When it’s time to make the big decisions on the nuts and bolts creation of Marvel Comics, people have to Talk to the Hat.
An outstanding industry vet and fashion forward editor, Marvel SVP of Publishing Tom Brevoort is back on CBR News for Marvel’s TALK TO THE HAT. Our latest weekly look inside the minds at Marvel spotlights Tom along with his signature pork pie and loads of comics news, views and discussion. Anchored by regular question and answer rounds with the denizens of the CBR Message Boards, each week Brevoort will shake things up with special guest stars, exclusive art reveals and new interactive features.
To start things off on the Marvel news of the year, Brevoort talks to CBR about the breaking of the news around breakout hit “Fantastic Four” #587, reactions to the death at the heart of the issue (so…spoiler warning one last time), recent debate on Marvel’s dedication to kids comics and more! Read on, and be sure to scope Tom’s weekly call out question to the fans!
Kiel Phegley: Welcome back, Tom! “Fantastic Four” #587 was the big news of the week, and any time we find one of these events Marvel promotes in the media, there’s some tension between trying to drive the general public to the shops and keeping the Direct Market buyers happy. Was there talk before the push about spoiling the story for long term fans, or do you guys view that as a kind of necessary evil with cases like this?
Tom Brevoort: It tends to be more the latter, but not in a malicious way. That is to say, whenever you go out to the mainstream to try and promote anything, there’s never a guarantee that you’re actually going to get a story out of it or that said story will catch fire. In the case of “Fantastic Four,” this is an example just like “The Death of Captain America” a few years ago, where our promotional guys did a great job, had a story get out there and it really clicked with people. To use the pun, it spread like wildfire from one media outlet to the next. For whatever reason, whether it was a slow news day or just the right time, this was a story that those other media markets were interested in and felt that their mainstream audience would be interested in. Whenever you go to those areas, you’re not in control of the story anymore. We can give them whatever information we choose to give them — that may include giving them the book to read ahead of time or knowing the stuff that’s coming up — and that’s the trade-off to getting the story. Saying, “Hey, we’ve got a comic here a lot of your readers will be interested in, but we can’t tell you why” isn’t going to get a lot of response, unfortunately.
The tradeoff is that we don’t control the AP or Yahoo! or USA Today. How they choose to report on these things is completely up to them. I read a piece this week on “Entertainment Weekly’s” site that was negative towards the whole “Stuntism” of this issue. They were shaking their finger at us for making bread and circuses out of killing this character. It’s not like we went to “Entertainment Weekly” and said, “Could you do a story that takes us to task and shakes a finger at us?” But that’s the way this particular writer at this particular venue chose to frame his story. He feels this thing has some relevancy to his audience, but he’s got a particular slant on the story, and that’s how he reports it.
[After-The-Fact Update: The EW Reporter subsequently filed a story in which he recanted his earlier statements, having in the interim tracked down the Hickman run on FF and found it to be to his liking. So that’s kind of fun, in my opinion — and big of him to publicly reverse his stance in that manner.]
Of course we don’t want to spoil any of this stuff for the direct market. It’s part of the reason we put the issue in a bag to begin with. But I know that in the larger sense, the greater good for comics, for readership, for the individual retailers, it’s better if whatever story we’re getting out there pulls people into the stores. It gets them excited and wanting to see what’s going on and gets them into a place where hopefully the smarter retailers can hand-sell them something else beside this one book they came for. It’s good even if all they can sell them are the second printings of the issues in the arc, which we were sure to get out this week as well. This is a really tangible way that we can potentially increase some of the traffic and readership in every comic book store in America. At that point, it falls to our retail partners to close that loop as best they can and keep those people coming back, making them feel welcome and interested and creating an environment that makes them want to return.
