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'Female Force' comic book spotlights Brittney Griner

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Basketball star Brittney Griner was facing years of hard labor in a Russian prison camp on trumped-up drug charges before she was released last month in a prisoner exchange. Earlier this week, during a visit at the White House, NBA All-Star Steph Curry made a point of thanking President Biden for his administration's efforts to bring her home.

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STEPH CURRY: It was a big part of our basketball family, and it means a lot to know that she's here and home safe with her family.

MARTIN: Griner's arrest in Moscow as she tried to rejoin her Russian professional team was obviously a low point, but as a new graphic book about her life makes clear, it was not the only challenge she's had to face on her road to the apex of women's sports as a standout at Baylor University, an Olympic gold medalist and a WNBA champion. Griner's life is the focus of the newest edition of "Female Force." That's a comic book series that celebrates women with inspirational stories. Michael Frizell is the writer of "Female Force: Brittney Griner," and he's with us now to tell us more about it. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL FRIZELL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So for those who haven't seen the comic series yet, it was just released this week. Just tell us what the "Female Force" series is all about. Because you've had, you know, other celebs like Mariah Carey, Dolly Parton, Stacey Abrams. This is the first athlete. Why?

FRIZELL: Well, we noticed, of course, in our lines that we hadn't featured a female athlete yet. So we started to do the research several years ago. And I researched several different ideas. And the publisher said, hey, take a look at this. And it was an article about Brittney Griner being one of the best in the WNBA with her shooting record in 2017. So we did a little more digging and started to learn a little bit more about her history and thought, she's great. She's perfect for this line because she's really been struggling with her identity. And we wanted to explore that in the comic. And we thought readers would relate to that.

MARTIN: I have to say that I was a little taken aback by some of the issues that you discuss in the series. I mean, this isn't just like a surface kind of biography thing here, like, she went here and she went there. I mean, you dig into some things about some of the challenges of being a very tall young woman, being athletically gifted, but also not necessarily always being appreciated for that and trying to figure out how to cope with that. I mean, her sexuality, her identity - these are some fairly private and intimate things. And I'm just curious how you know about these things. I mean, did you reach out to Griner? Did she participate?

FRIZELL: Well, when we start the process, we begin the research and we kind of develop an outline of what we'd like. And then I watch a lot of interviews. And I start to try to figure out what makes them tick. And the topics they continually return to in their interviews seem to rise to the surface. And a lot of that was her early formation as an athlete and as a person and her struggle with identity. After we got that done, the publisher then decides if we're going to move forward or not. And sometimes we reach out to other people, sometimes we don't. In a lot of cases, they'll respond and actually participate. In this case, that didn't happen.

MARTIN: OK. So are you saying that you didn't reach out to her because she was unavailable or you didn't reach out to her because you just wanted to get it published to take advantage of the fact that she's in the news?

FRIZELL: Oh, wow. Yeah. That second part of your question. I certainly hope that wasn't the case with the publisher. As the writer, I'm like the drummer in the band. I'm the guy that's keeping the things moving, but I certainly don't front the band. And in this case, we would reach out to their people and we don't always get a response. The publisher will move forward one way or the other. It's just that it's so much better when we do have their reaction.

MARTIN: So are you saying these are issues that you say that she had previously discussed publicly? Because I have to say that some of these are very, you know, sensitive matters about her being treated rather shabbily by classmates at times, by other athletes at times, particularly in her younger years before, as I said, she became the star that she now is. Just some of these seem to be some rather painful episodes in her life. And I am just interested in whether you thought about that as you were going forward and putting this back into the public domain. I mean, I personally - I'm just saying for myself, I follow athletics pretty closely, and I didn't know about some of these things.

FRIZELL: I just did a lot of digging. It took me about two or three months of research to actually develop an outline that made sense to me. And when you listen to these interviews and you start finding these topics that she explores about identity, about being picked on by other athletes or for her height and being self-conscious about that, those really felt like universal things that many people experience. It was a way to give maybe regular people who don't know much about Brittney Griner, the WNBA, or even the athletics in general kind of a window in. And I felt like they had to be included so that we got a better picture of who she was as a person behind the headlines. Otherwise, you're just reading a Wikipedia page.

MARTIN: Who do you hope will pick up this work or this book, this book or the series, for that matter?

FRIZELL: I was hoping people who wanted to know a little bit more about the person behind the headline, people who were interested in her as an a WNBA player, and then maybe people who are struggling with their own identity to see how someone famous has somehow pushed through and made it part of who she is. Because every experience we have makes us who we are.

MARTIN: Yeah. You know, it's always an interesting - it's a tricky question in this era where, you know, and I say this with no small amount of humility about the fact that, as journalists, we're often called upon to write about or to dig into or to reflect the lives of people who are different from us. But in the current moment, a lot of people would like to have ownership of their own stories and to be someone who is so far apart from her own experience, I mean, being a young African American queer woman who has at times faced a lot of hostility and frankly, abuse for that fact. I know - I just wondered if there was any point at which perhaps you thought you might have asked yourself, am I the best person to tell this story?

FRIZELL: That is an excellent question and one that I wrestled with early on. Do I think I'm the best? Well, I don't know. I can't be any farther apart from her than I am. I'm white, male, middle aged, short, work at a college, married with two kids and couple grandkids. How far apart could I be? I was a theater major with an asthma problem. There was no way I was going to play basketball. I had to learn all of the the ins and outs of the sport just to describe what I wanted the artist to draw.

What I wanted to do, though, was try to get as much truth as possible by using as much of her own words and her own patterns in the way that she was telling her story to relay it. And I hope I did a good-enough job with that. And I think that's the hard line that we're crossing sometimes when we write about other people and other experiences, that if you take what they're saying in the news, suddenly it's - a lot of negativity starts to come out. And how do you use that?

And then how do you turn this so that you get a well-rounded picture of a living, breathing, feeling person who has joy in her life, who has achieved the pinnacle of her career without besmirching that? And I really hoped that when people read it - and I really hope they do - that they come away understanding her just a little bit better than what maybe the headlines about Russia or the polarization about her release seems to have wrought in her story.

MARTIN: Michael Frizell is the writer of the newly released "Female Force: Brittney Griner." It's available in print and online now. Michael Frizell, thanks so much for joining us.

FRIZELL: Thank you. And I would be remiss if I didn't say it was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.