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 covers a ton of ground in terms of Marvel publishing news. From the cancelation of Spider-Girl to the apparent rebranding of Black Panther as American Panther, Tom digs into what it takes to make a character stick with fan. And from Andi Watson’s “15 Love” to a surprise announcement regarding a lost issue of Mark Waid’s “Captain America” run, some of the Marvel Vault gets opened right here into the light of day. Read on!
Kiel Phegley: Tom, you had quite a week off. First up, you and Joe Quesada took a shot across the bow at NBC’s “30 Rock” for burning up an issue of “Avengers Academy” on screen, and then you and the Marvel executive staff were the subject of a lengthy New York Times profile. Did you call your mother after that piece came out to say, “Mom, I’m in the New York Times. They put in my picture and everything. I think this comics thing is going to work out?”
Tom Brevoort: [Laughs] No, I did absolutely none of that. In fact, the “30 Rock” video got a lot more attention from people who know me than the Times article. The Times piece was almost an afterthought.
The first thing on my mind when I saw the video — and this probably says a lot about me and how I spend too much time reading about comics online — was the idea of how rarely we kind of confront this stereotype that all comics readers are fat nerdy adults who still live in their mothers basement. Do you at Marvel ever discuss those problems of public perception and whether or not there’s anything you can do to push against those ideas?
Brevoort: Well, I think the reality is that the stereotype exists for a reason. That doesn’t mean that every comic book fan in the world is a fat white guy like me, but enough of them are that people can caricature in that direction quite handily. That’s not how we like to think about our audience and certainly not ourselves. To me, in doing that piece I didn’t feel like I was playing into any of those stereotypes particularly. It was much more about portraying me specifically (and what Joe Quesada thinks of me) than it was a grander statement about Marvel Comics or our readership. [Laughter]
On a topic much less involved with mainstream media but much more imporant to monthly comics readers, I wanted to ask about the cancelation of “Spider-Girl.”
Brevoort: Oh, see I thought for sure you were going to ask about Rob Granito. You were leading up to it, and I thought, “It’s got to be that!” But instead it’s “Spider-Girl” — an actual question about something real. [Laughter]
Well, every time one of these books ends earlier than expected, there is a certain segment of fan outcry, but more so than focusing on that, it strikes me how different these recent cancelations have been even in the past five years or so than other similar mid-list titles in recent memory. The original “Spider-Girl” series from Tom Defalco and Ron Frenz earned many “second” chances thanks to fan coordination, and there have been things like the “U Decide” promotion or the long term success of “Runaways” that make it feel like readers got more of an advanced warning that on the bubble titles might be going out. What’s the factor that has changed recently? Is it really just that the market is that much tougher these days?
Brevoort: I think it’s definitely the market. For all the talk that the market is down and how we’re feeling the pinch of the economy, we’re not slowing down our publishing plans, and certainly our competitors aren’t slowing down their publishing plans. There’s only so much bandwidth and so much disposable income that the average reader or the average retailer has to invest in what we’re doing. So with a lot of these books it amounts to a confidence problem. I won’t say this is universally true, but with a book like “Spider-Girl,” its fate is almost written before the first issue ships based on how many retailers buy into the notion that this will be a title that appeals to some segment of their customer base that they’ll be able to sell it to. And by extension of that, it’s a question of whether those readers have decided this is something they want to follow and then communicated that back up the chain. In a world where our numbers are weak, there’s that much less time for a title to find its legs and support itself the way every book needs to.
That having been said, we’re not done with Spider-Girl. We closed up shop with issue #8 on the current series, but we’ve got more plans for her as part of the “Spider-Island” storyline coming out of “Amazing Spider-Man” over the summer. We’ll see if that allows us to platform the character in such a way where we can do more Spider-Girl moving ahead. It’s tough and it’s tricky. It seems like the aspect of what we do that people are buying into the most readily these days is connectivity. Having anything that launches on its own — and “Spider-Girl,” for all that we launched it on the back of the Big Time promotion and having the character show up in “Grim Hunt” in “Amazing” before that, to some degree that was smoke and mirrors, it effectively launched on its own. The storyline of “Big Time” wasn’t directly connected to the story launching “Spider-Girl” or the story of “Osborn.” There were threads connecting them for sure, and we did a Spider-Girl backup in “Amazing” to try and cement some connectivity. But they weren’t launched in lockstep, so it was that much easier for the readers to not be aware of what was going on, and the retailers as well.
Hopefully, repositioning Spider-Girl the way we plan to will allow us to find more success with it down the road. We’ve had series in the past like “Runaways” or “She-Hulk” where we come out with a book that gets some critical buzz but doesn’t pull in the numbers as well as we’d like, so we put it on the shelf for a while and do a more coordinated second launch, and then it’s done better. In the meantime, the audience that liked it the first time around has galvanized and supported it in a big way. But it is a very unforgiving marketplace out there — particularly for things that are new or younger or not at the dead center of our publishing line and history.
