Raised by two passionate members of the ACLU with a strong literary foundation, Martha Thomases lives her life between the pillars of media and social justice. Martha talks to us about working in the male-dominated field of comics, the changes she’s seen in New York since the late ‘70s, and why every generation has something worth fighting for.
You are a born and bred New Yorker?
I was born in Manhattan, but grew up in Ohio and went to high school in Connecticut. When I was in fifth grade, I went to a public school in Youngstown, Ohio. My mother saw a story on The Today Show about kids who were so smart that they were reading at an adult level. Not to be outdone, she bought me a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. My teacher saw me reading it and sent me home from school—it was quite a controversial book at the time! My mother was so irate that the next year she sent me to the only non-parochial private school in the area. But the problem was that it only went up to eighth grade. There were some issues with transferring my grades and achievements back to public school, so I was sent to boarding school in Connecticut. Then I went to college in Ohio, and moved straight back to Manhattan after graduating.
Your mother sounds like she was very passionate about your education. What did she do?
She was a housewife, and she was also very involved in activism. She was president of the American Civil Liberties Union in Youngstown. After the Kent State shootings, we would get all these angry and threatening anonymous phone calls. She was very invested in community activism.
You are, as well. Do you think that comes from your mom?
Oh yeah. But also from my father. He also belonged to the ACLU.
Did you always know you wanted to move back to Manhattan?
Always. My father is from the Bronx, and his mother's family lived in the city when I was growing up, so we would visit a lot. They would have a huge Hanukkah party every year, and all the aunts and uncles would fuss over the kids. I was convinced that whenever you came to New York, you would get presents. I think that’s why I always wanted to come to New York! [Laughs]
I also didn’t like Youngstown. Sometimes I think about moving back there because it's so cheap. I mean, the median house price in Youngstown is $40,000—you could have a palace! The argument circles in my mind all the time. Usually it comes down to not moving because I would have to get a car. I love not having a car.
What did you do when you moved back to New York?
I was looking for a job in publishing, but I ended up at an ad agency. For a brief time after university, I lived in Chicago and had an internship at an agency there. But I didn’t like Chicago; it just reminded me of a bigger version of Cleveland. New York was full of diversity and different neighborhoods. Neighborhoods in New York were defined by what people did and what their interests were.
Aside from your family, did you know many people here?
A few. I actually lived on a commune for a year and a half, where we worked to publish an anti-war magazine, and so I knew people through political channels. I was very involved in the anti-war movement. I knew there was a lot going on in New York, so I wanted to be part of it. I was also really into punk rock, and the scene in New York was so huge!
Was it what you expected it to be?
Yes and no. I knew some of what it was going to be like, but it was so much harder to find a job than I expected. My first job was in an agency, but I worked in the direct-mail department as a secretary. It was also harder to meet new people than I thought it would be. It was so different from meeting people in college. But these are the growing pains that everybody goes through.
The music scene was amazing, though. I would go to CBGB when the doors opened at 7:30pm. I’d stake out a good spot and just read a book until the music started, which wasn’t until around 11pm. I could see bands that I loved and had never seen live before.
Where did you live?
My first apartment was on 28th and Lexington; it was a big studio for about $300 a month. I wanted to live in the Village or in Chelsea, but my mom was just aghast at that thought! We found this building that was being converted from offices into apartments, and she liked the look of it, so that’s where I moved. As it turns out, I was on the same floor as a Vietnamese brothel. There were some very dubious people walking up and down the hallway and trying to get buzzed into the building.
You could never find a space for that amount of money in New York now. It really limits the kinds of creative people that can live here. I feel like I had access to so many more people back then. I mean, I met my husband at a press conference I weaseled my way into. I’m not sure it would be so easy to do that now.
I was still working in advertising at the time, but it wasn’t turning out to be what I was interested in. So I got a part-time job doing research for Norman Mailer on his book The Executioner's Song.
That's amazing. How did that come about?
I answered his ad in the Village Voice. I didn't know it was him. It was funny, because he was my mother's favorite writer. I was still working at the ad agency when I had the interview, so to get out of work, my mother called and lied, saying my grandmother had just had a heart attack and I needed to leave work to see her right away. [Laughs]
There was an army of us working for him, doing research and transcribing tapes for The Executioner's Song. I worked with him on and off for years, through the writing of Harlot’s Ghost. The first thing I did for him was work on the math for this sports-betting idea he had. He was trying to figure out if a team that plays on astroturf at home would have an advantage when they played on a grass field, or vice versa. I could still do quadratic equations then!
Around that time, I moved in with my husband, John, who lived in Soho. Back then, it was called the South Village. It was so different back then. All the businesses were plumbing supplies and hardware stores. Now it could be any shopping street in America.
