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, our ongoing all-star guest run continues as “Avengers Vs. X-Men” writer Jonathan Hickman joins the fray. Below, Alonso and Hickman discuss the writer’s role as the non-Avengers, non-X-Men writer of Marvel’s Architect team, explore the importance of world-building in books like “Secret Warriors” and “Fantastic Four,” tease upcoming storylines for Hickman’s many books, new and old, and share their thoughts on breaking into comics with big ideas and ambitions. Read on!
Kiel Phegley: Jonathan, welcome to the column! Let’s jump right in and talk about “AvX”. One of the most frequent comments and questions from readers since the announcement of the five-writer team for the event has involved the fact that, of all the guys working on the series, everyone has some experience with either the Avengers or the X-Men franchise except you. What was your response when the offer to be a part of the team came to you? Did you think “Where do I fit in to this story?”
Jonathan Hickman: Well, I’m writing “The Ultimates” over in the Ultimate line, and while that’s not our 616 Avengers, my head has been in that general space. I grew up reading those X-Men books, man, and all of those other guys have gotten to write this stuff. While it’s true I haven’t yet, I think that in some ways makes me more excited to work on this project. I’ve turned in two scripts so far and I think they’re fairly strong. I’ve just had a blast doing this.
Axel Alonso: I don’t think anyone was under-equipped to be involved in this event. Yeah, Brian has years of experience writing “Avengers” and Jason with X-Men; so they ended up playing a foreground role, but no one was a fish out of water. We knew we wanted Jonathan involved because he thinks big and, well, when he writes something, he always has a plan — believe me! [Laughter].
Jonathan, what part of this story proved the biggest draw for you? Had you been wanting to tackle some kind of event comic as a writer, or was there a piece of the story from the Phoenix Force on down that you really wanted to play with?
Hickman: I think probably — and obviously we have to talk about some of this stuff in the abstract since issue #1 hasn’t even hit yet — there was a specific issue as soon as we broke the story down that I wanted to write. I felt like I had the appropriate voice for it, and it was right in my wheelhouse. I asked for that issue, and everybody agreed that it was the issue I should do. We’re already seeing art for it, and all I can say is that Olivier Coipel can draw like a madman.
The other writers have talked to us about how the process of breaking out the stories major beats came together. What during that story conference stood out to you most in terms of everyone getting in and contributing to the broader whole?
Hickman: I think in regards to how we all work together and what we’re looking to get out of this, #1 we want to tell a great story. But immediately after that, there’s a sense that you want to one-up the guy right before you and right after you. It’s just accepting the challenge of working on the project.
Everyone mentions how you break out a lot of these notebooks full of your ideas at the summits. For the “AvX” #1, did you bring a few extra notebooks with nothing in them just as an intimidation technique?
Hickman: Well, I think there’s some world-building going on in this story that I was pretty suited for. But everybody agreed to let me take that part of it, so it’s appropriate that I got to write that chapter. Beyond that, the thing that needs noting is that I think the world of these guys. Yeah, they’re peers, and they’re all extremely talented. But over the past few years, and coalescing with this project, we’ve gotten to all be pretty close. So, the biggest thing I get out of this is doing the project with them and beyond that, working with some amazing artists I’ve never had the opportunity to before. It’s coming together to be a special thing. As far as my role in it, I’m just looking for us all to put out a great book. It’s not really about me.
Alonso: For the record, I’m pretty sure Jonathan brought one notebook.
Let’s talk a little bit about Jonathan’s work at Marvel leading up to this. As an independent creator, you had total control over the worlds you made, and then you had to come into the Marvel U, which has a long established history. Since your first big book was “Secret Warriors” with Bendis, I was wondering how you reflected on that writing relationship now that you’ll be working with Marvel newcomer Sam Humphries on “Ultimates.” Marvel often teams two writers together on a book at first to have a creative handoff happen. What’s the value in that kind of writing apprenticeship?
Alonso: Part of the challenge for working at Marvel is you have to tell stories that function as part of a larger picture. You have to be aware of how your story functions as part of a larger, ongoing narrative, and has implications for other stories. If you’re new to that experience, that’s where having a seasoned writer show you ropes can be helpful. It’s Hickman’s relationship with Brian [Bendis] or Cullen Bunn’s relationship with Jason [Aaron].
