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 earlier this year 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 Message Boards, each week Alonso will shake things up with special guest stars, exclusive art reveals and more!
This week, we take a look back at Axel’s “secret origin” as a Marvel editor, getting the stories behind the biggest stories of his first ten years on staff at the House of Ideas. From J. Michael Straczynski’s “Amazing Spider-Man” to Peter Milligan and Michael Allred’s “X-Statix” on through hot button projects like “Rawhide Kid” and “Truth” and into his reign as Group Editor of the X-Men line with events like “Messiah CompleX,” Alonso peels back the curtain on his own Marvel past and how the lessons he learned there have impacted his work as Editor-in-Chief. Plus, a new round of exclusive art reveals and answers to your questions on the X-Men line, Elektra and more. Read on!
Kiel Phegley: Axel, we talk a lot in this column about where Marvel Comics is going in the future under your stewardship, but I wanted to take some time to wind back the clock a bit and talk about some of your biggest and most favorite runs from before you became E-i-C to get a better view of how you make the decisions you do now. Let’s start at the beginning…did they start you out on day one in the office say, “Do you want to edit Spider-Man”?
Axel Alonso: I knew I was going to edit Spider-Man before I came [to Marvel]. Then-Publisher Bill Jemas put Spider-Man on the table as part of the job offer. He liked my Vertigo books and knew some — like “Human Target” — had been optioned so he came to me, saying, “Let me give you a character who’s already gonna be in a movie and see what you can do with him.” [Laughs] That was the challenge.
Was JMS someone who was also part of this initial deal, or did that grow once you came over? I know you edited some stories with Howard Mackie before Straczynski started his run.
First, let me say that Howard Mackie is one of the most gracious people I’ve ever worked with. He was in a tough position when I came in because he knew I’d be making a change, and he was nothing but cooperative in helping me get storylines wrapped up for Joe Straczynski to have a clean launching pad. And I wanted JMS to write “Amazing Spider-Man.” There were two names on my list, JMS, who was writing my favorite super hero comic at the time, “Rising Stars,” and Grant Morrison, who I’d worked with at Vertigo. Joe said, “I want Grant for X-Men,” and I said, “Great. Straczynski it is.” [Laughter] And that was that.
Even though it was one of the first if not the very first book you worked on at Marvel, that “Amazing Spider-Man” run was also one of the longest runs you had as an editor. These days, with the exception of people like Ed Brubaker on “Captain America” or Bendis on “Ultimate Spider-Man,” we see a lot more short runs from talent on books — maybe a year or two as opposed to multi-year epics. What was your initial goal on the book? You guys shook a lot of things up on Spider-Man right out the gate. Did that set the tone for all the facets of the run to come?
On my first day of work, Bill Jemas told me — only half jokingly — “I want you to double sales, or else.” I figured the only way to do that was to make sure the book was as accessible as possible to new or lapsed readers. Of course, Joe [Straczynski] was of the same mind. In our first conversation we agreed that his first issue needed to pull readers right into Spider-Man’s world as if they were seated at the premiere of the Spider-Man movie, which, at that point in time, was almost a year away. We quickly agreed on the supporting cast and, indeed, the need for New York City to be its own character in the book — Spider-Man is inseparable from New York. John Romita, Jr.’s two-page splash in “Amazing Spider-Man” #30 really underscored that understanding.
From there, what did you see as your position at Marvel from the start? People always cite the kind of big, buzz-heavy books you edited like Garth Ennis’ “Punisher,” “Rawhide Kid” and “Truth” as being part of your influence, but I also remember a ton of smaller, stranger series like Azzarello’s “Banner” and the “Spider-Man Tangled Web” anthology as standouts. Did you want to make Marvel Comics with a different flavor?
Bill and Joe wanted to send a loud-and-clear message that Marvel was different, and this started with the creators. They wanted me to run wild with my Rolodex. Since the publishing plan called for three Spider-Man titles a month, and two titles were already cast — JMS on “Amazing” and Paul Jenkins on the sister title, “Peter Parker: Spider-Man” — I needed a hook for the third book, so I decided to go deep with my rolodex and create an anthology title. The result was “Tangled Web,” an anthology of stories set in Spider-Man’s shadow, so to speak. He might not be the star of an issue — indeed, in some issues he was literally nothing more than a shadow on a wall — but he was always a presence in the story. I tapped a lot of the people I’d been working with at Vertigo: Garth Ennis, Peter Milligan, Greg Rucka, Eduardo, Risso, Darwyn Cooke, Brian Azzarello, Darick Robertson, Kaare Andrews, Paul Pope, Duncan Fegredo — it was a fun title to edit.
