Codename Baboushka: First Mission, First Collection [Interview]

IMAGE COMICS: "What if the sexy Russian femme fatale was actually the main character?" is a good pitch. What came first, a desire to do a story in this genre, or coming up with that hook and then fleshing it out into a full tale?

ANTONY JOHNSTON: Definitely the desire to something in the genre, first. I love spies; I love female protagonists; and I've already written both, many times over. But all my entries in the genre so far had been serious, hard-bitten espionage stories. I wanted to do a "pulp" spy thriller for a change, and create something that would let me cut loose with big-action fun.

I had no real focus on what that might be, however, until I came up with that hook about the Russian femme fatale. That happened when I was rewatching From Russia With Love—one of my favorite Bond movies, partly because it's the only one that's actually a spy story (!)—and started wondering what a version of the story might look like from Tatiana Romanova's point of view, if she was the hero in a soviet propaganda tale or something.

That set me off thinking about the history of female spy characters, and coming up with the kind of fictitious world that would make sense in a modern context for such a character. CODENAME BABOUSHKA was born.

IC: CODENAME BABOUSHKA is a comic that is very aware of itself and its genre, but doesn't beat the reader over the head with it, or even really break the fourth wall too much. Do you see the series as a response to the history and tropes of the genres you're playing with, or more playing along with a straight face?

JOHNSTON: Well, those aren't necessarily opposed. I don't think it's possible to write any kind of espionage genre, or even espionage-related, story in this day and age without acknowledging the fact that our modern history, literally half a century, has seen a spy become one of the most successful, well-known fiction franchises in the world.

There's a whole lot of baggage that comes along with that in terms of cultural expectation, genre tropes that have literally come about because of the Bond movies, imagery, and so on. I can't imagine writing a modern spy story without responding to that in some way.

But "response" doesn't always mean "negative". Sure, some spy action tropes are a little silly in the cold light of day, but they're also just plain fun. And CODENAME BABOUSHKA is, above all other things, a fun comic. Never mind the book itelf, "Playing along with a straight face" is a good description of me when I'm writing it...

IC: If I had to boil down CODENAME BABOUSHKA's tone, I'd say it was "serious, but playful, too." Did you two find this a difficult line to walk? Did you have to cut anything for being too frivolous, or shy away from something that felt too serious?

SHARI CHANKHAMMA: It wasn't difficult, but I did refrain from drawing a total blood bath, because it just felt right to the story.

AJ: Most of that work came in the preparatory stages. For me, finding that line, and establishing the right balance between drama and playfulness, was an important part of creating the character and the world she inhabits. That's why we have the outrageous gadgets, the one-liners, the big action—but also the quiet character moments, the commentary on misogynist tropes, the nods to deconstructionism.

But once the tone was established, I simply trusted my own judgment when it came to the script. Does something straddle the line, or just plain cross it? I'm constantly making that call, but it's made easier by preparation.

IC: Shari, Baboushka spends a lot of this comic smiling, a refreshing change from most espionage tales. Can you tell us a little bit about how you approached designing and drawing the character, and how you wanted her to feel?

CHANKHAMMA: What I got from the script was that Baboushka always feels like she has the upper hand, and even when she doesn't, she's confident she'll have it sooner or later. Like a good spy (even though she's not technically a spy) I want her to show little of her real emotions, but instead of looking cold and stoic, she prefers to appear a bit smug.

JOHNSTON: To back Shari up here, that's exactly what I intended. It does seem to throw some readers, though. We've had comments from people apparently confused by an action protagonist who doesn't scowl all the time! But Baboushka's default setting is "snark/contempt", so it fits.

IC: The covers of CODENAME BABOUSHKA are striking, with red, white, and black working together to make really interesting compositions. What was the creative process like for these covers? Shari, did you find it difficult to work in silhouettes instead of full figures?

CHANKHAMMA: Not difficult at all. In fact, it's a lot more forgiving. It started as sketches in various poses, then Antony and I picked one we thought worked best for each cover. After that I did a full ink drawing to make sure everything looked right before turning it into a silhouette.

JOHNSTON: That iconic silhouette look is, obviously, heavily inspired by Bond movies. We're not the first to use it to make that point, or put people in mind of that style, but I like to think we do it better than most. And the alternate "illustration covers" are there for people who prefer something more traditional.

IC: The essays in the back of the issues help flesh out the context of female heroes. Why did you want to include essays in the back of the single issues? What does it add to the CODENAME BABOUSHKA experience for you?

JOHNSTON: Baboushka is a very consciously feminist (anti) hero, and while I have years of experience writing such characters, I'm still Mr McCishetwhitedude. So I figured why not use this platform to showcase some of the women whose writing I most admire, and help spread their word to people who might not normally seek it out?

That's why, in addition to comics critics like Danielle Henderson, Katy Rex, and JA Micheline, I also asked non-comics people like Maya Rodale and Leigh Alexander to contribute, because the issue of female representation in fiction encompasses all media. Each of these women has an interesting take on the female protagonist, and I wanted to read what they had to say as much as anyone.

What it adds, I think, is a note of realism. By design, CODENAME BABOUSHKA is not a realistic book—it's a modern pulp action adventure, pure escapism and fun. The essays, by contrast, are serious, and grounded in hard, often frustrating, reality. So they help acknowledge that the story is done with a knowing wink.

IC: CODENAME BABOUSHKA: THE CONCLAVE OF DEATH is a single mission for Baboushka, and the final page of the arc promises that Codename Baboushka will return in "Ghost Station Zero" in the future. Will these arcs build on each other in a discrete way, like how the James Bond films have continuity but aren't necessarily married to it?

JOHNSTON: That's precisely the model we're following, yes. You won't need to read any other volumes to enjoy a CODENAME BABOUSHKA story. But of course, you'll of course get more out of each story if you have.