family treats her like one of their own. She’s also a fantasy junkie. Wisp and Willow are into playing what Wisp calls “wizards and warriors” but Willow identifies as LARPing (Live Action Role Playing). While this was not an acronym I knew as a kid, my brother and I often ran around the area near our house in North Carolina and pretended to be X-Men. Wisp is a kid who’s spent much of her childhood pretending to be a hero but has never really thought she had what it took to be a hero. Now, she’s being thrust into an adventure and is going to have to find that hero in herself.
STBC: You’ve mentioned in the past that you mistrust princess culture; with that in mind what separates Rainbow Brite from other Princess Culture stories? Do you think that its important for us as creators to subvert Princess Culture? If so; Why?
Whitley: Well, Rainbow Brite is her own hero. She’s not waiting around for someone to swoop in to save her. I think there’s a huge difference between wanting to be feminine and wanting to wear pretty dresses AND being the damsel in distress in your own story. I don’t think we should ever become dependent on a hero coming along to save us. Everybody has the potential to be the hero, it’s just a question of what the culture values.
STBC: Are there are any other cartoons that you would like to have a chance to adapt as a comic?
Whitley: I mean, Jem and the Holograms already exists. She-Ra is becoming a new animated series. If I’m completely honest, it doesn’t fit the text of the question so much as the spirit of it, but I’d love to take a crack at Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld one of these days. She’s due for a new life.
Be sure to pick up Rainbow Brite #1 at your LCS or on digital at Comixology when it releases on October 3rd!