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.
This week, Brevoort goes behind the scenes again to describe the process by which Marvel staff create new series for the Marvel Universe. From new spins on classic heroes like “Avenging Spider-Man” and the new “Uncanny X-Men” and “Wolverine And The X-Men” titles on through to wholly original concepts like Andy Diggle’s next big Marvel project — getting announced exclusively this week — the ways in which new comics make it from conception to pitch to series are explored in depth. Read on!
Kiel Phegley: Tom, this week I wanted to discuss the creation of new comic titles at Marvel. We’re in a time where the economy is tight and sales are tight. Marvel launches new titles fairly often, but I’ve gotten the feeling that of late, many creators when discussing a series have said “Marvel came to me with the idea to revive this character.” Or maybe you’ll say to me, “We knew we had a spot in the schedule that needed to be filled.” A few years back when the market was more robust, everyone was talking about how we’d entered a “writer-driven” era of comics, but it feels in many ways that these days the publishers and editorial are taking a much stronger hand in that creation. In general, do you feel that the way you’re approaching series has changed or that you’re having to take a stronger hand than in the past on how series develop?
Tom Brevoort: Probably not to the same extent that you perceive. I don’t feel like I do things terribly differently today than I did in the past because it still comes down, ultimately, to a writer having an idea. The core idea of a project is a nugget, but it’s only a nugget until it’s properly fleshed out. Who comes up with that nugget — whether it’s a writer coming in or an editor on staff or somebody out in the world — is almost irrelevant to what the actual pitch is.
That having been said, you’re absolutely right. It’s a much tougher marketplace. We’re publishing fewer titles than ever and are trying to reduce the number of limited series and one-shots in order to focus on our core titles, which means it’s a little more difficult to launch something new. Typically, when you’re talking about this sort of thing you’re either talking about a property that’s been brought back out of the back catalogue or something where there’s a specific need or an absence where we’d go, “We don’t have any titles with a female lead. Maybe we should look to address that in the next year.” But even that’s such a broad mandate that it still comes down to “Who is a writer with a pitch for a female lead where the content sounds strong, the creative team seems solid and in this tougher marketplace we feel like we can leverage that pitch and give it a fighting chance to survive?” We’re having to pay attention to the business side of things a little more concretely than we did in the past — not that we ever didn’t — but it’s easier in a world where you can put out almost any limited series and stand a decent chance to at least break even than it is at a time where everybody’s feeling the pinch. Belts are tightened and people aren’t necessarily as likely to get on board with something new or different.
But I don’t feel like it’s that much more editor-driven or publisher-driven. We’re still really very much creator-driven, and so having a nugget like — and I’m pulling this example out of nowhere — “We’d like a book with a female lead” doesn’t mean we’re just going to do any book with any female lead or arbitrarily say, “It’s going to be… ummm …Spider-Woman! GO!” We might angle towards Spider-Woman because there’s a moment or opportunity that exists in the upcoming storylines. Maybe Spider-Woman is going to play a crucial role in “Fear Itself,” and that’ll give us a leg up in terms of launching her into her own title. Maybe we know that six months down the line there’s going to be a “Spider-Woman” cartoon that will give her more exposure than, say, She-Hulk or Dazzler in that particular year. But really, that book doesn’t get to go and be a comic unless somebody comes in with a pitch that works. If we think “It’s time for a Spider-Woman book with these parameters” we may turn to a given writer or a number of writers depending on how fast we want to turn it around and say, “Here’s what we need. Here’s the shape of our hole. What have you got?” and they’ll come back with an idea that we may do or not do based on what they present.
Case in point, a few weeks back we printed one of my big planning charts from maybe 18 months ago, and people noticed, “Hey, there was a ‘Captain Marvel’ book slotted in. We never heard about that. Could it have been this or that?” What that really was is that there was a point in time where we saw an opportunity to do something with a particular slant on the idea of Captain Marvel. But as we developed it and talked to writers and played with it, we never really came up with a pitch and an approach that held water. So we didn’t do the book, and that moment passed. That’s not to say we won’t do a “Captain Marvel” book tomorrow or next month or next year. It’s just that the opportunity will have to present itself again–or someone could walk in the door and have the most brilliant idea for a new Captain Marvel series ever! But at that particular time, one of those instances cropped up where we went, “Hey, we may have an opportunity here to do something with an iteration of Captain Marvel.” But we couldn’t actually get all the pieces to stick together properly, and so we didn’t pursue it beyond that. And that sort of thing happens more often than you’d think. You only get to see the books that actually get scheduled and actually get released. But we talk about a lot of different ideas.
