It’s easy for longtime fans to get caught up in the general drama of the Marvel Comics Universe, but amongst the big event hype and series renumbering, one question can get lost in the shuffle: What about the kids?
Recently, Marvel SVP of Publishing Tom Brevoort noted Marvel’s renewed commitment to creating comics that younger readers would want to pick up — the titles generally branded as Marvel Adventures — and noted that Senior Editor Steve Wacker would be taking the reins on those monthly titles effective immediately. An editor who did some of his earliest work on DC Comics’ all-ages material, CBR News reached out to Wacker for a look behind how he approaches comics for kids and what changes he’ll make to Marvel’s Adventure efforts.
Below, the editor delves into the notion of “cartoony” art, explains why a reader or editor’s favorite style of comics may not always work for kids, discusses how he’s on the lookout for hot artists who can flip the switches of young fans and reveals how his master plan may take some time to grow the kinds of material he considers Marvel’s most important books.
CBR News: Steve, what can you tell me about the reasons you’ve come on to the Marvel Adventures line? Is this a gig you’d been lobbying for?
Steve Wacker: Not really. I edited the “Justice League Adventures” book for a few years at DC, which was based on the Bruce Timm cartoon. And I always felt working on that book — under Dan Raspler at first and then on my own — that doing one-issue stories in-and-out every month with a parade of writers and artists and all that track really was a fantastic training, editorially. You had to really focus in on a story in those 22 pages. We have so many stories in our books now that are just sprawling and go on and on for five or six issues. Sometimes the ongoing soap opera, particularly at Marvel, just never ends. But with telling a set story, it was almost what I imagined working on the old “Twlight Zone” show was like. It really concentrates your thinking.
So I always thought it was great training editorially, and I said to Tom [Brevoort] when I started working here that those books are the most important books we do here. They’re a great training ground for the younger editors, they’re a great way to bring in new talent and they’re a great way to take established writers and artists here and focus their attention on telling a great done-in-one story. I thought the way Marvel has used their Adventures books or the kids line here has been very forward-thinking because we use them everywhere — places that most readers don’t even see. We have them in libraries and we repackage them in magazine size to sell at department stores and stuff. And since I’ve been here, they’ve been in great shape editorially. They had a great group of people working on them going back to Mackenzie Cadenhead up through Nate Cosby, who was working on them until he left and they came my way. So I wasn’t really actively campaigning for them because they were in such good hands, but I always had my eye over there thinking, “If anything ever happens…”
As popular as these books can be in certain markets, they don’t exactly set the Direct Market sales charts on fire, which is where they find their first point of sale. It seems like every few years, Marvel has to come along and shuffle the deck with creative changes or a soft relaunch on some of these books in order to make the comic shop ends meet on them. Do you feel like we’re in need of another such shake up?
I totally do. I don’t know that we’ll be able to, right away, but I think even in the Direct Market, which is where I spend most of my usual time in terms of what I’m thinking about for the books, these books could be doing better than they are. There’s stuff in these books every month that I think would be appealing even to your mainstream Marvel reader. It’s just a matter of getting the word out and getting the messaging out, and just like you said, you’ve got to bring some change to the equation just so people feel like “I can jump on here.” It’s like a train coming into the station: it’s got to stop every once in a while to let more people on, and you’ve got to give them a way to get on. But I would like to see these do better in the Direct Market, and I think that will only lead to the line getting better and becoming stronger.
After word came out that you were taking on these books in our TALK TO THE HAT column, you took to Twitter to ask people not so much what makes a good all-ages comic but to ask them what artists and creators really turned them on to comics as a kid. Did you get anything useful out of all the responses you saw?
For ten years now I’ve had this in the back of my head without really voicing it, and that is that generally when we think of kids comics our minds go back to a more simplistic sort of art. You don’t see that so much in the Marvel line, but you see it in other kids lines where the art becomes very simplistic and cartoony. And I want to say this in big capital letters: IT IS ART THAT I LOVE. It definitely appeals to my taste personally. But I’m a 35-year-old man, and when I think about things that appealed to me as a kid, it was George Perez. It was that very detailed work. And so I threw that out there to see how people responded, because in some cases people hear “kids comics” and they find very cartoony artists and go, “This guy should be doing kids comics!” But in terms of the Marvel superheroes, which is beautiful people in beautiful costumes hitting people and solving crimes — and I’m just talking about Marvel superheroes and not saying all comics should look like this — the answers [I got for what people liked] were George Perez and Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld and all these very detailed superhero artists. So I think sometimes there’s a discrepancy between what you think kids want and what actually got you into comics. I hear people dog Rob Liefeld, but Rob Liefeld got more people into comic books than anybody in decades. There’s something very appealing about that for a kid. It’s so free-wheeling and energetic and fun, and I’d like to bring some of that energy to the Marvel Adventures books, for sure.
There are a million armchair quarterbacks in comics who have very strong opinions about how comics should be the way they were when they kids and be sold in 7-Eleven or what have you…
The 7-Eleven one is my favorite! [Laughs]
But I think one of the things all that debate shows us is how easy it is to place yourself in a position of nostalgia for a comic versus how hard it is to find a product that replicates a part of that experience for a younger reader. Do you find you have to divorce yourself a bit from what you dug about comics when you were young and try to find out what a kid today would rather have?
