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 Message Boards, each week Alonso will shake things up with special guest stars, exclusive art reveals and more!
This week, Axel welcomes special guest writer Kieron Gillen to A-i-C. Known for his breakout creator-owned work on series including “Phonogram,” Gillen has become one of the most distinctive, fan favorite voices at the House of Ideas over recent years thanks to his work on titles like “Uncanny X-Men” and “Journey Into Mystery.” But starting in December, he’ll be delivering a whole new kind of Marvel U event in the form of “Origin II” – the continuation of Wolverine’s lost years which has been awaited by readers for over a decade. Below, Gillen and Alonso get into the whys and wherefores of the new book, explain how it will stand apart and stand within the Marvel Universe and tease details over its major villains. Plus, the writer addresses the future of “Young Avengers” and his recent major change to “Iron Man” while also answering your fan questions. Read on!
Kiel Phegley: Gentlemen, I wanted to start our discussion about “Origin II” way back past ten years ago now with the original “Origin.” Axel, if I’m remembering correctly, that project was conceived right when you came on at Marvel. What’s your memory of the meeting where it was pitched and the thinking behind making it a series that would work?
Alonso: It was the first meeting after Joe [Quesada] was made Editor-in-Chief and I was hired as a Senior Editor, overseeing Spider-Man. The whole staff gathered to discuss the future, and we were very keen on challenging conventional wisdom and orthodoxy. Someone — I’m pretty sure it was [then-President] Bill Jemas — began to throw out story ideas that at that point were viewed as heresy, like, “Maybe you do go back and tell a portion of Wolverine’s origin?” The prevailing wisdom was that there’s no way you peek behind that curtain, and some editors argued that. And, after some debate — quite heated debate — the room came around to the simple idea that if it’s a good story, tell it. The concept caught fire. Ideas began to flow. And the seeds for “Origin” were planted.
Kieron, what’s your memory of that book as a reader? Were you following comics at the time and the general attitudes towards the idea of that series?
Kieron Gillen: I’ve got to say, I kind of got into comics as an adult. I’d kind of read them as a kid but drifted away from them only to come back slightly in my early 20s, and went completely into it around 25, I rediscovered this entire medium. And it should be said that the entire early ’00s era at Marvel is a big part of why I got into comics. So as a reader at the time, what excited me as was the idea of “We’re going to do some things that are verboten. Now it’s all fair game.” You can see that in a lot of the books I loved at that time.
At the time, I think one of the things that surprised people most about a book promising Wolverine’s origin was that it only gave so much away about his past. This wasn’t every moment of his life from birth until Weapon X. It left things to be mysterious. So when you started discussing “Origin II,” what was it about the untold parts of this story you all found really compelling, and why was now the time to reveal those things?
Gillen: Actually, there were a lot of discussions about whether or not to do more “Origin” before I ever came aboard, right?
Alonso: We discussed doing “Origin II” a lot of times, even at retreats, but nothing ever stuck, and we only wanted to pull the trigger when we knew we had the story. Let me tell you, there were many times when we could’ve rushed a half-baked series onto the schedule to serve budget need, but we were disciplined and waited until we found the story. It all came down to a scene in issue #1 — that allowed us to find our way in, wouldn’t you say, Kieron?
Gillen: Oh, absolutely. But the weirdest thing for me is that when you talk about choosing the right time to tell this story’s to be now. What we’re doing is something that speaks to the Marvel Universe on a larger scale while also being a kind of self-contained prestige project as well. It’s one of those very rare opportunities where you can have your cake and eat it in that way. So the first issue especially is like the first chapter of a novel. I get to set up our scenes interestingly and dramatically, and that shows how this whole thing is going to evolve. You can see echoes of this very cool, very brutal opening through the rest of the five issues.
There’s an elegance to the story. It’s kind of about the beauty of nature, and there’s a feral majesty that Logan’s primal nature demonstrates. We want to capture that, and so some scenes are totally silent. It’s just Logan by himself. He’s a bit older. It’s some time on since the firs series. He’s been living with wolves this whole time, and so we get to see him in nature. How it goes from there is all about understanding what it would be like to live with wolves, and when that paradise is disrupted, the whole story leads out from there. It’s kind of like an old Jack London novel like “White Fang.” That’s the period I’m looking at.
Since the original “Origin” came out, we’ve had a lot of revelations about Wolverine’s past come to light in work by Daniel Way and Jason Aaron. Some of this is very tied to Weapon X, but some is also tied to “Origin” like Jason’s work with Dog Logan. So what did you feel was left to uncover in a story like this?
