The Digital Age has washed over comics in the past few years the same way it hit the music and film industry years before. And no one at the major comics publishing houses have taken to it more, seemingly, than Ryan Penagos.
Penagos, who many know by the moniker of “Agent M,” works as editor of Marvel’s website, coordinating its content and direction as well as monitoring the company’s reach through social networking. When he started, the site was merely a portal of press releases for the print books, but in the four years he’s been with the company it has expanded to be a hub of information for all things Marvel, with interviews, features, artwork, databases and — most importantly — comics. But this probably isn’t how you know him.
Penagos has developed quite a fanbase on Twitter as @Agent_M, accumulating 1.4 million followers — keep in mind that Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada has just 22,000 and writer Brian Michael Bendis has 28,000. He gets his thoughts out there with Twitter, his Marvel blog and an after-hours Tumblr blog.
Full disclosure: Penagos is one of my editors in the writing I do for Marvel.
Chris Arrant: You’ve long been part of the online world, going back to generating ideas for Wizard magazine’s website when you worked there from ’03 to ’06. Now as editor in charge of Marvel.com, you’re continuing that. What do you think are the big things you’ve learned about writing for the internet audience instead of the print audience?
Ryan Penagos: They’re not very different, really. Readers want compelling content, humor, news, secrets, rumors — entertainment, however they can get it — regardless of the medium. And you’re competing against a crazy amount of diversions no matter where you’re publishing. We have a stack of magazines and comics at my house that grows and grows, and I’ll never get through it all. Likewise, I’ll never read everything my RSS reader catches. There’s just too much. It’s our job as content creators to give audiences great stuff to read and watch and play, along with a familiar voice and style, so they keep coming back. It seems that people look down at the Internet audience because Twitter and Facebook are so popular — that short messages, random thoughts and short attention spans rule the day. Sure, I get that delivering short-and-sweet content is great, but give me a really great long-form feature or interview and I’m all over that.
Arrant: Can you pinpoint for us what you feel are your big accomplishments since you signed on at Marvel.com in 2006?
Penagos: Hmmmm. The “toot-your-own-horn” questions make me feel like a jerk! I guess giving Marvel.com a proper editorial presence with fresh, new content on a daily basis is the biggest thing. When I came on board, the Marvel digital team was pretty small and the only editorial content was from press releases. As our traffic has increased and our audience expanded, the Marvel digital group has grown. And that includes the editorial team, which is now as robust as an Avengers line-up. Everything springs out from there, ya know? Building our video content has been big and while that’s far from just on me, I’m glad to be a part of it. Also being on the forefront of the “social media” front has been an important point for me. Our Marvel Audience Network—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, fans.marvel.com, etc. — is just as important to me as getting news on the site. We live and die by the fans, and I like being able to communicate with them as closely as we do.
Arrant: In many ways, you’ve become the de facto face of Marvel on social media under the guise of “Agent M,” outpacing pretty much everyone else in the industry. Is it work, or just an outgrowth of what you do in a normal day?
Penagos: Fancy that we went right into that question! It’s both work and a normal thing for me. I started tweeting in 2007 under my Agent M persona — a “spy in the House of Ideas” concept that Marvel Senior VP John Dokes and I settled on after he hired me in 2006. It began for me before San Diego Comic-Con that year as a way to keep Marvel fans updated on all things going on at the show. After that, it just became a thing I do as a mix of the job and my normal day-to-day activities. I love it. I’ve made many friends, a ton of connections and I’ve introduced new aspects of Marvel to so many people.
Arrant: How do you think your Twitter postings have affected what you do at Marvel?
Penagos: It’s been good. It’s helped prove how important the social outreach is to any detractors. And there are times when people ask me to tweet about things. I’m happy to do so, as long as it’s not straight shilling and it’s something I’d talk about normally.
Arrant: You’ve been doing exclusive comics over on Marvel.com for over a year now. How’s that been? Any things you learned by doing them for awhile now?
Penagos: It’s been great. Recently we’ve been using some new talent that C.B. Cebulski and the talent management crew have found. It’s a great place to experiment and get new stories, new talent, new ideas out there. And the subscribers love it. As far as what we’ve learned? People like that Wolverine guy.
Arrant: Are you still tinkering with the planning side of what kind of comics go up first on Marvel.com, or is it pretty standardized now?
Penagos: I’m personally not part of that process, but the folks behind it have the exclusives scheduled months in advance. It’s like a science. Digital science!
Arrant: Circling back ’round to where we began, and you began: . There are a lot of ex-Wizard employees who’ve ended up in some key positions in the comic industry, primarily on the promotional and editorial side of things. To what would you attribute that to, and is there any sort of camaraderie over the shared experiences?
Penagos: There’s definitely a brotherhood (it was a very dude-heavy company when I was there). I talk to a good dozen or so of former Wizard guys every day, whether it’s over email or AIM or Twitter. I had two former Wizard guys — DC’s Rickey Purdin and Maxim.com editor Jesse Thompson — as groomsmen in my wedding. My wife and I share a house with former Wizard guy and current DC PR Manager Alex Segura. Everyone I know has had a different experience coming out of Wizard. I’m incredibly thankful for it. I learned so much — particularly from Andy Serwin and Joe Yanarella — and left on my own terms. Others … not so much. Either way, we all made great connections, honed our skills and — I think —came out stronger and better thanks to what we learned and did at Wizard.
Arrant: Where do you want to be, career-wise, five years from now?
Penagos: Probably in less of a day-to-day content position. More of an overseer. In more of the classic Professor X role, as opposed to the Cyclops role. Also, I’d like to have to have a pet in the office. A Marvel cat, maybe.