It absolutely sucks if you’ve been reading “Fantastic Four” for the past 17 months and then because you happen to click on Google, the reveal gets spoiled for you. I don’t like it either. But in the grand scheme of things, I like the potential of getting people who aren’t regularly buying our stuff to come in and try something out — whether those are new readers or lapsed readers or five to seven-year-olds or 20 to 40-year-old men. I’m glad to have them, and I’m sure every retailer who gets them will be glad to have that money in his cash register to keep his lights on and pay his bills. Now he’ll be able to afford next month’s product. I hear “Fear Itself” is going to be pretty good. He might want to invest some of the money in that. [Laughs]
The other response that’s less clear cut out of the gate is the reaction from the readership to the story itself. I know in the past you’ve edited these hot button stories. I’m assuming that when you first heard from Hickman, “…and then I’m going to kill the Human Torch,” your response was long the lines of, “Tell me why that’s not a gimmick.” Was that part of the discussion surrounding that arc?
Brevoort: Sort of. My reaction wasn’t quite exactly what you’re talking about, and part of that reason is the creator involved. You’ve spoken to Jonathan, I’m sure, and you’ve seen the way his brain works. He has a mind like few others, which is to say he’s an inveterate planner. He thinks big and he thinks long and he thinks broad. When we first started talking about what he could do with “FF,” he went off and came up with a big master plan. And that covered everything that’s happened up to now and at least another year or 18 months more, stuff beyond what you’ve seen. He walked in with this — not every single nut and bolt was in place but the broad strokes of it were — for our first discussion. [Laughter] We were talking about this from the start, so it wasn’t a case of him having to sell me on, “This is not a gimmick,” because he had the whole thing mapped out.
And as tends to happen, some of the individual story beats shifted one way or another as we went, but this was the pitch. If I didn’t think that the story was worthwhile — that the death was important and mattered and was genuine and sent the characters in the direction he was laying out — then we wouldn’t even be here. 17 issues ago, somebody else would have been writing “Fantastic Four.”
In terms of telling a story about the death of the character, the question comes up routinely because of the world we’re in of, “How can we be expected to take this seriously? You know he’ll just be back again!” And my unfortunate but realistic answer is that I cannot guarantee to anybody that any character we kill is going to stay dead absolutely forever. Even if that is the intention of every person who works at Marvel Comics today, who knows who will work here tomorrow or in a week or in a year or in five or ten years? People did things in the past that they intended to be permanent that got changed by the next generation of guys — or even by the same generation!
To me, what this story comes down to is this: Death is one of the very few life experiences that absolutely every organism on this planet has to deal with and will experience at some time. If you are telling the story about the death of a character, that story has the potential to be affecting to the maximum number of people. So long as you’re telling this story in a genuine way that’s actually about grappling with these issues and the very fundamental finish that is waiting for all of us at the end of our road, then you’re fulfilling the job of a storyteller. That is to find ways to allow everybody to grapple with these larger circumstances looming in their own existence — to get a grip on them and to deal with them. That’s the most anybody can expect out of a story about a character’s death in almost any medium. Quite honestly, anybody could bring almost anyone back anywhere in fiction. One of the beautiful things about comic book super hero fiction is that, unlike the real world, death doesn’t need to be final because these things are all ideas and lines on paper. We put them down to entertain, inform, surmise the human condition and have an impact on people’s lives.
In the context of “Fantastic Four,” the death of a family member and the death of somebody who will mean something different to Reed and to Sue and to Ben and to Val and to Franklin…that’s a story that can have some real tooth to it in a family setting. I think people can take a lot from that, and that’s the reason I honestly cannot worry about the idea that someone a day, a week, a year, ten years from now might bring that character back. Or even that I might do it at some point! [Laughter] What my focus has to be right now is, “Will this story deliver? Will people read this comic book and get more than their $3.99’s worth of experience out of it? Will it matter to them?” The fact that these outlets are covering this story seems to indicate that there’s a greater than average interest in the notion that this is happening. Sight unseen, this thing touches a nerve amongst some degree of pop culture enthusiasts. If those people are coming, let’s give them a show and let them have an experience that’s worthwhile. Let’s show them everything comics can be and do — that it’s not trite but can be meaningful and affecting.
