Fridays on CBR mean Axel’s In Charge. Except for this week, where it means Wack is Back.
Normally, we’d welcome you to MARVEL A-I-C: AXEL-IN-CHARGE, CBR’s regular interview feature with Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso! But with Alonso away from Marvel’s offices this week — he recently attended the Bucheon International Comics Festival in Bucheon, South Korea — CBR turns to Marvel’s VP of Current Animation, Stephen Wacker, a former Marvel Senior Editor and no stranger to this site’s Friday afternoon slot.
It’s a busy time for Marvel Animation, with the third season of “Ultimate Spider-Man” — now with the full title of “Ultimate Spider-Man: Web Warriors” — set to debut on Disney XD Sunday, Aug. 31. The season will be filled with guest stars and its own version of the “Spider-Verse” event, which hits Marvel’s publishing side in November. “Avengers Assemble” and “Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.” are both also heading towards new seasons this fall, and last month at Comic-Con International in San Diego, Marvel Animation teased — but did not confirm, as Wacker makes clear — a potential “Guardians of the Galaxy” animated series. CBR spoke with Wacker about all of that, plus his adjustment to both living on the west coast and moving from comics to animation, the importance of diversity in all aspects of Marvel and debating superhero fights on the playground.
Next week: Axel Alonso will return, as will your questions, straight from the CBR Community! So head over to this thread, and give us your best!
Albert Ching: Steve, before we get too far into animation matters — you’ve been out in Los Angeles for a few months now. How are you liking life on the west (some would say best) coast? Has the pitching prowess of Clayton Kershaw helped endear the Dodgers to you?
Steve Wacker: The Dodgers are growing on me, but the Cardinals remain my team of choice… and this is a mandated choice throughout Marvel Animation.
I love LA so far… from the food to the smog to the weather. My family finally made it out last month and we’re taking our small steps towards exploring the area.
I lived here back in the mid-’90s (so, yes, I had sideburns and a Caesar haircut if you were wondering), but it’s brand new to my family, so they’re learning to eat kale, wear flip-flops at inappropriate times and always talk about what freeway they took to get wherever they are.
You just described my daily routine. Let’s talk about the news from Comic-Con last month: That a “Guardians of the Galaxy” animated series is in the works. Seems like a pretty natural move — obviously it’s early, but can we expect a similar approach as “Avengers Assemble”? Same core lineup as the film, some new additions and a general broadening of that world, but with a similar tone as the movie?
Wacker: I AM GROOT.
Well, “Guardians” is also the first Marvel animated series announcement since you’ve been working in that division — is this your first chance in your new position to really have your voice on a show from the ground up? Has your time as “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic book series editor helped to inform this project?
Wacker: Oh, Albert… We definitively did not announce a GOTG animated series. We just showed some test footage that one of our animators (Leo Riley) was working on.
We have seen the GOTG guest star in all of our current animated series, though, and you can expect more to come as the year goes on.
All that said, I was as excited about the movie as anyone and certainly knowing the behind-the-scenes conversations about it the past few years thanks to working on the comic made it an even deeper experience.
I really have to extend the kudos not only to the Marvel Studios folks… but to everyone in publishing starting with Bill Rosemann, Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning and Paul Pelletier who all got the ball rolling.
Once thing that’s for sure — “Ultimate Spider-Man” season three starts in the US next week. We’ve already talked extensively about the “Spider-Verse” arc, but what has you personally most excited about the many new elements — and new characters — being introduced this year?
Wacker: The excitement goes way beyond Spider-Verse, which is just a small part of the current season. We start with Spidey’s scope expanding mightily as he finally makes in onto the Avengers… which puts him face first in front of Loki! It does not go well.
And after that, we’re going to be debuting a lot of guest stars that fans have been demanding including Dr. Strange, Cloak and Dagger, Iron Spider… and lots more. Story editors Henry Gilroy and Eugene Son are massive Marvel fans and have worked hard to pack this season with characters. It’s been a blast watching supervising director Alex Soto and his animation team bring them to life.
But if I really had to nail down a couple things that have me hopped up on happy, it’d be the debut of Agent Venom since I used to work on the book and the debut of the Sciuridean Sensation: Squirrel Girl!
(That sound you hear is Dan Slott high-fiving himself)
Season two of “Avengers Assemble” is also on the horizon. You’ve commented elsewhere that this season will have longer arcs towards the middle of the season — how do you characterize the general evolution of the show in the second season?
Wacker: I’d characterize it with a line from favorite collective of poets known as Duran Duran… “Maximum Big Surprise.”
The Man of Action guys, as well as story editors Doc Wyatt and Kevin Burke, have come up with a season-long thread that I think raises the stakes for the team and for the show in general. It’s a classic “Marvel” type of story that strikes a personal tone with massive ramifications.
You’re going to see the team battle Thanos, Ultron, Loki, Attuma, Squadron Supreme and loads more until it all starts to unravel leading to the potential DISassembling of the Avengers.
The way I look at the new season is that we have 26 opportunities to capture the imagination of some kid who’s just tuned into Disney XD on a Sunday morning.
It’s a huge challenge, but it’s our responsibility to get it right and introduce her or him to the wonders of the Marvel Universe… just like the comics did for many of us.
And a second season of “Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.” is on the way this fall. The show had had a very unique dynamic in its first season — I just recently watched the episode with both Impossible Man and Fin Fang Foom. What type of new territory will be explored the second time around?
