Longtime comics writer and editor Ann Nocenti had her moment in the spotlight Saturday night at WonderCon. DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee, who's been involved with Nocenti's recent return to comics writing at DC, moderated a panel that covered Nocenti's full career, starting with her time as an editor and writer at Marvel.
"Back in the day, Marvel Comics was so much fun. We would smoke and drink and have guns in the office," she laughed.
Lee asked Nocenti about her labeling herself "DC's token female writer," saying that he considered her a veteran in the field, going back to when she co-created Longshot while recruiting Art Adams to Marvel.
"I was just opening up a portfolio, and there was the Beast washing dishes," she said of the find. "When you're an editor for a long time, you just see the same splash pages over and over. We need to see you tell a story...in that one panel of Beast washing dishes, he established everything about the X-Men's characters."
Nocenti said that she was happy to be back in the comics community, because when she started in the field, the only women at the conventions were creators' wives and girlfriends. But Lee recalled that there were many women who worked in the Marvel offices during her '80s tenure. Nocenti shared her memories of some of the colorful characters she shared the space with. "Mark Gruenwald was the soul of Marvel Comics. Larry Hama was the gun guy...there was Peter Sanderson who was a living archive [of the company]."
"I think having a physical bullpen made the place very creative," she added. "You'd have Bill Sienkiewicz showing off his pages to Walt Simonson...Steve Ditko used to sit in my office! He pitched a Daredevil story that we did. He wanted lots of shots of characters walking around with packages filled with bombs. It had very a Communist, espionage, pre-terrorism feel to it."
Talking about her youth, Nocenti said she was never allowed to read comics. She became a fine artist and replied to an advertisement for a job at Marvel published in the Village Voice. When she called about the job, the receptionist would not tell her who the company was for shame of the comics form. "When she said that, I thought 'Okay, I can write porn,'" the writer recalled.
Luckily, the writer learned quickly about comics during her time as an assistant to various Marvel staffers. "My first Editor-in-Chief was Jim Shooter, and even though he eventually was insane, he had a great sense for storytelling," she said. Today at DC, she says that some of those lessons are still preached such as the "Can't/Must" moment that puts a character in the story into internal conflict and the idea that the whole issue should drive its themes toward the final panel reveal. She also recalled learning about comics art from Al Milgrom, who would give critiques in the office based around storytelling principles and character-revealing moments.
Her final real mentor at Marvel was Louise Simonson. "She was a huge influence on me. We used to say she had the power to cloud men's minds. An artist would come in with their work, and she'd be ripping it to shreds with such a cheerful happy smile that they'd just go 'Yeah, yeah!'...she got people to redraw stuff and rewrite stuff because she was a terrific editor."
Eventually, Nocenti became a full editor and ended up hiring on new artists like Marc Silvestri. "The thing that was amazing to me about Marc Silvestri is that Chris [Claremont] would call for 'And then all the X-Men fly there and are all lined up,'" she said, explaining that team books with so many characters were the toughest challenge for most artists. "Marc Silvestri just made it all beautiful. I don't know how he did that...you're talking about eight-panel pages with lots of talking."
Nocenti and Simonson started the era of events at Marvel with stories like "The Mutant Massacre."
"We were all friends," she said. "We went out drinking at night. We went for pizza. We went to 42nd Street to see horror movies. So you'd have these really exciting creative meetings where everybody would want to play at the same party."
At the time, editors at Marvel also wrote many titles, which she supported because she felt writing made them better editors. "If you trust your editorial staff, everything runs smoothly. And if you've been an editor, you know not to takes things personally [as a writer]," Nocenti said, adding that editors also have to have sympathy for the isolated life of a freelancer. "I've done every single job [on the production of a comic]...if you know the whole range of skills and what everybody's going through, you're going to be a better editor."
Lee sprung a surprise on Nocenti, reminding her that they'd once worked together. It was a back-up tale in "Classic X-Men" #39, and Lee pulled out the book to show her. "What the hell? Wow, that's great!" she said.
Nocenti then recalled the time she met Marvel corporate raider Ron Perlman when he bought the company in the '90s. Perlman wanted to meet her because her comics were the company's best-sellers. But soon after, "He just gutted Marvel...and at the time, there was a bellwether ringing in my head. Dorothy Parker has this one line 'Don't put all your eggs in one bastard.'"
Taking that advice, Nocenti left comics to work in magazine publishing, journalism and filmmaking. She did everything from making movies with Justin Long to editing "Prison Life" magazine, which published the work of various convicts. "When I was recently writing this story where Catwoman is in Arkham, and the stuff that I remembered of what it's like to be in a prison – because I also worked in a place like Arkham – it was always something small that drove the prisoners mad. It was always something like a drip."
Nocenti eventually took over "High Times" magazine and began writing more about Leftist culture. Lee credited that experience with how Nocenti weaves progressive themes and ideas into comics like "Green Arrow." The writer recalled a trip to China where she was struck by the firewall the Chinese government set up to watch what all people do online.
"I had to sign up for a site in the States called HideMyAss.com so you can get past the firewall, and everywhere I went people would ask me to see Facebook because they can't get on it," she said. That experience led to a story where she tried to take everything away from Green Arrow by sending him to China and having him lose the wealth in his tech company, but she ended up leaving the book because she couldn't quite find a personal connection to Oliver Queen.
Since then, the writer has found a better fit for her ideas on "Catwoman" and "Katana." In the latter, she's been building up a weapons clan built around the use of katana swords. Meanwhile, her "Green Arrow" successor Jeff Lemire has introduced a complimentary arrow-based weapons clan into his book, and soon the two series will start to have threads connect up between them.
Lee asked about Nocenti's classic Typhoid Mary serial in "Daredevil," and the writer said that at the time, she was so new to comics that she didn't think of the story or the book in terms of following the great Frank Miller. She just tried to write a simple story with emotional impact, saying comics scripting was akin to poetry in that sense.
The writer then opened up her computer to show off new Rafa Sandoval pages from Catwoman's trip to Arkham. "You can see the whole history of Arkham there. You can see the old torture devices and when we get into pill therapy," she said. When it came to what villains she could use, "All the big guys were busy. So Rickey Purdin, who works in Editorial, sent me a list of names of people who could be there, and I saw this dude who was in a few panels of a Batman story in the '60s, and he's called Zebraman. Zebraman is such a terrible name, but we have Batman and Spider-Man, so I don't know. Zebraman looks like a weird Ditko character, so I had Catwoman fight him, and I'm sure it's just going to rocket the sale," she said, as she and Lee had a good laugh about that last statement.
Coming soon to "Katana" will be a New 52 version of the Creeper. "We're giving him a really interesting new origin. Dan [DiDio] killed [alter ego] Jack Ryder...so I have the Creeper very early in this book dive into Jack Ryder's body. So now the two guys – the Creeper and Jack Ryder – don't know about each other...it's like a guy who drinks too much and doesn't know why he woke up in this room."
Overall, since Nocenti practices martial arts herself, she tries to get the action scenes and martial arts style in "Katana" as close to reality as possible. But she also draws a lot of inspiration from classic kung fu movies.
Asked by an audience member whether she thinks that the comics medium has a responsibility to deal with social issues, she said, "No, I don't. I think that comics are entertainment. They're fun. They're escapism." She related that when she went to Haiti as a filmmaker, she realized people didn't want to see stories that were trying too hard to be more than entertaining.