Families & Monsters: On The Couch With Al Ewing
by Noah Sharma
Al Ewing has been doing universe defining, revolutionary things at Marvel for years, but something has changed ever since he introduced the world to The Immortal Hulk. The series put the Hulk back in the limelight in a way that even the Avengers films haven’t quite managed and transformed Ewing’s booth at any convention from a consistent well of sincere, low-key conversations about character and theme into…well honestly the same thing but with a massive line every time.
After years of loving his wild ideas and knack for holistic characters, I’ve been delighted to see readers catching on to Ewing’s brilliance. And they’re not the only ones. Marvel has turned the keys to the universe over to the bearded Brit, tapping him to relaunch Guardians of the Galaxy, while, this Summer, Ewing will headline his first full Marvel event, Empyre, alongside Dan Slott. In short, it’s a good time to be a fan of Ewing’s.
Mr. Ewing was kind enough to let me sit down at his booth at C2E2. Despite his seemingly endless line, Ewing did his best to answer my most in depth questions, while still making time to sign and chat with fans.
Noah Sharma: So looking at Guardians, the roster is very much in flux right now and it’s kind of splitting in next month’s issue. Especially now that you’re adding many people who are kind of not traditionally members of that team, what does it mean to you to be a Guardian of the Galaxy vs. someone who just guards the galaxy?
Al Ewing: So you mean what makes them Guardians rather than [just] intergalactic superheroes?
NS: Yeah, what makes them that team even though it’s not the core family entirely anymore?
AE: I think what makes the Guardians is that they are a family. I mean that was a very telling word you used, family. They’re a found family. That’s definitely the vibe I was trying to get across in that first issue.
I’m doing like almost a regular pattern of high intensity issues and breather issues. Like, two high intensity issues and then a heavy emotional issue, #3 is gonna be three stories showing how the Guardians who remained on halfworld–Groot, Drax, and Gamora–react to the death of Peter Quill, when Rocket comes and tells them.
Basically the new Guardians that we’ve sort of put together, I want them to become a found family. There are also Guardians like Mantis, the original Reality 616 Moondragon. These were also Guardians. It’s like they’ve moved away since, but at one point they were part of the family, so it’s like the family has not always been the five from the movie.
NS: Right. So there’s kind of an extended family. And a growing family.
AE: Yeah. I did wanna get away, at least at first, from that movie five.
NS: So, on the other side of Guardians right now, you have the Olympians. One thing I’ve always loved about your books is the metaphysics, the rules and the non-rules you make. One thing that kind of struck me is that I feel like there’s a resistance to looking at gods existing beyond Earth in a lot of work and potentially that could say some very good things about our understanding of religion and colonialism, but there could also say some bad things. How do you play with gods on that galactic level and still keep them true to what they are?
AE: I mean I think this is gonna be a very prosaic answer after a question that sort of invites me to kind of come up with some grand meaning, some deep thought, but when we killed off the Olympians in [Avengers: ]No Road Home, it was- I think it was Jim[ Zub]’s idea because he had an idea to use Nyx, Goddess of Night, as the villain and we sort of decided that we wouldn’t just have a massive kill-off to establish a villain’s credibility, ’cause that’s a little bit been there, done that–but, in this case, we thought, for so long the Olympians have been like lying around being budget Asgardians. This is the problem with having a number of Earth pantheons–beyond the kind of potential cultural… problematicness of taking people’s actual gods and turning them into big muscled superheroes–you’ve gotta think, ‘well, okay, so the gods of Earth are basically the Asgardians ’cause they’re the coolest and they’re the ones in the films. And all the rest are the sort of also-rans, who pop their heads up occasionally to say, “Yeah, we’re here too.”’
So we wanted to make the Olympians interesting again, we want to make them not the Asgardians- visibly not like the Asgardians. So we were definitely going to kill them. But I think, even as we made our decision, we were like, “But they’re gonna come back.” And then towards like the end of the- maybe even the end of the planning we were like, “Oh, well let’s bring them back in the last issue” so we don’t even give the cynics that kind of satisfaction, that, “Oh, well, yeah, now they’re back.”
But I had the idea that it should be kind of death and rebirth as this- Y’know, gods dying and being reborn, it should be weird and terrifying. What comes out the other end should be really terrifying. I had the idea to move them to space.
I had some ideas of Hercules in space. Which, y’know, questing for gods, it was very like Ulysses 31. And those got folded into Guardians when I was offered Guardians. I was like, ‘I wanna do that sort of Hercules thing, that stuff I’ve been talking about’, ’cause I think, a Hercules solo book, maybe that would last, maybe it wouldn’t. A Guardians book is definitely gonna last. Then I could do the Hercules stuff in that. It’ll be a good excuse to shake up the Guardians, so it’s a win-win.
But basically… I think we just wanted to make the Olympains exciting. Make them unknowable, make them godlike. So we do have this thing where Athena is just acting very weird and, at a base level, everyone’s kind of evil. They’re all motivated by the future. They’ve been born for this time that is coming, of war and blood and then it’s like do they know something we don’t, y’know?
