Marvel & ESPN Redraft The NBA

Like their comic book reading counterparts, sports fans have a proclivity for casting the big names in their favored pastimes - from players to coaches to owners - as heroes and villains. With the high place superheroes currently play in pop culture, it's a wonder that more sports/comics mashups don't hit the web daily.

However, this week one such super athletic combo will be on display for fans on both sides of the fence thanks to a little Disney corporate synergy. Tomorrow, October 22, the latest issue of "ESPN The Magazine" hits newsstands, presenting the publication's analysis for the 2010 NBA season, and to draw attention to their coverage, the print producers for the cable TV sports giant tapped the artists of Marvel Comics for special illustrations highlighting each team's prospects for the coming year alongside some of the biggest heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe.

CBR News was on hand to cover the announcement of the ESPN/Marvel crossover during New York Comic Con as well as the first to speak with Marvel's VP Executive Editor Axel Alonso about the project. Today we bring you an in depth look at the creation of the magazine in an interview with Alonso, "ESPN The Magazine" Editor-in-Chief Gary Belsky and the magazine's Senior NBA Editor Otto Strong. Below, the trio explain how Marvel's entry into the Disney corporate family spurred the project along, how the creators put a focus on giving every team in the league their due (and some of the biggest Marvel characters) and how the project may just be step one in a series of ESPN/Marvel collaborations.

CBR News: To get the whole discussion rolling, I was hoping you could tell me how the ESPN/Marvel crossover started. Who on which side of the fence reached out to the other, and what was the initial idea?

Gary Belsky: I can handle this one because it was my idea, which is to say I had the original germ of an idea that everybody else on the line took and ran with and made great. I was thinking about the direction of the magazine. We had decided that we were going to be rethinking the magazine entirely, and we were going to be focusing the majority of each issue on one topic or idea. When we were thinking about that concept, we realized that we wanted to really emphasize the magazine nature of magazines - the big canvas, the paper aspect, the collectible aspect. Right around that time, there was an announcement that Disney, which owns ESPN, had finished the acquisition of Marvel.

Comics are so much about their form and the canvas and the printed page that it got me thinking about how we might team-up with them now that they were on the same e-mail system as us, in theory. It was from there that we reached out to Marvel and decided the best way to do this, given that we needed some lead time, was to look at putting together our NBA preview, which was about six months away. We wanted a preview that reflected our sense of the NBA season and all the teams and Marvel's sense of how those storylines could fit into the pantheon of Marvel's amazing characters.

So we reached out, had a meeting with their business guys and told them what we wanted to do. They told us that they knew how to do this thing and came back to us with a quote, because after all, we're in business. We didn't expect them to do this for free. The quote was reasonable, so we were all in business together because we saw that opportunity. Axel can tell you more about this, but as it turns out, there's a lot of sports fans and NBA fans amongst the Marvel folks and the artists that they use.

Axel Alonso: Absolutely. When Business came back to Editorial and talked about the possibility of doing a collaboration, I was immediately excited - especially since I'm a massive hoop head who reads virtually every NBA preview section published and roots long and hard for my abysmal Golden State Warriors. When we began talking and I was put in contact with "ESPN The Magazine" point man Otto Strong, we began to see the possibilities. We saw how easy it would be to merge NBA icons and Marvel icons. The challenge, of course, was to have a message that combined these icons and could be understandable to a general audience. I think the results will speak for themselves.

How did the nuts and bolts of making that sports journalism/comic art balance work? In general, a preview like this has its writers covering their teams from whatever their angle might be. Did the magazine's writers kick those takes to Marvel to create an image for each team in the league?

Otto Strong: I've got to say that we on the magazine's NBA team met for the first time on this preview around the Finals. It was June 1 when we started formulating storylines, and obviously, with the summer of free agency looming at that point ahead of us, we did not know where Lebron [James] was going to go, or Amar'e Stoudemire for that matter, or a handful of other guys. So obviously, there were some teams we had to hang back on, but there were others that we pushed ahead on. We gave Axel and his crew 30 rather fat paragraphs on how we saw each team, and once we'd turned it over to them, we walked away so they could take the ball and run with it.

Alonso: Once we'd received the first synopses from Otto and his team, we began to mull over how we could tell these stories with one image. Certain ones were easy to handle - the concepts just immediately came to your head, like with the Boston image, which is one of my favorites. Others we wrestled with for a while and would have to go back and meet with Otto and his guys two or three times until we go them right. There were many, many sketches made for every piece - even the ones that were easy - and we fretted all the details down to the minutia, including the shoelaces. This really was a labor of love for everyone. It was one of the instances where sometimes the concepts we struggled with the most ended up being some of the best images.

