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, Axel brought along a surprise guest to the part – incoming “Uncanny Avengers” writer Rick Remender. Already an acclaimed name in creator-owned circles before coming to Marvel, Remender’s status with superhero fans has grown over the past several years with runs on titles including “Venom” and “Uncanny X-Force.” This week, he recounts his personal history with Axel, explains how creator-owned comics gave him a leg up at planning big stories at Marvel, describes his X-Force history and reveals incoming secrets on his Marvel NOW! book including the early years of “Captain America” and the role Havok will play in “Uncanny Avengers.” Read on!
Kiel Phegley: Gentlemen, welcome! Readers may not know this, but you two are in the same room right now because there’s a Marvel Editorial retreat happening this week. What are you guys cooking up this week?
Axel Alonso: We’ve convened a small group to talk about…a story of great importance to the Marvel Universe next summer. Not your typical retreat. We’re still in the thick of it. It’s been a…very lively and brain-twisting couple of days.
Rick Remender: That’s true. “lively and brain-twisting,” is the official title of the meeting. [Laughter]
Well, I’ve got to say, Rick, I hear Axel talk about how heated the creative debates can get so often that I’m glad you’re not reporting that Hickman got taken to the emergency room or something.
Remender: Actually, things go the opposite way. The angrier we get, the more we cuddle it out. We just snuggle with each other to solve problems. They bring in tons and tons of ice cream, and we just eat comfort food and kind of hold each other and talk through motivations.
Alonso: I call dibs on Dan Slott for cuddling buddy!
Let’s wind things back a ways. Rick, you’ve been working at Marvel for a while, but I get the impression the start of your relationship with Axel started back when you co-wrote some “Punisher” stories with Matt Fraction, right?
Remender: Yeah, it was on “War Journal.” I can’t remember the exact numbers any more since so many comics have come since then, but that’s where I came in. It wasn’t quite the full monty for me. Matt and I sat down and plotted that story together, and then the scripts were split 50/50 where I would write ten pages and he would do ten.
And Axel had edited me on some short “Wolverine” stories, but it wasn’t until “Punisher” #1 that we really went in and made sweet comic book love.
Axel, what was your first impression of Rick’s writing? Did you follow his creator-owned work, or did Matt help bring him to your attention?
Remender: Can I answer that question for Axel? Axel’s impression of Rick was “This guy is SO gifted that it’s criminal he’s not an incredibly wealthy and famous man.” And so Axel took it upon himself to make sure that’s where Rick’s future lies. Axel thinks Rick is not only a handsome man, but beyond the abilities of…well he’s almost a god. When Rick’s not in the room, that’s what Axel will say about him to most anyone who will listen.
Alonso: When I think of Rick, the first two words that come to mind are “punk rock.” And I mean AUTHENTIC punk rock, like the kind on Rick’s iPod – Green Day or No Doubt – not the lame stuff like Black Flag or Bad Brains. [Remender Laughs] Sorry, we’re on a 15-minute break from the retreat so we’re a bit punchy.
It was Rick’s work on “Fear Agent” that caught my attention. It was a nifty book, but I wasn’t sure how to cast him [at Marvel]. He did some short story work, then co-wrote several issues of “Punisher War Journal” with Matt Fraction before he pitched to launch a new Marvel Universe “Punisher” series with [artist] Jerome [Opeña], using [the] “Dark Reign” [event] as the launching pad. What I like about Rick is that his mindset is always “Go big or go home.” He’s very inventive, like the time the Punisher used Ant-Man’s helmet to shrink down and ride into a mafia HQ on a slice of pizza. Or “Frankencastle” – I contemplated for many a sleepless night before I agreed to pull the trigger. Okay, internet, you’re free to go ballistic. [Remender Laughs] It turned out to be a really fun romp, as different a take on the Punisher as you can get.
There are a ton of projects that have hit from Marvel over the past few years, but if I had to single out one book that I felt really caught on with a wide group of readers, it was “Uncanny X-Force.” Axel, you were the initial editor on that series. What were both of your memories of putting that comic together? It seems like it can be a tough sell to say, “Let’s take these characters that have starred in movies and put them in a story where they have to debate killing a child.”
