If it’s Friday, it must be time to end your week with a little T&A!
CBR News is back again to present an open and honest Q&A with Marvel Comics Vice President Executive Editors Tom Brevoort and Axel Alonso for our regular MARVEL T&A. Aside from being the minds behind the biggest franchises at the House of Ideas, the pair have taken the reins of the editorial staff on day-to-day since the many changes that have upped the profile of both Marvel and the company’s senior staff in the past year. So who better to look inside the halls of Marvel and make some memorable reader Q&A?
Each Friday, in addition to our regular Cup O’ Joe installments, CBR presents a new interview with the T&A duo covering everything Marvel Comics, and this week the scope of our discussion swings wide with talk of events from “One More Day” to “Shadowland!” How do the pair view the controversial unmarrying of Spider-Man in the wake of the Brand New Day relaunch? From whence do Marvel’s big event ideas come? Where is the line drawn between marketing and storytelling? All these questions are answered below along with news on the return of the Infinity Gems, the number of Marvel comics produced during the publisher’s entire history and the fate of Alpha Flight. Read on!
Kiel Phegley: One thing we haven’t been able to talk about up to this point but which hit in San Diego is the news that the Brand New Day – I almost said experiment, but it’s really been years now. It’s not an experiment. It’s a publishing format…
Tom Brevoort: If it’s an experiment, it’s an experiment that worked.
That format is wrapping and you’re moving on to different Spider-Man stories. You’ve both had a strong hand in taking that character where he’s gone, from Axel’s editing through “One More Day” to Tom’s manifesto on a single Spider-Man that so many people have read. Now that this era is ending for the character, how do each of you view how that process went? Did you pull off what you wanted to with the character in the way that you wanted to?
Brevoort: Well, I think the short answer would be: I think it went great. Praise must be ladled onto Steve Wacker and his assistant Tom Brennan as well as all of the assorted Webheads-slash-Braintrust writers for figuring out how to produce this book three times a month for three solid years with nary a miss. Any time you try something new like this, there are events you can look back on and go, “Well, we could have been a little tighter there,” but that’s also true of a regular run on a regular series. Just the fact that the book came out like clockwork and at such a consistently high level of quality is a testament to the machine that Steve and his crew built. It only got better over time.
I think if you look at the very earliest issues, you can see a little bit of the growing pains just in how one story would flow into the next, but over time that process became smoother and smoother, to the point where it really feels to me that going back to #600, and maybe even further back to “American Son,” like that series ran one good, big story after the next. So I’m very happy with how it has all played out. Like anything else that’s been done for three years, it’s been an incredibly grueling book to have to manage that way, and very difficult on a month-by-month basis even to coordinate with events going on in the Marvel Universe because they need to be working so far out ahead. So we’re going to switch up the way we run that title. We’ll take “Amazing” down to twice a month with a single writer in Dan Slott. We’ll do some other things, like the “Osborn” series launching at the same time that Kelly DeConnick is writing and the “Spider-Girl” book Paul Tobin is writing. And there will probably be more ancillary Spidey books in the future. To me, this is just the natural change up that any line of titles goes through periodically, the same way Avengers just did or X-Men just did.
I know there are people out there who will look at this and go, “Finally! They admit it’s a failure!” We admit no such thing. It’s worked really, really well for a really, really long time. But like anything, it’s time to change things up and try things a slightly different way.
Alonso: I edited Spider-Man for seven years -Â the entire Straczynski run as well as titles like “Tangled Web,” “Sensational Spider-Man” and “Peter Parker: Spider-Man” -Â so I was really ready to say goodbye to Spider-Man. [Brevoort Laughs] I knew – intimately – how hard it was to navigate the waters with a happily married Peter Parker. Actually, one of my first tasks to pave the road for JMS was to work with [outgoing writer] Howard Mackie to clean up Mary Jane’s current status – she’d been kidnapped by villain whose identity was unknown at that point – and have her walk out of Peter’s life – at least for a period of time – so that JMS could effectively focus on Peter. Of course, we had to do this without divorcing the pair, so we had MJ tell Peter she needed time to figure herself out, and walk off into the sunset, effectively taking the decision out of Peter’s hands.
With “One More Day,” it was a lot trickier because we set out to separate the couple, possibly permanently, but with a whiff of possibility that they might find each other again. And that’s what we did – to expected controversy. [Laughs]
I stand behind “One More Day.” Shortly after the series finished, I had several conversations with friends – almost all of my generation -Â who told me emphatically how they didn’t like what the story did. What was fascinating to me was how they thought that Peter and Mary Jane’s love story was emphatically over. In comics, it’s never over. There’s always possibility. At one point, Mary Jane told Peter that they’d find each other again – that this was their fate. Who’s to say she’s wrong?
