London Super Comic Con Interview: Al Ewing and Lee Garbett

London Super Comic Con logo 2014


As readers of my convention diaries may recall, at this year’s LSCC I had the chance to interview Al Ewing and Lee Garbett, the writer and artist on the new Marvel Comics series Loki: Agent of Asgard.

We started out talking about Loki, but by the time we were done we’d touched on almost anything and everything related to working in comics nowadays–like the Marvel Method, British comics fandom, and much more…

Loki: Agent of Asgard is one of the most interesting series I’ve read in a long time. It’s not like anything else that I’ve read in comics, and it seems like it’s very much of its time. I can’t imagine this book coming out five years ago, definitely not ten years ago; twenty years ago, forget it. So why Loki, and why now?

AE: It’s Loki time! I think really you can lay a lot of this at Tom Hiddleston’s door. The shared universe that’s so familiar to us in comics hasn’t really been done in films to this extent, unless you count Alien vs. Predator or something like that, so already we have a new thing that’s gotten people’s attention. And then on top of that, Tom Hiddleston walks in and does the perfect performance, sets the world on fire, et cetera, and suddenly Loki is a big name. And meanwhile in the comics–completely separately, I think; I don’t think this is anything other than a massive coincidence that all of this has been coming together–you’ve got the work that Kieron Gillen did, and Matt Fraction should be included as well, on Kid Loki. Kieron came along and did this exemplary run that was critically acclaimed across the board, and not by the usual suspects, but by new readers who were just getting into it.

So there’s been a massive influx of new eyes in the films and the comics, and Loki is the common element here. It makes sense that now is the time to give him the solo title. And thanks to Kieron, we’ve got this amazing starting point; thanks to Tom Hiddleston, we’ve got–I mean, we don’t copy his voice, but Tom Hiddleston has established a ballpark, and we’re in it.

LG: Yeah, it wasn’t that sort of sneering villainy where he’s just a bad guy. There was a real sense of hurt and pain. You could see that he was hurting, really, and he was his own worst enemy, and he was just getting in his own way. And that made him a really evocative character. So there was all that, and obviously he became quite an appealing character to have in a visual medium; you know, you want an attractive character.

AE: It’s the perfect time for this comic to exist, and the audience is right there. And it’s not the usual readership.

LG: It’s a lot of new readers as well.

AE: We get letters from people who are saying, “This is my first comic.” My first comic, full stop. The first piece of sequential art I’ve ever laid eyes on. That’s a big responsibility. I’m kind of wondering, wow, am I making this entry-level? Is this an entry-level comic? It relies very heavily on what’s come before.

LG: But I think there’s a touchstone; issue #1 was very much like that.

AE: Issue #1 was very much “come on board, everybody.” I made a conscious decision to use the movie Avengers–those six Avengers who were in the film–and just have Loki versus these guys, and if you’re a big fan of movie Loki we’re not going to turn you away. We’re not going to say, “These movie fans, ewwww.”

LG: Why would we turn people away? It’s insane! Especially when it’s built on something so great.

AE: We need to be bringing everybody in.

LG: It doesn’t have to be so commercial. I mean, obviously it is commercial, but it’s not just that, because the character is so well played by Tom Hiddleston and you don’t even have to hate him.

AE: I like him! It was such a pleasure in the second Thor film when he was sort of on the side of the angels–you know, for his own reasons.

LG: He’s such a playful character, I think, as well as bad, and that’s really fascinating. I mean, he enjoys himself.

AE: Yeah, that’s another thing that came out in the comics and the films. I don’t know how much of the comics Tom Hiddleston was reading…

LG: In an interview, he said he was reading Kieron’s run. If you watch the video at the end of issue #1, Lauren [Sankovitch] shows him the Loki-Thor stab, and he’s like, “Wow.” So he likes it.

