Chelsea Cain on the Message Behind New Comic 'Man-Eaters'

The Image Comics series combines 'The Handmaid's Tale,' 'Cat People' and a wonderfully wicked sense of humor.
Lia Miternique/Image Comics

Man-Eaters is a comic unlike anything else on the stands right now.

Created by the team behind Marvel’s fan-favorite Mockingbird series — writer Chelsea Cain, artist Kate Niemczyk, colorist Rachelle Rosenberg and letterer Joe Caramagna — under the guise of the “Ministry of Trouble,” it’s a comic described by publishers Image Comics as “Part Cat People, part The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is simultaneously apt and also underselling quite how funny and self-aware the comic actually is. (Maybe add in some Kurt Vonnegut in there, to make the recipe complete.)

Taking place in a near future where a mutant strain of toxoplasmosis has started to transform menstruating women into literal wildcats, it’s a comic that uses science fiction as metaphor for the world we’re living in today in a smart and frequently hilarious manner. The Hollywood Reporter talked to Cain about where the series came from, and what it all means.

Man-Eaters reminds me of Bitch Planet in one key respect: it takes what could be considered a broad sci-fi or fantasy idea — a future prison, say, or werewolves — and uses it as the delivery system for more complicated, or at least less obvious, ideas. Which is to say, there’s a lot in Man-Eaters. Where did it all start? What was the root of the story?

It’s an idea I’ve been developing for a few years. “Developing” — that’s a fancy word for “daydreaming.” 

I was raised by a second-wave feminist. My childhood was informed by feminist theory. Imagine if a women’s studies class had a baby and decided to raise it — and that was me. Being so woke and culturally observant, by the time I was an adult I thought that women had this thing pretty well under control. Being female had never cost me a job, or an opportunity. If anything it had helped me. Hadn’t all those boys helped me change tires?  I felt successful and powerful. The battles my mom had fought had mostly been won. Women were called Ms!  Moms on TV could have jobs! Cocktail waitresses were now called servers! I had a badass daughter who never second-guessed herself. 

I figured we still had some rows to hoe, but that we were all on the same page. Then a few things happened. I wrote a comic book called Mockingbird that alerted me to the state of misogyny on the internet — flourishing nicely, apparently. Donald Trump was elected. A boy in my daughter’s sixth-grade class started trolling her on Instagram, telling her feminists were bitches and not worth the oxygen.  

And I thought — well, shit — have we been bamboozled, or what? We still live in a patriarchy. It’s the same old institutional fortress — they just strung some Tibetan prayer flags out front, and we were like, ooooooh, prettty. A woman’s power is still tied to her sexuality. Women have been sold this story that we have all the same opportunities — but Heaven forbid we run the government, or, you know, direct a movie.  

A few months later, my husband and daughter and I were at the women’s march in D.C. on inauguration day, and I looked out into that ocean of people — all wearing pussy hats — all those cat ears — and let’s just say the idea for Man-Eaters presented itself.

Unpacking the ideas in the book a little: Man-Eaters is at once a feminist take/critique on the werewolf idea, on men’s fear of, and desire to control, female sexuality, and perhaps a critique or subtle parody of a lot of early feminist theory, too? It’s also something that is likely to start conversations surrounding gender politics, given the explicit reference to menstruation inherent in the premise. It feels very much like a freewheeling “grand theory” discussion in the best ways possible — did all of this grow organically as you were working on the book? Were there surprises to you as you were creating it, and diversions into topics and places that you didn’t expect?

It’s definitely a way to own Nastassja Kinski’s performance in Cat People. I was interested in that idea of how female sexuality and desire was portrayed as feline and dangerous and uncontrollable. I was also interested in how pop culture does this again and again — manifests our anxiety-of-the-moment into a monster. We connect so profoundly to that, even if we can’t always articulate why. So with the monster-as-allegory in mind, I started thinking, what are we most afraid of right now?  What’s our most deep-seeded social anxiety?  What keeps people up at night?

Women.

We’re the monster!

You never know when we’ll show up and destroy your career!  What with our anti-rape agenda. We are coming for you. You know who you are. 

My 13-year-old daughter and her friends are fierce. Her generation keeps me from despair. They don’t put up with this bullshit. The kids my daughter knows, they change pronouns all the time. It’s middle school. Everyone is searching for themselves. And these kids — they all just go with it. Week to week. I love that. It’s taught me to be a lot more elastic in my thinking, and to be a lot more aware of how I use language as a sorting advice. Listen to yourself. Words, like pictures, are really powerful. 

