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INTERVIEW: Axel Alonso Looks Back at Marvel’s 2016, Details What’s Next

by  in CBR Exclusives, Comic News Comment
INTERVIEW: Axel Alonso Looks Back at Marvel’s 2016, Details What’s Next

In the rather tumultuous year of 2016, Marvel has remained one of the world’s biggest brands. Along with the worldwide success of Marvel Studios films like “Captain America: Civil War” and “Doctor Strange,” the company’s publishing line has remained strong — though it faced a formidable challenge this year with DC Comics’ popular “Rebirth” line-wide refresh, which took the top spot from Marvel in both unit and dollar market share on the direct market Diamond charts for three months this year.

In 2016, Marvel publishing continued its focus on legacy characters, introducing Riri Williams as Ironheart and the star of “Invincible Iron Man,” along with sticking to prior moves including Amadues Cho as the “Totally Awesome Hulk,” Sam Wilson as Captain America and Jane Foster as Thor. The company also made headlines and stirred controversy by bringing back Steve Rogers as Captain America — and quickly revealing that history had been rewritten to make him a secret Hydra agent. 2016 also saw the debut of the new “Black Panther” series from National Book Award Winner Ta-Nehisi Coates and acclaimed artist Brian Stelfreeze, and the conclusion of Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s universally praised “The Vision.”

CBR talked in-depth with Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso about the company’s past year and major initiatives like the “Civil War II” event, along with looking towards the future — including the “ResurrXion” relaunch of both the X-Men and Inhumans titles, scheduled to debut in spring 2017.

CBR: Axel, let’s start with some of the big news from the past few weeks. This month, readers saw in “Clone Conspiracy” #3 that Ben Reilly was back from the dead, and in fact, the antagonist of the story. That character that was right up there with Bucky for a while in the list of Marvel characters fans didn’t expect to see return, and obviously Bucky was brought back over a decade ago and that was a big hit. Now we have Ben Reilly back — were you skeptical at all of this move?

Axel Alonso: This may be shocking, but I really wasn’t skeptical. All of us up here know “The Clone Saga” and the wildly varied and passionate responses it got. But it was exactly the type of thing that Dan Slott gravitates toward and, quite frankly, hits out of the park. Remember, this is the guy who killed Peter Parker, swapped his brain with Doc Ock and turned that into one of the most successful Spider-Man runs. So we knew odds were good that he was going to rock this twist and return.

x-men-resurrxion-staying

Recent weeks have also seen the unveiling of Marvel’s ResurrXion lineups, with new books for both the X-Men and Inhumans lines. It’s certainly something of a change of direction for the X-Men, and the message it that it’s more hopeful and more of an old-school feel, while still building on what we’ve seen in recent years. What kind of statement does this lineup make about the X-Men?

It’s really simple. Ever since “House of M,” the X-Men have had a dark cloud hovering over them: First, it was Wanda’s declaration of “no more mutants,” more recently, the Terrigen Mists. “ResurrXion” is where we pivot away from all that, and lean hard into the notion of a united and hopeful X-Men. They’ve still got problems, they’ve still got enemies, but they’ve also got each other. In “Blue,” “Gold” and “Weapon X,” the X-Men are superheroes fighting for what they believe in, unencumbered by the existential questions and in-fighting that have nagged at them for years. There’s a sense of optimism and unity at the core of all these books.

With that, the creative teams, especially the writers, are a combination of names we’ve seen at Marvel quite a bit over the years, such as Cullen Bunn and James Robinson, and also some new voices like Christina Strain, who readers mainly know as a colorist, and Sina Grace. How important was that, to combine new blood and some veteran voices?

We definitely wanted to mix it up. Over in the new voices category, Christina Strain – who currently writes for SyFy’s “The Magicians” and is known for her contributions to Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s run on “Runaways” – is bringing a very cool take on “Generation X,” and Sina Grace brings some of the same punch, wit and heart to “Iceman” as he did to his largely autobiographical work, “Not My Bag” and his action-packed love letter to ’80s video games, “Burn the Orphange.”

Over in the veterans category, we have Marc Guggenheim — a successful TV showrunner who made his comic book debut with “Wolverine: Civil War” and has never stopped reminding us that writing a core X-Men book is his dream job — achieving that dream with “X-Men Gold,” a book that should hit hardcore X-fans in their sweet spot. All-star team, big bad villains, baseball in the park, and our secret weapon: [artist] Ardian Syaf, who is going to blow you away. Then there’s Cullen Bunn, who brings a killer hook to “X-Men Blue”: Professor X’s worst nightmare is realized when the Lee and Kirby X-Men fall under Magneto’s wing. Hope they survive the experience. And then there’s Greg Pak, who has put together just the roster to will deliver the wall-to-wall action and high body-count book you’d expect for a book called “Weapon X.”