Hickman: I think Marvel does a really good job of looking at talent, seeing where they should be positioned and trying to put individual guys in the best possible place. Of course, it doesn’t work out every time, but I truly believe that Talent Management’s heart is in the right place. What I got from Bendis mentoring me was realizing what that position meant for him and what it meant for me. At that point in his career, it was really another assignment in a seemingly endless string of high profile assignments, and for me, it was a really a life-changing opportunity. Beyond being extremely talented and having a strong authorial voice, Bendis is really just a good guy. He stepped out of the way and wanted me to be me and do the best job I could. With Sam, I’m trying to do the same thing. It’s not really about Sam following what my plan was perfectly. I’m really more interested in Sam being Sam and being the guy whose talents got him in the door at Marvel. That’s what I took from it.
“Secret Warriors” was one of the rare mainstream superhero books that was working with a lot of brand new characters, and that’s even more rare considering it was led by a new writer to the company. Does having a name like Bendis on board help bring in readers on the ground floor for untested ideas?
Alonso: Yes. Writers with fan bases bring those fan bases to what they write. If Brian decides to write a smaller character — a character who doesn’t guarantee @$$&$ in seats — he can help put some @$$&$ in seats. Ditto for Jonathan, whose work on FF gives him credibility for his next project. Ditto for artists. John Romita Jr., Olivier Coipel, Adam Kubert — all those guys have fans. When we deploy them, it means we’re serious. We love the characters in our catalog, big or small. A large part of the reason I’m so excited about Nova and Ant-Man in 2012 is the creators involved.
Hickman: I think it’s really important, too, to treat the job like it’s your only possible chance: treat it like it’s the last book you’ll ever write at Marvel, even though it’s your first. I think you have to throw everything into those projects at every opportunity. Sometimes guys play it safe, and that’s always the wrong way to go.
Alonso: I couldn’t agree with that more. A writer should treat every job like it’s his last. Nothing irritates an editor more than knowing a writer just phoned it in. And readers know the difference between a first draft and a finished script, trust me.
Jonathan, are there any characters at Marvel that are a bit more far afield that you want to tackle? Like, do you really want to do the Shroud or something like that?
Hickman: I don’t even know who the Shroud is. [Laughter] I suck so bad! But yeah, there are plenty of characters I’d like to write. I have a really killer Imperial Guard pitch that I’ve got in my back pocket. Maybe I’ll get to that soon.
This would be the event to do that with! Well, the last thing I wanted to talk about is “Fantastic Four.” As much as that is the original Marvel comic and one of the classic, unbroken series in the publishing line, I get the sense that in today’s market, the FF can be viewed as a bit less essential. Even when big name creative teams were brought on, it had a harder time getting a big foothold in the market until recently. What do you make of the response to that book now? It feels like Jonathan’s run has been all about putting more muscle behind that comic as a big part of the Marvel U and the Marvel line.
Alonso: The success of the “Fantastic Four” has everything to do with the fact that it’s well written and well drawn and it has swagger. Jonathan’s found the perfect blend of mind-bending science fiction and family drama, and all the artists — Steve [Epting], Dale [Eaglesham], Barry [Kitson], Nick [Dragotta] — brought their A-game. It was the death of Johnny Storm that really put FF over the top, though. We never guessed that it would inspire such a reaction from fans — let alone the general public. And it all came down to how it was rendered. The death scene had weight. It got people’s eyes welling up. It worked.
Hickman: Yeah, I think a lot of credit has to go to the editorial on the book — specifically Tom Brevoort. I had written just a few issues of “Secret Warriors” at the point he asked me about taking over. [Laughs] Obviously, that was a gamble on his part, in that I really wasn’t anyone at that point. But then to let me be me and pitch a three year story? That’s just ridiculous. I know now in retrospect how ridiculous that was. But Tom bought into it, and the marketing department at Marvel bought into it. Everyone at the company really got on board, and we did our part writing and drawing the book at a pretty high level. But again, I think it goes back to having the right attitude when you get on something. You put everything you have into it, and you treat it like that book is the most important thing. You’re not going to succeed every time you do that, but if you give that kind of effort, I think the fans and the readers and the people who have been following the book for a long time will get it. They’ll know when you pour your heart into something, and we did that.