I think “FF” #587 is a great comic book. Jon and Steve Epting and the perennial backbone Paul Mounts did a superlative job on this issue as they have every month. I stand behind it as a good piece of work, and I’m glad that so many people will experience it. Some of the books that have received this kind of attention in the past maybe haven’t put the best foot forward, but I can look at this one and say, “This is good — regardless of whether it’s in a bag or whether it got any attention.”
However affecting that story is moving forward, we’re not sure where it’s going to be…
Brevoort: Well, next month there is #588, which is the final issue of “Fantastic Four” and is all about the emotional fallout of this issue. It’s another lovely piece of comic book work — a mostly silent issue. There’re a couple word balloons in it, but it’s almost entirely done silently. Nick Dragotta illustrated it, again with Paul Mounts coloring, and did a beautiful job, and I don’t think anyone who comes to that comic will be disappointed. There’s also a second story drawn by Mark Brooks that contains actual words, so don’t fear Jon is cutting corners or not carrying his share of the water.
And then we’re going to move into the future with “The New Book.” It’s still a little premature to talk about exactly what the New Book will be except that we’ve been soliciting something with the initials “FF” and what I’ve been saying all along is that it’s going to be the same thing only different. It’ll embody the same tone and spirit and style of “Fantastic Four” while at the same time being completely different and totally contemporary. This has been one of the larger goals since Jonathan wrote page one, panel one of issue #570 — this and what lies beyond this. This is a big huge change and transformation for this entire franchise from “Fantastic Four” into something else, and Jon’s using this as a catalyst for all that. But exactly what that is is a bit premature to say.
Moving on, since last week there’s been some discussion online about Marvel and comics for kids, part of it kicked off by what you’d said on which readers Marvel was focusing on. But before we get into some more specifics on this, I understand you’ve got one idea to speak on for starters, yes?
Brevoort: Specifically I wanted to respond to some things one person had written in the comments last week. We talked a little bit about the bookstore market and where the audience is coming from, and somebody — in the sort of mock outrage we see a lot on internet chat boards — did a whole diatribe on “This is exactly what’s wrong with Marvel! They’re not reaching out to the young readers and focusing solely on lapsed old guys! It should be done the way it was when I started reading comics!”
I think the flaw with this thinking is two-fold. One, we care a great deal about the younger audience. We’ve been very aggressive in courting younger readers through our Marvel Adventures line that gets distributed to a bunch of places our other books don’t. But two, the real mistake there is that this is not 1970-whatever anymore. I started reading comics in the early ’70s, and my earliest comics were bought at a 7-Eleven. And that’s not an experience that anyone in the past ten or 15 years is going to duplicate. The entirety of mainstream magazine publishing has changed since then, along with every other medium. The whole landscape of how we publish and distribute our books is different. And we can pine for the great glory days when television was black and white and there were only three channels and radio was all great dramas. But as wonderful as those days may have been, they are gone. The world has changed and they are not coming back. That is nostalgia talking.
And it’s a good kind of nostalgia. I have wonderful memories of going to the 7-Eleven and spinning the spinner racks and finding whatever the new comics were and being excited about them. And wanting to pass that sort of experience on to the next generation is great.
But the thing to understand is that the world kids are living in today is not the world that I or anyone who came into comics in-between has lived in. I think today, more than anything else — and this will get me in more trouble on the boards than anything else I say this week –Â the two places you’re going to see younger readers coming to Marvel in the future are number one, digital. I know a million eyes roll at that, but I fully believe that is true. I see it with my own kids. I see it with my nieces and nephews. They live in a digital existence. They are so comfortable and conversant and happy on computers or handhelds or laptops. This is how they socialize and interact with the world, much more so than with any tangible media. They don’t read books. They read screens. So I think digital is a huge part of it.
