Interview: Ann Nocenti talks women of Marvel, MoPOP exhibit and more

We had the chance to speak with Ann Nocenti about her time at Marvel, the current Marvel exhibit at the Museum of Pop Culture and more.

Ann Nocenti worked on amazing titles during her time at Marvel as both an editor and writer. We were able to talk to her about working on titles like Spider-WomanVenom: The Madness, and more. She also worked on the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibit at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, WA.

Whatever a Spider Can: I want to start with your time at Marvel back in the 80s because one of your first assignments was finishing up the fifty issue Spider-Woman. So can you just tell me what it was like finding out that you were going to get to work on this female solo series and then knowing that it was ending four issues later?

Ann Nocenti: Well that’s kind of a funny story. I had only done a couple of comics; [Dennis O’Neil] gave me my first comic.  Back then, maybe it’s still true now, the industry always had trouble with sales on female characters. If the sales reached a certain point, they had to cancel the book. And back then way more than today, they let books run for quite a long time at a loss to see if the fans would pick it up and get interested in it.

Mark Gruenwald was like okay I want you to take over this book and you have to kill her. I was so new to the industry, so young, that I didn’t quite realize that that wasn’t a nice thing to do. After it was all over, I used to tease Mark like “So let me ask you, did you ask every single other writer to do this and they all said no?” Because killing off a character is not a pleasant thing to do.

After we killed her, I got all of this really anguished fan mail. Well, it was really fan mail because it was like, “She was my favorite character, how could you do that?” And I think that was the moment that I really understood the personal connection that you can develop through a character. And then, of course, I went on to have intense personal connections to Daredevil, Spider-Man, and everyone I wrote.

That series also in particular, you know, people are like “Oh you created all of those cool characters.” And actually, no, Mark Gruenwald did. He said here’s Daddy Long Legs, this is who he is and put him in there. It was like a real collaboration between editor and writer.  My compromise at the end was that I said, “Look, Mark, can’t we just have her go to the astral plane so that we give kids a little bit of hope that she can come back?”

WaSC: Right, and today it seems that no death is ever really permanent within the comics, especially when you have Marvel rebooting. Right now they’re getting ready for a lot of titles to reboot with fresh start. What do you think has been one of the upsides to being able to bring these characters back and it does seem like now we have a lot more female characters being given solo series. We still have Spider-Woman runs throughout the years once she’s was brought back and now we have characters like Spider-Gwen, Black Widow has her own title. Do you think that’s something that starting over sort of allows them to do a lot more things with the characters now?

AN: I mean absolutely. I am not one to ever say death should be death in comics because it’s just serial writing. It’s not like a film that has it’s own universe or like a novel with it’s own universe. They’re serials. So you have to make them seem like they’re changing all the time and yet they’re not really changing. It’s kind of like what you would call singing in rounds. You have to pick another concept off of the last one and everyone has to have a feeling that the character is changing even though you can’t really violate their inner nature, their inner core.

So you can do a story where a writer comes along and says I want to try this character as a female, as an African American and how does that change the nature of Spider-Man? And how can you stretch Spider-Man to a new place and add that level of “Wow, what if he was not only a, you know, nerdy scientist with and aunt to take care of, but he has that kind of thing that African Americans have in this culture of being oppressed.” When I was an editor at Marvel, people will pitch many, many ideas. If that idea stretches the boundary of a character in a way that takes it to a new place, but it can snap back to position, it’s a good idea.

WaSC: Exactly. And Marvel does seem really focused on diverting characters and creating new characters to basically just reflect living in 2018 at this point. They’ve done things like created the Woman of Marvel podcast to help focus on that. So do you think from Marvel it’s going to be more of an all-around diversification and not necessarily just within the comic book issues themselves?

AN: Well, I think that there’s been a really amazing conversation in comics from all different sources from Alison Bechdel and the Bechdel test to Gail Simone and her concept. In the old days, a lot of females were like the secretaries, the wives, the girl that needed rescuing. I think that conversations by people like Kelly Sue DeConnick, G. Willow Wilson and Sana Amanat are stretching the boundaries of empowerment issues.

Being the editor on the X-Men way back in the day, that’s what Chris Claremont was about. He focused on the female characters in the X-Men. Sometimes we’d go out on these editorial meetings and I’d be like “You know Colossus and Cyclops are getting a little boring” and he’s like, “Yeah, but I want to do this arc with Storm and I want to do this arc with Rogue.” He, back in the day, had an almost colorblindness of let’s gives the females strong roles, let’s have diversity and create this constant soap opera.

