Face It Hannah, You Hit the Jackpot: ‘Spidey Zine’ Creator Shares Why Fan Work Works [Interview]
Spider-Man has been an anthropomorphic pig, a monkey, a zombie, and any kind of clone you can imagine. He's acted alongside Morgan Freeman, owned his own "Spider-Mobile," and had his marriage annulled by a demon. Over 54 years, you'd be hard-pressed to find something Peter Parker hasn't done.
Unless you're Hannah Blumenreich. In her Spider-Man fan comics, Peter Parker disentangles Gilmore Girls relationships while helping Aunt May knit, falls asleep on the couch to the tune of I Love Lucy, and gushes about Cowboy Bebop while shielding a woman from street harassment. Blumenreich's Spidey Zine and other Peter Parker fan comics explore a quieter, more introspective take on the iconic character, drawn with the physicality of a realistically young, potato-esque teenager.
Her fan comics have garnered great popularity across social media, with her latest piece sitting at over six thousand retweets and nearly ten thousand "likes" on Twitter. Their popularity even caught the attention of Marvel, which invited her to contribute a trading card illustration in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #13.
ComicsAlliance attended the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo and sat down with Blumenreich to discuss fan work, arachnophobia, and evil Disney lawyers.
ComicsAlliance: Your wildly popular Peter Parker fan comics show how much you like Spider-Man, but in one of your journal comics, you kill a spider. What is the truth?
Hannah Blumenreich: [Laughs] Oh no! Is this a call-out? I'm being called out.
I gotta go. This interview is over. [Laughs]
CA: How do you feel about spiders?
HB: I feel really badly about spiders. I'm terribly arachnophobic. I'm really, really arachnophobic. I try not to mention it too much online because when I do, people, as soon as you say you don't like spiders, are like "here's a spider gif!" And you're like: why?
CA: But you do like Spider-Man.
HB: I do.
CA: Has it been trouble reconciling those two strong feelings?
HB: I feel it's fine as long as he maintains his two arms and two legs. I've seen some pictures where — apparently at some point in Spider-Man history — he gets the extra arms and I'm like, "uh-uh, not into this chapter."
CA: So that will not make it into any future fan comics?
HB: No. No no. I am going to ignore that entirely.
CA: I understand. I feel the same way. I think many of us live day-to-day lives disliking spiders but also liking Spider-Man.
So what draws you to a character like Peter Parker?
HB: I guess on some level, it's relatability. Characters like that have been around for so long, and there's so many different takes on them, that you can really strip them down to their bare basics and rebuild them and not really lose anything. It's the same thing with writers who really like Superman, and also for people who really dislike those characters, for the same reasons — where you can't get a grasp on their basics and what's at their core. And it's much easier to interpret what's on the surface level, and sometimes that stuff is really... it just doesn't sit with you like it does with other people.
With Spider-Man, what's there at the core is really appealing and really fun to play with and sort of rebuild in a way that I haven't seen much in canon comics.
CA: What do you see as being at his core?
HB: It's sort of a similar thing to Superman. He's just such a kind, good character who will always want to do "the right thing," whatever that may mean. But it's always discolored on some level by the person he's interacting with. If it's someone like Harry Osborne, for instance, who's a villain but also his friend, and it's like: you need to make that separation, Peter. But he doesn't. And on some level I think that's a weakness and also a strength. And that's interesting to play with.
And he just has such a closeness to the people that he makes his family, his chosen family, because he doesn't really have any of his own because he's got all this tragedy in his past. And he doesn't really let it affect him like someone like Batman, who we have to hear over and over and over again about [how] his parents died and that made him dark and moody and you're like, okay fine.
Peter's got all this tragedy, and you have to hear that over and over again too, but it colors the way he reacts to things and drives him on some level, but he's still a peppy, smart aleck who just has this thing in the back. And it feels more real that way, because a lot of people have tragedy in their pasts and it doesn't affect every single decision that you make. But it's still there. So I feel that's an interesting thing.
CA: What prompted you to consider this particular take on him, one where he feels more realistically like a young teenager and less like the norm, which is an adult cosplaying as a sexy teen.
HB: I have to wrap my head around that one. "An adult as a sexy teen," you say. I don't like that at all.
CA: I think you know what I'm talking about, with regards to television shows and movies where they cast a 25-year-old as a 13-year-old boy.
HB: They're like "go make out with this hot 'teen' girl" and you're like: please don't.
CA: At least in your comics, his physicality, and there's no "sexy teen angst"...
HB: The CW thing. Yeah.
CA: He's watching Gilmore Girls. It feels like a more human approach to how awkward teenagerdom could be.
