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 had a special legendary guest stop by the Marvel offices, prompting some meaty discussion on the role classic creators play in the creation of new comics material and how older stories and methods stand up over time. Plus, he answers plenty of fan questions regarding long-waited projects including Robert Kirkman and Rob Liefeld’s “Killraven” miniseries and the “Spider-Man project from Jeph Loeb and J. Scott Campbell. Read on!
Kiel Phegley: Well, Tom, the readers may not know this, but because you and I were hammering out a time to talk today, I know that Neal Adams is in the Marvel offices this week. Any word on what you guys were discussing?
Tom Brevoort: We’ve been speaking with Neal about doing a project with us, and he’s also going to be contributing an assortment of covers throughout the line. So you’ll be seeing Neal’s work at Marvel again in the near future.
I know Neal recently made his return to comics at DC, but he’s also done work on Marvel’s motion comics in the past few years. When someone of his longstanding caliber comes in to discuss a project, do you try to find projects that focus on their classic work, or do you look to find something brand new for them to make their mark on?
Brevoort: To some degree, I think it’s both. I’d be foolish to not look at the body of work that someone like Neal has done in the past, and that naturally leads you in certain directions. The fact that Neal is doing a Batman project at DC right now rather than an Aquaman project is not surprising — both because Batman is a popular character and because Neal has such a long, storied history with that character. So when you say “Neal Adams at Marvel,” your mind immediately goes to “X-Men” and “Avengers” because those are the series that he worked on so successfully 35 or 40 years ago. That being said, those aren’t the only things Neal can do. He’s widely talented, so I’d be short-sighted to pigeonhole him as just the guy who did the Kree-Skrull War, and Havok and the Sentinels. I need to be open to all possibilities, and even if you’re working with a classic creator like Neal, you want to have them work on a project that’s relevant for today.
There’s an anecdote that I retell quite often that was told to me years ago by George Perez which relates to this. When George came back to Marvel after an absence of several years and started working on “Infinity Gauntlet” and the first or second issue had come out, he was out on the convention circuit, and some young kid came up to him all excited to meet him, with copies of “Infinity Gauntlet” to get signed. The kid says to George, “These are the greatest looking books I’ve ever read! If you keep doing this kind of work, you could be the next Todd McFarlane!” And what George took away from this, once he’d had a chance to step back and process it — and he was nice to the kid because George is kind to everyone — was that regardless of his many years in the field, this kid had never read a George Perez comic before. And he’s absolutely right. So the fact that George had done years of great work on “Avengers” and “Inhumans” and “Man-Wolf,” not to mention all the stuff he’d done at DC like “Crisis” and “Titans” and “Wonder Woman” didn’t count for anything. But at that moment, for that kid, George was competing on the same level and on the same racks as the guys who were doing the current, contemporary books. So he took at as quite a compliment from that kid. He was competing in 1991 with Todd McFarlane in his prime. And what that shows is that your pedigree and history is one thing, but every time you put yourself out on the racks, you’re in competition with everyone else out there today, and you need to prove your skills all over again.
So if Neal Adams is going to do a Batman comic in 2011, it’s going to be sitting out there next to the Batman comic David Finch is doing and the one Tony Daniel is doing and the one Jock is doing. And now this is becoming too much advertising for the competition… [Laughter] BUT…you are competing on the racks against every other Batman comic and in fact every other comic on the racks today. You can’t rest on your laurels or your reputation. Certainly, a guy like Neal has Continuity Studios and his advertising business. He’s got a lot of other irons in the fire, and he doesn’t have to necessarily do comics. But if he chooses to get back into the field, he’s not going to be judged based on his older material–other than the bar maybe being set higher for him than an average artist. There’s always the fan phenomenon of “I liked your older work better.” But he’s going to be measured against everybody that’s drawing comics today. And if he’s still got game — which presumably someone like Neal Adams still does — he can excel and not just coast on the things he did ten or 20 or 30 years ago. And I don’t mean this just about Neal specifically. It applies to every great classic creator of the past.