Gillen: I think that’s something we’re going to be very clear about in the series. I mean, the man that comes out at the end of the first “Origin” isn’t Logan by any light. That guy, really, is someone who’s gone off to live with wolves. But the guy that comes out of “Origin II” will have learned some really hard lessons — that’s a good way of putting it.
Alonso: We wanted to be able to pick up after the events of “Origin” — that was for sure. It all starts with Logan amidst the wolves. Issue #1 is ripe with clues where we’re headed in the story.
Gillen: I agree with that completely. And like I said, it starts out kind of brutal and beautiful, but by the end of it, it’s all about what this means. When we get to the end, you’ll go, “Oh, this is what we’re saying about Logan.” Another big thing is the antagonistic element to this, and the biggest thing I could tease about that part of “Origin II” is that it’s also the story of his greatest enemy. And you can take that however you choose to take it.
Alonso: Our goal was to say something existential about the character — to cut to his core and say something new about his soul. We want readers to have to ponder something new when the story is over.
Gillen: Yeah. I’d agree with all that. I think there’s a certain mystique to the period novel in all of this. That isn’t the most commercial phrase in the world. [Laughs] But you can — bear with me — kind of equate it to “Crime & Punishment.” It’s an existential story about who Logan is. He’s not like other heroes.
The last big piece of this, of course, is Adam Kubert. The original series had a very distinctive tone to the art that was unlike anything from either of the Kubert brothers before. How does Adam approach things that may mesh with what his brother Andy did there or play against that idea?
Gillen: With Adam doing the sequel, I keep talking about the sibling rivalry of this. [Laughs] There’s something quite poetic about that. And I don’t want to say that this has an entirely similar vibe, because it’s very clearly Adam’s work, but it does still feel kind of out of the ordinary in that way the original was. His pages are stunningly beautiful.
Alonso: This book won’t look like anything else on the stands.
Gillen: It’s really a prestige project. It’s not just a mini series. This is a really unusual way for a Marvel comic to look, and it has a kind of seismic feel to it.
Well, “Origin” did become one of Marvel’s first big perennial anchors in its book list, and I wondered if that added any pressure to this project. Don’t you have a lot to live up to here?
Gillen: You try not to think about it, but it’s there. Axel can speak to the business side of it, but for me, I want to do something with that kind of perennial nature to it. I’ve got to deliver something not just for people can come to it from “Origin.” I’ve also got to write this for people who have literally read every Wolverine comic ever and those who haven’t read a single one. In some ways, it’s a story that’s very pure and very mythic. It’s the story of a man who lives with wolves, has a strange mutation and is returning to civilization. You could do that story all by itself, but I also want a story that speaks to the nature of Logan and ties to the whole Marvel Universe in a way that people who have been following these stories over time are rewarded. In a weird way, that’s kind of what “Origin” achieved, and I’d like to match that, but you can’t explicitly think about it. You can’t get all those aims get in the way of just doing it.
Alonso: Like I said earlier, we wouldn’t be doing “Origin II” if we didn’t have the story to tell. It has to be a perennial story that goes on the bookshelf right next to “Origin.” It’s been — what? — 12 years since “Origin”? We couldn’t done this on the 10th anniversary of the original series, but we didn’t because we didn’t have the story! [Laughs]
Gillen: That’s the one thing that’s comforted me in writing this — the idea that this wasn’t just a story they decided to do. Instead, they were waiting for the right story, and it’s an enormous boost of confidence to know that.
Shifting gears, I wanted to talk about “Young Avengers” as well, and the word you kept using for “Origin II” — prestige — came to mind while thinking of this too. There aren’t a lot of books in mainstream comics in general or at Marvel in particular that seems to be so fully in the hands of one creative vision as this one has been with you and Jamie McKelvie. It feels very similar to “Hawkeye” in that regard. Do you perceive a difference in the book on those terms?
Gillen: It’s interesting because when I was first approached about this book by Axel, I felt like it’s another one of those things where the first one was a real classic. “Young Avengers” was a genuine classic Marvel comic book in a lot of ways in terms of how Allan Heinberg had written the story. And I wasn’t sure that was the kind of Marvel comic book I could write. That specific school of Marvel comic was not the kind of thing I could do. So I felt like the only way this could ever work was if we did it in a completely different way, which led me to Jamie and everything else. I think once we got Lauren [Sankovitch, our editor] involved we figured out the book the way we wanted to do it. And especially after “Daredevil” and “Hawkeye” there’s a kind of sense that we can do a book like this. To me, this season of “Young Avengers” of 15 issues works as a kind of statement about what superhero comics can be. The last issue of the season come out in the first week of January 2014, and even that is kind of like a pop art statement.