Remender: Sure. But given that the mandate of X-Force is to have every arc feature a different assassination or kill, it separates it from other X-books and gives it its own home. So every arc has to have somebody go down, and you want to find interesting ways to do that. Axel edited the book for four or five issues before Jody [LeHeup] took over, and as we workshopped this at the San Diego X-retreat and beyond, the most important thing was to find interesting new ways and new dilemmas to present the team with. So I took that assassination mandate and made it more of an ethical quandary.
When we came up with that idea for each kill to have an ethical quandary where the dominos fell and led to new problems, it started to present a lot of different philosophical opportunities. There’s the nurture versus nature debate with this kid who is supposed to grow up to be the classic villain Apocalypse. The more we dreamt this stuff up, the more it became clear that this was the right direction for the series. And I tried to make sure that every arc had some kind of very interesting and strange twist on the fact that they had to go kill somebody.
Alonso: Yeah, Rick pitched a great high concept: What if the X-Force – the X-Men’s wet works team – were to discover that their latest target is just a kid? Could they do it? It’s the eternal question – if you had the chance to go back in time and kill Hitler, would you do it? It put the X-Force team in a real pickle, and once the deed was done, it cast a huge shadow over them. It was their shame and their secret, it bonded them, and it set the tone for the rest of the series.
One thing I think is different for Rick coming in to Marvel versus some other guys who started in creator-owned was that many new faces have done a mini series or a graphic novel here or there. You, on the other hand, had done some significant long-form series before doing a Marvel book. Did that at all change your approach to how to pitch a Marvel monthly title?
Remender: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s been a huge benefit that I had 23 creator-owned graphic novels under my belt before I dug into it because I had the opportunity to get my learning curve out of the way before being on a bigger stage. I think structurally, “Fear Agent” was written to be 35 issues, it had planned out beginning, middle and end so I knew where I was going. While we didn’t know every single beat of “X-Force” at the start, we seeded in issue #2 that Archangel was taking over Warren. We seeded the relationship between him and Betsy, Fantomex’s crus, the Kid Apocalypse etc. The first arc set up the rest. I think one of the best things I learned was how to have a general idea of where your characters are heading when you start.
One thing that Axel really taught me as well was that just having a basic outline is not enough. I learned you’ve got to take those outlines, beat them up, rework them and figure it all out. I studies screen writing, wrote a couple screenplays, really studied foundation due to his editing. When a reader hits issue #15, they should see that there is intention and that you’ve been planning this since issue #1. As a reader, you don’t want to feel as though the writer’s been making this all up as they go. And it really makes for more satisfying stories. So while I had the experience of doing long form in creator-owned book, I definitely learned how to hone it and the dedication and discipline of craft where I can sit down and spend weeks and weeks beating up outlines and slowly beating up character arcs so I can get into their heads and occupy the characters. I give my scripts and outlines at least three times as much time now.
So I’d say what I brought in was helpful, but as hard as it is to say it with Axel here, I’ve genuinely learned a whole lot working with him and the other great editors here at Marvel.
Alonso: Part of that challenge [of writing for Marvel] is learning how to write stories that function in the context of a larger universe. And the bigger the title you’re working on, the larger its cast is, the bigger the challenge is.
Let’s talk about Rick’s role in Marvel NOW! I have to admit, one thing I’ve heard said over the past few years and that I’ve probably said myself is, “I would not want to be the guy to follow Ed Brubaker on ‘Captain America.'” Rick, what made you want to be the guy to follow Ed on that book?
Remender: You know, I had to get to a point where I distanced myself from the previous run and thought to myself, “Do I have a story to tell with Captain America?” Finding that story and that tone took some time, but once I got there, I felt it was the right decision. Like anything, writing is a puzzle. Your first five drafts are shit, and then you start whittling it down into something good. It’s like sculpting. And if while I was doing that work, I kept thinking, “Ed Brubaker had a beloved and Eisner Award-winning run on this book,” I’ll either end up pandering to those people’s expectations and trying to make them like me too. But the better option is to do what I think is right, has heart and develops the character in a bold new way that speaks to my sensibilities.
