Bryant Dillon, Fanbase Press President: For those who may be unfamiliar, what can you tell us about the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibition?
Ann Nocenti: Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes takes place as Marvel celebrates 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and ahead of Marvel’s 80th anniversary in 2019. The exhibit features more than 300 original artifacts, including some of Marvel's most iconic and sought-after pages, artwork, costumes, set pieces, and props from comics, films, and TV shows like Captain America, The Avengers, Jessica Jones, Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange. Many of these artifacts have never-before been seen by the public.
Marvel has been very courageous in addressing real-world problems. When you go through the exhibit you’ll see – Captain America was created before the U.S. went into the war. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon wanted to create a Captain America that went to Germany and punched Hitler, and they did that before America went into the war. You can look at gender, race, and characters that have had problems with alcohol. When I wrote Daredevil, I did animal rights stories; the comics were very brave in addressing current events. In the exhibit, there’s a newsstand where you can see big moments in American history and how they were addressed in the comics.
BD: What made the Museum of Pop Culture the perfect outlet for the exhibition?
AN: The amazing thing about the museum is the way they embrace high-brow, middle-brow, and low-brow pop culture. You can go in and see an exhibit about film or Jimi Hendrix or Nirvana or Star Wars or Jim Henson’s work. I love the horror exhibit they have now, where you can watch clips of great directors like Hitchcock and it creates an immersive world of horror film, then you can walk into the Hendrix room and look at his passport and his notebook, and the exhibit is full of reverence for one of the greatest guitarists ever. MoPOP has an expansive view of what pop culture is. That’s one of the things that excited me about the museum.
BD: Given that you've written, edited, and even created characters such as Typhoid Mary for Marvel comics, in what ways did your creative and professional background assist you in serving as EP of the exhibit?
AN: Because I make comics, I’m obsessed with storytelling and how to tell a good story. How do you create a good character, how do you create good panels, and what should be in them? My contribution was to make sure we had enough of that stuff in the exhibit. We have beautiful comic book covers, but the meat of comics is the interior, the storytelling. We have that in the exhibit, where you can see how a story is broken down. I’m not a historian; the curators know their comics backwards and forwards over 80 years, and I know the characters I edited, created, or wrote.
BD: With Marvel’s 80-year history, what was the process of deciding which pieces of its history would be included?
AN: Our original meeting was four or five years ago, and we scribbled out on a map that there would be a room for cosmic stuff like Doctor Strange and the supernaturals, there would be a room for the Avengers, etc. Early on, we knew rather than doing a linear history, we wanted to have the exhibit be group based: The Avengers all together, street heroes like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage together in a graffitied hallway. That was handed over to Ben Saunders, the chief curator of the exhibit, who spent months developing this idea and fine tuning it. He was the one who decided, “Okay, we gotta have this jacket, we gotta have Doctor Strange’s cape, we need that Library of Congress page where Spider-Man first shoots his web.” Ben is the guy who chose the pieces, and he had a crew of co-curators he worked with on that.
BD: Can you give our readers a few examples of specific items or elements you were the most excited to include in this exhibition?
AN: Because I was making comics at Marvel in the '80s, before the internet and digital art, we had artists coming in and dropping off their work. Things from the '80s like Frank Miller’s Daredevil pages, BIll Sienkiewicz’s New Mutants covers - I was in the office when those first came in! I commissioned that New Mutants art! I edited that book. Having flashbacks to this incredible time of my life, pre-internet, when Steve Ditko would come into the office to just talk. All the creators of the comics were there visiting the offices and dropping off pages. So, the '80s stuff is the most exciting to me. Then, the show stoppers, like Doctor Strange’s infinity room is a complete joy to walk through. We also have something exciting that will be added to the exhibit, and I think will be a huge draw for women and girls.
BD: The exhibit states that it showcases the connection between Marvel characters like Black Panther, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange and their impact on "real-world issues like gender, race, and mental illness." How do you feel that the exhibit accomplishes this demonstration, and what kind of behind-the-scenes research did this require?
AN: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Black Panther, because they wanted some diversity. They wanted a powerful black character. For years, writer Don McGregor wrote stories where Black Panther addressed things like racism. If you go to these big interactive screens in the exhibit, you can go deep into the history of all that Black Panther fought for and against. The new Black Panther is a whole game changer. He comes from Wakanda with this idea of, what if black people evolved without the interference of white people? It’s this whole amazing empowerment thing. With each character, you can look at the 80-year history of Marvel; there’s a piece that’s in the street hero section that’s the first interracial kiss, one of those strong moments of diversity. Chris Claremont was the master of making sure there was diversity and strong female characters. The X-Men’s rise in popularity through the '80s was, in part, due to the emphasis on diversity and strong female characters. You can see all of the powerful Iron Man suits, but you can also see this seminal story that Denny O’Neil wrote when Iron Man was having trouble with alcoholism. There are touchstones that address the different problems in society that Marvel was very brave in addressing.
BD: Do you believe that modern-day mythology, like Marvel comic books and the MCU, can have a positive impact on the real-world issues affecting our world? What obligations do you feel the caretakers (whether Marvel creators or the company itself) of these iconic heroes have in regards to honoring or upholding the values they represent?
AN: The movies and comics are designed to follow the hero’s journey. The hero has to give up his girlfriend, has to wreck his job, has to constantly get up again and again and again and go into the darkness and come out. When you see a superhero movie and you see someone giving up everything in order to keep fighting, I think Black Panther is empowering in that way. It’s a powerful narrative with impact going back to early mythology.
A good character, you can stretch like a rubber band and then they snap back into place. I saw Infinity War and Spider-Man is fighting Thanos. Spider-Man shouldn’t be able to fight Thanos; Thanos is way out of his league. I pitched a story in the '80s and said I want Spider-Man to fight Thanos and they let me do it. If you construct it carefully enough, you can take your character someplace they wouldn’t normally go and if the character is strong, they’ll snap back into place. You have many iterations of these characters - they go dark, change gender - but you can’t violate the core of the character. You can stretch them as far as you want, and they’ll snap back. Constant experimentation with the characters is an incredibly fun thing because they can’t stay static, but they can’t change so much that they violate who they are.
BD: What do you hope that attendees will take away their time at the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibition?
AN: At the gala opening party, I was asking people what they thought of the exhibit, and answers were so different! It surprised me. There’s technology where they did miniature Ant-Man on a desktop and one little kid could have watched tiny Ant-Man all night. There were people that were amazed that Ben Saunders managed to get so many first appearances: the first appearances of Falcon, Submariner, Spider-Man. A deep fan will walk away with that as their favorite moment, and someone else will take an awesome photo in the Doctor Strange infinity room and that will be their favorite thing. What I loved was the wide range of what profoundly affected people.