We at Pop Culture Uncovered are pretty fond of comics, as one might guess. And when the opportunity to interview one Al Ewing: writer of such Marvel titles as Captain America & The Mighty Avengers, Loki: Agent of Asgard, and the upcoming relaunches for Ultimates and New Avengers came about, we couldn’t help ourselves and seized the opportunity. Here are Al’s thoughts on the questions we asked. Enjoy.
PCU: I was curious how you got tapped to write Mighty Avengers and Loki: Agent of Asgard. I think it’s fair to say that both of the leads on those are characters that were very much defined by specific people over the last decade: Luke Cage by Brian Bendis, and Loki by Kieron Gillen. How was it stepping into the arena writing two characters that were defined so specifically?
Al Ewing: Well, both those jobs came out of the Avengers Assemble tie-ins I did for Lauren Sankovitch, who then became my first editor on Loki. So she knew me, and I’d been friends with Kieron for years before that, so that was easy.
Mighty Avengers came from that – Tom Brevoort liked what I’d done enough to ask me to pitch for it, and he liked the pitch I delivered, which was the Hotline, the anyone-is-an-Avenger angle, the general humanist stuff.
In terms of stepping into the arena… I see it more as stepping onto the shoulders of giants. It’s two great writers who’ve left two foundations that are strong enough to build your own constructions on. I’m a big fan of Luke the married man, Luke the Dad – it’s a level of growth and change that most superheroes aren’t allowed. You give Spider-Man that responsibility and the character folds – I kind of agree with that thing Tom said recently, that he can’t be Spider-Man any more with a kid, his Uncle Ben guilt won’t allow it. So Peter Parker stays home and hates himself whenever he hears a siren, and you end up with a very miserable comic. But from where Luke is as a person, he can’t not get up and make the world better for his kid – that’s just who he is. So this is a character who can have a kid and still be a bad-guy-punching action hero, because he understands that his responsibility to his child and his responsibility to his community are interlinked, in a way that Peter Parker probably doesn’t, because he’s a big ball of self-hatred and that blinds him a little.
Sorry, that went off on a tangent!
PCU: What drew you to insert heavy issues both socially and racially-based into your Mighty Avengers? While it’s become more frequent for Marvel books to jump into the fray again with regards to pushing for diversity and the like, your book specifically made a point of having a roster that reflected the real world more largely and went on the nose with issues facing people who are considered the minority on a regular basis.
Al Ewing: In terms of the roster – from the start, when the book was pitched to me, the idea was always to push for a more diverse roster. I can’t take credit for that one. I do feel like that kind of cast, one that reflects the larger audience, is becoming business as usual, which is something that’s frankly long overdue.
In terms of social and racial issues… I feel like there’s a basic minimum of thought that needs to go into the work – if Luke Cage and Adam Brashear are in a room together, for example, then I need to know how they feel about each other, and I need to do my homework and work that out.
So a lot of thought goes in. But at the same time, I’m very conscious that I’m looking in from the outside, from a whole other country, and what I know about how America works is what I see on the news and on blogs and Twitter and Tumblr – some readers have discussed misgivings they’ve had about me peeking in through the window and turning aspects of their human experience into comics books when I’ve not had those experiences, and that’s a valid concern. There’ve been times when I’ve fumbled.
I don’t think it was an option not to go political, although I’d say that about any book to some degree. There’s an amount of politics that just ends up in the work – I’ve heard writers ask why people need to include politics in comics, but the decision to make your work apolitical, even if you can do it without your subconscious shoving in a load of weird stuff under the surface, is in itself a political decision. And superheroes drift quite far to the right if you leave them alone, so I try to compensate for that. And in this case, I wanted to have a counterpoint to the ‘heroes are special and above ordinary mortals’ line, which seemed fairly prevalent at the time, and on a purely craft-based level I wanted something that’d contrast with Jonathan Hickman’s (excellent) Big Cosmic stuff, hence the “everyone can be an Avenger” slant.
PCU: While it’s not necessarily an across-the-board thing, a lot of Marvel comics attempt to stay away from being too vocal about past stories in an attempt to keep stories insulated. In large part however, you’ll refer to past stories no matter the era from Gideon Mace’s relationship to White Tiger, Loki’s entire history, and other assorted goodies. I was just wondering what was your reason for doing that, since it’s not as widely used a part of the superhero toolbox.
Al Ewing: I don’t know – I think I was probably indoctrinated at an early age into thinking that’s what superhero comics are. In a shared universe with a history, it’s nice to have that history pop up occasionally – if you can do it without leaving people behind. If it’s someone’s first ever comic, then learning that there’s been, say, a line of previous White Tigers might be a very cool thing, but at the same time the thrill probably wears off if you start thinking you need to have read a twenty-year-old comic to understand the one you bought today. I try not to do that – I try to make sure you’ve got all the information you need in that issue, and the little asterisk-boxes are just pointing towards a bonus Easter Egg for people with the time and patience to track it down.
With Loki, it’s slightly trickier – I felt like I had to finish off the story Kieron, Matt and everyone else had started and leave Loki in a place where he could carry on indefinitely. So that’s much more tied into its own recent past than Mighty Avengers – I know it’s been a hard read for new people.
PCU: As an Englishman, is it exciting to be able to write two major icons such as Judge Dredd and the Doctor at the same time?