AE: So there obviously was some cross-pollination, but that playfulness has come in recently. Because before about 2005, Loki was kind of one-note–would that be fair to say? I’m picking 2005 as kind of an arbitrary date; I’m sure if you went back it could be as early as 1990 or whatever, but for the most part Loki has been one-note up until Siege or that wonderful Rob Rodi/Esad Ribic miniseries, which is beautiful. It’s on Comixology and should be read by everybody. It’s about what happens when old Loki wins and gets what he wants, and it turns out that’s not what he wants. It was so perfect that I think it killed the Loki that was. You could not have another evil Loki story after that. But people still want us to go back to evil Loki.

LG: Evil Loki’s ridiculously popular! We’ve been making him a real shit.

AE: We’ve been making him a massive shit. But it just makes him more popular.

I think a lot of that is down to the bad-boy thing; you can’t make the bad boy not bad because then he ceases to be appealing.

AE: But what if the bad boy is a wrinkly old fart with half his teeth missing?

LG: I had that with some of the art. I thought people would want new Loki pages, but then they discover that old Loki* shows up at the end, and they change their minds and say, “I want the old Loki.”

[*”Old” as in the former evil Loki, who is also old in the sense of being elderly.]

AE: You must have had a bidding war on your hands for that last page.

LG: To be honest, somebody wanted that page and we agreed on a price, and then they switched it to old Loki. I thought they’d want the big fancy splash at the beginning or the shower scene.

AE: Have you sold the shower scene?

LG: Yeah, a lot of the stuff’s gone, but it only just went.

AE: There is more shirtless Loki on the way…

That’s one of the reasons that Loki: Agent of Asgard is so interesting: it really seems to be made with the expectation that women and girls will be reading it–as evidenced by, for example, the shower scene.

AE: Pretty much everything in the book is in there because I want to see it, so shirtless Loki is as much for me as it is for the female audience. Like the Wicked thing–that’s one of my favorite songs.

LG: Certainly from an artistic perspective, when I have female characters to draw, like Wonder Woman, I don’t want them to be overly pneumatic; I always try to give them a sense of elegance and grace. And whether they’re male or female, I want them to embody their own vibe, but to have a sort of charm and grace about them, so I’m always trying to get charm into the character if I can, and so I treated Loki as I would have treated any sort of sex symbol-type character.

AE: I was saying in another interview that this is why I’m glad we’re using the Marvel Method, because the nuances of the voice really came together. The Hiddleston voice is nice, but I don’t want to pastiche someone else’s voice. But as soon as I saw Lee’s depiction of Loki and the way his face works, the way he moves, it’s like the whole voice just came together. There’s one particular expression in issue #2, which is the perfect Loki expression so far: when he’s in the vault and he’s just changed from female Loki and he’s got that look on his face, and I think the line I gave him was “maybe I’m not the Loki you knew.” It’s the perfect face; it’s cool and sexy and a little bit manly, a little bit not–a little bit of everything.

Loki is handsome, but he’s also very pretty…

AE: He can be both.

LG: I tried not to make him pretty to the point of becoming fey and unappealing.

AE: You want him to appeal on more than one level.

LG: I still want him to have an edge, because that’s what’s so good about Loki: it’s the fact that you never know. And even when you think you can see what he’s really doing, if he’s showing you what his motives are, then those aren’t really his motives. There’s another one beyond that. So that’s something that’s really good fun when you’re drawing him–not to push it too much with one expression, but to hold something back or put a little crease here just to take the edge off. And obviously with this Marvel Method, I don’t know what words Al’s putting in their mouths at the end; that comes out afterwards.

AE: Yeah, you don’t actually see it until it hits print.

You’ve mentioned the Marvel Method a couple of times; can you clarify exactly what that entails?

AE: Normally I send a plot with all the plot descriptors and stuff to an editor, they’ll approve it, I’ll do the script, and the script will go to the artist. With the Marvel Method, I send the plot to the editor who then approves it, and after a bit of tinkering the plot then goes to Lee.

LG: It’s not just a paragraph, though. I can break down a page by just looking at your writing style.