And sometimes there’s an editor that happens to love a particular character and will always look for an opportunity to try and do a project with that character or put forth ideas for how that character could be involved in things. Sometimes the opportunity is right for that. Sometimes the pitch is right for that. And sometimes they’re not, and you’ve just got to wait.
My question on the flipside of all this is that you’re mentioning a lot of examples where an idea or a character is well known and looking for a pitch to work. Can you remember the last time a writer walked in out of the blue and said “Here’s an idea” and you immediately said, “Yes, that’s something we can do” so then you took it to series as quickly as possible?
Brevoort: Let me think. The first series that comes to mind — and it’s probably not the best example of what you’re talking about — is “Hit Monkey.” Daniel Way had this idea for Hit Monkey, and it was just a thing he was going to do in “Deadpool.” Axel [Alonso] just loved the idea and said, “No, no, we should do a Hit Monkey project!” And so that character debuted online as a digital comic first, partly as a desire to get him and his monkey-ness out into the world as quickly as possible.
I’m trying to think of other examples. It’s one of those things where you ask me the question, and I know there’s probably a half a dozen answers out there, but none of them are coming to me. Okay, Andy Diggle came to me a few months back — and I think I’ve mentioned this project in the column before without talking about the specifics of it — but he had a hole in his schedule and he had an idea for taking the names of some of the classic Marvel western characters and reimagining them as new modern day characters. And I said that it sounded good and asked him to go off and write a pitch on what the project could be. It’s called “Six Guns,” it’s a contemporary action-adventure thriller set within the Marvel Universe — along the lines of something like Andy’s “The Losers,” but with a bit more of a super-heroic bent to it. The art is being done by Davide Gianfelice, who worked with Andy on “Daredevil Reborn.” We thought it stood a good chance of being successful, and now it’s a book that’s on the schedule for October. That’s an instance where someone came in with a notion for a type of book and characters, and we said, “Let’s do it.”
So it still happens. It may not happen as casually as it once did, but that’s just a reflection of the marketplace we’re in.
One thing I also find interesting for your job specifically is that you’ve got a lot of moving pieces you’re looking at. I don’t have every Marvel book for the month in front of me, but I assume the amount of titles that can carry the byline “Tom Brevoort, Editor” is pretty limited. Do you find yourself working on fewer new books these days because of how work is distributed? One thing that jumps to mind specifically where an editor and writer seemed very excited about launching it was “The Iron Age” with writer Rob Williams and editor Tom Brennan. Is it true that the assistants and the associates in editorial are able to get a book rolling more quickly than those of you at the top?
Brevoort: That’s sort of naturally so because I have a limited amount of time to develop things and get them rolling since I have a full plate of existing, established Marvel titles that I need to look after — the “Avengers” books and “FF” and “Captain America” and what have you. While I may have a lot of creators coming to me because we’ve worked together in the past so we have a comfortable relationship, or because I have a high-falutin’ title so it seems like I may be able to more easily get a project off the ground and approved, in point of fact a lot of those projects will be put in the hands of the line editors such as Tom.
In fact, “The Iron Age” started as a pitch that Rob Williams threw to me. I liked it and got him to develop the rough outline for it and put it on the schedule, but because my own workload was too big and heavy to really give it the attention it needed, I handed it over to Brennan. And in fairness, Tom developed that project with Rob and the other creators so that even though the nugget of what was there when Rob and I were talking about it — which was under a completely different title, by the way — it’s completely their project, and if you like it, all credit should go to them. And that kind of thing happens with a certain amount of regularity. Particularly now with Axel [as Editor-in-Chief], if he gets an idea he likes, he’s not in a position to edit it directly so he hands it off down the line — typically to wherever it seems to fit in best. If it’s an Avengers project, he’s going to kick it my way first. If it’s an Iron Man project, he’s going to go to Alejandro [Arbona]. If it’s a Spider-Man project, he’s going to go to Steve Wacker. If it’s something completely new, he may go to whoever he thinks has the right sensibility for it or whoever has the most capacity in terms of their workload.
