On the opening day of Comic-Con International in San Diego, Avatar Press Editor-in-Chief William Christensen had an intimate one-on-one panel with famed fantasy and horror author George R. R. Martin — at least as intimate as one can get in front of a crowded convention hall with numerous Dothraki cosplayers in attendance. The discussion, primarily convened to highlight Martin’s comic book adaptations of his works “In the House of the Worm” and “Skin Trade” from Avatar, touched upon numerous topics of interest to genre fans.
Holding court in a frayed jean hat and a black suspender and t-shirt ensemble, Martin bestowed upon the crowd of gathered attendees his reflections on comics and how they’ve influenced him, along with various other interesting facts about his career. As he interacted with Christensen, the result was less a grandiose panel and more an opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation between friends.
Entering to raucous round of applause, Martin was introduced by Christensen as a “comic book geek from the get go,” which segued into a proclamation from the writer. “I am actually the first comic book fan,” Martin said. “In 1964, Len Wein ran the first comic-con in New York City. In Greenwich Village in 1964, 30 people showed up and we met in one room on a Saturday… The guests of honor were [early Marvel Comics employee] ‘Fabulous Flo’ Steinberg and Steve Ditko. And I was the first one to show up so my badge said No. 1. So I guess that makes me the first comic book fan. And now, all of you are my children. God help me!”
Martin began the panel by discussing what drew him to the comics genre in the first place, and how it’s influenced his work.
“You write what you read and I grew up reading this stuff,” Martin said. “I grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. My world (growing up) was five blocks because we never went anywhere; we didn’t even own a car. I think it was a hunger in me from a very early age to experience more than those five blocks. And so when I discovered comic books at first and then science fiction and fantasy books second, they took me away from those five blocks.
“They took me out of Bayonne, they took me across the word and to other worlds and to other times and other places,” he continued. “They took me to Middle Earth and [Edgar Rice Burrough’s] Barsoom, to fabulous cities like Metropolis and Gotham City. Then when Marvel came along to this weird place: New York City.
“I think one of the things fiction fulfills in all of us is vicarious experience. I wrote in one of the Ice and Fire books, ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. A man who does not read lives only one.’ And I think that’s true. I have travelled the universe. I’ve climbed mountains and I’ve dove into the deepest sea. I’ve piloted ships to Mars and I’ve fought monsters with my broadsword. And I’ve loved hundreds of beautiful women. And it’s all through the wonders of fiction and imagination…except for the beautiful woman part!”
The “Game of Thrones” author also expounded on work and authors that have had an influence on him — including the legendary Robert A. Heinlein, who Martin said “had the most profound effect” on him. “I was reading comic books voraciously but I didn’t read pulp books. But then someone gave me a Robert A. Heinlein book — ‘Have Space Suit, Will Travel’ — and suddenly I was going to the Moon and Pluto and to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. Boy, I was hooked,” he said. “One of the writers I’ve followed from that day to this day is Jack Vance who passed away last year, sadly. I think Jack Vance was the greatest science fiction and fantasy writer of his day. He’s a writer who was doing great work well into his nineties and I hope to emulate him.”
Martin stated he read a lot of comics in the ’50s, primarily focusing on superhero books from DC, featuring characters like Superman, Batman, Silver-Age Flash, Green Lantern and the Atom.
“Comics in those days were much more varied than they became in subsequent decades,” he said. “The superhero comics were there but there were also a lot of war comics, there were Western comics. There were romance comics but those were for girls. I didn’t want to touch them because I might get girl cooties. You had to be careful about that sort of stuff.”
Although Martin eventually shifted interests to science fiction, something drew him back to the genre. “I had decided I was now old and sophisticated and I wasn’t going to read comics anymore,” he said. “So I stopped reading comics for about a year. And then one day … there was this weird looking comic called ‘The Fantastic Four.’ But it looked so interesting. One of the guys was some kind of monster and yet they seemed to be superheroes or something, and it was from some bullshit company or something. I was right there for the beginning of the Marvel renaissance. That was ‘Fantastic Four’ #4. I started reading comics again just in the nick of time. So I was there a couple months later when ‘Amazing Fantasy’ #15 came out with that Spider-Man character.”