And the number two thing as a gateway drug these days is animation. I think it’s undeniable. It’s been growing in that direction since the ’90s and the prevalence of the Marvel cartoons like “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” and the DC cartoons throughout that same era like “Batman” and “Superman Adventures.” The thing I hear from retailers these days is that kids are coming into the stores who saw “Super-Hero Squad” or “Avengers” and suddenly know who all these characters are, even some of the more obscure ones. They’re much more interested and eager when they spot a comic book with them in it, and can say, “Holy smoke! There’s a comic with Ms. Marvel in it!” I think that too is a gateway drug that’s a lot stronger than it used to be particularly because of the kind of stories they can now tell in animation, and the way they tell them. The sophistication those stories possess is a lot closer to the comics — particularly the comics of 20 or 30 years ago — than cartoons used to be. Pick a superhero cartoon show — I’ll point to “Avengers” but I could just as easily say “Young Justice.” These cartoons are an absolute entree to the kind of sophisticated world-building that exists in the Marvel Universe. And it’s a real easy stepping stone for the young reader since it comes right into their house.
I think those are the real gateways for younger readers now. I could spend a tremendous amount of time, effort and energy trying to get comics back onto spinner racks in 7-Elevens. But that would be a waste of resources because the reason there aren’t any spinner racks in 7-Elevens anymore is because they were no longer fiscally feasible. The amount of money those racks generated for the amount of space and maintenance they required was not worthwhile for that organization. All the wishing in the world on my part is not going to change that. I think it’s imperative for us to reach out to the youngest possible demographic and appeal to their sensibilities to draw them into this world, but I think you’re going to see that through digital and animation more than traditional comic book publishing.
Well, I think part of the discrepancy people see on publishing is that as far as Marvel’s output goes, monthly print comics is still where the money needs to get made first. And there are examples out there that have people wondering whether Marvel can sell enough kids comics to make anything of them long term.Â Brian Clevinger’s “Captain America: The Fighting Avenger” series getting knocked from ongoing to one-shot was a recent point of discussion on this where Brian even said he heard there were no more kids comics at Marvel. What do you say to that? How hard is it to make a kids product successful?
Brevoort: Again, I’ll say that we’ve been very aggressive over the last seven years or so in creating material that is aimed at a younger audience. And nothing’s going to change on that moving forward. I think particularly people in the Direct Market don’t notice it so much, because they simply don’t pay attention to it. They don’t realize how many comics like that there have been. There’s been a “Marvel Adventures Spider-Man” comic for close to 100 issues now. It’s changed its name once or twice, and it’s changed its numbering once or twice, but that book is continuing and is not going away. The monthly “Marvel Super Heroes” book, which is the catch-all for everything else right now, is not going away. The question is “How much of this kind of material do you need at any one time?” and “Are you doing the best job with it that you can?”
We have enough pipelines into enough different distribution areas — be that Target or Wal-Mart or Scholastic or book stores — for the repurposing of this materialÂ that even if the Direct Market orders a fraction of zero copies, it’s made up for in these other avenues. It’s not an arena in which we can publish willy-nilly, but it is an area where we devote a certain amount of resources and have consistently done so. And we will continue to publish this material. I don’t think of it in terms of being an absolute loss leader. We continue to think of it in terms of “This book will sell approximately X units in the Direct Market, but it will also make money here, here and here. So that works.”
And this is entirely my opinion, so take it for what it’s worth, but I think that some of the problems that “Thor The Mighty Avenger” had and perhaps “Captain America: The Fighting Avenger” will have — I haven’t read that book yet so I’m just speculating in that case — is that I think they tended to wander off message a little bit. That is to say, with “Thor: The Mighty Avenger,” it got a great response and a huge outpouring of love and support…from 20 to 40 year old men. And that’s great! [Laughs] We love that audience, and we sell a lot of comics to them, but that’s not really the audience that that book was intended to reach. The audience that it was intended for was, it seems, bored or disinterested or not engaged by it. For whatever reason. It doesn’t mean that “Thor: The Mighty Avenger” wasn’t a good, well-done, well-executed title. But it may mean that in the course of developing and launching that book, all the folks involved wandered a little bit astray from what the actual goal of doing that book was.
