The Marvel Life: George R. R. Martin

The Marvel Life: George R. R. Martin

By Ryan Penagos
George R. R. Martin images provided by

George R. R. Martin's famed "A Song of Ice and Fire" series of novels have captivated readers since "A Game of Thrones" was first published in 1996. But the series--and Martin, himself--has exploded in popularity in the last year thanks to HBO's wildly successful adaptation, "Game of Thrones."

As George R. R. Martin did more press in 2011 to promote both the show and the fifth book in the series, "A Dance With Dragons," one thing became apparent: Martin is a life-long Marvelite. From fan letters printed in classic Marvel comics to opinions on who'll win when the Avengers battle the X-Men, the author definitely has True Believer status. 

We chatted with George R. R. Martin about "Game of Thrones"--which begins its second season, April 1 at 9 p.m. on HBO--his favorite Marvel Super Heroes, Avengers Vs. X-Men, super hero movies and much more.

George R. R. Martin's letter printed in Avengers (1963) #12 This interview came together because a friend of mine--Coheed and Cambria singer Claudio Sanchez—had lost his power. He was digging through his boxes of old comic books and started reading an old issue of AVENGERS. I think it was AVENGERS #12, and looking at the letters pages,
 he saw a letter that you wrote in to the comic. He then tweeted it to me, and then I posted it up online and it got picked up by all these different websites and whatnot.

George R.R. Martin: Yeah, even John Hodgman asked me about it. I saw that! I think it’s super cool and our fans would go ballistic to know that you're a Marvel fan as well. And, personally, I’ve read all the books for the first time recently and I absolutely love them. They kinda broke my heart for a little while, but I think that’s the power of the series. It’s really great.

George R.R. Martin: [Laughing] So let's start with the letter that appears in AVENGERS #12. In it, you talk about Fantastic Four and Avengers. Do you remember much about writing that letter?

George R. R. Martin's letter printed in Fantastic Four (1961) #20

George R.R. Martin: Well, it was a long time ago. Yeah, we’re talking the early '60s here now. I have actually had a number of letters in the Marvel Comics of the day. The Avengers one, which I believe was about the Wonder Man introduction issue--John Hodgman reminded me of that--I haven’t looked at it in many years, But that was only one of them. I think the earliest one was in FANTASTIC FOUR #20 or something around there. And I had a couple others, too. I’m not sure of the exact count off-hand, but, you know, I was in high school at the time. So it was a long, long time ago. The early days of comics fandom. Did you write to more than just Marvel, or were you a total Marvel fan growing up?

George R.R. Martin: I wrote to a number of comic book companies of the time. [I wrote] to Julie Schwartz's comics at DC, I think mostly Justice League, but maybe also Green Lantern or The Atom or some of those things that Julie edited but he never printed any of my letters. Later in life I got to know Julie Schwartz pretty well, and we would always kid about that. “Julie, you never printed my letters. Stan and Jack printed my letters, you never did!” In those days, the late '50s, early '60s—Julie Schwartz gave away a free page of original art if he published one of your letters. That’s amazing.

George R.R. Martin: They didn’t return it to the artist in those days, they just kept it around and Julie just used it for prizes. So if you got a letter in Justice League or Flash or something like that, you got a page of Carmine Infantino art or Gil Kane’s Green Lantern or something like that. But I never got any of those. Stan and Jack printed my letters, so I had a number of those and I think I had a couple letters in Charlton comic columns, too. Blue Beetle and things like that. So you were kinda reading everything. Did you have a particular Marvel book or Marvel character that you were really into?

George R.R. Martin: Once Marvel started, I became a big Marvel guy mostly; although, I continued to read DC and, of course, I was always interested in what the other comics companies were doing. But mostly I became pretty fanatic with Marvel, as I think the tone of some of those letters [shows] if we read them today. I think my Fantastic Four letter—the first one that was printed—had the tenor of “Shakespeare move over, ‘cause Stan Lee has arrived.”

Fantastic Four (1961) #20 I think Stan would love that.