Brevoort: It’s never over in comics – except Nightcrawler.
Alonso: Yes! Except Kurt.
Brevoort: He’s finished. He’s done. [Laughter]
One of the interesting things I find about the entire arc of Spider-Man for the past few years is that it’s very indicative of how a lot of things work in comics these days, where your first priority is telling a good story. But a lot of things, from “House of M” on through “One More Day” also come from a place where you say, “We’d like to put this character in this state. We’d like to see this status quo in our books.” In some ways, it becomes a matter of finding the story that fits the idea. Do you ever have a worry of the tail wagging the dog a bit when it comes to these ideas?
Brevoort: I think that people outside this building and beyond the creative folks that work with us tend to look into their crystal balls to try to figure out what it is that we do all day. And they tend to ascribe a more mechanical process to it than what actually happens. It’s very rare that we sit around and decide, “We need to have Thor be left-handed! How do we get there?” More typically what happens is that “Thor” writer Matt Fraction will show up and go, “Hey guys. I’m writing ‘Thor’ now, and I have this idea where for the next year Thor is left-handed.” Then we’ll hear his pitch, we’ll react to it and respond to it, and we’ll think, “I always kind of wondered what would happen if Thor carried his hammer in his left hand.” and “No, that’s a complete violation of his character. He must be right-handed. It says so on the hammer!” “So how do we get around that?” or what have you. We explore the various options and possibilities the idea suggests, and eventually a story will materialize out of these discussions. It may be exactly the story Matt or whomever pitched. It may be that story but shifted slightly in one direction or another – hopefully with better ideas in it that came up through the course of discussion. “Why is this a meaningful story to our readership? Does anybody care what hand Thor carries his hammer in?” But it seldom happens that somebody – whether it’s Joe, whether it’s Axel or myself, or some mysterious mouse-eared person from Disney, or Dan Buckley – comes down from the mountain with big stone tablets that say, “Captain America needs to be bald,” forcing us to race around to come up with some arbitrary reason to shave Cap’s head. That doesn’t typically happen.
So in a sense, the question itself is sort of skewed in that most of these ideas just come out of the exploration of ideas. Somebody walks in with an idea for a story: “The Skrulls have been hiding among us, and they’ve been among us for years. Now they’re staging an invasion of Earth because in ‘Annihilation’ their planet was wiped out, and they need a new home, and this is going to be it. We’ve been seeding this for a while, and now it’ll be a thing.” Then we go, “Okay, what’s the best way to tell that story? Who’s got something?” so the writers can say, “I’ve got this or that” and voila! There’s actually a story. It’s either a good story or a bad story, depending on how you tell it, but we tend to start with story first rather than have a specific checklist of things we need to get done.
Alonso: Stories almost always start with the writer. He’ll say, “This is what I’m thinking of doing with Deadpool or the Punisher over the course of the year,” and then we hash it out. It’s the same thing with the line, like X-Men. We’ll get together as a group – like we did at the Post-SDCC X-Summit – and discuss the big story, chart a course to a point on the horizon that feels right, and then head in that direction as a group.
But, like Tom says, it’s a very organic process. I’m hard pressed to think of a time when there was a decree. In the case of “One More Day,” there was beautiful and relatable story at the center of everything: A young couple, deep in love, must make a terrible choice. A Faustian Pact that tests them to their core.
Brevoort: It’s not like anybody involved with “One More Day” really disagreed with the notion that Spider-Man is better unmarried. Editorially and creatively, nobody disagreed with that idea. We’ve talked about it ’round and ’round for years. I’ve been with this company for decades, and people have agreed on this going back virtually to the point when they were married. This was not a new discussion, and it’s not like Joe came in and said, “The first order of business is that we must break Peter and Mary Jane up!” We waited until we had a story that seemed worthwhile and made sense creatively.
For all the drama surrounding the climax of that story and the way it went creatively, that had more to do with two different creators disagreeing about how the story should be told rather than what the story was. For all the controversy with JMS going, “I don’t want to do the story this way,” the part that he objected to wasn’t unmarrying Peter and Mary Jane. He signed on for that and was quite enthusiastic about getting to tell that story. His objection was about the mechanics of how we’d get there. He’d had an approach that he pitched to the room, but it didn’t quite work for us. We had multiple discussions about why his approach didn’t work for us, but he hoped that he could convince us of his point of view on the page, and it didn’t work out that way. That just happens sometimes. But his problems weren’t with “I don’t think they shouldn’t be married.”