So it’s not like Axel and I don’t come up with things to do. Quite often, we come up with a lot of the nuggets or see the opportunities for Spider-Woman or whatever, and then those ideas get pushed down to our editorial staff. We’ll go “Hey, we’re looking to do a Spider-Woman book along these lines” and then usually at least one person if not two or three will say, “I’d like to do that,” and we’ll assign it to them to go and develop — get a pitch, talk to a writer and flesh it out from there. But the days where I could generate a ton of projects that I could myself carry to completion are a little bit in the past simply because there are not enough hours in the day.
There have been a few new books announced this week, and I wanted to look at each and see what the origin of each has been. First up was “Avenging Spider-Man” by Zeb Wells and Joe Madureira. Zeb is a guy who seems to do a project and stick with it through completion before tackling another big monthly. Was this something he was looking to get into, or one in which you put things together from editorial?
Brevoort: Actually, it was neither. That book — if I recall — was started by Joe Mad. Joe Mad reached out to Joe Q and said, “I want to get back into comics. I’ve been doing my video game work, and that’s been successful, but it’s been a while since ‘Ultimates 3’ and I’d really like to do something with Spider-Man.” So Joe Q took that to Steve and myself and Axel and said, “Joe Mad doing Spider-Man… that’d be pretty cool.” From there, it was developed primarily by Steve, first figuring out how a Joe Mad Spider-Man book would work in a world where we’ve also got “Amazing” coming out twice every month, so it’s difficult to get somebody like Joe into that rotation. Then the decision was to make it its own book. What would that book’s mission statement be? Well, we did “Avenging Spider-Man” because “Avengers” is a title we can bank on, and Spidey’s a part of that team and that world in a way he’s never been before. It also harkens back to classic books like “Marvel Team-Up” where Spidey and other characters would having adventures that could easily sit in-between whatever was going on in “Amazing” without stepping on toes too much.
At that point, it became a question for Steve to ask, “Who do we have in our arsenal of writers who might be a good fit with Joe Mad? Who could be a good fit for telling visual stories that match his style and interests and who’re also good with Spidey?” Zeb was part of the Web-heads Brain Trust for a number of years, and Steve likes to keep him in the mix with projects like “Carnage.” It was an easy sell, because almost any writer you’d go to saying “Joe Madureira would like to do a Spider-Man story. Would you like to write one for him?” is likely to give a positive if not enthusiastic answer. So I don’t think it was terribly difficult to cajole Zeb onto the project. And then Zeb, Steve and Joe worked up the actual story for the book. But overall, that book began with the artist — not so much with Joe saying, “I want to do THIS Spider-Man book” but him saying “I want to draw Spider-Man” and us figuring out the best way to implement that amidst the publishing we’ve already got going on.
Speaking of “Carnage,” the next announcement of the week was “Carnage USA” which appears to be the continuation of the same team from the miniseries on that property. How do you decide when to make a series of miniseries as opposed to a regular ongoing? What’s that approval process like?
Brevoort: That’s a direct follow up to the “Carnage” series that just ended. It’s another five-issue limited series that’s much like the current book but with more guest stars and more craziness — an even bigger and louder story from Zeb Wells and Clayton Crain.
Sometimes, we start something intending to be a five-issue thing, and when people seem to like it, we do more. Certainly Clayton is a big part of this book’s success, and while Clayton has worked on monthly books in the past, it’s not easy given the style of art he produces to do it month-in, month-out. It’s also hard to find guys to do fill-in arcs that are in the range of his style. But even apart from that — and maybe this is just me — I think Carnage kind of loses his edge as a villain if he’s in an ongoing series. Over the years, Venom has transitioned from being an out-and-out villain to an anti-hero or a heroic character — particularly, in the new Rick Remender series where the Venom symbiote is bonded with Flash Thompson… a guy who’s been at times a bullying jerk but who’s also a heroic member of the outstanding Spidey cast. That’s an instance where we took a character that was Spider-Man’s greatest, deadliest foe and transitioned him into a more heroic character.