In this case, we haven’t seen a high adventure “Captain America” since Kirby went crazy with “Mad Bomb” and all of those wonderful stories with Arnim Zola and all of that nuttiness. I love that stuff! That stuff was a huge influence on “Fear Agent” along with the EC stuff from Wally Wood and those guys. With all that stuff being such a huge influence on me, my goal was not to take Captain America backwards or rewind him to that era but instead to infuse the new stories with that sensibility. It was an exciting opportunity. I believe in it. It has real heart and a lot of adventure. We’re telling Cap’s origin story that’s never been seen. What happened to Cap from the day he was born to the day he was 12 years old? We’re telling that story in great detail in these first ten issues. And you’ve got John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson and Dean White knocking the visuals out way out of the park.
This story is about character at its heart. The action is a byproduct of that. All I can do is be confident that I put in my time and that I’m writing this to the best of my abilities. I can’t sit around thinking about what some person’s reaction might be to that, otherwise I’m just going to pander to those expectations. And that makes for a shitty comic.
Alonso: Marvel NOW! is all about creators bringing a bold new vision to their book. We weren’t going to tap someone to write “Captain America” that was skittish about stepping into Ed Brubaker’s shoes. And Rick wasn’t. He and [artist] John [Romita Jr.] are injecting the book with a whole new sensibility and the unlimited special effects budget of the old Lee and Kirby issues. This is a “Captain America” book the likes of which we haven’t ever seen.
John Romita, Jr. seems like a good fit for this feel on Cap. What are some of the specific flourishes to this concept that you’re building into the series for him specifically?
Remender: Well, there’s so much. Honestly, the human stuff of Steve growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the ’20 and ’30s during the Depression just establishes how this human being is more than a costume throwing a shield, but who’s also patriotic. They say that at seven, you can see who the man will be in a person. Your youth builds you. How did Steve Rogers become the 98 lbs. weakling who was going to fight in World War II no matter what? We always just take that part of him for granted.
Seeing John draw that and the humanity he adds to that is reminiscent of his work on “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear.” And it’s not derivative. It’s an entirely new thing for him given the time period and the look of the piece. It’s a nice juxtaposition between that and the big science fiction stuff with Zola and Dimension Z where I’m flexing my Kirby sci-fi/Wally Wood sci-fi/”Fear Agent” muscles. There have been things in the first issues that John has come up with that are mind-blowing. I write him a double-page vista in every issue with as much craziness as I can, and the wonderful thing about Dimension Z is that it offers such an amazing new world to explore. There’s a real fantasy element to it. So seeing everything he’s done on the art has been fantastic. The action he’s done so far is obviously as good as it gets. He’s the heir to Kirby, and we’re fortunate to have him on the series.
Looking at “Uncanny Avengers,” we’ve heard so much that this is the book that couldn’t exist without “AvX” happening first. What was the #1 lesson or the #1 condition that event gave you that impacts how you do this book from page 1 on?
Remender: The healing aspect of it. Given that you’ve got two bands of heroes charged with protecting earth and humanity. That’s their bottom line. It’s what they’re here to do. They’ve had a war, Charles Xavier is dead, and there are all sorts of emotional problems going on. If these guys don’t behave like ethical, strong people and heal in a public way, things aren’t going to get better. I think things have gotten much worse for mutant relations in the Marvel U. They’ve been hunted down, and then Wanda reduced them to 200. This is an opportunity for Steve Rogers to do what he didn’t do before and spur on an effort to put a public spin on mutants that’s positive.
When you see the day saved by Thor, Havok and Rogue, it sends a message that we’re all in this together. It creates unity and helps heal the rift that “AvX” left. That’s not going to be easy. I think that the wonderful stuff in “AvX” means that it’s just as fun to watch those guys heal as it was to watch them break down.