For the reader, particularly the newer reader, it’s not about the history of a creator. It’s about what you can achieve now. What new thing can you do? I’ve seen guys damage — not necessarily destroy, but damage their legend a bit by revisiting their classic characters or works. I’ve seen this happen more on the side of writers rather than artists, quite honestly, but every once in a while it’ll happen with artists too. A beloved run is held up and exalted so highly that every fan writes in for years asking, “Couldn’t you just get so-and-so on such-and-such book again?” As a random example, I’ll say, “Couldn’t you just get Walt Simonson back on ‘Thor’?” And on a certain level, I look at that and think “That’d be cool…Walt had a great run on ‘Thor’!” On the other hand, the first time he did that book, it was a lower-tier title, and one of the reasons he got to do all the crazy stuff he did was because nobody cared much about it. It wasn’t considered all that important. And so Mark Gruenwald could tell Walt, “Go. Do Thor. Have fun. Come up with some crazy, kick-ass stories and see what you can make of this.” Today if Walt came back to “Thor” you could almost write the reviews of the first issue already. “It was nice and sort of nostalgic, but it didn’t really have the energy or the edge of his old stuff,” And they’d talk about all of the things it can’t be by virtue of the fact that it’s X-number of years later. Times have changed, and every creator whose worked on THOR since Walt’s era was in some way influenced by what he did there, and built upon it. And frankly, even if this imaginary new issue of “Thor” that Walt is not doing might be as good or better than his first run, it’s going to be judged with the eyes of nostalgia. You’re not reading it as a ten, 12, 15 or 18-year-old. You’re reading it as someone who has a love of those books from 25 years ago. That doesn’t mean the new release won’t work for you, but statistically speaking across the entire bandwidth of readers, there are going to find guys who are disappointed.
You don’t have to look hard. Pick a creator who’s been doing work for a good long while, and you’ll find the “Your old work was better” mantra regardless of how good, bad or indifferent their current work is. What you’re really trying to recapture is that perfect moment in time when a seminal book or series came out — the one that exploded your imagination and created such love and good will within you to the characters. I’ve been saying for a long time online now — and I’ve gotten a bunch of fans of certain creators mad at me who think I’m pointing a finger directly at them or making it my life’s goal to ignore a particular creative team — that I want and I need to be more focused on creating the great, classic, quintessential creative runs of tomorrow than in trying to recreate the great comics of the past. Pick your creative team. I could put Walt Simonson back on “Thor,” and would it be better than his previous run? From a technical standpoint it might. Presumably Walt’s got more experience as a storyteller now than he did then. And sales-wise it might. Or it might not. But it simply cannot be as historic. The weight of that first run casts a looming shadow over every issue. It can’t help but do that.
While I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, I can’t help but think that as a business there has to be a competing impulse for a publisher like Marvel too. I know that an oft-cited criticism of comics is that the readership is all old men, but I know from going to, say, Carmine Infantino panels at cons, there are a lot of older fans who are very vocal about the fact that they HATE the new stories coming out. Doesn’t Marvel create and release products more geared towards them? Chris Claremont’s “X-Men Forever” comes to mind. Is there a difference in approaching a book that’s for a different segment of the audience?
Brevoort: Well, obviously we’re open to trying anything. Different things may make sense at different times. In the case of “X-Men Forever,” the intent wasn’t so much “Let’s make a book aimed at the older segment of the audience” as it was “Let’s let Chris show what he can do with the straightjacket off.” I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school when I say that Chris has come back to X-Men a number of times since he left in 1991, and it’s always clear when you read interviews with him–either reading between the lines or reading exactly what he said–that he’s not entirely comfortable with all of the events that’ve happened to the characters since. Some characters and storylines developed in directions that he would not have done. But those stories have happened, those events have transpired, and if he’s going to write an X-Men story in the mainstream continuity now, he’s got to deal with that. It’s the same as if one of his predecessors, say Roy Thomas, came back in 1980- they’d have had to write stories about Storm, Wolverine and Nightcrawler. And Chris did return a number of times and did it pretty well. “X-Treme X-Men” was a successful series. He had runs on “Uncanny” and “X-Men” before that and came back to “Uncanny” again after that. But it always felt like something wasn’t firing on all cylinders during those runs. So looking for another option, we brainstormed the idea of “What if we gave Chris a book where he could have all the toys the way he left them and he could go off and tell any X-Men stories he wanted to tell?” Because the other problem with doing “Uncanny” in the mainstream line is that there’re at least three other X-Men books, and other creators are involved with many of the characters.