With the free agency stuff and the Lebron drama, I know there are certain elements that will be marquee pieces to talking about the season. Some would say those stories have been talked about too much over the summer months...

Belsky: I can't imagine what you're talking about. [Laughter]

But on the other side of the equation, what are some of the examples of teams or stories where you had to stop and go, "What the hell are we going to do with New Jersey?" or whoever? Were there smaller stories you felt you had suitably epic illustrations for?

Strong: I would say there are. One of the things about this preview is that we give each team their due. There are 30 pages in this section of the preview, and each team has a cover. In that regard, the Heat have no more space than the Kings or the Sixers or the Raptors. That was nice to see, and from a fan perspective, I think everyone will be pleased that their team will have equal footing as far as that's concerned.

Belsky: Let me interject on this that the Marvel people are very smart, or Otto's people are, or somebody that's not me, because when I look at a team in this like the Grizzlies - there's not an awful lot to say about the Grizzlies in terms of the coming season. But then the Marvel guys teamed the Grizzlies with Captain America, which is one of the more iconic heroes in their pantheon. There's a reason why, and it makes a lot of sense, but it is so smart because there's not a huge number of stars there - there are a few like Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo - but what the Grizzlies got was Captain America, for God's sake. There was a lot of smart decision-making like that. You mention the Nets. Well, there are a couple of times where the owners are really more the story than the players. One is, of course, the Dallas Mavericks, but also, the Nets have got the new Russian billionaire [owner].

[Marvel was] just very smart, and one of the things I really wanted to happen here, that was an early directive to Otto that he and Axel both got immediately, was the idea that everybody wanted to know what we were going to do for the Heat or for the Celtics or for Kobe. But all the other NBA fans would want to know what we were going to do for their team and for the other teams in their division. The only demand I gave everybody besides "Do good work" was that there be a payoff for every individual fan of every individual team. One way or the other in all of them - whether it be taking a somewhat boring storyline and putting with it a really cool image or really cool hero - they really knocked it out of the park. If you're a Timberwolves fan, or a Grizzlies fan, or a Jazz fan, you're going to go, "The people at Marvel know my team. They really have an opinion." That's what's cool about this. If you're a Bobcats fan, you'll go, "The geniuses at Marvel are thinking about my team." That's cool.

Alonso: I'll stress that this was very collaborative. There were many occasions where I was calling Otto on his cell at 11:00 at night saying, "Help me out with the Timberwolves!" [Laughter] I think there were occasions where Otto wanted to punch me out, and I wanted to punch him, but the long and the short of it is that we got some good images.

Belsky: And nobody got punched!

Alonso: Exactly! But some of the best teams have players that need a little bit of fire to get the job done. One of my favorite images is from the Bulls, who we wrestled with until the last week. But when it clicked, it really clicked, and it's probably one of my two or three favorite images in the piece.

Strong: One of the cool things here is, while the images are cool, we realize that not everyone is a comic book fan or may not know the story, so what we've done is paired blurbs on each page that speak to the prognosis of the team along with an explanation of what you're looking at. It's not just there without any context.

For the Marvel fans out there who might not be as up to date in their NBA knowledge, what can you tell me about the art we'll be seeing and who it came from?

Alonso: Well, I'd like to stress that with each of these images, we put a lot of love into it. We got some of the most sought after artists in the industry. They're very relevant to comic book fans who go out every Wednesday to the store. A few names included in this magazine are Olivier Coipel, Leneil Yu, J. Scott Campbell, Terry Dodson, Salvador Larocca, Simone Bianchi, Dave Johnson, John Romita, Sr. - whose Cavalier's piece was shown at New York Comic Con - Skottie Young, Gabrielle Del'Otto and Mike Deodato, and that's just a few! We really, really went for our big guns, and we think that comic fans out there who pick up this magazine will find a few images they might want to tear out and post above their desk or on their wall somewhere either of their favorite NBA team or their favorite Marvel character. Our very own Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada did the cover, which we think is as eye-popping a cover as you'll find. I look forward to seeing the reaction when it comes out.

