Alonso Responds to Marvel’s Hip-Hop Variant Cover Criticism

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Alonso Responds to Marvel’s Hip-Hop Variant Cover Criticism

Fridays on CBR mean Axel’s In Charge.

Welcome to MARVEL A-I-C: AXEL-IN-CHARGE, CBR’s regular interview feature with Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso!

An editor with years of experience who’s brought out comics to both critical acclaim and best-selling status, Alonso stepped into the chair at the top of Marvel’s Editorial department and since then has been working to bring his signature stylings to the entire Marvel U. Anchored by regular question and answer rounds with the denizens of the CBR Community, each week Alonso will shake things up with special guest stars, exclusive art reveals and more!

Marvel Kicks It Old School with Classic Hip-Hop Album Variant Covers

In our first edition of AXEL-IN-CHARGE since Comic-Con International in San Diego, Alonso talks the publisher’s hip-hop variant cover initiative — more than 50 homages to famous hip-hop album covers, set to accompany each new No. 1 of the “All-New, All-Different Marvel” launches — which he was closely involved in, as a lifelong hip-hop fan. The initiative has also received vocal criticism, stemming from the perspective that Marvel is appropriating a Black art form while there’s a noticeable lack of Black writers and artists working on its announced ongoing series. Alonso responds to that criticism, and shares his enthusiasm for the positive responses that the covers have received from the artists being referenced. The E-i-C also talks the recently announced “What If? Infinity” one-shots and more, including your questions, direct from the CBR Community.

Albert Ching: Axel, this is the first time we’ve talked since San Diego — thanks as always for coming by the boat — how’d the show go for you?

Axel Alonso: It was great, apart from unseasonably cool weather.

And as seen on Twitter, you got a lot of fun pictures with Marvel cosplayers.

Alonso: The cosplayers were out in force! [Laughs] There was an amazing Silk!

Let’s get into it about the hip-hop variants unveiled last week– we’ll talk the resulting conversation, but let’s start out at the beginning. It’s an effort that you were very closely involved in — how inspired was it by how successful the Run the Jewels variant covers were earlier this year?

Alonso: The response to Run the Jewels variants was tremendous. And it confirmed what I already knew existed: a massive overlap between comics culture and hip-hop culture. I’m a lifelong hip-hop head. I was about 10 or 11 — all about Earth, Wind & Fire and Parliament – when I heard [the Sugarhill Gang’s] “Rapper’s Delight” at the Doggie Diner on 23rd Street [in San Francisco], and it knocked me off my feet. I hunted down the EP and memorized all the lyrics and that was that. Hip-hop was a transforming force in my life. Hip-hop, basketball and comics are my three passions — Korean food’s number four. [Laughs]

This variant program is an opportunity to show not only my love for hip-hop culture, but also the love of so many in Marvel’s freelance community. Hip-hop inspires a lot of us. It is the musical score for a lot of our lives. This comes from a place of love.

How quickly did you realize you could get as ambitious with it as you have? It’s been said there’s something around 50-plus covers in total coming, and readers have only seen about 15 at this point.

Alonso: I knew this was an all-in initiative from the start. There was no doubt in my mind that there were more than enough iconic covers for us to pay homage to — if anything, I knew there’d be covers we couldn’t fit — so we decided to do a variant for every new series launched under “All-New, All-Different Marvel,” from October through February… which will probably mean around 55-60 covers. I enlisted the help of [Talent Manager] Rickey Purdin and [Assistant Editor] Chris Robinson and our one self-imposed rules was that any hip-hop artist — no matter how much we loved them or how many great covers they had — would be limited to one cover. We could’ve done 3 or 4 homages to A Tribe Called Quest covers, for instance, but this approach allows us to shine a spotlight on the broadest range of rappers — Old School, New School, East Coat, West Coast, Southern, Gangsta, Trap Lords — and span the decades to include contemporary artists and Old-School pioneers, like Eric B. & Rakim. One of the cool side effects of this whole thing is that, my son — who’s 12 and way into Vince Staples and A$AP Rocky — saw a cover on my laptop and wanted to know who Schoolly D is! [Laughs]

The covers seen so far definitely span eras all the way, up to some rather contemporary material like Tyler the Creator’s “Wolf.” So far of the artists involved, there are people who have been Marvel regulars as of late — like Phil Noto, who did the “Squirrel Girl” variant based on that Tyler the Creator album — yet we’ve also seen Marvel going out of that field to artists who haven’t worked at the publisher in a while. What can you share about the process of picking which artists to bring in to contribute?

