Ryan Penagos is Vice President and Creative Executive for Marvel New Media. Find him on Twitter @AgentM for comics insight, GIFs, and his patented #seeeekrits. Our intrepid Do You Even Comic Book? editor Joe Fruscione Skyped this interview with Ryan in March 2018.
Tell us a bit about your background and introduction to comics. Do you remember the first comic you read?
I don’t know that I remember the exact first comic I read, but I have very strong memories of being at a summer camp when I was probably 7 or 8 years old in the late 1980s. There was an Avengers West Coast issue—it was the John Byrne cover with Scarlet Witch when she was all evil and messing with the Avengers. I also read a lot of What the—?! back then. And most definitely I remember reading Punisher War Journal. The issues in the early run by Carl Potts and Jim Lee with Wolverine…and it was definitely not something that was appropriate for a seven- or eight-year-old. But man those were great comics.
Are there characters you loved as a kid but have now cooled on? Or, flip it: is there anyone you used to be lukewarm about but now love?
Interesting. I think it’s more that I grow into loving more characters rather than growing apart from characters. I read everything we put out every week so I see all the versions and iterations and thoughts that go into every single character. Especially with what I do with “This Week in Marvel” and Marvel’s “The Pull List,” I tend to focus on the positives and all the things I enjoy about the characters, the world, and the universe. There are characters that I loved as a kid—Deadpool, Cable, Wolverine—that I’ve come to love even more because of the fun things I’ve seen over the years.
I’m looking around my office to see if there’s anything…maybe The Avengers? I had a couple of issues when I was younger but it didn’t really click with them until I really started working in the industry. I was a Spider-Man and X-Men and Wolverine kind of guy. Seeing the movies and then going back to, reading, and enjoying some of the classic and modern things made me love Cap, Thor (especially), and Iron Man. I wouldn’t say, though, it was falling away from a character; it was more like falling in love with more.
You must get such a great inside view when you can read all the different writers and different versions.
Yeah, you get to see…you get to see a lot.
You make all of us jealous when we see your tweets and seem to say “Just look at this giant pile of books I get to read….” We know it’s work; there’s no question there. But from the outside it looks like so much fun.
It’s great fun to have to read the comics and watch the movies and watch the television shows and play the video games. To be informed about those things in order to do the job is a great pleasure.
And those are some of your favorite parts of your job?
Yes. I also get to be out there and talk to the fans and engage with our communities in ways that not everyone gets to do. I treasure that. It is a bit of a responsibility that I try to keep in mind. Being able to enjoy all the parts of Marvel is huge for me. Definitely.
When I found you on Twitter, you were already big and established. How did you get your job at Marvel? Did you start low and work your way up?
I got a journalism degree and then wanted to get into entertainment journalism. I went to SUNY-Purchase in Westchester, NY. I didn’t realize it at first but close by was Wizard magazine and ToyFare magazine. This was the early 2000s. As I was graduating I saw they had an opening for an assistant editor job at ToyFare. They wound up offering me work as a freelance writer. It was very fortunate. I didn’t realize until a couple years ago that Matt Senreich (who was one of the creators of Robot Chicken) was actually the one who told Justin Aclin at ToyFare to give me a shot as a freelance writer. He just said “Give the kid a chance to try do something.” Matt’s been a friend over the years and I didn’t even know this until recently. That was sweet.
From there, I worked at ToyFare doing some writing. I applied for one job at Wizard in their research department and I just bombed the interview. After that I was still doing some freelance writing, and for some reason they called me in for another interview at Wizard. It was for assistant price guide editor. I crushed the interview. I got that job and worked my butt off right away. I got promoted pretty quickly and started expanding what I wanted to do, building a lot of network stuff at Wizard. I worked on the indie comics there and did video game coverage and eventually became an associate editor. About halfway through my time at Wizard they said, “Hey Ryan: why don’t you be the contact for Marvel?”
Wizard had beat reporters. There’d be a writer or editor who was the main point of contact between the Wizard side and whatever publisher there was. So there was someone for DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, and so on. I became the Marvel contact, and that gave me great access. This was 2004-2005. I would go to the retreats and talk to the editors and writers and people on staff and really get a great relationship to help build the coverage. It was mutually beneficial for Wizard and Marvel.
And one day in 2006 I was visiting Marvel—as I did normally. Stopping by, talking to the editors, seeing what projects they were working on, what was interesting, and what extra coverage we could do in the magazine. And one of the VPs at the time (John Dokes) saw me in the hallway and said, “Hey Ryan: why don’t you come over here?” We chatted, and it was going on for a while. And here I am wearing a metal band t-shirt and camouflage shorts because it’s the middle of the summer.
You’re casual and relaxed.
Yeah. That was the Wizard look. I didn’t have to wear anything special. It ended up being a long conversation, and John said “Let me bring someone else in here to talk to you.” It ended up being this stealthy, surprise interview.
An ambush interview.
Yes, that’s an appropriate term. It was an ambush interview for a junior editor position at Marvel.com. They wanted to build up their website presence and do the things other outlets were doing. I was on board with that, and shortly thereafter I started work as associate editor of Marvel.com.