So these days, from a creative standpoint, are you more reticent to look at stories that are relaunches of forgotten properties or things like “Runaways” which launch wholly new ideas”
Brevoort: I don’t know if we’re reticent, because a good idea and good content will always win out. We’re probably more reticent to launch something the way we did with “Runaways,” where we put it out there on its own without any other platforming. Well, I guess there was a platform for it in that it was part of the vague Marvel Tsunami line, but that was a line-launch without a very clear message.
These days we’re less likely to do something that’s that much a virgin launch. Instead, if we had a property like “Runaways,” we’d look to find the best way to platform it into the market. I don’t even know necessarily what that would be. Right this second, I’d ask, “Is there a way we can introduce these characters and this concept as part of ‘Fear Itself’?” The “Fear Itself” series will have a lot of promotion behind it, and the question would be whether we could find a logical place within that series or that event to debut the property. I don’t know that with “Runaways,” given its concept, that there would be a way to do that with “Fear Itself,” but that’s where we might start. We’d look at things like “Spider-Island” or what’s going on in the X-Books, and we’d try to find a marketing platform that makes sense from a storytelling point of view.
Failing that, we might try to look for other new titles that were of a similar enough bent where we could build a kind of micro-launch out of them, in the same way we’re building the “Big Shots” promotion around “Daredevil,” “Moon Knight” and “Punisher.” These are three titles that don’t really have any connection other than that they’re all books about similar kinds of characters — these non-powered costumed adventures who work on a kind of street level and tend to be a little bit more violent than average. Certainly, when you put those three characters together in a big Alan Davis promo piece, you don’t go, “Wow, that looks odd.” And maybe that creates a little more of a critical mass for all three books than they’d otherwise have individually.
I don’t think we give a leg up to reviving older things. I know that the more often you try to bring something back, the harder it gets without absolute superstar talent at the helm. The retailers have long memories, and they have long boxes — long boxes that contain all the copies of the last time we did fill-in-the-blank property that didn’t sell. For example, we hedged our bets for a long time on “Alpha Flight” until we felt we had a good pitch that tied into something decently reliable. For all that the original “Alpha Flight” ran — I think it was 130 issues, which is a staggering run this days — we went back to the title several times since then, and none of those revivals really took hold. We hadn’t captured that ineffable element that made people interested in Alpha Flight to begin with. Hopefully this time, we’ll hit that mark a little better. Part of that comes from having the right creative team, and part of that comes from launching with “Fear Itself” which should get some more eyeballs on it and have people paying more attention to it than just saying, “Hey, here’s Alpha Flight again.” The guys who are passionate “Alpha Flight” fans will absolutely come out and support those books, but we need more readers than them to make it a successful venture long term.
Another thing that occurred to me was that there are an awful lot of “Fear Itself” tie-ins, and I was wondering if you feared there could be issues with explaining to people which ones you’re trying to set up for a long-term shelf life versus the ones like “Fear Itself: Spider-Man” which are just meant to expand the stories of certain characters?
Brevoort: I’m not sure that there’s really a need for that. I think the way you message that is by saying, “Some of these tie-ins star characters that already have their own books, while others star characters who don’t.” I don’t know if anyone is going to be too confused by the difference between “Fear Itself: Spider-Man” and “Fear Itself: Alpha Flight.” One character has a lot of comics coming out every month and the other characters haven’t had much of anything of late outside of a “Chaos War” one-shot. There might be a way we position them differently once it gets closer to release time, but I don’t know if there’s any great advantage to saying, “Hey, we’re trying to build something longer term over here!” The readers are either interested or they’re not, and they get to choose what they want to spend their time and money on. Certainly, if we get an Alpha Flight book up and running, it’s a whole new property we have that can maybe take some pressure off of “Amazing Spider-Man” or needing to do so many Spider-Man books month after month.
But I think it’s all intrinsic to whatever project you’re doing. Even within “Fear Itself,” you have to message each title specifically. What is this Alpha Flight story/launch/thing? What is this Fearsome Foursome thing? What is “Fear Itself: Spider-Man” or “Fear Itself: Wolverine?” What story are you telling? What are you doing here that’s exciting to people who are reading the big event’s core book or to people who just love Wolverine or Spider-Man or whoever’s in the series?
A slight change of topic that’s interesting specifically to me: I tell you, Tom, when I woke up one morning last week to see an e-mail telling my that Marvel was finally going to publish Andi Watson’s “15 Love” comic, I literally did a spit take in my cereal.
Brevoort: [Laughter] Excellent!