It was almost like I wanted to use them as harbingers of terrible things going down the pipeline. That was because I wanted the space politics to sort of mirror kind of the politics of Earth.
In that, right now, it’s a very scary time, we don’t know what’s gonna happen next on a number of levels, y’know? The latest thing is this virus that’s going around. It’s like- There’s always something and it’s always worse.
NS: One thing that I think is very cool about your previous work at Marvel was you had kind of a rotating but consistent cast of characters for a long time. Is there stuff where, now that it’s over, you can look back on and say, “I miss writing them,” or “I wish I had done something with them that doesn’t make sense anymore”?
AE: I guess the big one of those is I wouldn’t have minded doing more Loki. I think we pitched a continuation before we knew we were doing the God of Stories. I think we pitched something else for them. That didn’t fly. That was another gods in space book. It would’ve been a sort of Loki out in space doing space stuff and that did not fly.
Basically…it was a very foolish thing to pitch because Loki had a role to play on Earth in Jason [Aaron]’s book and he should have at least have been kept on Earth. I would have probably done slightly better with the God of Stories stuff, but at the same time, I hadn’t arrived yet, the book was doing as well as it was doing- It wasn’t really doing the numbers for a continuation.
NS: I will say, I’m happy that you’re doing well and that people are kind of catching on, but I think the two books that I wish people had been there for were Loki and probably Ultimates.
AE: Oh, Ultimates is another one where I would have liked to have just a couple more issues! Just to really steady things. So, yeah, I miss Loki a little bit. ’Cause the thing is that’s the only example of something I could think, well, Loki has now moved on and I’m very glad that he’s moved on in the same direction that we pointed him, but I would have liked a little more time with him. I don’t know if I could write him now just because I’d be writing a Loki who is maybe a couple of steps behind on the journey he’s taken.
NS: So, one thing that I was thinking about with Empyre, the Marvel Universe has kind of discreet sections that largely stay separate for ease, but their characters do very frequently move between. So Captain Marvel is kind of an X-Man, Hulkling is a Young Avenger, but he’s also a Skrull. It feels like a lot of the cosmic characters have been brought down to Earth at various points and found new life there as well. How has it been honoring those relationships while also introducing readers to their Kree and Skrull heritage?
AE: With the Avengers and the FF, they have a context with the Kree and the Skrull, as adversaries, so, I’m sort of writing from that point of view. We’re sort of seeing how the Avengers deal with everything, how the FF deal with it, but they are coming from that point of view of, like, ‘yeah, we fight these guys all the time.’
With others in Guardians, I think introducing Hercules in a space context has been interesting. That kind of comes back to that Olympians thing, where the Olympians have their kind of particular role to play.
NS: Sure. Has it been at all difficult, translating that for people? You kind of had to give a little bit of an explanation of what the Blue Area was yesterday at the panel for people who are not as familiar with that conflict.
AE: We’ve done extremely well in terms of introducing and reintroducing things. We have a whole book called Road to Empyre (out now) which is essentially bringing you up to speed on the Kree/Skrull War and various high points, while at the same time telling a kind of compelling story involving some Skrulls, who will be familiar to readers.
There’s various levels of exposition. So, you can get this tie-in that will help you out. You can skip that and just get the prologue issues, which help you out in a sort of briefer way. We’re trying to do that without making it seem repetitive… So it will be quite a feat of exposition if we pull it off. I suspect there’s gonna be a couple of people, “Oh, I read Road to Empyre, I know all this.” But, at the same time, not everybody is gonna get Road to Empyre.
NS: Looking at Hulk, do you think there is anything good in Dario Agger, in the Minotaur?
There are very few characters I think are completely irredeemable and he is one of them. I think at one point there was, in his origin story, there was a sort of a moment where…he might have gone along another path, but… I think, as he is now, I don’t believe there is any good in Dario Agger at all. I think he is a monster inside and out. The fact that he can chose his form and chooses to be a monster? I think that’s when people tell you who they are, believe them. And I’m sure there are plenty of people willing to defend ’im in the Marvel Universe.
NS: Believe it or not, last time we spoke on the record, you were still doing Loki. At that time I asked you about what the power of stories was and it’s been one of my favorite things to think back on. Now that you’re writing Hulk, and especially post-issue #26, I wanted to ask you: in the world that the Hulk finds himself in and that we find ourselves in, what you think the power and the danger of anger is?
AE: Ohhh! I think the power of anger is that it can motivate you. It can inspire you. If you channel it properly, it can do great things. In the context of protest- In the last few years we’ve seen an influx of people into politics, who maybe were not intending to do that with their lives, but have now seen what is happening and are rising to fight it. I’d imagine anger is certainly part of that.
I’d say maybe the danger of anger is that you can lose focus. I do believe anger is valid. It’s a valid emotion. Well… sometimes it’s just kind of wanky… If you’re angry about–I don’t know–a Ghostbusters movie or something… If you’re angry about like a version of He-Man or whatever that you don’t believe is canonical, y’know, that’s not super valid.