So in that instance, it wasn’t so specifically “Let’s build a book geared at the older audience.” Certainly that book was geared towards the Claremont fan, and maybe that group constitutes more of the older readership because so many years have passed, but it’s not like we sat down and said “Let’s make this a book aimed solely at those people.” And when we expanded the “Forever” line with both Chris and with Louise Simonson, none of that was designed as “Let’s aim stuff at the older guys.”
I’m not sure exactly how you’d get that audience back or make them happy because I don’t think that audience is — and I could be wrong – but my instinct having seen those guys talk about this, they’re just as steeped in the quasi-pseudo mythology of our universe as anyone. And they wouldn’t be happy with “Forever” because it wasn’t “the real X-Men.” What they really want is for the “real” X-Men book to read like it did 20 years ago or the “real” Captain America book or the “real” Fantastic Four book. So maybe they’d come out for a Fantastic Four book or a Cap book off to the side that takes a more classic approach, but even then I don’t know if there’s an absolute consistency in what they want. Taking X-Men as an example, which era do they want to emulate? Do they want to emulate Chris and John [Byrne] doing “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” or do they want to emulate Chris and Johnny [Romita] doing “The Trial of Magneto,” or do they want to emulate Chris and Marc Silvestri doing the X-Men in Australia? Chris wrote X-Men for a long time with a lot of different artists, and different readers have a stronger connection to one piece or another of it. There was a point when I stopped reading X-Men because it ceased appealing to me, which is also a point that a lot of fans embrace as “the best era of X-Men.” And there’s a point after that where a certain segment of the audience came on and had a real connection to that era of storytelling, that the earlier guys don’t like as much. And so on. Chris and the various editors and artists he worked with reinvented that series almost half a dozen times over the course of his tenure. So even then, to say you’re going to recreate the classic run begs the question of “which classic run?”
Again, I think what these readers are longing for is the same thing we’ve talked about before – the days when you could go to the corner store with a quarter and buy a comic and a piece of candy and read your exciting Marvel comic to enter this fictional world. And there’s not a piece of pulp paper in the world that can make you eight years old again. There are certainly some stylistic approached and tropes you can employ in your storytelling, but I personally find a lot of artifice in that. Most of the guys who have tried to do nostalgic or satirical throwback-style stories-Â I’m thinking of Alan Moore’s “1963” — those function far better for me as satire and commentary than they do as comics of that era. They’re too well-informed and clearly have their tongue in their cheek. They’re aware of what they’re doing, and the artifice is too heavy to accept the work as a normal comic book. I’m not sure it’s possible to create a 1975 or a 1985 comic book today because the world is not that of 1975 or ’85. The hallmarks of storytelling tend to remain consistent, though styles of storytelling and the tastes of the readership do advance and evolve. That’s just the march of time.
So as for those guys sitting in the back of Carmine’s panel, I’d love to have them back. The nice part of all this is that our collections business has exploded the way it has. There’s more material than ever from that period that they can pick up easily. In my lifetime, I never would have believed that there would be a “Devil Dinosaur” hardcover omnibus. [Laughter] That seems crazy to me on some level! I’ve got one on my shelf, and that’s cool, but it’s also like “Wow! We will collect almost anything from a certain period because there’s an audience that wants it whether for nostalgia or just because they love it.” I know for myself, I go to the store every week, and a lot of what I pick up or at least a decent percentage of it is older collections of one sort or another. It’s either old super hero stuff from Marvel of DC or collections of newspaper strips from the ’30s and ’40s or the TwoMorrows magazines talking about the history of comics. That’s not to say that I don’t buy new comics too, but in terms of dollars spent, a lot of it is going towards older material. And people should be able to go out and buy the comics they like.