Alonso: Hip-hop and Marvel Comics are two vital threads of pop culture that have engaged in dialogue for at least a couple decades. A lot of people know that the Wu-Tang Clan reference Marvel characters in their rhymes, but few people know how many Marvel artists are deeply influenced by hip-hop music and its culture. These covers are an attempt to show that. To demonstrate how these two communities already overlap, and hopefully create [more] overlap; to increase the dialogue and open doors for new readers and new talent.

Of the artists that we’ve announced — and these are just a fraction of the artists doing these covers — some are currently drawing for us: Sanford Greene, Damion Scott, Mahmud Asrar, Mike Del Mundo, Jenny Frison. Some worked for us in the past and door is still wide open for them: Keron Grant — who did that amazing “All-New Wolverine” cover — Brian Stelfreeze — who did the amazing “Iron Man” cover — Jason Pearson, did the amazing “Uncanny Avengers” cover, and Khary Randolph, whose upcoming Run-DMC homage is [insane]! [Laughs] I gave DMC an advance look and he loved it.

What we haven’t revealed yet — I guess I’m doing it now — is that many of the artists doing these variants have never worked for Marvel before, and we’re using this unique platform to introduce them to our fans. Who knows, maybe they’ll be part of the next wave of talent? Or maybe someone out there seeing their work will be inspired to pick up a pen or pencil, or sit down at a keyboard, and maybe they’ll be part of the next wave of talent?

There definitely has been prominent criticism of the hip-hop covers, which spread very shortly after the covers were announced early last week. Primarily, the notion that this equals appropriation on Marvel’s part, due to embracing a Black artform for a variant cover initiative while there’s a noticeable lack of minority creators — specifically Black creators — on Marvel’s current ongoing titles. What’s your response to that criticism?

Alonso: When we launched this initiative, we knew there would be critics. At San Diego Comic-Con, I was previewing the covers on my iPhone for Reggie Hudlin and Denys Cowan, both of whom were blown away. Denys is doing a cover, by the way — any ideas which one…? [Laughs].

Anyway, we talked about how that this initiative would likely be a lightning rod for a broader discussion about diversity in comics, and I said so be it, that’s a good conversation to have. The entire comic book industry benefits from greater diversity, my editors — who are very racially diverse, by the way — know that, and you’ll see that throughout the “All-New, All-Different Marvel” [initiative] that continues through February. I am very excited about the stuff we have planned — especially “The Totally Awesome Hulk” and “Black Panther.” Yes, Black Panther.

But some of the “conversation” in the comics internet community seems to have been ill-informed and far from constructive. A small but very loud contingent are high-fiving each other while making huge assumptions about our intentions, spreading misinformation about the diversity of the artists involved in this project and across our entire line, and handing out snap judgments like they just learned the term “cultural appropriation” and are dying to put it in an essay. And the personal attacks — some implying or outright stating that I’m a racist. Hey, I’m a first-generation Mexican-American…[Laughs]

Not to mention the casual disrespect that’s been shown to the artists involved in this. One op-ed was so lazily researched that when the writer was confronted with his litany of factual errors on Twitter, he apologized, saying he didn’t know that most of the announced artists are Black. Dude, you call yourself a journalist: Do a Google search! [Laughs] And when he learned that the “3 Feet High and Rising” homage he’d asserted was in bad taste was rendered by an African-American artist [Sanford Greene] and that Posdnuos [of De La Soul] himself, gave props to the cover on Twitter, [the writer’s] response was, “Well, to each his own.” [Laughs] Look, the divide between these critics’ response to this initiative and that of the outside world and, indeed, the hip-hop community they claim to speak for couldn’t be bigger. I actually feel sorry for them.