I love Andi Watson and knew that book had been started, but it never occurred to me that it was near enough to completion to actually come out. What circumstances led to someone standing up in a meeting and saying, “We have this tennis romance from eight years ago in a drawer…let’s publish it?”
Brevoort: In the same way that we’re publishing the Marvel Vault books — and the reason we’re doing those is that we had an office move a couple of months ago. In the course of that move, we came across a number of projects that were finished or half-finished or three quarters-finished, and had been put on the shelf for one reason or another. But there was no good reason not to finish them. We’ve already put out the Doctor Strange one-shot that Roger Stern and Neil Vokes did, and I’ve got a Hulk/Human Torch book that Steve Ditko penciled literally in 1984 that Karl Kesel is scripting and inking. We’ve got a “Defenders” issue that Mark Bagley penciled for me back when there was a Defenders book ten years ago that Kurt Busiek is scripting. And so forth.
I think what happened was at the same time we found all that material, we also found “15 Love.” That project was very far along when the plug was pulled. I don’t think it was completely finished, but it was maybe 80 or 90% finished. And we thought, “Maybe we should be publishing this.” We ran our analysis on it and our P&L statements, and lo and behold, since most of the cost of the book had been written off earlier, it did make sense to put it out. “15 Love” isn’t quite a Marvel Vault project, because while you can say that it’s kind of a Millie the Model project, it’s really not. It’s a completely new thing. So it made sense to put it out as a project unto itself, which was what it was intended to be all those years ago. So it wasn’t that there was a master plan. It was just a fortunate happenstance. It’s a payoff for the fact that it was almost done but didn’t quite get finished in years gone by. And it’s a really cool project — different from the kind of thing we normally do, but there’s the potential that, whether in collected form or in the digital realm, it could really break out and reach a lot of readers that don’t typically read our typical Marvel books. I think these are all good reason to carry this project to fruition. They’re a lot of the same reasons why it was started initially. I don’t recall why it was stopped, but right now there doesn’t seem to be an issue, so getting it out seems kind of cool.
And there’s at least one fan who wants to read it! [Laughter]
I count as one guaranteed sale! Well, keeping on the theme of things that Kiel is just personally interested in knowing about…
Brevoort: I think that’s a perfectly reasonable way to take this discussion. That way, there will be at least one satisfied reader of this column, which some weeks is more than I can hope for. [Laughter]
But when I heard you were doing the Marvel Vault thing, the project that immediately came to mind was the issue of “Captain America” that Mark Waid did back in the day focusing on the Red Skull which was changed by editorial to his dismay. It feels like we’re far enough out from that incident that Marvel might be able to let the original draft of the comic see the light of day. Is that something you’ve discussed at all internally?
Brevoort: Yes. And in fact, I believe that we are. Maybe this is an announcement now, but it’s no great surprise that in addition to releasing a number of new Captain America projects in advance of the film, we’ve also been ramping up on Captain America collections. We just put out a big hardcover of the entire run of “Sentinel of Liberty” and we’ve gone back to press on a number of the Waid/Ron Garney Cap volumes. And we’re continuing with volumes of the Waid and Andy Kubert issues, and the next volume of that run will contain the issue you’re talking about — I believe it was #14. Our guys have already spoken to Mark about running the original version as a bonus in the book. Mark kept all the original files and coloring and everything. He’s got it all. So that will be included in that volume as an additional bonus for you to compare side-by-side — or close enough since they’ll be maybe 40 pages apart. So yes! Once again, Kiel Phegley, your dreams have come true in this column. [Laughter] Is there anything else you want?
Now I’m having trouble thinking of any other Marvel projects I’m desperate to see! In lieu of that, I did want to ask about something it appears our readers want to know more about: The American Panther teaser you released this week. It’s already up to 559 comments…
Brevoort: Wow! 559 comments? That only went out, like, yesterday. So right there that tells me “Job well done!” More people are talking about Black Panther today than they were two days ago. A lot more.
But this is an interesting turn of events. We’ve always associated T’Challa as pretty much the character of Africa in the Marvel U as much as any one character can represent an entire continent. Part of the idea behind the “Black Panther: Man Without Fear” launch was, as you’ve said, bringing a level of connectivity to the character to help draw interest from readers. What can this wholesale move to “American-ism” mean for the character and the property?
Brevoort: Well, I don’t want to say too much, quite honestly because the teaser is meant tease. And the fact that there are 559 comments where people are wondering what this means and arguing about it and being passionate about it is great. The worst thing I could do is say, “It’s this…don’t worry!” That would shut the conversation down completely. This storyline will be taking place in the Black Panther book around the time of “Fear Itself.” But being that it’s only been a few days, I don’t want to take the bloom off of that rose other than to say that it’s an idea David Liss had that he and Francesco Frankavilla are working on that will hopefully be something people are not expecting. And hopefully, the people right now that are outraged at the notion will at least thumb through it to see just what a car wreck it is, and then be drawn in and pick it up.
