If I was asked who is the most prolific and appreciated author on the Marvel roster, and maybe of the whole US comicdom, I would have no doubt what to answer: Al Ewing. After many years of work in the historic 2000 AD magazine, Ewing broke into the US industry through Marvel comics, writing many series and many heroes of the House of Ideas. He is currently working on the Immortal Hulk, the revelation series of recent years, Guardians of the Galaxy and the fresh debut series S.W.O.R.D., born from the ashes of Empyre and included in the ambitious X-Men relaunch of Jonathan Hickman. Our interview will deal with the Empyre miniseries, whose publication in Italy just reached its end, and we will talk about the writer’s career from his beginnings until today.
Hello Al and thanks for your time. Let’s start from your beginnings and what pushed you to become a writer. It is not difficult to see that science fiction is one of your greatest love, even outside the comics field: what were the works and the authors that influenced you the most?
I grew up reading a lot of science-fiction paperbacks – both novels by known names like Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven and Harry Harrison, and also short story anthologies like the SPECTRUM series edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest, which were great for getting a wide range of different styles and ideas. In terms of authors, I enjoy Robert Sheckley and Philip K. Dick a lot, and recently I got into the short stories of J. G. Ballard, which I’d recommend highly to anyone. To pick one story off the top of my head – Fritz Lieber’s “The Secret Songs” is a great character piece, though it might be hard to find.
You grew up (and live to date) in England: what kind of comics did you read as a kid? Have you always been attracted to American comics or have you also read European comics?
In the UK, certainly when I was young, there was a very strong tradition of kids’ comics – anthology titles of one-page humor strips, usually about kids with a gimmick, like a kid who gambled a lot or a kid who drew on walls, or kids who played elaborate pranks. I was a big fan of a strip called Cliff Hanger, which was a kind of weekly choose-your-own adventure where you’d be set a narrative puzzle and the solution was on the letters page, and it was full of Easter Eggs and little details. Anyway, from that I graduated to the “adventure comics” – again, anthologies, but this time five-page episodes of ongoing action strips. In particular, that meant 2000AD – the ground-breaking sci-fi comic that’s still alive today, and that I ended up working for during the 2000s. But it also meant reprints of Marvel superheroes. What Marvel UK did, which was smart, was break down UK comics into five or ten-page chunks and turn two or three different Marvel books into an anthology comic, because that was what we were used to. So we had things like Transformers, Spider-Man and Zoids, and Secret Wars, which reprinted the big 80s Marvel crossover along with things like Alpha Flight. And that was how I found out about all the Marvel superheroes.
You started your career in 2000 AD, which is a real institution of British comics and a flourishing place for authors, many of whom have moved to overseas comics. What’s the secret of a magazine that is capable of producing so many talents?
2000AD does one thing that’s extremely important for UK comics talent – it has an open submissions policy. The comic fills gaps in the schedule with short twist-ending stories called “Future Shocks” – or horror variants called “Terror Tales”, which is where I got my start – and for six months out of the year, they’ll read submissions for these from anyone who sends one in. Obviously, you have to follow the guidelines, check your spelling, and it has to be good – they don’t just publish anything, and standards are high – but it’s a way in for people. They’re also doing a better job lately of reaching out, rather than waiting for new writers in the know to come to them, and it’s creating a more diverse and interesting stable, that’s going to lead to more diverse and interesting stories. So that’s one of the secrets – beyond that, I think the short episodes train writers to get a lot of very dense action into a small space, which is good training for the lengthier US format.
One of your first work in Marvel has been Mighty Avengers. In this comic you chose to create a team whose roaster is completely made by African American heroes, and I think that that particular run is still relevant today. Do you think that these kind of stories, which address different communities, can convey positive messages and contribute to the education of young generations?
It wasn’t completely African-American – Spider-Man and She-Hulk were in there, for example – and that was the editorial brief I was given when I came on board, to have an Avengers title that was more representative than super-teams had been. So I can’t take all the credit. But to answer the question – yes, definitely, on a lot of levels, comics can convey positive messages and educate. Representation is just one factor, but it’s a big one – when readers see someone like them in the book, that means something. It’s not so obvious to those who are already very well catered-to by the entertainment world – if you’re very used to seeing yourself in the media you consume, you might not understand why it’s such a big deal. In fact, you might get annoyed that such representation exists at all – it might seem unrealistic, or too much, because you’re so used to the other way. I’ve seen readers react that way to increased BIPOC presence in books. But that’s part of the education value.
Let’s now talk about one of the most surprising series of these recent years: Immortal Hulk! I think we can agree that no one, maybe not even you, could foresee such an amazing success. The series has a strong psychological side, one of the traits that made the Hulk’s fortune already in the past, but it also has a very strong horror element. Why did you choose this direction and what do you think makes this version of the character so interesting for readers and critics?
