Jonathan Hickman Takes "Avengers" To "Infinity"

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 brought out comics to both critical acclaim and best-selling status, Alonso stepped into the chair at the top of Marvel's Editorial department earlier this year and since then has been working 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, Axel welcomes special guest Jonathan Hickman to the proceedings for an in depth discussion about both the writer's run with Marvel's "Avengers" franchise AND how it leads to the incoming "Infinity" Free Comic Book Day special which will tie Earth's Mightiest Heroes to the Guardians of the Galaxy, Nova and Thanos. Below, the writer explains how he was tapped for the franchise after the departure of Brian Michael Bendis, why heroes like Hyperion, Smasher and Captain Universe are the tip of the iceberg for new faces to the team and what important plot lines will continue to connect "Avengers" and "New Avengers" as a return to the New Universe of the 1980s is in the wings. Read on!

Kiel Phegley: Jonathan, welcome aboard A-i-C! I wanted to start back at the beginning of your taking the "Avengers" gig. We've heard a few folks talk about Brian Bendis' decision to leave those books as a big catalyst for what became Marvel NOW!, but how did Jonathan take up that particular job? Was it something you really went for?

Axel Alonso: Based on what he'd done with "Fantastic Four," I was very curious to see what Jonathan would do with Marvel's flagship team. What I loved about his FF run was that it had such tremendous scope - it wandered to every corner of the Marvel Universe - but you never lost sight of the core characters and that feeling of family. With the Avengers you have an army of misfits that becomes something of a family.

Jonathan Hickman: Yeah, I don't really remember much about it beyond Axel giving me a phone call and saying, "You know we're doing this reshuffling, and we're thinking about maybe having you go over here." After that, there was a long conversation with Tom [Brevoort], and he was my group editor on "FF" so that wasn't anything new. It was really me asking him if he thought I was the right guy for the job because I didn't want to take it unless he would be down for that ridiculous ride again. [Laughs] We talked about what we thought the book should be, and he heard me out. I obviously had some far-reaching plans, and I think we pretty quickly realized it was something we wanted to do. So we just jumped in, and it all happened pretty quick. I think collectively, everybody's been excited by all the Marvel NOW! announcements anyway, and I think the "Avengers" stuff has been well received in addition to that.

You're known as a master planner on your books, but this feels a bit different than some other books you've done in the past. "Secret Warriors" was kind of off in its own corner of the Marvel U, and even the two FF books remained self contained even as the story got big. With "Avengers," don't you have to expand that whole idea out to encompass a lot more of the Marvel U and the line just by the nature of what that franchise is?

Hickman: It's certainly a more significant book, and because it's more significant, it's got a greater amount of gravity and more stuff revolves around it. And yeah, with "Secret Warriors" I was able to do whatever I wanted to do, and with "Fantastic Four" because of where it was when I took it over, I had a lot of play there as well. This is entirely different in that not only is there a domino effect where something I do in the book trickles out, but there's also a greater expectation in doing the Avengers books. This last retreat was a pretty good example of that. I laid out what I wanted to do and where I'm going, and then we spent a lot of time talking about it where as in the past, I'd just tell everybody what I was doing, they'd laugh at me, and then I'd go do it. [Laughter] It's a completely different dynamic.

In broad terms, a lot of the stories we've seen in your Avengers books so far has involved parallel universes. "New Avengers" seems to deal with that as a central concern, and in "Avengers" things like Hyperion's story seems to be drawing that closer and closer to prominence. One way in which I think Marvel is really different from DC on this front is that DC has a definite set of rules for their parallel universe stuff that's kind of set by "Crisis On Infinite Earths" where Marvel's has been maybe a little more idiosyncratic with titles like "Exiles." How does that affect what you're building here? Is it nice to not have that canon to always refer back to like DC does?

Hickman: I think the fact that maybe we haven't done something like that is part of the appeal. The general ideas behind the kind of story we're doing in "New Avengers" that takes place underneath all the things we're doing in the main "Avengers" book, that's all just stuff I like to do. I'm able to tie it all together into a big Avengers story that will have repercussions, and it's all very cool and very nice. It's good for me to work out the mechanics of how all these ideas work. But I'm not in any way trying to create a rosetta stone for how we do this stuff in the Marvel Universe. I have a very specific story I'm telling, and everything is subservient to that. I'm not making a Marvel Universe users manual for how we're going to do these things moving forward.