That one sounds like kind of an X-Force vibe.

There’s a reason we’re calling it “Weapon X,” and not “X-Force” or “X-Factor.” You’ll see why in issue #1.

inhumans-prime-cover-feature

ResurrXion is also a new start for the Inhumans, with new books starring those characters coming out of the launch. How do you see those characters benefitting from this push?

“Inhumans vs. X-Men” provided a great platform to introduce the Inhumans to folks who were not familiar with them and differentiate them from the X-Men, and its culmination will bring about a huge paradigm shift — not only for the relationship between mutants and Inhumans, but for the relationships among the ranks of Inhumans. “Inhumans Prime” #1 — written by Al Ewing and drawn by Ryan Sook — will set up the new dynamic facing the Inhuman Royal Family and the multitude of new Inhumans who’ve been effected by unilateral decisions made by this select group. The Royals have a lot to answer for.

After that, Al [Ewing] and [artist] Jonboy Meyers will launch “Royals,” a new ongoing series that will take the Inhuman Royal Family to the far reaches of the Marvel Universe and dig deep into Inhumans history. It’s an action-packed space odyssey that will examine the scars left by the fact that they created and then abandoned by an all-knowing alien race. Who are the Inhumans really? What is their place in the universe? This series will offer definitive answers.

With the Royal family gone, a new generation of Inhuman heroes — all of whom play a huge role in “IvX” — will step forward to clean up the huge mess left for them. The book is “Secret Warriors,” the team is Quake, Ms. Marvel, Moon Girl and Inferno, and it’s brought to you by [writer] Matthew Rosenberg and [artist] Javier Garrón.

And finally, Black Bolt — the most famous and powerful Inhuman — is getting his first, long overdue solo series. [Writer] Saladin Ahmed and [artist] Christian Ward are throwing Black Bolt into the bowels of an inescapable prison unlike any you’ve ever seen before, populated by some of the most colorful characters you’ve ever met. Who put him there and why? Those are just two of the interesting questions that will be asked and answered.

Let’s look back at the year and start with the direct market sales numbers in the past year. There’s no denying that DC Comics made a major impact with Rebirth, scoring market share wins in dollars and units in July, August and September. Marvel has rebounded the past couple of months, though, back on top for October and November. What was your take on DC’s efforts with Rebirth, and are you confident in being back on top of the direct market going forward?

What matters to us is how we run our business, and how that contributes to the overall health of the industry. We want to entertain and challenge long-term fans, bring in new fans, and sell a lot of comics. We don’t view the audience as finite, so whenever someone sells a comic book, it’s a victory for our medium. That said, and I said this several months ago, we do not view returnability as a strategy that contributes to the overall health of the industry. Recent numbers and feedback from retailers is confirming that.

civil-war-ii-social

Looking at some of Marvel’s notable releases in 2016, starting with the big event series, “Civil War II” — that was something of a tough prospect going in, because the original was such a huge success. This wasn’t a direct sequel, but certainly linked in theme and name. The series itself shifted a bit as it went along, expanding to an extra issue and experiencing recurring delays. How do you rate the work Brian [Michael Bendis] and David [Marquez] have done on this series?

We accomplished what we wanted with the story. Of course, we wish we could’ve wrapped it up on time, and we’re sorry about that, but we didn’t want to do that at the expense of the overall quality of the final package — and we think Brain and David wrote a beautiful story.

In terms of the event’s impact on the Marvel Universe, it’s having the ripple effect that we wanted: the emergence of the Champions as a counterpoint to the Avengers, the repositioning of Tony Stark and Carol Danvers, and the huge Hulk-sized hole created by Hawkeye’s arrow. As the story unfolds across the entire line, we will start to seed clues about the future that will have our hardcore fans salivating. Could “O.G.” Thor be worthy again? How long can Hydra Cap keep his secret? Did Bruce Banner have a contingency plan for his contingency plan? How dead is Logan? Is the Marvel Universe better off with Tony Stark off the board? [Laughs] These are the questions we have been contemplating.

black-panther

Another one of the big series from this year — one of the more anticipated series from Marvel in a long time — was “Black Panther” from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze. I think it’s fair to say it’s lived up to the hype in the reception it got and the wider audience it’s reached, plus it’s already birthed a spinoff series, “World of Wakanda.” From your perspective, what has that book — and having writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay on board — meant to Marvel in the past year?