HB: Part of that, on some level, I fault creators who do this, on all levels — comics and TV and the whole thing — if you want to write adults: fine. Go write adults. If you want to write adult Peter Parker, it's great. There's this whole other level to him, he doesn't always need to be in high school. There's loads of things he can contribute as a college student, as an adult. It's all super interesting. But they keep him in high school, and they just don't write him like a high schooler and that's frustrating.
And teenagers, they're so weird. They're so bizarre. And why are you missing this wonderful opportunity to make him [someone] who's sometimes overly self-conscious, sometimes has no, uh, what's it called?
HB: No... filter!
And just this weird ricocheting of emotions always at full blast all the time. It's such a good thing specifically for that character, and also for that age group, to just sort of get that down. And it's tough if you're not around teenagers and you just forget it because they're obnoxious. And you don't want to write that character because it isn't immediately appealing — I've met teenagers, I remember being a teenager, and that's not a thing I would like to put on paper — but there's a way to take it there and make it appetizing...
Appetizing is not the right word I want to use in this situation. [Laughs] Palatable?
CA: Many types of fanwork — same-sex shipping, slice-of-life-centric storytelling, identity-bent fanart — explore what's not represented in official, licensed canon. Can you speak to the transformative value of getting to play with those toys, but spinning them on their head.
HB: Absolutely. I just got Jess Fink [and Yuko Ota]'s Stucky [the ship name for Steve Rogers and Bucky] Zine, I just read it, it's so good. And we were just talking about this.
I think, with fanwork, I don't know how this works when you're licensed, how much freedom you actually get, but with fanwork, I've gotten these bits and pieces that have been chipped away by the Internet and blown up to huge, big deals, and I saw this movie because I thought I was going to get some gay [laughs], but no.
It comes off like people are taking these crumbs. So you're queerbaiting, you're getting my dollars for this thing that I thought I was going to get, but I'm not. Because you want to tease it without offending your gross fanbase.
And you can't have it both ways. So it's frustrating that it doesn't exist within the canon, or exists on such a minor level that it's not really worth it. But within fan comics, you can do whatever you want. There's no one being like, "This won't be marketable" or, "We can't do this with the licensing" or whatever. You can just be like: I've just decided I want to make this character make out with someone.
Who am I going to ask? Myself. Am I okay with it? Yes I am.
And you just go ahead and do it. And that's really good and freeing. And I think, like with the Stucky zine, it's people responding to something that, with all fanart, it's a response to what you don't see, but you want. It's addressing a lack of something in the canon material. And it's frustrating when that isn't taken seriously and people just write it off as, "Oh, it's just your fanart." And it's like: people really like that stuff. There's a reason people are making it, because it doesn't exist. And if it did exist, people would buy it. You're missing this huge opportunity to make beaucoup bucks by going all in, in a genuine way.
CA: It's not so much fanwork, but you look at the Kickstarter for a comic called Check, Please, which is very slice-of-life, has queer characters, and it made $400,000. When you see the argument that "people wouldn't buy that" — which people are you courting?
HB: Yeah! It funded instantly.
But it's also nice that there are a lot of indie publishers that seem to be really pushing that, in a more genuine way where the creators are also women or queer or people of color or all of the above. And they make that work that they've always wanted to make that they've never seen, and they get to do it. And other companies are like: where's our money going? Oh, it's going over here.
I feel like there's a move to kind of catch up, slowly, slowly.
CA: Do you think publishers should consider exploring the type of stories a lot of fanworks tend to explore?
HB: Oh, for sure!
People are always like, "I don't want to do the coffee shop romance comic" and are you kidding me? Do you know how many people would buy a coffee shop romance comic? Everyone. Everyone wants that.
Just do the low-key stuff. When it's fights all the time, how are you supposed to care about who's involved in the fighting? You have to do that in-between stuff, you have to do that minor day-to-day stuff. And also, if you can't write or draw that minor day-to-day stuff, you're not much of a writer or an artist. You have to be able to do the full spectrum. I am not much good at fight scenes, but there you go! [Laughs]
CA: I was actually reflecting on this yesterday. People often say it's important to have the big action moments with the small character moments — and obviously it's good to have that balance — but then I look at your Spidey Zine and it doesn't have the big action moments, but I don't feel it's lacking for that.
HB: Oh, thank you.
CA: But you don't often see that explored by itself. There are often comics where it's the big fight scenes all the time, with no small stuff.
HB: There's a really good Superman comic called [Superman:] Secret Identity that Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen made, and it's sort of a riff on a Superman story where there's this kid who's found as an orphan in Kansas and his parents — their last name's Kent — they're like, "Ha ha, wouldn't it be hilarious if we named him Clark Kent," because Superman exists as a marketable character in this universe.
And he grows up with that and he resents the hell out of it. People keep giving him Superman stuff for his birthdays and Christmas and he's just like [derisively] "thanks, you guys." [Laughs] He's miserable about it.