Man-Eaters is about transition. It’s also about the difference between how others see us and how we see ourselves. Even though the series is told from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl, she’s got a cultural filter. She’s internalized the story she’s been told — she knows she’s scary. This book is about so much, but one of the things it’s about is the transition from second-wave to third-wave feminism. Because we didn’t do it right. We didn’t finish. We got complacent. 

This might be a less straightforward question than it initially appears, but what is the Ministry of Trouble? It’s something that exists inside the story, but also inside the comic — the creative team of the book are among the names listed on the inside cover. Is this a way of announcing that you are all trouble? Or here to fix the trouble?

We are here to make trouble. Turns out I’ve got a real knack for it!

Can we talk about the cover and how amazing it is? It feels like a statement of intent in such a bold and simple way; not only does it look unlike any other book on the stands, it’s also very …  I don’t want to say “girly,” but I also kind of do … ? It feels very much in keeping with the subversive aspect of the book, while also being something that I could imagine Maude being a fan of. What was the thinking behind it?

It was super easy and we came up with it right away. I am lying. It took us so long, and so many tries. Shout out to Lia Miternique, maker of that cover, and all the other covers, and my partner at Ministry of Trouble. Yes, all of the things you said. We wanted a cover that looked different. That communicated attitude and strength — but wasn’t afraid of being pink or sparkly. Superhero comic books are mostly told through a lens of male fantasy (what boys imagine when they’re imagining they have muscles and girlfriends). I wanted girls and women (and anyone who identifies as a girl or woman) to see this comic and have that same thrill. Pop culture sees you.

It’s hardly gone unnoticed that you’ve had some trouble with Marvel in the past, despite your best efforts to … well, play the game with them, for want of a better way to put it. I’ve got a couple of questions relating to this. Firstly, and perhaps most straightforwardly, what’s your experience been working with Image?

Image is an entirely different model that Marvel. I don’t even know how to compare them. Marvel is a traditional comic book publishing company, for better and worse. Image is more of a printer/distribution/marketing company. There’s no editorial staff. We deliver Man-Eaters fully formed — inked, colored, lettered, formatted, with cover and front matter and back matter — and Image prints it and markets it. It’s kind of halfway between tradition and self-publishing.

The conversations we have are about printer proof copyedits or solicits or price points, rather than content. We’ve printed the second issue of Man-Eaters and I don’t think that anyone at Image — outside of two people in the production department — has even read it. They’re like, surprise me!  

Our goal with Ministry of Trouble is to try to ignore the rules. There are so, so many rules when it comes to comics and a lot of them are very silly.  And some of them are probably very reasonable. But they’re based outdated assumptions. Listen, Man-Eaters will probably fail spectacularly. But then someone else will come along, and they’ll make a comic, and maybe it will be easier because we will have killed some of those assumptions and buried them in a gravel quarry. 

My second question is — and this might sound more tongue-in-cheek than intended — you’re a successful novelist: Why keep coming back to comics when you’ve got this other career that doesn’t lead to so much hassle and harassment? Man-Eaters is filled with things that feel like they could only be done in comics, and it’s clear that you love the medium and, from your tweets and interviews, the characters you’ve worked with. But still; comics is a monster, as you know firsthand.

Please send help. Some kind of extraction team? I can’t seem to get out of here. Comics is a monster. And I do think, what the hell am I doing? I think if Mockingbird had been allowed to die a natural death after a dozen issues, I probably would never have written another comic book. But I feel a responsibility now. I have a platform. I am able to pay a female artist, a female colorist, a female designer, and several 13-year-old female artists and writers. (Also one very nice guy named Joe.) I am able to make this story that — if it weren’t for us — would not be in the world. Also, any excuse to wear a cat ear headband, am I right?

You’ve hit on it exactly when you talk about taking advantage of the form. There’s so much that can be done — narratively — in comics that can’t be done in prose, or uses some entirely different tool. That is thrilling to me. I could write a dissertation about point of view in comics. I wouldn’t get a Ph.D. for it, it wouldn’t be academically successful, but I could write it. It would be long and have a lot of highfalutin’ ideas. Because I think about this stuff a lot. Point of view is a feminist issue; it might be the most important issue there is, because everything else, all of it, comes from that.  

OK, let’s go for a straightforward last question: How do you describe Man-Eaters to people you’re introducing to the concept? What do you say to sell them on it?

I say: It’s a comic book series about a girl who thinks she might be a monster. It’s a social satire. It’s horror. It’s feline fan fiction. I say: It’s about female adolescence, in a world where menstruation turns girls into homicidal were-panthers. It’s about cats, and serial killers, and middle school, and daughters and dads, and divorce, and transformation. It’s about being the one telling the story. I say: Look! Issue No. 1 is sooooooo glittery!

Man-Eaters No. 1 is available in comic book stores and digitally now.