Kamala Khan has hearts in her eyes as she looks at a small brown and white dog
(Marvel)

MacKenzie Cadenhead Dishes on the Mighty ‘Marvel Mutts’

Inside Marvel Mutts' "locked vault of really-important no-spoilers."
Kamala Khan has hearts in her eyes as she looks at a small brown and white dog
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When Ms. Marvel and Kraven the Hunter crash through the Best Buds animal shelter, Kamala discovers a new ally and best friend in Marvel Mutts.

All about Marvel’s Mightiest Mutts, the first two installments of the six-part Marvel’s Infinity Comics series Marvel Mutts are now available on Marvel Unlimited, written by Mackenzie Cadenhead (Deck the Malls!), with art by Takeshi Miyazawa (Runaways) and colors by Raúl Angulo (Miguel O’Hara – Spider-Man: 2099), introducing the adorable newbie based on Cadenhead’s own pup, Mittens.

We sat down with Cadenhead on Thursday, December 7, 2023, to discuss how her own dog, Mittens, ended up inspiring the newest Marvel character. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Marvel Mutts Infinity Comic cover
(Marvel)

Rebecca Kaplan (TMS): Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski called you, asking for an idea for the latest drop from Infinity Comics’ “Friday Funnies” line of humor titles. What are your comic strip influences for Marvel Mutts?

Mackenzie Cadenhead: Honestly, It’s Jeff. When C.B. mentioned this, he said, “You know Marvel Meow?” and I said, “Yes, and I know It’s Jeff.” He said, “Yes! That’s what we’re doing.” I’ve worked with Guirhiru. Their style and what they’ve done with Kelly Thompson on It’s Jeff spoke to me. The mainly silent storytelling, relying on a few sound effects and letting the artwork tell the story, appealed to me because we’re dealing with dogs, who, aside from Cosmo, don’t necessarily communicate in our language. They communicate in other ways, visual ways.

I also write children’s books. I love quiet or silent children’s books, like Tuesday by David Wiesner.

TMS: I love It’s Jeff and Marvel Meow.

Mackenzie Cadenhead: So cute, right? When C.B. asked if I wanted to be in this world, I said, “Of course, I want to be in this world!” It’s so much fun and the definition of “all-ages” stories, where kids love it, but comics fans of all ages love it, too.

TMS: You created Mittens. What was it like adding a new character to this world, then?

Cadenhead: It’s so fun because Mittens is based on one of my two dogs. That came from a conversation with editor Mark Paniccia and C.B. where I was figuring out, “How do we get into this? What is the dynamic between the Mutts?” 

I love the everyman character who comes into a wild situation, and that’s our reader surrogate. So, I thought, “What if we had a non-superpowered dog who stumbles into this pack, and that’s a great way for us to see them?” Paniccia said, “It should be Mittens because Mittens has more personality than any being I know. She’s really curious.” So, I based the fictional Mittens on the real Mittens, and it took off from there.

TMS: Does Mittens look like Mittens, too?

Cadenhead: Yes. Again, this was Mark. At one point, I said, “Oh, it doesn’t need to look like …” And Mark said, “Mittens is so cute. Let’s do Mittens.” Takeshi did the first drawing of Mittens, and we all said, “Done. Perfect.” That’s what Mittens looks like, down to the white tuft on her head and white chest fur. 

Whenever new pages come into my inbox, either from Tak or Raúl, who does the colors, I can’t have a bad day. No matter what’s going on, it’s a joyful moment: “Great, more Mutts pages!” And, we show Mittens. She puts her paw print on it, like, “I’ll sign it.”

TMS: Does she approve every page?

Cadenhead: Yes, every page. She’s very generous with her likeness. She’s okay with it.

Meet Mittens in Marvel Mutts
(Marvel)

TMS: What has the collaborative process been like?