Alonso: Everything starts with the guys in the room - with what's created in the room. You can't go into an editorial summit expecting to walk a straight path; you have to be ready to ride the waves and turn on the dime when a new development demands it. It's a crazy ride but we benefit immensely from it. Several years ago, we went into a summit to discuss one event, and we came out with an entirely different one: "Civil War."

So while we try to be respectful of canon, there's no template we adhere to when it comes to actual story. And good things come out of that. On more than one occasion, a writer has laid out a chalkboard diagram that redefines how you look at a construct like time travel or interdimensonal travel - and I think that's great. I'm hard-pressed to remember a single occasion when we were discussing a new story and someone said, "Wait! You can't do that! Remember THIS story back in 1983? You've got to follow that template."

In more specific terms, one of the most talked about pieces of this story has been how many characters that are being brought in that not only have never been on the Avengers, but they haven't even been seen in the Marvel U in a while. We've got Captain Universe, Hyperion and this new member of the Imperial Guard from Earth called Smasher. How did you light upon these new cast members? Do they fit into the classic "I loved them when I was a kid" mold, or did you have a story idea that you needed to find a character to fit?

Hickman: I think it's a bit of both. When you're getting ready to build a team, you don't fill it with people you don't want to write. That's always a bad move, I think. [Laughs] So of course I wanted to use those characters. They ticked all the boxes of the kind of stuff I wanted to do, and in addition to that, they don't have a lot of baggage. So you're able to use them in fresh new ways or reintroduce them and bring them to the stage where they can be a center point of the story in a way that Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man can't be. They have their own books, and there are certain bits of those characters you can't get to because they're going through their own arcs in their books. I built this mechanism through which we can take these characters who look up to and reflect our prime Avengers, and it's a neat storytelling way to get inside the head of the classic Avengers but also expand the new characters we have to tell a different story.

Brian had been on the book for...I don't even know. How long had it been?

Alonso: Eight years.

Hickman: Yeah! That's a considerable amount of time, and in all that time if you look at what he did, he really mined the vast majority of if not the entire Marvel Handbook then at least the parts that were tangential to the Avengers universe. Coming onto the book, I had to take stuff in a different direction character-wise anyway. And that all worked out. That I get to write Imperial Guard stuff and Hyperion stuff and New Universe stuff just makes it cool.

You came into that summit last week having the first big arc under your belt. I know that sometimes when a character gets a high profile resuscitation, people really latch on to them. Was there anyone saying, "Now I have to write a Captain Universe mini series" this week?

Hickman: [Laughs] No one wants to write a Captain Universe book! They were all throwing stuff at me. Actually, this retreat was fascinating because it was the first one that I've ever been to where all the trains ran on time. We were done on the last day and had 30 minutes to spare, so we were sitting around wondering what we should talk about. I've never witnessed anything like that. And that was pretty much all Axel because he had us chugging along at a high pace that got a lot done. But I don't know that there's anything directly Avengers-related that came out of the retreat to talk about, is there?

Alonso: What came out of this retreat were ideas rooted in Jonathan's "Avengers" that have a ripple effect across the Marvel Universe. I don't want to spoil anything, but there's a lot of connective tissue that's slowly building between the stories in "Avengers," "New Avengers," "Nova," "Guardians of the Galaxy," and the upcoming "Thanos Rising" that sets the stage for something seismic in the Marvel Universe.

One thing we do know that's coming up is "Infinity" which is at least the name of the Free Comic Book Day story Jonathan is doing as drawn by Jimmy Cheung that pulls in a lot of characters from all the books Axel mentions. Is there something that that follows directly from in the line as a whole?

Hickman: I think Jason Aaron is doing a Thanos book that this will directly follow, but also, everything I'm doing in the Free Comic Book Day special and afterwards emerges out of the Avengers books. I don't know what else I can say about it. I'm sorry!

In the past, we've seen Marvel events built by one writer from their longterm plotlines like how Bendis did with "Secret Invasion" and everyone else could tap into that main story if they wanted. "Avengers Vs. X-Men" turned the page from that towards a more team effort style of storytelling. What part of that spectrum will the next big event land on, do you think?

Alonso: We're not quite ready to talk about the event. What I will say is that this story spans the Marvel Universe, and the Avengers and the so-called "Cosmic" characters will play a major role in it. But it's not just their story - far from it. It's the story that also shines a spotlight on characters that will surprise you. And while I can't comment on the structure of the event or how many writers it will feature, I will say that Jonathan - whose concepts survived the gauntlet of two retreats - plays a foreground role in what we're doing.