I have a young boy and a young girl in my house, so that helps. I don’t mind polling them, and they have their friends over to my house all the time. But yeah, the armchair quarterbacking goes on with every decision you make, and that’s part of the fun of working here. I take your point, though. I think that sometimes you do have to let your own tastes take a back seat. If it were my own tastes, it would be a very different kind of comic book. But I do want to bring an energetic spirit to the line — an anything can happen feel. Particularly on these books where I don’t know if the reader’s going to be back next issue and I just know I’ve got the one, I want to hook them into the Marvel Universe in any way possible. I think to do that, you’ve got to really look at these books as action spectaculars. There’s no budget on these books. We don’t need people talking or sitting in front of screens talking about their big soap opera of the moment. It’s showing two Marvel heroes and what they can do. Bringing kids into comics and getting them excited about the characters is what I’m most focused on.
Let’s talk about the books as they stand. Right now, Paul Tobin is writing both “Marvel Adventures Spider-Man” and “Marvel Adventures Super Heroes,” and at least on the former I know he’s been really one of the few guys to work more subplots and longer-running ideas into the mix.
He invented a whole world!
Is that a track that you’re going to want him to continue on for now?
Yup. He’s already written a couple stories for me. The biggest thing we’ve worked on is trying to find a way to focus on action, even with the soap opera. But the fact is that this is a one-character book and has the same character every month, which is Spider-Man, who naturally lends himself to little subplots in Peter Parker’s life. I think that dynamic draws a lot of readers in. And I think how Paul has quietly built this world into an interesting little corner of the Spidey universe is something people should pay more attention to. Like I’ve said, we’ve talked about getting more action into the book, and he’s focused on using the core Spidey villains. He’s bringing them on individually and coming up with 20-page adventure stories, which so far have been pretty exciting to work on. Unless he screws it up next month. [Laughter]
So considering how detail and some crazy fun action are key building blocks to the future of this line, are you going to be calling up Rob Liefeld soon and pitching him on doing one of these books?
[Laughs] You know, I just sort of put that together here while we were talking, and I love that idea. I doubt my book could afford him, but that would be fun. Rob has been doing this now for 20 or 25 years, but I think these books are a way where we can find who the next big artist is amongst kids. It’s sort of my job specifically to find someone that’s got the next style that’ll appeal to a whole new chunk or readers. We’ve got a lot of great artists, but I don’t know that we have that person right now. Marvel’s got some of the best artists in comics working right now, and a lot of them have been doing it for several years. I want to use this opportunity to find some new artists to break in. I’ll be using C.B. Cebulski and the whole talent management crew here to look around the world as a way to bring some fresh faces in.
The other thing I have to ask about is the Pixar magazine Marvel just announced, which I assume will also make its way to the Walmarts and department stores of the world. Is that something you’ll be involved with?
No. I read about it with everybody else. I had no idea. [Laughter] I tune in to CBR to find out what’s going on down the hall from me!
To wrap, when do you anticipate that people will see any kinds of changes or moves on the line?
I don’t think there will be any massive changes. There’s no planned relaunch or anything. Right now, it’s a matter of going through the stuff that’s already in the system. We’ll be adding little touches. It’s a book under my purview, but I’m bringing in my former Spidey assistant editor Tom Brennan to do the day-to-day running of the Spider-Man book, and one of my assistant editors Rachel Pinnelas is taking over “Super Heroes.” So there will be little touches, such as letter columns like I have in “Iron Man” and “Amazing” and the other books in my line. But in terms of a big relaunch or anything, there’s nothing like that in the pipeline right away. This is going to take a while to build up a plan and do it right. I don’t see any major changes other than calibrating what we have and finding a way to bring in young kids to this line.
The metaphor I was using a couple of weeks ago is this: there are a lot of books out there that I think are about kids. It’s the difference between “Freak And Geeks” or “Wonder Years” where the enjoyment of it is that you’re an adult thinking back on that time in your life. They’re not really kids shows, although there are kids in them. I see stuff like that opposed to “Super Hero Squad” or the “Avengers” cartoon where it’s about getting actual kids who don’t give a damn about contemplating what it’s like to be an actual adult or going through that stuff. They just want to see things moving and have their eyes entertained for 20 minutes.
Well, Marvel has done some tie-in comics for “Super Hero Squad” and “Avengers” of late. Would you be up for more projects like that?
I would love to do that. I’ve been so focused on going through the stuff for these two books, it hasn’t really come up. I would hope that if Marvel wants to do more of those things, they would come to me. I have a blast with done-in-one stuff where you can throw the rulebook out the window. But there’s nothing in the line right now. Though it’ll probably come down tomorrow that I have one due Friday.
And are you interested in eventually launching some more titles?
Absolutely! When they told me about this, I went home and was up all night because I’ve had the plan in my head of what I would ever do if I got the books. So I typed it all out, and it was a pretty massive sea change in terms of the titles I would like to see. As you can imagine, there was a Spider-Man book and an Avengers-like book. I would like this line to be a great entryway to the regular Marvel line. I’d like to see some similarities. Like, I think right now you can pick up the Tobin Spidey book and make a pretty easy jump to the mainline Spider-Man book. You would recognize the world, and I’d like the “kids line” — I hate that name. I with there was a better word for it.
Isn’t “all-ages” what they mostly go with?
Well, all-ages I hate too because no kid wants to read an all-ages book. But I would like the demeanor of these books on the surface to make it feel like you’re getting away with something. I know my son likes to get away with stuff. If I give him something that’s sanitized and safe to read, he’ll never look at it. But anyway, I’m looking for a better term if anyone out there has one. Maybe instead of all-ages it’ll be “no parents comics.” But anyway, I have an idea for a pretty nice sized line where people can come from the movies and the Marvel TV shows and make that easy leap into the regular Marvel Universe…as soon as they’re ready for Matt Fraction. [Laughter]