Ann Nocenti: Storytelling from Comics to Museums
At the heart of all her endeavors, Ann Nocenti has largely been focused on telling a good story.
In her early days, she was quick to pick up the mechanics of the ironclad 1980’s Marvel Bullpen. She penned some of the most important works during Marvel’s ‘Second Golden Age,’ including the creation of Longshot and an acclaimed uninterrupted 50-issue run of Daredevil, directly following Frank Miller’s much beloved story. After writing for a number of years with the company, she branched off into a career where she continued to tell stories; becoming a journalist, filmmaker, teacher and documentarian. Recently, Nocenti was brought on board to help curate the Museum of Pop Culture’s Marvel exhibit in Seattle. MARVEL: Universe of Super Heroes, which opened on April 21 earlier this year, takes an explorative look into the company’s 80-year history, weaving together characters, stories and settings in an immersive fan experience. In addition to helping launch MoPOP’s exhibit, Nocenti has taken to the comics world once more, teaming up with artist David Aja on the new four-issue Dark Horse book, The Seeds, expected out in August.
Nocenti was kind enough to chat with us via email about her career experiences, her involvement with MoPOP, and how The Seeds has evolved in the current political climate.
I think it was last year, but you popped up in the State University of New York at New Paltz alumni magazine. I had no idea I graduated from the same school as you. Would you be able to recount some of your time spent at the institution? What professors did you have?
Well hello there, fellow alumni! I studied art there, so I spent most of my time either in the printing studio, making zinc plate etchings, or at the Smiley Arts building. There were some abstract expressionists teaching there at the time, so being experimental was encouraged. I did painted collages on Plexiglass with all kinds of metal aspects glued on, they hung from wires so they could be viewed from either side. I remember Alex Minewski as the best teacher I had, somewhat of a mentor to me.
When I was at New Paltz I thought it was an extraordinarily unique place. In the years since you’ve graduated, have you returned, and has it been more or less the same for you?
I was there in the late 70s, and the college reflected the times – innovative and environmental studies, political protests – in a little hippie town surrounded by mountains. Going back there, it felt like a time warp – the town retains that hippie culture. I guess that is some kind of lesson on not letting yourself get frozen in time.
It’s also funny to me that you credit Dennis O’Neil for pulling you into the comics world, as one of my professors brought him in to speak to us and it was one of my favorite memories from school. The man had a million stories. What was it like for you to first meet him, and what is one of your greatest takeaways from working with him?
Denny (as we called him) is a wonderful person. He encouraged me to follow the “social justice” angle in comics, which he was a master at. We both fell into comics kind of by accident, we both had our goals to become journalists or literary writers happily diverted by comics, those were the things we talked about, as I recall. He was, I think, writing Iron Man at the time, and doing his famous run with Tony Stark having problems with alcoholism. That was also inspirational to me, how he took his own life struggles and put them right in the comic he was writing.
I read that you discovered the work of Robert Crumb while at New Paltz. What drew you in to his cartoons? Have you pulled inspiration from his stories in the comics you penned for Marvel?
I honestly have to preface all my answers by saying this was 30-some years ago, and memory is not that reliable! But, I think because New Paltz had a counterculture spirit, Robert Crumb’s work was revered there. His vision is satirical, so I imagine perhaps that was an influence on me. Again, that was long ago. Memory is fallible, I tend to think of humans as being their own unreliable narrators of their own lives.
Memory is fallible, I tend to think of humans as being their own unreliable narrators of their own lives.
Continuing on the topic of comics, you transitioned from a writer at Marvel to an editor at the company. How did that transition work, and did it change how you viewed serialized story building?
I started as an assistant to Jim Shooter, then was an assistant to several editors. Each one taught me things—Jim Shooter was obsessed with good, clear storytelling. Al Milgrom and Carl Potts both taught me about the art of sequential art – I just watched them work with artists, helping them improve their storytelling. Then I was assistant to Louise Simonson, who taught me all about the crazy convoluted world of mutants, and most importantly, I watched her editorial style. She was an amazing editor, getting the best stories out of writers. So editing and writing happened, for me, simultaneously. Learning on the job, mostly through osmosis, just listening a lot. Back then the editors were also talented writers and artists, so there was a casual mentorship going on every day. Larry Hama and Archie Goodwin were amazing storytellers, Mark Gruenwald taught me about Marvel’s shared universe, Mike Carlin made everyone laugh a lot. And in the Bullpen every day you would learn process from the staff letterer, colorist, and talent like John Romita Sr. and Marie Severin. What I learned writing serial comics is that it is like singing in rounds—you have a complete story each issue, but drop teasers about next story and finish the subplots from issue before. It’s also a bit like treading water – writing years of stories about a character that can’t change too much, and yet give the constant illusion of movement and change.
When you first took a break from the comics industry, you jumped into the roles of journalist, scriptwriter, teacher, etc. Were there any important things you learned doing comics that translated into these roles?