Alonso: I think you’d be hard pressed to find a book that deals with the legacy of Charles Xavier more than “Uncanny Avengers.” And you won’t find a more “Oh $#!%!” final page of a first issue this year. Quote me on that. Oh, you already are. Put it in bold italics. [Laughter]
In the makeup of this team, we’ve got some very obvious faces for the team like Cap or Rogue, but there are also some people who of late have been a bit more far afield from either franchise such as Havok. As you were choosing the team, what drew you to the cast that made them representative of either the X-Men or the Avengers?
Remender: It was a huge conversation with Tom [Brevoort] and Axel. We went over the pros and cons of every character, and it really came down to the character’s fiber. We went through their fiber and who they are and why they’d be on this team. Some of them might not really belong on this team, but through the chaotic events that bring them together, they’re forced to find a way. Therein lies character arcs and drama. I looked a lot at what their interpersonal dynamics would be.
Knowing that coming out of “AvX” Scott Summers would no longer be the same character as he was and that since he went a little more “Magneto” and dark that Charles was dead, I really fell in love with the idea that Cap turns to Scott’s brother and says, “Alex, Charles is gone. Scott is gone. Somebody’s got to step up, and you’ve got time working with the government in X-Factor. You’re a student of Xavier. You’re a clean-looking guy and a college graduate. You’ve led a number of teams. This is you. This is where you’ve got to stand up.” And Alex has always been a bit of a black sheep, but he’s also one of my favorite X-Men. He was #1 of my list not just because of the context of why he works in the situation but also because I love that he’s the classic younger brother. Even though he wasn’t aware of Scott his entire life, as soon as he was, the dynamic they had was that Scott was the respected field marshall while Alex was the guy who was mostly off in the fringes. I love taking a character like that and putting him to the forefront where he leads a squad of Avengers whose job it is to clean up mutant/human relations.
The last thing I’ve got to ask about is John Cassaday on art. I remember interviewing him a few years ago after he wrapped his “Astonishing X-Men” run about how Joss Whedon had invited him out to direct an episode of “Dollhouse,” and I thought, “Well, there goes John Cassaday on to Hollywood fame.” What did you have on him that you got him back to doing a monthly book again?
Alonso: I met John at his favorite watering hole and leveled with him, said, “This series set the tone for the next decade’s worth of Marvel publishing and I’d kill for you to draw it.” Then I gave him the series outline and a sampling of Rick’s work, most notably “Uncanny X-Force,” and that was that. A few days later, John texted me and said, he liked it. Shortly after, we closed a deal.
The orders for “Uncanny Avengers” are insane, and it’s a team effort, but John’s role in putting us through the stratosphere can’t be underestimated. He’s a one-of-a-kind artist.
Remender: And as for leaving, I don’t think anybody gets out. Comic books are in our blood. I was making a very comfortable living doing storyboarding and all these different jobs I held, but no matter what, my nights were not spent out drinking or having fun. They were spent making comic books and comic books and comic books. Sometimes you may go off and work on something else for a while, but inevitably, the purity of intention in comic books is too attractive. It’s just you, your editors and your artist making exactly what you want. There’s no other medium where you can do that. So I think the allure of coming back to comics – I can’t speak to John specifically, but most guys I know just can’t stay away for too long.
Alonso: And let’s face it, comics needed its sexiest man alive back! [Laughter] Have you SEEN John Cassaday!?
Rick, let’s see if we can’t get some answers for fans sending in their Remender-specific queries starting with Spidey616 who is wondering about what’s in store for the finale of your “Secret Avengers” run and specifically for Axel, he wants to know, “Remender recently confirmed he’ll be leaving Secret Avengers at issue #37, does this mean the series will be ending and/or relaunching with a new creative team will be taking over?”
Remender: The story ends as the book end to the Descendant’s story I started in issue #22. It’s been in the plans for some time, and I feel very confident we’re going to go out with a bang. Thing is almost it’s own mini-event. We’ve got new superstar art team Matteo Scalera and Matt Wilson kicking down serious scientific business. The robots are done hiding, the rise of the Descendants is upon us!
Spidey follows up with, “With the original Red Skull appearing in Remender’s Uncanny Avengers series, what does this mean for the Skull’s daughter Sin who’s taken up his mantle?”
Remender: We have plans for her. She’s not forgotten.
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!