I think it’s very important that we continue to grow the audience for comics — that we find as many new readers as possible, through as many platforms as possible, while entertaining and challenging the readers that are already out there. Part of that is contingent on finding new talent that can deliver the goods.

Ta-Nehisi has done just that with “Black Panther.” His love for the medium, his fundamental respect for the character and his mythology, the fact that he understands the ebb and flow of a comic book – all of this shows in his work. Ta-Nehisi brought new customers into stores. When a National Book Award-winning author pens a comic book — let alone someone like Ta-Nehisi writing a character like T’Challa — it’s going to be a lightning rod for attention, but the real challenge is creating a quality book that readers will return to. Ta-Nehisi has done that, and he has reinvigorated Wakanda so it’s a ripe place for stories featuring new characters and talent.

One of the notable things about this is that you can tell Coates is on for the long haul — he didn’t come in just to do a short story. He’s been already talking about his plans for the second year of the book. That makes a major difference.

His second year is already outlined, and he’s already got ideas for a third year. And ideas for other characters…

The Vision #10

From “The Vision” #10

Let’s touch on one more series, which was something of a surprise hit — “Vision” by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta. That was one of the most highly acclaimed books in years for Marvel, and I don’t know if anyone expected that going in — now that it’s completed, where do you see it in the echelon of great stories from your time as editor in chief?

When I approved the outline, I said to [Editor] Wil Moss, “Well, this is a book I’m sure going to love!” I had no idea that it would connect with so many readers. “Vision” was so weird and quirky and deconstructionist in its take on the character. It was like seeing a Marvel Studios film directed by David Lynch. Tom and Gabriel crated a very special series. It’s a shame it had to end.

The thing that’s been striking about Marvel over the past few years, is that there have been so many changes to characters like Jane Foster as Thor, Sam Wilson as Captain America, Amadeus Cho as Hulk, and they’ve actually stuck around, instead of reverting to the status quo after a story arc. How important is that to you, to not only make these changes but to stick by them?

We never had any decree to change everything. All of these changes came naturally from the stories and there was just something in the air. Rick Remender was writing “Captain America” when he proposed Sam Wilson take the shield. Jason Aaron was writing a very popular “Thor” book when he came up with the game-changing idea of making Jane Foster the new Thor and made it even more popular. When [Editor] Mark Paniccia faced a new volume of Hulk, he pitched the idea of Amadeus Cho taking over the mantle as someone who didn’t view the Hulk as a curse. And when we decided to kill Wolverine, there were a lot of candidates on the table to replace him — Sabretooth, Daken, X-23 — and landed on the latter.

All of these moves happened separately and organically and we didn’t want any of them to be a short-term thing. That said, while we hoped and prayed these characters would connect with fans, we never lost sight of our classic characters. We always had a plan for each of them. In 2017, a lot of those plans will be revealed. Keep your eyes peeled for teasers and clues.

elektra-bullseye-kingpin

Another thing we’ve talked over the years are the various pockets of Marvel’s publishing lines that have seen growth as of late. There were humorous books that had a boom, like “Howard the Duck” and “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.” The Spider-Man family of books grew, with titles like “Spider-Gwen” and “Silk.” Now we’re seeing something of a Daredevil line, with “Daredevil,” “Elektra,” “Kingpin” and “Bullseye.” What’s the next area of Marvel that you see as having similar potential to grow?

That is the corner of the Marvel Universe to keep your eye on. The street-level heroes — Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, the Punisher, Elektra, Misty Knight, Moon Knight, etc. — are going to be big players in the Marvel Universe in 2017, and their fates will become increasingly interconnected. We want to tell the stories that you see on the Netflix shows a few years from now.

There have already been quite a few series announced for 2017, from “Monsters Unleashed,” two Iron Fist books, the America Chavez series “America,” R.L. Stine on “Man-Thing” and more. What are you especially eager for readers to see?

It’s impossible to pick. We have plenty of cool new series, a few of which you mentioned, but we’ve also got plenty of stuff that’s going to make our hardcore fans happy, none of which I can talk about yet. Well, except for the X-Men, which we’ve begun to reveal things about. Between the series we’ve announced and stuff we have planned, I think we’re going to hit their sweet spot.

Speaking of X-Men, it’s noticeable from the ResurrXion promo art released thus far, it does look a little more old-school, but it’s not just going backwards — it’s still reflective of everything that’s happened in the books over the years, like Old Man Logan being there instead of classic Wolverine.

You walk a line. You want to be evocative of the past without being a Xerox machine, you know? You have to move forward. But I think there’s something to be said of stories and art styles that echo or reference what we loved as kids, and I think you’re going to see that throughout the books.

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