George R.R. Martin: Yeah, I’m sure he would. Although, I don’t think Stan has any idea of who I am. I’ve met Stan like six times. People introduce me, and he never seems to remember the previous five times that I’ve met him. On the other hand, Julie did. I always had a great relationship with Julie in the few years before he died. But, you know, I was then and remain a big fan of those early Marvel comics [by] Stan and Jack Kirby, of course, and Steve Ditko, and some of the other folks who were at Marvel in the early days did. They really redefined the comics genre.  Do you find yourself more of a creator-oriented comic book fan or more interested in characters or teams?

George R.R. Martin: Well, you know, it depends on whether you’re talking about 1962 or today. In 1962, I loved certain characters and I loved teams. I was a big fanatic for teams, you know. Justice League was my favorite DC comic and the FANTASTIC FOUR and AVENGERS were my favorite Marvel comics. Although, I love [AMAZING] SPIDER-MAN. I got all of ‘em. [AMAZING] SPIDER-MAN, IRON MAN, the whole thing. But the minute I got ‘em, I started writing letters suggesting that they be brought together into a team. In the early days of Marvel—this may seem an odd suggestion, but, you know, Marvel had the FANTASTIC FOUR, and then they started introducing all these other comics, all these other characters. Thor and Iron Man and Spider-Man and so a lot of the fans at that time, including myself, their first idea was, “Well, all these people should join the Fantastic Four.” It should be like the Fantastic Five and the Fantastic Ten. In other words, it should be the Justice League of Marvel, you know, where all the heroes are parts of it, and that was a cool idea, but instead they came up with the Avengers. And then, just to confuse things further, they introduced the X-Men. So, suddenly, Marvel had three teams, which was pretty revolutionary at the time because DC just had the one. Once Marvel established these multiple teams and you being a team-oriented guy, did you lean more towards one as they went on and on?

George R.R. Martin: Well, I always look at the Fantastic Four because that was really the first one that I fell in love with and The Thing was my favorite character. He was really a revolutionary character. There had never been anything like him in super hero comics before. But I had a lot of fun with The Avengers, too. And, once again, Stan did some revolutionary stuff with The Avengers. For one thing, the team kept changing, Now, after 50 years of it, it’s almost “Oh, the Avengers has a new lineup again” for the 474th time. But at the time it was happening, no one had ever done that before. The Justice League never changed its membership in those days, it just got bigger and bigger. They started out and then, at a certain time, they would admit, “oh, okay Green Arrow is now in, he’s joined” but nobody ever left. They just added people and got bigger. But the whole thing with The Avengers, they started out with the Hulk and then he quits in the second issue. Then they fish Captain America out of the drink and, you know, everybody quits a few issues later. And then suddenly you have all these villains coming in and forming a new Avengers. All this was amazing, revolutionary stuff at the time. It broke all the rules of comic writing of the day and I was engrossed and you wanted to know, hey, what would happen next.

Avengers (1963) #16 I’ve read some of the letters from then, particularly in reaction to the changing of the teams, and it seems like fans were completely outraged half the time, that you would change the members so much, which for me now it’s like “oh, yeah, okay, they changed.”

George R.R. Martin: Well, I think it's been overdone in subsequent decades. It would be nice if a team occasionally remained the same for, like, six months or something so some of the relationships could develop. But back at the time, it was very cool. Do you read presently or have you read in recent years?

George R.R. Martin: I read for many decades and I still pick up an occasional comic, but I don’t read it regularly the way I used to read it. It’s odd, but I’m not sure you wanna hear these critical thoughts. We sure like to keep it honest.

George R.R. Martin: Some of the very things that I loved back in the early '60s and late '60s and all that, I think, have taken over to the extent that they’ve made it…it’s gone too far. Continuity was something else that was revolutionary with the Lee and Kirby and Ditko books. The books of the '50s, before Marvel and all that, were largely episodic or circular. You would read a Superman or a Batman book or Justice League and they would have an adventure and then at the end of the book, the adventure would be over. And they would be pretty much exactly back to where they started. And then the next issue would pick up that way. So really you could read the issues in any order and any issue was an entry point. And Marvel really started—and DC followed—with the idea of multi-issue continuity. Something happened in one issue that really affected the character so the next issue, he began in a very different place. He broke up with his girlfriend.