Cadenhead: Having been an editor at Marvel years ago—and I came from the theater before that—my whole career around storytelling is deeply rooted in the collaborative process. That, to me, is the coolest part about comics and what makes them special and unique. Because I know Takeshi, I already knew that we worked well together. I was his editor, and we’ve been friends for a long time. I also know how generous he is as an artist. Particularly because I know his work so well, collaborating with my imagination of how he will draw the comic keeps it from being a solitary experience, which is, again, the best thing about comics. And Paniccia and assistant editor Mikey J. Basso, they’re so giving.

It’s because of the subject matter, too. We’re all happy to do the work—at all times. We discussed different story ideas, and I asked Tak, “Who do you want to draw? What are you interested in?” It’s been a nice back-and-forth. When you have an environment like that, it’s very comfortable to make adjustments and say, “This storyline isn’t sitting right with you. Let me try something different.” I think, in general, when you work in comics, you’re very receptive to that. But, this has been a particularly great experience in terms of collaboration.

When Raúl came on, he had such an incredible pallet and beautifully used texture. The first time we saw his vibrant tail-wagging—the colors brought it to the next level. When thinking of future stories, I think, “What texture can I throw Raúl? What interesting environment do I want to see him play with?” It’s been great.

TMS: Were any of the Marvel Mutts your favorite to work on? Were there any Mutts you wanted to include and couldn’t?

Cadenhead: No, because there’s always room for more. And in the future, there may be room for some other animals to be honorary Mutts. But this was the group of dogs we were particularly excited about. Sure, let’s talk about Dogpool at some point—that would be fun. But what I love about this collection of characters is that they’re very different. They all have different, clear backstories and different heroes that we associate them with.

I keep thinking about the pack. You asked about the collaboration, and it’s like, “What’s the dynamic between these dogs, who are often in relation to their human counterparts? How do they act together?” So, in terms of picking a favorite, I don’t know. Since it’s mostly silent, writing a little Cosmo is amusing. We’ll see if we play more with him and his voice.

TMS: I understand, like picking a favorite pet.

Cadenhead: I should say this if I’m talking about Marvel Mutts. Mittens is the star, but I have another dog, Holly. Her personality is to hang back in the wings. She’s not a little diva like Mittens, but we thought including her in the series would be fun. So there’s a “Where’s Holly?” look and find in every issue. Tak has drawn her in everywhere. When we did the promo piece for Thanksgiving, when I first saw the sketch, I didn’t realize that he had drawn Holly in a painting in the background. My daughter looked at the pencils and said, “Oh, and there’s Holly.” Because she’s been trained to do the Holly look-and-find, and I was so moved that Takeshi put Holly in there. 

We’re all committed to “Where’s Holly?” now. So, I didn’t choose between my dogs.

TMS: Will we see Dogpool?

Cadenhead: Perhaps, if we do more in the future … Perhaps. That’s my little tease. Maybe. The locked vault of really-important no-spoilers on Marvel Mutts.

TMS: I’ll go through Marvel’s dogs. Sparky?

Cadenhead: There’s room for all of them at some point. It’s funny that you say that. There are many options, right? We’re in vertical, Infinity Comic specs, so we asked, “How many dogs can we fit in the pack?” We had to think about it. So, this is our original team, but like the Avengers, Mutts can come in and out at different times. You never know. It’s not a set team. It’s whoever the pack needs at the time.

TMS: You’ve worn a lot of hats at Marvel. In addition to what’s been mentioned, you also did Asked & Answered. Do you have any advice for people who aspire to work at Marvel, especially young girls? 

Cadenhead: That’s why we did the Asked & Answered column. For me, the goal was to show young women—and my daughter—all of the great roles you could have at Marvel and the women who have come before them. Also, I wanted to show my sons they must get used to women and nonbinary creators doing these different gigs. To make sure everybody is seeing that we all do all of it. 