AE: It’s a trick I picked up from something Matt Fraction said, where he kind of does one paragraph per panel. I do it quite similarly.

LG: And it’s very clear to me. There’s no sense of, “what am I drawing here?”

AE: I look at what I’ve written and think, How many panels does that suggest? Five is about the maximum. Some of the pages turn out quite crammed, but in a good way.

LG: That’s the good thing about it. Sometimes you get scripts where the writer won’t match your natural beats or how you would lay the page out, so this method is really good because I can pace it to what Al’s written.

AE: With a full script, there’s a lot of–“you might want to take it from this angle.”

LG: Yeah, it can get quite dry; it can sort of suck any creativity out of it.

AE: Whereas I can rely on you to bring spontaneity. And then the art comes back to me and I can decide what people are saying. It’s almost like lip-reading.

LG: But the Marvel Method isn’t just a loose layout. The beats are all there and the comedy’s all there.

AE: A lot of the time I put dialogue in at the plot level, like if there’s particular dialogue–it’ll kind of turn into a screenplay in places. And then the art comes back and I’ll just copy and paste the dialogue in and not change any of it. Sometimes I’ll take a look at the original dialogue–I’ll take a page and a half and think, I can think of something better.

LG: Well, issue #1 read like a new comic to me in lots of respects. Everything happened as it happened, but the dialogue was almost completely fresh, which was great because it takes it a little bit away from me when I read it and I can appreciate it as someone else is reading it a bit more.

AE: I get PDFs so I can have a final look at it, although usually by the time you get the PDF it’s too late for any changes unless it’s a real emergency. I think those PDFs are quite jealously guarded, for obvious reasons. I don’t think everyone who’s worked on a book gets them. To be honest, I think I get the PDFs so I can read everyone else’s work, and then I can write “Black Widow! You’ve arrived!” and I won’t get a note saying, “you do realize that Black Widow has been transformed into a fish for the next year as part of the Fishpocalypse crossover.”

LG: You’re giving away spoilers now…

Al , most of your work up to now has been for the British press, such as 2000AD. Is Loki: Agent of Asgard your first project for a US publisher?

AE: No, I’ve worked with Dynamite Entertainment. I’d been working on British stuff for about 10 years at that point. I didn’t imagine I’d end up working for the American publishers, but Dynamite basically said, “we like your stuff, and Garth Ennis is wrapping up Jennifer Blood, and we’d like to continue it. Do you want to do that?” So I did, I think, 18 issues of Jennifer Blood in the end. I was wrapping that up around the time that Marvel started knocking.

LG: And they’d seen that?

AE: No, they’d seen Zombo–I think Lauren Sankovitch saw Zombo and liked it. From there, she wanted me to do a couple of fill-ins for Kelly Sue Deconnick on the big Captain Marvel crossover, and I think there were a couple of Avengers Assemble tie-ins. I was just house-sitting. But they liked those couple of issues, and I got the Avengers and then Loki.

Same question for you, Lee, except you entered the US market earlier…

LG: Yeah, I worked on an indie comic called Dark Mists, for what was called AB Comics at the time, but is now Markosia. And then I sent some of that stuff to 2000AD. At the time I was a concept artist for games companies, and I’d been asked to pitch–they wanted something in quite a Mignola style. I sent some of the art I’d done for that to Matt Smith at 2000AD, and he really liked it, especially that approach. He said, “I’ve got a one-page Future Shock short if you want to do it, written by this Al Ewing chap.” That was the first proper work I did for a major publisher, with Al’s script. So my first work was with him, really.

AE: Yeah, it was quite solid. That was probably the most complex of them. Some of the gags were quite simple; I think the best one was Earth being asked to take part in a kind of cosmic contest between alien worlds, and it turns out that it’s a giant pinball machine and Earth is the ball. And then I think Lee’s was kind of unnecessarily complicated. I gave him about seven panels.

