George R.R. Martin is almost as famous for his propensity for killing beloved characters as he is for creating the whole of “Game of Thrones.” But where does the influence of killing come from? It turns out, “Avengers #9,” the first and–at the time, anyway–last appearance of hero-cum-villain-cum-hero Wonder Man. When we spoke with Martin at World-Con 2012 he said:
“In that issue Wonder Man is a villain who pretends to be a hero, and joins the Avengers as a hero in order to betray them from within–and at the end he can’t go through with it and dies as result…and boy you look at that! I loved this issue, in fact it blew my mind…
He went on to say:
I loved the fact that they killed him and I loved the fact that he was a villain pretending to be a hero–became a real hero–at the end. That kind of reversal, dealing with themes of betrayal and redemption…and you look at my work and you see the fingerprints of something like this all over it.
In our interview, Martin mentions previously discussing Wonder Man in a conversation with John Hodgman. Turns out that was from the NPR show “The Sound of Young America,” which is now called “Bullseye with Jesse Thorn.”
Here’s the Wonder Man bit.
JOHN HODGMAN: I would imagine so. Let’s go back a little bit. I’d like to talk about something from early in your body of work. On the end of August a letter surfaced and was reprinted all over the internet; it was a letter you had written to the letters column of The Avengers comic book in 1964.
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Hahaha, yes indeed!
JOHN HODGMAN: I believe you would have been about 16 at this time. In this particular letter, you had suggested that Avengers number nine was slightly better than Fantastic Four number 32. My question is: do you remember why?
You can comment on the particular story, because I believe Avengers #9 was the introduction of Wonder Man.
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Oh, yes, I liked Wonder Man! You know why? Now it’s coming back to me vividly. Wonder Man dies in that story. He’s a brand new character, he’s introduced, and he dies. It was very heart wrenching. I liked the character; he was a tragic, doomed character. I guess I’ve responded to tragic doomed characters ever since I was a high school kid.
JOHN HODGMAN: Especially those who might die at any minute.
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Of course, being comic books, Wonder Man didn’t stay dead for long. He came back a year or two later and had a long run for many many decades. The fact that he was introduced and joined the Avengers and died all in that one issue had a great impact on me when I was a high school kid.
JOHN HODGMAN: I imagine it was pretty surprising in a comic book in that time to see a whole story arc resolve tragically in that way in one issue.
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Yes. It’s hard to understand, I think, from the vantage point of 2011 exactly what was going on back in comics in the early 60s. It was the Marvel comics that I was writing letters to, who were really revolutionary for the time. Stan Lee was doing some amazing work. Up till then the dominant comic book had been the DC comics which, at that time, were always very circular. Superman or Batman would have an adventure, and at the end of the adventure they would wind up exactly where they were. Then the next issue would follow the same patter, so nothing every changed for the DC characters.
The Marvel characters were constantly changing. Important things were happening. The lineup for the Avengers was constantly changing. People would quit, then they would have fights and all of that. As opposed to DC where everybody got along and it was all very nice and all the heroes liked each other. None of this was happening, so really, Stan Lee introduced a whole concept of characterization to comic books and conflict; maybe even a touch of gray in some of the characters. Looking back on it now, I can see that probably was a bigger influence on my own work than I would have dreamed.