The stuff that happened with Spider-Man, that was revolutionary stuff too. Superman was always with Lois Lane. He never dumped Lois and took up with a new hottie. And you pick up Spider-Man and you start reading and it’s “okay, the only girl in this is Liz Allen, okay” and suddenly she’s not important anymore. And it’s Betty Brant and then suddenly you got Gwen Stacy and you got Mary Jane and it’s all very interesting, especially to a kid like I was at the time. A high school kid, a college kid. Time passed in Marvel comics, which was amazing for me at the time. I was a high school kid and Spider-Man was a high school kid. We were practically in sync. And then I graduated high school and went on to college, and Spider-Man graduated high school and went on to college. So we were still in sync.

But then at some point, I got out of college—I got a Bachelor’s after four years and a Master’s after five—and then I was out of college and Spider-Man took, like, 15 years, I think, to get out of college. And he entered his early '20s and kinda stayed there for 40 years or so. And I, unfortunately, have not mastered that trick. But, anyway, that’s a digression.

The [current] mainstream comics, I do pick them up occasionally. If I see something that sounds particularly interesting or I hear a buzz or something like that. And I still have an enormous amount of affection for the characters.

Wild Cards, edited by George R. R. Martin I understand. I think that the balance is trying to keep the stories fresh and bring new things over 50, 60 years but still evolve them and make them familiar. I’m not an editor on our books, but I look at what our creators and editors do and I think they’re doing some cool stuff and hopefully bringing in new readers while still entertaining the older readers.

George R.R. Martin: Well, that’s always the trick. Of course, I have "Wild Cards" now. I don’t know if you’ve ever read my "Wild Cards" series, but my old comic fan stuff comes out there. And these are my own super heroes and those are the gang that I put together and we have our own universe and our characters age and change. I swore a holy oath to the Wild Card readers: “No retcons or reboots, ever.” That’s awesome; those are novels or comics?

George R.R. Martin: Those are novels, mosaic novels we call them because each one [has a] common background, and all the heroes live in the same universe and so forth. It’s super heroes done in a more gritty and a more realistic way. That’s awesome. I guess speaking to that, the comics that you grew up with and the stories that you love--how do they influence you as a writer? Whether it’s "Wild Cards" or "A Song of Ice and Fire"?

George R.R. Martin: Well certainly if you go back to "Wild Cards" you can see my love for super heroes is written all over those, I’m sure in some alternate world I became...actually when I got out of college, I applied for a job at Marvel as a writer, they didn’t hire me. I got as far as being interviewed by Roy Thomas once upon a time in 1971. That’s rather far, though! Not everybody gets an interview. The folks over at actually mentioned this to me; I was going to bring that up. How did you come about trying to get the gig with Marvel?

George R.R. Martin: At the time--we’re talking the early days of comic fandom--the first comic conventions were being held and there were fanzines which were printed on mimeograph machines and ditto machines and they published amateur super hero stories as well as non-fiction articles discussing the comics of the day. Those were my first publications. I wrote little amateur super hero stories for, I think it was like, Star Studded Comics and Hero and some of the other comic fanzines of the day. I couldn’t draw, so I was not an artist. I wrote what were called Text Stories in those days which were super hero stories written in prose.

At the time, all comic books contained a text story of a single page because it was necessary to get the second class mailing permit, so they had to have one page of prose which would usually be just some little short story; some horror story or monster story or something like that. So when us high school kids started putting together our fanzines, we figured well we have to include the text stories as well as the amateur comic strip and I became one of the guys that did that. And within the little, tiny world of comics fandom, I became pretty well known for those and even got nominated for an award called the Alley Award back then. I won it once for best amateur fan story for some of my stuff.

George R. R. Martin in the 1970s

So meanwhile, I was doing stuff. I was going to school. I was going to journalism school at Northwestern [University], I got a Bachelor's in ’70 and a Masters in ’71 and then I went out in the wide world looking for an entry level job and, of course, I applied to a lot of newspapers and magazines. But I said what the hell, I love comic books I might as well--so I applied to two comic book companies. I think I sent off a letter or two, [maybe] three or four, to different comic book companies but Marvel was the only one that responded. Maybe they recognized my name from a comic fanzine or something. I lived in Bayonne, N.J. so it was easy; I could just hop a bus and come into NYC. So I had that little meeting with Roy Thomas and unfortunately they weren’t looking for any new writers at the time.