LG: For one page, that was pretty hard. It was a tough script–and I’d never really done comics before that except for Dark Mists. So from that I went on to do more 2000AD. I did some Judge Dredd and worked with Si Spurrier as well on “London Falling,” and then I drew some really old dude who was some sort of aging millionaire type, and Wildstorm had seen it, and they were looking for someone who could draw old fellas for The Highwayman, which was about these guys who were transporters. It was set slightly in the future, and they had to get this weapon of mass destruction to this girl across state, and they had a big old Shelby Mustang, and they were way past their best. It was great. And then I did a DC/Wildstorm crossover, and at DC I started doing the Batman stuff, so I kind of went in that way. I grew up with American comics. My brother collected them; my sister collected them. The first time I saw the John Buscema Avengers covers–that’s how I view comics. To go to work for them is the dream, because that was the stuff I worshiped as a kid.

Are either of you ever going to go back to British comics?

AE: I still write for them. I’m working on a Judge Dredd at the moment for the Judge Dredd Megazine.

LG: Which I did some covers for, for 2000AD and the Megazine last year–

AE: And I’ve got to plan out the next series of Zombo, and I’m doing other work for Rebellion. Right now all my time has been taken up by American work apart from this one Judge Dredd story, and it’s a monthly story so I get to work at quite a slow pace. But I’d like to keep my foothold at 2000AD.

LG: I think there is a real loyalty to 2000AD.

AE: There’s a massive loyalty. I like Marvel; I’ll work with them as long as they’ll have me–

LG: Yeah, they’re absolutely amazing–

AE:–they pay very well; they’re nice people. But with 2000AD, it’s that kind of thing where they brought us into the world.

It seems like 2000AD is really a point of pride for British comics fans. You don’t get that in America, which dominates the comics industry so much, whereas you do get a lot of emphasis on the fact that 2000AD is made by British creators and done in Britain.

AE: I’ll tell you what that is. Imagine all American comics slowly died out one by one and all that was left was Avengers World. And there was an anthology that had Captain America in it, and Thor, and Spider-man, and it just came out once a month. And then for ages and ages and ages it just hangs on and hangs on. It’s kind of like Doctor Who–it just reached the point where it’s not going to die anymore. It’s so precious to us. I mean, it’s the flag we rally around. It’s almost like what we comics people have instead of the Queen.

LG: Comics in general are seen in the UK as nothing special, but I think it’s changing.

AE: Kids don’t read comics anymore in Britain, they really don’t.

LG: When I say what I do, people go, “oh, you do the cartooning?” “Not really, but…” But in America, if you say you do comics, they know exactly what you do. And across Europe, they know exactly what you mean; in Japan they know exactly what you mean.

AE: Britain doesn’t really–well, it’s coming back to life. The Dandy died, and I think that was the last one to die because the Beano’s still going. But that’s for little kids. The Phoenix is still there. That was subscription-only for a little while, but now it’s in shops.

LG: All British comics seem to have to include a toy on every cover. They can’t sell themselves on the fact that they’re comics.

AE: Except for the Phoenix.

LG: Obviously 2000AD doesn’t do it [either]. They did do it when they first started.

AE: Viz doesn’t do it.

LG: Oh yeah, Viz.

AE: Can’t forget Viz. Viz is the other British comic, the one we all forget because it’s so ingrained. It’s almost not a comic because it’s so ingrained in British life. It’s like Private Eye. It’s reached magazine status, but it’s still a comic.

With publications like Viz and 2000AD, you have adult readers who’ve grown up reading them as children, whereas I doubt there are a lot of adults buying the Beano for themselves.

LG: Yeah, you might introduce it to your children, but…

AE: A lot of people were trying to get me to read the Dandy. It had Jamie Smart working on it, and it had some of the real powerhouses of the British cartooning scene. And there was a period where, about 10 or 12 years ago, I was looking at issues of the Dandy and thinking, God, this is just dreck. Then only about 2 or 3 years ago, I was looking at issues and thinking, this is fantastic; this is wonderful; this is like Fantagraphics, almost–a kind of kids’ Fantagraphics. It was the most beautiful, wonderful stuff, but I couldn’t get past that societal pressure.

