One of MIT Press’ big titles for 2021 is a graphic novel spy adventure based around a secret society formed by Marie Curie. Its co-creator Heather Einhorn explains why the world needs more stories about women in STEM
Tom Tivnan: Can you spell out the setup of The Curie Society?
Heather Einhorn: The Curie Society is a teen spy thriller centred around a team of brilliant women scientists. Our base mythology envisions a society founded by Marie Curie with her Nobel Prize winnings, with a mission of supporting the most brilliant female minds in the world. But due to the politics of her time, she kept the society underground so it couldn’t be corrupted by the same scientific patriarchy that she constantly had to deal with. In the modern day, the society has grown to have secret chapters at universities all over the world, and its members are always on the lookout for the best and brightest students to join their ranks.
We get introduced to the society through a trio of these new recruits—Simone, Maya and Taj—who all receive mysterious invitations and have to solve a series of puzzles to gain entry into the society. From there it’s a fun world of secret missions and training trips, all surrounded by what we call “near-term sci-fi”. We consulted with an amazing group of working women scientists to help project how real, modern technologies could evolve over the next five, 10 or 20 years, and then included those in the book. Our hope is that some young readers will learn about a new technology for the first time in our book, and then go on to be part of the team that creates that technology in the real world.
How did the idea itself come about—and why do you think the idea of a STEM adventure series will appeal?
We had just returned from San Diego Comic-Con, where we went to a panel that was about women-in-STEM representation in popular media. What stuck in our heads was that the panelists, all brilliant women scientists and writers, were talking about how there was only ever room for one “smart woman” character in any given story. And they all wished that there was a show or comic or movie where they could see two smart women, instead of just one. They also dreamed of a day when female STEM characters could be seen in leadership roles (e.g. as the head of a lab, like Q from James Bond). We were struck mostly by the fact that they didn’t dream beyond two female characters, or one female character being the head of the lab!
That drove home what lack of representation must do to young women, who are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. It made us see how people are conditioned to not reach too far beyond what they see right in front of them. So we wanted to throw out the rule book. We wanted to create a story where all the women characters were smart from the get-go. Not only so the audience could see that was possible, but so they could see each of these characters as individuals. When “smart” stops being a character’s sole distinguishing trait—because it’s a trait of all the characters—then they each have to be unique and interesting and compelling in ways that “smart women” characters were never allowed to be before.
So we left Comic-Con that year and started thinking about an ensemble story with multiple awesome female characters in STEM. Just think! More than two female scientists! Crazy!
How did the graphic novel come to MIT Press?
We were introduced to Amy Brand and Jermey Matthews at the MIT Press by the amazing group over at Massive Science [a US-based content company which aims to popularise science] and their colleague, Jenny 8 Lee. Our original plan was to take this to traditional graphic novel publishers, but Nadja Oertelt, the c.e.o. of Massive, suggested that we chat with the MIT Press as it was looking to work on innovative projects whose goal was to get
young girls excited about STEM. We then pitched The Curie Society to MIT and were struck by how much potential it saw in what we envisioned. That’s when we knew that it was the right publisher and the right people to get behind this project, because we could tell how much MIT cared about the ideas we were talking about. We couldn’t have asked for anything better—a team of smart, excited and invested people who cared about the mission of this book as much as we do.
Heather Einhorn (left) and Adam Staffaroni founded New York-based Einhorn Epic Productions in 2013. Einhorn’s previous roles included brand strategy for Legendary Entertainment and DC Comics. Staffaroni previously worked in licensing and as an editor for DC, Boom! Studios and Roar Comics.
Can you sketch out some of the activity outside the graphic novel that you have going on?
I don’t want to go into too many details on this at the moment, as it’s coming together as we speak. But we have a general idea for the real-world Curie Society; we want to encourage young women to join and share resources and experiences, using the book as a jumping-off point. The core idea of The Curie Society is creating a symbol and mythology that makes it fun and exciting to be a girl who is into STEM subjects, and then building community around that. When we were interviewing women scientists about their student experience, so many of them mentioned how often they were discouraged by their male peers, by teachers who didn’t believe in them, by a lack of support. Community is insulation against all of that. We want to be the place girls come to hear, “Yes you can”, when the rest of the world tells them the opposite.
Can you tell us about Einhorn Epic Productions (EEP) itself?
We started EEP because we wanted to tell stories about characters that we wanted to see out in the universe. Female, diverse, heroic characters. Adam and I come from comic books and have worked on some of the most famous superhero characters in the world. We love these characters and how they have stood the test of time, but they are in many cases decades old. There are established female superheroes, of course, but they are derivative of their male counterparts. We wanted to tell new stories with new characters that stood on their own and were more representative of young people today.
So we started EEP to not only create these new characters, but to find interesting ways outside traditional comic books to get them out into the world. The success of [the] “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” [films] cemented that these audiences are out there and hungry for characters that are more representative of them. Now we are creating an entire ecosystem of different characters and stories through graphic novels, scripted podcasts, animation, and more, in order to introduce these characters to the world.
Some of our other projects that are in the works include “Daughters of DC”, our most recent scripted podcast. It’s a been political thriller and it’s out now. We also have some big news coming soon for our mystery podcast “Lethal Lit”. We have an animated multimedia band called Free Hexel, which just launched on Webtoon and YouTube. We love all of these projects—they are all so different, but they all feature strong female characters that we love.
Sample pages from The Curie Society
How do you develop IP for particular media? For The Curie Society, for example, did you initially think it would work best as a graphic novel and not, say, a podcast?
We let the creative lead on each project we develop. To us, that means first thinking about the characters and the world they inhabit as real people and real places, and then going back and asking, “What’s the best way to tell this story?” A lot goes into each project after that, making sure it feels organic and natural to podcasts or graphic novels or whatever medium we are working in. Our base creative philosophy is that ideas that are truly at home in multiple media— like the projects we both worked on when we were at DC Comics—are driven by the characters first. Then it’s just a lot of hard work to make sure you’re telling a good story, and that is true no matter what form you’re working with!
There is a lot of well-funded competition in the space you are in. How do you go about getting cut-through and building those fanbases?
First, you always want to start with good creative. Then you have to find where your audience lives. You can’t expect your audience to come to you. You have to engage with your audience. It’s definitely a challenge today to create and market new intellectual property, but it’s a fun challenge and we love it!