So there is certainly a sense that for the first time in my entire career at Marvel, one of my books is kind of off in its own pocket universe. As much as it echoes what goes on in the Marvel Universe and is definitely set there, it’s much more about “here is a 15-issue story that can be read all by itself.” And Lauren has given us an astonishingly long leash, and she’s been given a long leash by the people above her. So we’re just trying to make the best use of that and see what we can get away with.
Alonso: When I tapped Kieron, we agreed that this “Young Avengers” had to be different from what preceded it. There was no point in Kieron and [artist] Jamie [McKelvie] trying to duplicate the vibe of that Allan Heinberg and Jimmy Cheung brought to the series. This needed to make a bold new statement with the characters. I think they succeeded. Their “Young Avengers” is a unique book. It’s fun and different. And I couldn’t love America more. [Laughter]
Gillen: There’s an image of her in issue #13 where it just kind of sums up everything about her in one image. It’s just, “Yeah, there’s the character.”
Axel, do you feel that the circumstances are differently these days between the rebound of the traditional market and the rise of digital that allows you the flexibility to take chances on these idiosyncratic books? Can stuff exist that might not have made it even five years ago?
Alonso: I think comic readers have more wide-ranging tastes than some publishers give them credit for. Readers look for books that have an identity on the shelf — books that know what the, featuring creators that play to their strengths. I’m very much opposed to house-style. I grew up appreciating everything from Neal Adams to Herb Trimpe, and my friends did the same. I don’t think that’s changed.
I’m very proud when I look at the diversity of the All-Marvel NOW! titles My Editorial staff has gotten the best efforts out of veteran creators, and new creators, alike. Creators that definitely have something to say with our characters. To see new artists like Phil Noto, Mitch Gerads, Tradd Moore, Javier Pulido, Mike Del Mundo and Adrian Alphona join our talent pool is very exciting. It’s a great time to be a Marvel fan, but an even greater time to be a Marvel editor!
Gillen: With the last two issues of the “Young Avengers” season, we’ve basically got six artists each doing a five-page story forming a larger whole, and I’m flipping through it today because I’m lettering it. And you’ve got this incredible variety of styles including Annie Wu back-to-back with Christian Ward. These are phenomenally different styles, but they kind of hold their basis in the same Marvel look which gives you an idea of what the Marvel Universe looks like. I go over all these things when I get PDFs or head into the comic shop, and the thing that we have is a tremendous variety. The emphasis on that variety of styles means you can pick up “Thor” and get those incredible visuals, and then you can compare it to anything else in the line and see how they’ve all got their own voice.
Alonso: From David Aja to Jamie to Esad Ribiic to Mike Allred — seeing such a variety of artists cutting lose says loud and clear that there’s no house style at Marvel. I don’t have a narrow range of tastes so I don’t impose them on my staff. Editors go out there and find the right artist and the right writer for their projects. We’re willing to take some chances. When you understand that not every book should aim to be a summer blockbuster, it creates the oxygen for something like “Hawkeye” or “Young Avengers” to happen.
So finally on this book, you keep referring to issue #15 as the season finale. What does that bode for a second season to follow? Will #15 springboard us into a different era for the series?
Gillen: As I talked about recently on my tumblr, basically the book is ending after 15. Marvel asked Jamie and me if we wanted to do more, and we decided we’d made our statement and backed out. At which point, Lauren realised that Young Avengers had always basically worked like that — rather than an endless ongoing, it has these relatively short statements. It’s not just a normal ongoing book, and that should be institutionalised. I’m sure there’s already plans for the next incarnation, but it won’t be following immediately on.
Lastly, I feel like we’ve talked a lot about “Iron Man” here in A-i-C, and I know Kieron’s been all across the site since the big reveal about Tony’s origins. But now that it’s all done and out there, did this story and the response develop the way you expected when you first brought it in to pitch?
Gillen: This was one of those changes that even I had to discover. I knew a lot less about this then than I do now. I really went out and researched the topic once I had the idea — what it would actually mean to Tony and the psychology of all that. Those are the kinds of things that end up changing what I can do next. This is the emotional underpinning from this story on indefinitely, really. It’s a major part of Tony’s psychology now.
But in a general sense, this is what I wanted it to do. The basic story structure kind of held together, and I’m pleased that people seem to be going with it. I think most people see the fact that this is additive rather than destructive. It still allows Tony to be Tony, and the idea of discovering that you were adopted is a very Marvel story in that its a grounded idea laid into a superhero backdrop. And it introduces ideas like “Who are Tony’s parents?” and “Who is Arno?” I haven’t removed anything from Tony. There are no stories from the past that we can’t do anymore. I’ve only created new ones. To me, that fits a Hypocratic Oath kind of vibe. I do no harm! [Laughs]
This week, we’ve got some Kieron-specific fan questions staring with Hulk_Is who wanted to know, “In the upcoming Wolverine Origins II book will we see Mr. Sinister in his classic attire or will he be seen wearing attire closer to what he’s worn in your Uncanny X-Men run?”