So I think a lot of the controversy of “A lightning bolt came down from the heavens to say ‘It Must Be So‘ is untrue. It’s a far more cooperative and collective process than most fans probably realize it is.
Alonso: By the same token, God help a writer’s room where there are no arguments. Boring. Nothing of substance is going to come out of that. You have to argue – it’s part of the process. Just keep it vaguely friendly and make up after. Hug it out. Am I right, Tom? C’mere, you big bear of a man!
Brevoort: I hope my beard doesn’t tickle.
It’s interesting to me, especially for someone like Tom who’s been working at Marvel for years now, when a series like this “Thunderstrike” book that’s being teased but isn’t confirmed as “Thunderstrike” yet but everyone knows it is, comes along. We had a period for a few years there where Thor was getting a rest at Marvel, and now he’s been revitalized and made ready for the movie. But the idea that these ancillary or secondary characters will also swing around after years off must be different to you when you helped take a part in their previous launches ten plus years ago. How do you gauge whether something like that is worth doing when a younger writer pitched an idea about a character they loved or a creator who’s been around wants to bring back one of their own classics?
Brevoort: I think it tends to boil down to how good the idea is. If somebody has a good idea for a character that seems relevant today or seems like an interesting, fresh take that will attract an audience, then we want to do it, whether it’s a character that we haven’t published in 20 years or its a character we published six months ago that didn’t find an audience. It tends to always be about “What is the story?” Certainly, if we published that character six months ago, we’ll probably say, “Let’s hold off on doing this for another six months, a year, what have you” because retailers and fans are going to remember the last series and the numbers on it. You want to allow your new take the maximum possible chance of attracting an audience and attracting sales. But it always comes down to having a good idea.
When we first began the “Avengers Disassembled” process, which at the time launched not only “Avengers” as “New Avengers” but also relaunched “Captain America” and “Iron Man” with new #1s, our intent was also to launch a new “Thor” title. I don’t think I’m telling a tale out of school when I say that at the time we were talking to Neil Gaiman. We had a few conversations with Neil about taking on Thor, but the timing just didn’t pan out right. So rather than just rushing any ol’ “Thor” #1 out, we let the character rest for a bit, and actually that was the best thing we could have possibly done for him. It meant that for the next year or two, any time a portent of Thor would show up on the horizon, whether it was the hammer appearing in “Fantastic Four” or the clone Thor in “Civil War,” it got a lot of reaction and primed the pump for when we were able to get JMS and Olivier Coipel very enthusiastic about and bringing Thor back in a big way. In a sense, we backed into that by strategically being very slow and smart about how we put the character back into play. We didn’t have the right creative team in place at the time, so we waited for the proper moment.
We try to do that with everything -Â every character and property we have. Each week in the fan question segment, we get questions from people asking about any given character. It would be simplicity itself to jam out another ill-considered revival of “Fill In The Blank” because there are some people asking about him, and maybe we’d occasionally strike gold with the “throw anything against the wall” methodology. We try to be a little more savvy than that in coming up with what we think are legitimately strong approaches. We don’t hit 100% all the time, but our batting average is, I think, pretty good. That’s really the secret to it. I don’t think there’s a particular timeframe in which we can’t use a given character. The real reason to bring them back is because somebody has a cool idea on what to do with them.
Alonso: Sometimes, a new series springs out of an event. The black ups X-Force team was a natural outgrown of “Messiah CompleX,” for instance. With mutants standing at the brink of extinction, Cyclops decides to take the fight to the enemy’s doorstep, and isn’t afraid to fight dirty.
Sometimes a new series – or franchise – springs out of a high concept: The notion that Deadpool’s madness is his method. That you can do a series that’s “Bugs Bunny meets the Punisher,” that takes you on a fantastic adventure with a lot of laughs.
Sometimes, it’s a concept that clicks into place over a beer. I’d wanted to do a Moon Knight series that was kind of like if Batman were crazy as a shit-house rat. And then Charlie Huston said, “And that’s why he wears a white costume. So you can see him coming.”
Well, I don’t want to play the cynic here, but as a counterpoint to that general sense of a story being ready, there’s got to be a level at which you guys are looking at hooks and events in terms of what base reaction they’ll pull from fans. “Shadowland” has built itself up so far online with these shocking ideas: Bullseye is dead! Daredevil will be replaced as The Man Without Fear! How do you look at these things as well in terms of what will shake up and shock the market factors?
