Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk & Lia Miternique on Gender and Feline Transformations in Man-Eaters

This feature originally appeared in the July issue of Image+

What terrifies society the most right now? Nuclear war? Climate change? Government corruption? Clowns? Perhaps. But behind these man-made walls of terror lingers something beyond man’s creation or control, something more mysterious than could ever be imagined.

“Popular culture has a long tradition of manifesting social anxieties as monsters, so I figured, ‘What are we scared of most right now?’ Women,” explains Chelsea Cain, creator of Man-Eaters, a new ongoing series. “Adolescent girls scare the bejesus out of most people. We’re so culturally confused about how to treat them. ‘Are they girls or women? Is puberty a curse or a super power?’ I loved the notion of menstruation causing women to transform into killer wildcats because it’s such a terrific allegory, but mostly it is a way to explore this cultural discomfort.”

In the series, Cain explores this cultural discomfort alongside artist Kate Niemczyk, designer Lia Miternique and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg. The story centers around a rapidly sprouting 12-year-old girl named Maude and her divorcee father, an affable homicide detective. Their world and experiences are not unlike our own: Dad struggles to balance career responsibilities with being a single parent, Maude buoys between precocious teenage angst and lingering childhood assuredness, and both reluctantly anticipate Maude’s impending hormonal changes. But in this world, puberty for girls comes with an uncontrollable lust for violence.

A cat feces-induced gene mutation called Toxoplasmosis X has been tainting adolescent girls during menses, generating a freakish transition from girl to bloodthirsty big cat. After years of shapeshifting panther-girls murdering their families and neighbors, the government took action by ending menstruation via progesterone and estrogen-spiked water supplies. The result is fewer cat maulings, but obviously at a cost.

“Basically, it’s Cat People meets The Handmaid’s Tale,” Cain explains. “I wanted to write the kind of comic I wanted to read. Man-Eaters is a smorgasbord of my interests: horror, humor, satire, feminism, superheroes, murder, monsters, and cats.”

She became fascinated with toxoplasmosis after reading an article about the disease and its connection to cat litter. “It can infect any mammal, but it only reproduces in cats, which means that its life cycle depends on finding its way into a cat’s stomach,” she says. “To accomplish this goal, toxoplasmosis has to change the behavior of its hosts. So rats, infected with toxoplasmosis, are attracted to cats—leading to a higher likelihood rats will be eaten by cats. Studies suggest toxoplasmosis has an effect on human brains, too, increasing risk-taking behavior and suicidal thoughts.”

As for why the rest of the setting is so down-to-earth, Cain gives credit to her inspiration—her daughter, Eliza. “It was really important to me that Man-Eaters be told from a close point of view. I wanted to get inside Maude’s head, so the specifics of her interests are informed by the fact that I live with a seventh-grade girl.” Cain adds that she can’t overemphasize how vital the art, provided by Kate Niemcyzk, was in conveying realistic characters. “Kate is brilliant. I described the characters in the script, and she took it from there,” Cain says, praising particular touches from Niemczyk, such as Maude’s pink pussyhat and her dad’s spandex biker shorts.

Niemczyk, for her part, volleys the compliments right back. “Chelsea writes her characters so well that I instantly had their look in my head,” she says.

Cain, Niemczyk, and Rosenberg first collaborated to create Marvel’s Eisner-nominated Mockingbird run, the first self-titled Marvel series about a secret agent named Bobbi Morse. It’s probably an understatement to say that Mockingbird was a learning experience for all involved, including many of its readers.

Mockingbird was my first comic book ever, and I was experimenting a lot, so the difference is that with Mockingbird, I tried to find out how I am able to do it. And with Man-Eaters, I tried to find the way I want to do it,” Niemczyk says. Cain, however, is a bit more brazen when reflecting on the experience.

“I’m still processing. In a fetal position. Under my bed.”

Mockingbird was critically acclaimed and praised for Cain’s witty and introspective depiction of Morse, as well as Niemczyk’s and Rosenberg’s playful and precise art. Woefully though, the team—especially Cain—was also plagued by attacks from self-righteous and misogynistic “fans” who took issue with artist Joelle Jones’ cover art portraying Morse wearing a T-shirt that reads “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda.” That’s all it took to unleash an avalanche of social media-bred hate directed at Cain and crew for “ruining comics.”

Fortunately for readers and future comic creators, that trolling hasn’t slowed the team’s desire to continue creating. “I did learn this: the comic book industry needs more women,” Cain says. She and longtime friend and graphic designer/cover artist Miternique began the publishing company Ministry of Trouble, specifically to make Man-Eaters and other women-led comics.

“I do think there are a lot of themes that in general could use a woman’s perspective,” Niemczyk says. Cain especially sees potential in placing more women at the helm of horror stories.

“I started writing thrillers when I was pregnant with my daughter,” she says. “Remember, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein while pregnant, so there is a precedent for creative mania fueled by hormones and bloodlust.”

As for moving forward and building upon some of Mockingbird’s illuminations, Cain and Niemczyk are still thrilled to undertake new projects and hope other women and diverse men will join them in the field.

“If I can give any advice to anyone, I would say do your best. Maybe people like Brian Stelfreeze or Sara Pichelli can be your inspiration,” Niemczyk says.

Cain offers her own encouragement to anyone feeling rattled by hate: “Make comics. Don’t listen when [naysayers] say you can’t. Make comics you want in the world. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. You are amazing, and I want to see your story.”

Man-Eaters #1 debuts in comic book stores on September 26, 2018