My advice is to hone your skills and your storytelling. Each story dictates its own format. I feel really lucky to write prose, comics, and picture books. It’s been really rewarding. Many of us have many stories in our heads, different abilities and capabilities, and are good at multitasking, so don’t close yourself off to anything that comes up. If it’s telling a story in some way, but it’s not exactly what you’re looking for, who cares? Just do it, and get better, and keep working at it. Reach out to the people who have come before you that seem interesting and have done things that you’re curious about and interested in, and be open to things that are not exactly what you expect. Because I feel like I have had so many left turns in my career. 

I didn’t anticipate working in comics, but I had a friend who worked at Vertigo. I had been working in theater, and she said, “I think you would love comic book editing.” I started educating myself and stumbled into an interview, got the job, and then learned on the job. I was in an office with C.B. and Nick Lowe, and they immediately took me under their wings. And Jennifer Lee was there at the time, and she’s the best. She was a great friend and mentor. People were willing to teach me, but I was willing to learn. That’s the most important thing. Don’t worry about knowing everything; jump in and try it. Just ask questions and be open to what everyone else knows. But also, be confident that you know some stuff, too, and let everyone know.

TMS: Is this your first comic for Marvel?

Cadenhead: I did chapter books for Marvel. When I left Marvel, I went to Virgin Comics and started the editorial department there. But I realized I wanted to be doing stuff for kids and started writing … Marvel’s funny. It’s like the Mafia. They pull you back in. You think you’re out, but it’s such a great group and the best storytelling playground. I felt there weren’t great chapter books for elementary school readers—this was a while ago; there are more now—so I told Marvel, “You should do some of these.” They said, “Okay, you should pitch them.” At first, I thought, “Nah,” but then, I thought, “Well, I know Marvel, and I’ve been writing prose,” so I co-wrote Marvel superhero adventures with Sean Ryan, who also used to be an editor at Marvel. We had a blast on those. I still do school visits with those on how to tell stories. I mean, Spider-Man is the best wingman to go into an elementary school with. It’s great; they’re immediately in.

But I hadn’t thought about writing comics. I edited them, which felt like a different part of my brain. But I wrote graphic fiction, and then this came along, and I thought, “Oh, okay, why not?” I was doing other stuff for them. I was doing the animated Marvel HQ for them, and it felt like the right, fun project that wed my comics love with my children’s book writing.

TMS: How’s the switch been?

Cadenhead:
Editing was the best path to writing for me. I learned so much as an editor. I learned so much from the writers and artists that I worked with. But also how to tell a story tight and fast. When you’re giving notes on somebody’s work, and you’re not trying to make it your own but trying to realize theirs fully, it gives you the skill to do that with your own work. Maybe not on the first draft, but when you edit it: “How do I step back as the first draft writer and create a clear, cohesive, and successful story?”

It’s all the same once you know how a comic script works. It’s all storytelling. It’s just a different medium, a different format. Comics are unique because you must know how to tell a visual story sequentially. But I don’t see it as switching back and forth; it’s all very fluid. 

For many of us who work in comics, we tell so many stories so quickly. If it’s weekly publishing—basically, the periodical business—you’re always going. You’re honing your skills by going quickly from an adult, dark story to a light, all-ages piece. That’s a skill I appreciate because it allows me to toggle between different projects and not have to take one hat off and put on another. It’s just, “This is what we’re doing right now, and in an hour, I’m going to do the next one.” It’s much more fluid.

(featured image: Marvel)


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Author
Image of Rebecca Oliver Kaplan
Rebecca Oliver Kaplan
Rebecca Oliver Kaplan (she/he) is a comics critic and entertainment writer, who's dipping her toes into new types of reporting at The Mary Sue and is stoked. In 2023, he was part of the PanelxPanel comics criticism team honored with an Eisner Award. You can find some more of his writing at Prism Comics, StarTrek.com, Comics Beat, Geek Girl Authority, and in Double Challenge: Being LGBTQ and a Minority, which she co-authored with her wife, Avery Kaplan. Rebecca and her wife live in the California mountains with a herd of cats.