Alonso: Marketing is an aspect of our job. At the end of the day, you want to sell as many comics as possible. Case in point: I’d been working on a “Death of Dracula” one-shot that reorganized Marvel’s Vampire Universe for future use and planning to launch an X-Men book, both with [writer] Victor Gischler. And I couldn’t find a Big Villain for the first arc of “X-Men.” I’d walk around asking everyone, “Is Doctor Doom available? No. How about Green Goblin? Uh-uh. Loki? Dang!” I couldn’t find big enough. And then it hit me. Mutant versus vampires! Anyone I uttered those three words to got an ear-to-ear grin – especially David Gabriel, so I knew we had something big here. So you tell me: What drove the process: the story or the marketing? I’d say the story, but the marketing angel certainly provided lots of fuel. Are we spiritually corrupt for thinking like this, or are we geniuses? I dunno. But “Mutants vs. Vampires” provided a platform for us to deliver an X-Men title that felt a bit different from anything else we were publishing, providing a meaningful war between two similar species.
Brevoort: I don’t think we make any apologies or any secret of the fact that we want to sell our comics, and we will do anything it takes to get people interested and excited, or even upset if it gets them engaged in the stories that we’re telling and the things we’re doing. We do things to push buttons all the time, like with the current Man Without Fear promotion. But that campaign grew out of an actual story and project we had first. We know where that story is going and ultimately what the payoff will be once “Shadowland” is over and once we move into this next thing (which we can’t really tell you about yet.) But right now, it’s doing a lot to energize people around Daredevil as a character, Shadowland as a mini event and what’s on the horizon. What’s about to happen next?
We’re about to go into a phase of that on “Fantastic Four,” and people are not going to believe the stuff that’s going to go on in that title over the next six months. I’m sure we’re going to get a lot of heated reactions and angry e-mails and blog posts. But the goal here is to reach the widest audience possible. We absolutely keep our marketing hats on at the same time as our storytelling hats, and there is a balance to strike. If we’re doing something just for marketing, but it doesn’t make character or story sense, then it’s not worth doing. But there is a middle ground where marketing and story can meet to get the biggest bang for the effort put in. No creator on any title wants to put their blood, sweat and tears into their work and have it go out to an audience of nobody. Everybody wants people to read and experience their work, as well as the financial back end to people buying it. So it’s in everybody’s mutual interest to keep their marketing hat on at the same time as their storyteller hat.
Alonso: Take “Marvel Universe Versus The Punisher” – a book that’s got a little buzz right now. When Jonathan Maberry pitched the idea, it was called “Punisher: Last Gun On Earth.” Simple concept: Punisher starring in “I Am Legend,” set in the Marvel Universe. When David Gabriel read a black-and-white proof of the first issue, he said, “This is great! This is a sleeper! You’ve got Deadpool. You’ve got the Hulk! You’ve got Spider-Man! You need to think about a new title to let readers and fans know.” So, after some consideration, we switched the title to “Marvel Universe Versus The Punisher” – an accurate title if there ever were one. The new title changed absolutely nothing about the content of the story, not a single word, but we probably picked up a few more readers by letting people know that this story Isn’t just about Frank Castle, but about the whole Marvel Universe.
Well, as you guys said, each week we get new fan questions asking after one favorite character of another, and to start this round I’ve got one from Maestro Hulk whose favorite character should be apparent. He asked, “The Hulk books are my favorite books right now, but I was wondering if the Maestro Hulk will ever return. In ‘Incredible Hulk’ #461, he was buried under a ton of rock and not seen since. Surely, after being resurrected from a skeleton, a mere landslide isn’t going to kill him. But even if he did die, Maestro told Banner that death doesn’t have the same meaning to them, he said it won’t last because given enough time, they will always beat the odds and return.
“Will the Maestro Hulk return soon and try to influence Skaar and Lyra to follow him, like he tried to influence Banner to follow him in Future Imperfect?”
Brevoort: Maestro, for more on the Maestro (that’s a funny sentence), I’d suggest keeping an eye on two separate books, neither of them “Incredible Hulk” (though it never hurts to follow that title as well.) We caught a glimpse of what appears to be the Maestro at the end of “Avengers” #1, and developments on Nu-World in “Fantastic Four” seem to have a bearing on the Maestro as well. So it’s all coming up Maestro!