Wacker: “Hulks” is story edited by the great Henry Gilroy with creative consulting by animation legend Paul Dini and these guys are basically getting away with something on this season as they go deep into the Marvel toybox, starting with an appropriately timed odyssey into Marvel’s Cosmic Corner.
The season starts with the two-part “Planet Hulk,” and before you know it you’re going to see the Guardians, Galactus… even a massive Living Planet. That sets the stage for the Hulks on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D. and a secret time travel story that I may not be able to mention here (if that last sentence gets printed, you’ll know I go away with something!)
And later in the season…Hercules. Yes. And you want Ghost Rider, you say? Well… right this way.
Diversity has been a major topic of conversation in the larger comics world for a while now, and especially lately — it’s notable that the current Marvel animated series appear to make significant efforts towards inclusion, ranging from Falcon playing a major part in “Avengers Assemble” to characters like White Tiger, Power Man and Amadeus Cho in “Ultimate Spider-Man.” How important do you see that aspect to Marvel Animation as a whole — especially given the younger audience of these shows?
Wacker: I’m very happy to hear there’s a hunger for it as it’s something me and many others were vocal about when I was in publishing heading up books like Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel. But this kind of concern has always been there from Marvel fans… .at least since I started reading in the early ’80s… errrrr, I mean the late ’90s. Because I’m very young.
Going back to Stan, Jack, Steve and the early days of the Marvel U., our line-up of characters has attempted to reflect the world and introduce our younger audience to ideas and cultures they may not be aware of. Sometimes we’re slower than some would like, but I think we eventually get there.
I think you’ll continue to see that in our animated series. Though as we work on outlining the various adventures, we’ll continue to focus first and foremost on telling the most exciting stories possible.
Animation has a longer lead time on comics, so I imagine — correct me if I’m wrong — that even beyond the current shows people know about, there is time spent developing new projects for the future. How much is that a part of your job? And, since it’s something people certainly seem to be curious about, is a new X-Men animated series from Marvel Animation something that’s at least possible — if not actually in the works?
Wacker: You are correct that we have a much longer lead time. That’s been one of the real eye-openers for me in the job. It used to be I could type something up and it’d be out in the world making fans roll their eyes within a matter of weeks, now I have to wait for a whole other baseball season to go by before stuff’s out in the world.
The job me and my team do entails working on the current series already on the air… so “Ultimate Spider-Man,” “Avengers Assemble” and “Hulks: Agents of S.M.A.S.H.” Myself along with Dan Evans, Harrison Wilcox, Kari Rosenberg, Diana Theobald and Wendy Willming oversee these shows alongside Production and Development Exec Eric Radomski and make sure they get produced on budget and stay on schedule.
Development of new shows is headed up by Cort Lane and Radomski. I have a voice in development, but it’s not my area.
And there are no plans for an X-Men animated series. Aside from a few loud places online, I’m not sure there’s much call for a kids show, given the tone of the films. We do see an X-Men or two in one of the new seasons, so there’s that.
We do have some other new shows cooking up though. There should be announcements soon if Arune [Singh, Marvel’s Executive Director of Television Communications] has done his job!
Now that you’ve been in your new job for a while, in what ways have you found that the skills you’ve accumulated in a career in comic books translate to your work in Marvel Animation? The characters and types of stories are the same, but the audience is different — noticeably younger, for one.
Wacker: I don’t think that’s a huge leap from what I was doing in comics.
That specific young audience is really the core of everything for us in terms of our series. The Marvel block on Disney XD is unabashedly aimed at a young audience… many of who are seeing our characters for the first time, so part of my job is making sure they get a full Marvel experience in each episode.
The adage in publishing is “every Marvel comic is someone’s first” and I think it’s the same in animation. We work to make sure we aren’t wasting any kids’ time… I mean there’s “Minecraft” to play! “Minecraft”!
I think kids have always been a smarter audience than they sometimes get credit for (my 8-year old self aside) and they can smell a boring, uneventful, unemotional story a mile away. In some ways they are much more discerning than an older audience that has lived with these characters for decades and is already hooked into their long-term story.
So I hope what I bring from publishing experience is a touch of that “what happens next?” that all of Marvel’s best stories have. From there my job is to make sure they stay hooked on Marvel for life!!! You’re welcome, America!
Speaking of audience: During your time as a comic book editor, you were known to enjoy mixing it up at times with vocal comic book fans. Animation doesn’t quite work the same way, though I know it has devoted followers as well — what has your relationship been like with animation fans so far in this position?
Easy! I go to playgrounds and start “who’s stronger Hulk or Thor?” arguments! I’m bound to win one sooner or later!
Look, if you’re talking about message boards… our fans love to debate stories and I’ve always thought of that kind of thing as something Marvel pioneered . Our fans are passionate beasts and it’s the best things about the job: You’re working on things people care about.
I will say, though, that there’s nothing I fear less than an adult on a message board who’s way too angry about a kid’s cartoon!
Axel Alonso — and your questions! — return next week! Got a query for Marvel’s AXEL-IN-CHARGE? Please visit the AXEL-IN-CHARGE Q&A thread in CBR’s Marvel Comics community. It’s the dedicated thread that CBR will pull questions for next week’s installment of our weekly fan-supported question-and-answer column! Do it to it!