You’re right – I didn’t foresee how successful it’d be. I was very confident that we’d get a strong, critically acclaimed Hulk title out of it – but this has been something else again. In terms of the “why” of it all… I think a lot of it came out of previous stories. On the practical level, Bruce Banner had been killed off during a crossover event, and we were working out how to bring him back, and that suggested a horror take. And from a thematic point of view – the Hulk comic was a horror comic way back in issue #1. That’s how it started – a monster stalking the world by night. So for a lot of readers familiar with the character, it’s a natural fit, almost like the Hulk’s come home to his roots, while at the same time telling a story very much set in modern times.
One of the most interesting features of your vision of the Hulk and the Hulk family is their dramatic vulnerability: they are monstrous beings, very powerful, they cannot die, yet on several occasions they show fears and weaknesses. What can an almost omnipotent being be afraid of: not being loved? Or to completely loose himself?
Being wiped out as an individual being, so all that’s left is an undying, destructive force – that’s pretty much what happens if the Hulk loses the larger battles of the comic. So, yes, that’s what he has to fear. In a larger sense – all superheroes are immortal, to an extent. Certainly the major ones. All they have to fear is cancellation, and even then they’ll live on as merchandise – their symbols, etched onto non-biodegradable plastic, have a very good chance to outlive the human race. So once you take death off the table, what’s left for them? It’s a question that’s often asked in horror – what’s worse than dying? I think that’s more interesting than just threatening the Hulk with another fistfight.
I really like that each episode starts with a literary (often biblical) quote. What comes first when you create a story: does the incipit inspires your story, or is the quote fitting in the episode afterwards?
The quote always comes last, and I pick it to fit the story. It’s quite difficult, sometimes, to find a quote that works – I’ve spent whole days rooting around for one sometimes – so that’s one thing I won’t miss when the book comes to a close.
I was particularly impressed by the cycle of stories in which the Hulk fights against Roxxon, Dario Agger and Xenmu. These episodes sound as a really strong criticism to western society, and they are also permeated by a clear environmental message. Do you think that including reflections on our society in a superhero comic book can convey this discussion better than other media? And is there a risk that the message will be diluted by the more entertaining part of the story?
I don’t think superhero comics are better than other media for conveying messages – for one thing, other media has a larger reach. Immortal Hulk has done very respectably for a superhero comic, but even so, our audience is dwarfed by the people who see the films. But that’s not an argument for leaving reflections on our society out of superhero comics – I don’t think you could do that anyway, without intentionally making the work blander and more boring. All art is political, because even the decision to excise politics from the art is a political decision, so it’s not possible to make art that doesn’t say something – it’s just a question of controlling what you want it to say.
In terms of the message being diluted – I don’t think making a story entertaining is going to hurt what message you decide to deliver with it. And I’ve yet to meet a writer or artist who wanted their work not to be entertaining.
Let’s move to the cosmic side of your marvel Experience: Ultimates II, Royals, Rocket, Guardians of The Galaxy, and now Empyre. Marvel seems to have given you the keys to its cosmic side for you to enjoy and reshape. What fascinates you about this side of the Marvel universe? Is there a character you haven’t written of yet that you would like to write?
This is a tricky question, because any character I mention is someone’s job, either now or in the future. So this question is “whose job do I want? Whose job should I take?” I have ideas for characters and stories I want to tell, but that’s between me and editorial. That said, I wouldn’t mind exploring the magic side of the Marvel Universe a little – there are a lot of different characters I could do that with. I suppose in terms of space characters, what I like there is that I can do a lot with them without checking in with the Earth side. I can go off in my own direction a little, without worrying that I’m messing things up for the writers dealing with the Earth-based superheroes. That can be very helpful in terms of planning big beats.
Speaking of characters, in your Ultimates cycle, Galactus becomes the Life-bringer, effectively taking on a different role in the Marvel Universe. What fascinates you about this character and how did you come up with the idea of the change? Are you going to address the fact that now he is, well…dead?
I wanted to use a character in Ultimates that had a big role to play elsewhere – this was someone who was a major part of another book, so it wasn’t workable in the end. But we were already considering Galactus as the first threat they dealt with, and I started to wonder if Galactus could be a de facto part of the team, and what it would take to make that happen. In the end, the idea of doing something new and fresh with a character who had, at that point, become a punchline in humor books – it was too good to pass up. As for him being dead – we ended up using that for a beat in the Immortal She-Hulk special, so I haven’t ignored it entirely. I think most of the space heroes are just being kept too busy to really get a grip on a big piece of news like that, which is something I’m sure we’re all familiar with in these times.
What fascinates you, in particular, about the Guardians of the Galaxy and what are the past stories that most influenced your project?
