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Leamington Comic Con: Al Ewing Interview

Interview by Neil Patel

Leamington Comic Con is one of the staple events of the UK’s comic convention scene and one of the many guests who attended the convention was writer Al Ewing whom many associate with his run on Loki agent of Asgard or even his work on Doctor Who and 2000ad. Although in recent times he’s been known for especially writing team books such US Avengers and Ultimates, he’s about to approach with the finish line of the massive Avengers No Surrender storyline with fellow writers Mark Waid and Jim Zub.

It’s an arc that paves way for Jason Aaron’s and Ed Mc Guinness’s re-launch. Neil Patel recently interviewed the writer about writing for Marvel and of course he had to ask Al about his
upcoming Hulk project, the Immortal Hulk!

What it’s like writing for Marvel?
AE: It’s fun, it’s kind of nice to play around in that big shared universe thing! There’s an element of fitting your bits in along with everybody else’s bits and there’s also an element of playing nice with all of the other writers. I think the one advantage I have is that I like to work with all the other smaller lesser known heroes a lot, that gives me the freedom to do my own thing so generally I’d say it’s fun!

You started your career at 2000ad, how would you compare the two publishers?
AE: Well generally you’re working on your own story unless it’s Dredd. You’re working on something that you’ve invented and built a world that you’ve built up that doesn’t necessarily connect with any others, so you don’t have to worry about shared universes or anything and also the tone is more sci-fi. I think most Marvel titles fit roughly into a particular genre and a particular tone – it’s the superhero yardstick you’re orbiting, whereas in 2000ad you can travel a-lot further afield and go to a lot of places in a sci-fi setting. I guess the difference in a shared universe that orbits around one particular genre but a more isolated universe like your own can be different time periods, so you have a lot more freedom.

There’s also a lot less pages as a good 2000ad story has fifty-sixty pages which is three issues worth of a monthly comic, that’s less than the minimum you’d write if you were working on a mini-series. So you do have less space to work with in terms of the individual episodes which are five to six pages and in terms of the overall pages of the story you’re telling in the comic.

You are Deadpool is going to be released next month and it’s a unique comic, is the book a
throwback to the novels of Edward Packard?

AE: It’s probably closest to the fighting fantasy books of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston. In terms of comics there was one in the 80s called Diceman which I remember very fondly and that was a big inspiration on this. I didn’t borrow the systems entirely; there are a couple of systems in YAD which I’ve taken inspiration from Diceman which we had to work out the combat system for example, it had to be a simple and effective combat system that would work and that’s unique to this book and that’s something new. I actually found out later once the previews came out for the first issue that a couple of role-playing enthusiasts contacted me about what we’ve used is something called the Dicepool system given the synchronicity which is Deadpool! You have a certain number of dice and so it’s not like the stats that enemies have, it’s the different numbers of dice that they roll and then it’s adding up the total so it’s quite simple system that’s very easily explained. It’s also effective in terms of having stronger or weaker enemies without taking too much space on individual combat statistics or anything like that.

How did Kieron Gillen contribute?
AE: That was fun. I needed someone to bounce off in the tutorial and I know Kieron and I basically asked if he’d like to guest star in it! He contributed and he came up with the idea of having a paper craft dice in there. In one of the pages you can cut out a dice and then glue it together, but obviously it’ll be quite flimsy! Originally I was going to suggest to the reader to use a dice from other board game, but then again with this they’ve got a special Deadpool dice that they can glue together and use and that was Kieron’s idea to have a paper craft dice, so to thank him I decided to include him in a guest role in the comic.

The comic also coincides with the release of the sequel, how do you feel about comics
tying with films – do you think it’s something that works?

AE: I think there’s different ways of doing it, there’s comics that directly tie in to the film’s continuity and that can be fun, but it’s never been something that I’ve done. I guess the only time I was ever asked to tie something in with a film was Ultron Forever; it was three Avengers annuals that slotted together and I was asked to do an Ultron story, and it would coincide with the release of the second Avengers film that had Ultron in it. I included the Vision, Black Widow and the Hulk, in fact it was the entire movie Avengers, but they were all from different timelines.

