The Unstoppable Wasp: Fighting Bipolar & Bad Guys
Nadia Pym is a girl scientist with bipolar. She’s also The Unstoppable Wasp, a Marvel superhero. Read how artist Jeremy Whitley brings her to life.
Comic book writer Jeremy Whitley has a reputation for combining empowerment and adventure. In Princeless, a princess (who is a young woman of color) refuses to wait around for someone else to solve her problems. The spinoff Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess touches on LGBTQ issues. Now The Unstoppable Wasp: Agents of G.I.R.L. takes superhero Nadia Pym through a manic episode and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Why bring a social conscience into superhero fiction?
I’ve loved comics since I was a kid. My favorites were ones like X-Men that had something to say above “good guys punch the bad guys.”
What was your original aim with The Unstoppable WASP?
Nadia is a [pre-existing] character in the Marvel universe who is young, female, and already has a science background. We could talk about STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] and young women, and hopefully foster a love of science through comic books. We do more with that in the interviews with female scientists that we have in the back of each issue.
So why this plot twist with bipolar?
I have friends in the comics industry and in the “geeky” side of comics who have dealt with various mental health issues and who haven’t been represented in comics. Or if they are, it’s so often as villains. The reason they’re “evil” is whatever disorder they’re dealing with. Even when superheroes are dealing with that, like Hank Pym [Ant-Man], who is Nadia’s father, it involves him developing a second personality that is evil.
So you’re tapping into a genetic predisposition?
Pym does have a self-diagnosis [of bipolar disorder] in the comic books and I know that often that runs in families. It felt like it was a unique opportunity to show Nadia as someone who is struggling and who is seeking help, but is still heroic. She is never not a hero because of her mental health issues.
How did you go about creating a realistic, respectful portrayal?
I started off by doing some reading. Informative stuff about what the symptoms are, what the onset of bipolar looks like, especially in teenagers, but from that moving out to the personal. I worked with both a psychiatrist and a professor of psychology, but also with several people who either have first-hand experience with bipolar or who have friends and family members dealing with it.
The superhero lifestyle isn’t very friendly to a stable routine.
The hardest part from a superhero standpoint is the self-care. Nadia is wired to sort of run head-first into everything and take on challenges and put herself at risk. That’s going to be an interesting thing for us to figure out—how to tell stories where Nadia has to make decisions about her own self-care. Not investing all of her self-worth in the heroic side of her. Or into the scientist side of her, because that drives those impulses, too.
What kind of feedback have you been getting?
What’s meant the most to me is people contacting me by email or Twitter to let me know they felt seen in the story in a way they had not felt before. I’ve actually had one or two people who said, ”Hey, after reading this I think this might be something I’m dealing with and I’m going to look into that.” That’s a pretty wild thing for somebody who writes comics.
Any other goals for this storyline?
At the end of this story, it’s not a case where Nadia sort of punches out bipolar disorder. She doesn’t beat it, you know? The most heroic thing she can do is what she does, which is to ask for help. That’s not a thing that we’re built to see as triumph very often, especially in superhero fiction. Here it’s something that people can see as a heroic action and see there’s no shame in either being the person who reaches out to somebody who needs help, or in being the person who needs help who reaches out.
Printed as “Back Chat: Jeremy Whitley,” Summer 2019