I think he deserves a precedence and precedence for it being extremely popular. I mean, the X-Men went through the roof in sales during his reign on the book. To me, it’s just really wonderful to see how Marvel has this phrase –  “Marvel is the world outside my window,” I think it goes – and it needs to reflect the world outside your window.

WaSC: I personally love the steps that they’re taking with not only the comics, but the digital media like the podcasts and you can see them doing it in TV and film, too, which I think it’s really great that it’s just this all-around effort at the company. 

AN: Oh yeah, I mean, I’m considered one of the “women of Marvel” podcast, which is really fun because it’s a bunch of girls talking about comics. I left the industry and did film and journalism for a decade and when I came back it was the internet age. I left pretty much pre-internet and came back in like 2011 and it was the internet age. It was a whole different world.

I remember the first time I went Seattle for Emerald City Comic Con and saw that the convention hall was filled with women, they weren’t somebody’s girlfriend. They were reading comics and writing comics and making comics.  There are women out there – people like Kelly Sue and G. Willow Wilson – who are on the forefront of making a safe space for women to enter comics because obviously we’ve had a lot of problems with misogyny and trolls and all that stuff. You really don’t want young talent to be frightened off by horrible things that happen on the internet.

(L to R) Brian Crosby, G. Willow Wilson, James Marsters, Pete Rock, Benjamin Saunders, Brooks Peck
Photo credit Jim Bennett, image acquired from Beck Media

WaSC: You’re actually working on the Universe of Superheroes exhibit for Marvel at the Museum of Pop Culture. Can you tell me how you ended up getting involved with that and what the purpose of the exhibition really is?

AN: I think it was about four years ago, we had an initial think tank with Christoph Scholz, who does touring exhibitions, and we had Jenny Robb from the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. Christoph kind of collects these think tankers. And then we decided to do a street art museum instead. We put the whole project on hold, did an exhibit called Magic City in Germany and it toured. That’s when I learned that museums need narrative, they need atmosphere, so for Magic City, we brought 40 artists in to paint a whole Magic City. All these famous street artists and they all jammed on it. But we needed a soundtrack, sound for the city, street signs, we turned it into a city that had a narrative.

So we knew that a year ago, when the Marvel Comics history museum came up again, we wanted it to have a strong narrative and a cohesive sense of various rooms. Like here’s the supernatural cosmic room, here’s the Avengers, here’s the street heroes (Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil, Punisher). Let’s do a hallway that has music that reflects it.

Hans Zimmer did the music for the Marvel MoPOP show. He created an ever-changing score so that when you’re in Doctor Strange’s infinity room, you’ve got like a cosmic score. And then you go into the street heroes and you have a street score. And then when we reconvened a year ago, we brought in Ben Saunders from the University of Oregon, a couple other professors and Marvel’s games entertainment. So we had a group of people and of course MoPOP. We just all jammed on it from our different perspectives. Ben Saunders loves Kirby, Ditko, that whole 60s and 70s era of comics. I love 80s comics. I think that’s like the golden age of comics. So everybody has their different perspectives and brought them to the table.

So the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes goes really deep. The original art is like the holy grail of original art. I mean, Ben Saunders made sure that we had these touchstone pieces like Steve Ditko and the first time Spider-Man puts his costume on, the first time he shoots his web-shooters. And it is like the most delicate, beautiful piece of art. You just kind of stand in awe before it.

David Mandel has this amazing collection and he loaned us seminal pieces. Four pages of Frank Miller’s Daredevil and you can see the storytelling, why do a horizontal panel, why do a vertical panel, this is what storytelling is. Then you can go deep to see how do you make a comic, what is the point of different panel arrangements.

What we wanted was for you to be able to walk into the museum not even knowing that there was such a thing as comics, maybe only seeing a couple Marvel movies, and get a sense of history, the lineage of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. The first quote that is on the wall is Jack Kirby saying, “I was an immigrant. I’m a Jewish immigrant living in the lower East Side.” So right away, you get the sense of, “Oh okay this was an incredible burst of creativity by people that felt marginalized.” That was the origins of Marvel Comics.

And then you have spectacular stuff like the Strange room. Ben Saunders, TK Studio and Gentle Giant, they created these installations and build outs so that you can walk through an infinity room where Doctor Strange is reflected forever and ever. It does an animation loop using Steve Ditko’s artwork. There are so many little things that you can dive into.

