Female Representation, Sellouts and Launching a New "X-Force"

Fridays on CBR mean Axel's In Charge.

Welcome to MARVEL A-I-C: AXEL-IN-CHARGE, CBR's regular interview feature with Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso!

An editor with years of experience who's overseen both critically acclaimed and best-selling comics, Alonso stepped into the spot of Marvel's editorial department in early 2011, and has since worked to bring his signature stylings to the entire Marvel U. Anchored by regular question and answer rounds with the denizens of the CBR Message Boards, each week Alonso will shake things up with special guest stars, exclusive art reveals and more!

This week, following the high-profile debut of "Ms. Marvel" #1, Alonso talks in-depth about Marvel's efforts to increase female representation -- both creators and characters -- at the company, and what kind of work he sees left to be done. Also, Alonso discusses the recent "All-New Marvel NOW!" sellouts and second printings, why Simon Spurrier and Rock-he Kim's new series is the right "X-Force" for right now and answers your questions on Shang-Chi, Spider-Woman and Spider-Man 2099.

Albert Ching: Axel, wanted to start by piggybacking on the Washington Post article that ran last week, inspired by the release of "Ms. Marvel" #1 and featuring comments from you about female characters and creators. In that piece, it's clear that it's definitely a priority for you to have more positive female representation -- Marvel has certainly had female-led titles and female creators in the past, but right now it seems like more of an acknowledged priority. At what point did you recognize that it was something that Marvel had to address in a more concentrated and deliberate fashion?

Axel Alonso: Our antenna went up about three years ago, when, after a good run, we were forced to cancel "X-23," and we realized we were left without a title whose lead character was the title of the book. Valkyrie played the lead in "Fear Itself: The Fearless," and there were a lot of prominent female X-Men characters, but still, this was a problem, and we were resolved to fix it. So it was probably in the backs of editors' minds when they were putting together pitches for the All-New Marvel NOW! campaign.

At Marvel, it seems that female-led titles have historically been something of a hard sell, like in the case of "X-23" -- it may not be anything that's wrong with the character or the creative team, but the numbers aren't there. How much more attention or focus does Marvel look to give going forward to these titles, to try and give them as fair of a shot as they can get?

Alonso: Quite frankly, I don't think female characters are a hard sell; any new launch requires utmost execution to stick, whether it features a female character, a male character or team of characters. The challenge in launching a series featuring a female lead is that very few of them have the built-in Q-rating of a perennial character -- like Spider-Man, Captain America or Hulk -- and the market is, of course, largely dominated by perennial characters. In that sense, it's the same challenge whether you're launching "Elektra" or "Moon Knight," "She-Hulk" or "Red Hulk." There're lots of vocal fans for all those characters, but you have to appeal to a larger audience. That said, "Black Widow" #1, #2 and #3 have all gone to second prints, so if you build a quality book that gets some buzz, you might be building a perennial.

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Beyond female characters, female creators were also mentioned as a priority for Marvel -- which can currently be seen in both writers and artists, and Marvel has strong female representation in the editorial staff, as well. Is that a matter of specific recruitment? How do you approach the task of bringing in more female creators to Marvel?

Alonso: Marvel's editors entertain pitches from all qualified candidates. We're looking for the best material from any and all writers. So yes, we reached out to certain female creators, one female creator had to decline pitching for a series she really wanted to write due to a schedule conflict, and there were female creators who pitched and didn't get the job because we liked another pitch more.

At the end of the day, it's about putting together a comic book that has something to say, that entertains, that offers something unique. And I think we've done just that with "She-Hulk," "Ms. Marvel" and "Black Widow," as well as the upcoming "Captain Marvel" and "Elektra." I'm very excited about "Elektra." Tonally and aesthetically, what Haden [Blackman] and Mike Del Mundo are doing evokes [Frank] Miller and [Bill] Sienkiewicz's "Elektra Assassin."

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Given that, when you look at how things are now, do you think there's still a lot of work to do in getting things to where you want them to be, in terms of female representation?

Alonso: I think so. There's always room for improvement, in every layer of what we do, including representation. This medium -- this industry -- has, like society itself, evolved over time. Back in the '40s, '50s and '60s, comics were strictly entertainment for boys, written by men -- all largely white. That changed over the next couple decades, as comics evolved to include broader subject matter, and the demographics of who made them and read them started to change, but it happened slowly.