And of course as a teenager, he develops superpowers like Superman's, and he goes about his usual life, but also he's got these superpowers, and he's like, "I guess I'll be Superman. If people see me, what are they going to say? Superman came and did it?" People'd be like, "Cool, you're crazy."
It becomes this really lovely meditation on what it means to be Superman, and it's so beautiful and so affecting, and you don't see stuff like that. I guess on one hand, you're like, "Would this still exist without the big fight comics?" And you do need both. But I think there needs to be a better balance.
CA: What's the response been like to the Spidey Zine?
HB: Real good. [Laughs]
CA: What's it been like managing that response, as your Spider-Man fanwork has become hugely popular to the point where they get reposted everywhere without credit?
HB: Ugh, reposting. I'm kind of figuring that out. Because I do like to put my stuff up and I do like to share it. Some people I guess don't mind it, maybe? Like, "Oh, it got reposted to Reddit, whatever, it happens." But it really really bothers me. And I wish it were so simple to be like, "You guys, I don't like when you do this, stop doing this," and they were like Ooh, okay, sorry."
But instead they're like: but what if.
It's one of those things where mostly everyone has been fine. Mostly everyone has been good. But those handful of people, it's like, "You've ruined it for everybody."
It's frustrating. And I'm not sure yet what the best way to handle that is. Fortunately, I feel like I'm in a nice place where I've gotten enough proper job offers that I don't have to keep posting stuff up and relying on it to be visible.
I hope. I could be totally wrong. [Laughs]
CA: How did the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl job come to be, and what was it like having that happen?
HB: It was really cool. I got the email sort of out of nowhere. I'm not sure how they got my email address.
CA: The mighty powers of Marvel.
HB: I assume they worked through their evil Disney connections and Disney's like, "Oh don't worry, we know everybody." [Laughs]
CA: You haven't escaped the big Disney lawyers. They know you're there. They found you.
HB: [Laughs] They're just like, "Don't worry, we'll get you." They're just waiting in the wings.
I got an email and it was from Wil Moss, but it came from "Wilson Moss" and I was like, "That sounds kind of like Wil Moss, what a coincidence. Delete." [Laughs] And then I was like "oh no, wait a minute!"
And he was like, "Would you be you interested in this thing, would that work?" And I was like, "Yeah."
So I got that job. And it was quite small. And because of it being a very small job and a very low profile job, I sort of figured I'd treat it like an interview. And bring my A-game to this tiny thing —
CA —no pun intended since it's Ant-Man.
HB: [Laughs] And bring my Ant game, oh ho ho ho.
There's a phrase no one's going to use ever, I hope.
CA: You never know. This may be the beginning.
HB: Uh-oh. This interview is over. [Laughs] I hate this new phrase.
Yeah, so I did it. It went well. It's nice to know that I'm in the system, I guess? And that could spawn to bigger and better things. We'll see how that plays out.
CA: Your comics — Spidey Zine, Paper and Glass, and your journal comics, to an extent — focus a lot, I found, on alienation and what's uncomfortable.
HB: Oh, they do. [Laughs]
CA: Often through use of silence and a great emphasis on body language. Why are you drawn to explore those themes?
HB: I, on-topic but off-topic, have this great big book of Charles Addams comics that I love. And in the introduction he has this great big long thing and he talks about how if he ever felt he had to add a caption onto the bottom of the comic, that he had failed in some way as an artist. Because he couldn't communicate it all through picture.
And I really really like that idea.
I don't stick to it 100%, and I don't think he did either, because sometimes you do need words and sometimes they add different stuff, but if you can do it all in a picture, you can do it so much better.
I hate reading comics and turning a page to find this wall of dialogue that doesn't even really add anything. And I think a part of that is just getting to do the writing and drawing on my own and not having to collaborate. And knowing I can just pull of something in just pictures.
I also think that might have to do with influences. Me and a lot of my generation and my gender grew up reading anime because anime offered something that superhero comics couldn't. Or didn't. Or both. And that is a totally different pacing. It's a totally different storytelling. And that influence sinks in there and gets in there, I guess.
I find that the things you can do with pictures that you can't do with words are so much more interesting. And vice-versa. I think it can say more and it can be more open-ended. A lot of times, dialogue really wants to cement what you're thinking and feeling about this. And with a picture, I want it to be vague, so it's going to be vague. And you can really do that without words.
CA: Do you have any upcoming projects to speak of, and goals for your projects moving forward?
HB: For upcoming projects, everything's still kind of in developing stages. So I can't really speak to stuff yet. In terms of paid stuff. And for personal things, I don't really have anything planned out.
CA: And for goals? Would you like to do more creator-owned work, licensed work, all of the above?
HB: All of the above is great.