In fact, it’s a good thing that Martin discovered Marvel, as the publisher and its comics had a substantial influence on his career. “The truth is a lot goes back to Stan Lee and those early Marvel comics,” he said. “When I encountered the Fantastic Four in ’61, it was such a revelation to me because they were nothing like the Justice League or the DC heroes I was used to — especially in those early issues. The Fantastic Four had great conflicts. The Thing hated the being the Thing and there was a violent streak in him. When he fought the Human Torch … it was a real fight. It wasn’t the friendly bickering like it became in the later decades. They came to blows and there was a rage in the Thing that was directed at Reed Richards.
“And there was also, I didn’t know at 13 years old of course, but there was a sexual tension in some of those early issues,” he continued. “It was clear Ben Grimm had the hots for Sue Storm. And Sue was attracted to the Sub-Mariner and it was a genuine sexual triangle with Sue and Namor and Reed. It was human stories of the human heart in conflict with itself.
“Spider-Man was not the Flash or Green Lantern. He was constantly having self-doubts and he was great hero but was still looking to get laid. And he lived with his uncle and it was just great stuff. The Marvel characters had depth that the more traditional DC characters that I grew up with did not have. And they really got me addicted to this idea.”
Martin further cited Wonder Man as a prime example of a conflicted character, which was a hallmark of these early comics. “He was sent in to destroy the Avenger,s but when the crucial time comes, he can’t bring himself to do it so he revolts against his evil masters and dies heroically,” Martin said. “I look back on that now from a distance and realize the influence on my work is enormous. Here’s this great conflicted character who seems to be a hero to the outside world and even the Avengers accept him as a hero but he’s really a villain. But when it comes to the point he’s supposed to murder someone he can’t bring himself to do it and then he pays the ultimate price for that and dies heroically. And I’ve been stealing that ever since!”
Of course, much to Martin’s chagrin, Wonder Man’s demise was not permanent, citing the so-called “rule of comic books.” “No one but Uncle Ben and Batman’s parents ever remain dead!”
Discussing death further, Martin reflected upon how killing off Linda Hamilton on “Beauty and the Beast” concerned him when he killed off Ned Stark on “Game of Thrones.”
“The ratings after Linda’s death fell off a cliff. On ‘Game of Thrones,’ I wondered, ‘Is the same thing going to happen here?’ Thankfully, they didn’t.”
Generally, Martin feels that “fiction is about emotion” and hopes to elicit a strong reaction to his material from his readers. ” I want people to read my books and laugh and cry,” he said. “If it’s a scary, horrific scene I want you to be scared. I want you to be hungry in the feast scenes and aroused during the sex scenes … more of that vicarious experience. And darker emotions like grief and fear and anger — I want to make you feel those, too.”
While Martin is thankful for his success, he has a tinge of regret being thrust into the spotlight due to “Game of Thrones” television presence and popularity.
“There’s a dark side to the popularity of the show. In the last few years, I’ve become a celebrity and it’s not the bed of roses everyone may think it is,” Martin said. “It saddens me that I can’t walk the floor anymore at Comic-Con. I used to do that for years, and one or two people would come up to me for autographs. And that was fine. Now, it’s every one or two feet. It’s certainly changed the way I experience these conventions.”
At an early point in his amateur career, Martin wrote stories for comic books and with his Avatar Press adaptations, he has returned to his roots. “In the House of the Worm” is set “in the far, far future where the sun is rapidly winding down … and there’s only a small remnant of humanity left and they’ve retreated into this vast underground bunker.”
“It’s a very decadent kind of society — they’re eating worms and spiders and having meaningless sex. It’s got a Baroque horror kind of feel to it,” Martin said.
By contrast, “Skin Trade” pairs a “sexy young female private eye and a hypochondriac, asthmatic werewolf” together, which Martin said simply wrote itself and remains one of his favorite stories.
However, the beloved author didn’t finish without imparting some wisdom upon the crowd.
“There’s no secret. You have to write every day — the more you write, the better you get,” he said, responding to a question about advice to aspiring writers. “You have to read widely. That’s one of the things I try to hammer home — particularly at comic book conventions. Fans generally read very narrowly; they discover at very early age what they like and they read that. The more you read and the more you see the various techniques used, you learn. Read voraciously and don’t ever give up.”