It was the Captain America from the future which had the first appearance of Danielle Cage as Captain America who I’ve used a lot, there was also a Hulk who joined before the Avengers existed, Vision and Black Widow were from the present and Thor and Iron Man were from the past. I feel like there was somebody else but that was from a long time ago and I haven’t much sleep I’m afraid! On one hand it was tying into the film and on the other hand I had freedom to take it from wherever I wanted to. So I did really enjoy that, we ended up with something where people might not be able to relate to the film anymore but it’s kind of a standalone thing. I still get people bringing it to me for it to be signed today, because people enjoyed it as a thing on it’s own. I think that’s the best of both worlds.

You’ve written quite a lot of team books including Ultimates, US Avengers, New Avengers,
Royals – what is it about them that you like writing?

AE: I like teams and I think editorial likes to put me on team books! But I guess I always like characters bouncing off one another, that’s always nice. I like when every character has something to do and has a role to play in a situation, but I do like solo books as well, as with a solo book you’ve got a lot more room to play with.

The downside of a team book is that you don’t have much room to work on character development. Somebody will have a beat and that’s all they’ll get in an issue and that’s all the room there is. I feel like when I do a team book there’s always a character that misses out and if there’s people in the team that have solo books, I feel a bit better about maybe concentrating on characters who don’t have a book and giving them the lion’s share of character development. If worst comes to worst, then like Ultimates, Black Panther had a solo, Captain Marvel had a solo, they ended up getting character development anyway, and at the same time I felt that I could concentrate on the others. BP wouldn’t be short changed, he was alright and he’s got his own book.

You’ve recently been working on Avengers which is going to finish soon, what were the
advantages of working alongside Mark Waid and Jim Zub on a weekly comic?

AE: It’s a good way of getting a weekly comic out. We’ve been working on it for a year and I definitely couldn’t have done it on my own! It was really great; you’ve got Mark, he’s the voice of experience in a lot of ways, he’s done 52 and a lot of these weekly comics and a lot of these collaborations before. He has a lot of continuity knowledge. Jim had a lot of energy that he brought to the project. I don’t think we delivered a script very late during the time we were doing it, we were always on schedule, but there was a bit of wiggle room in the schedule which we made use of! To get sixteen weekly issues as good as those have been on the editorial side that was a feat of endurance from Tom Breevort and Alanna Smith, it’s been a really fun experience and interesting seeing other writers work and it’s generally it’s been a good time.

Obviously Avengers No Surrender has been used to bring back Bruce Banner once again
into the Marvel Universe, why did you decide to resurrect the character in Avengers and not in a Hulk book?

AE: We wanted to give the Avengers book something and we wanted to get people excited about it and people were! Without the Hulk resurrection, 1) we’d have to put something in that third month of story and 2) it really gave people this big boost of interest halfway through. Otherwise people would be interested in the start and at the end, there would be a dip in the middle and instead we had the Hulk coming back. We built up to that and that big rampage kept people interested, focused and really excited by it all the way through which is good, if we were to do that again we’d have to have a similar Hulk returns type moment.

Also doing it in Avengers I can start Immortal Hulk issue one; I don’t have to give lengthy explanations of how he died and came back – I can just start issue one. New readers can just come in and if they want to, can catch up on what the Hulk’s been up to. They can read the recent Avengers book, and if they don’t it’s not like issue one where immediately your crushed by continuity from comics you haven’t read. I feel like it’s important, certainly for this series, to start afresh as possible. I wanted to get the resurrection and continuity stuff squared away so I could tell the story I wanted to do in the Hulk book.

How would you describe your approach to Immortal Hulk?
AE: We’re doing it as a horror book and we’re very consistent with the tone, we’re also trying to make it different to what’s come before and what’s already out there. It’s going to be the only Marvel comic that’s going to be striking that particular horror tone. We need to be unique as possible, so that’s what I’m thinking about.

Instead of the usual “don’t make me angry” Is the tagline going to be “don’t kill me you
wouldn’t like me when I’m dead?”

AE: Ha ha! Maybe! One thing I’ve tried to bring back is the idea that Bruce Banner can hide; obviously he’s got a well known face. There’s a lot of people who are celebrities and if I saw them on the street, I wouldn’t necessarily know them or be able to place them, I’d say he looks familiar, I wouldn’t immediately say oh that’s the Hulk. We’re bringing back Bruce’s anonymity and his ability to kind of blend in and part of that is that he’s got a lot of experience as a fugitive. So we’re playing up the old TV show, he’s wandering from town to town and we’ve also brought back when night falls, that’s the Hulk’s time, and daytime is Bruce Banner’s time and night is the Hulk time.