It’s a tricky one, because, if you legitimize all anger, but it certainly can be a very valid emotion. I think the danger of it is that you can lose focus, you can sort of get tied up in things. It can maybe corrupt you. I think, for instance, there are people who have given into anger in a very negative way and are now attacking innocent people online. So then I’d count that as bad anger.
I think we’re very used to looking at Bruce Banner and saying ‘there is somebody who should never be angry. He’s right. He should lock that part up from himself forever. It’s a monster.’ Whereas, we don’t block off our own anger. We make use of it, we channel it, we let it off–if we have to–we let off some steam. When we stub our toes we yell. We scream and we curse. These things are valid. But there’s also the danger that it can take you to a dark place. And that’s still true.
NS: Do you think that the Devil Hulk persona, that his anger has a constructive element, in that it’s necessary for that kind of rebirth, or is he just interested in tearing down?
AE: I think that the trouble with tearing down institutions without a plan is that’s sort of giving into accelerationism and we’re seeing a lot of that kind of chaos. We’ve kind of gone into that. The Hulk has specified that he’s not just gonna destroy everything and kill everybody. There are limits. There’s a plan.
What I will say is that the Devil Hulk’s anger is constructive in that his place in the Bruce Banner system is to protect.
A lot of what he does is primarily about protecting and defending Bruce Banner. That is a big thing and it’s a thing we’ll come back to a lot of times.
In that sense, yes, Devil Hulk is constructive. In terms of the larger plan… I think the Hulk and Bruce are aware that there is only so much they can do. They are a sledgehammer. Fortunately, in the Marvel Universe, there’s the Roxxon Corporation and it’s not like in the real world there are indefensible corporations who just make everything horribly, horribly worse.
That would never do…but we have the Roxxon Corporation. I think it’s very easy to look at the Hulk vs. Roxxon and go like, “Yeah, in this instance…” But people are gonna make up their own minds about whether this is a long term strategy.
NS: One thing that’s super interesting about this is that, kind of as you were saying, Bruce Banner is along for this ride. He’s not shutting his anger out and he’s very much a part of the planning and how it might be constructive. That on some level just inverts the tragedy of Bruce Banner. What is it like to write Bruce Banner from a place of power, from a place of almost terrorism?
AE: He is from a place of power. We’re just seeing it from another angle.
Bruce is basically an abused child who developed Dissociative Identity Disorder at a very young age. There’s a certain element now of accepting that diagnosis and working with his alters in a way he hasn’t done before or he has attempted but not quite this way. I feel like we’re seeing a Bruce Banner who is more whole than he has been. Part of that does involve allowing himself to become angry in a way that he has not in the past. We have seen other characters call him out on this and they’ve expressed concerns. Some characters sort of agree with him and work with him.
I think he is more powerful but also more whole while, at the same time, more accepting that he is a system. He is a system of alters. It’s in that, not in giving into anger, that he finds power. It’s in accepting himself and accepting the system as it is that he is gaining power. I feel like it’s maybe a little more complicated than that because at the same time it’s not all sunshine and roses and then with one bound, capitalism was destroyed. There’s a lot of difficulty
Can he even fight this fight? Is the Hulk even someone who can deal with this? Would Bruce Banner not be better served acting in different ways? Has he become overly bitter? We’ve seen signs that maybe the answer is yes.
NS: It’s interesting to me because we’ve seen him with Doc Samson a lot, where he’s obviously open to the concept of therapy, but he is also very cagey about it. He has limits on what he’s willing to do.
AE: He’s avoiding treatment. You do see in Incoming and I wanna reprint this in the trade. That’s the one time I think there’ve been pages which might’ve been useful for people to pick up that weren’t in the main book, but I feel like we’re gonna repeat the beats a little bit in the main book.
But essentially, yeah, Bruce Banner is sort of avoiding talking. Avoiding talking to Harpy, avoiding talking to Samson. There’s a point I just wrote that comes down the line where Samson just finally basically says to Bruce, “No. I’m not gonna let you run away this time.” This is after Joe has switched to Bruce, so Joe’s not gonna let him run away either. There’s an actual point of confrontation where basically Bruce Banner has to say something concrete to somebody about how he feels because he has been keeping it to himself. Joe’s been there doing all the talking, Devil Hulk’s been doing all the talking, Savage Hulk has been doing all the talking. It’s like Bruce is the one Hulk alter who has not been responsive to therapy.
And, y’know, Doc Samson is not a good therapist. I am not a licensed therapist. Also, in the first appearance of Doc Samson, he started dating his patient’s girlfriend. After like…using a raygun to psychologically cure Bruce and then shooting himself full of Bruce’s radiation.
NS: Is that not how therapy usually functions?
AE: It’s not one of the known schools…Maybe you could call it a sort of Reichian thing. I might make that joke. I’d love Sampson to go ‘that was actually a kind of Reichian primal scream. Sort of.’ So, yeah, Bruce is complicated and he’s not a great patient.