One thing we hear a lot about media today from comics to TV to novels is that you’ve got to have a real exciting, throat-grabbing opening to sell that story and carry the reader along through it. But what do you do if your idea doesn’t seem to hit as hard? When you have a three-year plan and it doesn’t go the way you thought, do you keep ideas on hand to wrap things early or work in some kind of payoff? In other words, how do you plan for course correction?
Hickman: A lot of this is just me trying new things. Like, I’d never written a long story before coming to Marvel. At that point at Image, I couldn’t really do that. I was the new guy doing a few indie books, and at that time I couldn’t sustain those over 20 or 30 issues. That was never an option. So when I walked in the door at Marvel, one of the first things I wanted to try was to tell a long story. I didn’t know if I could or not! [Laughs] I believed I could, but in execution I didn’t know if I could or not. Certainly in “Secret Warriors” I tried, and we tweaked some stuff there and moved some things around. It was a somewhat successful experiment, but I think I’ve done better with “Fantastic Four.”
But in regard to what happens if you have a three-year plan, and things go poorly — do you quickly wrap it up…I’d say no. You go down with the ship. That’s part of being completely committed to the story you’re telling. It’s okay to fail. But to have contingency plans for failure when you’re trying to succeed? I can’t relate to that. I disagree with that fundamentally, I suppose
Axel, working from the Editorial side, what’s your goal working with a writer who comes in with a grand plan? Does the collaborative nature of comics make these kinds of stories easier to tell than with, say, a novel or a film?
Alonso: The big way that comics are different from film as that there are a lot less chefs in the kitchen. Usually, it comes down to the writer, the editor, and the assistant. My goal, working with any writer, is to make sure they are telling the best story they can. To help them succeed — whether that means pairing them with the right project or helping them choose the best story arc to keep their title vital. They key is building trust. And out of trust comes chemistry.
When I’m working with a new writer, I always ask for an outline that takes me from point A to a general point B, and suggests the arcs of the characters, the themes explored, the point of the story. If I can’t understand the outline, I ask then to pare it down further so they are forced to focus on what really matters. Getting attached to details is a common mistake that new writers make. Sometimes they’ll cling to a detail that works at cross-purposes with the story they’re telling — whether it’s a scene, or a character trait or an exchange of dialog. It’s your job to help them see this. And it’s your job to make sure that their story clicks into the larger puzzle of the Marvel Universe. If a writer pitches a story where the Hulk goes on a murderous rampage across the U.S., you’re going to get a lot of attention for the pure shock value of that story, but where do you go after that? Can Banner ever really redeem himself from that?
Hickman: And let me add, that it’s not a valid story in the Marvel Universe if the details don’t work under the constraints of said universe. It doesn’t matter if I pitch a three-year plan if it’s a bad “Fantastic Four” story. Obviously, it’s all got to work just like Axel said. Just to be clear, I’m not bullheaded or stubborn about my stuff. I’d like to think I don’t have a big ego about it.
Alonso: At your first retreat, when you shared your ideas for “Fantastic Four,” you pitched seven years’ worth of stories! [Laughter] But hey — they were all good. I mean, the Council of Reeds! When you focused on the stories that made up your first year, it all clicked. And those ideas set the stage for your long run.
Like you said, the death of Johnny Storm brought a lot of national attention to the Fantastic Four. As you guys plan “AvX,” who might you kill this time?
Alonso: Who won’t we kill? [Laughter] Honestly, we can’t get into.
I had to give it the old college try! Moving on to fan questions for Jonathan, CMBMOOL asked something that a lot of people have been wondering about when he asked, “Why aren’t the Fantastic Four tie-into the upcoming Avengers vs X-men event given their strong ties to the Avengers, their children, especially their son, are powerful mutants, and the overall question of why hasn’t someone like Reed Richards look into the Phoenix Force or a way to reverse the M-day problem and for mutants to gain their powers back. I mean they were involved in the Onslaught saga, and that had Franklin Richards involved in the event. So why aren’t they at least concern with something as big as this given the cosmic threats they face in the past?”