I don’t know if it felt like this at the time, but hearing it now makes it sound like a linear progression. You worked your way through, made your connections, and so on.
I guess so. It definitely feels like a good build to get from one level to another. Very video game–esque.
Let’s get back to the question of characters you’ve developed a greater appreciation for over the years. Which five characters would be part of your squad?
Interesting. My favorite character is MODOK. He’s a pure, beautiful Jack Kirby creation. He’s big and weird and creepy and fun. A lot of other creators have done some fun work with him.
Thanos is another huge character for me. Thinking back to your first question: I remember very specifically buying X-Men #3 (the relaunch drawn by Jim Lee) and Infinity Gauntlet #6 from the 5 & 10 in my neighborhood. Those were life-changing comics for me. It was so big and so cool and so huge.
I also love Cable. He’s cool and weird with the time travel and alternate realities. He’s always a lot of fun.
And…Galactus—another Jack Kirby character. Especially over the past couple years Al Ewing and Dan Slott have done really beautiful work with the character and taking it into different places.
That’s quite a group there. I want this to be a miniseries. Just drop them somewhere and see what happens.
Ha. I don’t know that they’d be on a team or anything.
Over the years, my love for Thor has really galvanized. Much of it is from rereading Walt Simonson’s run but also because of the work Jason Aaron has done on Thor. It’s probably one of the greatest runs in comics. Once it’s all said and done I will put that against any other comic run and fight for it.
I occasionally do nostalgia rereads of comics from the late 70s or early 80s. I love looking at them: the cover prices (60 cents!?!), ads from Mile High Comics, Saturday morning cartoons, candy…whatever.
I love reading old comics. One of my best friends also works at Marvel, Rickey Purdin. He’s in the talent relations division. He and I both worked at Wizard back in the day. When we’d go to conventions we’d dig through back-issue bins and look at old comics. We’d pull them out and start smelling them. There’s something so beautiful and wonderful about old comics.
With that in mind: If there were an event or a character introduction that right now you could somehow read again ‘fresh,’ which one would it be?
That’s a good question. I’m curious to see how the way I first saw Jack Kirby’s work would mesh with the way I see it now. I didn’t appreciate it as much until I got older. I’d like to see what he was doing and what he contributed to…to everything. I’d be curious to see what my reactions to Jack’s work would be if I’d just seen it fresh now.
I didn’t expect that answer. It’s a great one.
Yeah. Jack’s work is still dynamic and fun and smart and so…so beautiful. It pops off the page so well.
The MCU films keep introducing new fans to comics. What are some titles you’d recommend to people now getting into (or back into) comics through the films?
I field this question in different versions and in different ways. My initial question back is usually “What kinds of stories do you like?” The beauty of the MCU is that those stories are all superhero stories, but they’re also so many different types of movies that showcase different types of storytelling. You have your spy stories. You have your big cosmic stories. You have your family things. You have your comedy. There are so many different bits and pieces to those. At the core, it’s Marvel storytelling, and our characters are there. So does someone like the family and emotional parts in Guardians? Do they like the comedy? Do they like the weird characters?
If I was just going off the top of my head: I’d say Squirrel Girl. It does comics so well. It’s so smart and so fun…and so great that anybody can read it. All-New Wolverine is really great, too. It takes a lot of thoughts and concepts that have surrounded Wolverine for many years and gives them a new flavor—a new direction. But there’s also a reverence for all the things Logan was great for, for Laura as a character, and for the world those creators are building there.
I’m looking at stacks of comics….
You’re making us jealous again.
<slightly evil laugh> Deadpool is really good. Thanos right now is really, really good. That one is good for someone who likes the movies because it’s so big and cinematic. You don’t need to know too much more other than what’s on the page. It gives us all the pieces right there.
It’s hard to hone it down because I read so many comics. But if someone says “I just saw Black Panther. What should I read?” I’d tell them to check out Panther’s Rage and the Jungle Action stuff. They’d want to check out every single damn issue that Christopher Priest has written. That’s amazing action in and of itself. You see these and other runs influencing the film. And right now Ta-Nehisi’s series is great. There’s also the new Rise of the Black Panther where Ta-Nehisi’s involved but a friend of mine Evan Narcisse is the writer and it’s basically T’Challa: Year One. It shows a young T’Challa, him becoming king, and him figuring out how to become the leader he wants to be.
Ok…one more. A fun thought experiment. If you could have a cameo in an upcoming MCU film, which movie and character would it be?
Oh man…that would be cool. Maybe a 90s’ kid in Captain Marvel. That could be fun since it’s set in the 90s. There are some things that would make that really neat. I loved Ant-Man, and Ant-Man and the Wasp looks really good so that would be a great one too.
Or…maybe I could just be a bystander killed by Thanos in a movie. That’d be neat.
I appreciate your time and your energy and everything you’ve been doing. Thank you very much.
You’re welcome. Pleasure to do it.
Joe is DYECB’s resident Sorcerer Supreme of Editing. He started reading comics in the 80s’ and reads what he can now as time, budget, and parenting allow. He works as a freelance editor and ghostwriter; before that, he was an English Professor for 15 years. See jfruscione.wordpress.com to learn more.