Is It Medicine, Is it Religion, or Is It Both? An Interview with Comic Book Writer Al Ewing

Interview by A. David Lewis

Al Ewing

In this discussion with award-winning comic book author Al Ewing, comics theorist and graphic medicine researcher A. David

Lewis explores the growing idea that the comics medium may be drawing medicine and religion—bodily health and spiritual affairs—more closely towards each other via its superhero titles. From Ewing’s revolutionary work on The Immortal Hulk to his reinvention of Dr. Jane Foster from cancer (and superhero) survivor to new Asgardian demigod, a zeitgeist may be emerging where audiences are looking for fewer boundaries in the powers that might yet save them.

David Lewis: Your remarkable work on The Immortal Hulk has reoriented the character and his entire mythos back to something of its latent horror roots at Marvel Comics. Yet, you haven’t discarded the super-science—the conceit of gamma radiation empowering Bruce Banner and several other cast members over the years. As a writer, how difficult (or how tempting) is it to weave the scientific into the supernatural?

Al Ewing: I think it’s probably more tempting when you don’t have a real-world science background. I did okay at it at school, but I was always better at the arts, and more interested in the poetic science. And, of course, Marvel-world science is NOT real science; the second you have someone do something that cannot scientifically work in the real world, for instance acquiring additional mass or creating energy, science goes completely out the window and what you have is a kind of “magic with a sensible face.” So there is no science here, just the supernatural behind a curtain.

ADL: And yet, readers don’t cry foul over this fictive manner of science. In fact, they seem more willing to allow this super-science to blur with magic and the mythic of late rather than demand a distinction between them. In some ways, this hybridization of science with the transcendent can also be found in your work on The Ultimates (2015). There, however, the bleeding edge of human science connects with something more cosmic than strictly supernatural. What dictated that direction for you? Was it requested by your editors, was it the pitch for the series, or was it something you had been cultivating for some time?

AE: It wasn’t requested by the editors – the only brief for that book was big, cosmic stuff in a very general sense. I think I was probably taking a cue from [Jim] Starlin, [Jack] Kirby, [Ann] Nocenti and other creators who’d worked in similar territory in terms of both connecting these big cosmic characters to personal concerns, but also in terms of addressing them through a poetic lens. I think if you have a character like the world-devouring Galactus, who’s supposed to be godlike and unknowable to a degree, you have to keep a poetic distance and deal in metaphors to an extent, or you turn him into a big shouty man who’s very tough…but is he as tough as Thor??? And that’s just not interesting. So, I guess it’s another case of science and the transcendental and cosmic all being one thing inside a superhero universe.

ADL: In addition to The Immortal Hulk, you’re also writing Valkyrie for Marvel, the latest adventures of former Thor and former Thor romance Dr. Jane Foster. Now, she is taking up the role of the Nordic keeper of the heroic dead, the Valkyrie, even as she maintains her work in medicine. First, I want to ask how or where her backstory of surviving cancer might factor in; along with her medical duties, she now has the responsibility of currying souls to Valhalla, yet all superheroes have had some brushes with death, even recovering from it (I wrote a whole book on this subject back in 2014). Does her history with cancer give her a special perspective?

AE: I think it has to. I feel like if you’ve got something as huge as that in her recent past – not to mention that she lost her husband and child in a random accident some years ago—you can’t not include it when it’s a comic about death. And that it’s Valkyrie, out of all the Marvel characters, means it has to be about death. That’s something forced on me not by editorial nor by my co-creators, but by the material itself.

ADL: That brings me to my second question concerning Jane. It is notable that a number of Marvel titles, two of which you write, have a pronounced overlap between the mystical and the scientific. Of course, as you noted, these have never been quite separate in the modern superhero genre, I admit. But there’s Dr. Strange: Surgeon Supreme where our leading sorcerer finally has the chance to return to medicine, there’s The Magnificent Ms. Marvel where the lead character’s Muslim family prays for her father’s otherwordly recovery at the hospital, and there’s both your Hulk and Valkyrie, characters of science and medicine operating in demonic/transcendental spheres, respectively. Was there been any discussion between you, Mark Waid, and Saladin Ahmed, the other titles’ authors?

AE: Not really. The only discussion between us has been on matters of continuity—Surgeon Supreme and Valkyrie share a hospital, for example, so Mark’s included the hospital administrator we came up with, and when I had Dr Strange guest-star, I checked in with him about the state of Strange’s hands. I think we’ve all got very different takes on how science and magic relate, and they all come from deeply personal places.

ADL: If this isn’t a concerted effort and, instead, coming from distinct imaginations, how might you account for the sudden medical backdrop? Is there a particular appetite right now for this overlap? Do we dare to call it a zeitgeist? As Dr. Strange says, “…mixing magic and medicine is dangerous.”

AE: It might be that there’s a zeitgeist—that as access to healthcare becomes more under threat on both sides of the pond, as it will under right-wing governments, we self-employed creatives are thinking more about illness and the people who we trust to save us from it. I’m more inclined to believe it’s coincidence, though. Synchronicity is a huge part of this job to me – in a shared universe built by so many hands, odd connections will always spark, and usually that makes for a story.

ADL: I’m reminded of your terrific 2015 Captain Britain and the Mighty Defenders mini-series that took place on the tattered reality of of Battleworld. That is, most of the universe had been shredded by a collapsing multiverse, and only pieces of what existed before remained. It was the Fantastic Four villain Dr. Droom managing to hold this slice of reality together with cosmic powers he had purloined. Even there, Faiza Hussein (aka Captain Britatin) maintains her faith that Doom is not actual a deity, and she rallies the heroes against their galactically empowered nemeses. Perhaps this is a dichotomy you like engaging?

AE: Faiza’s a special case, in that she represents Britain on a mystical level, so her being an NHS Doctor is a big part of my writing for her. Valkyrie and Stephen Strange might be healers, but their healing could leave patients broken by debt, simply because of the system they operate in—Faiza is a purer example, at least for now.

ADL: “At least for now” leaves me wanting more of her in upcoming titles, especially in your hands. But, staying on topic, I wanted to pose these final questions to you, namely whether this engagement, the overlap of the medical and the spiritual, is something you would like to be seen taken further? Or is it one readily inherent in narrative or in the genre that is more pronounced at the moment? Numerous superheroes—from various publishers—are steeped in science, from Batman to the Flash to the original Thor, and so on. In 2020 and beyond, what do you think we gain from medicine and faith mixed together?

AE: I think for my part medicine and faith is part of a larger conversation between the worldly and the transcendental, or science and magic, or maybe just pulse-pounding action and poetic metaphor. So, I can’t see myself getting back into the medical context unless I write another hero who exists in that world—which I might. Faith, and the struggle with faith, is something much more personal to me, so I think that side of the equation is something I’ll come back to again and again.

 

Both Valkyrie and The Immortal Hulk are published monthly by Marvel Comics, as are Dr. Strange: Surgeon Supreme and The Magnificent Ms. Marvel. Collected volumes of Valkyrie and The Immortal Hulk are also available through all major booksellers. Interested readers can follow Ewing’s enigmatic progress through the Hulk’s new era via his Tumblr workblog.

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