Hickman: We’re trying really hard to not make this a sprawling thing. It’s why we’ve focused down to two main books beyond the tie-in issues that naturally occur in series that are Avengers and X-Men related. We’re trying to deliver a really, really easy to follow package for everybody, and that’s “Avengers Vs. X-Men” so it shouldn’t be surprising that Reed Richards isn’t front and center. I don’t think it’s a giant mystery that it’s not appropriate for the big event. But don’t worry. There’s killer stuff going on with FF while “AvX” is going on.
He follows up with this on the FF in particular, “The latest solicits for the Fantastic Four and the FF has the team heading into Wakanda territory and reuniting with the Black Panther, T’challa. Yet, how is that even possible when the Black Panther is not the king of Wakanda/ Protector of his land anymore?”
Hickman: Of course, all of that will factor in. I’m big on reading everyone else’s books and trying to make all of it fit together perfectly because I like puzzles. I understand people’s concerns, and they’ll all be addressed. I would like to point out one thing here because it’s a good place to do it: our solicits are incorrect, and all the Wakanda stuff will be happening a month after what they’ve been solicited for, so actually beginning in FF#607. Anyway, the Black Panther story in the main “Fantastic Four” book will be a two-parter setting up big end-of-year plans, and there will also be a single issue of the Future Foundation book, ‘Safari.’
And finally, he asked, “Also will Storm appear in these Fantastic Four/FF issues?”
T.M. Anthony asked, “Now that Jonny’s back how does that impact Spider-Man’s role on the team? Do you plan on using Web-head for the rest of your tenure on both FF and Fantastic Four? And if so, would he be predominately in the title Fantastic Four or FF? And will Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny/Spidey be calling themselves the Fantastic Four again or keep the Future Foundation look and name?”
Hickman: Spider-Man will pop up in both books, but I think the issue you’re looking for to explain how all those things fit together is “FF” #17.
The Future Foundation book obviously grew out of the story where Johnny was gone, but do you hope that will become a permanent fixture in the franchise?
Hickman: The Future Foundation stuff actually started before Johnny Storm died, and we just decided to make a radical departure after that happened, and “FF” is what we called the book. I think we discussed a bunch of things like “Future Foundation” and “First Family,” but “FF” stood out the best. It’s more like an FF world kind of book so that while the main “Fantastic Four” book will, after #604, be a place where we’re trying to make it about the core Lee/Kirby members, the “FF” series will be about the broader world that we’ve built. It’s all the tangential, really fun and really interesting and very relevant stuff that me and the artists have built over the past year or so.
Spidey616 has been on fire with some very specific questions about lost pieces of series over the past few weeks, and he asked, “Right before the FF title started, we saw some of the New Defenders escape Nu-World before it was destroyed but haven’t seen them since. Curious if they’ll be popping up again?”
Hickman: Yeah, they’ll pop up by the end of this year.
He followed up asking, “At a panel last year you mentioned having big plans for Wyatt Wingfoot and why he wasn’t at Johnny Storm’s funeral. Have things changed or are your plans for Wingfoot still in place?”
Hickman: No, they’re not in place. We kind of had to abandon that for various reasons I can’t talk about right now. There was a reason he wasn’t at the funeral, and I had some plans for what he was going to do, but we can’t do that anymore for some reasons that, again, I can’t talk about just yet.
Finally, he asked, “Love how you’ve been using the Kree in your FF run, so wondered if you’ll be playing with other Kree elements like Noh-Varr/Protector or Captain Marvel who’s returning in Remender’s ‘Secret Avengers’?”
Hickman: Well, I’m a big fan of all the Cosmic Marvel stuff. I think there’s a lot there that is worth mining and reintroducing or revisiting. And I think people that are fans of the Cosmic line of stuff are going to be really, really happy with where we’re heading — not just with the FF but in the broader Marvel U plans that I’m included in. It’s going to be very exciting for fans of all things Kree, all things Shi’ar and all things cosmic in the next year.
Well, that wraps this week’s A-i-C. Be sure to stick around for next week as we’ll be welcoming the Invincible, the Mighty, the Casanova-y Matt Fraction. Stop by the boards and ask any questions you may have for the writer!
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!