Photo credit Jim Bennett, image acquired from Beck Media

WaSC: Absolutely. Since you’ve worked with Marvel as both a writer and editor and now you’ve worked on this exhibition, is there anything Marvel related that you’ve been wanting to do and just haven’t had the chance to yet or the opportunity has yet to come up?

AN: Well, I occasionally get calls from the various comic companies asking me to write this or that. For me, it has to hit some place in me. I have to say, “Oh yeah, I know what I would do.”

Right now I’m doing a new project with David Aja, who is the Hawkeye artist. We’re doing a comic for Dark Horse called The Seeds. So we’re kind of really deep in that and it’s my very first creator owned comic. It doesn’t have a superhero in it and so that’s for me, something I haven’t done before. Thirty years of writing comics and I’ve never done a non-superhero story. That’s really exciting for me to just take that challenge on what is the narrative like if you don’t have to escalate every situation into a fight.

And then of course sometimes I’m just really missing choreographing fights. It would have to be the right project to go back and do something for Marvel, but of course I would like to.

WaSC: With all of the new characters that have been created semi-recently, are there any that you would love to just get your hands on and be able to tell a specific story for that character?

AN: I haven’t really thought about that, honestly. So I would have to think about that one. Like for instance, I don’t really have any interest to write Captain America.

WaSC: Okay.

AN: Something about Captain America doesn’t resonate for me. The one Captain America story I did was about how Captain America was furious about everything America was doing. So I’m probably not the right writer for that.

I’ve written a lot of male characters. I completely fell in love with Daredevil. He might not be the most famous Marvel character, but to me he is easily one of the most complex. There’s pretty much always been good writers and artists on Daredevil.

I love writing Spider-Man. I’ve done a lot Spider-Man stories. I did a story about how Spider-Man has to lie all the time. He’s a liar. He never stops lying. He lies to everybody in his life. Me and Mike Mignola, of Hellboy, we did the comic together. You really need an idea. What if we really took from the angle of Spider-Man never stops lying. What’s that like? What would it be like for you to lie to everybody in your life? You need to think deep and say what terrain do I want to go down? Marvel might say, “Well, you know we’re not really into that scene, we’re not really into that idea even thinking about Spider-Man lying all the time.” It has to be an idea that resonates with you and with Marvel, who are the shepards of these characters.

When I was an editor there, somebody pitched me an X-Men story that didn’t feel like an X-Men story. I didn’t want it. If it felt like an extraordinary leap that would stretch the X-Men someplace new and it had an interesting idea I’d say, “Okay.” Because I’ve been an editor also for years, I kind of know both sides of the fence, as it were.

WaSC: Marvel does do a lot of various mini-series. When you did things like Venom: The Madness and other short runs like that, did you feel that you were able to take the characters in a little bit of a different direction than you would if it were the main title for the character?

AN: Oh yeah, absolutely. A lot of my life has been involved with doing volunteer work and I’ve spent a certain amount of time working in psychiatric wards.  I try to make [my comics] a bit social justice, have a kind of documentary feel to it. So I was able to do a story where Spider-Man was locked up at a mad house. And Cynthia Martin was this extraordinary artist. We both had a simpatico for that content. Our editor said, “Okay go for it. We can do four issues where Spider-Man is locked up in a nut house as a mini-series.”

So yeah, you do get that freedom to do something a little bit different. You couldn’t really do that in Spectacular or Amazing. I don’t even remember which book it was part of. You couldn’t really do that in the main book.

WaSC: Absolutely. 

AN: And it’s funny, Venom: The Madness, because I wrote those comics so long ago, I would probably have to dig them out and say, “Oh my god, okay, yeah that’s the angle I had on Venom.”

WaSC: You have a wide variety of titles that you worked on so it’s definitely one of those things that I understand it’s easy to have some of these things just blend together. And you’re like  “wait, when did I do that?”

AN: It’s really difficult sometimes. I have really vivid memories of most of my Daredevil stories because I lived in New York near Hell’s Kitchen and I walked the streets. I wrote him for so long that I used to hallucinate seeing him on the rooftops. I’ve literally looked up and had these double takes. “Wait, is that Daredevil?” They really got so into my brain.

My brother’s a lawyer so I was always consulting with my brother about the legal pages and I wanted the legal pages to be reflective of something happening in the culture and have legal credibility. There are certain stories that I have really vivid memories of like I did a Nightmare series. I think the whole thing is probably like an insane nightmare piece of writing.