Al Ewing: It is! Very exciting. I got to write Dredd a few years before getting to write the Doctor, but they did overlap recently. It’s a slightly different feeling in each case – Dredd, when I got the chance to write that, was the top of my personal career ladder at the time, the best 2000AD gig you could get. It had extra meaning in that it felt like I was trusted to deliver a good story – even if only a week’s worth of good story – for the flagship character. And it was also a dream I’d had since childhood, which I almost hadn’t consciously allowed myself to have, because what were the chance Dredd would even still be published in however many years? So that was very special.
Doctor Who came a lot later, when I was much more settled and confident in myself and my writing ability in some ways (and less so in others – I’m not as fast as I used to be, for example). But again, that was something I knew I couldn’t pass up – not only was it a chance to work with Rob Williams again (as well as Si Spurrier, briefly) but I knew my nephews, big Doctor Who fans, would really love it. And how could I say no?
I’m only doing it for a year, because it turns out writing speech patterns that sound like the existing delivery of a real-life actor is pretty tough and takes twice as long as anything else, but it’s been an incredibly fun year and I hope I get the chance to come back to Titan for a Past Doctor mini at some point.
PCU: Do you have any favorite Marvel characters you haven’t gotten a chance to write?
Al Ewing: Not really – there are Marvel characters I’d enjoy having a crack at, but nothing I’m desperate to write. I’d have loved to write Wolverine before he bought the farm, but I’m not feeling any sense of loss that I didn’t get to do that. Similarly, if Doctor Strange died for good – or for a few years, realistically – next month, I’d feel absolutely nothing, but if I was offered a ten-pager or an annual I’d have a blast.
I remember once Axel Alonso asked me if there was anyone I particularly wanted to write, and I didn’t really have an answer for him. That said, I find I generally want to write characters I have a chance to, rather than needing to wait for a slot to open up – for instance, when Tom Brevoort proposed using Adam, The Blue Marvel in Mighty Avengers, I had no idea who the character was. I think by my second read-through of the original five-issue mini, he was the character I was most keen to write, and now he’s one of my big favourites.
Actually, one of these days I’m going to write D-Man.
PCU: In terms of your Loki run, while it has been largely more superheroic than its predecessor Journey Into Mystery, it’s very meticulous with covering the entirety of Loki’s marvel history both historical and recent. The recent leaning towards Loki attempting to change and rebrand himself as well as his essential nature, now becoming the God of Stories. What gave you the idea for that?
Al Ewing: I think when I came onto Loki, Kieron had written the definitive ending to his run in Journey Into Mystery, but then he’d opened it up again in Young Avengers, which gave me a hook into what Loki might be doing. We knew we’d be using the Agent Of Asgard title and going with a secret agent angle, and the idea of rebranding himself and rewriting his past ended up playing nicely into that. It very quickly became a continuation of the story Kieron and Matt had been telling since Loki’s first death in Siege – the ‘God of Stories’ moment is the evolution of something we’ve been working on since the start, where Loki would finally rise to the position of Thor’s equal. “God of Stories” seemed like a good way to do that.
PCU: Who would you consider the most moral and amoral characters respectively among the ones you write or have written?
Al Ewing: I think most of the superheroes I write have a strong moral core to them – if they didn’t, it wouldn’t really work so well. Luke in particular has a very strong moral sense, which is why I had him making so many speeches. Amoral is a more interesting question – I’d say Blade ended up being fairly amoral, very focused on his own goals. Kaluu was a fun character to write – I didn’t get the chance to do as much with him as I’d have liked, but he’s an interesting example of an anti-heroic character. And I suppose Loki’s fairly amoral, although he’s shown that there are lines he won’t cross, and when it comes to the people who are important to him he can be very moral indeed.
PCU: Has there been any work you’ve written that you’d wished was more commercially successful than it had been?
Al Ewing: All of it! I’d have loved Mighty Avengers and Loki to have sold in the hundreds of thousands, and I wish 2000AD was more popular and high-selling than it is, but such is life, really. I’m happy enough with the sales I’ve got – it’s a very reasonable audience, and a much bigger one than I’m used to having, so I can’t complain. Also, I’m very happy that things like Ms Marvel and Spider-Gwen are doing big business, though – it’s a positive sign that comics with diverse leads can compete effectively with the Batmans and Supermans. Maybe one of my comics will do those kinds of numbers someday – I’ve got some projects coming up that’ll probably do well.
PCU: What are your influences in comics?
Al Ewing: Let’s see… off the top of my head, there’s John Wagner, whose direct, not-a-word-wasted style reminds me strongly of another influence, the crime novelist Richard Stark. (He’s a pseudonym Donald Westlake used – oddly, I don’t like Westlake’s books as much.) Grant Morrison’s a big influence, especially in terms of the flow of dialogue, and you can’t really grow up in the eighties without being influenced by Alan Moore or Pete Milligan. So there’s a few. Beyond that, it’s little bits and pieces – certain songs and films and video games suggest things, and it all goes into the soup.
PCU: If you ran your own comics company, what would it look like? What would you want to see?
Al Ewing: This is a tough one. Running a comics company takes a certain gift for organized thinking that I don’t really have – I’m only really good at one thing, and that’s writing. I suppose in an ideal world, a comics company should have the means to publish creator-owned work and a decent deal in place for doing that, it should have a deep and diverse bench of talent from all walks of life, and it shouldn’t be afraid to take risks and move ahead of what’s “always been done”. As for what it’d look like – again, I have no idea. Big manga-sized blocks of cheap and cheerful comics on newsprint is a nice thought, but I suspect they’d die a quick death on the stands. Which I guess answers your question – my comic company would pretty quickly look like an ex-comic company.