I think an ongoing Carnage series doesn’t really have a lot of places to go due to the nature of that character. You can’t have him being an unrepentant, abattoir-like killing machine each month. You’re going to have to find a new, sympathetic dimension for him or soften him in a way that is not going to help the character long term. Some characters just should not have an ongoing book, and I think Carnage is one of them. That having been said, there are plenty of cool Carnage stories you can tell. If you tell them in the model of a succession of limited series, where you have a good, strong and new Carnage story with a different take on what he does or how he does it or some new insight as to how he affects the other heroes around him, then I think those are all legitimate. And if the second one does well, we’ll likely decide, “Hey… we could do a third one of these.”
And at a certain point, the discussion will wander around to “Should we do a Carnage ongoing?” and the question becomes “How would we do that?” How could we maintain all the things that make Carnage popular and without taking away or watering down all those nasty elements that make him a key member of Spidey’s villains. Maybe if we get to that, we’ll sit down with some creators to scratch at it and actually come up with something. I don’t necessarily think we’ll get to that point. I think Carnage is better used as a villain, and sparingly. But you never know. I might have said the same thing about Venom ten years ago, and we’ve got a “Venom” book right now that I think is pretty great. And I’m speaking as someone who, even when I was editing the “Venom” book, I was never the biggest Venom fan in the world. I understood why a lot of people liked him, but he never appealed to me. The current book appeals to me a lot more — I really love it. Somehow Rick and Tony Moore and Dan Slott and that crew found a way to solve Venom as a series lead character — keeping the character’s edge and savagery and struggle that made him cool while leveraging that with a lead who is sympathetic and interesting and had conflicts different than Spider-Man.
So that’s a real specific case, but Carnage in my opinion is not a character who benefits from having an ongoing series.
The last new announcement this week was the reveal of the two new X-Men titles coming up in the wake of the end of “Uncanny” during “Schism.” Those are the new “Uncanny X-Men” and “Wolverine & The X-Men.” We all know that a part of the reason for this is the fallout of the “Schism” event, but in what ways did you approach each book to make them unique titles once you knew you needed two books? How do each of those meet the challenges we’ve been talking about, in other words?
Brevoort: Let me kick that question over to X-Men Senior Editor Nick Lowe, who’ll be able to speak the most authoritatively to this:
Nick Lowe: Honestly, the biggest editorial decision was just choosing creators. Kieron and Jason were our guys and, knowing what happened in “Schism” and what the debate was, they brought back amazing concepts for what the books could be. We workshopped both a bit with them, but they are both very close to what they came back to us with conceptually. And both concepts are VERY different which is incredibly exciting, too.
The last thing on this front I think is relevant ties to what you and Jud spoke on about a while back concerning a lack of Vertigo-like books in the line. I don’t want to go over that specific point again so much as I’m wondering how you approach totally original concepts for series within the Marvel Universe. So much of what you must get pitched are reinventions of old properties. Do you have a concept for what makes an original superhero idea stand out in the crowded marketplace?
Brevoort: It certainly needs to scratch an itch that we don’t already scratch. In general, when we’re reviving something from Marvel’s back catalog — and this may just be my opinion — I think that as a guiding principal we tend to say that every title we have needs to stand on different ground, occupy different turf, than any other title we’re already publishing. That’s what it needs in order to be successful long-term. You can sometimes have line extensions that don’t quite manage, but usually those won’t last over the long haul. There are concepts that can run a very long time on the flimsiest of concepts, but once the market gets tighter, those tend to fall away as well. So we tend to try and build series that have an idea at the core of them that is significant and powerful, and distinctive not just from everything else we’re publishing, but from what everyone else is publishing, too.
