Word Wielder

Writer Gives Voice to Superheroes

Marguerite Bennett ’10 writes comic books and sometimes puts herself in her character’s helmet.


Marguerite Bennett ’10 was trembling so violently she had to stop her car and collect herself.

Celebrated comic book writer Scott Snyder, Bennett’s mentor and one of her professors in the Sarah Lawrence College graduate writing program, had pulled her aside after class and casually asked if she might like to help him with his upcoming project, the 2013 Batman Annual #2.

For Bennett, a longtime Batman fan and comics consumer, this was the graphic novelist’s equivalent of Yankees star Derek Jeter asking her to help him with his swing. Or Warren Buffett offhandedly suggesting she help him with some financial advice.

She was still wearing what she called her “crazy person smile” when she got behind the wheel of her white Hyundai that frigid January evening to drive to her Yonkers apartment. She hadn’t even managed to get off campus when she stopped the car to process the moment.

“I started shaking. I had to pull off the road and try to keep from crying, and I had to thank God for the gift of my life,” Bennett recalled.

She didn’t tell anyone about the gig for weeks. “It was so big. Saying it out loud was going to make it real. And then I had to be good enough,” the 27-year-old said. “The gun had gone off, and I had a certain amount of time to reach the finish line.”

Finish she did, becoming one of only a handful of female writers to do a Batman book. Since then, she’s penned a slew of titles for such comic book heavyweights as DC, Marvel, BOOM/Archaia, and IDW, including issues of Batgirl; Batman: Joker’s Daughter; Superman: Lois Lane; Talon; Earth 2; and Angela: Asgard’s Assassin.

Bennett is the primary writer for Sleepy Hollow, a four-issue miniseries based on the popular Fox TV show. She is the co-writer of Butterfly, a four-issue spy thriller, and Earth 2: World’s End, an explosive series set in an apocalyptic alternate universe.

Bennett promoting Marvel’s “Angela: Asgard’s Assassin.” [Photo by Judy Stephens, courtesy of Marvel Entertainment]

Marguerite Bennett’s penchant for storytelling emerged early. Her father, John Bennett, said that as a toddler, his daughter would clamber onto a chair at the family’s Richmond, Virginia, home and weave complex narratives with a handful of dog figurines collected during family trips to Standard Drug.

“She would sit at the kitchen table and do the dialogue – they would talk to each other for hours, I have no idea about what,” said her father, a retired vice president at Virginia Commonwealth University. “She would just entertain herself.”

A few years later, Bennett would pass the time in after-school care watching Batman: The Animated Series on TV. The comic book hero was new to her, and at first the youngster thought that the Dark Knight was a villain who, as a sort of penance for his crimes, vanquished evildoers more wicked than himself. Soon enough she realized Batman was one of the good guys, but the character’s dark, flawed nature sparked in her a passion for villains that still rages.

“Their actions are true to their own beliefs as opposed to serving an ideology,” Bennett explained. “They’re human stories, not moral stories.”

Bennett devoured secondhand comic books from friends and wrote and illustrated her own stories on books her father crafted with staples and computer paper. In fifth grade, she attended a summer symposium at the University of Virginia, John Bennett said, and after that she dedicated herself to a writing career.

Her diary entries and fan fiction from that period extol the virtues of the X-Men. “Oh, did I just want to hang out with Wolverine and be his little sister,” she said.

“Oh, did I just want to hang out with Wolverine and be his little sister. ”
— Bennett on her grade-school love of the X-Men

Bennett applied to the University of Mary Washington because she wanted a liberal arts school that boasted a strong writing program, and she wanted to be close enough to Richmond that she could regularly visit her family, including mom Barbara Ulschmid, brother Corey Bennett, her father, and her stepmother, Joan Putney.

“UMW was ideal for that,” she said. “It was a small, quiet place where I could figure things out.”

Many of the concepts she employs in her writing came directly from UMW English professors, she said. Gary Richards taught her the importance of story structure and careful research. Eric Lorentzen’s Victorian literature classes helped her hone her understanding of crime and punishment and “world building.” And Colin Rafferty’s creative writing classes gave her a willingness to experiment with “weird creativity.”

Her teachers remember her fondly but stop short of taking any credit for her success.