The changes don’t necessarily automatically happen at sundown, we make it very obvious that when the sun goes down the Hulk is in charge. We’re getting away from the anger mechanic and we’re going back to the early days when he changed at night. It’s not for the first time that someone’s used this, I know Peter David used this for the grey Hulk and I’ve always liked that.

Would you reckon that this incarnation is more powerful than the rest?
AE: In a sense yeah. I don’t like the whole “who’s stronger” thing, I think that’s a boring story to tell, so I kind of get around it by assuming that the “Hulk is the strongest one there” – it’s like it says on the tin. In terms of one on one battles he’s powerful enough to win. If he’s fighting all of the Avengers then that’s going to be more of a fight, but the fights are less important than the stories, the emphasis on this book is really on the story.

It’s on story; it’s on tone, mysteries and strange happenings and stuff. Yes he’s powerful; he’s one of the more powerful incarnations of the Hulk – I think he’d certainly be in the top five. He might be the smartest version of the Hulk there’s been, but at the same time that’s not the point and that’s not the focus. We’ll see if people like that and go for it. I’m hoping people will be on board for a darker take on the Hulk. We’re focusing less on what he can bench press and more on the monster in the darkness.

Joe Bennett’s drawn the Hulk in the past, what do you think he’s bringing to the character
this time round?

AE: From what he’s told me, he’s very inspired by the original Kirby Hulk. He’s bringing a real solidity to it and monstrousness. His Hulk takes up a lot of the page and the atmosphere of the room. When the Hulk’s on the page you know all about it! He’s this huge looming presence. His Hulk’s very scary, he’s a got a subtle grasp of expressions as well. It’s no secret that we’ve got Walter Langowski, Sasquatch from Alpha Flight, coming in as a supporting character.

I’m starting to get pages in from Walter now and his expressions are very subtle. Walter always smiles a lot, there are degrees and gradations you see immediately sense the personality. He has a rule of characterisation for the Hulk, he’s quite sinister in places which is good for our purposes.

You pitched the idea at a creative summit, what’s the atmosphere like at those meetings?
AE: It kind of depends of how many people there are in the room, I enjoy it more when there’s a few people in the room. For Avengers No Surrender it was just the writers and the editorial, the writers rooms are quite febrile and there’s a lot of ideas bursting back and forth and you’ve got to be quick on your feet, it’s very easy to sit back and do a lot of listening and nodding and not actually contribute much! They want people to contribute and bring ideas to the room, not just sitting and listen to ideas.

Whenever I’ve been in the writers room I’ve had four or five decent ideas that people like, you put your idea out there and the whole room kicks it about and it’ll change shape in front of your eyes – so you’ve got to be okay about it. But this one the room thought about and the conversation moved on so I kind of thought about it and took it away from me.

You’ve also created a unique Tumblr account which has pages of Green skin’s earlier days,
what’s the idea behind that?

AE: It’s not totally unique, it’s very strongly inspired by a similar account that Matt Fraction did, I forget what that was called. When he was getting ready to do Fantastic Four, he went through the early issues and he’d take panels and just comment on them. I was fascinated by that at the time and I thought when I got the Hulk, you know what I’m going to do one of those. I call it a work blog or a hobby thing, it’s a way of getting into that mental space where I sort of think about the Hulk. So I’ll put up a panel of the Hulk every couple of days but I’ll generally put a hash tag commentary with it.

I look for panels where the Hulk’s very scary or frightening and also when it’s obviously a horror comic. I also focus on the psychology of Bruce Banner and his relationship with the Hulk, the psychology of the Hulk and also the particular trends in the Hulk when he starts to bubble up, like when he started getting into the self-hating phase for a couple of issues. Also when he starts talking about wiping out all of mankind and that’s something that bubbled up and went away again as Stan Lee and the people who was working on the Hulk at the time got more of a handle on the character. One thing I noticed is when the “dumb” Hulk starts to come in, Stan Lee becomes fixated on the Hulk’s clouded brain and I found that I was avoiding those panels because that’s not so interesting to me. My Hulk is very sharp, he’s not stupid and he’s not going to in the third person or doing a baby talk thing, he’s very articulate, like menacingly articulate. Eventually I’m going to run out of interesting panels or I’ll run out of reprints and it’ll slowly die out but not before everything sinks in!