Did those kinds of stories spill out into other books? Did that become a proving ground to get your guys in the Marvel system before doing things like putting Jones on the Hulk?
Yeah. I’d say so. I was new to superheroes, and a number of my writers and artists were, too. I remember my first conversation with [“Human Target” writer] Peter Milligan after he’d finished a story called “Flowers For Rhino” for “Tangled Web.” I’d just been entrusted with a book called “X-Force” with a simple mandate from Bill [Jemas] to “Run wild!” Pete flew in from London, we went out for beers and I said, “Peter, I’ve got this kinda-high concept for an X-Men book that might be up your alley,” and he pretty much said, “Not my cup of tea, mate.” But I kept going and he kept listening and we pretty much stayed up all night discussing the story of a mutant team that cashed in on their mutant powers. And by dawn, we’d pretty much beat out the entire first issue of the series, ending with the brutal evisceration of everyone in the book. [Laughter] The Comics Code didn’t like that.
A lot of projects came together that way. When I first came to Marvel, I purposefully left my office walls naked. Nothing went up on the wall until it was real. And the walls quickly filled up with character sketches: Mike Allred’s X-Force, Richard Corben’s Hulk, Eduardo Risso’s Kingpin, Darick Robertson’s Nick Fury.
Looking back, you’ve done a number of X-Force projects. Do you have a feeling for why that particular property seems to have so much life for you?
It’s pretty funny that I’ve had three “at bats” with a title that I didn’t have any affinity for. The first time, I was given carte blanche to overhaul the title, and Peter and Mike Allred put together a book that deconstructed the X-Men paradigm. The second time, a spinoff series grew out of “Messiah CompleX”: Craig Kyle & Chris Yost’s blacks ops team that took the fight to the enemy with extreme prejudice. And the third time, just when I thought I’d hung up my holster, we came to the conclusion that Cyclops, having just guided mutants back from the brink in “Second Coming,” was going to disband the team. We realized that someone — in this case, Wolverine — would always see the need for an X-Force, and out of that grew Rick Remender’s “Uncanny X-Force.” I’ve enjoyed all three books for very different reasons — which shows the strength of the X-Men franchise.
But at the same time, do you feel that what those books and that X-Force name share in common is that they all end up being the kind of outlier X-Men book? Each one of them in their own time proved to be the kind of “other” title for the franchise where as something like “Uncanny X-Men” is always going to be the straightforward flagship.
I would agree. It’s a title that clearly screams “satellite book” — meaning a title on the periphery of the core stuff that delivers a different kind of punch. The various manifestations of X-Force have done just that. People are eating up [Rick] Remender’s take right now.
The other thing that stands out to me about a lot of your books is how easily so many of them have been reformatted as graphic novels or complete trade collections. You’ve talked about that accessibility aspect of coming in to Marvel. Has part of your focus been on making comics that can stand alone a bit, and what are the stand outs to you in that front?
That’s always a goal when I’m given a title: to make sure that first issue is as accessible as possible. Even something rooted in complex continuity, like “Messiah CompleX” — you’ve got to make sure that new readers understand the setup, the stakes, the players, and what they’re fighting for.
After the Straczynski/John Romita, Jr. Spider-man proved to be successful, Bill [Jemas] came to me and said, “Okay…now do the same thing with Hulk.” Before I even started talking with writers, I knew I wanted to cut against the grain of what readers had come to expect in “Incredible Hulk”: multiple psyches and huge-scale villains. I wanted to go back to basics, to borrow a page from the Bill Bixby TV show and open with Bruce Banner on the run, hunted for a crime that his alter ego apparently committed. Shaved head, contact lenses, living out of a suitcase with a laptop as his only weapon, and doing everything he can to his heart rate down and the monster in check. I wanted Banner to live in the real world for a few issues so when the Hulk appeared, he had scale.