I was also writing freelance for the Village Voice and High Times magazine, and for a few other places, which is what led me into publicity as a career. Back then, publicity was more about telling stories. Public relations and publicity were journalism jobs. Through a couple of smaller gigs, I got a job in publicity at DC Comics. I had been in the comic-books scene as a fan for ages. I’m such a geek. When I was a kid, I was allowed to get a comic book every Sunday when we went to the train station to pick up the New York Times. I realize now that the reason my parents got me a comic book was so they could read the Times in peace. [Laughs]
What was it like working in comics?
It was great. It was also a much smaller business then. You could know almost everybody who worked in the industry in New York. Although, in some ways, being a woman in comics was a bitch. It was an industry full of men. I remember a story a woman told me the first time I went to San Diego Comic-Con. She was the wife of a comic-book artist, and men used to follow her into the bathroom to prove that she was really a woman. That’s how few women were there; men couldn’t believe it.
I was lucky, though. Denny O'Neil—he is very well known for his work on Batman—was the first person in comics that I met. He worked at Marvel at that time, but he worked at DC before. Anyway, he came from a very lefty political background and he was a champion for me. We had friends in common in the peace movement. Through him I met Larry Hama, who became my editor on Dakota North.
Dakota North is the comic book you wrote. It must have been awesome to author a comic book with a female protagonist.
It was, although I also struggled writing such a violent story. Larry would always have to push me a bit. Dakota North started out as a photo-novella idea, but that didn’t really work out, so it moved into a more traditional comic-book style.
And it was aimed at women?
Yes. I mean, it was the sort of comic book I wanted to read. Except, my problem was that I didn’t want to hit anybody and I kept having to write her into fighting situations.
Larry would say, “To write a comic book means to have an unlimited special-effects budget.” It costs just as much to draw an explosion as it does to draw two people sitting at a diner, so you might as well blow up the world!
I ended up writing about seven issues of Dakota North. She still pops up as a character in the Marvel universe. It wasn’t for me, though. I was really slow at writing and coming up with the stories. I liked to take my time. The creative process is slow for me. There were other people who wrote four or five books a month. I’m not that person.
I’m actually working on a graphic novel now, and I’m able to take my time doing it.
I’m also a weekly contributor to ComicMix.com. It’s supposed to be about comics, and it mostly is. [Laughs] Sometimes I go into TV and movies.
I also volunteer. I teach kids and caregivers to knit at Cedars Sinai hospital, and then for two months in the spring and fall, I teach a class about art expression to adult patients and their caregivers.
I’m also on the board of the A. J. Muste Memorial Institute. In fact, for the last couple of years I’ve been the board chair. It’s a nonprofit that funds nonviolent social justice movements around the world. We also provide space for movement groups to use. The institute was initially started to help the War Resisters League, which is the first secular pacifist group in the United States.
In the current political situation, do you feel like there’s a lot more work to do?
In some ways, yes. But also, there have always been things to fight for. I suspect there’s something in every generation that gets people into activism. For my mother, it was the civil rights movement, and for me it was watching the Vietnam War on TV. That was transformative.
What’s the best piece of advice you can give?
I’m not a religious person, but my favorite quote is from the Book of Psalms: "This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad of it." To me, that has always resonated. This is it, this is what you have. You don’t have to go skydiving or do something crazy every day, but always there is something to enjoy.
What does New York mean to you?
It’s changed so much in the time I’ve lived here. When I first came to New York, the coolest thing you could be was not rich. It was cool if you were a writer, or a singer or an artist. It was about what you did, not what you had. It’s my perception that that’s not as true anymore. I mean, you used to be able to rent a storefront for like $45. In fact, when my son Arthur was a baby and we lived on Thompson Street in Soho, groups of mothers told me they used to rent the storefront in their building to keep their strollers in. So they wouldn’t have to carry them up the stairs of their building!
That is crazy to think about now.
I knew people who made clothes and would just rent a space to sell them. You can’t do that anymore. If you’re paying $3,000 for a tiny studio apartment, then you can’t be experimenting with art or anything like that. You have to focus on paying your rent. That isn’t conducive to creative expression.
New York is where I’m from, though. It still represents my idea of American democracy and it’s still a melting pot. David Dinkins called it “the glorious mosaic.” If you eavesdrop on conversations in the subway or at the coffee shop, they’re still more interesting than the ones I used to hear in Chicago or Ohio. That said, when Norman Mailer invited me to my first glamorous literary party, I thought I would finally be able to have fascinating and deep conversations with amazing people. Really, they all just talked about real estate.