The image people see [in this article] is an image that we showed at the convention. It's a two-page spread rendered by Greg Horn, who's no stranger to the NBA, that sums up where we are starting the season. It's got Kobe Bryant, the leader of the NBA Champion L.A. Lakers, holding up his hand which is covered in the Infinity Gauntlet - which is of course a very recognizable Marvel artifact that has incredible power and significance to comic fans. In this case, the Infinity Gauntlet is modeled with Kobe's five NBA Championship rings, and just out of reach, hovering above his hand, is the sixth ring, which not only he covets but of course the whole NBA does. Surrounding him we see some of the top contenders in the NBA currently including Lebron and Rajon Rondo, and we put Kevin Durant in there as well. Juxtaposed and bumping shoulders with them are some of Marvel's most recognizable superheroes: Captain America, Hulk, Thor and Iron Man.

When you see these characters shoulder to shoulder, it just feels right. It has to make you smile. When we showed this image to the con at a packed panel in the biggest room in the Javits Center, there was an eruption of applause, so I expect this will go over well.

Axel mentioned a lot of the Marvel talent are big basketball fans. I know that we hear a lot about players in the league who are big comic guys and big Marvel guys. Has ESPN shared this art at all with them or heard any response they've had to the idea?

Belsky: There was some leakage and a lot of curiosity from the NBA, but for the most part there's a pretty solid wall there. When we need to talk to them, we do, but with stuff like this it gets too complicated for them. This is like any other NBA story we do, which is that when we need to cooperate, we do. But this particular story was about our view of the storylines and Marvel's ability to capture those storylines using their artists and their characters. While a lot of people in the NBA knew about it and were calling us going, "Hey, can we get an early look so we know what you guys are up to?" we kept the wall up like always. This was no different than any other project the magazine does.

I've heard that the NBA is much easier to work with on things like this in terms of playing along like good sports unlike, say, the NFL where certain organizations try to keep a very tight reign on how their brands are perceived in the public.

Belsky: To be honest, I'd characterize this in a different way. You're right that starting from David Stern, the NBA very much gets the joke and understands what we do at the magazine and at ESPN. We often do parodies or satires of the NBA. We did our history of the commissioner, and he asked us for a framed page. But this wasn't about licensing or trademarks at all. We're not producing special magazines about the NBA characters. These are pages inside our magazine, and we routinely hire people to illustrate athletes in different leagues for completely journalistic reasons. In this case, we just hired Marvel, and they're not going out and selling NBA cover issues such as we'd need permission. This is just about the general editorial principals we work under for every issue.

Well, I think you've answered my next question for me, but now that the issue is together and ready to roll out on the stands, have you at all talked about extending this art into a licensing-type agreement and selling some of these comic covers as posters and such?

Belsky: For the moment, this is just a focus on the magazine, and we think it'll be a great feature on ESPN.com and for ESPN Insider. It'll look great on the magazine's iPad application, and I think the Marvel folks will want to do some stuff with their website, but we really weren't thinking about anything beyond great content for our subscribers and our readers. I noticed the NHL has come out with a deal with another comics manufacturer, but for the moment, we're just focusing on good content for ESPN's readers, subscribers and viewers. Going forward, who knows? But that gets much more complicated, to be honest. Right now, it's just an editorial project solely. The only business we're in is the business of putting out the magazine every two weeks, and our various digital versions of the magazine.

I would say, however, that I have several ideas for commercial enterprises I want to do with Marvel that are not necessarily about this sports league. There are many opportunities to work with Marvel on stand alone projects that I think could be very cool. I'm sure Axel has some ideas himself.

Alonso: Yeah, I look forward to collaborating again. I think the possibilities are endless.

For my last question, just as Gary mentioned earlier, each and every NBA fan will be wondering how their team is portrayed in the magazine. And this season, well, for my Detroit Pistons it's not the most exciting year in franchise history. Can you tell me a bit about what I'll be seeing for that team, even if I'm not seeing a win at the start of the season?

Belsky: I'm looking at the magazine right now, and I think we have the Pistons finishing maybe 11th in the East.

Strong: It's in the lower third, unfortunately, but what you do have is a cool image. Basically what we see is Dr. Doom and Joe Dumars, the Pistons President, kind of collaborating as they look out on an assembly line of Doombots. Axel can probably speak better to the Doombots, but these three are wearing the jerseys of Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman from the Bad Boys era. They're looking for a little toughness, a little meanness and hence, the Doombots.

Alonso: I think that's pretty much it. You see Joe Dumars consulting Doctor Doom, and they're looking to recreate the magic of the two-time NBA Champion Bad Boys era. Again, it was an image that made sense really out the gate. I think it's further proof that teams that were lower in standing didn't get short shrift here. They got Dr. Doom.

"ESPN The Magazine's" NBA preview issue, featuring 30 pieces of Marvel-created art under a Joe Quesada cover, goes on sale on newsstands tomorrow, October 22.

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