For jack-of-all-trades Carly Usdin—she’s a director, producer, showrunner, and writer, among others—the beginning of a career looked like humongous cameras, VCRs, and “monstrosities” for video projects in high school. Today, Carly’s work looks like television promos, an acclaimed feature film, her own production company named Scheme Machine Studios, and her highly anticipated first comic, Hi-Fi Fight Club. The four-issue series, set in New Jersey in the 1990s, tells the tale of a female-dominated cast who slings vinyl at a record store by day and fights crime by night. When main character Chris’ favorite musician Rosie Riot goes missing, the girls use their vigilante skills to work at solving the mystery.
My opportunity to speak to Carly came suddenly, in a way—the same way that she described her opportunity to pursue Hi-Fi Fight Club. Until the opportunity came for her to write a comic with Boom! Studios, Carly’s career history didn’t involve anything of the sort. “This year, the two projects where I've had to do some writing just sort of have fallen into my lap,” she says. “This comic book situation—I didn't necessarily think it would ever actually happen. I pitched it and then kinda was like, ‘Yeah, whatever, I'm not gonna actually write a comic book, that's crazy.’” When her editor at Boom! Studios gave her the good news, she was shocked.
When it came to the story, though, Carly knew exactly what she was doing. “I think [the idea for the book] was a thing that was in me, but I wasn't giving myself the ability to be like ‘Hey, you can write this down. If you can tell a story you can write it.’ I was so focused on directing and stuff like that and didn't really have much faith in myself as a writer,” she says. Still, “I think it's always been something in the back of my mind. I'm always trying to come up with ideas for video content, or series, or films or things like that. This definitely popped into my head prior to this opportunity as something that could maybe be a TV show or a movie, but I kinda pushed that to the side because it didn’t really seem like the thing at the time—but it has just worked out.” Originally titled Volcano Girls in a nod to the ‘90s alt-rock band Veruca Salt, Hi-Fi Fight Club began with a simple logline that covered basic character descriptions and the general ideas of what would go on. “Rosie would go missing and they would have to find her, and that's how Chris, the main character, would get caught up in all of it,” Carly said, calling Chris the audience’s entry point into the world of the comics. Chris is also the character most modeled after Carly herself. “She's sort of a mix of me and Kristy from The Baby-Sitters Club, if you will… I tried to draw on a lot of my friends over the years, and different situations I've been in, and the version of me in high school versus the version of me in college versus the version of me now as an actual adult, and kind of just pieced it together that way.”
The artistic hand on the project is that of the incredibly talented illustrator Nina Vakueva. In contrast to the collaborative work Carly has done before, she described this new experience as fun and different, due in no small part to her admiration for Nina’s work: “Nina is so talented and so I really just am like ‘Here's what I have in mind, here's what I'm thinking,’ and then she just gives it a life of her own and I love it. Everything she sends over, I'm just like, ‘Oh my god, this is so cool, I can't believe it!’ She's been such a creative force since day one on driving the visuals. I'll see something in my head in a certain way, and she'll send it over, and it's even more awesome than I ever thought it would be.”
Carly hopes that Hi-Fi Fight Club’s audience can relate to the ‘90s vibe, but more than anything else she tried to capture the spirit of adventure she so desperately coveted when she was younger. Recalling her vivid imagination in high school, Carly connects the “escape” of her teenage superhero fantasies to the lives of the girls in the comic—in other words, these characters escape into their jobs at the record store, their vigilantism, and their relationships with each other. Oh, and music—that too: “I really went through a lot of different phases in my personal development as a young adult and person, and music played such a huge role in that,” says Carly. “I think that music is a very universal thing regardless of time period or who you are. Music is something that can bring people together.” I asked her to pick two songs—and only two songs—I should listen to while reading the comic; with great difficulty, she narrowed her top 12 tracks down to “Queer” by Garbage and “Dig Me Out” by Sleater-Kinney.
Carly’s success with Hi-Fi Fight Club has been hard-won, in no small part due to the uphill battle of being a queer woman in the entertainment industry. “Unfortunately, I've dealt with people undermining me or underestimating me or not giving me certain opportunities for my whole career,” says Carly. “People don't usually say, ‘Because you're a woman I'm not hiring you,’ but you can definitely tell. I definitely found myself in situations very often where I’d think to myself, ‘If I was man this would not be happening.’” Over time, Carly found her own way of handling these types of situations: “I think to myself, ‘What would a cis, white, straight guy do?’ and then I try to channel that and see what happens… I've had fairly good results, but it's hard.”
Despite the pushback, though, Carly would encourage young female creatives not to give up. “Everyone has a story, and there has been no better time to try and tell it than now. We need everyone's stories; we need everyone's unique experiences and perspectives,” she says. “If you're in a position where you can, just do it. Get your voice out there, because we need to hear it. We need to be championing new voices, underrepresented voices, exciting different voices.” And there’s never been a better time for girls and women to get into the game than right now, at a time when female directors are finally being recognized for their work: “The other day, when they released that trailer for A Wrinkle in Time, there was a title card in it which says, ‘From visionary director Ava Duvernay,’ and I don't think I've ever seen a female director referred to as visionary. As breathtaking and incredible as that trailer was, that was the moment that I actually had to pause and rewind because I couldn't believe it. It was so incredible.” I have no doubt that Carly’s name will soon grace a similar title card in theaters near you.
Carly’s first feature film Suicide Kale is available for streaming on iTunes, Vimeo, and Amazon/Amazon Prime, her digital series Threads streams every Tuesday and Thursday on Verizon’s Go90, and Hi-Fi Fight Club’s first issue hits the shelves of your local comic book shop on August 23rd. Whatever you do, don’t miss out on this unapologetically smart, funny, female-focused series—or on its brilliant creator.
Ting Ting Chen