When I started in this industry at Vertigo back in '94, Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" was pretty much unique in its appeal to female readers, many of whom discovered the medium because of the series. So to be here now, surveying a line that includes seven titles featuring female leads, with two more in development, is very exciting. Distribution was a major factor in how we got here, and it will continue to factor into how evolve as a medium and an industry. Just like trade paperback penetration of bookstores helped us grow a more diverse readership, so too will digital comics diversify who's writing them, drawing them and reading them.

Based on what's been released, it definitely appears that Marvel is doing something right with new launches -- there was a report earlier this week that the comiXology digital sales charts had "Ms. Marvel" #1 at No. 1 within Marvel, and No. 2 overall. There's word pretty much as soon as a new Marvel title debuts that there are sellouts and second printings on the way. While there's something of a debate among observers as to how meaningful a "sellout" is, what do these reports mean to you?

Alonso: I'm not quite sure what's to be "debated" about second prints. A second print means the demand for the book exceeded what was ordered. And the wild number of second prints for All-New Marvel NOW! series -- and not just for first issues -- shows most of them were under-ordered. Why we they under-ordered? I don't know. But I hope retailers pay attention to that sales trend.

Why did they sell out? Part of that comes down to quality, and part of it comes down to diversity. This week's launches -- "Winter Soldier," "X-Force" and "She-Hulk" -- are all exciting for very different reasons. The stories they tell, the way they feel on the page, reminds me of grabbing comic book off the rack at the five-and-dime when I was a kid, and each book offered its own mini-universe.

Speaking of which, wanted to ask about the new "X-Force" -- it's the third version of X-Force that Marvel has unveiled recently, with the two previous titles, "Cable and X-Force" and "Uncanny X-Force" running concurrently and this one spinning out of them. What is it about this take on "X-Force," by Simon Spurrier and Rock-he Kim, that made it the right one going forward?

Alonso: "X-Force" #1 represents, at least in part, a return to the mission statement of the team when it was launched by Craig Kyle, Chris Yost and Clayton Crain after "Messiah CompleX." I say "at least in part" because Si brings an additional twist. Si has something different to say. This is a team whose mandate is different from any other mutant team on earth, a black bag unit that doesn't wait for anyone's approval to do what needs to be done, and Cable does a good job of summing up its mission statement in the first issue. Readers will debate the ethics and morality of the team, kind of like people debated the means to an end used by the intelligence officers in "Zero Dark Thirty." What are these mutants willing to do to get the job done, and was it worth doing to get that job done? And the book looks incredible. The level of detail Rock-he brings to the page reminds me of Clayton Crain. "X-Force" doesn't look like anything else on the stands.

MORE ON X-FORCE: Spurrier Winds Down "X-Men Legacy," Prepares "X-Force"

Turning to questions from the CBR forums, the ever-reliable Spidey616 asks about something also teased by Steve Wacker in this week's "Superior Spider-Man" letter column: "Spider-Man 2099 is set to play a role in 'Goblin Nation,' but any specific Spidey 2099 minis or projects down the pipeline you can tease?"

Alonso: All we can say is Miguel O'Hara won't be going back to his own time any time soon. So he's bound to find some kind of trouble sooner or later... possibly even this summer.

Next one comes from Jessica Drew devotee Drew@616, who inquires, "Now that 'Avengers Assemble' will finish in March Is there anything Spider-Woman fans should get excited for in 2014?"

Alonso: Spider-Woman will be a regular player in the new iteration of "Secret Avengers," and she plays a big role in the Spidey world in 2014 thanks to Dan Slott and company.

Last one is from shellhead85, timely given this week's announcement of a new "Deadly Hands of Kung Fu" miniseries by writer Mike Benson and artist Tan Eng Huat: "Could you update us on the status of reprinting the Shang-Chi series? I know there have been issues with trademarks, but with 'Miracleman' taken care of (thanks by the way!), could Shang-Chi be next?"

Alonso: Those original Shang-Chi stories were created when Marvel had license to use certain characters from the famous Sax Rohmer pulp novels. Unfortunately, that is a license Marvel no longer possesses so there are currently no plans to reprint that material. Sorry, shellhead. But Shang-Chi, one of my all-time favorite characters lives on. This May, "Deadly Hands of Kung Fu" #1 hits the stands. It stars Shang-Chi, and features the Sons of the Tiger, the Daughters of the Dragon and a few more familiar faces -- cough, Cap -- and it's like a martial arts flick with a heavy dose of Jason Bourne-type espionage. It's written by Mike Benson -- who wrote "Deadpool: Suicide Kings," "Deadpool Noir," and numerous TV shows, including early seasons of "Entourage" -- and illustrated by the amazing Tan Eng Huat.

Have some questions for Marvel's AXEL-IN-CHARGE? 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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