I suspect the same sort of drift is probably apparent in “Captain America.” More than anything else, once we sat down to look at these things — particularly with “Cap” — we said, “Hold up! Does this actually accomplish the needs of this line? Does it fulfill the mandate properly?” As everyone says, we have a dozen Thor books and a dozen Cap books. If this is literally just another one of those that doesn’t allow us to reach an audience in the Wal-Marts and Scholastic Clubs and so on, what the hell are we doing here? At that point, it becomes a book that has to survive just in the Direct Market, and it can’t.
At this time, we are absolutely committed to the younger readers and kids audience. The line as a whole right now — which is just two books and some things on the side — is all moving into Steve Wacker’s world. Steve has been very vocal about wanting a crack at these books because A) he’s got some experience with this kind of material, having worked on the “Adventures” titles at DC and B) because he’s got young kids and has a real aptitude for this stuff. He likes the challenge of telling a complete story for the age group in 20 pages that’s also exciting, adventurous and heroic for the kids. I think he’s going to bring a lot of energy and passion for producing this kind of material in the same way he has on “Amazing Spider-Man” and “Daredevil.” So we’ll be doing more going ahead.
I don’t know exactly what was communicated back to Brian and by who and in what state. It sounds to me — coming second or third hand rather than hearing Brian say stuff — I wouldn’t be surprised to find that people who told him this were trying to weasel their way out of their own responsibility for the situation. “Oh, it’s not you, Brian, Marvel’s getting rid of everything!” That sounds like hand-waving. That sounds like somebody not taking responsibility for their part in building something that doesn’t fulfill the mandate we need fulfilled. Certainly if that’s the case and those editors are still here on staff, they’re going to hear from me or Axel or Joe or whomever because this is not the way we like to communicate with our talent. We want to be upfront with them about what’s going on. It’s not a pleasant message to have to convey to someone: this project you’ve thrown a lot of your energy and talent into is being truncated before it even comes out. But I’d rather be forthright and say, “Brian, here is why we’ve made this decision. You can agree with it or not agree with it. I certainly understand you’re closer to it than anyone making these decisions, but here is what the deal is and why it’s happening.” Had that conversation taken place that way, Brian wouldn’t have walked away with the idea that Marvel is shutting down younger readers publishing. That could not be further from the truth. It is completely the opposite of the message. Our message is that we care about this kind of material greatly, and through no one’s fault, the book you’ve put together does not put the ball in the hoop as we need it to. It’s a tough message, but this is the job, and part of that job is to call guys up and say, “We need to make an adjustment, and here’s what it is. Sorry about that.” That goes for everybody in editorial.
But to reiterate, we’re not stepping away from kids publishing or younger readers publishing — whatever you want to call it. We’re going to be doing more, and we’re going to be devoting more specific and more energized resources to doing it well. I’m sure after hearing this, there will be plenty of posts from 20 to 40-year-old men telling me how this is all awful and how we don’t want quality, we just want to put out pabulum. And I appreciate that emotional response. I just don’t care about it in this instance as much as I do the response of the seven-year-olds.
As a final question on this topic, do you have any book that Marvel has put out in the past seven years where you’d say, “This is the model we’re trying to replicate,” or are you still looking for the thing that really connects with younger readers?
Brevoort: I think there always tends to be drift. Which is to say, when we started out, we began with some fairly specific parameters. That came about because, at the beginning, Alan Fine commissioned a bunch of focus groups. It’s one of the very rare times in Marvel’s publishing history where we’ve done actual focus groups. But Alan comes from a consumer products background, and this is the way he is used to rolling. So he shook the money loose and said, “We’re going to do some focus groups because it’s important that we bring the next generation of readers in.” Probably over the ten years before that, we lost two or maybe three generations of readers because we weren’t hooking them young enough. And we wanted to learn exactly what kinds of things that particular audience was attracted to.