The other aspect of your time at Marvel which I wonder how much it’s impacted your E-i-C life are the books like “Truth” or “Rawhide Kid” where the story hooks immediately became big national new stories. You have to know that those kinds of projects are going to get attention and get some readers riled up, but did watching the reaction to those series at all impact your approach to pursuing series that will have a big, maybe controversial, media foot print?
“Rawhide Kid” came about because I wanted to work with [artist] John Severin. I’m looking through all the old Marvel Western characters — Ghost Rider, Kid Colt, Red Wolf — when I linger on Rawhide Kid — white hat, with matching gloves and kerchief, black leather outfit, stylish red hair — and a light bulb goes off in my head. So I call John: “Listen, you can hang up on me if you want, but here’s the thing: You remember the Rawhide Kid?” And John says, “I drew him before you were born.” And I say, “He’s too good-looking to be straight.” And then there was silence. And just when I thought he was going to hang up on me, John said, “You know what? I always wondered.” And that was that. We took a traditional Western — enigmatic cowboy rides into dusty desert town plagued by banditos, saves the day, reunites the sheriff and his estranged son, wins the hearts of everybody, and then rides off into the sunset — and deconstructed the paradigm. This Rawhide Kid would kick your butt, then fret over the fingernail he split doing it. [Laughs]
Ditto for “Truth.” When we posted our first image of Isaiah Bradley — the silhouette of an African American man in a Captain America costume — the media latched onto it as a story of interest, but a lot of internet folks lined up against it, assuming, for whatever reason, that it would disparage the legacy of Steve Rogers. By the time the story was done, the dialog around the series had substantially changed. One high-profile reviewer even wrote a column admitting he’d unfairly pre-judged the series, that he now saw it was about building bridges between people, not burning them — which I deeply respected. It’s especially meaningful when you edit a story that functions as a little more than pure entertainment.
So with all these examples from your own Marvel career, how do you pay the things you’ve learned forward as Editor-in-Chief? Do you find yourself impressing upon the staff ideas of accessibility and suggestions on recruitment and what have you?
To a degree. At this point, though, the editorial staff — certainly all the senior editors — are trained to do just that. My job is more about macro-planning, putting our writers and artists in the best position to succeed. The first building block, of course, is the editors — their ability to build relationships of mutual trust with their writers and artists. When a writer knows that his editor is doing his job — helping him get to a mutually agreed-upon goal line — he will excel. If the editor is a wannabe-writer or an egomaniac whose taste changes on a dime — who could, in fact, [change] the goal-line at any time in the process — the writer is, well, kinda screwed. There are horror stories out there.
Have your practices bled into big, turning point Marvel projects like this “Point One” book we’re seeing teases for of late? With something like that, are you keeping a hand in how those solo tales roll on into future ongoings the same way something like “Tangled Web” once did?
[VP for Publishing] Tom [Brevoort] deserves all the credit for [the] “Point One” [one-shot]. He was the one who suggested an anthology that premiered some of Marvel’s biggest books and initiatives for 2012, using the proven accessibility of the Point One formula, and got the talent on board.
If you could pick one project that you’ve worked on, whether it be one that was very successful or a much more difficult task that you feel prepared you most for what you deal with now, what would it be?
The biggest challenge I ever faced was when Dan [Buckley] and Joe [Quesada] asked me to become X-Men Group Editor. When I was offered Spider-Man, I could tap all the Spider-Man comics I’d read as a kid, the Spider-Man cartoon, even the corny “Electric Company” skits. [Laughs] With X-Men, I couldn’t. It took a lot of research to climb the mountain. I relied on hardcore X-Men fans, like Nick Lowe, to point me toward the most important stories so I could formulate a game plan. Eventually, I was able to wrap my mind around the X-Men universe enough to devise a game-plan, and over time, I grew to actually love them.
I don’t think “Messiah CompleX” was your first big crossover as an editor, but was it significantly different than others that you’d worked on in the past?