But then there was this little thing called Vietnam going on, and my number got called in the draft lottery. I was a conscientious objector, so I had to do two years alternate service [as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer] in lieu of military service so I was pretty well taken off the job market for two years--’71 through ’73. During that period I began to sell my first script stories, so even while I was working for VISTA and doing my alternate service, I was selling some science fiction stories and establishing my name as a writer and getting nominated for some awards. By the time my two years were up I decided to pursue that path rather than trying to get a full time journalism job or go back to comics or something like that. It’s just amazing, I love hearing the path that creative folks take, whether it’s comic book writers or novelists or what have you. It’s amazing what one little thing can change in someone’s life. In an alternate universe, like you mentioned, you could still be writing for Marvel. That’s wild. You mentioned comic book conventions; do you still go to conventions much?

George R.R. Martin: I go to [Comic-Con International] San Diego; it’s become increasingly important not just for comic book guys, but frankly anyone in television, film, novels, I’m active in all those fields and San Diego has become the convention. I attended the very first comic book convention that Len Wein put together in NYC in 1963 [or] 1964. It was one room; there were about 30 people there, it was smaller. The guests who showed up at that were Steve Ditko--I got to meet him and get his autograph--and fabulous Flo Steinberg.
Fabulous Flo Steinberg at Marvel in the 1960s Flo is still here, she is as lovely and as warm and friendly as ever.

George R.R. Martin: She’s still there? My God. Yeah, she is. She comes over and says hello every once in a while and it’s like the greatest thing ever, I’ll tell ya.

George R.R. Martin: That’s amazing. Let's talk a bit about "Game of Thrones." Have you seen your fans sort of change as with the TV series? 

George R.R. Martin: Oh, my audience has grown enormously with the TV series. I mean it was already pretty big, they were already best sellers, but now I have thousands and thousands of new readers who are coming to the books through the TV series. That’s cool, although it’s very interesting to have the two different audiences which have very different ways of perceiving things. The original book audiences kind of get very upset when things get changed or omitted and all that. And of course the people who are coming in through the TV series, they don’t even know about the changes. So they have a different viewpoint on some things and that’s a very fascinating exercise in watching [that].  I started reading the books before the TV show came out. I just started reading them and then I just kept going and going and going so I had already finished "A Game of Thrones" before the show started. I would watch it with my wife and I’d be like “Ooh!” but I cant say anything because she hadn’t read it yet. I was both new, but established in the lore at the same time and it’s fascinating for me to watch it all unfold on the screen.

George R.R. Martin: Well you guys at Marvel must [see] this phenomenon; You have the two audiences--you have the audience that are just going to the movies and they don’t know these characters, and then you have the old fanboys like me. There are actually at least four distinct Marvel audiences that I know of because I do a lot of our social stuff along with our website and everything. We have the movie fans, the comic books fans, the fans that are coming in first and foremost from video games and we have fans who are coming in from television, you know cartoons of all types. Each group sort of perceives Marvel differently. I watch them react to other aspects of Marvel, and interact with them, and it is fascinating.

Marvel's The Avengers, in theaters May 4, 2012

George R.R. Martin: I’m definitely in the camp of the old comic book fanboy. I was watching your "[Marvel's The] Avengers" trailer online the other day. I’m really looking forward to your Avengers movie, but I’m still pissed that they left out Ant-Man. Ant-Man was there in the beginnings. He should have been right there, you know? You could have brought in Hawkeye and the Black Widow later; they didn’t come in right at the beginning. ANT-MAN! And the WASP! [Laughing] We have a million irons in the fire, so hopefully we’ll see some of those characters come around. It’s actually really cool because the people who are in charge of the films, they are old school comic book fans and they come to it like, “Hey these are the characters we love, we want to make sure that they are not just crapped out and put on the screen." There’s so much love and care to put into the Marvel Studios films. Have you seen the other Marvel Studios films leading up to "Marvel's The Avengers?"

