Skip to main content

Magical Comical Tour with Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman’s world is full of books, whether he’s writing them or reviewing them, and he has a special fondness for comics. Besides being the book critic for Time, he’s published the novels WarpCodexThe Magicians, and the recently released The Magician King. Lev talked to GraphicNovelReporter about his comics-related writing, how he dreams of writing his own comic book, and his septuagenarian mother’s Death Note jewelry.

What kind of influence do you think comics have in our culture?
Comics have a really strange position in our culture right now. Their actual direct footprint is relatively small, in terms of unit sales and whatever else, but their influence is huge, in terms of the kinds of stories that get told, in movies especially but elsewhere as well. Comics shape our visions and set our storytelling agenda, even if that actual agenda gets carried out as much or more by movies and everything else.

Do you think your writing about comics for Time might give them more respect?
I would like that. I don't know if it's true. I put Watchmen on Time'slist of the hundred greatest novels since 1923, and now every copy of Watchmen has a sticker on it that says that. Does that help? It's hard to know. I hope so.

What sort of coverage have you done for comics?
Bits and pieces. Reviews and profiles. Time doesn't have a regular slot for comics, obviously, and they're not a top priority, so I write about them whenever I can—if there's a new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen coming out, and it's a slow news week, and the stars are aligned, sometimes I can get something in. The year Fun Home came out, I put it on the best books of the year list—in fact, I put it at number one. Because it was in fact the best book published that year. You take your shots where you can. I've pushed hard for coverage of webcomics, which are a special obsession of mine.

Have comics influenced your own writing?
Very much. Watchmen (and, just as much, Miracleman) changed everything for me. [Alan] Moore attacked and undermined everything that was sacred about the superhero story, and in the process he wrote the greatest superhero story that had ever been written. I never forgot that. A lot of those lessons show up in The Magicians: When you question the basic assumptions of a genre, you make that genre stronger, not weaker.

Also, I steal a lot from Dr. Strange.

Has Time asked you to write about comics, or was it your idea to cover them?
No one ever comes to me and says, “Stop the presses, we're missing the greatest comics story of the year!” Time is great. But it's not that kind of a place. When I'm writing about comics, it's because I pitched the story. And the pitch doesn't always go.

How do you think comics are covered in the general media? Do you find there’s less prejudice against them today compared to how it used to be?

Well, I think we're finally seeing the decline of the “guess-what-comics-can-be-literature” story, which got written twice a week for the last 10 years by the mainstream media. Places like the
New York Times Book Review take comics a lot more seriously, and give them more space, than they used to. But there's still a lot of room to move.

When did you start reading comics?
I can't remember a time when I didn't read comics. But right now I'm not as hardcore as I used to be. I don't always get them at the comics shop. I can wait for things to come out in bound volumes.

You’re already a well-respected novelist and journalist. Do you ever think you might write comics too?
That's the dream. So far it hasn't come to pass. I pitched a graphic-novel version of The Magicians to Vertigo. Personally, I think it would look amazing as a comic. But they were doing The Unwritten, and it was too similar, which even I have to admit, and I didn't have another killer idea to pitch them. But the dream is alive.

How have you picked the Top Ten Graphic Novels for Time?
You know a great comic when you see it. I try not to overthink it. There’s comics you enjoy, and they're good, and then there's comics that change you, and those are the great ones. But I haven't picked the top ten for the last couple of years. A while ago I reached out to Douglas Wolk to do some comics writing for us, and at this point I'd rather hear his picks than my picks.

Do you have any favorite comic books or comic book authors?
Alan Moore, obviously. Grant Morrison. I'm a Mark Millar guy. And I think Neil Gaiman does some of his best work in comics.

Do you read any manga?
Not a lot. Weirdly enough, my mom, who's English and in her 70s, finds manga for me. One year I came home for Thanksgiving, and she was wearing a big silver Gothic-letter L around her neck. It was from Death Note. True story. Since then, I follow her lead.

Do you have any recent favorites comics?
The last comic I read and loved was probably…I don't know if I should say it. You'll think less of me. It's the rebooted Justice League International. I've always been a sucker for B-list supergroups. Alpha FlightThe Defenders. And I'm a particular sucker for Booster Gold. I really think that's what superheroes would be like.