That having been said, we don’t cover every single base. We can’t. So it’s possible for someone like Brian K. Vaughan to come in and pitch “Runaways” which was a completely new concept. There was nothing in “Ruanaways” that had ever existed in the Marvel U. As you moved into its second year, there were characters like Victor, who was connected to Ultron and some other elements from the Marvel mythos like Xavin the Skrull Prince. But really in that first arc and for that first year, Brian had a strong hook to his pitch and a bunch of all-new characters that were cool and unique and colorful. It was the kind of book we weren’t doing, and had never done in that manner, and so we had no problem trying it out. While it’s had its ups and downs, “Runaways” as collected editions tends to sell on a fairly perennial basis. I just signed off on the covers to some new printings of the digest editions today.
So that was a gamble that paid off. In smaller ways, we try that sort of thing all the time. Gravity was a character that was wholly the creation of Sean McKeever and Mike Norton. We did the limited series, and then he got folded into a number of other places throughout the Marvel Universe, including recently “Young Allies” and “Fear Itself: Youth In Revolt.” So that character enriches the overall Marvel tapestry even through we haven’t been able to make Gravity hold his own ongoing series and support himself as a solo thing.
Beyond quantifying that “itch that needs to be scratched” idea, I don’t think that there’s a formula for it. That’s kind of the thing. Once you’re down to a formula, you’re almost searching in the wrong spot. We’re looking for new ideas that can sit in the Marvel Universe and bring something new to the table. For that matter, we wouldn’t necessarily object to a series that was set outside the Marvel Universe — we talked about the “Y: The Last Mans” of the world, and that series could not have been done in the Marvel U or the DCU. We’re not opposed to those pitches. They’re just a much more difficult sell, as I talked with Jud about. But if you’re going to try and play with something in the Marvel Universe, you have to deal with the fact that it’s a world that already has Thor and the Avengers and the X-Men and all of these characters already in place. To a certain extent, a great deal of the landscape of the types of series you can have is covered.
For example, there can only be one preeminent superhero team in the Marvel U. One thing that’s been pitched multiple times over the past few years — mostly from other editors –Â is the idea of an international team or a global team. And it’s not a bad idea, but the thing that nobody’s been able to solve is “How is this not ‘Avengers,’ and how can this exist alongside ‘Avengers?'” You always end up with two answers, both of which are unsatisfying. One of them is that this is the book where the rest of the world is afraid of the Avengers having too much power, so they get their own team together. For one, that doesn’t really fit in with how the Avengers are perceived in every other book in the line, and it doesn’t hold water as a core concept because inevitably what that means is that this team is going to have to fight the Avengers at some point. And they’re not going to beat the Avengers. [Laughter] They’re not going to wipe them out or put them down, so eventually they’re going to have to learn how to coexist with the Avengers, and that will make them not the preeminent team. At best, they’ll be the B-Team.
Or on the flipside, the other place we go is that this is an extension of the Avengers. It’s “Avengers Global.” In which case, you have to ask how you differentiate that from the Avengers. Isn’t the Avengers global? “Well, yeah… but this is characters from all of these other countries.” Okay, that’s fine, but if you’re a reader of “Avengers” you don’t mind having Captain Britain or Black Panther or any other character from around the globe on the team. And if you’re coming in to pick up an “Avengers” book, which one are you more likely to pick up? The concept of “Avengers of the World” doesn’t feel different and specific enough to give it legs to stand on.
When DC did the two “Justice League” books back in the late ’80s/early ’90s, it was a time when you had either “Justice League of America” and “Justice League International” or “Justice League International” and “Justice League Europe.” Boy, what a strange pair those were! Clearly Europe is part of the international community, but the way they got around that was that one team had their headquarters here in the States and one had the embassy in Europe. Beyond that, those books did the same sort of thing. They had different creators, so Bart Sears’ book had a slightly darker edge — even though it was still being played broad comedy those books were doing at the time — than the Kevin Maguire book. But really, the difference was geography. “Justice League Europe” was the Flash and the Elongated Man, and you went “Wait… these guys commute all the way to Europe to be part of the Justice League simply because they have an embassy there? That’s a long way to travel!” [Laughs] It’s a false conceit.
