Seeking to make the world a better place and making people uncomfortable are sort of a package deal, says comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick.
When we openly criticise the things we believe need to change, DeConnick explains to Business Insider, we make asks that other people find uncomfortable. This is key, she says, because on the other side of discomfort is growth.
DeConnick recently told the audience at this year’s 99U Conference that eliciting discomfort in others — and herself — is her greatest gift and job as an artist.
For example, her recent independent venture with artist Valentine De Landro, comic book “Bitch Planet,” unabashedly probes into gender dynamics and celebrates defiance. “If the word ‘feminist’ puts your toes into embarrassed little fists, you might find it off-putting,” she says.
While DeConnick admits she doesn’t think this one comic book series will necessarily make the world a better place, it could spark a conversation that can lead to change.
Here are five steps DeConnick takes to make people uncomfortable, which anyone can take to become what she calls a “professional discomfort producer”:
1. Lead with your heart.
“There have been times in my life where I have been hell-bent on leading with my jaw. Times — a lot recently — when I have led with my middle finger,” DeConnick says. “But when I do my best work, I am leading with my heart.”
This, for her, means being open, vulnerable, and writing the truth (with a “capital T”). Her goal is to do this without a concern for results or fear of judgement. It’s not easy to access this courage, she says, but it gets easier with practice.
“But when you do, you find your way to a level of honest, incredibly uncool, messy humanity that makes people wildly uncomfortable. This is your goal.”
Bitch Planet #1
In DeConnick’s dystopian, sci-fi galaxy, women who don’t conform to patriarchal standards are deemed “noncompliant” and hauled away to an off-world penal colony commonly called Bitch Planet.
2. Find your people.
“I believe the point of art and fiction is to connect us to ourselves and to other people,” DeConnick says. “It is to foster empathy by demonstrating that we are, none of us, particularly unique or singular in our experience with the world.”
DeConnick says that art and stories are the lifelines that map out our connections to one another. And weirdly, even though togetherness itself is uncomfortable, she says, people are much more willing to be uncomfortable together.
“So I urge you to seek out the artists, the colleagues, the friends whose work and whose presence pushes you to be vulnerable, because these are your people,” DeConnick says.
3. Foster Community.
Since it’s easier to be uncomfortable together, DeConnick says, she and De Landro created places for their “noncompliant readers” to find one another, including community pages in the back of “Bitch Planet.”
Though the first issue was released this past December and the fourth issue of the book just hit the shelves, DeConnick says she’s already lost count of the number of people who have tattooed the comic’s “noncompliant” symbol.
She says she knows now what her friend and fellow comic book writer Dan Curtis Johnson writes on Twitter is right: “You don’t get the tat because you’re a fan of something in the book; you get the tat because the book is clearly a fan of something in you.”
DeConnick believes, as a creator, it’s her job to to embrace and rise above her own experience, to listen with her whole heart, and to imagine how the world must look from another perspective.
Active listening, she says, is difficult and rare because it requires both parties to become more intimate and vulnerable with each other, which makes people incredibly uncomfortable.
“So of course I think you need to do it well and often.”
5. Seek to be uncomfortable yourself.
“To make others uncomfortable and still get paid, you must lead by example,” DeConnick says.
As an artist, she has to demonstrate that being uncomfortable won’t kill you. This hurts, she says, especially since we live in an age of comment threads, and artists are often a point of attack.
“But Avengers don’t limit themselves to fights they know they can win, you won’t die, and on the other side of discomfort is growth,” she says.
When she was writing the 2012 run of Captain Marvel, for example, DeConnick created a special unit of women called the Banshee Squadron. Though it occurred to her to include black women in the squadron, she didn’t.
She knew that in real life, during WWII, Jackie Cochran, director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, had turned down the black women who applied to become pilots. Given the opportunity to rewrite history in a storyline that was all about rewriting history, DeConnick says, she repeated Cochran’s crime.
“Every time I tell this story I am ashamed. I am uncomfortable. And I have to fight the urge to excuse, and spin, and scream, ‘I am not a racist!'”
But DeConnick believes she is better for confronting the uncomfortable, and her work is better for it, too. “Doing the right thing is not a passive act. You do not get to be a good guy just because you figure you are not a bad guy.”‘
NOW WATCH: Ideas videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.