I think studying art and film prior to comics gave me a visual storytelling sense, so transitioning from comics into making films felt natural. When I was teaching film in Haiti, when we’d be shooting scenes I’d use a little point-and-shoot camera to find cool angles, and show the students shots that would heighten the perspective and emotion of what they were trying to get across in a scene, show them pans by showing beginning and end shots, show them b-roll ideas, like reflecting the scene off a puddle for mood. I realized quickly that I was using all the “camera” angles in the repertoire of a comic artist.
You’ve talked about your personal passion and connection for the character Daredevil. What has it been like seeing what that character has gone on to do in comics, film and television?
He may not be the most famous comic character, but to me he is one of the most complex. He has so many contradictions, he is a natural story generator. The lawyer who is also a vigilante. The “blind justice” warrior. The lapsed Catholic who wears a devil suit. A “handicapped” daredevil. There is a reason why Daredevil has consistently been a great comic for so many decades, and now the television show is one of Marvel’s best.
You recently consulted for the Marvel exhibit at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle – Did helping to curate the history and lineage of Marvel change how you perceive your own time and place with the company?
The chief curator Ben Saunders loves 60s and 70s comics, and Ben definitely gave me a new appreciation for that era. The historians on the team, Danny Fingeroth, Matt Smith and Randy Duncan, illuminated details of the 80-year history of Marvel that I didn’t know. Because I came to comics in the 1980s, what Walt Simonson calls “the Second Golden Age in Comics,” that is the era I love the most. It’s a personal thing. And that is one of the fabulous things about comic art, like any art, there are so many potential personnel touchstones. What Ben and Brooks Peck, (the MoPOP co-curator of the Marvel show) did was create a multi-layered exhibition to create opportunities for any fan – film fan, art fan, comic fan, or simply pop-culture fan – to enter the Marvel exhibition and find something that resonates with them. If you’re a fan of pure history, there is a narrative for you, one that echoes the history of New York and the world – of immigrant culture, of censorship, of the dramatic rise and fall of a publishing empire. If you love immersion experiences, you can walk into the Doctor Strange hall of mirrors, and feel like you are in Strange’s mind, witnessing the multiverse – every path possible, and as we saw in the recent film Infinity Wars – it is Strange’s skill that allowed him to choose the best path for the future out of a thousand possibilities… at least we hope so!
Ben Saunders and his co-curators, working with generous collectors such as “Romitaman” and David Mandel, made sure that there were holy grails of original art, seminal game-changing artworks. They also made sure there were touchable, huggable, awesome sculptures like The Sleeping Thing, Black Panther in front of the Wakanda tech. That there were artifacts like the costumes from the Black Panther film, the Guardians of the Galaxy walkman with mixtape… And Brian Crosby of Marvel Themed Entertainment was a major collaborator, going over every single detail of the show.
So to answer your question, comics are a collaborative medium, and so was this Marvel MoPOP exhibition, and as for my own time and place in at Marvel, I’m happy to have had a small role in a long lineage of creative people.
— annie nocenti (@annienocenti) April 21, 2018
The synopsis of your new series with David Aja, The Seeds for Dark Horse, sounds pretty fitting for current events. Was this a conscious choice you made with David or more the natural course for the story?
David Aja (Marvel’s Hawkeye artist) and I had done a short Daredevil story together, and his skill at storytelling astonished me. So when we spoke of working together again, I sent him some ideas, which must have sucked, because he didn’t really respond to them. Then I sent an idea that he liked, which was about a journalist writing fake news stories and finding out some of them were possibly true, like for a 50s era tabloid. David wanted to set the story in the 1990s, a pre-9/11 New York, and he began designing a stark, gorgeous look for the comic. But by the time we finished developing that idea together, the “fake news” scandal was hitting, and we went from perhaps being prescient to being yesterday’s news. That was depressing, because clearly the comic wasn’t going to work. Then we decided to take a couple of the “fake” news stories and think about them as true. So one of those stories became the heart of The Seeds – an alien/human love story. David wanted to now set the story in the near-future, and we started over, re-created “the seeds” of the previous idea. He came up with the title for the comic, and completely changed his design for it. He’s a master of versatility. At first I didn’t understand why he wanted to work in the 9-panel grid, but as he began to draw the story I realized he was using the grid to create a level of paranoia and claustrophobia, which in turn changed the course of how I wrote the comic. At the same time, Karen Berger became our editor, and honestly, we were kind of rudderless before she came along. She is doing beautiful work with me on the scripts, gently steering me away from tangential ideas and nurturing the good ones. There is a reason she is perhaps the best editor in comics. The Seeds is a Dark Horse/Berger Books comic, and drops in August. We sure hope fans like it.
Are there any other upcoming projects you’re working on that you’d like to talk about?
Honestly, I am not someone who plans ahead at all. I’m throwing my heart into The Seeds right now, after that, who knows?