So the idea of an international book is not a bad idea for a book, but it’s difficult to machine that within the Marvel Universe in this manner. That having been said, there may be other ideas that work. Certainly we found value and merit in doing “Excalibur” and later “Captain Britain and MI-13” which had a more specific mandate than just being the opposite of “Avengers” or an afterthought to “Avengers.” That’s an example of the kind of thing a new concept has to contend with to make it in the Marvel U.
Looking at other concepts and properties, the core concept behind the old Valiant book “X-O Manowar” is a pretty cool, pretty simple thing. It’s Conan in a high-tech suit of armor. But that works much better in the Valiant line than it would in the Marvel line because the Marvel line already has Iron Man! Yes, Iron Man is not Conan in a suit of armor because it’s Tony Stark, but occupying that niche in that world casts a long shadow. It’s not to say we couldn’t find some way if we opened the bank vaults and bought X-O Manowar to integrate him into the Marvel Universe. There’s certainly been room for Iron Man and War Machine and other armored heroes. But X-O Manowar is going to have an easier time being its own thing in a universe where it doesn’t have to constantly bump up against Iron Man.
So people coming in to pitch things to the Marvel U have to contend with the fact that we’ve been publishing these things a long time and the fact that they’re perennials who occupy territory. You’re never going to get a more patriotic superhero in the Marvel Universe than Captain America. Maybe somewhere else you can get a take on a patriotic superhero that works. And you can do it in the Marvel U as well, but you’ll have to balance that against Captain America. Cap is Cap, and he’s been doing this for 70 years. Your new creation is not going to eclipse him.
Well, Tom, I don’t know about the European Avengers, but I am waiting for that series that is “Batroc the Leaper and the Great Mustaches of Europe.”
Brevoort: [Laughs] Excellent! There’s one!
Looking into fan questions this week, I thought we’d take a stab at highlighting some series fans are hoping find that magic combination of timing and pitch to make it all the way. First up, funeralthirst7 asked, “Anything on the horizon for Darkhawk? He’s been kind of left in limbo since ‘War Of Kings’ ended. I really like the direction Marvel was taking him, exploring the history of the amulets and everything else so please tell me you guys have something in the works.”
Brevoort: I wish we did, Funeral, but at the moment there aren’t any immediate plans to follow up on Darkhawk. I’m sure we’ll see him again, though, given enough time.
marvell2100 had a question related to those tweaks to the Avengers lineup you mentioned in the last big question, wondering, “We are going to have a major reshuffling of Avengers teams after ‘Fear Itself.’ Will we see the return of some former longstanding Avengers (hint: Black Panther, the Vision) and possibly heroes that have never been Avengers?”
Brevoort: Is there any way I could say no to this question, 2100? Who would characters be that were neither former Avengers nor heroes who’d never been Avengers before? You’ve covered all the bases! But to answer your query more concretely, yes, we’ll be seeing a few familiar faces back among the Avengers after “Fear Itself,” as well as some heroes new to the team. We’ve already revealed one of them, Daredevil. (And that’s a good segue into plugging the new “Daredevil” #1, which’ll be on sale in about a month. I read it just today, and it’s the most graphically stylish book we’ve put out in a very long time!)
Board member Drew@616 may have been reading your theoretical example mind when he asked, “It seems that Spider-woman and Hawkeye could be a couple in Avengers. Are there plans for more Spider-Woman in the future, colud be possible a return in the future of her solo series now that spidergirl had been canceled?”
Brevoort: It doesn’t really have anything to do with Spider-Girl, Drew. If we thought we could do more “Spider-Woman” successfully, then we would, regardless of whether or not Spider-Girl presently had a series. And there is going to be a “Spider-Island: Spider-Woman” project as part of that storyline, so you do have something to look forward to.
And to wrap up both the continuing series front and the international heroes angle, Bentley wondered “I enjoyed the Darkstar & the Winter Guard series and I was happy to get the trades, are there any plans to continue displaying a more international crew of characters in the future?”
Brevoort: We’ll continue to do so as the opportunity arises, Bentley! And this isn’t exactly the question you asked, but the many people who’ve been inquiring about MI:13 can rest easy knowing that it’s looking likely that they’ll pop up for just a moment or two in the “Fear Itself: Wolverine” tie-in series.
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!
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