Speaking of the design elements Jonathan plays with, fans have been watching the "tree" of the Avengers team with each new issue bringing a new branch featuring the symbolic addition of cast members. With the first six issues, you did a three-part arc and then some one-offs to flesh out that cast. Will that construction continue from #7 and on?

Hickman: For the first 12 issues, which is hilariously half a year, we're doing "Big story, then three small stories, then big story, then three or four small stories." So yeah, that structure will repeat. The idea here is that the cast is big, and we want to have moments where we can learn who they all are. But the book also has to be the Avengers. The threats have to be massive and global, and we want that to be reflected as well. And of course, inside all of that is a massive progression towards something. And the shape of that really doesn't become apparent until a little later on. It's very methodical and purposeful, and I think once people click in and figure out some more once we've given them a little more information, this whole thing will really take off.

The next arc for "Avengers" really taps into the New Universe characters from the '80s. That's a concept that people seem to grapple with making it cool for modern readers. Warren Ellis had a shot at it a few years ago, but this is the first time we're seeing those ideas folded back into the Marvel U proper. What was the hardest challenge to solve with that idea?

Hickman: I think a lot of the problem of "Is it relevant and does it matter and will we get enough eyeballs on it?" has been pretty much solved by putting these characters in the Avengers proper. We're not going to have an eyeballs problem here. So now the challenge is "Can you tell a good story?" That's something we're always willing to gamble on - that we can tell an entertaining story. I think we'll take that gamble with any book Marvel puts out. I'll tell you right now that Dustin Weaver's art on this arc is mind-blowing. It's so, so very good. And I think the eye-opening part of it is going to be how I tie it into the "normal" Marvel Universe and the story we've already been telling. But I think people are going to like it. They'll dig how it ends, and they'll like where we're going afterwards.

Axel, what was the hook for you in Jonathan's overall approach that gets the job done you want on Marvel's biggest franchise?

Alonso: What draws me in is Jonathan's ability to take a mind-warping idea and simplify it so it's easy to understand. I can't reveal what Jonathan's specifically doing, but I'm reminded of the brilliant high concept that drove an otherwise mediocre science fiction movie called "Event Horizon," which explored the fate of a starship crew that, testing the theory that the shortest distance between two points is a line, actually BENDS space to bridge two points in spacetime. Simply put, they fold space like a piece of paper. Once they've reached their destination, however, the shit hits the fan because they discover the price of their gambit: in successfully opening a new gateway in spacetime, they leapt into another dimension of pure chaos, pure evil - hell - and it's still with them. To me, that was a brilliant science fiction concept that got lost in the jumble of a mediocre film, and but I'm left wondering what might have occurred if someone like, say, Walter Hill and Ridley Scott had tackled it.Jonathan's cooking up is similarly mind-bending concept, only we're going to wrap it up in a epic story that features a wide array of Marvel's characters from across the entire universe.

Getting into some fan questions for Jonathan, let's start with rogerio who has a simple question, "Are we going to see Jerome Opena drawing another arc of Avengers?"

Hickman: Something like that, yes. Jerome's fantastic. I understand people wanting more. Who doesn't want to mainline Opeña?

Next up, PaxHouse was one of a few people asking, " Any chance of seeing some of (former) Avengers Academy students during your run on the Avengers?"

Hickman: Nope. Blame Hopeless.

Drew@616 is looking into the Avengers cast and wondering, "Do you have plans for Spider-woman in Avengers? Do you think you'll explore her relationship with Hawkeye?"

Hickman: If someone's on the team, we have plans for them. Doesn't mean that she'll have six spotlight issues, and Avnegers certainly won't turn into the Clint and Jess love-in, but she certainly has her moments.

Calo has an eye on Infinity, asking, "Will The Eternals participate? Thanos has a connection with the race and a rivalry."

Hickman: What you're looking for is Jason and Simone's Thanos book. Check that out and we go from there.

Keeping on that front, TsaiMeLemoni wondered, " How much of an impact does Age of Ultron have on Infinity, or is your event not really influenced by Bendis'?"

Hickman: No comment.

Frequent questioner SighPhi was blunt with his query: "is this new Captain Universe your unique take on the character or are you building on what has been used? Aka did you just retcon the dude to fit your story. Please do not answer with, 'keep reading to find out.'"

Hickman: Keep reading to find out.

Prince of Orphans followed that up with this: "I couldn't help notice some similarities between Captain Universe and Leonid, from your SHIELD series. Is there a connection between the two? Are the stories connected? Will we see a crossover at all? Is Tesla's mustache always that awesome?

Hickman: Maybe. Maybe. No. How could it not be?

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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