The Marvel of Comics, If Not of Movies

J. Hoberman, interviewed by Maya Chung and Daniel Drake

In the August 19, 2021 issue of the magazine, we published “Marvel’s Ringmaster,” J. Hoberman’s review of three books on Stan Lee, the comics writer and editor who was instrumental in creating Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and dozens of other characters. Hoberman charts the rise and fall of Lee and explores how he made himself, and Marvel, an indelible part of American culture from the Sixties through today.

Like Lee, Hoberman is a native New Yorker and knew from childhood that he wanted to be a writer. When he was eleven, he told us when we corresponded this week via e-mail, he wrote a fan letter to C.S. Lewis, who not only wrote back, but even gave him permission to continue the Narnia series, though Hoberman never followed through. His interest in film came a bit later: Dr. Strangelove was “the first movie that really spoke to me,” he says. “I got interested—read everything I could find, took out a subscription to Film Culture, bought an 8mm camera.”

Particularly fascinated by the French New Wave and the American underground, Hoberman made experimental movies and fringe theater for about a decade, then turned to film criticism, as a regular reviewer and then a staff writer for three decades at the Village Voice. Having grown up mostly in Queens, Hoberman started reading the Voice as a teenager, long before he wrote for the publication. “In a way, I used to write for my teenaged self.”

As for comics, as a child, Hoberman knew the best ones were Li’l Abner and Alley Oop, but those appeared in the Sunday News and the New York Mirror, right-wing tabloids that weren’t allowed in his family’s house. Instead, his father would explain to him the political cartoons (by Herblock and David Low) that were reprinted in The New York Times’s “News of the Week.”

“I was very into Mad,” Hoberman says. He never bought Superman comics, but would read them at friends’ houses or at camp, being “mainly interested in the proliferating mythology, all the different types of kryptonite, the Bizarro World, the Phantom Zone.” Though he didn’t buy much of what Marvel put out, he was later taken with the “craziness” of Jack Kirby’s “New Gods” series for DC. He dabbled in Doctor Strange and became hooked on underground comics from the moment he saw R. Crumb’s Zap #1 in the old St. Mark’s Bookshop.

While studying at SUNY Binghamton, he met fellow student Art Spiegelman, and the two have been friends ever since. Hoberman even contributed to Spiegelman’s magazine with Bill Griffiths, Arcade, writing a column that focused on finding Nazi analogues in American mass culture. “Art is not only a genius cartoonist but incredibly smart about comics as a medium,” Hoberman said. “I learned a lot from him.”

In the medium of film, Hoberman particularly admires the work of Paul Thomas Anderson, Lucrecia Martel, Nadav Lapid, Bi Gan, Sofia Coppola, Christian Petzold, and László Nemes, many of whom he has written about in our pages. Hoberman also praises the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems, the Criterion disc for which he just finished writing the liner notes. Then, of course, there’s TV: he’s recently enjoyed The Good Lord Bird, Shtisel, the last few episodes of The Plot Against America—as well as Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series.

Given Hoberman’s own experience making experimental movies, we asked what kinds of avant-garde work he’s interested in these days. He nominated Heinz Emigholz’s new films and Christian Marclay’s installations, as well as the “documentary use of vernacular videos in Peter Snowdon’s The Uprising and David Dufresne’s Monopoly on Violence,” both of which he’s written about. He’s hoping, next, to write about the period of underground movies between 1958 and 1970.

When his position was eliminated in 2012 during a wave of cost-cutting at the Village Voice, Hoberman stopped writing weekly criticism. That same year saw the release of The Avengers and the new dominance of superhero movies at the box office. “One of the best things about losing my job at the Voice was never having to see (or have an opinion) about another superhero,” Hoberman said.

I’m sure that some Marvel movies are better than others, but I am relieved not to have to make that distinction. However technologically wondrous, Hollywood movies are less interesting (to me) than they have ever been—although I have to say that one reason I suggested reviewing the Lee biographies was a sense that, almost posthumously, he had become the key figure in twenty-first-century Hollywood.

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Jack Kirby’s series for DC; it was “New Gods,” not “New God.” The article has been updated.

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