“She was pretty amazing straight out of the gate,” Rafferty said. “I remember the first time I read her work, thinking, ‘Wow. There’s something here.’ Her voice, imagery, and narrative were at a level that was beyond introductory.”

After graduating with a degree in English, Bennett spent 18 months working for a Fredericksburg-based Web company, rising early and staying up late to craft a young adult novel she described as “Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s Inferno.” The work became the basis for her portfolio, which earned her a coveted spot in Sarah Lawrence College’s graduate writing program.

She figured she’d pursue a career as a genre fiction author, writing young adult books, historical fiction, or horror novels. But a semester in Scott Snyder’s graphic novel writing class reawakened her love of comics. She brought her professor “a bloody folklore revenge saga” she’d been playing with in her free time; Snyder encouraged her to stick with it. About a year later, the writing talent behind DC’s Batman and Swamp Thing comics sought her help with the oversized issue Batman Annual #2.

The first person she told was her father.

“It was sort of validation of everything she’d worked for,” John Bennett said, noting that his daughter’s gift was almost secondary to her work ethic. “Talent really isn’t enough. It’s raw. It’s worth something, but it’s not worth what it would be if it were nurtured, honed, and stretched. She’s worked very hard at this. She’s very seriously honed her ability to write.”

And that’s not just a father’s opinion. UMW associate professor Eric Lorentzen said that even as an undergraduate, Bennett applied the timeless themes of class struggle, gender relationships, and empire building from 19th-century texts to present-day life.

“Her work ethic was tremendous. She was so enthusiastic and into stuff – the way English majors are,” Lorentzen said. “When you’re fired up and passionate about something, you’re in good shape.”

“I always want three things. I want it to be aesthetically beautiful. I want it to be brutal.
And I want it to be creative. ”
— Marguerite Bennett

By all accounts, Snyder was pleased with their collaboration, telling fans in a tweet just before the issue was published how proud he was of Bennett for “penning a badass Batman annual for you all.” The issue even featured a new villain of Bennett’s creation, the Anchoress, the asylum’s original tenant who’s got a bone to pick with Batman for turning her therapeutic sanctuary into a repository for Gotham’s habitual offenders.

That issue hit stands in summer 2013, and Bennett has had steady work since. Unlike the solitary experience of novel writing, working on comic books is a group effort that incorporates artists, colorists, and letterers.

“You’re not just a novelist alone at your desk with a glass of whiskey and your pain,” Bennett said. “You’re part of this wonderful, weird, rambunctious group of people who will be lifelong friends; it’s an enormous team. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to produce a comic.”

Bennett likes to know which artist she’s paired with before starting a project, so she can sync her writing style with the illustrator’s approach. For each issue, she spends about two weeks working on the script and about five weeks working with the team. She does most of her work at a computer but sketches some projects longhand so she can see how the story tracks visually. Pacing is key, she said, noting that you can’t just divide up the story in equal parts. You’ve got to hook the reader immediately, provide a solid story arc, and tie up the adventure while heightening the stakes for the next issue – all in 20 to 22 pages.

“There can be nothing superfluous,” Bennett said.

Comic books have been popular in the U.S. since the 1930s, and some of the most beloved characters have been around just as long, building a loyal, vocal following. Bennett said she owes it to readers to honor their favorite characters’ histories while inventing creative ways to tell their stories. She’s got a strict no-tropes policy, steering clear of seductress villains or male heroes spurred into vengeful action by the death of a beloved female.

The pressure of not letting fans down combined with her desire to push the narrative envelope is powerful fuel. “I always want three things,” she said. “I want it to be aesthetically beautiful. I want it to be brutal. And I want it to be creative.”

Bennett hears from readers regularly via social media and at comic conventions, where thousands of fans gather to hear writers and artists speak, snag autographs on their favorite comic book issues, and get sneak peeks at upcoming story lines and movies. Working months of back-to-back comic cons is exhausting, Bennett said, but meeting readers – both critical and supportive – is the most rewarding part of the job.

“I love going to conventions, seeing how much people care about these characters, this universe, these whole worlds. It’s an honor and a privilege,” she said. “Without the fans, none of us would be here. There’s a reason these stories have lasted so long. You feel really part of something much bigger – and beautiful.”

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