INTERVIEW: Matthew Rosenberg brings his encyclopedic knowledge to ‘Astonishing X-Men’

Matthew Rosenberg at SDCC (photo: John K. Kirk)

It’s funny, but I have my mother to thank for so many of my fandoms. In fact, she began my fascination with the X-Men.

The most unlikely of people, my Scottish Mum bought my first North American comics when I was sick at home from school and that cold, winter day in Saskatchewan, Canada, was when I met the X-Men. My first book was issue #124, part of the Claremont Arcade story arc “He Only Laughs When I Hurt”. Dave Cockrum provided the cover on that issue and my personal art hero, John Byrne, did the penciling work.

But that started my love affair with the X-Men and I’ve longed for a writer who can tap into that nostalgic feeling of reading these heroes with the ability to reconcile them with todays’ demands and over thirty years of characters, story development and changes.

I think Matthew Rosenberg is that guy.

If you’ve ever read any of Marvel’s mutant titles this guy has put out in the past, like Phoenix, Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey, or recently New Mutants: Dead Souls, Multiple Man, and Astonishing X-Men, devoted fans will notice the amount of X-Men trivia his writing contains. Writers love to stick to canon; it not only establishes continuity but also builds upon a foundation of authenticity. Rosenberg goes one step beyond and actually brings in past occurrences, casually throws them into the current storyline with a mastery that can only come from the confidence of a creator who knows his shit.

astonishing x-men 13
‘Astonishing X-Men’ #13 (Marvel)

I was really lucky to talk to Matthew at the Mecca of fandoms last week, San Diego Comic-Con. It’s an overwhelming affair and I think both he and I were grateful to the good folks at Marvel for arranging a secluded and quiet spot in the recesses of the Marvel booth where we could chat about my favourite comics franchise, and how he developed such a mastery over the content and the nuances of the mutant title stories he’s writing.

“You know, it’s funny, but I’ve said this story a couple of times,” Rosenberg told me. “How I learned to read… my older brother had X-Men comics and he would go out. I would take the comics from his room, and read them. X-Men was the comic I literally learned to read from – and I never stopped reading it. It’s my favourite story in all fiction and I never get tired of reading them. You’d think that at some point, you’d hit a wall and say ‘okay – I’ve read enough.’ But it’s the constant re-invention and evolving the series has gone through that I love. It’s part of my love affair with Marvel as a whole though – it just keeps going.”

I’ve been lucky to talk to a number of X-Men creators in the past. However, this series has existed since the sixties. There’s been a great deal of change and development in the storylines and the roster of characters has grown. We talked about his in-depth familiarity of the series and I asked him what his secret was behind his – pardon the expression – uncanny ability.

“I appreciate your comment about my encyclopedic knowledge of this series. The secret is that I actually own A LOT of comics and that I keep digging them out and re-reading them all the time!” he said, with a chuckle. “My bed always has a stack of books next to it that I read before I go to sleep. But I think that is’ just that I’ve lived with the characters for so long and it’s always been my dream to write X-Men.

We both laughed. Let’s face it: we’re both at Comic-Con and we can both appreciate what “a lot” of comics could mean to a pair of X-Men geeks. My earliest original series edition is #50, but I didn’t have time to compare collections with Matthew.

“When you get it [a writing job], you put everything you have into it,” he acknowledged.

Spoken like a true X-Men geek. There’s a sincere reverence for this franchise in Rosenberg’s voice (both spoken and written). I can relate. I mean, I’m having my own geek moment speaking to a guy who’s lucky enough to be working his dream job. But if I were in his shoes, I couldn’t help but think about the creators whose work he is building on. So, I had to ask him which creators would come to his mind when he would put “pen to paper,” as it were.

“Well, Stan Lee. Obviously, [Chris] Claremont. For me, Claremont was what I grew up on, what I learned to read. But there’s also Peter David’s X-Factor which had a huge influence on me, just the tone and the way he builds character is so important. Those are my big two. I love X-Statix; Anne Nocenti’s time in the X-Men universe. I love Ed Brubaker. Like there are little things that I pick apart and keep. But my love affair began with Claremont, and that has never gone away.”

Out of curiosity, I asked Matthew if he ever got feedback from any past creator about his work.

“No. There are people who seek out their influences – that’s not me. These people are much larger than life for me… and I like to leave them there. It’s not a shot against them, but I mean, I keep my distance and that’s just me.”

I can understand that. For me, it’s intimidating to meet your heroes. It’s nerve-wracking to ask them to explain their work. For Matthew, who has to write stories about characters that these people have defined? Well, let’s just say I completely understand his reticence. However, there is a purity that comes out of that separation. Even though Matthew is clearly influenced by these creators’ work, he creates his own unique stories that extend the universe that they defined back in his (and my) younger years.

‘New Mutants: Dead Souls’ #1 (Marvel)

We are both children of Byrne, Claremont, Cockrum, Lee, and all the other creators who crafted this universe that Matthew is fortunate to further explore. He extends their work through his own. How cool is that?

I had to ask him about his favourite characters.

“My two favourite characters? It’s a toss-up between Havok and Magik.”

And with that, Matthew Rosenberg could do no wrong in my eyes. I had to laugh, as I had just finished talking about Magik with another creator about how much she was my favourite as well!

“I never examined why,” he admitted. “I just loved them as a kid and that never changed. They’re not A-Lister X-Men so there are so many questions that are left to ask, which to a writer is absolutely exciting. But, as I mentioned, I grew up with an older brother, who was way cooler and smarter than me. It was only when I was older that I learned that Havok and Magik are younger siblings of A-Lister characters who grew up in their shadows. I don’t know if that’s why I love them, but it probably does have a lot to do with it!”

If there was one thing that was common to both of our X-Men experiences, it was that we were deeply affected by them at a young age. As Matthew pointed out, they continue to evolve and grow and so they did with us. I remember being deeply affected by the death of Jean Grey. I had a crush on Kitty Pryde and when the when the Mutant Massacre struck, I couldn’t wait for the bus to drop me off in time to get my various tie-in issues to keep tabs on the characters I worried about the most.

‘Multiple Man’ #1 (Marvel)

When you are young, connections to stories are powerfully visceral. Growing up is a time when things are new and what brings you joy stays with you well into your adulthood. For me, The X-Men represented stability and something that I could depend on growing up because growing up is scary! Where are you going to go? What will you be when you grow up? These are questions that children have to encounter at some point in their lives and this loss of childhood can be daunting to a kid. We needed the X-Men to help us make sense of it all and to be 30 pages of comfort in those puzzling times.

Finally, I asked Matthew about the identity of the X-Men to come. What did he foresee in their future?

“The X-Men are the great unknown. That’s what I love about them. More than any other book, it can be anywhere and everywhere. I feel the X-Men is about story potential – the characters have potential in ways that nothing else in the Marvel universe can be. For me, it could be a world about small character drama; it could be a huge space opera – it can be anything. I want to see it re-invent and change. I want to push it to the point of breaking it and then build it back up again. That’s what I’m excited about seeing.”

matthew rosenberg
Reporter/interviewer John K. Kirk with Matthew Rosenberg during our interview at SDCC (photo: courtesy of John K. Kirk)

That’s kind of what growing up is like.

Both Rosenberg and I have a shared experience around the X-Men. Important people in our lives showed us this book in our respective childhoods. They gave us something special. Now that we’re both officially grown-ups, it’s interesting how we still regard this aspect of our youths in a special place in our present day lives.

As we’ve grown up, the X-Men have grown up with us as we continue to head into our own great unknowns.

‘Nuff said.

About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.