Gillen: Neither, really. I’m going to disappoint everyone. This is Sinister in his early career, and essentially hiding in the mode of a completely amoral scientist. It fits into his time-line, so people who know the intricate details of his past will see how it lines up, but those who just meet him here can deal with him as this amazingly amoral person charting the birth of a new species. For the most part, he’s dressed line a man of his period, with a penchant for red diamonds. In terms of personality, he’s less extravagant than I wrote him in Uncanny, as it’s before his reinvention. Smart, sure. Has a way with a sharpened sentence, sure. But icy has hell.
Rheged had a number of questions, including, “Firstly, (cause I LOVE seeing the UK side of the MU get some attention) what inside info can you give us on REVOLUTIONARY WAR generally, and your DARK ANGEL oneshot specifically? I’m not familiar with the character, so what should I read beforehand? Is this going to be the event where I can _finally_ see Namor in a kilt? Also did you guys have a British summit to co-ordinate this event? Was it at a pub?”
Gillen: “British summit” sounds like a euphemism for “we all went to the pub.” In this case, it’s entirely correct. We all went down the pub and chewed it over, and worked out where our ideas lined up. What to read before diving in? It’s not really necessary. A big part of the plan was to make each of these solo issues a reintroduction of the character, reinventing them for the modern age while still keeping the lineage with the previous one. Revolutionary War basically is set a decade or so after the end of the Marvel UK, and we see where life has taken the characters — and how they respond to the past coming back to haunt them. This gave me a space to have a lot of fun with Dark Angel, who is basically a Jean-Grey-level powerhouse (but with mystical rather than psionic forces) fallen on hard times. I describe her as an austerity-era superhero, forced to live with a faustian pact gone terribly wrong.
I wish I did this interview before I’d written the script, as I’d have grasped a chance to embrace Namor Mackenzie’s Scottish heritage.
And he follows with, “It sounds like Al Ewing had to deal with writing for digital a bit more than you did on Fatal Frontier? Do you have any plans to write for digital by yourself? On a Marvel or an independent book?”
Gillen: Al absolutely did most of his time in the word-factory on this one, while I was on the gold course, phoning in the occasional order. He’s done wonderful stuff. For me — with the greatest respect to everyone else who’s done an Infinite Comic — he’s the guy who’s really made the serial-compression thing sing. I’ve loved watching it, and would totally love to do it myself, but have no present plans.
He also asked, “I LOVE what you and McKelvie have done with Young Avengers. The book is a true collaboration — which is rare at Marvel nowadays. With double shipping amongst other things, Marvel seems to emphasize the writer and dismiss the creative input of the artist on it’s books. As a reader, I find rotating artists (especially within a single issue) to be jarring. You’ve said, and we’ve seen, you do write toward an artist’s strengths — but how do you balance that with the tone of the book and your overall plot?”
Gillen: Writing for different artists strengths and weaknesses is one of the key things in the job for me, that has only become more important in the age of accelerated shipping. In an ideal world, it’s a case of aligning the story you’re telling with the aesthetics of the artist in question. If I’m doing an Iron Man arc with a certain form of action, I’d be looking for an artist who speaks to that. Just as importantly, there’s a learning process with any artist, in terms of seeing how you work together. When you see how an artist has approached an issue, you re-align your approach. For example, working with Joe Bennet on IRON METROPOLITAN I realised he really likes the double-page spread with supporting smaller panels. As we reach the conclusion, I actively build the final action set-piece around that structure.
In short, when you know there’s multiple artists, you look at the modularity of your story. What is this arc going to look like?
Multiple artists inside an issue is a trickier prospect, but if you know it’s going to happen, you can plan for it. In fact, the last two issues of the season of Young Avengers has six artists joining Jamie. In that case, I’m aligning each artist to the character who I think their work informs. Or, in the case of Becky Cloonan, giving her Marvel Boy because she wants to draw hot boys. HOTTER! EVER HOTTER!
Finally, KurtW95 wondered, “I love Kid Loki and Leah. And Since his essence is still around in the form of Old Loki’s consciousness, is it possible for him to be brought back physically and still keep the evil Loki around? I need more Kid Loki and Leah adventures.”
Gillen: Well, the conscience is Old Loki’s conscience — it’s not Kid Loki. It’s just how Old Loki pictures it. Kid Loki is annihilated forever, which I think deserves a sad emoticon. 🙁
I miss them too.
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!