On March 30th, WonderCon attendees got treated to a bonus feature in a Spotlight panel with Ann Nocenti, Jim Lee acting as her interviewer. The two had so much shared history that they reminisced about the “good old days” at Marvel as well as plunging into the current artwork that most impresses them on their work for DC. The panel opened with a tone-setting description from Nocenti of her time as a Marvel writer and editor, “back in the day when Marvel Comics was so much fun”, when you could “smoke and drink and have guns in the office”. Lee confirmed that the gun in the office was an observable phenomenon, and Nocenti added by way of explanation that guns were needed for “reference”.
Lee started off by introducing Nocenti as the “self proclaimed female token writer at DC” and asked her how her current state came to be, considering that in her Marvel days there were several women on staff. Nocenti commented that though there were women at Marvel, she recalled that there were never any women at comic cons back then, unlike the demographic at WonderCon. “It must have been rough on you guys”, she teased Lee. Some of her workmates at Marvel, she explained, were Mark Gruenwald, “the soul of Marvel Comics”, Larry Hama, who was known for “pounding, crazy music” in his office, and Peter Sanderson, a “living archive” of all things Marvel.
Nocenti obviously had fond memories of the bullpen days at Marvel, stating, “The physical bullpen made the place creative”. She had a steep learning curve upon arriving at Marvel with a fine arts background, and had a lot to learn under her first editor Jim Shooter, someone who she described as “having a beautiful sense of story” and who ingrained in her the need for a “can’t/must” moment of conflict for a hero. The maxim still holds true for Nocenti, she confirmed. “He’s right”, Lee said, “Conflict is one of the key things in drama”. “Louise Simonson also had a huge influence on me”, Nocenti added, a woman who had the “power to cloud men’s minds” according to legend, by infusing even her most severe criticisms with a “cheerful attitude”.
Nocenti shared some of the lessons she learned from editing at Marvel with the audience, including the need for the editor present a fan’s perspective to the writer or artist: “A good editor has to understand that a writer is working so hard, and is so over worked, that they need ideas thrown at them from a fan’s perspective”. But from the editor’s perspective, she observed, it often leads to bizarre conversations and often caused her to ask herself “Did I just say that?” when generating “wacky” ideas with writers. Nocenti particularly enjoyed crossover development in the bullpen, and feels that she wasn’t alone in that enthusiasm, sharing “really exciting creative meetings” where “everyone would want to play at the same party”. Her advice to editors is to “learn everything”, like a “captain knows how to run a ship”, and she feels that this approach was encouraged at Marvel, but is less common today. This enables an editor to “know what everyone’s going through”.
Lee presented Nocenti with a copy of a comic they had once collaborated on together, though she confessed she didn’t recall the book, X-Men #39. After flipping through it and chatting together, Nocenti declared, “This looks like a great story. I want to buy this and read this!”, to the audience’s amusement. Lee’s questions, however, led Nocenti into darker recollections, about the “mini implosion” period at Marvel that led to her departure. Ron Perlman, she narrated, came into her office one day, wanting to meet her, and was fairly charming, but the “next thing we knew, he had gutted Marvel” financially. It was a “very traumatic” experience for “old timers”, she commented, and brought to her attention a famous quote from Dorothy Parker: “Don’t put all your eggs in one bastard”. After leaving Marvel, Nocenti worked in journalism, teaching, and filmmaking, gaining a wealth of experience that she now finds useful for life back in comics.
Writing a story about Catwoman in Arkham Asylum, for instance, she said, is drawn from a combination of her experiences working “at a place like Arkam” in her youth, and also from later editing Prison Life Magazine, which contained the work of prisoners. She observed a psychological feature that she’s incorporated into comics, the fact that it’s often “one small thing” that drives people crazy, not necessarily the bigger issues in life. Her experiences as a journalist and activist also led Nocenti to visit China, and some of her observations there led directly to her recent writing on GREEN ARROW, particularly noticing the pervasive “firewalls” on internet access in China and the sense of surveillance. Though she enjoyed working on GREEN ARROW, Nocenti explained that she “just couldn’t find her connection” to the character and was happy to move on to writing CATWOMAN, a character who she felt immediately in sync with. Her work on KATANA, too, keeps her imagination on its toes, drawing on the “idea of ancient clans, where the rich hire Samurais and ninjas are like spies”.
Lee and Nocenti spent the remainder of the panel showing and discussing process artwork and completed panels from upcoming CATWOMAN and KATANA stories, and enthusing over their finer features. The images included the set up for what Nocenti described as a “big gang war” for Catwoman and scenes in Arkham with “old torture devices”. Nocenti’s work on KATANA is based on her own obsession with martial arts and Kurasawa and martial arts films. “All comic book writers are doing really is unloading their personal obsessions on the page”, she confessed. This leads the writer to worry that readers might not find it interesting, she said, but in the case of Katana, Nocenti’s obsessions have translated to plenty of interest from fans. Nocenti regularly practises karate and judo around the house to see how Katana would move and act, and makes things even more “realistic” through watching martial arts films. It’s clear that her adaptable nature, shown throughout her varied career paths, is still going strong, and that her personal enthusiasm for her projects is still one of Nocenti’s most defining features.
Photo Credits: All photos in this article were taken by semi-professional photographer and pop culture scholar Michele Brittany. She’s an avid photographer of pop culture events. You can learn more about her photography and pop culture scholarship here.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.