Marvel has done work before on characters like this where you’ve taken the property far from its original incarnation, and it occurs to me that there’s a level in which part of the way this works is the expectation that things will revert to “normal” eventually. Alpha Flight, again, is a good example, where a few years ago you tried the Omega Flight launch. When that didn’t take, it helped stoke the fires for a return to the classic team. Do you approach some of these stories thinking “Well, if nothing else, we can build momentum towards a return to status quo?”
Brevoort: I think it’s certainly the go-to expectation, but it all depends on how well something works. You just put me in the mind of something — years ago now, a good ten years ago, Christopher Priest and I discussed doing a Falcon project that was going to be “the white Falcon.” He was going to put a white guy in the Falcon costume and do a story with him and Sam. It would have been a flip on the paradigm, particularly from the ’80s and ’90s, of taking a midlist, white, blonde-haired superhero and replacing him with an African American substitute in the same duds. I don’t know what that has to do with anything we’re taking about. [Laughs] It’s just what comes to mind when you’re talking about making a radical shift in a property, and there’s probably no more radical shift you could make with the Falcon than turning him into a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white guy.
But yes, any of this stuff can always revert back. Again, it all depends on how well the new approaches go over. This is kind of an extreme example, but certainly when they launched the all-new, all-different X-Men there was a lot of chatter from the older X-Men fans that, “These aren’t the X-Men” and, “We want Marvel Girl, Iceman and Angel back!” And that could indeed have been a possibility if that relaunch had crashed and burned and not been able to sustain an audience. Or worse still, the book could have ended, or gone back to being a reprint title. I think today, partly because the audience we have now has been around for so long and they’ve seen so many of these wrinkles before and so many attempts to do things differently, there is a certain jaded cynicism that comes in when you announce anything. If Dick Grayson is going to be Batman or Bucky Barnes is going to be Captain America, you get that resigned sigh of, “Ah, why are they doing this? Bruce Wayne and Steve Rogers are going to be back…what’s the point?” or “The Human Torch is dead, but he’s going to be back in three hours…what difference does it make?”
To some degree, that’s a reflection of the fact that our readers have read a lot of these stories over the years, and maybe they feel misused by some of the things different people have done that didn’t feel genuine. But there’s nothing carved in stone that says that things must go that way. Quite honestly, a radical shakeup of a character in any title is one of the most exciting things you can do–whether it’s dropping the Black Panther into Hell’s Kitchen and seeing what happens, or putting Bucky into the Captain America costume and seeing what happens. “Seeing what happens” is a good part of what we do beyond just the overt action-adventure fantasy of “They’re super heroes! They’re fighting bad guys! They’re having personal problems!”
Particularly when you’ve got a property that’s been around 50, 60 or 70 years, it’s necessary to shake things up from time to time. “What if there was a Red Hulk?” That’s exciting. Who could that be? And what if it’s a mystery: “Who is the Red Hulk?” Readers get into that stuff. If you do something like that, and it doesn’t pay off properly or doesn’t seem genuine — and certainly, there have been character deaths that seem kind of perfunctory — then people just call it stunting. But honestly, you’ll find that said about any story anywhere. Guys that don’t like what we’re doing on any given book are going to be vocal about it. So with all of these things — and every once in a while you get something that’s very difficult to undo — there are very few exceptions to the idea that nothing that we do can’t be undone. There is a sort of safety net under all of this. But we try to approach these stories as if there is no safety net and really go for it when we do this kind of stuff. But Spider-Man was married for 20 years, and now he’s not. Nothing can’t be undone…almost nothing.
Brevoort: [Laughs] Well, the almost is there to cover the occasional undoable change in a character. For example, we’ve spent years trying, but the audience will not forgive Hank Pym for striking the Wasp. That’s the moment in that character’s history that looms the largest and probably will forever. And when they did the Ultimate version of Hank Pym, that’s what they went right to. That’s what people think of when they think of that character — he’s a guy that grows and hits his wife. And no matter how many times creators have tried to redeem the character and put him back on a noble, heroic path and have him express his sorrow and express how he and Jan have moved on past that moment — and quite honestly, most of the people who dislike these attempts haven’t even read that story or understood that moment within the context of the original story, which was “Hank is having a nervous breakdown and is not in his right mind” — that became what the character is about. And part of that is because that was the most interesting thing that had ever happened to that character, and so that really cemented it. Any number of creative teams since then have struggle mightily trying to get that moment to be overcome, including myself, and nobody’s been able to outperform the gravity of it. But that’s sort of the rare exception. Most everything else is fixable. But that rule’s not quite absolute.
Well, you know what I always say when there’s a character like that…just kill him. Put him down like a dog.
Brevoort: [Laughs] That’s your answer to everything!
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!