The response of the hip-hop community to these variants has been tremendous. All the major hip-hop sites are shining a spotlight on this, and social media outside of comics has exploded with excitement — which means we are talking to a new audience. We’ve revealed less than a quarter of our variant covers at this point, and already the hip-hop community is showering us with love — including the hip-hop artists themselves. I’m talking luminaries: Killer Mike [of Run the Jewels], Posdnuos [of De La Soul], the legendary DMC, the Pharcyde, Pete Rock, Nas — they’ve all expressed their excitement and joy on social media.

They get what’s going on here. Hip-hop has its roots in African-American culture. And part of the beauty of the music and culture is that it’s grown into a culture that spans the globe and unites people of all races. At its core, hip-hop is a Black art form. It was pioneered by African-American artists — and, of course, Hispanics — but the contributions of all races to hip-hop’s evolution into a global culture can’t be denied. The artists that are doing these homages — Sanford Greene, Damion Scott, Juan Doe, Mahmud Asrar, Brian Stelfreeze, Mike Del Mundo, Jason Pearson — span the globe and the color spectrum. And all of them bring love to this project. This isn’t just another assignment to them. I mean, have you seen Mike Del Mundo breakdance? [Laughs]

I definitely appreciate your candor there — and in a larger sense, you’re saying definitively that there’s a concerted effort to bring greater diversity in creators to Marvel’s ongoing titles, and that’s something we’ll see the results of in the near future?

Alonso: Yes. Our doors are open. Always have been.

RELATED: Marvel Asks “What If?” the “Infinity” Event Went Down Differently

Before we get to fan questions, let’s change subjects fairly wildly and discuss the “What If? Infinity” one-shots announced last week, written by Joshua Williamson and illustrated by Mike Henderson, Riley Rossmo, Mike Norton, Jason Copland and Goran Sudzuka. Marvel seems to revisit the concept about once a year — at this point, what makes it, to you, worth revisiting year after year? And as someone who grew up with the monthly title, is there any chance to see “What If?” on a more regular basis?

Alonso: I love the “What If?” concept. The Marvel Universe is elastic, but there’s only so far you can stretch it sometimes — unless you’re doing a What If? story. As a young one, I loved “What If?” “What If?” #3 [“What If… The Avengers Had Never Been?”] is one of my all-time favorite Marvel stories. An army of Iron Men took on Hulk and Loki, Tony Stark died. It was fantastic. That’s a story that couldn’t have been told in the Marvel Universe.

The challenge, of course, is that in this day and age where readers and retailers seemingly put a premium on the importance of continuity — of a story “counting.” Well, “What If?” stories don’t really count. That’s where you’ve got to be up for the challenge.

We’ll wrap with a couple of fan questions from the CBR Community: HouseFrost, fresh from seeing “Ant-Man” and a newly converted Hope Van Dyne fans, asks: “I know that Janet has a lot of fans, but is there any chance that Hope will make her way into the comics at any stage? I usually don’t think much of comics changing to match the movies, but Hope was just too great and with the Fantastic Four out of business I think the ant family would be great fill-ins.”

Alonso: There is discussion of implementing some of the cinematic characters into our comic book plans for Ant-Man, but nothing concrete yet.

Let’s head into the weekend with Sasquatch by Night, thinking toward “All-New, All-Different Marvel” and asking, “Will War Machine be playing a role in Marvel Universe post-‘Secret Wars’? He seems to be the only Marvel Cinematic character who doesn’t seem to have some sort of role…”

Alonso: Not that I know of. But Brian [Michael Bendis] is still carving his long-term plans for Iron Man, so…

Have some questions for Marvel’s AXEL-IN-CHARGE? Please visit the AXEL-IN-CHARGE Q&A thread in CBR’s Marvel Comics community. It’s the dedicated thread that CBR will pull questions for next week’s installment of our weekly fan-supported question-and-answer column! Do it to it!