RockyBanks has been reading up on a specific project, asking, “Warren Ellis recently mentioned on his blog that he’s been talking with David Bogart about the future of newuniversal. Can we expect any more ‘newuniversal’ anytime soon, or is that project done for?
“Personally, I would hate to see this project abandoned. I love the concept behind ‘newuniversal’ (and the New Universe concept as a whole), and I’m eager to see it live up to its potential.”
Brevoort: Afraid I don’t have any good news for you, Rocky. At the moment, “NewUniversal” has been somewhat back-burnered in favor of other projects. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t get back around to it at some point down the line.
JDM had one of the best head-scratchers I’ve seen in a while with “I have been searching for an answer for about 4 months now but I can’t find it yet so I figured I’d try asking you. How many Marvel Comics have been made since ‘Fantastic Four’ # 1? If you know the answer I’d appreciate it.”
Brevoort: Wow, so much for the softball questions. This is some serious math you’re talking about here.
I turned this over to Special Projects Senior Editor Jeff Youngquist’s crack team of Marvel Universe Handbook specialists. After some deliberation and computation, expert Stuart Vandal came back with a rough estimate of approximately 27,500 individual releases. (I feel like I’ve edited 12,000 of them.)
Alonso: Wow.Â Someone just stumped The T-Voort.Â Tom, you’re slipping.
After their physical appearance in San Diego, Spidey616 wondered, “One lingering plot thread readers have been wondering about for awhile now is the current location of the Infinity Gems. Any of them playing a role in future stories in the coming months?”
Brevoort: You said the magic word, Spidey616! So, just for you, here’s a sneak peek at next month’s solicitation for “Avengers” #8:
The return of the Illuminati! Marvel’s super-secret braintrust has come back together again because someone is trying to put the Infinity Gauntlet back together. Who is it and will the Avengers be able to stop them in time? And what does any of this have to do with the Red Hulk? Â Plus, is there a little romance brewing? Another blistering blockbuster chapter in Marvel’s Premier super hero team by Bendis and Romita Jr. Plus another illustrated chapter of the Oral History of the Avengers
enyggma asked after one of Marvel’s female powerhouses, wonder, “Now that her solo book has been axed what does the future hold for Ms. Marvel?”
Brevoort: Ms. Marvel’s going to continue to be a regular presence in “New Avengers,” enyggma. And if “Amazing Spider-Man” editor Steve Wacker has his way, she’ll be showing up in Spidey’s world as well. She’s also featured in a short piece in issue #4 of the “I Am An Avenger” anthology series, in a story by Colleen Coover.
To help bring our conversation full circle, Comicbookfan asked, “Is there any chance that you guys could put out a ‘Spider-man Forever’ type book where you take spidey down the other road that ‘One More Day’ may have lead him. Listen, I think even you have to admit that there is a large portion of the comic book audience that liked Spidey the way he was Before your ‘One More Day’ move. So for the audience that is hungry for a Spider-man story with some guts and some adult themes how about you guys put out an Spider-man Story Like this? Is it possible even as a miniseries?”
Brevoort: I don’t know, Comicbookfan. For all that certain Spidey readers didn’t seem to care for the events of “One More Day”, that doesn’t seem to have made them more likely to follow alternatives such as “Spider-Girl” or the “Mr. and Mrs. Spider-Man” feature in “Amazing Spider-Man Family.” On top of that, it’s not like the sales of our existing forever titles are setting the world on fire. There just doesn’t seem to be as much genuine money-on-the-table interest in these sorts of books as online chatter might make it seem. So it’s not something we’re really planning on doing, although you never know.
And finally, Scratchy asked, “Rumor has it that Alpha Flight will be returning, under Jim McCann’s writing. How soon can we expect news?”
Brevoort: Scratchy, Alpha Flight is dead. Dead, dead, dead. I killed them. (Well, Bendis and I.) They are demised, dead, finished, decomposing, dead. They’re hanging out with Nightcrawler.
However, if you happen to live in Canada (or are just visiting during the right weekend), the members of Alpha Flight are taking over for the Avengers, at least for one special variant cover to “Avengers” #4 illustrated by Phil Jimenez. This special extremely limited edition will only be available for purchase at the Fan Expo in Canada on August 28 and 29. And wait’ll you read the cover copy!
Y’know, if somebody like Phil were to illustrate it, I bet we might be able to get an Alpha Flight series to sell at that…
Have some questions for Marvel T&A? 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 staff that CBR will pull questions for next week’s installment of our weekly fan-generated question-and-answer column! Do it to it!