Without a doubt. Prior to “Messiah CompleX,” I’d been involved in crossovers, but only as a consulting editor who read scripts and advised on story, never as someone guiding the creative discussion of a room full of writers and editors. Going in, there were two things I wanted to agree upon quickly. First, an inciting incident: The blip on Cerebra that indicated a possible mutant birth at a time when mutants viewed themselves as an endangered species. Second, clearly defined camps of interest, each with a clear motivation , and not too many of them — I didn’t want this to be “Around The World In 80 Days,” with 17 different groups with different agendas. People bought into both these notions pretty quickly and the ideas flowed. And when one writer suggested we spend an hour or two discussing individual character motivations, I remember writing on the feltboard, “1. Save the baby. 2. Control the baby. 3. Kill the baby — there are no other motivations.” That kind of helped us keep our focus. The X-Men raced to save the baby, the Marauders raced to control the baby, and the Purifiers raced to kill the baby — simple as that. I am very proud of what the writers and artist did with that event. It set up so much.
Moving on to some fan questions that cover the gamut of new to old, let’s start with an X-Statix query from Filip who asked, “Is Doopsday happening anytime soon?”
Sticking with the X-Men line, havok1977 wondered after a more practical concern, asking, “Do you guys at Marvel editorial really think that 8 ongoing X-Men related team books plus the solos (12+ total?) is the appropriate amount to publish? I’m just saying, every comic fan has a budget and with so many coming out there is no way people will be able to fit in all the X characters that they care about.
In my case I’m currently pulling Schism, Uncanny X-Force, Wolverine solo, Uncanny X-Men and after the dust settles, I’ll get the upcoming cartoony titled Wolverine and the X-Men; and still I feel like I’m missing out on the Havok/Polaris/Rachel Grey return going on at X-Men legacy… and who will be featured on X-Factor come Regenesis.
Being a fan who started out in the early to mid 90s I just find it very hard to follow pretty much the amount of characters that used to fit in six or so ongoing books. Considering I also buy books from other Marvel properties, DC and independents I can only fit so much in my comic monthly budget – which is not meager around the $100 range; how are fans going to be able to keep up with it all of it?
Maybe I’m just ranting here, but wouldn’t streamlining the X books to a manageable number/consistently priced at $3 per issue policy would make some amount of sense…”
Uhm. There’s a question in there somewhere. Maybe it’s, why do you publish so many X-Men books? Well, the market decides how many X-Men books more than we do, havok1977. When readers don’t support an X-Book, we usually cancel it. What we try to do is give each X-Men book a clear identity and mission statement and make it as best we can.
On to a spinoff question from recent events in “Uncanny X-Force,” AnonymousMC asked, “With the story of Dark Angel Saga nearing its end, and with the possible return of Apocalypse approaching, I have a question regarding both Chamber and Blink. Both characters have a connection to Apocalypse, but they do not seem to be highlighted in any of the current or aforementioned story arcs. Will their roles regarding Apocalypse and/or the Clan Akkaba ever be a expounded upon? There is seems to be great potential in the stories for both of these two characters, (especially with there connections to Apocalypse) but it doesn’t seem that any details, regarding there connection, will be revealed.”
There are no current plans for Apocalypse-centric stories featuring Chamber or Blink in the pages of “Uncanny X-Force,” Havok1977. However, Blink will be making an appearance over in “New Mutants” sometime soon, so don’t…blink.
And to wrap with something completely different, board member Handsome One wanted to know if there was something special in the offing for a particular lady assassin: “Hi, Axel. Elektra’s my fave character, and I’m loving that she’s appearing in both ‘Herc’ and ‘PunisherMAX.’ But she deserves her own mini – her last one, the Dark Reign one by Zeb Wells and Clay Mann, was amazing! Do you have anything new on the books for her?”
Lots of Elektra, in fact. She goes head to head with another famous Marvel Greek, in “Herc” #9 (on sale 10/19) and #10 (on sale 11/30). She plays bodyguard to the Kingpin after Frank Castle escapes from jail with vengeance on his mind, in “PunisherMAX” #18 (on sale 10/12). And “Avenging Spider-Man” writer Zeb “The Voice of his Generation” Wells loves him some Elektra, so you never know…
Have some questions for Marvel’s AXEL-IN-CHARGE? Please visit the CUP O’ Q&A thread in CBR’s Marvel Universe forum. It’s now the dedicated thread for all connections between Board Members and the Marvel Executive staff that CBR will pull questions for next week’s installment of our weekly fan-generated question-and-answer column! Do it to it!