Speaking of the changes in storytelling, this is a bit off topic, but I ended up thinking a lot this past weekend about thought balloons. We’ve heard so much that comics don’t need thought balloons anymore because of the prevalence of captions, but even a first person caption doesn’t act in the moment for a character the same way a thought balloon does. In a way, the balloons are more limiting, but they should be able to provide a different effect if used well.
Brevoort: I think it’s sort of a stylistic thing. You’re absolutely right that even narrative first person captions don’t function the same way as thought balloons. They can’t do exactly the same job or give you the same effect. I have no particularly strong stance on thought balloons one way or another. I don’t mind them when they work, I don’t like them when they don’t work. The same is true of captions — narrative, first person, second person, third person. It works when it works. I think you’re right, but I think that particularly thought balloons and quintessentially Marvel-style thought balloons of the sort that were pioneered by Stan and then maybe beaten into the ground by a lot of guys over the ’70s and ’80s are passe. Those tended to be fairly on the nose exposition machines more than anything else. They gave you insight into character and personality, but what they were really there to do was tell you stuff that was not immediately apparent in the visuals, or what that characters were feeling in the most direct manner possible. “I am angry. I am upset. I am sad. I am determined.” That’s a very direct approach to getting across characterization, but it’s also fairly unsophisticated.
As the demand for storytelling to get more sophisticated grew and as guys like Frank Miller found another way to go about it — I tend to think of Frank as the poster boy for narrative captions, even though I’m not sure he was the first guy to use them. But when he was using them in “Daredevil,” that was where they caught on. They helped create the ambiance of film noir the audience gravitated towards, and they became was the hip new approach — this almost Raymond Chandler-eque narration. It was “I pushed the dame down and unloaded my gat into her” only in Daredevil-speak. And that became the way you got across these emotions and insights but in a less one-on-one basis so there could be some level of shading. As we go further ahead into more modern times, we’re now taking more of our cues from cinema and film, and we’re more inclined to let the empty space tell the story and to let the readers close the gap themselves based on the body language of the character and the syncopation of a beat on the page. We don’t feel like everything has to have a tag put on it. If Spider-Man or Captain America is sad or determined or outraged or whatever, you’d see it portrayed in the way an actor would on film or in television or on stage rather than a big thought balloon that states “He killed my girlfriend and I’m so sad or outraged or angry!”
I think too, thought balloons were impacted by the mainstream. I think the thought balloon was one of those tropes of comic book storytelling that we’ve become a little embarrassed by as a community. The reason for that has less to do with how we’ve used them and more to do with how others have used them. It’s the same sort of way that “Zap! Pow!” has become anathema because it was in every headline about comic books in every newspaper for 30 years. One of the graphic elements that every news story or tabloid venture or magazine article talking about comics would use was usually a badly lettered, ridiculously-worded thought balloon. To the average person who had no contact with our medium, that was what a comic book was. By its repeated use there, it made us seem more corny or juvenile than we wanted to be seen as going into the ’80s and ’90s and beyond.
There are no right or wrong answers. These are all colors in your paintbox or tools in your toolbox, and any given creator can go and do interesting things with them. Brian [Bendis] experimented with the thought balloon in “Mighty Avengers,” and some people liked it and others didn’t. He tried to use them in less of an “I’m going to tell you exactly what every character is thinking in a big balloon now” way, but instead as very fragmented, very brief, almost “Pop-Up Video” style insight into what a given character was feeling versus what they were saying. I thought that was an interesting approach to the technique, and he played with it for a while, but he ended up getting more bric-a-brac for it than he got compliments. When he would mention “I’m going to bring thought balloons back in ‘Mighty Avengers,'” all those guys in the back of the Carmine Infantino panel thought “Oh, he’s going to write the Avengers the way they were written in 1975,” and they weren’t particularly pleased with the way he actually used that piece of comics language. And I don’t know that it was necessarily that natural to him, so he moved on to other things. Tomorrow, someone else could come up with a new way to use the thought balloon, and it’ll be great, and suddenly that’ll be the new hot trend. Certainly if someone like Alan Moore came along and did a comic book that was 90% thought balloons, there’d be 20 imitators six months later.