Going back to the very first six issues of the Incredible Hulk, they were all about change weren’t they?
AE: Yes. I’ve carried on my Tumblr past those, I’m kind of fascinated on how the Hulk’s developed, it’s kind of noticeable on the panels where I’m throwing up on the page that they’ve pretty much entered a pattern, he solidified and stabilised even if he’s not quite the Hulk that we’re used to. He’s in a good place when Stan Lee has a good idea what do with him.

The first six issues, every issue was different and it was a new and unexpected thing. The first issue was a straight up horror comic, then it’s starts getting into superhero territory, but even so Hulk is ending stories by threatening to destroy all of mankind and saying the human race will never be safe as long as he’s around, and he’s the only person doing that at the time. If you look at the Sub Mariner he’s in the villain role at that stage but the Hulk’s the hero, the protagonist and he’s also this terrifying monster the scientist hero doesn’t really have control over. There’s this ongoing question, is it Bruce Banner or is it somebody else? Is the Hulk Bruce or not Bruce, or the anti Bruce? It’s this fertile ground and you can go back to the first six issues and it’s all there. There’s just so much there that you can work with.

Writer Peter David explained that Bruce Banner had multiple personality disorder, are you
going to pursue that?

AE: I’m definitely going to get into that. I’m thinking that the mental health of Bruce Banner is something I want to explore but it’s a topic that I want to do right, I’ll see what I end up doing but I’m very conscious it would be easy to get that wrong, so I’m being quite careful with that one. It’s definitely something I’m interested in and it’s something quite close to home. The MPD thing is only a part of it. I don’t want to get into a place where the Hulk is explicable; it shouldn’t be more complicated. Since Dissociative Identity Disorder is such a complex topic and even now people are still working on how to understand it as a thing. It should be as complicated as it is in the real world and we’ll see if I actually manage to get it right and hopefully I will.

In what scenario does the Hulk work best?
AE: The first issue is going to plug him into a horror story; more of an EC sophisticated suspense story and the second issue is going to be a mystery as he’s going to be solving a mystery. The third issue is a more standard horror issue, it’s like an exorcism story and four and five we slightly get into more regular Hulk territory there. He has to deal with a big monster. Over the course of the first arc we’re asking that question what scenarios can we put the Hulk into? Is there a limit beyond which it’s no longer a Hulk story? Can you fit him into all kinds of different things? I think you can put into any number of different scenarios and make it work.

What would you say to fans that’ve dropped reading Hulk books and are tempted to come

AE: We really are a good jumping on point for fans, if you pick up issue one you don’t really need to pick up anything else. If you’re reading Immortal Hulk then you don’t need to read any other Hulk books. Anytime we bring somebody from the larger Marvel universe we’ll tell you who they are, I really want avoid a thing where readers feel like where they’re missing something.

We really need to avoid that when they have an issue of Immortal Hulk and that’s something that satisfies them and they don’t get to the end of that and think “oh I should have read such and such to enjoy this.” We’re trying to do it completely without crossovers, but we are bringing people from the shared universe. The Hulk is part of the shared universe but we’re going to do it in such a way, like Avengers and Sasquatch, we’re seeing them through the lens of the Hulk. We’re applying our own tone; we’re doing it our way. There has never been a simpler time to get on board with the Hulk and start from issue one and that’s got everything you need.

Which comics are you reading at the moment?
AE: I’m reading a whole bunch of Marvel comics, I’m loving Gerry Duggan’s Deadpool and I’m intrigued to see how he winds up issue 300. I’m enjoying the X books and I’m reading Mark Waid’s Captain America. I’m also seeing the Fresh Start stuff as it comes to print as I get an early look at it. In terms of other companies, from DC I’m reading Batman and Mr Miracle, anything Tom King does I tend to like! From Image I’m reading the Wicked and Divine regularly as well as Giant Days, haven’t read Saga but I’m still picking it up – I need to have a Saga binge at some point! Also Sex Criminals as I read anything that Chip does, Chip Zdarsky is one of my favourite writers. Ryan North is also another one of my favourites, he’s always good value and that’s a fair amount.

Immortal Hulk launches on June 6 as part of Marvel Comics Fresh Start initiative and You are Deadpool, the five-issue miniseries, is set to be released on Wednesday, May 2.