I’m heavily influence by Annihilation-era stories – the Giffen and Abnett/Lanning work, the Nova solo series, all that stuff. But I’m also interested in things like the original Star-Lord stories, and Steve Englehart’s original plans for that character. Since the space characters are so sci-fi, I feel like a lot of mystic elements aren’t really explored, when there used to be a lot more of that in the mix. In addition, I like the idea of a whole sector of the Marvel Universe where you can have whole empires rise and fall in a way you can’t quite do on Marvel Earth without getting in everyone’s way.
Let’s finally talk about Empyre. In this event, Dan Slott, Valerio Schiti and you have radically changed the cards of Marvel cosmos. How did the idea for this event come about? What responsibility do you feel for having taken up the legacy of stories like the Kree/Skrull War and The Celestial Madonna?
It started off as an Avengers/FF crossover, so we wanted something that would impact both those teams and play to their histories. Dan, being the continuity expert he is, remembered the Cotati and how the Kree/Skrull war had begun, and I was very interested in that thinking as I’d been playing with the threads of the Kree/Skrull War in the books I’d been writing with Hulkling. So it all came together very quickly. In terms of picking up old legacies and plot threads – I think there is a responsibility there to move old plotlines forward and tell new stories with them. I don’t think there’s any situation in Marvel that can’t be evolved to tell a whole bunch of new stories – certainly bringing the Kree and Skrull Empires together has gifted me with a lot of potential new plots and directions.
In the series you also had the opportunity to write again Hulkling and Wiccan, characters that you have already written in New Avengers and to whom you seem to be very connected. I found it really nice and touching that you took some time in such a dense comic to focus on their characterizations and their relationship. So I would like to ask you how did it feel like to create the last page of number 4 and the next first part of number 5, a huge change for these two characters!
Originally, that was going to all be in the epilogue – we were going to do the epilogue as a wedding issue, which we ended up doing anyway. But in the writer’s room – and I think it was Joe Quesada who had this idea – we discussed the possibility of having them be already married, and to have that revelation be a surprise. What I liked about that was that it gave us the opportunity to do a sort of “nice cliffhanger” – so often, the last page of a comic is based on making the readers afraid for their favorite characters, or keep them worrying for a month until they pick up the next issue. I liked making a lot of our readers happy and excited for a month. And because we had to place the wedding in quite a small piece of time in terms of the continuity that had already been laid down, it meant that we could have a nice big “space wedding” on top of that. So Wiccan and Hulkling fans get to have two different “you may kiss the groom” scenes, which I think is nice.
I would like to talk about so many other characters that I have loved in this event, from the Thing to She-Hulk, from Captain Marvel to The Swordsman. But I think that one of the most developed was Black Panther, that stands as a true, fierce leader among all the other heroes, fulfilling the role that Jason Aaron gave him already in his Avengers run. What do you like about this character? Which was the most influential interpretation of him for you?
I’m glad you like what we did with Black Panther! I like that he’s several steps ahead of everyone, that he’s the most capable hero in the Marvel pantheon. There’s room in him for humanity – he has the room to be wrong sometimes, which is important in a character – but he is absolutely the smartest person in any room he’s in, and he’ll always have that twist up his sleeve that will surprise you. And that’s something I probably got from the wonderful Christopher Priest run of the 2000s, which redefined the character by taking him seriously.
The conclusion of Empyre: Aftermath Avengers has left fans in turmoil, and the launch of the S.W.O.R.D. series raised the enthusiasm even more. I would therefore ask you what you and Valerio Schiti have planned for this series, even if I know that you would have to kill me after telling me that …
We can’t say. But that scene at the end of Empyre was a promise, of sorts – that these characters aren’t just going on the shelf to wither away, that they’re going to get new stories. We showed you a tiny piece of one of those stories – now you just have to follow S.W.O.R.D.
Interview realized via e-mail between November 2020 and January 2021
British, class ’77, Al Ewing made his debut on the historical magazine 2000AD, for which he wrote some storys of Judge Dredd before working with Brendan McCarthy on The Zaucer of Zilk, and then on Damnation Station and Zombo with Henry Flint. He makes his debut on the US market when Garth Ennis choose him to write one story arc of Jennifer Blood for Dynamite Entertainment. From then on his career has been a steady ascent: for Marvel Comics he wrote many stories on titles of the Avengers family (Mighty Avengers, New Avengers, U.S.Avengers), of the cosmic side of Marvel (Ultimates, Royals, Rocket, Guardians of the Galaxy), as well as on the mystical and mythological side (Loki:Agent of Asgard, Jane Foster: Valkyrie). The consecration comes with the acclaimed Immortal Hulk and with the Empyre event. Meanwhile he also created, together with Simone di Meo, his first creator-owned series for BOOM! Studios, We only find them when they are dead, which was one of the best sellers of year 2020.