One last thing I wanted to ask about was that I’d seen in the May solicits that you’re finally shipping what is now called “Avengers Academy Giant Size” #1 by Paul Tobin which had been announced as a project in a different format of annuals. There have been a few other Marvel books like this that have been reformatted from announcement to release. What factors cause these shifts? Is it just looking at sales trends from other books, or are there scheduling factors that necessitate a rebranding?
Brevoort: It’s usually more the former than the latter, but it always has to do with the question of what’s the best way to get the story out to the world in a manner that the market will embrace it. When we started working on those Paul Tobin stories as annuals, for one thing all of those books still existed. [Laughs] So the idea that there would be a “Young Allies” annual made a little more sense within that context. But beyond that, in the last sixth months we’ve seen how the world has changed and how the market has changed, and we’re trying to adjust how we release our material and what we release. We’ve talked about this in past weeks, how we’ve been trying to put out fewer limited series and specials and focus more on the core titles. People certainly sent us the message that they felt like they were drowning in Thor and Cap books gearing up for the movie releases. And so, we’re reacting to all of that as we try to reformat things.
But as much as anything, it’s a question of what we think is going to perform the best. As a business, we want to make the most of our efforts and maximize the number of eyeballs and the number of dollars that everybody — including the retailers — makes. There’s no point in having good books come out that sit on store shelves. In the case of those annuals, we went through two or maybe three iterations before landing on this one, and a lot of that was in reaction to where the market seemed to be at any particular time. In those cases, we tend to take our cues from David Gabriel and his Sales Department who are more directly in almost daily contact with retailers and what those guys are saying works or doesn’t work in their stores. At no point did we think the story Paul is telling in those three annuals now turned into a single Giant Size was anything but great. The question was “How do we release this material in a way that allows us to make the money and the retailers make the money they need to make without making the fan feel like we’re trying to pick their pockets?” Hopefully, the package we ended up with, a huge, 80-page Lollapalooza, will do that. And if it works, we’ll know that’s a viable format for these things. And if not, then we’ll come up with something else next time.
But we’re constantly having to reorient and adjust what we do specifically because of one of the things we talked about last week: that Marvel is operated under the principal that ever book has to carry its water and earn its way. So for anything that smells even a little like it might not be profitable or earn back, we need to look at it and find a way to rejigger it to make it so. That’s the reason more so than timing. Timing stuff happens all the time, and most people are never aware of it. You guys’re reacting to projects when you see them in the May solicits or whatever, and we’re reacting to projects that we know we have in the pipeline to see print over the next year or year and a half. We’re constantly sliding when Project A is coming out against Project B for the best timing in terms of story, or budgetarily when we have a month where too much or not enough stuff is coming out.
To wrap the week with some fan questions about this very topic, I don’t know if you saw, but we ran an interview with Rob Liefeld this week where he talked about having wrapped his contribution to the announced “Killraven” series written by Robert Kirkman. Several people have written in since then asking whether the project is fully completed now and when it will see the light of day. What say you?
Brevoort: I’m going to have to follow up on this a little bit further, but as far as I can tell, while Rob may have finished his contribution to the project, I don’t think we have all of his pages in hand yet. Even then, we’ll need to have the series lettered and colored, and then figure out when an ideal time might be to release it. So stay tuned for more news as I get it!
Following up on that, Board Member matthew2k10 asked “What’s the status of jeph loeb and j scott campbell’s spiderman project?”
Brevoort: It’s still being worked on, slowly but surely, Matthew — and here’s a random preview panel from the second issue to prove it! It’s funny, but fans advocate all the time for us to get series like these finished or almost finished before we release them, and when we try to do that, other readers get impatient. But it’s our own fault, I expect, for getting excited about these projects and wanting to show them off and announce them so early.
And he followed up by asking, “How about the status of ‘Captain America: White’?”
Brevoort: It too is still being worked on. But I don’t have a panel of art I can show you on it, sorry.
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!