George R.R. Martin: I have, yes. I thought "Captain America: The First Avenger" was terrific. "Iron Man" was excellent. The second one wasn’t quite as excellent as the first one, but it was pretty good. I think one of the great things since Marvel has taken over making these films themselves is they’ve proved that the closer you stay to the original material, the better it comes out. "Thor" really diverged quite a long way from that. Starting in Asgard and all that stuff, I wanted the comic book story. I wanted this crippled doctor Don Blake on a tour of Norway stumbling into caves and finding a stick and that whole thing. It was the Stan and Jack [story], you can’t improve on them. Have you seen the new "Amazing Spider-Man" [film]? I’ve seen about 10 minutes or so of the footage.

George R.R. Martin: It seems very strange to me to reboot Spider-Man. It seemed the other one came out like last week or something like that. I don’t know why they didn’t just continue with Tobey Maguire. I wish I had more insight but, as you know, that’s produced by another studio. But I've heard some terrific things about it, so I have faith it'll be a great Spidey movie. So what were your experiences working on season two of "Game of Thrones"?

Jon Snow, played by Kit Harington, from Game of Thrones, season 2; photo by Oliver Upton, courtesy HBO

George R.R. Martin: We were shooting in Croatia and New Pravnik and in Belfast, Northern Ireland. We [had] about 10 days to do in Iceland for some beyond the Wall stuff. My episode was directed by Neil Marshall, [who directed] "The Descent" [and] "Dog Soldiers." It’s the first time he’s worked in television so it’s pretty exciting. That’s terrific. Did you get to help choose him or did it just work out that way?

George R.R. Martin: They told me that he’d like to come aboard and I was excited. ["The Descent" is] the best horror movie in the last 20 years, I think. Are you a big horror movie buff?

George R.R. Martin: Well, I used to be. I like your classic horror movies, or something like the "The Descent" or "The Mist," which was another good one. I don’t like torture porn; you can keep the "Hostel" series or the "Saw" series. That to me is not horror. Did you get to go to location in which they shot your episode?

George R.R. Martin: I could if I wanted to, you know I [had] a lot of work to do. For half a year when the new book came out I was touring, and I had conventions. I had San Diego Comic-Con I had WorldCon; I had various other appearances [and] speeches that I had to make. I’ve been traveling so much that I couldn’t take the time to fly to Europe. But I have visited the shoot in past years. Very cool. Well if you ever make your way to NYC and you want to visit Marvel and hopefully we could do it on a day when Flo is in, I’d be happy to give you the tour and introduce you to some cool people here.

George R.R. Martin: I was there a couple visits, I might get to New York once a year or so; I still have family in New Jersey. I’m from Bayonne, not too far. I guess when I did visit Marvel it was sort of disillusioning, I always pictured the bullpen--a bunch of artists sitting there all day at drawing boards, coming up with stuff, you know? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby sitting next to Steve Ditko sitting next to Don Heck, all working simultaneously and trading wise quips and all that. I guess they all work at home now and they just deliver the stuff occasionally, right?


Avengers Vs. X-Men #1, on sale April 4, 2012 Every time I give a tour to someone I explain how it’s completely changed because of the Internet and because of the international field of comics now. An artist could be in Portugal, but our writer could be in Spain, our inker could be in Florida, etc. It’s crazy how it all comes together these days. Last questionOur big AVENGERS VS. X-MEN story is coming up. As the battle is about to begin, which faction do you think will win? And this is in your mind, when you think of the X-Men and when you think of the Avengers, it doesn’t necessarily have to be one specific version, current or classic or movie or what have you, it’s who do you think would win?

George R.R. Martin: Well I think the Avengers would win, [especially] if you have the A-List Avengers. There have been, as you know, many, many different Avengers over the years, but if you have the classic Avengers with you Thor and Iron Man and the heavyweights...yeah I think they would win. There’s nobody on the X-Men that could take them down, huh?

George R.R. Martin: Well, again it depends on which X-Men. Certainly there have been some powerful X-Men over the years, but, you know, Thor is like a god. That’s pretty useful. It sure is. I really appreciate you taking the time.

George R.R. Martin:  It was fun. 

Catch the season two premiere of "Game of Thrones," Sunday April 1 at 9 p.m. on HBO and visit George R. R. Martin's official website at

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