LG: But I know you’d sit and read Spider-man with pride.

AE: It’s very weird, that, how I couldn’t break through it to read the Dandy regularly.

LG: But you used to always hear of dads back in the day reading the Dandy or the Beano, because they remembered it from their childhood. It’s been going for–I don’t know how long, but ages and ages.

AE: It’s definitely my fault that I didn’t read the Dandy, and not the Dandy’s fault.

LG: I used to read that, and Topper.

AE: And Buster. I read the Buster comic.

LG: And what was the other one? Beezer. It was like a broadsheet newspaper.

AE: You might be noticing a trend.

LG: It’s funny; I heard Al interviewed on the Marvel podcast, and all his touchstones were the same as mine, really, and the key points–the specific books and specific arcs were the same as well.

AE: Like Secret Wars. That was a big thing in Britain. There was a UK version that split it up into a weekly.

LG: They did one issue of Secret Wars and they split it up into four weekly issues.

AE: And they did John Byrne’s Alpha Flight.

LG: They had this character called The Secret Artist. He would draw these amazing caricatures, and you would only see shadows of him. You couldn’t ever quite see him; you would have to guess what he looked like. And I sent one [guess] in, and it was printed. And I could hear Al talking about it on this podcast, and I was thinking, that’s the first thing I ever had printed!

AE: That was with Ron and Don from Islington, these two possibly fictional, possibly not, Marvel UK staffers. And the editor–

LG:–Who was Jim Shooter. They’d just take the piss out of Jim Shooter!

AE: His name was Big Jim or something like that, and it’d be like, “right, there’s only one course of action. I have to take this gun from my desk drawer–” and the staff would be going, “no, no”–“and shoot myself!” And they were like, “oh, yourself. That’s all right.”

LG: It went on for so long as well, because they were breaking each issue into four parts, that by the time it finished Secret Wars 2 was out, and that carried on. But we collected that avidly.

AE: And that was our introduction to Marvel Comics. I mean, for a whole week I thought Colossus had, like, psychic powers–

LG: Really?

AE: Yeah, because he was clutching his head like that when Spider-man webbed it up, and I thought, “oh, he’s using his brain power.”

LG: I collected the American comics, but we couldn’t get the miniseries.

AE: I knew who Spider-man was. That was it. That first issue of Secret Wars, where it’s literally, “We’re in space! Quick! Let’s stand in a line and say our names!”, and then all the villains do the same thing–I mock it now, but when you’re a kid, thank God for that.

I wish they’d done that when I started reading comics, because by then it was the 90s and there were so many of them that it was so hard to keep track. We had the X-Men cartoon to help us and that was it.

LG: It was great at the time, wasn’t it? We used to get that on a Saturday morning–I mean, not you and I, but yeah, on Saturday morning I’d crawl down, no matter how hung over, to pop the X-Men cartoon on. Me and my mates, all sitting there feeling rough, watching the opening sequence…

AE: I did love that new Avengers cartoon. Not the new new one, the one just gone–Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. That was fantastic.

LG: “The woooorld’s about to break…”

AE: “We’re the Avengeeeeeeerrrrrrrrs!” And on that note…

My next interview is with one of the creators mentioned by “Admirable” Al Ewing and “Lovely” Lee Garbett (I asked if they wanted cool Marvel-style nicknames for this). In the meantime, enjoy Al and Lee’s moving rendition of the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes theme song.

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Kelly Kanayama

Kelly Kanayama

Staff Writer Kelly was born and raised in Honolulu but now lives in Scotland. She has has an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing, and is currently pursuing a PhD (look! There it goes!) on transatlantic narratives in contemporary comics. As a half-Japanese, half-Filipina woman, she believes that white vinegar is the answer to most of life's problems.