And without revealing any of the data that came back — because it’s all proprietary, obviously — we learned some very specific things about what a six-to-ten or eight-to-eleven audience wants and likes. If you put all sorts of stuff out in front of them, what are they most interested in and what do they respond best to? That’s what formed the basis and guideline for how we approach these books. But when you’re publishing month after month — partly because of a turnover of people, creators and editors, and partly because of the grind of just getting out issues — you sometimes lose sight of what you’re pushing against. So it’s good every so often to have a little refresher and say, “Hey! Here’re the parameters that we’re dealing with. Here’s what a regular Marvel comic should be all about.” The same thing applies to the younger readers books.
I think in general — and I say “in general” because like anything it has its ups and downs — the “Marvel Adventures Spider-Man” title is a good example of the kind of book we’re talking about. I’m trying to dance about this because I don’t want to give away any of the information that came out of the focus group specifically, but that book applies the principals that we learned there about telling good, strong, single issue stories that nonetheless have a larger arc to them. It’s a book that does not present artwork that to the audience looks or feels “kiddie-fied.” I think to that audience, it’s a big thing, and it’s one of the specific philosophical differences between what we do and what DC does. DC, in trying to duplicate the look of the Bruce Timm cartoons or “Teen Titans” or what have you, produces artwork in their younger readers titles that, based on what we saw, comes across as “kiddie-fied” to that audience. You know you’re in a bad spot if seven year olds feel the stuff you’re selling them talks down to them. They want it to look like a genuine, no foolin’, super hero comic book.
So within the 100-issue run of “Marvel Adventures Spider-Man,” there are probably individual issues that wandered away from those philosophies from time to time. Right now, we’re trying to focus again and go, “We’ve lost sight of this and this. Let’s get back to it.” But that is a title that has connected with a certain audience. It’s been our biggest subscription book for the longest time — equaled only for a while when we did that crazy promotion on the three times a month “Amazing Spider-Man.” It’s a book whose circulation is mysterious to a lot of people because it doesn’t all come from the Direct Market. But you put that out in your Targets, Wal-Marts and Scholastics, and readers come. And that’s what we want.
It looks about time to wrap up our inaugural TALK TO THE HAT, but I know there’s something you wanted to tell fans about their involvement in the column moving forward.
Brevoort: One of the things I’d like to do more of in this space as we move ahead is to solicit information from the readership, and get you all involved a little bit. To that end, I’m going to try to put some sort of question out there every week to foment discussion on the boards. So, just to begin on a positive note (and don’t worry, we’re sure to get to the negative stuff before long), I’d like to hear about a recent Marvel title that you hadn’t been reading or really been into that you sampled based on a news blurb or a bit of promotion or what-have-you, and that you really enjoyed and got hooked on. What storylines or series launches have we marketed in such a way as to get you to sample them–and then, when you sampled, found you liked them?
Also, we want to be answering your Reader Questions every week, or as often as is possible, so we’ll always be in the market for good, interesting questions from you guys. Ask away in the appropriate thread at the link below.
And from time to time, I’d like to see about inviting in a “guest fan interviewer” to ask a series of questions (but mainly to make Kiel fear for his job.) I’m not certain what the mechanism for this will be quite yet — how we’ll choose a person, and how we’ll conduct the interview. But if we can work out the bugs, it should make for a cool chance for somebody to interact on a meaningful one-on-one manner.
Additionally, I want to start featuring other guests in this space, to whom you readers can ask specific questions. So I’d love to hear about who you’d want to hear from. Even if you don’t know the person by name specifically, but would like to talk to “the guy who selects what stories to reprint” or anything like that — we can make it happen!
Have some questions for Marvel’s Talk To The Hat? 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!